Thursday procrastination 
I get some of my best work done at coffee shops, and today I am at Professor Java's trying to catch up on a thousand things. I was briefly chatting with another patron, and it came out that I teach philosophy. He fondly recalled philosophy classes from back in undergrad. It introduced him to a different way of thinking, he said, which has helped him some in his work as a copywriter. Another patron overheard this conversation and introduced himself. Although he did not credit philosophy with helping in his work as an executive counsellor, he fondly recalled philosophy courses from his undergrad days.*

The first guy wishes he had majored in philosophy. Perhaps he should have taken more philosophy; he probably would have enjoyed himself and perhaps he would have learned something. Yet there is no reason that he should have gotten a major in philosophy as a credential. He seems to have done well by himself, and he has a job that he enjoys.

If I taught nursing or engineering, then I could in good conscience hope that all of my students with the ability to do so would go on to be nurses or engineers. The simple fact is that society does not need as many professional philosophers as it needs professional nurses or engineers. In terms of numbers, graduate programs already overproduce philosophy PhDs.

Philosophy classes only makes sense if they are good for people who will do some philosophy as undergrads and go on to do something else with their lives. Philosophy is not a practical subject that only prepares people to do philosophy. It can entice people to think about things that they would not think about otherwise. It can introduce them to a different way of thinking. It can be fun. It will perhaps pique someone's interest, so that they read some philosophy later-- but probably not.

A BA in philosophy is only useful as a credential for grad school, law school, or in a place where any BA would do-- but a BA in philosophy is not primarily a credential. The real value of majoring in philosophy is that it means having done some philosophy. That is why I think that teaching philosophy is worthwhile.


* Today was a good day. Other strangers feel the need to tell me about the one especially bad philosophy course that they took back in the day. Others just provide stares of blank incomprehension.

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Style and substance 
Common wisdom among educators is that there are different learning styles: Some students are visual learners and learn best by seeing. Others are auditory learners and learn best by hearing. When I was a grad student, the woman leading the TA orientation went so far as to distinguish between tactile and kinesthetic learners.

Discussion over at Bad Science has me wondering whether there is any basis for this common wisdom. It is sometimes the case that-- on a given afternoon-- a given student will understand a passage better if they have it in front of them as I read it aloud. The claim that there are learning styles is stronger than this, however. It is the claim that this visual learner will (almost) always do better looking at the passage.

There are probably studies which show that some people have better comprehension if they read a passage and others have better comprehension if the passage is read aloud to them. OK, but why think that this difference represents a persistent character difference rather than a difference on the afternoon that the subject was in the lab? I suspect that few if any studies track students for extended periods of time.

I have no idea what kind of data could suggest that someone is a tactile learner. It is not as if we can compare a student's comprehension when she reads a passage with their comprehension when she fondles it. (This passage was... hard. The other one was crinkly.)

I confess that I have not looked at the literature to see if the evidence is more convincing than this. It is late at night, this is a blog, and that gives me some license to mouth off.

The distinction between different learning styles usually accompanies a recommendation for teachers to present information in different ways. That is good advice even if students do not have persistent learning styles across time. Presenting things in different ways makes it less likely that there will be a systematic misunderstanding, and more likely that students will understand what it is I'm yammering about.

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It should have been called the 'negatron' 
A propos of Owen Chamberlain's death, the New York Times describes his work in the 50s to experimentally demonstrate the existence of the anti-proton. The story contains this somewhat cryptic passage:
But as a sort of mirror-image of the proton... [the anti-proton] captured the imaginations of physicists, who had already begun envisioning antimatter particles as routine counterparts of their more familiar twins. Scientists began asking things like why the universe ended up being made almost entirely of matter rather than antimatter, a question that has not yet been resolved.

Scientists from the mirror-universe responded: "Oh, but your universe is made up mostly of anti-matter. That is why we never come to visit."

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RCRambling 
I was thinking about something in the neighborhood of research ethics and thought that I should make a short blog post about it. I realized that the point I had in mind depended on a bunch of context, so I wrote the following screed:

Several years ago, I worked on The Responsible Conduct of Research with Mike Kalichman. (RCR is a euphemism for research ethics, with the caveat that it never recommends violating official regulations.) My duties were largely editorial. Mike had written a book that he wanted cut apart and restructured as material for a website.

In addition to discussing rules and official regulations, each topic contains separate sections for Principles and Guidelines. The Principles are middle level ethical claims about the domain (eg, Authorship). The Guidelines are more specific, raising issues relevant to specific kinds of decisions within the domain.

I do not recall how much of this was Mike's original framework and how much was my contribution, but I think that this was the structure of some sections but not others when I started work. In fleshing out the framework, I had to formulate principles for every topic. Moreover, I had to write explanatory justifications for each principle.

These justifications proceeded along three familiar lines: (1) Don't cause suffering. (2) Respect people. (3) Try to generate knowledge and dispel ignorance.

If I had written the Ethics page for the RCR website, I would have made these higher principles explicit. They can be elaborated in the usual way. One feature of them that I rather like is that they correspond to the Peircean categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.

A defense of the higher principles is beyond the scope of most discussions of RCR. It is philosophers' business, important if we want to justify the principles-- and any such business can embrangle us in details and difficulties from which we might never emerge.

For some purposes, it may be essential to revisit the ethical underpinnings of the principles. For example: (1) is often taken to include the suffering of animals, but (2) may or may not include respect for animals. Why? And what about fetuses? What about animal fetuses? Plants and spores?

One strategy is to show that many differing ethical theories can agree on the principle even when they disagree on its justification. Failing that, if each interlocutor accepts them for their own private reasons, then we can take them as more-or-less given. This makes applied ethics tractable without waiting for the more abstract questions to be resolved.

The RCR website breaks this down further, by suggesting that the higher level principles overdetermine some lower level principles. The lower level principles provide common ground even if there is disagreement as to exactly how they should be justified. Intermediate levels may be introduced as much as required, incrementally moving from abstract considerations down to brass tacks.

The Ethics page was written by Mary Devereaux, after I left the project. She lists something like the three principles I had in mind and adds a fourth, calling for "A commitment to the use of scientific knowledge and its applications to promote the social good." This is not a consequence of the principles I had in mind, and I am not sure it belongs on the list. Several reasons: The first three are directly relevant to how one should conduct oneself once involved in a research project; this other principle comes into play only when considering what job to take or-- if one is in a position of authority-- which research projects to pursue. The first three clearly make demands on any scientist; the fourth may be supererogatory. (Is it? Maybe.) There is no Peircean Fourthness; a fortiori there can be no fourth principle.

Nevertheless, the fourth principle seems like an important thing for scientists to think about. It belongs on some list, somewhere in the neighborhood of RCR.

(Having finished the screed, I've lost track of the original point.)

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Today I have a blog 
Footnotes on Epicycles received its first piece of comment spam today. I guess that makes it an official blog. Now I just need to stop posting for a month and return only to post an apology for not posting.

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