Archive for September, 2010


Odenbaugh and Jamieson

September 30, 2010

Jay Odenbaugh and Dale Jamieson discuss climate change and ethics on teh philosophy teevee. Worth your time:

In this conversation, Jamieson and Odenbaugh discuss how climate change raises novel philosophical concerns and underscores traditional ones.  Climate change, they explain, poses a challenge for both consequentialism and its alternatives, and brings out questions about our obligations to future generations and about the moral status of non-humans. Further, the public controversy over climate science involves questions about the epistemology of testimony, the value-neutrality of science, and action under uncertainty.


Looking Back

September 26, 2010

Kwame Appiah has a very nice and provocative article in the Washington Post today. He asks what future generations will condemn us for. His conclusions? Prisons, Industrial Meat Production, the Institutionalized and the Elderly, and the Environment. He doesn’t say much about these issues, but it’s provocative nevertheless.

Condemnation may not be the appropriate term. Perhaps disapprobation is better. The idea, of course, is that we can gain some insight into the moral permissiveness of our actions simply by reflecting on the things for which we might be held accountable in the future.


The Climate for Beer

September 21, 2010

It has come to my attention that “the world’s most highly cited ecologists and environmental scientists typically consume more than double the amount imbibed by the general population.”

Come again? That’s a pretty startling finding, if true.

The results reveal that consumption for this group averages around 7 alcoholic beverages per week, about 2.5 drinks over the weekly consumption of the average American. Though a fifth of the group does not drink, more than half consume 10 or more alcoholic beverages a week, 20% consume 12 or more and 10% consumer 21 or more. The largest consumer downed 31 per week.

I suppose there are several reasons why this might be so. For one, it might just be the case that these dudes get out of the house more often than the average couch potato. Better to get work done over beer than to get it done over Dexter.

For another, it could also be the case that these folks have a far better sense than the average joe of what’s worth a person’s time. Beer is definitely worth a person’s time, but I wouldn’t expect uneducated corn eaters to know this. They likely spend their weekends soberly watching Nascar and going to church.

For a third, it’s conceivable that these environmental scientists just live in really fancy places, like Colorado and California, where beer flows like water and microbreweries spring up like mushrooms.

Just a guess, of course.

Here’s the abstract of the article:

In science, a relatively small pool of researchers garners a disproportionally large number of citations. Still, very little is known about the social characteristics of highly cited scientists. This is unfortunate as these researchers wield a disproportional impact on their fields, and the study of highly cited scientists can enhance our understanding of the conditions which foster highly cited work, the systematic social inequalities which exist in science, and scientific careers more generally. This study provides information on this understudied subject by examining the social characteristics and opinions of the 0.1% most cited environmental scientists and ecologists. Overall, the social characteristics of these researchers tend to reflect broader patterns of inequality in the global scientific community. However, while the social characteristics of these researchers mirror those of other scientific elites in important ways, they differ in others, revealing findings which are both novel and surprising, perhaps indicating multiple pathways to becoming highly cited.

And here’s the relevant passage:

Our findings regarding alcohol consumption are surprising. Though a fifth of the groupdoes not drink, most drink more than Americans do generally. Furthermore, greater than54% consume 10 or more alcoholic beverages a week, 20% consume 12 or more drinks perweek, and 10% consume 21 or more drinks per week. Though national differences indrinking habits make direct comparisons between these groups difficult, the fact that oursample is both much more productive and much more highly cited, and drinks three timesmore alcohol than the less productive, less frequently cited group used in Grim’s comparison(i.e. Moravians) does give rise to pause, suggesting the need for more and betterinformation before a firm link between alcohol consumption and scientific accomplishmentcan be established. Certainly much more attention needs to be paid to possible intermittingvariables which may make this relationship appear stronger than it is in fact, particularlygiven evidence indicating the opposite relationship between beer consumption, scientificproductivity, and scientific quality at national levels (Lortie 2009).

Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen…

September 20, 2010

Oh how I love the comments to this article by Jeff McMahan, an accomplished and well-respected ethicist at Rutgers. They remind me so how not atypical my undergraduates are. (Say what? Yes, you read that correctly.) Here are some gems. Maybe on Monday I’ll actually address the content of the article:

Joe: “this is incredibly flawed, the world of animals and all organisms are only able to survive because of such brutal competition, if there was nothing to fight for, what would it be worth?”

The other guy: “I came away with the same feeling as when I first read Zeno’s “dichotomy paradox” in college, That is, “What was he smoking?” That was also the time in my sophomore year where I swore the stuff off.”

Erika: “The argument you present is offensive.”

Socrates: “Horrifying article.”

into the fire: “Unbelievable, but alas not surprising, that this could be written by someone paid to profess at Rutgers or Princeton.”

Peter: “Mr. McMahan is right to expect to be vilified when intelligent people see his article. It is the height of ignorance.”

Vance: “The amount of large words does not counter the fact that these arguments are from a child’s mind.”

Linda: “This is an astounding example of ivory tower thinking that is totally out of touch with the real world.”

They go on, dear readers! I’m only on page two. Love, love the comments. So wonderful.

Philosophers are crrr-azy!



September 19, 2010

Here’s a fun little post that more or less yanks the guts out of Mark C. Taylor, the self-aggrandizing Columbia professor now pushing the line against all things holy in academia:

Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.

Just sixteen months later, the book is here, and the signs of the syndrome are all too evident. Taylor, the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, has enveloped his original argument in an overblown, cliché-ridden theoretical framework about the on-going shift from a “world of walls and grids” to a “world of networks.” The globe, Taylor declares, with a certain lack of originality, has become “more interconnected.” “Global financial capitalism” is replacing “industrial and consumer capitalism.” And “as cross-cultural communication grows, it transforms old assumptions and ideas.” Recounting a lengthy anecdote about a course he taught partly via video conferencing, Taylor remarks, “That was the Aha! moment in which I knew the world had changed.” (The world is flat!) Abandoning his earlier facile comparison of higher education to the auto industry, Taylor now likens it with equal facility to the financial sector, and speaks in doom-laden tones of the “education bubble.”


Enlightenment Lecture

September 17, 2010

Here’s some weekend video for you. Enjoy!


Information Wants to be Free

September 17, 2010

Philosopher Peter Ludlow (Northwestern) offers this nice analysis of the WikiLeaks phenomenon:

WikiLeaks is not the one-off creation of a solitary genius; it is the product of decades of collaborative work by people engaged in applying computer hacking to political causes, in particular, to the principle that information-hoarding is evil—and, as Stewart Brand said in 1984, “Information wants to be free.” Today there is a broad spectrum of people engaged in this cause, so that were Assange to be eliminated today, WikiLeaks would doubtless continue, and even if WikiLeaks were somehow to be eliminated, new sites would emerge to replace it.


Texas A&M Has a Data Problem

September 16, 2010

There are many ways to use data. Good ways. Bad ways. And downright ridiculous ways. Texas A&M has taken the use of data to a new level of absurdity. Here, check out this fun article:

Faculty members at Texas A&M University are, by and large, generating more money than they are costing the university, although some of the most prestigious professors would appear to be operating in the red, according to a controversial report prepared by the university system as a move toward greater accountability.

Here’s the actual spreadsheet. It’s worth your time to flip through it.

At the end of the day, these are just numbers; and numbers that are stolen from a timeslice in the life of Texas A&M. All around, they’re a ridiculous measure of competence and contribution to the overall university educational mission.

IMHO, it’s not that this approach is “potentially very dangerous,” as the article above suggests, but that it’s downright the wrong measure for a university administration to be tracking. What’s particularly interesting, for instance, is that it would appear that if you want to make money as a university, you should hire lots and lots of professors in history, political science, performance studies, psychology, and communication. Maybe a few in philosophy and economics, but they’re not as cost effective. Nor are the sociologists. The hard sciences are an overall drag on the university, so basically, they should be ejected, except for mathematics, biology, and chemistry, which are cheap and which are required courses for almost all undergrads, thereby generating a lot of money for the university.

Within philosophy, if you follow the prescriptive implication of this report, the University would do well to eject their hotshot superstars like John McDermott. He’s just a drag on the department. Who needs big names in philosophy anyway. Better to go with cheap, young non-tenure-track faculty.

What an astonishing abuse of a spreadsheet.


The Money Tree

September 16, 2010

I’ll confess to being somewhat skeptical of the current batch of gripes regarding the cost of the modern university, conveniently distributed at exactly the same time as several books by the same authors on the same topic. Recently Mark C. Taylor has been attracting most of the attention, but there apparently several other mindless curmudgeons. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, both lost in the dark shadows cast by the sunset of their careers, also want in on the game.

On one hand, I agree that education has grown tremendously expensive, and perhaps unnecessarily so; but on the other hand, I’m not sure that the reasoning of these authors is correct. Here’s an article from the LA Times:

If you look at how that added revenue is being spent, it’s hard to argue that students are getting a lot of extra value for all that extra money. Why? Colleges aren’t spending their extra revenues, which we calculate to be about $40 billion a year nationally over 1980 revenues, in ways that most benefit students.

<snip, after some grousing about the expensive athletic programs of universities, with which I agree>

Another source of increased expense is administration. Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled; on most campuses their numbers now match the number of faculty. Here are some of their titles: senior specialist of assessment; director for learning communities; assistant dean of students for substance education; director of knowledge access services.

Needless to say, these officials claim that they offer needed services. Who can be opposed to ensuring access and assessment? But let’s not forget that tuition pays for all these deans and directors; having more of them means higher bills for students.

Okay, stop.

Part 1: True, university administration costs a pretty penny. Is it all money well spent? Probably not. Surely, cutting back on administrative costs would help to alleviate some cost burden. But we don’t actually get an argument about which administrators should go and why. We just get a blanket argument about the cost of administrators. That’s not a real argument; and it’s not clear that losing some administrators wouldn’t also cost in other ways. Or, put differently, it’s not clear that these administrators aren’t actually contributing substantially to the educational mission of the university. We just don’t know, and the authors don’t give us a reason to trust their reasoning.

Here’s another bold claim:

Added tuition revenue has also gone to raise faculty salaries. Yale’s full-time faculty members now average $129,400, up 64% in inflation-adjusted dollars from what they made in 1980. (Pay in other sectors of the U.S. economy rose only about 5% in this period.) Stanford’s tenured and tenure-track professors are doing even better, averaging $153,900, an 83% increase over 1980.

We’re told such stipends are needed to get top talent, but we’re not so sure. Faculty stars may raise prestige, but they are often away from the classroom, having negotiated frequent paid leaves and smaller teaching loads — underwritten, of course, by tuition. At Williams College this year, for example, three of seven religion professors are taking off all or part of the academic year.

Okay, stop.

Part 2: This is what I really wanted to address. First, whether the percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars from a 1980 salary is a fair or unfair increase can’t be established simply on the basis of the percent increase. If they were making bupkes in 1980, for instance, this clearly doesn’t entail that there is any kind of injustice in a 69% increase. As far as I’m concerned, high school teachers and firemen should get a 69% increase from what they currently earn.

Second, their sample is insane. $129,000 does seem like a helluva lot for a full-time faculty member, but it’s roughly twice as much as I make, which seems to be pretty uniform across my university.  To draw conclusions from one of the best endowed universities in the country is extremely misleading. Yale pays its professors a lot of money. That’s no surprise. It is and always has been a school for the exceptionally rich.

Moreover, to clump all faculty into one category — assistant, associate, full, with distinction, emeritus — from all ranges of discipline — economics, business, particle physics, philosophy, and English — is absolutely asinine. Surprise! It takes more to buy an econ guy than a philosophy guy. Hard to figure out why that might be.

Fourth, on a slightly different point, that faculty stars are often away from the classroom is probably a good damned thing. It’s good for the school and good for the students to have people producing research, learning from one another, and staying ahead of the game. You don’t want to strap Martha Nussbaum to the classroom so that she can’t participate in the public discourse, for instance. That would be an incredible blow to the University. You don’t want to tell Peter Singer to stop making appearances on the Daily Show so that he can get back to telling students what he thinks. That would hobble your asset.

The authors imply that the religion professors at Williams are just taking the year off, as if they’re going fly fishing, or as if they’re off to drink cocktails on the beach. Nothing could be sillier. I have no information about what those professors are up to, but I’d put my money on research… research that will eventually be published and trickle back to the students in the form of networking, prestige, experience, current knowledge, and so on. Depending on the kind of school in question, that’s what professors are paid to do. At an R1 university like the University of Colorado, it’s explicitly written into our contract that 40% of our time is to go to research. Couple this with the fact that most of us teach in our areas of research (naturally), and you’re looking at much larger chunks of our time dedicated to research, all of which essentially enriches the educational mission of the University. Fancy pants professors work closely with grad students who are kept up to date on the latest greatest stuff; grad students work with undergraduate students who get a slightly filtered picture, but still deal with budding young academics. It’s a pretty reasonable system, all told.

What should be called into question is not necessarily where the tuition money is going, but whether the authors of this absurd article understand the first thing about academia. They seem to have no or little clue what goes into a good education…at least a good education at a major research university.

…to be continued.

Caveat Emptor: I haven’t read their book. I’ve just read the populist drivel in this article. It’s intolerably boring and predictable. I’m sure the book will sell, but it’s easy to sell completely stupid ideas so long as they reinforce common ideological tropes…and this position certainly does that.


A Grain of SALT

September 15, 2010

I’m probably more of a fan of Immanuel Kant than most folks at Colorado, and I certainly think the Groundwork in the Metaphysics of Morals is one of the great books of ethics (as well as the Critique of Practical Reason), but our dear Tea Party winner-of-the-hour Christie O’Donnell has taken this Kant stuff a wee bit too far.

Turns out, she’s the living incarnation of the great Professor. On one hand, she appears to believe that lying is wrong under all circumstances, even under extreme murderer at the door scenarios. Here she is on Politically Incorrect ten years ago:

Kant, famously, also believed that lying is wrong in all circumstances, and he explicitly addressed a murderer at the door case. Many non- and even anti- Kantians take this example as a core reason to reject Kant out of hand. As a consequence, many notable Kantians have since struggled to offer plausible responses to critics.

But more distressingly, O’Donnell thinks that masturbation is a form of self-aggrandizement akin to adultery. Kant, as well, appears to have believed something similar. Again, some people take this as clear evidence that Kant was a nutter. Here’s O’Donnell again in a PSA she made for an organization called the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) from 1988:

Needless to say, what makes her crazy is not, strictly speaking, these crazy views. If Professor Awesome himself can defend the views — and I believe he can — then it is likely that they are not, strictly speaking, crazy views. What makes her crazy is that these views can’t readily be defended in any non-ideal way, which is what was primarily of concern to Kant. It’s not clear that O’Donnell is speaking of the ideal. She’s speaking of the non-ideal. Fact is, people get horny and people get bloodthirsty. Better to let the horny ones handle their drives in a productive way and to steer the bloodthirsty types away from the kids.