Archive for the ‘research’ Category

While empirical philosophy is usually undertaken using thought experiments which test our intuitions, every now and then a study pops up which gos a little further to test moral actions. Here’s one that examines
The research, Governing the Subjects and Spaces of Ethical Consumption, is one of the projects undertaken by the Cultures of Consumption, and it has generated several papers. Among the results:

Ethical consumption campaigning is most effective in transforming policies and infrastructures of collective provision, rather than changing individual behaviour through the provision of information.

The authors have a new study which examines how this means that ethical consumption is more about political commitments than it is about economic decision-making. As a result,

They also found that people generally don’t lack information which would assist ethical choices. They know about sweatshops, Fair Trade coffee, and organic food. Instead, the problem is one of enabling ethical choices: people either can’t afford ethical products, or don’t have access to shops that sell such things.

Their recommendation:

If ethical consumption campaigns are to succeed they need to transform the infrastructures of every day consumption rather than focusing on changing individual consumer behaviour. (press release)

To sum this up – consumer demand for ethical products is difficult to create because people don’t want to bear the cost of ethical choices, but groups of citizens will do the right thing if political action makes it easier for people to act on their knowledge.

This type of empirical philosophy is particularly nice because it is prescriptive, insofar as it tells us what we can do to assist ethical practices. Getting to the political tipping point where it becomes possible to motivate collective action, however, is another problem entirely.

With this study in mind, pop over and read a timely post by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann that bears a great deal on this research program: “Situation” Trumps “Disposition”.

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Today at ScienceBlogs there are a few posts of interest to science writers:

The Daily Transcript’s post, History and analysis of scientific publishing, comments on a interesting book with an overly long title, In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow: Librarians, Research Scientists, Publishers, and the Control of Scientific Publishing.

Recent posts to Adventures in Ethics and Science discuss science writing.

That first post refers to an old paper with an inflammatory title:

  • P. B. Medawar, Is the scientific paper fraudulent? Yes; it misrepresents scientific thought, Saturday Review, 1 August 1964, pp. 42-43.

The analysis of Medawar’s paper involves some fun philosophy of science – mostly Hemple and Popper on induction and inductivism. Medawar makes a great deal of the way scientific papers represent orthodox norms about scientific thinking, but I doubt researchers think scientific papers are supposed to convey norms of scientific deliberation. Still, I can’t help but think that papers representing scientific thinking would be a lot more fun to read, if only because they would break away from the structure involving:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion

My suspicion is that scientists use this as a crutch, like high school (and university) students who cling to the dreaded 5 paragraph essay because it gives direction without requiring too much thought.

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Here’s an article, just uploaded to SSRN, that I can’t resist promoting because it’s about moral intuitions and the law.

From the introduction:

In this research, we use traditional psychological methodologies to ask when laypeople consider breach to be immoral , which moral principles and moral heuristics they employ to make that judgment, and to what extent their moral reasoning (be it rational or faulty) affects their legal and financial decision-making.

Why should we read it? From the conclusion:

Empirical results like those we have presented here have bearing on practical legal matters, including bargaining during contract drafting as well as negotiations over the breach of a contract. These results may also bear on moral theories of breach of contract, as we identify some discontinuities and tensions between intuition and reason.

Great stuff.

  • Wilkinson-Ryan, Tess and Baron, Jonathan, “Moral Judgment and Moral Heuristics in Breach of Contract” (2006). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=930144

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One of the benefits of having an interdisciplinary education is that I sometimes see odd connections between research programs taking place in faculties that, for the most part, are unaware of one another.

Take, for example, the trends towards evidence-based meta-analyses in philosophy and legal studies. Both of these analyze normative decision making, and exhibit interdisciplinary flirtations with social psychology, cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics. So far, though, they haven’t so much as glanced at one other across a crowded faculty lounge, although their friends neuroethics and neurolaw seem to be cozying up to one another at the policy table.

Some enterprising researcher should play cupid, because their’s is a natural fit. Both commonly navigate complex questions of ethics, evidence and causation, and involve balancing the competing tensions argued by nuanced opposing views.

My suggestion is that empirically-minded philosophers should make use of the sources of data presently being mined by legal scholars. It’s all there in the recorded thoughts of judges whose decision-making over the course of centuries covers an astonishing range of important philosophical topics.

One example of how the law can tell philosophers something about normative decision-making can be found in the growing body of research that shows judges’ decisions are influenced by their own gender and that of the counsel before them.

In an interesting pair of statistical analyses, researchers looked at the American and Canadian Supreme Courts, and find <ahem> that old men really don’t care for women’s arguments. I’d say ‘Astonishing!’, but don’t know if I can marshal the requisite sarcasm – my naïveté knows no bounds, which is one reason why I find this research to be so important.

Unfortunately, only one of the papers is available at this time. Take a look, as my paraphrasing was a tad inflammatory.

From the abstract of the SCOTUS paper:

We find that [US] Supreme Court justices are less likely to support litigants represented by women. Our findings suggest that litigation teams that have a higher proportion of female attorneys are less likely to win before the Court. In addition, this bias appears to be highly conditional on judicial ideology. Conservative jurists are more likely than liberal jurists to vote against litigation teams with a higher proportion of women.

Whether or not this is implicit association in action, it’s the sort of thing that can lead to an uncomfortable question for firms expecting a case to go all the way to the top court: when counsel’s gender can harm a client’s case, do you toss ethics to the side and assign it to men instead of women? Asking that is almost as offensive as suggesting the study is evidence for a harm done to the law by women appearing before the court.

That’s a question that won’t be asked in Canada, where 4 of the 9 Supreme Court judges are women. Here, parties are more likely to win when they are represented by women.

Hat tips to the Empirical Legal Studies and Feminist Law Profs blogs. Other investigations related to this topic can be found here:

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It seems strange that it is the nature of the universe to put limits on our knowledge of it. Stranger still is the idea that science in the far future might be less effective than present-day science at giving us knowledge of the world.

That is the cost of living in a universe which undergoes large-scale changes. An unpleasant consequence of this is that astronomers in the distant future will be unable to replicate the observations which give us modern cosmology.

This is fodder for very good science fiction. Imagine what it would be like to be a researcher billions of years from now, when the observable universe does not include cosmic background radiation, and when galaxies beyond the Local Group have been red-shifted into invisibility. As far as cosmologists 100 billion years from now are concerned, all that exists is an ‘island universe’ – a local population of merging galaxies populating a static, otherwise empty space.

Dennis Overbye, writing for the New York Times, gives it an appropriate headline: The Universe, Expanding Beyond All Understanding. He is chronicling the work of Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer, who are about to publish their work in the The Journal of Relativity and Gravitation. (Hat tip to the Frontal Cortex for mention of the NYT article.)

The Times piece is a fun read, but don’t bother about the journal article if you don’t have a subscription. Instead, do what physicists do and check out the paper at arXiv (pronounced ‘archive’), which is like SSRN for the hard sciences. Any physicist worth their salt now self-archives using arXiv – Stephen Hawking has been doing it since 1992 – so it’s a safe guess that luminaries like Krauss and Scherrer do it too. And lo, here it is in all its open access glory…

Fie on thee, dinosaur publishers.

With that plug for OA out of the way, look to the following passage. It sums up the problem faced by future cosmologists:

[I]n a time comparable to the age of the longest lived stars, observers will not be able to perform any observation or experiment that infers either the existence of an expanding universe dominated by a cosmological constant, or that there was a hot Big Bang. Observers will be able to infer a finite age for their island universe, but beyond that cosmology will effectively be over. The static universe, with which cosmology at the turn of the last century began, will have returned with a vengeance.

Here is their conclusion:

[W]e live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe!

Around the world, scholars interested in the Anthropic Principle just perked up their ears.

This is a ‘rediscovery’ of sorts. There are two other papers which cover this type of analysis, although Krauss and Scherrer provide the most comprehensive short treatment.

(Both of these appear in Krauss and Scherrer’s bibliography, although it may take some searching. For reasons I don’t understand, physicists and some other science-types don’t think paper titles are important. This defies my intuitions about proper citation, but perhaps it’s just indicative of a disciplinary inability to write useful titles.)

The insight to be gained from this threatens our ideas of scientific progress. Even though science is commonly – and perhaps naively – seen as getting us closer and closer to the truth, we are confronted by the knowledge that the cosmological structure of the universe determines that the future state of scientific knowledge will be worse off than it is now.

Philosophers of science: How do your accounts of scientific progress deal with this problem?
Librarians: You might start thinking about how to store cosmological data for the next 100+ billion years. Acid free paper won’t cut it, so think big. Monumental even. You might need the help of archeologists.

No matter the record, it would doubtless be received with skepticism. Think of the amount of trust future scientists would need to possess if they were to take seriously any surviving arXiv records about the Big Bang, and how empiricists of the time would heap scorn upon them. This is tremendously unsettling, but I’m fascinated by the idea that in the distant future, the Big Bang theory would become akin to Intelligent Design – a theory contradicted by the best evidence.

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In two posts today, I have asked: Can neuroscience explain the appeals of mysticism? And lo, there was a review article in Science! How timely.

Sorry, a dinosaur publisher has locked it behind a subscription, but a modified version is available through a publication that needs a significant redesign (and RSS feeds): Why do some people resist science?

It points out that Americans’ resistance to evolution is specific to their culture, which allows childhood intuitions to lasted longer than their best-before date.

[R]esistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy.

This should sound familiar, though it doesn’t mention the category mistakes referred to in this paper…

For further reading, Chris at Mixing Memory has excellent and topical commentary in his post, Thinking About Evolution (Slight Reprise).

Hat tip goes to Corpus Callosum, who worries this research could be used to discredit science. I fail to see how, but perhaps I’m suffering from a poverty of the imagination.

Update: Denialism now has a post on this, and Pure Pedantry mines it for some criticisms.  Adventures in Ethics and Science offers a parent’s perspective.

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Hopping on the moral psychology press is this Washington Post article, If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. It leads with a short description of research on volunteers by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman that showed why generosity feels satisfying: it involves the same region of the brain which responds to sex and food.

Here’s their paper:

The Post’s story is a light survey of modern moral psychology, and includes interviews from Jean Decety (empathy), Antonio Damasio (moral decision-making), Adrian Raine (crime as mental illness), Joshua Greene (intuitions and biological origins of moral philosophy) and Marc Hauser (morality is innate like language).

It also does a decent job of stirring up the set of worries created by this research, and – like every other piece I’ve read in the press – doesn’t know where to go with them:

Psychopaths often feel no empathy or remorse. Without that awareness, people relying exclusively on reasoning seem to find it harder to sort their way through moral thickets. Does that mean they should be held to different standards of accountability?

Particularly nice is this quote from Cohen, who wrestles with how we should respond to learning about moral intuitions:

It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you.

Moral obligations about moral feelings. Wonderful.

More recent work on altruism can be found here…

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