On-line course post mortem 
I just finished teaching my Understanding Science course as a four-week on-line course. My goal was to figure out what's involved in on-line teaching.

The level of student engagement in the course resulted from an alchemy of summertime, the on-line context, and the compression of a semester of material into four weeks. Since this was my first time both for teaching on-line and for teaching during the summer, I can't entirely separate these. There were students who had trouble logging on because they were traveling, however, and of course they simply couldn't have been traveling if the course had met face-to-face every day. Still and all, we covered almost as much material as I cover in a regular semester, and it all went pretty well.

I had an end of course survey which asked my usual questions: Which modules were indispensable, such that I should definitely include them next time? Which modules should I jettison in favor of something else?

For each prompt, I let them check as few or as many items as they pleased.

The results were somewhat surprising.

The module with the most up votes was Who counts as a scientist? (+15 to -1) I have them read about AIDS science in the 1980s, when activists disrupted drug trials, and I ask them to consider who were the experts in that situation. It's a topic I added to the face-to-face course a few years ago almost as an afterthought. A surprise hit.

The modules on gender and science also got a large number of up votes. We talked about underrepresentation of women in science (+13 to -0), the problem of invisibility (+12 to -0), and ways in which thinking about gender can change the content of science itself (+11 to -0). I was worried that some students might act as chauvinist trolls in the discussion forums, but that didn't happen. The discussions were some of the best in the whole course.

Two topics had as many down votes as up votes (+5 to -5). In both cases, I think it was because people didn't like the reading. For the module on scientific observation, they read Trevor Pinch's analysis of experiments to detect solar neutrinos. The science is somewhat abstruse. For the module on causal inference, they read Stephen Jay Gould on the history of IQ testing. It's history, so the text is just longer than most of the other readings.

Both of those topics are important, and students seemed to understand them after doing the work. So the down votes for each don't make me think I should cut them from the course.

Although the net vote was in favor, there were actually more down votes for the chapter of Mill's On Liberty (+8 to -6). As a surprising contrast, they were of one mind about Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" (+10 to -0).

In general, students did a good job of engaging and discussing the material by scientists, historians, and sociologists. They had more trouble with the articles written by philosophers. I think that this is because reading philosophy is a distinct skill.

Scientists, historians, and sociologists tend either to present facts or argue for some conclusion. Those two voices are pretty easy to distinguish, and both involve advocacy for a claim that the author thinks the reader ought to believe.

Contrawise, philosophers don't just state a thesis and explain it. Instead, they state a thesis, make an argument for it, consider objections to their argument, provide rebuttals to the objections, and so on. The objections are things they write but don't ultimately mean to endorse. The rebuttals are things they write but only care about with respect to the objections. Sorting all that out is hard work.

What I do in a face-to-face class is try to help students sort it out, to help them navigate the text. I'm not sure what to offer as a substitute for that on-line.

I turned in grades today, so I can set it down for a while. But there were enough points at which I thought "Oh, I know what I should do next time" that I'm sure I'll teach this on-line again.

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Kind of published 
My paper Kind of Borrowed, Kind of Blue has been accepted at the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. It's a philosophical reflection on the 2014 note-for-note remake of "Kind of Blue" by the combo Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

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Pluto pictures prompt ponderous posturing 
The New Horizons probe has just passed by Pluto, providing the more detailed pictures of it than we've ever had. People are excited about it, because it's cool.

Predictably, however, it's also been an occasion for whinging about the word "planet". The New Horizons team wants to talk up Pluto as a planet.

They are happy to play it up for a reporter. Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, complains that the IAU definition is "rather unscientific", that it's "trying to legislate what is and isn't a planet -- to keep the numbers small." His idea, I think, is that the discovery of Eris and other Kuiper belt objects revealed that there were too many planets to make up a countable list for school children. He raises some of the usual objections against the orbit-clearing criterion which figures in the official definition of "planet".

My view on this is that the 2006 decision to regiment the word "planet" in a way that excluded Pluto made the word track a natural kind. There's a broader natural kind which includes the planets, Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and a great many other round solar satellites. Astronomers could have made "planet" pick out that broader category, at the cost of reclassifying the asteroid Ceres. Either way, folk use of the term was going to take some bruising. (I deal elsewhere with the usual objections.)

The New Horizons team has some professional investment in the status of Pluto, of course. And their focus on studying Pluto also means that they are focused on phenomena which make the broader natural kind more salient for them. But it misrepresents the way that scientific language works to pretend that there was only one scientific thing for the IAU to do.

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Trouble in d-cog land 
Matt Brown has a short article on d-cog at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. It's something between a critical notice and a blog post, I guess.

Brown's aim, narrowly, is to engage Ron Giere's claim that distributed cognition counts as cognitive in virtue of having individual doxastic states among its outputs. His argument, by way of Wilfred Sellars and Paul Churchland, is to argue that the model of individual doxastic states itself elides all the material and social distribution that necessarily contribute to doxastic states.

In my own work, I've argued for a thin conception of d-cog according to which "an activity is d-cog if (1) the task is such that it would count as cognition if it were carried out entirely in a single mind or brain, and (2) the process by which the task is carried out is not enclosed within the boundary of a single organism."

Brown's argument seems to open up this objection to my conception: Belief and knowledge are never and could never be entirely in a single mind or brain. As such, it seems false that they would "would count as cognition if... carried out entirely in a single mind or brain". At best, it's undefined as to whether they would.

I find both my own conception and Brown's argument plausible. I'm not sure how to resolve this.

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Janet at Forbes 
Janet Stemwedel is now a contributor at Forbes on topics of ethics and the social structure of science.

Janet started her blog "Adventures in Ethics and Science" back in 2005. It moved to the professional Science Blogs network and then to Scientopia. Her blog "Doing Good Science" ran at Scientific American until they changed the editorial vision for their blog network at the end of last year.

2005 was an auspicious year to begin a philosophy blog. *ahem* And her previous blogs had cool banners.

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