Category Archives: philosophy

Thoughts on TEDx

I gave a TED talk!  OK, not exactly — I gave a TEDx talk, which is the locally organized, non-branded version, but same idea.  18 minutes or less, somewhat sloganistic, a flavor of self-improvement and inspiration.

I was skeptical of the format.  18 minutes!  How can you do anything?  You can really just say one thing.  No opportunity to digress.  Since digression is my usual organizational strategy, this was a challenge.

And there’s a format.  The organizers explained it to me.  Not to be hewed to exactly but taken very seriously.  A personal vignette, to show you’re a human.  A one-sentence takeaway.  General positivity.  A visual prop is good.  The organizers were lovely and gave me lots of good advice when I practiced the talk for them.  I was very motivated to deliver it the way they wanted it.

And in the end, I found the restrictiveness of the format to be really useful.  It’s like a sonnet.  Sonnets are, in certain ways, all the same, by force; and yet there’s a wild diversity of sonnets.  So too for TED talks.  No two of the talks at TEDxMadison were really the same.  And none of them was really like Steve’s TED talk (though I did read a poem like Steve) or Amanda Palmer’s TED talk or (thank goodness) like the moleeds TED talk.

No room in the talk to play the Housemartins song “Sitting on a Fence,” which plays a key role in the longer version of the argument in How Not To Be Wrong.  So here it is now.

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Rescinding an offer when the candidate tries to negotiate

From the Philosophy Smoker, via Liz Harman:

CANDIDATE HOLDING OFFER:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

DEPARTMENT CHAIR:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Talk amongst yourselves.

 

Bertrand Russell was emo

Another entry in the series of “towering early 20th century thinkers were emo” (previously:  B.F. Skinner was emo.)  Bertrand Russell, age 31, writing to his friend Gilbert Murray:

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

This quote is pretty famous but glancing through his letters, holy cow, I had no idea how brutal Russell’s thoughts were.  Here’s his take on math:

Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity: one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.

And on marriage:

It is ghastly to watch, in most marriages, the competition as to which is to be torturer, which tortured; a few years, at most, settle it, and after it is settled, one has happiness and the other has virtue.  And the torturer smirks and speaks of matrimonial bliss; and the victim, for fear of worse, smiles a ghastly assent.

All these letters are from the period when his first marriage was breaking up, so maybe he cheered up later?

 

 

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Is the Wild Card game a playoff game?

This is an important philosophical question and I need your help.  Is the game Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are playing tonight a playoff game?  Or is it a game that determine who gets into the playoffs?

Clearly it’s a postseason game; that’s not at issue.  The question is whether it’s like the ALDS, or more like the Game 163 the Rangers and Rays played last night, which in my mind is clearly a postseason game but not a playoff game.

Related question:  is the play-in game for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a game in the tournament, or a game determining who gets into the tournament?  (I think this is actually the same question but I’m open to persuasion on this point.)

 

 

 

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Blaise Pascal: also emo

This man spends his life without weariness in playing every day for a small stake. Give him each morning the money he can win each day, on condition he does not play; you make him miserable. It will perhaps be said that he seeks the amusement of play and not the winnings. Make him then play for nothing; he will not become excited over it, and will feel bored. It is then not the amusement alone that he seeks; a languid and passionless amusement will weary him. He must get excited over it, and deceive himself by the fancy that he will be happy to win what he would not have as a gift on condition of not playing; and he must make for himself an object of passion, and excite over it his desire, his anger, his fear, to obtain his imagined end, as children are frightened at the face they have blackened.

Whence comes it that this man, who lost his only son a few months ago, or who this morning was in such trouble through being distressed by lawsuits and quarrels, now no longer thinks of them? Do not wonder; he is quite taken up in looking out for the boar which his dogs have been hunting so hotly for the last six hours. He requires nothing more. However full of sadness a man may be, he is happy for the time, if you can prevail upon him to enter into some amusement; and however happy a man may be, he will soon be discontented and wretched, if he be not diverted and occupied by some passion or pursuit which prevents weariness from overcoming him. Without amusement there is no joy; with amusement there is no sadness. And this also constitutes the happiness of persons in high position, that they have a number of people to amuse them, and have the power to keep themselves in this state.

Consider this. What is it to be superintendent, chancellor, first president, but to be in a condition wherein from early morning a large number of people come from all quarters to see them, so as not to leave them an hour in the day in which they can think of themselves? And when they are in disgrace and sent back to their country houses, where they lack neither wealth nor servants to help them on occasion, they do not fail to be wretched and desolate, because no one prevents them from thinking of themselves.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées 139

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Is philosophy worse for women than math is?

My philosopher friends today are all talking about the resignation/firing of Colin McGinn, a pretty well-known philosopher as I understand it, who as it turns out has been sending e-mails to his graduate students describing…. well, there’s no real reason for me to describe it, I leave that kind of filth for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Philosophy and math have roughly the same male-female ratio, but philosophy has blogs like What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? and math, as far as I know, does not.  Is that because math has actually created a culture friendlier to women than philosophy has?  Or is it because philosophy is closer to the social criticism tradition and philosophers are more likely to want to talk about these things openly?

I have one small data point.  I once heard a philosopher give a talk in which there was a weird joke about you have to be careful not to sleep with your graduate students because [some philosophy joke I didn't get and don't remember.]

Or rather, it read as weird to me, because I think it’s highly unlikely that someone would say something like that in front of a roomful of mathematicians under any circumstances.  Or if they did, there would be a burst of murmurs and everyone would be looking back and forth with the “Did he say that?” look.  On this occasion, only I was looking back and forth.  Nobody seemed to think it was weird, not the women, not the men.  It was an informal, jokey kind of talk.  But still.

 

 

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There are no new gags

Free idea for my philosopher friends:  put out a call for papers for a volume about baseball and philosophy, called “What Is It Like To Be At Bat?”

Amazon tells me that somebody has already produced a book of articles on baseball and philosophy, but hasn’t used this gag.

But Google tells me that the gag has already appeared several times:  in a blog post, in an article by John Haugelund, and, somewhat memorably, in the last stanza of a poem by Michael Robbins that appeared in the Awl:

I never promised you a unicorn.
But still. What is it like to be at bat?
Just having T.M.I. tattooed on my balls.
The heavy lice that hang from them
run in blood down palace walls.

There are no new gags.  I think Robbins’s poems are interested in the contemporary fact of there being no new gags.

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What is it like to be a vampire and/or parent?

Andrew Gelman contemplates a blog post of L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy (based on a preprint of Paulwhich asks:  it is possible to make rational decisions about whether to have children?

Paul and Healy’s argument is that, given the widely accepted claim that childbearing is a transformational event whose nature it’s impossible to convey to those who haven’t done it, it may be impossible for people to use the usual “what would it be like to to X?” method of deciding whether to have a kid.

Gelman says:

…even though you can’t know how it will feel after you have the baby, you can generalize from others’ experiences. People are similar to each other in many ways, and you can learn a lot about future outcomes by observing older people (or by reading research such as that popularized by Kahneman, regarding predicted vs. actual future happiness). Thus, I think it’s perfectly rational to aim to have (or not have) a child, with the decision a more-or-less rational calculation based on extrapolation from the experiences of older people, similar to oneself, who’ve faced the same decision earlier in their lives.

Here’s how I’d defend Paul and Healy from this objection.

Suppose you had a lot of friends who’d been bitten by vampires and transformed into immortal soulless monsters.  And when you meet up with these guys they’re always going on and on about how awesome it is being a vampire:  “I’m totally glad I became undead, I’d never go back to being human, are you kidding me?  Now I’m superstrong, I’m immortal, I have this great group of vampires I run with, I feel like I really know what it’s all about now in a way I didn’t get before.  Life has meaning, life has purpose.  I can’t really explain it, you just gotta do it.”  And you know, you sort of wish they’d be a little less rah-rah about it, like, do you have to post a picture on Facebook of every person you kill and eat?  You’re a vampire, that’s what you do, I get it!  But at the same time you can’t help starting to wonder whether they’re on to something.

AND YET:

I don’t think it’s actually good decision-making to say:  people similar to me became vampires and prefer that to their former lives as humans, so I should become a vampire too.  Because the vampire is not the same being as the human who used to occupy that body.  Who cares whether vampires like being vampires better than they like being human?  What matters is what I prefer, not what the vampiric version of me would prefer.  And I, a human, prefer not to be a vampire.

As for me, I’m a parent, and I don’t think that my identity underwent a radical transformation.  I’m the same person I was, but with two kids.   So when I tell friends it’s my experience that having kids is pretty worthwhile, I’m not saying that from across an unbridgable perceptual divide — I’m saying that I am still similar to you, and I like having kids, so you might too.  Paul and Healy’s argument doesn’t refer to my case at all:  they’re just saying that if parents are about as different from non-parents as vampires are from humans, then there’s a real difficulty in deciding whether to have children based on parents’ testimonies, however sincere.

(Remark:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is sort of about the question Paul and Healy raise.  Many have understood the original movie as referring to Communism, but it might be interesting to go back and watch it as a movie about childbearing.  It is, after all, about gross slimy little creatures that grow in the dark and sustain themselves on your body.  And then the new being known as “you” goes around trying to convince others that the experience is really worth it!)

Update:  Kieran points out that the reference to “body-snatching” is already present in their original post — I must have read this, forgotten it, then thought I’d come up with it as an apposite example myself….

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Guest post: Stephanie Tai on deference to experts

My colleague Steph Tai at the law school wrote a long, amazing Facebook message to me about the question Cathy and I have been pawing at:  when and in what spirit should we be listening to experts?  It was too good to be limited to Facebook, so, with her permission, I’m reprinting it below.

Steph deals with these issues because her academic specialty is the legal status of scientific knowledge and scientific evidence.  So yes:  in a discussion on whether we should listen to experts I am asking you to listen to the opinions of an expert on expertise.

Also, Steph very modestly doesn’t link to her own paper on this stuff until the very bottom of this post.  I know you guys don’t always read to the bottom, so I’ve got your link to “Comparing Approaches Toward Governing Scientific Advisory Bodies on Food Safety in the United States and the European Union” right here!

And now, Steph:

*****

Some quick thoughts on this very interesting exchange. What might be helpful, to take everyone out of our own political contexts, perhaps, is to contrast this discussion you’re both having regarding experts and financial models with discussions about experts and climate models, where, it seems, the political dynamics are fairly opposite. There, you have people on the far right making similar claims to Cathy: that climate scientists are to be distrusted because they’re just coming up with scare models because these allegedly biased models are useful to those climate scientists–i.e., to bring money to left-wing causes, to generate grants for more research, etc.

 

So when you apply the claim that Cathy makes at the end of her post–“If you see someone using a model to make predictions that directly benefit them or lose them money – like a day trader, or a chess player, or someone who literally places a bet on an outcome (unless they place another hidden bet on the opposite outcome) – then you can be sure they are optimizing their model for accuracy as best they can. . . . But if you are witnessing someone creating a model which predicts outcomes that are irrelevant to their immediate bottom-line, then you might want to look into the model yourself.”–I’m not sure you can totally put climate scientists in that former category (of those that directly benefit from the accuracy of their predictions). This is due to the nature of most climate work: most researchers in the area only contribute to one tiny part of the models, rather than produce the entire model themselves (thus, the incentives to avoid inaccuracies are diffuse rather than direct); the “test time” for the models are often relatively far into the future (again, making the incentives more indirect); and the sorts of diffuse reputational gains that an individual climate scientist gets from being part of a team that might partly contribute to an accurate climate model is far less direct than the examples given of day traders and chess players or “someone who literally places a bet on an outcome.”

 

What that in turn seems to mean is that under Cathy’s approach, climate scientists would be viewed as in the latter category—those creating models that “predict outcomes that are irrelevant to their immediate bottom-line,” and thus deserve people looking “into the model [themselves].” But at least from what I’ve seen, there is *so* much out there in terms of inaccurate and misleading information about climate models (by folks with stakes in the *perception* of those models) that chances are, a lay person’s inquiry into climate models has high chance to being shaped by similar forces with which Cathy is (in my view appropriately) concerned. Which in turn makes me concerned about applying this approach.
Disclaimer: I used to fall under this larger umbrella of climate scientists, though I didn’t work on the climate models themselves, just one small input to them—the global warming potentials of chlorofluorocarbon substitutes. So this contrast is not entirely unemotional for me. That said, now that I’m an academic who studies the *use* of science in legal decisionmaking (and no longer really an academic who studies the impact of chlorofluorocarbon substitutes on climate), I don’t want to be driven by these past personal ties, but they’re still there, so I feel like I should lay them out.

 

So what’s to be done? I absolutely agree with Cathy’s statement that “when independent people like myself step up to denounce a given statement or theory, it’s not clear to the public who is the expert and who isn’t.” It would seem, from what she says at the end of her essay, that her answer to this “expertise ambiguity” is to get people to look into the model when expertise is unclear.[*] But that in turn raises a whole bunch of questions:

 

(1) What does it take to “look into the model yourself”? That is, how much understanding does it take? Some sociologists of science suggest that translational “experts”–that is, “experts” who aren’t necessarily producing new information and research, but instead are “expert” enough to communicate stuff to those not trained in the area–can help bridge this divide without requiring everyone to become “experts” themselves. But that can also raise the question of whether these translational experts have hidden agendas in some way. Moreover, one can also raise questions of whether a partial understanding of the model might in some instances be more misleading than not looking into the model at all–examples of that could be the various challenges to evolution based on fairly minor examples that when fully contextualized seem minor but may pop out to someone who is doing a less systematic inquiry.

 

(2) How does a layperson avoid, in attempting to understand the underlying model, the same manipulations by those with financial stakes in the matter–the same stakes that Cathy recognizes might shape the model itself? Because that happens as well, so that even if one were to try to look into a model themselves, the educational materials it would take to look into that model can be also argued to be developed by those with stakes in the matter. (I think Cathy sort of raises this in a subsequent post about how entire subfields can be regarded as “captured” by particular interests.)

 

(3) (and to me this is one of the most important questions) Given the high degree of training it takes to understand any of these individual areas of expertise, and given that we encounter so many areas in which this sort of deeper understanding is needed to resolve policy questions, how can any individual actually apply that initial exhortation–to look into the model yourself–in every instance where expertise ambiguity is raised? To me that’s one of the most compelling arguments in favor of deferring to experts to some extent–that lay people (as citizens, as judges, as whatever) simply don’t have time to do the kind of thing that Cathy suggests in every situation where she argues it’s called for. Expert reliance isn’t perfect, sure–but it’s a potentially pragmatic response to an imperfect world with limited time and resources.

 

Do my thoughts on (3) mean that I think we should blindly defer to experts? Absolutely not. I’m just pointing it out as something that weighs in favor of listening to experts a little more. But that also doesn’t mean that the concerns Cathy raises are unwarranted. My friend Wendy Wagner writes about this in her papers on the production of FDA reports and toxic materials testing, and I find her inquiries quite compelling. P.s. I should also plug a work of hers that seems especially relevant to this conversation. It suggests that the part of Nate Silver’s book that might raise the most concerns (I dunno, because I haven’t read it) is its potential contribution to the vision of models as “truth machines,” rather than understanding that models are just one tool to aid in making decisions, and a tool which must be contextualized (for bias, for meaningfulness, for uncertainty) at that.

 

So how to address this balance between skepticism and lack of time to do full inquiries into everything? I totally don’t have the answers, though the kind of stuff I explore are procedural ways to address these issues, at least when legal decisions are raised–for example,
* public participation processes (with questions as to both the timing and scope of those processes, the ability and likelihood that these processes are even used, the accessibility of these processes, the susceptibility of “abuse,” the weight of those processes in ultimate decisionmaking)
* scientific ombudsman mechanisms (which questions of how ombudsman are to be selected, the resources they can use to work with citizen groups, the training of such ombudsmen)
* the formation of independent advisory committees (with questions of the selection of committee members, conflict of interest provisions, the authority accorded to such committees)
* legal case law requiring certain decisionmaking heuristics in the face of scientific uncertainty to avoid too much susceptibility to data manipulation (with questions of the incentives those heuristics create for actual potential funders of scientific research, the ability of judges to apply such heuristics in a consistent manner)
–as well as legal requirements that exacerbate these problems. Anyway, thanks for an interesting back and forth!

 

[*] I’m not getting into the question of “what makes someone an expert?” here, and instead focus on “how do we make decisions given the ambiguousness of who should be considered experts?” because that’s more relevant to what I study, although I should also point out that philosophers and sociologists of science have been studying this in what’s starting to be called the “third wave” of science, technology, and society studies. There’s a lot of debate about this, and I have a teensy summary of it here (since Jordan says it’s okay for me to plug myself :) (Note: the EFSA advisory committee structure, if anyone cares, has changed since I published this article so that the article characterizations are no longer accurate.)

 

 

 

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Stephen Landsburg is right about numbers

I’ve often disagreed with Steve Landsburg, sometimes on this blog and sometimes in Slate.  So it seems worth mentioning that I’m totally on board with his take on the reality of numbers and other mathematical objects.  (Scroll down — and down, and down, and down — to item 9 for the part I’m talking about.)

To me, by far the most satisfying solution is a full-fledged Platonic acknowledgement that numbers are indeed just “out there” and that they are directly accessible to our intuitions. I embrace this view for (at least) three reasons: A. After a lifetime of thinking about numbers, it feels right to me. B. Pretty much every one else who spends his/her life thinking about numbers has come to the same conclusion. C. It seems enormouosly more plausible to me that numbes are “just out there” than that physical objects are “just out there”, partly because there is in fact a unique system of (standard) natural numbers, whereas the properties of the physical universe appear to be far more contingent and therefore unnecessary.

Right on!  The view that mountains, clouds, and frogs are not real things can’t really be refuted, but it’s universally judged to be a boring view that’s not worth holding, right?  So in order to decide to deem numbers “out there” we don’t have to defend the claim that they’re real, but only that they are at least as real as mountains, clouds, and frogs.  This last, weaker claim seems to me obviously correct.

You don’t have to outrun the bear!

 

 

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