How to pursue science from the humanities?

You may notice that this article appears in a new section called “quick thoughts.” The aim of this section is to raise an issue for comment in more detail than the weekly roundup does, but in a more succinct format than our longer 1000 word posts. We hope that this section will turn the spotlight onto those that choose to comment, rather than the author of the post.

There has been a lot of talk around my department about curriculum changes, and it has me thinking about the ideal HPS curriculum. I surfed around the web a bit looking at various departmental websites. My program, as well as some others, seems to be oriented towards science undergrads who have decided to enter the humanities. The more recent entering classes in my program have not fit this description, as it seems more and more students are coming from the humanities instead of the sciences. Science, no matter what the field, takes an immense amount of time to learn. It seems that there are not as many accommodations made for the humanities student wanting to learn science as there are for the science student wanting to enter the humanities – there is just not a push to train humanities students in the sciences. Where is a humanities graduate student going to get the time to train him or herself in science? This seems to be a problem with the HPS curriculum.

From what I hear this problem is endemic in history and philosophy of science. We all want to know more science and math; yet, we also want to graduate without taking on more debt than is necessary. Maybe I am just blowing the whole thing out of proportion. However, I bet those of us who enter the field from the humanities rather than the sciences feel more constrained within the field.

I hear about this problem in different fields of study as well. At the Canadian Science Policy Conference that I recently attended, many speakers pointed out the need for government representatives to have a knowledge of how science works. At the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a researcher’s survey data demonstrated that the most requested resource by public school science teachers in one Canadian province was not money or lab equipment, but rather “knowledge of science.” I am sure this problem also appears for those looking to work at the intersection between science and business, policy, or communications. It feels as if those in HPS need to be full time science students in addition to being full time humanities students. In a way there are obvious answers to this problem for the humanities grad student: either learn the material as you complete your degree, or take time off for intensive study and return to your degree later. But both of these options are easier said than done, especially if one is trying to avoid student debt.

Have any of our readers successfully navigated this problem and have advice? Are there programs that could help a humanities student further embrace his/her love of science and math? Should one just let these topics pass him/her by and concentrate on problems of a non-technical nature? Or should HPS departments be more attune to this desire?…


Weekly Roundup

Discover blogs has an interesting post plotting GRE scores by discipline, with some interesting commentary on the fact that philosophers appear to be extreme outliers.

In an internal memo, Fox News’ Washington bureau chief, Bill Sammohas, has instructed its journalists to refrain from asserting that the planet is warming, and whenever such claim is raised, to cast doubt over it.

On The New York Times Opinionator Blog, distinguished philosopher Tyler Burge argues that perceptual psychology, rather than neuroscience is the true science of the mind.

A podcast of the recent British Philosophical Association and the Forum for European Philosophy panel discussion on the theme “Valuing the Humanities” with James Ladyman, Martha Nussbaum, Martin Rees and Richard Smith, chaired by Mark Lawson is available for listening.…

Oren Harman: The Price of Altruism

In his book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (W. W. Norton, 2010),  historian of science Oren Harman, chair of the STS program at Bar Ilan University, tells the history of the notion of altruism in science in a broad political and cultural context. He  interweaves this history with the personal history of George Price (1922-1975), the eccentric researcher who derived the Price Equation, and took his own life after claiming to realize the grave implications of his equation for human nature.

The New York Times selected the book as one of the 100 notable books of 2010. Harman talks about his book on the popular radio show Radiolab, and in this short video.



Should Governments Fund Big Science?

This year, twenty two years after its initiation, the CERN Large Hadron Collider – the largest research project ever carried out in human history – became operational. It is said that it is expected to “address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing humanity’s understanding of the deepest laws of nature,” one of which is confirming the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle.

Thousands of physicists, engineers, technicians, and computer programmers from forty countries are involved in this project. The cost of the project is estimated at more than five billion(!) Euro. While Europe eventually built the CERN Large Hadron Collider, in 1993 U.S. Congress officially canceled the counterpart American project due to its heavy costs. Are this project and others like it worth their price?

What are we to make of physicists’ claims to be pursuing the “grand theory of everything”? Are such claims to be taken at face value, or are they fuelled by naive and unwarranted reductionism?

If we do find this theory of everything, is it worth the cost? What benefit will this theory have for people other than the esoteric group of specialists who can understand it?

Was this project inevitable? Could there have been cheaper ways to pursue the same questions?

What stand should humanities and social science people, in particular HPS and STS people, take on this issue? Should they ally themselves with their fellow researchers and support their quest for knowledge for its own sake? Should they try to get some of the pouring money for themselves, and insist on there being positions for ethnographers, ethicists and their like in such projects? Or should they use their own knowledge to problematize physicists’ reductionist claims, and question whether this turn physics took was inevitable?

Moreover, in today’s climate, where humanities programs all over the world are fighting for their survival and are required to justify their existence, should humanities people point out that the physicists are the big spenders, and their existence should be justified as well? Should they even claim to be able to deliver the same goods, namely answers to fundamental questions of “life, the universe and everything” for a fraction of the cost?…

Weekly Roundup

Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker argues for the existence of a common phenomenon in science called “the decline effect”, which is that large effects observed in an experiment tend to become smaller and smaller in subsequent replications. While the paper raises some interesting claims, there are still good grounds to remain skeptical about the reality of this effect, and about the author’s explanation of his findings.

On the popular American radio show Radiolab, recorded live at the New York Public Library, Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) and Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) discuss the question of technological determinism and the evolution of technology.

On Ether Wave Propaganda, historian of science Will Thomas argues that historians need to worry less about their engagement with the realm of public ideas.

Police at Harvard are investigating vandalism with urine to about 40 books dealing with LGBT matters at the school’s Lamont Library, the student newspaper The Crimson reports.

James Gleick writes about the history of the word “information” and how it has changed in meaning over time.

Sokal’s Hoax – the posterior version. Embryologist John McLachlan has proposed a new form of reflexology – on the buttocks. As a treatment technique, he suggested applying “gentle suction” on parts of the buttocks that are associated with different areas of the body. He sent an abstract of his theory to the Jerusalem International Conference on Integrative Medicine, which was accepted. In a letter to the British Medical Journal he later explained that this had been a hoax intended to expose the absurdity of alternative medicine. In a talkback comment on the Israeli news site Ynet, conference organizer Avraham Fried wrote1  that the actual problem in this case was McLachlan’s willingness to lie and infringe the scientific norm of trust to make his point, and he resented that the BMJ did not ask for his response.

But that’s not how it is! Practical problems with applying idealized representations

I’m currently in the midst of studying for a candidacy exam on a very specific topic: idealized scientific representations.  A scientific representation or model is considered idealized, according to one influential account, if (a) it includes or asserts some falsehood, (b) this falsehood simplifies the model in some relevant way, e.g. to make calculation easier, or to make explanations clearer, and (c) the falsehood approximates some relevant truths about the system(s) being represented.  Idealization, then, is a specific type of misrepresentation, distinct from useful fictions and plain falsities (since idealizations must at least approximate the truth).  Examples of idealizations in science include (by no means exhaustively): Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom, the ideal gas law, the model of the ideal pendulum, astronomical models that treat the Earth as a volumeless point-mass, ecological models that assume strict regional barriers, the economic assumption of perfect access to information about prices, and just about every line of best fit ever drawn.

There is a fast-growing literature on this topic, which is understandable given that all modern sciences seem replete with idealized representations. Indeed, according to some people working in this area, the methodological novelty that Galileo (arguably the founder of modern science) hit upon was not simply the use of mathematics to represent nature, but the use of idealized mathematical representations.  Regardless of its origins, idealization seems to be a practice that lies near the foundation of today’s scientific practice. Given the pervasive use of idealized representations in science, there are many worthwhile philosophical questions to be asked about it. For example, what notion of “approximate truth” is appealed to here?  How can we learn things by making false assumptions? What are we learning about the world through idealized representations?

The issues surrounding idealization that interest me most usually involve the application of idealized representations in critical settings, e.g. when crafting public policy on the basis of predictions derived with idealized models.  Unsurprisingly, applying scientific representations that are known to include simplifying falsities makes everyone feel a bit uneasy, especially when the success of such applications really matters, and even more so given that we have some clear cases of idealization gone awry.…

David Christensen and Roy Sorensen Disagreeing on Disagreement

Can a person rationally maintain her position when she comes to learn that her epistemic peer, who is presumably as competent and knowledgeable as her, holds a contradictory position? This question has recently been at the focus of intense discussion among philosophers. In this video, from Philosophy TV, David Christensen and Roy Sorensen debate it.

Why Do We Care about Knowledge?

In the dialogue Meno, Plato raises the question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. While this question is old, only recently has the debate about it resurfaced in contemporary philosophy, where philosophers have noted that leading contemporary theories of knowledge face difficulties with addressing it.

So, do we care about knowledge because of its practical applications? But some of the knowledge we have and seek to have seems to have no such practical application. Maybe we care about knowledge because it facilitates understanding? But it seems that knowledge and understanding may come apart in some cases. Does knowledge have intrinsic value? If so, by virtue of what? Do we have inherent natural curiosity we need to satisfy? Do we care more about scientific knowledge? Have your say.…

Weekly Roundup

More on the NASA affair: As we reported last week, NASA scientists published a paper in Science announcing the discovery of a new aresenic-based life form. NASA announced that the discovery “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life”. Media hype soon followed, but scientists are now claiming that the study is flawed and the press release was needlessly sensational and premature. Blogger Martin Robbins of the Guardian analyzes the reasons this affair turned into an inevitable fiasco.

Is is a problem that Republicans are under-represented among American scientists? Daniel Sarewitz, a senior science-policy scholar,  argues that it is. He writes that more Republicans should be scientists (or the other way around) both to enhance public trust in science, and to avoid potential Democrat bias in science, especially in politically contested issues such as climate science.

Australian environmentalists have been promoting the hunting of Kangaroos for meat as a sustainable alternative to farming cattle and sheep. But a report by THINKK, a research group based at the University of Technology, Sydney, has questioned the assumptions on which this policy is based and called for rethinking it, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Podcasts: On Philosophy Talk, philosopher Jennifer Lackey discusses the question of whether rational disagreement between epistemic peers is possible, and philosopher Helen Beebee discusses laws of nature on Philosophy Bites.

Food for thought as roo culling reasons come under fire
Nicky Phillips
November 29, 2010

Marsupial myth . . . kangaroos rarely compete for food with livestock.

Marsupial myth . . . kangaroos rarely compete for food with livestock. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer

THERE is limited scientific or environmental evidence to support the killing of large numbers of kangaroos every year, a series of reports has found.

Despite being the national symbol of Australia, more than 3 million are killed each year for their meat, or because they are considered pests that compete with livestock for food and other resources.

There is a growing movement to promote the consumption of kangaroo meat over beef and lamb as it is seen as a more environmentally sustainable option, because kangaroos emit less greenhouse gas.
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But a report by THINKK, a research group based at the University of Technology, Sydney, found some of the assumptions, which allow for the largest land-based wildlife cull in the world, were misguided and not grounded on scientific evidence.