Ye olde curiosity shoppe 
Yesterday, I put a draft paper about scientific significance on-line. It is directed largely at tensions in Philip Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy.

For anyone keeping count, this is the second time I've written a paper in part because of ideas that percolated here in the blog.

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A blurb worthy of a book jacket 
I just posted forall x version 1.23 [070512]

The update was prompted by a recent e-mail from Nathan Carter, a math prof at Bentley College. He began:
I used your textbook in a logic course I taught this past semester and found it very helpful. It is readable, clear, and addresses lots of essential issues without getting into more background than is needed. The students and I both thought so. Thanks for making it available free!
He went on to point out more than a dozen errors in the text. Most were inconsequential typos; others were consequential typos. All are now corrected, and Carter is added to the acknowledgements.


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The good bishop voted off the island 
I had my last real class meeting for 17th&18th Century Philosophy yesterday. I asked variants of my usual end-of-term questions:

Are there any of the authors we studied that you thought were insightful and valuable to read now, in the 21st century?

Are there any of the authors we studied that you think are just relics, mere historical curiosities with nothing insightful to offer?

Students were allowed to list as many or as few philosophers in each column as they wanted, and they were allowed to leave philosophers in the indeterminate middle. After having students write down their answers, I took a show of hands. Out of 25 total students, here are the results:

yay boo
Descartes 10 7
Locke 9 2
Berkeley 7 9
Hume 15 0
Kant 11 4

I was a bit surprised. I would have guessed that some students would have been turned off by the anti-religious parts of Hume's Enquiry, and classes in the past have found Berkeley's arguments intriguing (if not convincing).

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My sayings 
Brian Leiter links to a cheeky column by Jonathan Wolff that begins in this way:
Several philosophers claim to have had the following conversation on long-haul flights: "And what line of work are you in?" "Me? I'm a philosopher." "Oh, really? And what are some of your sayings?"
Wolff notes that many philosophers are reluctant to talk about the profession with the hoi polloi. He thinks this is because self identifying as a philosopher is necessarily presumptuous, as if you were to tell the person in the seat next to you that you were a wise man or a guru.

I don't remember ever having been asked for some of my sayings, but it is a softball question. It invites a glib, goofy answer.

I was recently asked a question, my response to which undercuts Wolff's modesty hypotheses. My wife and I are buying our first house. At the home inspection I am distracted by a thousand things, none of them philosophical. I mention my profession to the inspector as we entered. As he is finishing up, he makes small talk by asking who I think is the best contemporary philosopher.

This is a tough question. I have no ready answer for it. Moreover, it is not clear whether he means to be asking about the philosopher who is most exalted in the profession, the one whose work I find to be the most advanced, or the one he should seek out were he to go looking for some philosophical reading. It is not even clear that he is determinately asking about any of these.

At that moment, however, my mind is filled with house thoughts. None of those distinctions come clearly or quickly enough to mind that I can ask him to clarify. I parry the question by asking, "Am I allowed to count my own work?" Fortunately, he laughs. Was this a successful jest, or did it just make me sound like a jerk?

Maybe I should have a stock reply to that question, because I have been asked it before. And maybe I should have a few sayings ready for the long-haul flights.

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The third degree 
I've heard several reports about Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT, who resigned last week after it was revealed that she had lied about her academic history.

Twenty-eight years ago, when she got a low-level administrative job at MIT, Jones said that she had a several degrees from Albany-area institutions. In fact, she had no such degrees. In the years that followed, she rose through the ranks of the administration. The degrees were not prerequisites for her first job, and her promotions were no doubt based on her job performance. Should she have lost her job over this?

Jones' situation reminds me of Quincy Troupe's. Troupe was professor at UCSD and California Poet Laureate, when it was revealed in 2002 that he had lied about his academic history. When he applied for a tenure-track position at the College of Staten Island in 1976, Troupe said he had an undergraduate degree. In fact he had no advanced degree whatsoever. Following the revelation, Troupe stepped down as poet laureate and ultimately left UCSD.

It may seem as if these two cases are symmetrical: Whatever fate was fitting for Troupe is fitting for Jones. (As it happened, both resigned but did so before any official sanction could be taken.)

I suppose I have a professional investment in that symmetry, insofar as my job depends on a genuine college degree counting for something. Lying about having one (one might argue) is like lying about having collateral when applying for a loan.

If this line of thinking suggests any asymmetry, it suggests that Troupe was a greater offender than Jones. He was not just an administrator. He was a professor who was supposed to have expertise that he could pass on to students. The legitimacy of a college degree depends both on its being authentic and on there being real education behind it. So (one might argue) sham professors are worse than sham administrators.

I think these suggestions are wrong-headed; I think Jones' sin was worse than Troupe's.

Some people argued, regarding Troupe, that it set an unacceptable example for students. If students saw that a professor had lied about his qualifications, then they would think that it must be OK to cheat on exams. (Although this sounds like a straw man, I actually heard people make this argument.) Students can surely understand that the two are essentially different. A real parallel would be a student lying about having met the prerequisites to take a course; if this were discovered after the term was nearly over, surely the student would not be kicked out of the class. If any lie at all undermines academic authority, then professors caught cheating on their taxes ought to be fired-- but that's just silly.

Since the lies were in applying for jobs, another parallel for a student might be a lie in applying for admission. That does seem like a more serious problem for Jones, since her job was in admissions. The example she sets seems more on point.

Worse: Jones recently wrote a book on preparing for college life. I have not read it, but reports indicate that integrity is a central theme. The NYTimes provides this choice passage: "Holding integrity is sometimes very hard to do because the temptation may be to cheat or cut corners. But just remember that 'what goes around comes around,' meaning that life has a funny way of giving back what you put out."

In short, Jones' having lied about her degrees undercuts central parts of her message. It puts the lie to much of what she has been saying.

As the literature faculty at UCSD were quick to point out, Troupe was not hired on account of an undergraduate degree. He was hired on account of his teaching and literary productivity. Was Troupe's poetry compromised?

Larry Hinman, among others, argued yes. As quoted in The Chronicle, Hinman insisted that the matter "touches on the heart of being a poet. What poets do is tell difficult truths. They tell them in a way that's unflinching. And he flinched about himself. He didn't look his own situation in the face and assess it." The article mentions that Hinman moderated a roundtable discussion on the subject.

As it happens, I attended that discussion. I found Larry's line of argument unconvincing. Suppose Robert Burns had a lied when he said that his luv was like a red red rose. It would make no difference at all to his stature as a poet. Great artists often have blind spots.

Since the roundtable was part of the research ethics discussion series, many were quick to make analogies with scientific misconduct. Falsifying data is a seriously bad thing. It is more akin to cheating on a test than to lying about a prerequisite or on an application. Indeed, I would have a dim view of Troupe if it turned out that his books about Miles Davis were largely fictional. But nobody (to my knowledge) has suggested that they were.

The important upshot of the asymmetry between these two cases is that the gravity of lying depends both on what the lie is about and on who is telling it. Obvious stuff.


The New York Times on the Jones case

The Chronicle article on the Troupe affair

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