Archive for October 5th, 2009


Hockey Stickler

October 5, 2009

Roger has assured me that if I include the words “hockey stick” in any post, I will generate traffic.  At this point, I’m not sure if I really want that traffic, as I’m relatively new to this whole thing and I still have a little boy who seems to want me to give him fatherly attention.  (Audacious, I know.  Any other three-year-old and I wouldn’t give him the time of day, but this kid manages to persuade me to plop my fat ass on an undersized wooden chair and add color to the outlines of obscure Candyland characters.  I also have significant publication responsibilities…but never you mind, this whole discussion has been heaps of fun, so I think I’ll continue.)

In other news, Maurizio has given me honorary props on his blog, so I guess I owe him thanks for the extra traffic.  I want to take up his issue as well.  Not right here though.  Eventually.  These things must be spaced out.

One problem that seems to be evading commenters is that I’m not qualified to make judgments about what has been scientifically demonstrated.  I simply don’t have the climate background and I rely very heavily on people I deem to be reliable sources.  As it happens, most people are excluded from this category of reliable sources, though those excluded from the category are not distinguished by whether they are “skeptics” or “proponents.”  It is clear that many proponents don’t have anything like the scientific background required to make a justified assessment of the strength of a given scientific argument; and it is equally clear that some skeptics do have that scientific background.  What is also clear is that the climate data span an incredible range of scientific subfields, so I would be shocked and surprised if any single person, even Rajendra Pachauri, is qualified to judge all of the science all of the time.

As a lowly philosopher, I’m only qualified to judge whether something has not been demonstrated, and even my judgment on that score is questionable.  If I can think of any plausible reason why something has not been demonstrated by a given argument, and provided that the burden of demonstration is possible to meet, then it seems reasonable to me to say that the claim in question hasn’t been demonstrated.  The plausible hypothetical objection (emphasis on ‘plausible’), in other words, should serve as enough reason to say that some burden of demonstration hasn’t been met.

For instance…

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That’s What She Didn’t Say

October 5, 2009

The New York Times has a new piece on the dearth of women philosophers.  It’s a troubling problem, but one that the author attributes in part to the macho club-thumping that seems to be part-and-parcel of philosophy’s business as usual.  Certainly aggression has something to do with it.  Follow the trail back to the original article in The Philosopher’s Magazine for more.

Brian Leiter offers this correct, albeit tangential, observation about the Times essay:

Bizarrely, the Times piece includes a photo of the hack philosopher Ayn Rand, who would indeed be unemployable in any serious philosophy department!

No disagreement there.  What’s even more bizarre is that Ayn Rand and her cabal of non-gender-specific followers are often extremely aggressive, so she seems like the wrong woman to include as someone who might be put off by the critical aggression in philosophy.  In an essay that I childishly think funny, Sean O’Neal characterizes Rand as the “thinking asshole’s author.” How crude.

At any rate, Leiter points to Keiran Healy’s observation that essentialist reasons for disciplinary segregation are pretty weak.

Benj Hellie — a philosopher at the University of Toronto who has a name curiously similar to mine and who wears similarly chunky glasses — writes this in response (comment #22):

As a (male) insider to the academic philosophical community for going on two decades, my impression — I think shared by most of my peers, male and female — is that the community has made great strides since the mid-late 1980s in overcoming the culture of aggression discussed in this post. Obviously this takes a while to ramify through to parity of representation at the highest levels of scholarship (more distinguished women full profs means more women undergrad majors, etc; but the journey from recently declared major to distinguished full prof takes thirty years, so results are slower than one might hope.

I mean, yeah, we’ve made some strides, but it’s still pretty hard to be a woman in a philosophy department.  I’ve gotta believe that.  And it ain’t just women who have difficulty, though they have a particularly hard time of it.  It’s also people who work in non-traditional areas, like applied ethics (including environmental ethics), Continental philosophy, African philosophy, American pragmatism, and basically anything that falls outside of the philosophical mainstream.  We all more or less try to fit into the Anglo-American philosophical universe.  It’s just that women don’t quite have the option of escaping some of the pertinent applied questions that affect their daily lives.


Cross Contamination and Passable Substitutes

October 5, 2009

The follow-up to the New York Times’ Tainted Meat video is equally valuable and important.  It raises the question about “safe handling instructions,” which many folks agree are the minimum required to maintain a healthy kitchen.  Their conclusion is that we should all “go beyond package safety instructions” to avoid unpleasant trips to the emergency room.

But this, of course, rests pretty squarely on a questionable hypothetical imperative.  You should go way beyond package safety instructions (as they say), only if you’re preparing foods that have a relatively high likelihood of being contaminated, and only if you don’t want to run the risk of getting sick from some foodborne pathogen.

It pretty much goes without saying that most people would prefer not to get sick, though this maybe also ought not to be a foregone assumption.  That’s a mistake that public health managers make all the time.  Many people eat risky foods partly because they’re risky.  I eat wild mushrooms for instance, because in my mind, I’m a foolish culinary paratrooper…though I’m not so foolish as to jump headlong into a bowl of Fugu.

Moreover, some risks are inevitable.  I probably won’t be cutting spinach or peanut butter out of my diet, for instance.  I do wash my spinach thoroughly, even though some have said that it doesn’t do very much to cut down on pathogens.  (Not true for pre-washed spinach, incidentally, as this month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated points out.)  You too should probably also wash your spinach thoroughly, provided that you don’t want to get sick.

Which brings me back to this point about the hypothetical imperative: another way to avoid a higher risk of getting sick is to avoid foods that bring on sickness… like, oh, I dunno, hamburger.  Since there are quite a few other reasons to avoid hamburger, including the fact that there are passable substitutes for hamburger, why not simply use a passable substitute?  Even if the passable substitute is only 90% passable, meaning that it’s only 90% as tasty as the real thing, that extra 10% of tasty really should alter your risk calculus, should it not?