Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wednesday, May 2: "Where have all the women gone?" Live discusson and web simulcast

The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life presents

A live discussion with web simulcast.

"Where Have All The Women Gone?
Social Accounts of Science and the Need for Women Scientists."

A presentation and discussion led by
Carla Fehr
Visiting Fellow, Institute for Philosophy in Public Life
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Iowa State University

Wednesday, March 2, 6:00 p.m.
UND Bookstore (formerly Barnes & Noble)
771 Hamline Street, Grand Forks, ND
Free parking is available on site.

Or,  watch the discussion live and chat with other viewers, at


Since the 1970’s, the number of women earning doctorates has tripled but the number of women full-time professors has only increased by half that; women are especially underrepresented in science and engineering. Traditionally, philosophers might claim this isn’t a problem: the knower isn’t as important as the knowledge itself. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the scientist is a man or a woman; all that matters is the knowledge he or she produces. In this discussion, Fehr will challenge this claim, examining the assertion that science is a social practice, and that objectivity is dependent on the people and practices of diverse communities of scientists.

For more information, contact or go to

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Can you make someone an alcoholic?

My five-year old daughter came home from preschool and went straight to our attic office to play with her Polly Pockets. After she was up there for a while, I turned to my wife and said "Pink Floyd's The Wall is playing on the computer" (audio, not video)."Do you think it will ruin her life?" It was the imagery and tone rather than the cursing that worried me (see my previous post on that issue), but my wife didn't seem concerned at all. Her glib response: "I don't think so. Is she high?"

But then my wife told me about a blog post in which a mother talks about letting her toddlers take a sip of wine as part of the Friday Night Jewish shabbat service. Before Friday night dinner, Jews all over the world welcome the sabbath by saying a small handful of prayers, one of which thanks God for "the fruit of the vine." A cup is then passed around so that everyone at the table can have a sip. Lots of people let their kids do it, but you would think from some of the responses that the mother was injecting heroin directly into her daughter's veins. Here are two examples: 

"As a pediatric nurse practitioner my advice to any parent would be the same – do not condone or encourage the use of alcohol, even under the guise of it being part of a religious practice. Any professional dealing with children would say the same."


"Where will you go next year and a year after. Will sips lead to glasses as they will understandably expect? Next will you let them get a “taste” of sex with you so that they “learn the effects of it at home”.

The commenters are claiming that letting kids sip wine will lead directly to alcoholism. The solution, they are arguing, is to teach the kids self restraint and to tell them that they are never supposed to touch alcohol. Ever. Finally, there is an analogy between the destructive consequences of alcoholism and sexual activity (incest, actually), and sex experimentation is also suggested to be a very bad thing.

Now, the philosopher will ask what magical thing happens at eighteen (or twenty-one) that makes these activities okay when they weren't the day before. And, to be fair, if one is to be consistent with Jewish practice, the appropriate age for drinking the shabbat wine probably ought to be thirteen since that is when children become "adults" in the religious community and ought to engage fully in the sabbath ritual. (Adult here means being held responsible for one's own sins and being considered a full member of the prayer community. I am not suggesting that thirteen-year olds have reached the age of sexual consent.) But the question of the age of adulthood is less interesting to me than asking whether the mother in question is, indeed, "making" her children alcoholics.

The argument for this position is obvious: if children aren't taught the dangers of alcohol then it may consume their lives. As one of the commenters remarked, her kids aren't learning self-restraint. However, the argument against the position is more powerful. First, it seems to me that learning to take only one sip of wine instead of drinking all one wants is a much more effective means for teaching self-restraint. Second, there is a great deal of room between abstinence and addiction. Being a moderate wine drinker is, many studies suggest, quite healthy (albeit, not for two-year olds). Third, alcoholism is not a matter of being weak willed. It is not the case that all substance abusers are simply lacking self-restraint. Addiction is a disease, and genetics play a significant role in its power. Add to this the fact that (as far as we know) the mother is not herself modeling addictive behavior, and it is particularly difficult to show that these actions cause problem drinking.

The problem of causation is notoriously complicated -- it is very difficult if not impossible to know whether one thing actually causes another. Famously, David Hume argued that causation itself could never be observed. Nevertheless, we still have to ask about the consequences of our behavior, and substance abuse is such a destructive force, that it behooves the parent to consider what they're teaching their kids. The commenters are coming from a noble place. They are thinking of the children.

There is, however, a very powerful argument that the commenters would have to respond to before I was convinced that a single sip of wine leads to alcohol abuse. It seems to me that demystifying alcohol is probably very healthy. Kids are much more interested in that which is forbidden and if healthy drinking is made to be a part of meals rather than binges, if it is made a family activity rather than a nightclub sport, if it is something that kids can communicate about rather than hide from their parents, then such kids will grow up much less likely to be alcoholics than the kids who drink too much with their friends and hide it from their parents.

I am, as always, curious as to your thoughts and, in particular, to what my readers who are parents think about this debate. As for me, I'm going to have some wine. This discussion made me thirsty.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New IPPL/Why? Radio Website -- with complete archives

The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life and Why? Radio are pleased to announce their newly redesigned website. 

We invite you all to visit and explore, and to listen to all the past episodes of Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life.

We also invite you to listen to our latest episode “In A Different Voice and After” with our guest, psychologist, feminist, and philosopher Carol Gilligan. It is fun, interesting, challenging, and a unique insight into Gilligan’s own thoughts about how her work has been represented and misrepresented over the years.

And for a direct link to Carol Gilligan’s episode of Why?, please click here:

Please note that some of the original URLs have changed, and long time visitors may have to reset their browser bookmarks.

Thank you all for your continued interest and support! We welcome any and all feedback.

PQED, the IPPL/Why? Blog:

We recommend those in the North Dakota region follow IPPL feeds to get notice of local live events, and that and others follow WHY? feed to learn about events accessible worldwide.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

When is it acceptable to use profanity?

 Please be warned that this post contains adult language. I am well aware that my warning readers about its content does, kind of, beg the question I am asking. But so does the post itself. This is a mainstream blog and it's going to include obscenities. How do you talk about whether you can talk about something without mentioning the thing you're supposed to talk about? Should I just use vague terms like "profanity" or should I rely on phrases like "the f-word." Alas, this a different problem. Those who are offended by profanity, be warned. One use is about to come up.

It is common knowledge that the song "Fuck You" was nominated for a Grammy (it didn't win). It's a great song and a great video, although I warn you that it's catchy and will stick in your head for hours. A related video has gone viral: a college student doing her final exam in a sign-language class. This too, I think, is worth watching and I shared it on Facebook. Here it is:

Now, I knew that there would be some people who would object to my complimenting the video and one person did indeed post this comment to my link:

"I don't like it. I was a teacher of the the hearing impaired at U of Mn and I don't think vulgarity should be part of a class test like this. Especially when it serves no purpose other than shock value."

I am struck by two aspects of this comment. The first is that the author of the comment seems to suggest that the impropriety is more connected to the teaching of the hearing impaired, although I don't know that this is what she meant. Should folks with hearing problems not be taught to curse, or should they only curse with other hearing impaired people? Should the young lady in the video not be taught curses even if, one can assume, she has interest in communicating in sign language? Or, do we want her to learn her curses "on the street" and from friends? This is how I learned to curse in German. I did not learn obscenity from a textbook. It was effective.

But really, there is a deeper philosophical question: is it ever acceptable to mainstream obscenity? One might argue that our culture is so comfortable with cursing that it is not only entirely appropriate to use such words in a college classroom, but that it may be a central method for a teacher to "keep it real" and connect with his or her students. On the other hand, cursing is rude and teachers ought to model more formal behavior. Teachers and students are not friends and they are not peers. Perhaps this language is only suitable for those more equal relationships?

I admit that on occasion many college teachers curse in class for shock value. When I want to challenge relativism, I very often use the example of "raping babies" to get students to think about where they stand on ethical issues. This is shock value too. Should I not rely on such techniques? Is it the shock value or is it the cursing?

I'm curious what others think about this. Is obscenity so mainstream now that what the woman in the video is doing ought to be perfectly acceptable, or should she be criticized for being inappropriate? I'd be really curious to hear what she says about her performance now that it's gotten all this attention.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How does one deal with dumb arguments?

(This comic is from the amazing xkcd. It is called "Duty Calls.")

My wife informed me yesterday that she had just read “the stupidest letter to ever appear in the Grand Forks Herald.” (Which is, one must admit an impressive achievement). It reads as follows:

STRATHCONA, Minn. — There is a new documentary by Rick Stout called “Demographic Winter,” and Part II is called “Demographic Bomb.”

It’s well worth the viewing for those who think President Barack Obama’s health care plan — which is geared for more family planning and abortion funding — doesn’t hurt the economy.
In fact, the two go hand in hand: the higher the abortion and family planning rate in countries, the more likely those countries will be faced with problems in their economies due to no new workforce replacement as their populations are aging.

Stopping abortion and the massive funding of family planning is directly related to a healthy economy.
According to the new documentary, the alternative is a “demographic bomb,” which already has begun to explode in countries such as Japan, Russia and many European counties where there now are government incentives to repopulate. Source here.

Here is the author's argument summarized: planning when one wants to have a baby and when one doesn’t (through birth control or otherwise), combined with abortion, will lead to such a tremendous population drop that there will be no workers to replace the elderly. Obama’s health care plan is a disguised attempt to encourage pregnancy prevention and abortion, and as a result, it will cause the American economy to collapse.

For lack of a better word, this is dumb. First off, the new health care laws do a vast number of things ranging from raising the age of kids’ coverage on their parents plan (26) to removing the ceiling on insurance payments for chronic medical conditions. (Here is a useful site to clarify how the plan may affect you.) And while the plan may allow insurance companies to fund abortion if they choose, it does not encourage the procedure. One may be opposed to the plan because it might be wrong for government to get involved in health care funding, but that’s a whole different argument and one I’m not addressing here.

In fact, all of the above is actually irrelevant because the main problematic claim is that decreased populations are fatal to economic growth. This is just patently false. We know, of course, that the inverse is not true: the countries that are the worst off economically actually have the largest population growth; a large population does not mean economic success. We also know that limited family size is itself a result of economic prosperity. Economic security and predictability lead to smaller families and smaller families provide a great many economic opportunities for individuals and economies.  (Here is an informal but useful exchange about some of the issues, if you don't want to read the previous link.) And, incidentally, the amount of population reduction that would be required to do what the author suggests would have to be MASSIVE, perhaps catastrophic, to seriously effect replacement workers, and even if it did then (a) it would reduce unemployment along with it and (b) globalization would provide workers when needed.

Now, here’s the thing: if this letter were a comment in one of my classes, I would never call it dumb and I would use the opportunity to offer all of the information above to try to teach the student some basic economics. But the letter wasn't in my class and the letter isn’t really about the economy anyway. It's an anti-abortion, anti birth-control missive in disguise, and it is assuming a specific religious point of view that the majority of people in the world don’t subscribe to.

For more evidence of this bias, watch the trailer for the documentary the author references. In it, one sees not only all of the mistakes I explain above, but also the stoking of racist fears that “white” countries will be overrun by “non-white” countries. (There is a comment in the trailer about how current trends will lead to the absence of native-born French people in France, which is both wrong and a bizarre piece of propaganda because we Americans are supposed to hate the French.)

What all of this suggests then, is that there is nothing I could do or say that would ever change the author’s mind. She is fabricating arguments to defend a committed belief and bending reality to justify it. Her evidence is faulty and her argumentation is poor. She is steeped in confirmation bias and, frankly, ignorance

So, what does one do about an argument like this? One can rant, as I am doing. One can teach, as I am trying to do. And one can walk away, which I haven't been able to do. Unfortunately, I think the last option would have been the most effective since, again, this is in the public sphere, not in my classroom, and I will accomplish nothing by wasting my time on it instead of reading Carol Gilligan, which is what I'm supposed to be doing right now. But the letter has been eating away at me and I needed to get this out of my system. So, what do you think? How do you deal with dumb arguments, and how do you know the difference between a dumb argument and an argument that you just vehemently disagrees with? I would, as always, welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Next Episode of WHY? "In A Different Voice and After" with guest Carol Gilligan

Next episode of
WHY? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life:

"In A Different Voice and After”
 With guest Carol Gilligan.

Sunday, February 13 · 5:00pm - 6:00pm, central time.

Around the world at:

or in North Dakota on Prairie Public Radio
(89.3 Grand Forks / 91.9 Fargo

Do men think differently than women? Is moral reasoning inherently male? Is psychology biased against relationships and the women who value them? Thirty years ago, Carol Gilligan asked these questions and shook the foundations of philosophy, psychology, and feminism. This month on WHY?, we revisit Gilligan’s classic study In A Different Voice and ask whether her answers still hold true. How was the classic text received? How is it viewed now? And, what does it (and Gilligan) still have to teach us? Join us for a challenging and important conversation that may be as powerful today as it was when the book was first released. 

Carol Gilligan is a University Professor at New York University and a Visiting Professor at Cambridge University. She taught at Harvard University from 1967 - 2002, eventually holding the Patricia Albjerg Graham Chair in Gender Studies. She is the author of multiple books, a partial list includes The Birth of Pleasure, Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationships; Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women's Thinking to Psychological Theory and Education; and most influentially, In A Different Voice. 

WHY’s host Jack Russell Weinstein explains, “Talking to Carol Gilligan is like talking to history. One rarely gets to engage with a thinker who has had such a clear and obvious impact on how we look at the world. I can think of few books that have been as absorbed by the culture as In A Different Voice (even if most of the world doesn’t know it), and to get to talk with Carol is, frankly, a gift.” 

If you have a question you want to ask Carol in advance, send it to

Ask a question live at

e-mail at
tweet at: whyradioshow

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