Feminist philsci 
Last week I sat in on a meeting of a feminist philosophy course taught by my colleague Kristen Hessler. She was doing a unit on feminist philosophy of science and invited me to say a bit about how it relates to philosophy of science generally.

It occurred to me that feminist philosophy of science was a considerable influence on me. I got started writing about underdetermination when I was in grad school by thinking about Helen Longino's work. That ended up being the topic of my dissertation and many of my early papers.

Here are two other related thoughts: one about the significance of 1980s and 90s feminist philosophy of science, and another about two strands in the literature on values and science.

1. I hypothesize that feminist philosophy of science in the 1990s was crucial for subsequent literature that takes seriously the entanglement of science and values. Philosophers often presumed a value-free conception, especially in the Science Wars waged against relativist sociologists and others. Feminist philosophy of science modelled an alternative -- a way to recognize values in science without wild relativism.

There was not really a "values and science" literature in the 1990s the way that there is now. My guess is that this has been possible in part because of the initial wedge provided by feminist philosophy of science.

2. The literature in the 21st century has gone in two directions.

Literature in feminist philosophy of science has articulated ways in which specific sciences involve thick evaluative concepts, can change our conception of what is good, and so on. As these cases have been elaborated, the entanglement with values doesn't depend on some general argument which applies to all science (like underdetermination) but instead on details about particular cases. So this literature has narrowed insofar as it only applies clearly to specific cases, mostly in human and biological sciences. It is not clear how gender is entangled with (e.g.) astronomy.

There is also an active literature on values in science which is not explicitly feminist. For example, Heather Douglas argues that values always play an indirect role in theory choice. That is, adopting a theory reflects not just the evidence but also an assessment of the costs of possible errors and the benefits of possible accurate judgments. Another example: Justin Biddle and Eric Winsberg on climate science, who argue that current science is path-dependent. It reflects not just the evidence but also which prior enquiries were conducted and in which order. So value-laden choices about what to study and when effect the outcome of enquiries now.

Note that these latter considerations are, in one sense, broader than those raised by feminists. They apply to pretty much all science -- to astronomy as much as to biology and human sciences.

In another sense, they are narrower. Feminist philosophers of science argue against any limitation on what values may influence science. For the indirect role of values, it's only assessments about costs of various errors. For path-dependence, it's only past judgements about what ought to be done.

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Illicit repost about covers 
Last week, Rob Loftis was musing about covers over on Facebook:
If there's a song that sucks, but then someone comes along and does a cover of it that rules, does that mean that the song didn't really ever suck to begin with?

Have I violated a norm by cutting and pasting this comment into a blog post? Facebook is only a semi-public space. I can link to his comment, but it shows up as not available right now if you're not logged in and if you don't occupy a point close enough to Loftis in Facebook-space. This ambiguous publicity irks me about a lot of conversations on the internet: What we would have said in the comments section of a blog five years ago now gets said as a comment in somebody's Facebook feed. The Facebook algorithm might cough it up five years from now to say "Remember this!", but you've got little chance of finding it again if you just go looking and no chance if you do a general search.

In any case, I followed up with a comment about some of the literature on cover songs. The answer to his question is that it depends. Sometimes your reaction to the original version was an unfair condemnation of the song, sometimes the later cover is great despite the song being terrible, and sometimes the cover is transformative and creates an awesome new song that's a descendant of the crummy old one.

In any case, Rob looked at the paper and left this comment:
You mention that recorded mimic covers are rare because they don't really serve a purpose, but I can think of two kinds of exceptions to that. Sometimes movie producers will actually record a mimic cover because it is cheaper than licencing the original. Also, you sometimes see hastily done mimic covers on iTunes trying to capitalize on people who search for a song, but don't know the name of the original artist, and might wind up downloading the wrong track.

Cool examples. They're kind of odd cases though, and so I take them as friendly adjustments to our claim that mimic covers aren't usually recorded.

Someone else in the comments on Rob's post mentions the Onion AV Club Undercover, which had somehow escaped my attention. It's been going on for six years.

They Might Be Giants do a brilliant cover of Tubthumping that brings in all the Onion office staff.

The Polyphonic Spree does a cover of Neil Young's Heart of Gold that tampered with my memory of the original. It made me uncertain as to there were horns in Neil Young's version, because they fit so well into the song.

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Engineering 'sexual orientation' 
I just read Robin Dembroff's paper What Is Sexual Orientation?, recently published in Philosopher's Imprint. Dembroff approaches their title question as a matter of engineering. Rather than trying to unpack our folk concept or find the natural kind that is closest to our common conception, they want to craft a concept of sexual orientation that will allow us to do things.[1]

I meant to write a short post, but stage-setting for the small point ended up being more words than I'd at first had in mind. This is the first blog post in a while that has spiralled out of control.
Read More...

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Special issues 
If this blog platform had a more fluid system for tagging, there'd be a category for Synthese scandal. The journal has recently been tarnished (again) by egregious problems with a special issue. The philosophy blogosphere lit up with it a week or two ago. If you missed it, the post at Daily Nous covers the essentials.

Unlike earlier debacles, however, the editors have responded to this in a responsible way before the petitions were drawn up and boycotts were organized. They've made a public apology for the mess. They have announced a moratorium on future special issues so that they can take a serious look at the process, although issues already underway will go forward. Well done!

I have a paper on natural kinds forthcoming in a special issue of Synthese. As I blogged earlier, they refereed it thoroughly.

On reflection, I think it is important for there to be reputable journals which publish special issues of conference papers. It seems to me that the alternatives are (a) that conference papers not be published at all or (b) that they be published as stand-alone volumes. Not publishing at all would be a shame. The Paris symposium where I presented my paper brought together several of us doing related work on natural kinds, and it makes sense for the work we presented to appear together somewhere. And stand-along volumes are often only carried by a few libraries, so the papers don't get widely read. Having the papers appear in Synthese at least gives them a chance at readership.

There is a the third option, (c) that the papers would simply be made freely available from an on-line archive. This would be optimal, I think, although the authors might not feel an impetus to edit and complete their contributions. Conditional on closed-access journals being a thing that we still do, special issues of journal are valuable.

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Nine again, fine again, jiggety jig? 
There's news that there may be a ninth planet after all. It is posited by Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin to explain the skewed orbits of otherwise inexplicable dwarf planets like Sedna, out beyond the Kuiper Belt. Several such objects have orbits skewed off in the same direction, and modelling suggests that this wouldn't occur without some massive thing skewing them.

Regardless of what you might think about the vexed word "planet", this is exciting. And it underscores that there is scientific value to thinking about the class of things which gravitationally dominate their orbit in a solar system. Whether we use the word "planet" to label that class, it's a natural kind and we need some word for it.

It's also worth mentioning that this might just be a mistaken conjecture. The posited object needs to be spotted with a telescope and observed for a while.

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