Philosophy of science, science and social values, food systems. I'm a postdoc at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, Western University, Ontario, Canada.


Tyson, Genetic Modification, and the Fallacy of Equivocation

Neil deGrasse Tyson has shown up on my social media feeds a lot over the two weeks or so, in the form of a video clip where he’s critical of GM opponents. (You can also read a transcript here.) Here’s a sample:

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Research Update: 3 Papers (And a Bibliography) on the GMO Controversy

I really did intend to blog more this summer. But between too much traveling and lots of research writing, I just haven’t been able to find the energy. That’s not going to change now, but I thought I would at least post an update about all of that research writing.

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Virtue Ethics for Robots

Autonomous automated systems — machines capable of acting on their own for extended periods of time in complex environments — have been a major trope of science fiction for as long as the genre has existed. Over the last ten years or so, autonomous systems research has advanced dramatically, and it is generally recognized that autonomous automated systems will be common in warfare and everyday life (at least in wealthy countries) within the next ten years or so.

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Thoughts on FIRST

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act is the current biannual funding authorization bill for the NSF, one of the major science funding agencies in the US. (If you’re already familiar with the bill, feel free to skip down a bit.) The current draft of the bill has been strongly condemned by some prominent representatives of the scientific community: John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, criticized the bill last week, as did the National Science Board, the body that oversees the NSF. Writers at the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post have criticized the draft bill; the latter uses the (empirically flawed) “Republican war on science” framing.

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Is the Finnish Model Irrelevant to North America?

Like many professional educators, I’m a fan of the Finnish education system, especially its emphases on recognizing the autonomy of teachers as highly-trained professionals, an egalitarian distribution of educational resources, and inquiry-based learning. This system not only aligns with my view of the aims and purposes of education, but it’s also made put Finland at or near the top of many international educational comparison lists.

In a post yesterday, the conservative writer Rod Dreher discussed some of the things that he likes about the Finnish system. But he’s not so optimistic about applying this model to North America:

I suspect that a truth not too many people are eager to consider is that the Finnish education model works so well because they are teaching Finns. I’m not making a racial/genetic claim here; I’m making a cultural one. Finland is small, ethnically homogeneous and culturally uniform. Places like that tend to have a degree of social capital (e.g., trust, solidarity) that more diverse countries and polities do not have. More importantly, not knowing a thing about Finland, I am pretty sure that there are other qualities of the Finnish character that make a big difference on education policy and success — qualities that prevent the Finnish model from being successfully exported to most countries.

This actually dovetails with a point in philosophy of science that I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ll make that point first, then come back to Dreher’s objection.

The concept is called relevance, and it’s been developed by philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright (follow that link to her recent book with Jeremy Hardie, written for a broad audience). To illustrate relevance, consider a very familiar causal claim: if I turn the key in the ignition, my car will start. This causal claim will be true in many situations. But in some situations it won’t — if the battery has been disconnected, for example, or the starter is dead, or the car is totally out of gas. Cartwright calls these other requirements — a connected and charged battery, working alternator and starter, gas in the tank, and so on — support factors for the causal claim. If these support factors are missing, the causal claim will fail; but when they are present the causal claim will hold.

As a prediction, the causal claim is relevant to other situations with the support factors: we can predict with confidence that, given the support factors, if I turn the key in the ignition, the car will start. But it’s not relevant to other situations, where a totally different set of support factors is in play. Suppose we’re talking about an electric car. It has batteries, but no starter, alternator, or gas tank. The batteries need to be full, but the other things are irrelevant. And the electric car has other support factors that need to be working correctly in order for it to start when I turn the key in the ignition.

Because of the difference in support factors, we can’t take a complex causal claim (if support factors X, Y, and Z are in place, and I do C, then E will happen) and apply it directly to a very different kind of situation (where the support factors would be T, U, V instead of X, Y, Z). The causal claim is only relevant to situations with the same support factors.

Okay, back to Dreher. It’s easy to believe that the Finnish model works thanks to a set of support factors. Dreher’s speculating that at least some of these support factors are tied to the fact that “Finland is small, ethnically homogeneous and culturally uniform” and that such countries “have a [high] degree of social capital.” The US and Canada are larger than Finland (Canada about 6x, the US about 55x), and much more ethnically and culturally diverse. If these are differences that make a difference — if they mean that some crucial support factors are absent or different in Canada and the US — then the causal claim “adopting the Finnish model will improve educational outcomes” will be false or irrelevant here, even as it’s true in Finland.

But are these differences really important to whether the Finnish model would work here? More precisely, what exactly are the support factors for the Finnish model?

We should note that, despite his confidence, Dreher’s concerns are speculative and sketchy. He’s guessing that cultural differences could make a difference, and he hasn’t explained how they could make a difference.

Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg, an internationally prominent advocate of the Finnish model, has raised some concerns about exporting the model to the US. Like Dreher’s concerns, Sahlberg’s concerns can be understood as concerns about missing support factors. But Sahlberg, unlike Dreher, is more specific, and he discusses several mechanisms that connect these support factors to educational outcomes:

  • Equal distribution of educational resources
  • Universal access to “childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school”
  • Universal access to education “from preschool to university”
  • "[A] strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities"
  • High standards of teacher education, including a research-based master’s degree requirement
  • And, most relevant to Dreher’s concerns: “education is viewed primarily as a public effort serving a public purpose. As a consequence, education reforms in Finland are judged more in terms of how equitable the system is for different learners.”

Let me conclude with an optimistic reading and a pessimistic reading. Assuming Sahlberg is right, then the Finnish model could work here only if it’s accompanied by a suite of structural changes — equal and universal access to education and health care, a radical overhaul to teacher training, and similar. But those things seem entirely doable. In the US, we’ve recently made a giant step towards universal healthcare, and we already have universal elementary and secondary education. We’ve taken a giant step away from universal university education in the last few decades, but in principle that could be reversed. Likewise, in principle we could overhaul our teacher training. And things look somewhat better in Canada, especially in more consistently egalitarian provinces.

Pessimistically, Sahlberg’s last point suggests a deep cultural difference between Finland, on the one hand, and the US and Canada, on the other. Sahlberg seems to be saying that Finland is coherently egalitarian-communitarian; while Anglophone North America is sharply split between egalitarian-communitarians and hierarchical-individualists. Because of this, Finns can generally agree on the nature and purpose of an educational system, and have designed and implemented a system that effectively realizes that purpose. In Anglophone North America, by contrast, egalitarian-communitarians and hierarchical-individualists will not be able to agree on the nature and purpose of an educational system, and the result is our the incoherent and middling systems.

Notes for an Ethics of Community Interventions

Last week, in response to the Ludlow affair — the most recent in a string of high-profile cases of sexual harassment/assault in academic philosophy — students at Northwestern planned a walk-out of his class. Brian Leiter, a philosopher at the University of Chicago who runs a highly-read blog on academic philosophy, called this action "vigilante justice" and told an anonymous grad student who defended the action that s/he is "a danger to a university community, to the rule of law, and to the freedom of thought." He also leveled similarly strong words against Rachel McKinnon, who publicly defended both the action of the Northwestern students and the anonymous grad student. Facebook, Twitter, and various philosophy blogs all erupted with heated “discussion” (that’s a euphemism) of Leiter’s comments and the situation as a whole. Terms like "lynch mob," "witch hunt," and "reign of terror" were used.

Late in January, the progressive magazine The Nation published "Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars," which aired concerns about a culture of “perpetual outrage and hair-trigger offense” in online feminism. It discussed, as a major example, the controversy over the #Femfuture report and the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag. The piece itself prompted a heated “discussion” (again, a euphemism) about whether or not online feminism really is “toxic” and self-destructive or whether this is just the way in which privileged professional white feminists perceive a community in which impoverished and working-class women of color enjoy significant clout.

For many, many reasons, I cannot act as a referee in either of these controversies. What I am interested in here is the general social practice of mass criticism — “calling out,” shaming, ostracizing, or ridiculing a (perceived) wrongdoer — especially when it takes place outside of established formal institutions and uses emerging media (blogs, Twitter). One of the issues raised by the two controversies is whether this practice is ethical. Calling the practice “vigilante justice” or “toxic” implies that it is not. But it seems clear to me that in some cases it can be — civil rights marches, union picket lines, and petition campaigns are the same kind of practice, just done without early twenty-first century media.

First we need a neutral term to name this kind of practice. Rachel McKinnon suggested “community intervention,” and I think that’s about right. It seems to cover everything from petition campaigns to civil rights marches to publicly shaming a wrongdoer online. It also does not imply that all instances of this practice are ethical or unethical. My question, then, is: What are the conditions for an ethical community intervention?

More precisely: I assume we have some wrongdoer (an individual or collective agent). I assume that the wrongdoer has, in fact, done something harmful, bad, wrong, or vicious, at least by the standards of the community. The wrongdoer might be a member of the community (at least, before the intervention), or might be an outsider. The community is relatively un-organized, though I assume it has a few individual members who have significant de facto influence over some significant parts of the community; I call these individuals community leaders. The intervention might involve denunciations, criticism, shaming, petitions, protests, and so on. Taken together, are these actions ethical, that is, are they helpful or harmful, good or bad, right or wrong, virtuous or vicious?

I don’t think previous attempts to think about this question have been successful, in large part because of the language that’s been used. “Vigilante justice” and “mob mental” prejudice things from the start. Very general concepts like “academic freedom,” “due process,” and “freedom of speech” seem to me to be too general to be useful. Some specific concepts that are brought in, like “bullying,” have vague or subjective criteria of application (it’s not clear exactly when someone’s a bully), and so might be used prejudicially.

I think we need to start with an account of what kind of action the intervention is. It seems to be a collective action — one individual cannot carry out a community intervention. It also seems to be goal-oriented, that is, it has some aims or purposes. I suggest that one aim of many community interventions is to punish the wrongdoer. I don’t assume that all community interventions have this aim, or even that every individual involved in a given community intervention would think of it as having this aim. The aim might be direct punishment — the community intervention, itself, punishes the wrongdoer — or it might be indirect punishment — the community intervention gets institutional authorities to punish the wrongdoer.

Again, I’m going to assume that the wrongdoer did indeed do the deed in action, that this action was wrong, and that everyone recognizes both of these things. Those assumptions might be false in a particular case. Indeed, in both of the examples above, it’s controversial who the wrongdoers are. So we shouldn’t pass these issues by too lightly when we actually use this framework.

Political philosophers have developed several different theories of punishment, which support several different ways of thinking about whether punishment is being carried out ethically. Christopher Wellman gives us a nice overview of several prominent theories: The purpose of punishment is, variously,

  1. retribution: Justice requires that people get what they deserve, and wrongdoers deserve punishment.
  2. utilitarian: Punishment brings about the best consequences for the greatest number of people, e.g., through deterrence.
  3. security: The purpose of punishment is to maintain the security and stability of the social system.
  4. moral education: “The purpose of punishment is to morally educate offenders so that they (and others) will know better than to behave criminally.”
  5. symbolic: “Punishment is a conventional device for the expression of attitudes of resentment and indignation, and of judgments of disapproval and reprobation.”
  6. restitution: To correct the harm that the victim has suffered, either directly (returning stolen property to them) or indirectly (compensating them financially) or symbolically (“publicly confirming that the victim has a moral standing that the criminal was wrong to disrespect”).
  7. safety-valve: Punishment is “a safe, institutionally controlled release of destructive animosity and violent ill will.”

These theories are usually taken to be rivals. For example, someone will defend the utilitarian theory and criticize the symbolic theory. But I want to understand them as complementary. Each theory discusses one aspect of punishment, one thing that many punishments (and institutionalized systems of punishment) are trying to do. Punishments do not necessarily have to try to do all of these (that would probably be inconsistent). Instead, a given act of punishment will be trying to do some of them. By identifying which ones, we can clarify the purposes of the punishment, and then ask whether we’re pursuing those purposes and indeed whether we should be pursuing them at all in this a particular case.

All together, here’s the idea: Taking a community intervention as a punishment, we start by asking what kind of punishment it’s supposed to be. Is it meant to get retribution against the wrongdoer? Maybe provide moral education for the community, or perhaps even the broader population? With this purpose in mind, we can use the issues and questions that I’ve listed below to consider whether the community intervention is ethical and, if not, how the community leaders might steer the community back on track.

  1. retribution: Is the punishment proportionate to desert, that is, no less, but also no more, than the wrongdoer deserves? Is the punishment specific to the wrongdoer’s actions? For example, is it focused on the specific vices that the offender exhibited?

  2. utilitarian: How reliably can we make predictions about the consequences of the punishment? What consequences do we predict? Are they the best possible consequences?

  3. security: This aim assumes that the social system should be secure and stable. Often community interventions are responses to particular injustices that are symptoms of broader, structural injustices. So, structurally speaking, are there tensions between security and stability? Whose security has been violated by the offense? Whose security, if anyone’s, will be violated by the punishment? In what ways?

  4. moral education: What, exactly, is the behavior we’re trying to educate people about? How will this education work? Can we make reasonable predictions about whether it will succeed?

  5. symbolic: I take it that many community interventions are aiming at this. What, exactly, is the attitude or judgment to be expressed? Will the members of the community be satisfied by merely expressing attitudes and judgments? What will the wrongdoer and other members of the community do with those expressions?

  6. restitution: Who, exactly, has been wronged, and how? How will the community intervention restore the victim? What does the victim think of these efforts?

  7. safety-valve: Community interventions, by their nature, have limited institutional self-control. What institutional controls, if any, are in place? What, if anything, is there to prevent individuals from, for example, physically attacking the wrongdoer? How will community leaders respond if this kind of thing happens?

I want to stress, again, that I’m not claiming that any of the community interventions discussed at the top of the post are either unethical or ethical. So I’m not offering answers to any of these questions about those particular interventions. I also don’t claim that the questions I’ve listed are all of the questions that should be asked. And notice that I haven’t told you what the “right” and “wrong” answers will be to these questions.

In short, these notes are not determinate judgments or a fixed set of principles, but rather a place to start deliberation.

Are there other aims for community interventions that I’ve overlooked? Other questions that we should ask relevant to the ones I’ve listed? What do you think?

Forthcoming in Synthese: A New Direction for Science and Values

I’m happy to announce that a paper of mine has been accepted for publication by the journal Synthese. A preprint is available on my page.

Abstract: The controversy over the old ideal of “value-free science” has cooled significantly over the past decade. Many philosophers of science now agree that even ethical and political values may play a substantial role in all aspects of scientific inquiry. Consequently, in the last few years, work in science and values has become more specific: Which values may influence science, and in which ways? Or, how do we distinguish illegitimate from illegitimate kinds of influence? In this paper, I argue that this problem requires philosophers of science to take a new direction. I present two case studies in the influence of values on scientific inquiry: feminist values in archaeology and commercial values in pharmaceutical research. I offer a preliminary assessment of these cases, that the influence of values was legitimate in the feminist case, but not in the pharmaceutical case. I then turn to three major approaches to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate influences of values, including the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic values and Heather Douglas’ distinction between direct and indirect roles for values. I argue that none of these three approaches gives an adequate analysis of the two cases. In the concluding section, I briefly sketch my own approach, which draws more heavily on ethics than the others, and is more promising as a solution to the current problem. This is the new direction in which I think science and values should move.

Is Motivated Reasoning Bad Reasoning? III

Productive Disagreement among Motivated Reasoners

This is part III of a three-part series. This series will be posted simultaneously on Je Fais, Donc Je Suis, my personal blog, as well as the Rotman Institute Blog.

In part I of this series, I discussed motivated reasoning, reasoning in which emotions or values play a significant role. I looked at the work of Dan Kahan, which suggests that motivated reasoning is pervasive. This, in turn, suggested the gloomy thought that bad reasoning is pervasive. But, in part II, I argued that motivated reasoning is not necessarily bad reasoning. To make this case, I looked at two models of motivated reasoning (or, values in science) from STS scholar Daniel Sarewitz and philosopher of science Heather Douglas.

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Is Motivated Reasoning Bad Reasoning? II

Alternatives to Antagonism: Ambiguity and Uncertainty

This is part II of a three-part series. This series will be posted simultaneously on Je Fais, Donc Je Suis, my personal blog, as well as the Rotman Institute Blog.

In the first part of this post, I discussed the work of social psychologist Dan Kahan on motivated reasoning. As he defines it, motivated reasoning is “the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” According to what I called the antagonistic picture, motivated reasoning is bad reasoning; it leads us to have false or unjustified beliefs. And Kahan’s work shows that motivated reasoning is pervasive; specifically, I discussed some work that shows that high science literacy and numeracy seems to exacerbate, not remove, motivated reasoning.

All together, this leads us to a gloomy conclusion. But, in this post, I’ll argue that things aren’t necessarily so gloomy. Specifically, I’ll argue that motivated reasoning isn’t necessarily bad reasoning. I’ll do this by first thinking a bit more about why we expected high science literacy and numeracy to lead to agreement, then introducing two models of motivated reasoning, one from STS scholar Daniel Sarewitz and one from philosopher of science Heather Douglas.1

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Is Motivated Reasoning Bad Reasoning? I

The Pervasiveness of Motivated Reasoning

This is part I of a three-part series. This series will be posted simultaneously on Je Fais, Donc Je Suis, my personal blog, as well as the Rotman Institute Blog.

Social and political values predict your views on climate change: if you’re an egalitarian-communitarian (think: liberal, on the political left), chances are you think humans are responsible for climate change; if you’re a hierarchical-individualist (think: conservative, on the political right), chances are you think climate change is a natural phenomenon, or isn’t happening at all.

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