Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 19:26 on 21-03-2014, Arthur B
XKCD gripe squad: ACTIVATE!

The thing which bugs me about this comic is that, if I'm reading it right (and it's sufficiently oblique that I admit that this is not necessarily the case), Randall thinks he's slapping down the trite "humans are driven by our need to understand shit" line by pointing out that we don't understand sleep - as though any genuinely curious person who applied themselves to the problem would solve it as a matter of course.

This completely glosses over the fact that a) there are people who actually do make a whole damn profession out of studying sleep and b) even people who don't often find dreams fascinating and would probably love to know why it is that we sleep in the first place.

Fuck, the third paragraph of the Wikipedia article on sleep goes "The purposes and mechanisms of sleep are only partially clear and the subject of substantial ongoing research." I dunno about you guys, but "substantial ongoing research" is a pretty glaring symptom of curiosity and a hunger for answers.

The other way I can read the comic is that it's a slam on coming up with trite commonalities between human beings in order to "define" us, but even then "we all sleep" isn't any sensible definition of humanity because it's a trait we share with all sorts of other creatures, whereas philosophical inquiry is not something we have yet observed outside of humanity.

Honestly, Diogenes pulled off this joke better when he showed Plato that plucked chicken.
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at 10:32 on 19-03-2014, Arthur B
Finally! I'm glad to see people are waking up to the threat of free retro-clone RPGs.
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at 21:32 on 15-03-2014, Kit
Aaaand I'm off to have nightmares about the first one. Kthxbye.
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at 16:47 on 15-03-2014, Arthur B
The guys behind Don't Hug Me I'm Scared have made another one and it's great.
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at 00:25 on 15-03-2014, Daniel F
I'm not very familiar with it, but do tell us more!


It's been a few years, but as I recall it really just boils down to 'the scientists and the philosophers are finally talking to each other'. The stereotype would be that the psychologists would all be off in their own rooms saying, 'Look, we're learning, we're making scientific progress, soon moral philosophy will be obsolete!', and the ethicists would be off in their rooms saying, 'Nah, they're just doing descriptive stuff, they can't have anything to contribute to us'.

(The former line is part of what made Harris' The Moral Landscape so infuriating, incidentally. Awful little book.)

Fortunately, over the last decade or so the gap seems to have been narrowing. Richard Joyce wrote a small paper on it a few years back. Shaun Nichols has written in response as well. Jonathan Haidt has jumped on the science bus as well, though in my opinion a bit more tenuously. There's a reasonable overview of the whole thing here.

I personally am very nervous of the triumphalism that I see in some of this literature - with the help of science we will finally solve this morality issue once and for all! - but there's definitely interesting work being done. It is an exciting time to be working in meta-ethics.
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at 23:05 on 14-03-2014, Kit
Nah, we're all metamodern now :) (or have never been modern in the first place, if you follow Bruno Latour)*

@Tamara: it's really strange, because, at least here in France, there are just tons of intersections between Marxism and those schools of thought that have been labeled, rightfully or not, postmodern/poststructuralist/French theory/deconstructionist (Badiou, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and so many others). I don't even know if it would occur to most people to see them as fundamentally incompatible - maybe also because it was such a fundamental component of the French philosophical landscape and education that fostered that particular generation of thinkers.

*or, according to Haraway, for example, postmodernity - defined as a historical era - is what happened around after WWII and climaxed in the 80s and 90s, and which we now should try to overcome already.
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at 22:00 on 14-03-2014, Michal
When I took my historiography class in grad school, I learned we've already entered post-post-modernist era. It's like post-cyberpunk, only more confusing.
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at 19:54 on 14-03-2014, Tamara
I feel like post-modernism is just woefully unknown to me. I was kind of in a Marxist cult for a while and I study geography now, which also tends towards Marxism a little (there's some history i've mostly forgotten about sociology and economics and more obvious places where academia gets political stamping it out and it toodling on quietly through in geography instead. Plus, it's harder to be blithely un-materialist in geography) so I have it coded pretty hard in my head that postmodernism is essentially the root of all evil, but I don't even know how to approach doing more objective research.
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at 16:55 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
Not that scientist don't step out with less than convincing results.

Richard Dawkins is a living example of this.
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at 16:53 on 14-03-2014, Kit
But happily you do learn to fake it better. :D

I hope I will! For now, I feel like studying has consistently, with each class and seminar and book and paper, widened the scope of everything I do not yet know (that's a good thing, I guess, if quite dauting at times). Study they said, you'll learn things they said, write a thesis and feel accomplished they said...
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at 16:12 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
The point of the Sokal Hoax wasn't to embarrass the peer review process, it was specifically to see if the editors of Social Affairs would bother to ask probing questions of the paper in the absence of a peer review process.

Ah. Point taken. It does limit the Sokal affair's applicability somewhat, as you point out, but the phenomenon he criticized is surely an issue all the same.

Not that scientist don't step out with less than convincing results. Sam Harris's attempt at claiming that science can actually solve the issue of the naturalistic fallacy in The Moral Landscape comes to mind, which did receive its fair share of criticism on its handling of that particular ethical fly-trap. Or lack of handling, I suppose, I haven't actually read the book.
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at 16:00 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
Spoiler:
nobody with any reasonable level of self-knowledge ever feels Legitimate, no matter how qualified.

But happily you do learn to fake it better. :D
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at 15:25 on 14-03-2014, Kit
Surely the fact that your studies are interminable makes you a scholar already? ;)

Ah, dammit - I just spent a lot of time in a Japanese research institute, where they tend to use "scholar" in the sense of researcher or at least PhD student, and since English isn't my native language it tends to pick whatever local flavour it happens to come into contact with :) I meant that in the sense of Very Serious and Learned and Legitimate Professor (even though I'm slowly - and at last! - entering the space where studies and research start to blur into each other, I don't feel very Legitimate yet, and doubt I will ever be Learned)

Moral psychology is enjoying something of a renaissance along these lines, isn't it?

I'm not very familiar with it, but do tell us more!
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at 14:15 on 14-03-2014, Daniel F
That's what I'd like to do, and which most philosophers with a modicum of work ethics are already doing - some of them are trained in a particular scientific field (Stengers, Haraway, Barad), some go into laboratories, research sites, or do fieldwork (Traweek, Latour, Lestel), some collaborate with scientists, and so forth.


Moral psychology is enjoying something of a renaissance along these lines, isn't it?
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at 14:11 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
@Janne:
It might well be a mixture of both. Although, at least with the peer reviewing thing, Social Text didn't peer review anything, to encourage creativity, so at least in that respect Sokal's point doesn't stand.

I'm not making myself very clear: I knew and Sokal knew that there was no peer review at Social Affairs. In "waving through without peer review" the "without peer review" point was known - the issue is the waving through. Even non-peer reviewed journals have editors who have the responsibility of accepting or rejecting articles; in the case of non-peer reviewed journals, an even bigger responsibility falls on the editors precisely because they're the only ones seeing the papers before they get published.

The point of the Sokal Hoax wasn't to embarrass the peer review process, it was specifically to see if the editors of Social Affairs would bother to ask probing questions of the paper in the absence of a peer review process. (Arguably, this is a weakness of Sokal's point - spotlighting damaging competence gaps in a discipline's peer review community arguably being more significant than demonstrating the not-exactly-obscure premise that non-peer reviewed journals don't hold themselves to as high a standard as those which do have peer review.)

@Kit:
Well, that is, if I should one day manage to bring my interminable studies to a close and become a scholar myself.

Surely the fact that your studies are interminable makes you a scholar already? ;)
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at 13:54 on 14-03-2014, Kit
@Arthur B:
Collaborate with a sympathetic scientist, maybe? Or at least have someone to look over your paper once you've done it and point out any glaring traps you're wandering into.

That's what I'd like to do, and which most philosophers with a modicum of work ethics are already doing - some of them are trained in a particular scientific field (Stengers, Haraway, Barad), some go into laboratories, research sites, or do fieldwork (Traweek, Latour, Lestel), some collaborate with scientists, and so forth. There will of course always be people who will loftily expostulate about some half-baked idea they have about "science" in general, but I'd never dream of not trying to know as much as possible about a given topic, not checking my references and not actually trying my hand at it at least once. Well, that is, if I should one day manage to bring my interminable studies to a close and become a scholar myself.

This can be part of peer review, of course; it occurs to me that if people do want to write interdisciplinary academic papers, this screams out for similarly interdisciplinary peer review process.

Now you've got me wondering if there are any journals that have that kind of interdisciplinary review process. I'll have to check if I can find anything about some of the journals I occasionally read, because that would be awesome.

@Janne:
Seconding everything you said in your last post.
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at 13:48 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
@Arthur
Waving through the article without peer review was, at least according to Sokal and his supporters, an indication that the editors of Social Affairs either hadn't even bothered to read the article (because then they'd have seen it butchered their own discipline even if they didn't catch the ways in which it subverted science), or if they had read it they allowed their deference to and ignorance of science blind them to its deficiencies.

It might well be a mixture of both. Although, at least with the peer reviewing thing, Social Text didn't peer review anything, to encourage creativity, so at least in that respect Sokal's point doesn't stand. It might very well be that they didn't read the paper. Teaches them to trust tricky phycisists.

A thing to consider I think for inter-disclipinary research is to study some of the disciplines that are used by all sciences. Mathematics and especially statistics and how statistics are interpreted would be invaluable and would help the philosopher or arts scholar to better understand the research in the field, especially with some insider to guide them along. This should perhaps be of some interest to the arts faculties as well. They force philosophers back here to study formal logic, surely some maths added to the mix wouldn't be too bad, especially if one's interests laid in the philosophy of some science.
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at 13:23 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
@Kit:
I'm not saying philosophers should get a free pass and say whatever they like about a theory they once vaguely heard about (and the gratuitously sophisticated use of, for example, mathematical terms in psychoanalytic of philosophical papers would annoy me too), but there must be *some* way of allowing them to speak about science and its intersections with social and political qestions.

Collaborate with a sympathetic scientist, maybe? Or at least have someone to look over your paper once you've done it and point out any glaring traps you're wandering into.

This can be part of peer review, of course; it occurs to me that if people do want to write interdisciplinary academic papers, this screams out for similarly interdisciplinary peer review process.

@Janne:
As it is, he wrote a hoax to a journal who published it in good faith. Kind of like a physicist giving a guest lecture to a bunch of social scientists and then mocking them for not recognizing the lecture as nonsense.

I don't think the Sokal hoax was quite the same thing though; rather than showing up and giving a physics presentation with nonsense slipped in, Sokal offered up a paper which paid some lip service to science but spent most of its energy offering up a pseudophilosophical argument based on pseudoscientific premises, littered with references deliberately chosen to be familiar to the editors of Social Affairs and which would confirm their prejudices. So it's more like a physicist walking into a social sciences lecture theatre, presenting a mixture of real and fake science in the first 10 minutes, and then spending 50 minutes asserting stuff about the social sciences on the basis of that, and nobody calling them on it.

Except actually, it was meant as a test of "editorial laziness", so it isn't even like that: it's more like presenting the talk to a social sciences faculty boss and having the boss say "yes, I see nothing wrong with this, I'll book you in to talk to the department" without thinking through what's just been said. Waving through the article without peer review was, at least according to Sokal and his supporters, an indication that the editors of Social Affairs either hadn't even bothered to read the article (because then they'd have seen it butchered their own discipline even if they didn't catch the ways in which it subverted science), or if they had read it they allowed their deference to and ignorance of science blind them to its deficiencies.
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at 13:03 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
One disturbing aspect of this thing(and which has nothing to do Munroe, to be clear) from people who are not scientists, are the men's rights people, who quote-pick from Judith Butler for example, frame it as ridiculous and anti-science and anti-whatever. Then they generalize this to apply to feminism in general. And conclude that feminism is anti-science anti-whatever and that it should be aggressively opposed because Science says so. Which is sort of a reflection of the argument in the general world. It is very sad. Quite often it just seems that arts and sciences are actually having both talking about a different thing, or at least a different aspect of the same thing, but they do not share a language and can't understand each other.
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at 12:56 on 14-03-2014, Kit
People who tend to see science as a great cause appear to respond to post-modernism as to a heretic sect or something that is trying to usurp and cast down Science. Well, I may exaggerate, but the perspectives are frustratingly far apart at times.

Yeah, this frustrates me a lot too - as I said, poststructuralist philosophers are not trying to dismiss science or to hold up some sort of "aaah but if everything is constructed inside and by certain socio-economic contexts then nothing is true or everything is as true as everything else aaaah" relativism. Are they that scary?

I like Foucault myself a lot, but from a historian's point of view, his work's greatest contribution is the concepts and questions raised, since often he overreaches in his interpretations.

I agree with that. It is true that his concepts have survived better than his historical analyses per se...

The "discovery" that human institutions and many social phenomena are in many ways constructions and not deterministic natural laws is in many ways one of the greatest things done in the social sciences. It is a pity that the weak version of social constructivism is seen as such an obvious thing, while at the same time, people are blind to the constructs in their own lives and societies.

God, yes. Tell me about it.

I'm reminded of the Sokal's Intellectual Impostures (put out in the wake of the Sokal Hoax), which seems to be a gripe motivated mainly by philosophers latching onto scientific principles to construct metaphors which then don't actually make any sense because they didn't understand the principles they were borrowing in the first place.

And also a criticism, I believe, of what the two authors see as a kind of "absolute relativism" going on in postmodern thought. In a way, it exemplifies the sort of double bind contemporary philosophers are in (well, at least it's how studying philosophy often makes me feel): if they don't write about science, and technology, and whatever is considered serious and valuable (or value-producing), they get dismissed as rambling dreamers whose work is completely theoretical and worthless. But when they try to write about science, be it mathematics, physics, or primatology - trying to work as well as they can with a discipline in which they are interested, but which is not always originally their own - they do of course leave themselves wide open to criticism about accuracy. I'm not saying philosophers should get a free pass and say whatever they like about a theory they once vaguely heard about (and the gratuitously sophisticated use of, for example, mathematical terms in psychoanalytic of philosophical papers would annoy me too), but there must be *some* way of allowing them to speak about science and its intersections with social and political qestions.
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at 12:44 on 14-03-2014, Daniel F
In that light I would understand it, as just another front of the eternal war between arts faculties and science faculties. I remember writing in support of scientific anti-realism during my BA and the very idea just appals every science student I've ever met. Philosophy and science have a rocky relationship at the best of times: my experience is that both sides love to imagine that they're experts on the other, with embarrassingly ignorant results.

Randall Munroe is a mathematician, as I recall, so it makes sense that he would fit into that trajectory and be quite dismissive of less 'objective' fields. Not that I wish to overly stereotype students of science or mathematics, of course. My sense is that postmodernism is resented by more than just scientists, though, and at a somewhat higher level than just 'we wish you'd stop pretending you knew a damn thing about our field'. (I mean, ask a philosopher of mind about neuroscientists one day. Hell, ask a theologian about certain books.)

In the back of my mind is the thought that postmodernism isn't just subjective and arts-y and apropriating-of-science: it's also very counter-intuitive. So it's easy for laypeople to think the whole enterprise is nonsense. Going around questioning things assumed to be common sense is a good way to make people grumpy, and ridicule is an easy response.
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at 12:34 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
Yeah. The Sokal thing was an interesting one and honestly, it is a problem, when people get inter-disciplinary without the required knowledge and understanding. But in Social Affairs defense, the fact that they had no peer-review process was widely known, it was not a paper that focused on physics and Sokal was an established physicists, whom the editors decided to trust to give their readers a view from a scientist. So perhaps the point Sokal was trying to make would have been clearer, if he had tried to publish his article in a post modern journal that actually was peer-reviewed and seen what would have happened. As it is, he wrote a hoax to a journal who published it in good faith. Kind of like a physicist giving a guest lecture to a bunch of social scientists and then mocking them for not recognizing the lecture as nonsense.

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at 12:06 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
I'm reminded of Sokal's Intellectual Impostures (put out in the wake of the Sokal Hoax), which seems to be a gripe motivated mainly by philosophers latching onto scientific principles to construct metaphors which then don't actually make any sense because they didn't understand the principles they were borrowing in the first place.
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