Sexism in philosophy has been on my mind lately, between my colleague Kerry McKenzie’s review of a disastrous attempt at philosophy of physics by notorious sexist philosopher Colin McGinn and a visit to our department last week by Jenny Saul. I’ve also been thinking a lot about virtue ethics, in part because I get to teach it for the first time next term. It seems like virtue ethics has some valuable insights for the problem of sexism in philosophy. In this post, I want to develop one small insight, starting with something that seems to be a challenge to a virtue ethical discussion of sexism in philosophy.
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Why is the climate change debate so interminable? From the perspective of many scientists, we’ve had compelling data since the 1970s and more than enough reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since the 1980s. Today the IPCC will release the first part of their fifth Assessment Report. But no one really expects this document to settle the debate.
One very common explanation for the endlessness of the debate is that the public are ignorant. This might be because they haven’t learned much of anything at all about climate change; the historian of science Robert Proctor calls this “native state” ignorance. Or the public might be ignorant because a more-or-less organized group of people, the “climate skeptics” or “climate denialists,” are deliberately feeding them misinformation to protect fossil fuel interests; Proctor calls this “ignorance as a strategic ploy.”1
I agree that both kinds of ignorance play a role in drawing out the climate debate. But I don’t think it’s the complete explanation. So let me sketch a complementary one.
To begin, we need to understand how climate science works. There’s something that I call the “popular image” of climate science, according to which it’s supposed to work something like this:
- Scientists measure the temperature and notice that things have been getting warmer since the industrial revolution.
- Scientists infer that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing the warming trend.
- Scientists make predictions about the future, concluding that temperature will increase by a certain amount by the year 2100 if humans continue to emit greenhouse gases.
The popular image portrays climate science as nice, neat, and fairly easy-to-understand. The problem is that it’s radically false. A more accurate image is below. If you get a bit cross-eyed trying to understand how it works, don’t worry, that’s kind of my point. You can skip to the next paragraph.
- Scientists use statistical techniques to combine thermometer measurements (which only go back to about the mid-19th century) with physical measurements that indicate but don’t directly measure temperature (like the thickness of tree rings and pockets of air trapped in glaciers thousands of years ago).
- Scientists build thousands of computer simulations to model the interactions of various factors, from human greenhouse gas emissions to increased solar activity to the chemical composition of the oceans. All of these simulations involve assumptions and simplifications that make it possible for computers to actually produce results in a reasonable amount of time.
Some of these simulations compare combinations of major influences to the temperature data produced in step 1. It’s relatively easy to get the simulations that include human greenhouse gas emissions to statistically match the general trend of the temperature data. It’s much harder to get the simulations that don’t include human greenhouse gas emissions to match this general trend. So scientists infer that human greenhouse gas emissions are one of the major causes of the warming trend. And scientists don’t even try to get the simulations to match the temperature data exactly.
- Once scientists have simulations that do a reasonably good job of matching the general trend in the past, they run the simulations forward to about the year 2100. Since the simulations don’t usually agree on these future projections, they’re aggregated using more statistical techniques.
In short, climate science relies on simplifying assumptions and complex statistical techniques. The conclusion that humans are responsible for climate change is based on evidence, but it’s not the easy inference that the public image suggests. Indeed, that last point is more general: climate science is not nice, neat, and easy-to-understand, as the popular image presents it.
This mismatch between the popular image and the complex reality gives sophisticated climate skeptics two kinds of crucial openings. First, skeptics can point to particular complicated and messy elements — weird assumptions in the statistics or computer simulations, or the complicated relationship between temperature data and the design of computer simulations. Second, skeptics can mimic parts of the climate science process in ways that will seem, to many non-scientists, to be about the same as what climate scientists are doing, while getting radically different conclusions.2
These skeptical arguments work on two levels. On the technical level, they assert that there are problems deep within the complexities of climate science. On the popular level, by pointing out that climate science isn’t living up to what it’s supposed to be — according to the popular image — they assert that the whole enterprise of climate science is a sham. It’s supposed to be nice and simple, but — skeptics suggest — that’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Climate scientists and activists give good responses to these arguments on the technical level. But they don’t deal well with the popular level — they don’t take on the popular image of climate science as nice, neat, and easy-to-understand. Indeed, their simplified explanations for non-scientific audiences often reinforce this image.3 And this, I think, is one major reason why skeptical arguments are so durable, and so why the climate debate continues with no end in sight.
Cross-posted at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy blog.
Following up on my last post and a semi-related conversation with a new officemate, it seems to me that a lot of people might react something like this:
Well, no surprise that we can’t trust these scientists: They have ties to Monsanto. What we need are objective, disinterested scientists who aren’t dependent on industry sponsors.
In this post I’m going to criticize this response. As the title puts it, objectivity is a unicorn. It doesn’t exist, it’s a myth, and so it’s not going to help us solve the problem.
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I spent most of Monday working on some “deep literature analysis” for my research on genetically modified organisms for food, or GMOf. This meant, in practice, that I spent about two hours looking up the citations for a single article. It was quite dull work, but the results were very interesting from the perspective of agnotology, an emerging area of science studies that deals with the production of ignorance. In this post, I’m going to give you some background on the “feed the world argument” and agnotology, then present my findings.
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As I discussed in a post last month, I recently took a Coursera class on network theory and analysis. I did this in part because I wanted to evaluate the MOOC format from a student’s perspective. But I also did it because network theory is very hot right now and appeals to my old life as a mathematician.
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Over the last two weeks, I’ve participated in two two-day conferences and met some grad students at my soon-to-be institutional home, the Rotman Institute. In all these conversations, I’ve said a few times that I’m interested in the “political economy of science,” and of course no one knows what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to explain, but I don’t think I’ve been very articulate. In this post, I’m going to try to offer a better explanation.
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In this post, I’m going to discuss MOOCs, based on my recent experience in a Coursera course on Social and Economic Networks. I’m going to start with a brief explanation of my reasons for taking the course, give a quick overview of the structure of the course, then explain my criticism. I’ll end up arguing that, perhaps surprisingly, MOOCs are not effective, even for the math courses that, it would seem, they’re perfect for.
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Yesterday 3:AM Magazine posted an interview with Rebecca Kukla. Kukla said some things about the adversarial method in philosophy, with which Jenny Saul disagreed. You can find a response by Eric Schliesser here, and from there links to another response or two.
What I find remarkable in all of these discussion threads is the complete absence of references to Janice Moulton, and especially to her paper "Duelism in Philosophy." Back in 1980, Moulton had already identified the Adversarial Method and made a number of sophisticated points and arguments that are being missed in the recent discussion since yesterday. Here are some highlights.
On the first page, Moulton makes a pluralist concession: “If it were merely one procedure among many for philosophers to employ, there might be nothing to object to. But when it dominates the evaluation, doing, and teaching of philosophy, it restricts and misrepresents what philosophy is.” (419) So her primary criticism isn’t that the Adversarial Method is somehow antithetical to women in philosophy, or that it’s essentially flawed in any way. The problem is with its exclusive (or near-exclusive) use.
Her basic criticism, roughly, is that the Adversarial Method is only appropriate to certain contexts, namely, ones in which we actually have two adversarial positions and one needs to defeat or eliminate the other. This has two harmful downstream effects. First, the method is inappropriate to most actual contexts of practical deliberation, in which we are faced with things like moral dilemmas or the need to act under uncertainty. Thus the stereotypical practical irrelevance of much philosophy: what we do has nothing to do with what people actually need from us in their ordinary activities. As Moulton puts it,
Later, discussing the specific emphasis on counterexamples that the Adversarial Method encourages, she points out that
The Adversary Paradigm requires only the kind of reasoning whose goal is to convince an opponent, and ignores reasoning that might be used in other circumstances: to figure something out for oneself, to discuss something with like-minded thinkers, to convince the indifferent or the uncommitted. (427)
Second, the exclusive use of the Adversarial Methods tends to cause us to treat all situations as though they were adversarial situations. For example, we construct arguments designed to defeat adversarial boogeymen that exist pretty much exclusively in our own imaginations — egoists and external-world skeptics — and conceptualize the data of practical deliberation as logically exclusive alternatives — inviolable individual rights vs. utility-maximization.
Counterexample reasoning can be used to rule out certain alternatives, or at least to show that the current arguments supporting them are inadequate, but not to construct alternatives or to figure out what principles do apply in certain situations. (429)
Note that this critique goes deeper than Saul’s virtue argument (the Adversarial Method tends to make philosophers uncharitable) and circumvents the worries about gender essentialism and critiques of the Adversarial Method from Louise Antony (I think that’s the paper where Antony raises those worries) and Kukla. Moulton also anticipates the historical defense of the Adversary Method, viz., that this method was used by Socrates at the “birth of Western philosophy.” She spends a few pages of her paper (423-6) carefully looking at the Socratic method of elenchus. She concludes that he was “a playful and helpful teacher” rather than “an ironic and insincere debater,” and that his aims were more to nurture reflection than defeat adversaries: “His aim is not to rebut, it is to show people how to think for themselves by examining what they think they know and seeing if it is consistent with the other things they believe.” Thus, she distinguishes a dialogue between friends who disagree and the exchange of arguments and critiques from the Adversarial Method as such. This distinction seems to be missing from the contemporary discussion.
I had the pleasure of attending the First Annual Workshop on Food Justice and Peace this past Friday and Saturday at Michigan State University, and at that workshop I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Navin of Oakland University. My talk offered a defense of local food from a radical participatory democracy perspective (this is often called communitarianism, though I dislike that label myself), while Mark offered a critique of local food from a (maybe) cosmopolitan, (certainly) global justice perspective. So we had plenty to talk about!
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A template for service learning / civic engagement in philosophy of science and science studies courses. Based in significant part on Ilea, Ramona, and Susan Hawthorne. “Beyond Service Learning.” Teaching Philosophy 34, no. 3 (September 2011): 219–240. doi:10.5840/teachphil201134331, with unattributed paraphrasing throughout. Please leave feedback in the comments at the end!
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