Philbio grad conference

For many years now, the graduate students in my department have hosted an annual graduate conference. This year’s topic is philosophy of biology.

I’ve gotten a lot out of attending over the years. There’s a specified topic, so all the papers are at least peripherally related. There’s only one track, so every speaker gets the attention of all the attendees.

If you are a grad student working in philbio, consider submitting an abstract. If you know a grad student working in philbio, consider nudging them to submit.

Here’s the official call:

The University at Albany Philosophical Association will hold its 13th Annual Graduate Conference on April 4th, 2020. Our topic is Philosophy of Biology, and our Keynote Speaker is Justin Garson (Hunter College, CUNY). The deadline is January 5th.1 We would greatly appreciate it if you would circulate the following call for papers amongst the graduate students in your Department.

https://philevents.org/event/show/77738

The end of revolutions

The last meeting of my Scientific Revolutions course was Monday. Following my usual last-day schtick, I put them in groups to reflect on what the course had been about. To give some context, here’s the blurb for the course:

Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of a “paradigm shift,” something that has become part of our general vocabulary, and his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions marked a shift in the way that people think about science. This course begins with the state of science studies before Kuhn: the way that historians, sociologists, and philosophers thought about science. Then it takes a close look at Kuhn’s landmark book. Finally, it explores some of the reactions and consequences that Kuhn’s work had for science studies.1

Their discussions start out with long, careful sentences. After enough of that, just for fun, I ask them to distill it down to a slogan or bumpersticker. Suggestions included “Elaborate yet absurd philosophical ideas” and “Philosophers; they have ideas about science”.

Continue reading “The end of revolutions”

Kantian hustle

Reading an interview with Mark Johnston, I learned a fact that I can’t believe I didn’t know before: As a student, Immanuel Kant made money as a pool shark. Johnston gives this extended quote from one of Kant’s university friends:

Kant’s only recreation was playing billiards… [He] had nearly perfected [his] game, and rarely returned home without some winnings. As a consequence, persons refused to play with [him], and [he] abandoned this source of income, and chose instead L’Hombre, which he played well.

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Risky business

My paper with Dan Hicks and Jessey Wright, Inductive Risk, Science, and Values: a reply to MacGillivray, has been accepted at the journal Risk Analysis. It went from social media musing to accepted publication in just a few months.

Back in July, Dan wrote a tweet that concluded “Anyone want to write a little response with me?” Jessey and I replied that we’d be game for it. E-mails followed. We each wrote a snippet of prose. The snippets got worked together into one document, and that document went through a bunch of revisions. We used a google doc, which highlighted changes and allowed us to make comments back and forth in the document itself. Other than a few e-mails, that’s how we interacted. No realtime conversations, even via skype.

I still use LaTeX for my own writing, but the collaborative workflow of the google doc worked really well for this project.

Comic timing

The Open Culture blog notes the 25th anniversary of Comic Sans. I’ve long felt that if there were a philosophy of typography, then Comic Sans would be an interesting case.

There are aesthetic objections to Comic Sans, some well-motivated and some driven by hipsterism. Back in the early 2000s, I thought about writing a short paper about it. The typeface was ubiquitous for a while. I remember seeing an advertisement on the side of a bus in Hungary written in Comic Sans letters two feet high. It does OK as a comic lettering font, but all its blemishes and imperfections come to the fore when its used for headlines and billboards.

That’s a matter of taste, though. The point I wanted to make was something else. As it happens, I already blogged about it back in 2015. Here’s what I wrote then:

Comic Sans reflected a kind of alienation. People use a standard font like Times or Helvetica when they want to be serious and official. When they use a handwriting font or something else non-standard, they mean to inject levity and personality into the thing they’re typing up. But Comic Sans, precisely because it’s ubiquitous, is not personal or expressive at all.

I remember searching out exotic true type fonts back in the 90s. This was before the internet, and I’d get font archives on CD-ROM. I browsed them, saved some, and used them selectively as the title fonts for papers. The fonts I chose, even if they were ugly or nigh-illegible, reflected aesthetic judgments I’d made.

The strangeness of Comic Sans is that people would select it when they wanted to be quirky individuals. Since it was a standard font on every Mac and Windows computer, though, it was everyones’ expression of individuality.

I’ve got nothing against handwriting fonts in general. I’ve even made several. Those are my own handwriting, so my using them is literally a reflection of how I write. If somebody else uses Ninjascript, they’re using my handwriting— but it’s still a reflection of them because they picked that font especially. They didn’t just end up with it because it was the most grotesque among the handful of fonts that came with their computer.

Now default installations have gotten more varied. The perverse monopoly of Comic Sans is over. Someone reaching for a quirky handwriting font might end up with Marker Felt instead. So now, 25 years on, someone selecting Comic Sans has made a deliberate and personal choice.

The mysterious island

Deep within these grooves of Academe,
In quiet cubicles, white and bare,
Hunched homunculi strain and labor
(Like monks of old in cloistered cells
Balancing angels on needles’ points)
At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous
Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

Edith Eliot1
Continue reading “The mysterious island”

Putnam correspondence

Over on my website, I’ve posted an e-mail exchange I had with the late Hilary Putnam in 2011-12. The text of it has been knocking around on my hard drive, and it’s apt to get lost if I don’t put it somewhere. So posting it is as much for my own record keeping as for anything else.

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Measuring influence

At The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel gives what he describes as “a rough measure of current influence in … ‘mainstream Anglophone philosophy’.” His method starts with citations in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Considering only authors born after 1900, he tallies up the number of distinct articles in which they are cited.

The highly-influential Hilary Putnam is cited in 168 articles. Using that to ostensively define a unit, identify that as 1 Putnam of influence.

Putnam is in third place on the list, behind WVO Quine (1.14 Putnams of influence) and David Lewis (1.59 Putnams).

The inevitable vanity search and a little math reveals that I have 77.4 milliPutnams of influence.1 Should I be chuffed about that? Can I put it on my CV?

The buzz, the bees, and belief

I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

Leonard McCoy

I posted yesterday about what I called the Positive Buzz fallacy:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

I realized today that it is closely related to a fallacy that people often commit in misunderstanding natural selection: An organism is fittest in a given environment, and the fallacifier infers that it’s simply best.

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All abuzz with fallacies

Over at the Blog of the APA, Mark Satta coins a new fallacy.1 He calls it the Buzz Aldrin fallacy, riffing on a quotation he attributes the astronaut:

When President Kennedy wanted to get to the moon, he didn’t invite poets and philosophers to the White House, he called upon scientists and engineers. That’s how you get stuff done.

This shifts from the obvious (that philosophers and poets don’t do the detail work of building rockets) to a sweeping claim (that calling scientists and engineers is what you do when you want to get stuff done). Satta supplies an implicature, reads it as an inference, and extrapolates a general pattern:

  1. Activity x does not contribute to goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity x is not valuable.

This is a fallacy, which he names and talks about. But here’s another fallacious pattern closer to the surface of the quotation:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.2
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

To distinguish these, we might call the first the Negative Buzz fallacy and the second the Positive Buzz fallacy.

Continue reading “All abuzz with fallacies”