Working retail 
I've been thinking about the distinction between retail and wholesale arguments in philosophy of science. A retail argument is about a specific theory, specific kinds of entity, or a specific practice. A wholesale argument promises a conclusion about all or most of science. Wholesale arguments are often stated in more modest terms; for example, the conclusion might be about all the theories in mature sciences. However, such modest authors typically slip back into talking about science simpliciter over the course of an essay.

Suppose one studied 1000 specific cases, and the retail arguments led to a realist victory in 900 of them and an antirealist victory in 100. One might then be tempted to say that most of the other cases will turn out realist as well. Roughly, we should expect 90% of cases to be victories for the realist.* This is what Arthur Fine calls piecemeal realism. It generates a wholesale argument by generalizing over many retail arguments.

I am suspicious of wholesale arguments, but that suspicion is threatened here. If retail arguments can be successful, then we might consider them for a great many different cases. And then we might generalize.

However, the generalization would only be justified if (a) the cases involved formed a homogenous reference class and (b) the cases studied were representative.** Neither of these assumptions is likely to be true.

a. Positing entities serves different functions, and scientific posits are of different kinds. Even if belief is merited in 90% of the posits studied, there is no reason to expect that belief will be merited in 90% of the posits in mature sciences generally. The factors that make the difference between realism and antirealism are more fine-grained than that.

b. Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science select cases to study based on their own background, on what research material is available, and on what they hope to establish in their enquiry. One might make out general trends based on cases studies, but one will not be able to draw any precise statistical conclusions.

If most retail arguments did favor realism, then of course we would form the expectation of the next retail argument that it would favor realism. But we will never be secure enough in this expectation that we could do without the retail argument entirely and rest on a probability that realism wins in the unexplored cases.


* Nothing that I say here requires that realism be the 9/10th victor. Everything should still hold mutatis mutandis if the preponderance of cases went antirealist.

** One also needs to assume that scientific cases comprise a well-defined sample space. There might be reasons to be dubious of this, too.

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Ruminations on type 
Carefully deployed fonts and typefaces can add clarity and precision to a manuscript, but it makes is unclear what to do when presenting the same material in lecture.

In forall x, I differentiate bits of the object language from metavariables by writing the former in roman letters and the latter in script letters. As it's typeset in the book, the 'x' in the title of the book is a metavariable. This week in Intro Logic I lectured on the definitions of satisfaction and truth. Although I explain the difference between object language and metalanguage elements, I have a hard time differentiating my letters when I write on the chalk board. My block As are distinct from my script As, but other letters tend to be ambiguous. Of course, there is no difference at all when talk out loud about As and Bs.

In a recent paper, I distinguish objects from concepts by writing the former normally and the latter in all caps. The title ('What SPECIES can teach us about THEORY') plays on this convention. Tomorrow I am going to present the paper at the Creighton Club, and there is really no way to mark this distinction in speech.

These conventions are fairly standard, and I used them because I think they help to clarify somewhat subtle differences. They work because they are not really essential. If someone reads forall x and skips the explanation of why some expressions are in Chancery and others are in Computer Modern, I don't think the difference is distracting. It underscores a distinction, but it can be transparent to readers who are attending to the content.

Contrivances like these become problematic when they are distracting or when they are the only indication of crucial distinctions. To take a non-scholarly example, many webcomics typeset dialogue in different fonts for different characters. Some authors pick fonts that are more decorative then readable. Some use it as an excuse not to connect speech bubbles clearly to speakers. If a reader can only figure out the dialogue by looking at the font, then the typsetting is no longer an effective way of emphasizing certain information; it has become the sole means of conveying that information.

Similar points might be made about italics in scholarly papers. They can be effective for emphasis, but they are not substitute for actually saying something. Depending on the typesetting and the quality of the copy, a reader might not even notice careful and clever italics. Continental italics, obtained by extended letter s p a c i n g, are especially easy to miss.

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Glib remarks about taking things seriously 
Andre Kukla* insists,
surely we must agree to the following principle: if there is some chance that we will have to take a claim seriously in the future, then we already have to take it seriously now, albeit perhaps not as seriously.
This principle is offered without argument, and Kukla seems to suppose that it is intuitively obvious. I have been at this long enough that my intuitions might be idiosynchratic, so I asked students. Some found it congenial and others were hostile, none thought that it was an uncontentious principle to which we must agree.

Consider two scenarios:

1. Thomas is a hacker who believes he lives in New York and not in a computer simulation. As such, he does not think that it is possible for anyone to perform anti-gravity kung fu. If Thomas were liberated from a computer simulation and introduced to a team of robot-fighting misfits, however, he would take the possibility of anti-gravity kung fu seriously. Therefore (by Kukla's principle) we must take the possibility of anti-gravity kung fu at least a little bit seriously.

2. Peter is a college student who believes in ordinary physics and does not think that a human body could exert the proportional strength of a spider without tearing apart. If he were bitten by a radioactive spider and gained stranger powers, however, he would take that possibility seriously. So (by Kukla's principle) we must take the possibility of spider powers at least a little bit seriously.

Enumerating scenarios of this kind is child's play. Perhaps they are a reductio of Kukla's principle. Or perhaps they show how science fiction and comic book fandom perform a service to the scientific community: Taking exotic claims a little bit seriously.

Of course, these conclusions require an uncharitable reading of what "some chance" means in the principle. I began this post thinking that I had a good deal more to say, how the principle comes out given various senses of possibility. I also planned to discuss a principle that Kyle Stanford appeals to at key moments, which is rather similar to Kukla's. However, I am now stymied by this: Is there any difference between the possibility that we will have to take a claim seriously in the future and the possibility that the claim might be true?


* 'Does Every Theory Have Empirically Equivalent Rivals?', Erkenntnis, 44:2. mar 1996, p. 150.

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Yammering on about brevity 
In a recent discussion with Mark about paper lengths, I claimed that my papers tended to be pretty short. My general inclination: Brevity.

Curious as to whether this claim is actually true, I dropped all of my papers onto latexcount. Since the files are not precisely the published versions, I've rounded off the numbers. To give it an air of authority, figures are in 1000s of words expressed with two significant digits. For full titles, see my cv.

8.2 Reid's defense... (forthcoming)
7.8 Realist ennui...* (2005)
6.9 Is there an elephant...* (2007)
6.5 Reckoning the shape... (2005)
5.9 Distributed cognition... (2007)
5.1 Williamson on knowledge...* (2003)
4.6 Background theories... (2005)
4.4 Peirce... (2005)
4.2 The price of insisting... (2004)
3.9 Success, truth... (2003)
3.3 Un... Identical Rivals (2003)
2.7 Whats new... (2006)
2.6 Hormone research... (2005)
1.7 Reid's dilemma... (2004)

My most recent paper is my heretofore longest, but I'm not sure that's part of a trend. My coauthored papers (marked with asterisks) are three of my six longest.

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Imprint, offprint, inprint 
My Reid paper has been accepted to one of my favorite journals, Philosophers' Imprint. I'll post a link once the final paper appears. For now, you get these ruminations on electronic journals:

On-line academic journals are an obvious idea. The primary value in academic publication is peer review, and article referees are not paid for their time. Academic writers aren't paid, either. So you'd think that producing a journal would not be such an expensive proposition.

Moreover, academics are well served if their papers are as widely read as possible. If the article can be viewed on-line by anyone in the world, it is apt to get more readers than if it only exists in physical issues of a narrowly-distributed journal. Advocates of open access have argued that, when research is publicly funded, authors have an obligation to distribute their results more broadly. Perhaps this applies to my work, too, since I am a state employee and research is part of what I do as my job.

Regardless, on-line journals have typically encountered several difficulties.

First, there are conventions for citing print journals with pages and issue numbers. Web pages are not so bibliography friendly. This problem can be overcome: Items must be given canonical and persistent URLs. Papers must have some structure that allows specific passages to be referenced. And so on.

Second, many on-line journals are erratic. Especially in the early days of the web, people began online journals with webspace but no clear sense of the resources required. A journal requires time and institutional organization. Many have fallen behind when it's been harder to put out monthly or quarterly content than the founders expected.

Third, on-line journals are often not up to the quality standards of print journals. The ease of putting it together amplifies this; it may be tempting to have a special issue with papers from a conference, for example, and then put them up even when they aren't really up to snuff-- it's not like anyone's paying to print it. If a journal isn't sent enough good submissions, then the editor is faced with the choice of either not publishing (amplifying the second problem) or printing submissions that wouldn't otherwise see print.

Of course, these latter two problems also arise for print journals. Philosophy of Science recently fell more than a year behind its publishing schedule, for example; but they have started to catch up, and the papers are up to their usual standards. There is a fourth problem that arises especially for on-line journals: the stigma attached to new media.

It seems to me that Philosophers' Imprint has done a brilliant job of mitigating all of these problems: When they accept a paper, they publish it at a permanent URL as a nicely formatted PDF. See, for example, John Norton's really clever paper on causation. This solves the first problem.

Imprint has no predefined schedule and does not bundle papers together. As a result, it neither waits for a whole issue's worth of papers to accumulate nor rushes to meet expectations of periodic publication. If they don't get a submission that meets their standards, they don't print anything; but they can print as many quality submissions as they receive. This avoids the second and third problems by actually taking advantage of ways that publishing on the web is different than traditional publishing.

The fourth problem is trickier. Imprint has a prestigious editorial board. They publish some really good stuff. But some people will consider it prejudiciously.

I was recently discussing this issue with Nate, who asked how long it would be before compound phrases like electronic journal lost the electronic prefix. Most of us typically access even old-school journals on-line. Scholars in many fields rarely if ever look at hardcopy issues. I have discovered that the department cannot reimburse me for photocopies I might make in the library, but I can use the library's webpage to request PDF scans of anything I might want. Once this has been the case for a while, there will be no real difference between Philosophers' Imprint and any other journal-- except that Imprint won't have a redundant, dead-tree backup in the stacks of some distant building.

Milestone

This is post 100 here at FOE, and somewhere in the middle is word 45,000.


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