The Sorry State of Academic eBooks

A couple of weeks ago marketing guru Seth Godin observed that you can tell what an organization values by where they put their best people. Given the current state of academic ebooks, I suspect that most publishers are using unpaid work-study students. I don’t know much about the economics of academic publishing, but this strikes me as a very shortsighted strategy. The market for print editions of academic books is probably both small and almost static—primarily university libraries. But there is a ton of growth potential in e-publishing, not just from academics like me who are too impatient to wait for the library to get a copy of the book we want to read (or for the library to open in the morning), but also from thousands of interested laypeople who would be willing to put the effort into an advanced text if it were convenient and affordable.

In the rest of this post I am going to give a tour of some of the mistakes and annoyances I’ve found in my collection of ebooks. To be fair, some of the books I’ve purchased are pretty good, but for the most part this is a representative sample. I should also note that none of what I say is a slight against the authors of these books. I enjoyed all of them and I think they should be outraged at the poor job their publishers have done in presenting their work to the world.…

Touching the Living Cell: The Chambers’ Micromanipulator

At some point in the past several decades,  the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST)  inherited a number of items from the dispersed Canadian Museum of Health and Medicine collection. Among these was a lacquered black box that contained the critical components of a Chamber’s Micromanipulator.  Developed by the American biologist Dr. Robert Chambers (1881-1957) during his time at Cornell University Medical College, it was first described in publication in 1918, and was commercialized by the Leitz company in the mid-1920s. The U of T instrument was most likely purchased for the recently-founded School of Hygiene in the late 1920s or 1930s.

Continue reading at…

Rebooting The Bubble Chamber

Three things happened.

First, Steve Fuller came to our department. In a casual lunchtime talk, he argued that science studies—meaning not history and philosophy of science—has succeeded by giving people what they want. In Steve’s view this unfortunately seems to be mostly apolitical legitimation. Cory Lewis made the point that what history and philosophy of science has to offer the outside world—what we can sell people—is teaching and explanation. Obvious? Maybe. True? Yes! That was the original mission of The Bubble Chamber: to use our skills as historians and philosophers of science to analyze, explain, and debate science in a way that is accessible to everyone.

Second, Will Thomas of Etherwave Propaganda had some insightful and provocative reflections on the state of academic blogging:…

Weekly Roundup

Welcome to the first weekly roundup of 2013! Resolutions tend to be futile, as XKCD reminds us above, but nevertheless we resolve that “weekly” will move from a hope to a description.

“The future is here,” claims Donna Dickens at BuzzFeed, with a rundown of science fiction turned science fact in 2012. Invisibility cloaks, 3-D printers, and spray-on skin, but no flying cars. We’ll have to settle for self-driving ones.

At Slate, Julia Belluz and Steven J. Hoffman tackle an issue familiar to Bubble Chamber readers: the scientific claims of popular “experts.” Is Dr. Oz’s medical advice too good to be true, or can we all finally lose those stubborn pounds?

Also at Slate, Lawrence Krauss asks what’s next after the Higgs Boson discovery.

Up to 15 newly-discovered planets in stars’ “habitable zones” may have moons which “could hold alien life like Pandora in Avatar.” After reading that headline, the Ewoks fired their publicist (via The Independent).…

Shaky Foundations

I learned from Mark Solovey today that his book, Shaky Foundations, has just been published. Congratulations Mark! Shaky Foundations describes “the politics-patronage-social science nexus in Cold War America”. This makes the last year a big one for Mark, as he was also co-editor of Cold War Social Science, an edited volume about social science during the Cold War. Will Thomas of Etherwave Propaganda has a good review as well as some interesting thoughts on the “definition of social and political ontologies” in relation to the volume.

The Cold War was a transformative period for the social sciences. Progress in game theory, linguistics, economics, operations research, and other disciplines, along with notable successes in World War II, suggested that the social sciences were at last, or nearly, on an equal footing with the physical sciences in terms of objectivity and rigour. At the same time, the complexities of the Cold War led the military to fund social scientific research at an unprecedented scale.

Shaky Foundations has three central arguments. First, the military, the Ford Foundation, and the National Science foundation must be considered as part of a single, though loosely integrated, system for funding the social sciences. Second, these patrons saw the social sciences in instrumental terms—as means of attaining practical ends—and used the physical sciences as a measuring stick for the social sciences. Third, this new patronage system faced several challenges—including ideological challenges from both conservatives and liberals, concerns over the independence of scientific research, status differences between the social and natural sciences, and the difficulty of pursuing value-neutral inquiry—that led to increasing academic and political scrutiny in the 1960s.

I have not yet had a chance to read Mark’s book beyond the introduction, but it looks to be a valuable work for those interested in the history of social science as well as those interested in the relationship between academia and society.


Thoughts on Filter Bubbles

My friends Boaz Miller and Isaac Record have a paper forthcoming in Episteme on the implications of internet filter bubbles for our ability to form knowledge. They argue that, because search engines like Google personalize search results through an unknown algorithm, we cannot base knowledge claims on those search results alone. If we attempt to do so, we are failing to live up to our epistemic responsibilities to avoid bias—our beliefs lack the requisite justification to be counted as knowledge.

Miller and Record’s claim is based on observations such as those from Eli Pariser that search results can differ significantly between individuals with diverging ideologies or interests. Pariser’s paradigmatic example is of two friends he asked to search for “BP” in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. One friend’s search results were investment information while the other’s were news of the spill. These friends were both “educated, white left-leaning women”, and so this difference is meant to suggest even greater differences will exist for others.

Several potential objections to Pariser, Miller, and Record come to mind.…