Poppy phenomena 
I wrote this back in February, but saved it with the intention of honing it further. The examples, which had been on the whiteboard in my office, have now been replaced by some logical formula. So it must be time to post it.

In Patterns of Discovery, Norwood Russell Hanson provides a figure like this one:



He writes: "Normal retinas and cameras are impressed similarly by figure 1. Our visual sense-data will be the same too. [Yet...] Do we all see the same thing? Some will see a perspex cube viewed from below. Others will see it from above. Still others will see it as a kind of polygonally-cut gem. Some people see only criss-crossed lines in a plane. It may be seen as a block of ice, an aquarium, a wire frame for a kite-- or any number of other things."

Take a moment to look at the figure and see it in each of the ways Hanson suggests. Don't merely acknowledge that such a figure could be seen in such a way, but try to actually see it in each of the ways he lists. I want to make a point about the phenomenology, and it is no good for me to tell you what your phenomenology is like. (If your phenomenology fails to support the distinction I draw below, please mention this in the comments.)

When I switch between seeing it as a cube from above, a cube from below, a gem with only the center square jutting forward, or mere lines on a page, there is a shift. It is a kind of 'pop' as the figure changes aspect.* When I suppose that it is a cube seen from above and change what I imagine its composition to be, I experience no such change. I imagine it to be a block of ice, a glass box, or a wire frame with no change in my perception of it.

The contrast can be drawn out clearly by considering another case:



You will probably see this as just a square. Yet, it may be seen as a napkin, a handkerchief, a ceramic tile-- or any number of other things. Take a moment and run through these possibilities.

Although figure 2 might be seen in these different ways, the switch between them does not involve the pop that occurs when the faces of figure 1 shift perspective. Moreover, I cannot imagine any two ways of seeing figure 2 such that the shift between them causes such a pop.

Here is a trickier case, adapted from another of Hanson's examples:**



Take a look at this for a moment before reading on.

If you can make no sense of it, then it is just a jumble of lines. It is, however, a drawing of a tree trunk with a koala bear climbing on the other side. Perhaps there is a pop when one first sees the figure in this way. With just this interpretation in mind, however, I feel no pop when shifting back to seeing it as mere lines or back again to seeing it as a koala on a tree.

In order to get any pop out of figure 3, I need to think of it as something else. For example, I can see it as the cross section of a vertical tunnel which is lined with sharp gears. When I switch between this and the koala on the tree, I feel the pop.

Hanson overlooks this difference between the changes that pop and those that do not. Yet it seems like an important feature of observation that some differences are visceral and others more intellectual. Arguments from the theory-ladenness of perception often supposed that theory makes a popping, visceral difference in how the things show up to us. I do not know the current state of psychology, but I wonder whether the difference between the visceral and intellectual shifts indicates some different underlying mechanism or is merely epiphenomenal.


* It might be more precise to call this pop a 'gestalt switch.' A similar shift occurs when considering an inkblot. Someone describes a particular splodge as a dog, pointing to the head, the legs, and whatall else. If I merely entertain the possibility that it might be a dog, then it still just looks like a splodge of ink to me. If I see it as a dog, then it gets collected together in my perception of it.

** Thanks for John Styles for suggesting the revised version of the example.

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Minor ethical aspects of citation 
Spawning references is an important scholarly strategy:* Begin with a recent article or book on your topic of interest. Look at the list of works cited. Go look at those articles and books. Repeat until you know enough about the topic, you have a sufficient number of references, or you are too exhausted to think about it anymore.

The method only works if citations focus the subsequent search. It is stymied if authors do not cite one another, and also if authors cover their own vagueness and imprecision in an indiscriminate blizzard of citations. The latter is more common than the former in philosophy of science. In defense of a specific claim, an author cites a large book without so much as a range of pages. When I spawn the reference and cannot find the claim, perhaps it was somewhere else in the book. (Large and wide-ranging books like Philip Kitcher's Advancement of Science are typically cited in this imprecise way.)

It seems to me that responsible citation requires that (a) an author distinguish between those sources that are especially important, influential, and central and those that are peripheral; an author should cite the relevant literature, but not as an undifferentiated flurry. Further, that (b) an author should be as precise as possible when marshaling support for a specific claim or pointing to where an issue is further developed.

Minding these imperatives is a pain in the butt, but minding onerous demands is part of the job.**


* I was never explicitly taught it, though, so the monicker is my own concoction.

** As you might guess, this post was prompted by frustration with a specific text. Decorum restrains me from naming it.

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Dissonance, duplicity, or duplicity 
Greg links to an item in the New York Times about Marcus Ross, a guy who got a PhD in geosciences at the University of Rhode Island and now teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Although Ross discusses what the Earth was like millions of years ago in his thesis, he is a young-Earth creationist who believes that the entire material universe was assembled only a few thousand years ago.

The story explains:
Dr. Ross said [that] the methods and theories of paleontology are one "paradigm" for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, "that I am separating the different paradigms."
Ross is on thin ice here. The notion of a paradigm is notoriously slippery, but consider what it is supposed to be doing in a case like this: Kuhn characterized a paradigm as a way of seeing the world that cannot be directly proven. For example, Lavoisier (who discovered oxygen) just had a different way of going on than chemists who believed in phlogiston. The shift from one paradigm to another, Kuhn said us, is like a conversion experience. One simply begins to see the world in a whole different way.

Ross' situation is not like this. He did not write an old-Earth thesis and then see the young-Earth light on the road to Damascus. He wants to say that he lived in both paradigms all along. If a chemist had lived in both the oxygen and phlogiston paradigms, he would not really have been living in either; he would have been simply unsure what to say about combustion. Ross, rather, claims to be devout in his (young-Earth) faith. Talk of paradigms hardly makes sense of that.

Borrowing Wittgensteinian rather than Kuhnian jargon, we might instead say that Ross as participating off and on in two different language games. The language game of science calls for large numbers when talking about the age of the Earth. The language game of creationism calls for small numbers. Yet both games involve talking about 'years.' We can ask: Which language game uses that move in the same way that we use it when making calendars? That is, which uses it to mean years?

Just as Wittgenstein said that philosophers must be using "exists" in an extraordinary way when they argue about whether quotidian things really exist, either science or creationism must be using "years" in an extraordinary way. (Hint: Scientists mean "years" to be intervals of literal time.)

I cannot tell from the story what we ought to say about Ross. There are, I think, three possibilities.

First, cognitive dissonance: Ross goes some way toward believing the scientific account that he engaged in his thesis and some way toward believing creationism. These are inconsistent, and so his system of belief is a logical train wreck held in check by other psychological forces.

Second, perverse duplicity: Ross can talk like a scientist, just as an actor playing Hamlet can talk like the Prince of Denmark. He has some muddled notion of paradigms that makes him think that learning to play act in this way is worth doing. There have been more years in the life of the Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy.

Third, malicious duplicity: Ross thinks that the science which shows that the Earth is old is a terrible thing and needs to be taken down. He gets credibility for having earned a legitimate degree, and his subsequent pronouncements of young-Earthiness will carry more weight. This is would be a bit like members of Al Qaeda who volunteer to serve in the Iraqi security forces just so as to get access to uniforms and munitions.

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Too much is never enough 
The short version: Ratemyprofessor.com was recently acquired by MTV. This is something of which we academics should be aware, and perhaps it is a cause for concern.

The long version: I have known about the website ratemyprofessor.com for several years. Visitors to the site rate their professors for easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. They can also add brief comments.*

I have always considered the site a curiousity. I learn from the entry on me that, although I am a "loud dresser", I am "awesome." Who can argue with the accuracy of that?

Admittedly students want and can use this kind of information. Students do share information like this informally, but on a campus with over ten thousand students that kind of testimony is not always readily available. At UCSD, my grad alma mater, the Course and Professor Evalations are systematically summarized and made available to students. UAlbany does not do anything comparable.

Regardless, the information on ratemyprofessor suffers from serious sample selection problems. There is no reason to believe that the dozen students who have commented on me, for example, are anything like a representative sample of the hundreds of students that I have taught. My more senior colleagues have comments from people who admit they are commenting on a course they took more than a decade ago, and there is nothing to stop non-students from posting any sort of fabrication.

There is also a certain frivolous tone about it. In addition to rating courses for 'easiness', students can assign chili peppers to professors that they think are 'hot'. Beth Davison (also here and here) complains that this sexualizes the role of the professor. I can't imagine any students taking the chili peppers seriously, however, and informal gossip often does include that kind of information. Any professor who cared about their number of chili peppers would already be a bit messed up.**

Still, it would worrisome if an unrepresentative and deliberately somewhat frivolous resource came to play an important part in campus life. Last week it was announced that MTV has acquired ratemyprofessor. I do not think that it will serve as a beachhead from which MTV is able to conquer campus. I do, however, worry that MTV has no interest at all in having ratemyprofessor be a useful source of information. When there are already jibes about "sexualizing of the professorial environment", the entry of MTV onto the scene is hardly reassuring.



* Bill Sledzik, who welcomes MTV's acquisition of the site, says that it "works the same as Wikipedia." This is not quite right. Users of the Wikipedia can edit the contributions of other users, producing one aggregate document. Users of ratemyprofessor can only add an additional line to the professors rating. They can respond to other comments, and they do, but they cannot directly edit comments from other users. I address such fora in an old paper.

** My dismissiveness has nothing to do with the fact that I have zero chili peppers.

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Shiny new versions 
I recently posted a new draft of my induction paper. Having taught with forall x last term, I had the opportunity to catch some errors and infelicities. They have been exchanged for felicities, and the new version 1.21 is on-line.

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