Beginning August 13, philosophers from around the globe will gather in Beijing at the World Congress of Philosophy. Organized every five years by the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP), the congress addresses pressing philosophical issues. This year’s theme, “Learning to be Human” discusses the intricacies of humanity. Topics to be addressed include education, the environment, social learning, and governmental policy. The list below features articles that hit on some of the key subjects expected to be addressed.
“As I myself am untenured, the problem of precarity still ineluctably haunts me and most of the people I am close to in the academy.”
Interview conducted by Jacquelyn Kelley
In her article, “Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy,” Robin Zheng establishes that two common myths—“the myth of meritocracy” and “the myth of work as its own reward”—not only reinforce the academic job crisis but also have gendered origins, ultimately allowing gender stereotypes and job insecurity to reinforce one another within the discipline of Philosophy.
Published in the Spring 2018 issue of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Zheng’s research was first presented at the 2016 SWIP UK Conference followed by the 2017 Joint Session at the University of Edinburgh.
Her article was cited by the Australasian Association of Philosophy’s Committee for the Status of Women in Philosophy in their Statement on Insecure Work, and has received notable recognition and praise on social media.
Zheng holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and is currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at YaleNUSCollege in Singapore. I recently had a chance to catch up with Zheng, learn more about her career, and pose a couple questions about her popular article in Hypatia.
JK: What has been your favorite part about living and teaching in Singapore thus far?
RZ: My favorite part of teaching in Singapore has been the eagerness and enthusiasm that comes with trying to do something bold and different. For instance, I teach in a mandatory year-long team-taught course on “Philosophy and Political Thought” (PPT), covering 1/3 Chinese, 1/3 Indian, and 1/3 Western traditions of thought from antiquity to modernity. Working through PPT is very challenging for everyone involved, both teachers and students, but it is also extremely rewarding. It’s opened so many doors into new areas and ways of doing philosophy for me, and there really is nowhere else in the world where you could get this kind of education. I feel a strong sense of collective commitment amongst students, staff, and faculty to each put forward our best in pursuing a vision of what a liberal arts education is meant to be.
JK: How long have you been teaching there, and when you relocated, was your transition difficult, strange, or exciting in ways you maybe didn’t expect?
RZ: I’ve now been teaching for two years. Certainly the transition to teaching PPT was difficult, strange, and exciting all at once! Since my own philosophical training was very different, I really wasn’t very reflective about the value of engaging with philosophical texts qua texts and in their own social context, which I now understand is crucial, especially with a student population that is 60% Singapore and 40% international (from over 60 other countries). My second time through the course, I’ve been struck by how different texts have “lit up” for me, in the sense of appearing to me as intuitively powerful and compelling (rather than confusing and impenetrable), compared to the first year. Teaching in PPT has given me greater confidence that we all have the capacity to learn new things, and in the value of partaking in inquiry that pushes beyond the familiar boundaries of our home (sub-)disciplines.
RZ: This one is easy: my experience in the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan, which is the oldest continuously-running graduate student labor union in the country. Through the activities of the union, I gained a practical understanding of “how the university works” that had previously been completely opaque to me, along with a set of normatively rich perspectives and practices grounded in deep institutional memory. As I myself am untenured, the problem of precarity still ineluctably haunts me and most of the people I am close to in the academy. I’m very grateful that my time in the union gave me a much wider perspective on higher education and the job market crisis—plus their connections to more global crises—than I ever had as just a philosophy student.
JK: You write in your article that philosophers are particularly prone to believing “the myth of work as its own reward” because of your personal commitment to attaining “such ideals as truth, knowledge, and justice.” How often do you find yourself swept up by this myth and how do you snap out of it?
RZ: To be honest, I think that the pressures and constraints I face in my position as a junior academic (with respect to getting publications, going up for tenure, etc.) make very clear that philosophy is a social institution with its own set of hierarchies, vested interests, and professional norms which can be quite orthogonal to truth, knowledge, and justice.
But perhaps one way that the myth manifests in my own life is through frequent experiences of moral guilt whenever I perceive shortcomings in my teaching or research. I have to remind myself that it is okay not to put in a full 100% even if I genuinely, passionately care about them. At the end of the day, it is still just a job. There’s only a certain number of hours in the day that I am paid to spend on work, and I should consider it morally permissible to use the rest of my time on other things.
JK: In your article, you note that “the institution of tenure itself has problems, and may ultimately need overhaul,” and I can imagine there are many who would hotly debate your point of view. Are you interested in elaborating on this idea in future dialogues and writings?
RZ: This wasn’t the focus of my article, so I would have to do much more research before I could say anything definitive. But I should reiterate that I think the job security made possible through the tenure system is something that should be available for all workers, even though there is also distinctive reason for academics (namely, the freedom to pursue inquiry that challenges the status quo) to receive particularly strong protections. My main concerns with the tenure system are its being used as a kind of incentive or reward for individual “merit” and its being abused to protect people who are otherwise detrimental to the academic community (e.g. sexual harassers).
JK: Could you provide a preview of any other research projects you may be working on now—that way we can get excited about what’s next to come from you!
RZ: It’s still in very early stages, but I’m just beginning to think about a book project. My main areas of work are on moral responsibility and structural injustice, so I’m planning to look at the challenge of how politically allied groups can use practices of accountability to preserve solidarity in the face of disagreement.
Robin Zheng’s article “Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy” is available Open Accesshere.
Since beginning my tenure as managing editor of Hypatia, I have had the pleasure of working closely with individuals who are associated with Hypatia in various ways, and I have been awed by the extraordinary generosity and effort so very many people freely give to Hypatia.
One of my most valued experiences at Hypatia has been watching this cluster on “Issues in the Profession” take shape. I proposed the idea for the cluster in the fall of 2016, when we began to receive a large number of submissions that dealt with issues in philosophy as a discipline. The authors did not coordinate their submissions. Without knowing they were doing so, the authors in this cluster entered into dialogue, and they are speaking to a topic that is vital to philosophy as a whole. Each of the seven articles in the cluster focuses on problems of diversity in philosophy: how prevalent they still are, why they continue to exist, what it means to face them in the classroom setting, and what we can do to address them. These articles are by no means comprehensive. They do not speak to all of the issues in the profession, and many important voices are still missing from the discussion. These articles do, however, serve as part of an ongoing call to action that philosophy—and philosophers—are responsible for taking up.
Yolonda Wilson’s musing “How Might We Address the Factors that Contribute to the Scarcity of Philosophers Who Are Women and/or of Color?” opens the cluster with a poignant analysis of common acts of discrimination underrepresented philosophers routinely face. In Wilson’s words, by examining why philosophy remains a “relatively homogeneous” discipline, “we become empowered to take important steps to recruit, encourage, and support those who are underrepresented to enter the field and to flourish”. Beginning from the lived experience of underrepresented philosophers, Wilson critiques the everyday practices of “a profession that is relentlessly white and male” , noting that such practices function as “microcosms” of a racist, sexist society. Wilson argues that “A real commitment to caring about how racism and sexism work in philosophy necessarily commits one to caring about these issues generally”. If we are to truly address issues of discrimination within the discipline of philosophy, we must also work to address these same issues on a broader social scale.
The next three articles focus on pedagogical techniques that counteract the harmful effects of privilege in educational settings. In “Comforting Discomfort as Complicity: White Fragility and the Pursuit of Invulnerability,” Barbara Applebaum examines the role comfort and discomfort play in social-justice classrooms. Applebaum notes how educators tend to comfort white students who feel distress at discussing issues of racism, and how this comforting serves to maintain both the privilege of white students and the systematic oppression of black students and students of color. Applebaum argues that the best response to such situations is “supporting but not alleviating white students’ discomfort”. Encouraging white students to develop a sense of vulnerability—which Applebaum defines as “an openness to change, dispossession, and willingness to risk exposure” —could guide white students “to a willingness to stay in discomfort”, and encourage them to directly confront their own privilege.
In “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Alison Bailey takes aim at privilege-protective epistemic pushback, “a variety of willful ignorance that dominant groups habitually deploy during conversations that are trying to make social injustices visible”.This kind of epistemic pushback frequently occurs in philosophy classrooms as a way for students from dominant social groups to maintain their social dominance, and to exercise control over critiques of their dominance, by utilizing traditional philosophical techniques. It is, as Bailey writes, a method of “using the master’s tools to defend the master’s epistemic home terrain”. Bailey recommends that social-justice educators treat cases of epistemic pushback as shadow texts, “texts that run alongside the readings” and function to undermine instead of engage the readings. In this way, educators can encourage “class members to become aware of the fact that these moves are political and that sometimes they are driven just as much by fear and ignorance as they are by the desire to engage with the text”. The goal of social-justice education should not only be to teach students to critically read texts, but also to critically read their reactions to those texts.
In “‘Tell Me How That Makes You Feel’: Philosophy’s Reason/Emotion Divide and Epistemic Pushback in Philosophy Classrooms,” Allison Wolf expands on the discussion of epistemic pushback. Focusing specifically on how “the discipline of philosophy itself facilitates, obfuscates, and/or provides the tools for students to engage in this privilege-protecting type of epistemic pushback”, Wolf maintains that philosophy’s tendency to emphasize reason over emotion is frequently “deployed as a tool of privilege-evasive epistemic pushback to continue tilting the unlevel knowing field toward dominant groups”. Wolf notes that while philosophers pride themselves on engaging in unemotional argumentation, philosophy, and philosophy classrooms, are never free of emotion. Instead, the emotions of members of socially dominant groups tend to be implicitly validated, while the emotions of members of traditionally marginalized groups are taken as an indicator of poor argumentation skills. Arguing that “good philosophy requires us to recognize both information and our emotional response to the information to gain knowledge”, Wolf outlines three strategies that are designed to help students of philosophy engage with texts on an emotional level, and learn to critically respond to their own emotional reactions.
David M. Peña-Guzmán and Rebekah Spera’s article, “The Philosophical Personality,” picks up on the theme of what counts as good philosophical argumentation, and who is taken seriously as a philosopher. Peña-Guzmán and Spera construct a profile of the archetypical philosopher, based on both the social, economic, and political considerations that “determine, empirically, who can become a professional philosopher today” and the idealized image of what it means to be a philosopher—the way “philosophers understand themselves qua philosophers” . Together, these factors create a conception of a philosopher who “is white and he is male. He is also heterosexual, cisgendered, and able-bodied. He is an offspring of the middle class, the child of academics” . According to Peña-Guzmán and Spera, “This conception, which is internalized by current and aspiring members of the profession, shapes the latent content of the philosophical imaginary as an unacknowledged norm” , influencing both who counts as a philosopher, and even what is considered the proper philosophical methodology. Peña-Guzmán and Spera point out two significant problems with this conception of the philosopher. First, the conception contributes to the continued marginalization of philosophers who do not appear to fit the archetypical image of the philosopher. Second, the conception encourages philosophers to be ignorant of the realities of their own discipline, “creat[ing] a cycle of active ignorance that prevents philosophers from engaging in genuine self-critique” . Peña-Guzmán and Spera argue that “In order to meet the demand for self-knowledge and become a welcoming space for individuals from diverse backgrounds . . . philosophy must be reimagined at its deepest level”. Diversifying philosophy means reconceptualizing both who the philosopher is and what it means to do philosophy.
The last two musings present empirical investigations of two important aspects of underrepresentation in philosophy: academic publishing and recruiting undergraduate philosophy majors. In “The Underrepresentation of Women in Prestigious Ethics Journals,” Meena Krishnamurthy, Shen-yi Liao, Monique Deveaux, and Maggie Dalecki ask if women are underrepresented in prestigious ethics journals, relative to the number of women who specialize in ethics. The authors conclude that “Women who specialize in ethics are indeed underrepresented in prestigious ethics journals”. These findings are particularly important since—as the authors note—there is a much higher percentage of women specializing in ethics than in other subfields of philosophy. If women are underrepresented in some of the most prestigious ethics journals, “the gender problem in philosophy publishing may be more widespread and pernicious” than many philosophers suspect. Krishnamurthy, Liao, Deveaux, and Dalecki suggest that further research is necessary to determine if there are structural causes both in academic journals and in philosophy departments that lead to this kind of underrepresentation.
In “Evidence Supporting Pre-University Effects Hypotheses of Women’s Underrepresentation in Philosophy,” Chris Dobbs reports the results of research supporting the hypothesis that there are causes influencing women to choose not to major in philosophy even before they enter university. Based on an analysis of American Freshman Surveys conducted between 2004 and 2009, Dobbs finds that even though women made up over fifty-five percent of the survey respondents, only “About one of every three students who intended to major in philosophy were women”. Dobbs notes that “The sex gap in intention to major in philosophy mirrors the sex gap in philosophy degrees awarded. . . . About one of every three students who graduated with a philosophy BA were women, despite the fact, again, that more than fifty-seven percent of the sample was made up of wo. Dobbs cautions his readers against mistaking these results as a sign that philosophy departments should give up on diversity initiatives. On the contrary, Dobbs points out that “If anybody is contributing to an anti-woman philosopher schema, it is the people who practice philosophy. . . . It is up to philosophy department members, and nobody else, to foster an anti-discriminatory culture”. Philosophers are responsible for creating a culture that can either encourage or discourage women from becoming philosophy majors, and the ripples of this culture reach beyond the formal boundaries of the university. If the culture that discourages women from becoming philosophy majors—even before they enter university—is to change, it is philosophers who must change it.
It is 2017, and it seems that the whole world has descended upon Wittenberg. Luther tours, Luther conferences, small groups with every Lutheran affiliation imaginable, and individual tourists from all over the globe have been traveling to Wittenberg all year. They have been touring the important sites in Luther’s life, and learning about his theology there. It is 2017, and it seems that the whole world has descended upon Wittenberg—with perhaps one important exception, and that is the Lutheran World Federation.
The fact is that still today, all over the world, much is for sale that, in reality, is priceless: human beings, endangered animals, oceans and rivers, mountains and forests.
For their twelfth assembly that took place this May, the LWF did not go to Wittenberg; they went to Africa. Africa, which houses the largest Lutheran Church in the communion, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, with slightly over 9 million members. More specifically, they went to Namibia, a former German colony, where the Lutheran Church played an important role in the struggle against apartheid. This is not your grandma’s German [or Swedish or Finnish] Lutheran Church—and it certainly looks much different than when Luther sowed it five centuries ago.
The tagline of that assembly was “Not for Sale,” and that phrase shows how relevant the core Reformation message of 500 years ago still is today, a continent and a culture away. The fact is that still today, all over the world, much is for sale that, in reality, is priceless: human beings, endangered animals, oceans and rivers, mountains and forests. Consumerism is the god that is worshipped by more people world-wide than any other; and the siren-song consumption sings, which promises happiness, success and self-worth, lures more and more people to the rocks every day.
In such a dangerous, deadly context, the Reformation message of freedom and liberation comes as a welcome island of rest and restoration to those who are weary of striving, those who have no money for purchase, and those who are riddled with shame and guilt. The message is, simply, that you are good enough, just as you are—you don’t need to buy anything, win anything, do anything to be loved, cherished and valued. And you are not for sale.
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s promulgation of his 95 Theses. Commemorated worldwide as the beginning of the Reformation, this event was both the result of, and a catalyst for wider-ranging social, political, and religious developments. The waves from Wittenberg reached far beyond the borders of Germany, marking not only what became the Lutheran tradition but also the wider Christian community, including the Roman Catholic Church, whose identity was forged in this 16th-century confrontation.
“What does it mean to look at the events century from the perspective of women as active participants? Were Luther’s anti-Jewish writings…aberrations of his later years, or…a central element of his theological thought?”
Meanwhile, the Reformation was an event embedded in global history, coinciding with changes in trading patterns and economic activity, the confrontation between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, the beginnings of the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia, and the “Christianization” of Europe, reflected in the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Anniversaries such as that of the Reformation prompt the question “What is being remembered?” What does it mean to look at the events century from the perspective of women as active participants? Were Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, which exercised such a nefarious role, especially in his German homeland in the 20th century, aberrations of his later years, or, as some researchers now suggest, a central element of his theological thought? Commemorations also prompt us to ask, “Who is remembering?” and why. Only in 1617 did the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses a century earlier begin to be celebrated as the foundational event of the Lutheran Reformation, amid a looming conflict with the Catholic powers that would erupt the following year in the Thirty Years’ War. Since then, Reformation anniversaries have often been moulded by contemporary interests and concerns, prompting the reflection: how will future historians look back on the 2017 commemoration?
Each year, The Philosopher’s Annual faces the daunting task of selecting the 10 best articles in philosophy published that year. For 2016, they’ve chosen two articles from journals published by Wiley: Shamik Dasgupta’s article “Metaphysical Rationalism,” published in Noûs, and Una Stojnić’s article “One’s Modus Ponens: Modality, Coherence and Logic,” published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
There’s no question that research can change the world – and great research can come from scholars from any background and any academic discipline. Last year, Wiley launched the first Wiley Humanities Festival to explore the myriad ways that the Humanities matter and are vital not only to research and academia, but to life.. The infographic below is a snapshot of the success of last year’s festival.
The Wiley Humanities Festival is back again this year and we’re focusing on you, the researcher! The main event of this year’s festival is our FREE webinar, Humanities Publishing 101, (September 7 at 10amEST/3pmGMT) which aims to help early career researchers navigate the unwritten rules of publishing in the Humanities.
Register now and join us on September 7th to learn how to get your research published!
If you have any questions regarding the webinar or festival, please contact me, Josh Hendrick, Humanities Research Marketer at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
Celebrating 50 years of research from Journal of Philosophy of Education
How to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Journal of Philosophy of Education (JOPE)? We made a start by looking though every print copy of every Issue of the Journal’s 50 volumes and reading many papers.
We discovered papers way ahead of their time, as well as long threads of argument which we followed through many Issues, a 20-year-old page-turner of a paper on assessment, Alasdair MacIntyre in conversation about education. We had some surprises. Going by how often his name appears in titles and abstracts of papers, Nietzsche is, after Dewey, the philosopher most frequently referred to by contributors. In the first 10 volumes 50% of the Issues had no women contributors. By the most recent decade this had dwindled to 3%. How had that happened? We also looked for the most popular and least popular topics and were amazed at what we discovered.
It soon dawned on us that the very best way of marking our 50th anniversary was to offer readers something like the experience we ourselves had been having. Our Collection, The Journal 1966- 2016, is intended to do that. The papers it contains are not necessarily the best, the most cited or the most popular, but ones chosen for their power to introduce readers to the wealth of material in this rich Archive. The 25 papers each have a Note, calledContext and Connections, with hyperlinks to help readers, using the Wiley Online Library Tools, to explore their research and teaching interests in the Archive. An Editorial elaborates on insights we gained from working in the Archive, as well as sketching a brief history of JOPE.
But this Virtual Special Issue is not just a collection of papers with notes attached. In Video Interviews two former Editors, Richard Smith and Paul Standish, and a current Assistant Editor, Doret de Ruyter, talk about how they see JOPE and its future. Judith Suissa, another Assistant Editor, interviews John White, whose first contribution was in 1970 and his most recent in 2016. Morwenna Griffiths comments on JOPE and gender and the PESGB as a place for women to do philosophy. Michael Hand introduces the Impact pamphlet series. Darren Chetty, Andrea English and Mary Healy talk about presenting papers at the PESGB Annual Conference – where many JOPE papers start their life – and their experience of submitting papers to JOPE. And we, as co-editors, talk about how we made our selection and speculate about how we think readers might use it.
All of us who work at universities know it: Diversity promotes creativity. The intellectual environments that contain people of different genders, origins, cultures, and educational backgrounds tend to be the most creative ones. New ideas emerge when different perspectives meet.
Philosophy, with its long dialogue tradition, can be a wonderful meeting-ground for different experiences and cultural traditions. I also believe that human and cultural diversity is even more important in philosophy than in most other academic subjects. Let me explain why.
There are at least three arguments for diversity in an academic discipline. The first and most obvious argument is that of equal opportunity. Secondly, there is the recruitment argument. If we only recruit white males, then we will miss all the talented people who do not belong to that minority. These two arguments apply equally to all academic subjects. But then there is a third argument that is more important for some disciplines than for others, namely that of specific contributions: In some disciplines there is a particularly strong need for people with a wide variety of life experiences in order to see things from as many perspectives as possible. This applies obviously to the social sciences. Female researchers in sociology and economics have put focus on the life conditions of women. Members of ethnic minorities have uncovered previously ignored aspects of their country’s history.
As I see it, this applies to philosophy as well. In order to see what is universal in the human experience we need to combine as many different perspectives as possible. In order to philosophize better we need to be a diverse lot in terms of backgrounds and life experiences. It would be a serious mistake to see gender equality, multiculturalism and the representation of minorities as some sort of “external” requirement that is imposed on us. We need diversity in order to do our job properly.
I’m a consequentialist, so forgive me if I don’t spend a great deal of time parsing the meaning of ‘ethics matters’. I shall leave that task to ‘real’ philosophers. Ethics uncontroversially matters if we take ‘matters’ to mean ‘be of consequence’. In case you doubt this claim, and you should not, let me give you just a few high-profile examples.
‘…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?’ Most students of ethics will have come across Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question that changed the nature of the international animal rights movement. Having taught bioethics for a bit more than two decades now, I can testify to the large number of students whose views on the moral status of animals were changed for good by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. A lot of the students have sworn off eating sentient non-human animals altogether.
While I’m talking about Peter Singer, he published a while ago a piece in the first issue of a that-time unknown little journal called Philosophy and Public Affairs. He called it ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’. Leaving aside for a moment that this journal article has become a mainstay in ethics undergraduate course, textbooks and whatnot else, Singer eventually used his stature to start a movement asking us to contribute individually to particular charities that are most likely to generate the greatest impact from our donations. Do a Google search to check on the large number of activist groups his arguments have spawned. You’d try the same for the work of influential feminist ethicists such as Judith Jarvis Thompson’s work, or that of Sue Sherwin.
Another area where ethics matters a great deal is in the context of policy development. Just think of research ethics. Binding research policy documents in most countries today are the result of extensive debates about the ethics of clinical research, exploitation in non-therapeutic research in the global south and other such issues.
The introduction of medical aid in dying in an ever-growing number of jurisdictions owes much to ethicists who have dissected normative counter arguments and whose works have been cited in some of the most consequential court and/or parliamentary proceedings, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Ethics apparently motivates ethicists to do the right thing, going beyond merely producing academic content. A number of Australian academics have not only published academic content on Australia’s appalling treatment of refugees, they have also become activists trying to change the status quo. Those who argue that ethics also provides reasons for action might gain satisfaction from knowing that there are at least some examples suggesting that they might be on to something.
Arguably, the works of ethicists as well as political philosophers have significantly contributed to public reason becoming the modus operandi of political debate in multi-cultural societies all over the globe. Apparently, ethics can matter. Of course, I could point you to any number of ethics papers that have aimed to remain inconsequential and they succeeded fully on that count. It is worth raising the question of the ethics of such ethics content production.
Udo Schuklenk, Professor of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics
Joint Editor-in-Chief Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics
Department of Philosophy
We’ll be giving away many prizes throughout the event, so be sure to share with friends using #WileyHumanitiesFest on Twitter and Facebook, and comment extensively on the festival site.
Find out why thought leaders in philosophy like David S. Oderberg (Editor of Ratio), Sally Scholz (Editor of Hypatia), Willem B. Drees (Editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Sciences), Chris Higgins (Editor of Educational Theory), Ethan Kleinberg (Editor of History and Theory), Clara Fischer and Shelley Park (Guest Editors of upcoming special issues of Hypatia) find value in the humanities, and what they say is next for philosophy.
In a fascinating article published in Significance, author Robert Bain delves into the arguments for and against viewing human judgements and decisions in terms of Bayesian inference. We are grateful to Significance and the editor, Brian Tarran, for permission to publish the excerpt below.
The human brain is made up of 90 billion neurons connected by more than 100 trillion synapses. It has been described as the most complicated thing in the world, but brain scientists say that is wrong: they think it is the most complicated thing in the known universe. Little wonder, then, that scientists have such trouble working out how our brain actually works. Not in a mechanical sense: we know, roughly speaking, how different areas of the brain control different aspects of our bodies and our emotions, and how these distinct regions interact. The questions that are more difficult to answer relate to the complex decision-making processes each of us experiences: how do we form beliefs, assess evidence, make judgments, and decide on a course of action?
Figuring that out would be a great achievement, in and of itself. But this has practical applications, too, not least for those artificial intelligence (AI) researchers who are looking to transpose the subtlety and adaptability of human thought from biological “wetware” to computing hardware.
In looking to replicate aspects of human cognition, AI researchers have made use of algorithms that learn from data through a process known as Bayesian inference. Bayesian inference is a method of updating beliefs in the light of new evidence, with the strength of those beliefs captured using probabilities. As such, it differs from frequentist inference, which focuses on how frequently we might expect to observe a given set of events under specific conditions.
In the field of AI, Bayesian inference has been found to be effective at helping machines approximate some human abilities, such as image recognition. But are there grounds for believing that this is how human thought processes work more generally? Do our beliefs, judgments, and decisions follow the rules of Bayesian inference?
For the clearest evidence of Bayesian reasoning in the brain, we must look past the high-level cognitive processes that govern how we think and assess evidence, and consider the unconscious processes that control perception and movement.
Professor Daniel Wolpert of the University of Cambridge’s neuroscience research centre believes we have our Bayesian brains to thank for allowing us to move our bodies gracefully and efficiently – by making reliable, quick-fire predictions about the result of every movement we make. Wolpert, who has conducted a number of studies on how people control their movements, believes that as we go through life our brains gather statistics for different movement tasks, and combine these in a Bayesian fashion with sensory data, together with estimates of the reliability of that data. “We really are Bayesian inference machines,” he says.
Other researchers have found indications of Bayesianism in higher-level cognition. A 2006 study by Tom Griffiths of the University of California, Berkeley, and Josh Tenenbaum of MIT asked people to make predictions of how long people would live, how much money films would make, and how long politicians would last in office. The only data they were given to work with was the running total so far: current age, money made so far, and years served in office to date. People’s predictions, the researchers found, were very close to those derived from Bayesian calculations.
Before we accept the Bayesian brain hypothesis wholeheartedly, there are a number of strong counter-arguments. For starters, it is fairly easy to come up with probability puzzles that should yield to Bayesian methods, but that regularly leave many people flummoxed. For instance, many people will tell you that if you toss a series of coins, getting all heads or all tails is less likely than getting, for instance, tails–tails–heads–tails–heads. It is not and Bayes’ theorem shows why: as the coin tosses are independent, there is no reason to expect one sequence is more likely than another.
“There’s considerable evidence that most people are dismally non-Bayesian when performing reasoning,” says Robert Matthews of Aston University, Birmingham, and author of Chancing It, about the challenges of probabilistic reasoning. “For example, people typically ignore base-rate effects and overlook the need to know both false positive and false negative rates when assessing predictive or diagnostic tests.”
Diagnostic test accuracy explained
How is it that a diagnostic test that claims to be 99% accurate can still give a wrong diagnosis 50% of the time? In testing for a rare condition, we scan 10 000 people. Only 1% (100 people) have the condition; 9900 do not. Of the 100 people who do have the disease, a 99% accurate test will detect 99 of the true cases, leaving one false negative. But a 99% accurate test will also produce false positives at the rate of 1%. So, of the 9900 people who do not have the condition, 1% (99 people) will be told erroneously that they do have it. The total number of positive tests is therefore 198, of which only half are genuine. Thus the probability that a positive test result from this “99% accurate” test is a true positive is only 50%.
Life’s hard problems
All in all, that is quite a bit of evidence in favour of the argument that our brains are non-Bayesian. But do not forget that we are dealing with the most complicated thing in the known universe, and these fascinating quirks and imperfections do not give a complete picture of how we think.
Eric Mandelbaum, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, says this kind of irrationality “is most striking because it arises against a backdrop of our extreme competence. For every heuristics-and-biases study that shows that we, for instance, cannot update base rates correctly, one can find instances where people do update correctly.”
So while our well-documented flaws may shed light on the limits of our capacity for probabilistic analysis, we should not write off the brain’s statistical abilities just yet. Perhaps what our failings really reveal is that life is full of really hard problems, which our brains must try and solve in a state of uncertainty and constant change, with scant information and no time.
Robert Bain is a freelance journalist. He was previously editor of Lux magazine and deputy editor of Research magazine.
About the Magazine
Significance is published on behalf of the Royal Statistical Society and is a bimonthly magazine for anyone interested in statistics and the analysis and interpretation of data. Its aim is to communicate and demonstrate in an entertaining, thought-provoking and non-technical way the practical use of statistics in all walks of life and to show informatively and authoritatively how statistics benefit society.
Recently, Wiley was honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, to attend the 13th World Congress of Bioethics. We caught up with her after the conference to see how it went.
Recently, Wiley was honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, to attend the 13th World Congress of Bioethics. This biennial conference is the largest gathering of bioethics thought-leaders in the world, which this year took place in Edinburgh, Scotland.
We previously got to know Dr. Kasule in this lovely Q&A, and were able to catch up with her after the conference to see how it went.
FN: Welcome back from Edinburgh! How did your poster presentation go?
MK: I must say the presentation went well. The title was “Practical and ethical challenges posed in obtaining parental informed consent for HIV clinical trials research with pediatric patients: A case of Botswana,” which fell under the conference’s Global Bioethics theme. Challenges mainly focused on the readability of the consent forms, information disclosure process by the study staff, parental comprehension of information disclosed, and parental motivation to enroll children into HIV clinical trials.
In his welcome address, Professor Graeme Laurie mentioned that the congress would be attended by 700 delegates, and the thought that all these people might visit my poster gave me nightmares and butterflies in my stomach! Indeed, so many viewers visited my poster that I lost count!
I had active discussions with viewers and received very informative feedback on the findings, which will enrich my future work. My general observation was that there was a huge difference in viewers’ opinions and appreciation of my findings. We debated if my findings were critical or not, and whether or not these findings needed solutions. I noticed a wide difference of opinions between members of western and non-western societies. According to the questions and comments I got, most western viewers were surprised that in non-western countries, consent is being sought on more than one level, which reflects communalism. On the other hand, a majority of non-western viewers admitted to having faced similar challenges which required immediate solutions. These differences are likely to majorly impact collaborative research.
FN: How wonderful to be able to discuss your research with your peers, and get such engaged feedback. How was the conference itself?
MK: If I could summarize it in two words, I would say, “amazing and successful.” It was invigorating, inspirational, and informative – there was so much to do and learn!
I felt proud and honored to be part of the proceedings and to contribute to such a noble cause. I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to John Wiley & Sons, who sponsored my travel as part of its initiative to further support the bioethics community. And, a big “thank you” to the University of Botswana for its support.
FN: You’re welcome. We are thrilled to support you in your amazing endeavors.
MK: The venue (Assembly Rooms) is a huge and impressive 18th century event space. The conference itself had such a variety of sessions that choosing which to attend was a challenge! Prior to each day, I made sure I went through the program very carefully for fear of getting lost. I later realized one could not get lost, as everyone was kind and ready to help.
FN: What was your favorite session?
MK: Because of my background, I tried to attend sessions related to bioethics and public health. The keynote address by Professor Alastair V. Campbell (Director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore) was hilarious and very inspirational. He made the audience laugh when he referred to himself as, “the Accidental Bioethicist,” and described, “what makes God laugh.” His advice was a very good take-home message for me – “You need to follow what you truly care about.”
When Professor Florencia Luna from CONICET (National Scientific and Technological Research Council, Argentina) gave her key note address on “Women and (NON) Ethical Places: The Case of Zika,” you could hear a pin drop! It was deeply touching! She described the disproportionate harms of the Zika virus to poor women from endemic areas, which I thought was similar to what HIV and Ebola virus have done to women in many sub-Saharan countries. It was very sad to hear her say, “Simply referring to the situation ignores the stories and the suffering, anguish, and abandonment of women affected by the epidemic. There is need to look into women’s social and economic disadvantages, gender bias, their exclusion from research to avoid perpetuating poverty, and increased gender bias as well as social and health disparity.” Bioethicists and governments have a very big role to play through reviewing research regulatory guidelines and laws that exclude women from health research.
FN: It sounds like you were able to hear from so many inspirational experts in bioethics. Will you tell us more about new things you learned?
MK: Ah! There were so many interesting sessions relevant to my carrier, which made choosing difficult. I had to make very calculated choices. Something new I learned is that the bioethics community is quite big in western countries, and sub-Saharan Africa is still lagging behind. With more collaboration and networking, it would be possible to build research ethics capacity in sub-Saharan Africa.
FN: When we first spoke, you outlined what you think are the biggest public health priorities for Botswana today. Did you find that others had similar issues they are grappling in their own regions? How did Botswana’s public health priorities compare and contrast with other countries?
MK: I would say strengthening health systems as well epidemiological control of communicable and non-communicable diseases remain universal challenges.
FN: Who did you enjoy meeting the most? What did you discuss together?
MK: I did get to talk to many people, but because on my bioethics background I was lucky to speak with Professor Luna after her inspirational key note address. We shared views and opinions about ethical issues associated with research involving pregnant women and their exclusion from research as a vulnerable group which results in a lack of research evidence for medications to treat pregnant women. Since there wasn’t much time, we exchanged cards to continue the discussion over email. Hopefully I will meet her again at IAB 2018 in New Delhi, or at other bioethics forums!
FN: What is next for you and your research, and how will your experience at IAB help inform that?
MK: Well, there were so many stimulating ideas, but all of them require funding. Now that I’ve had such great discussions and gotten advice from early carrier researcher sessions, I should be able to apply for research funding do more research and publish more.
FN: Do you have any other anecdotes you’d like to share with our readers?
The closing ceremony was full of drama with the competition on pronunciation of Scottish phrases by some delegates. That was a mutilation of the Scottish language!
The atmosphere was full joy and tears for those who won prizes. I would like to congratulate one of our own from Africa, Dr. Nicola Barsdorf (Head of Health Research Ethics at Stellenbosch University), who placed second in the Medical Ethics Poster Prize. She made us proud!
The breathtaking video shown to advertise the IAB 2018 (to take place in New Delhi!) gave delegates hope of meeting again. This video demonstrated the need for more research on the social determinants of priority public health problems, and how a health-systems-strengthening approach can contribute to more effective program delivery and health outcomes.
FN: We look forward to seeing what great things you’ve achieved at the next World Congress of Bioethics. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us!
This bursary was sponsored by Wiley on behalf of its bioethics journals.
Read the latest in bioethics from your peers around the world, and submit your paper today. Click on the journals below to discover groundbreaking research.
With the final day of June, LGBTQ Pride Month comes to a close for 2016. The Wiley Blackwell Team hopes to serve the LGBTQ Community by continuing the much needed discussion. As a reminder, all of the curated research collections for Pride Month will be freely available through July 31.
With the final day of June, LGBTQ Pride Month comes to a close for 2016. Just last year, same-sex marriage was federally legalized in the United States. In sharp contrast, this year’s pride month was shadowed by the devastation of the Orlando shootings. We were all painfully reminded that despite great strides made by the LGBTQ community, hate and inequality still run rampant. Through this grim reality, the outpour of love and support that emerged from such a violent act of hate is a testament of hope and strength.
Thanks for visiting us each week this month to continue the necessary discussion on LGBTQ rights and issues. As a reminder, all of the curated research collections for Pride Month will be freely available through July 31.
The £1000 award is granted to the author of the best article published in that year’s volume. We offer Dr. Calhoun a hearty congratulations and are pleased to offer you free access to her winning article through the end of July.
About the Winner
Currently, Dr. Cheshire Calhoun teaches philosophy at Arizona State University and is serving as chair of the American Philosophical Association (APA) board of officers. She previously edited feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, and was chair of the APA’s LGBT Committee and the Inclusiveness Committee.
The majority of her work falls within normative ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of emotion, feminist philosophy, and gay and lesbian philosophy.
To learn more about her prolific career and work, please visit her website.
About the Journal
The Journal of Applied Philosophy provides a unique forum for philosophical research which seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, the journal brings critical analysis to these areas and to the identification, justification and discussion of values of universal appeal. The journal covers a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. Go here to subscribe today.
The journal is run by the Society for Applied Philosophy. Founded in 1982, the society aims to promote philosophical study and research that has a direct bearing on areas of practical concern. To learn about the society’s work and how you can become a member, please visit its website.
Happy reading, and be sure to check back here later in the month for a post-conference interview with Dr. Mary Kasule, where we’ll ask her about her experience and how it will carry over into her future bioethics research and work in Botswana and beyond.
We spoke with Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, on her bioethics career and upcoming trip to the World Congress of Bioethics in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The 13th World Congress of Bioethics begins tomorrow. This biennial conference is the largest gathering of bioethics thought-leaders in the world, and will this year explore “Individuals, Public Interests and Public Goods: What is the Contribution of Bioethics?” by bringing international academics, practitioners and experts together in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In support of the bioethics community, Wiley is honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana.
We caught up with Dr. Kasule before her trip to discuss her extensive work in bioethics, and what she hopes to see at the World Congress of Bioethics.
FN: We are honored to sponsor your trip to Edinburgh, Dr. Kasule. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. First, what sparked your interest in bioethics and public health?
MK: The courses that I took during my Bachelor of Science in Botany and Zoology and Masters in Applied Food Microbiology, as well as my teaching of Anatomy and Physiology, introduced me to most of the components of public health. To be honest, after over 20 years of lecturing at various tertiary health training institutions I felt I needed a change to specialize into something that could embrace my education background and experience gained. I saw studying public health as a gateway to a diversity of carrier opportunities and growth.
My research methodology course with a component of bioethics during my Masters in Public Health training gave me an insight into the importance of bioethics and responsible conduct of research. I also got an opportunity to work as the Secretary for the Botswana Ministry of Health National Ethics Committee (EC). By listening to EC deliberations, I came to realize the importance of good knowledge of bioethics for EC members in moral reasoning, risk/benefit analysis, and decision making. This further motivated me to find opportunities for long-term training in bioethics. I was very lucky to be awarded a scholarship by National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study for a Post Graduate Diploma in International Bioethics. This training also introduced me to research ethics administration – a new, emerging field in research ethics.
FN: What current project of yours are you most excited about?
MK: I am currently serving as the University of Botswana’s coordinator for the Fogarty African Bioethics Consortium, which was started in 2013 by the Johns Hopkins-Fogarty African Bioethics Training Program through a grant by the NIH. Under the leadership of Prof. Nancy Kass and Prof. Adnan Hyder, the project aims to create a sustainable and viable institutional bioethics consortium. The consortium seeks to advance institutional capacities to promote and pursue bioethics and research ethics activities, including training, bioethics research, bench marking and publishing and service. Through this collaboration, over ten University of Botswana Institutional Review Board members have been trained in bioethics at Johns Hopkins, greatly improving the board’s structure and function. I am hopeful that this collaborative initiative will be extended to other sub-Saharan countries to gradually harmonize their research ethics review processes.
FN: Your bio is quite impressive! From your extensive career in health, what do you think are the biggest public health priorities for Botswana today?
MK: I would say 1) gaining epidemiologic control of HIV with successful implementation of Treat All, 2) strengthening health systems (improved monitoring and evaluation), supply chain management, quality service delivery), 3) rational human resource allocations, mentorship, and capacity building, and 4) integration of comprehensive health service delivery (such as HIV, sexual and reproductive health, tuberculosis, and non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancers).
FN: The World Congress of Bioethics will have attendees from quite diverse backgrounds. What unique perspective do you hope to share with others, and vice versa?
MK: I would like to share experiences and challenges with people involved in research ethics administration regarding building research ethics capacity in their countries, and discuss the present and future of bioethics.
FN: Are there any panels you’re looking forward to seeing? Any people you’re hoping to meet?
MK: Dr. Sarah Chan from the Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh. She will be chairing a symposium on ‘Exploring International Policy Development in Regenerative Medicine’ and a panel session considering ‘Socio-Ethical and Legal (ELSI) Implications of Genome Editing Technologies.’
I am currently a member of the Ethics Working Group on the Human Health and Heredity initiative aimed at facilitating a contemporary research approach to the study of genomics and environmental determinants of common diseases with the goal of improving the health of African populations. The group aims to develop a robust and supportive ethical and governance framework for genomic research in Africa, and I hope the symposium and panel will inform this work.
I would also like to meet participants working on Informed Consent, like Dr. Danielle Bromwich (Assistant Professor of Bioethics and Metaethics at University of Massachusetts Boston) and Dr. Ana Krivokuca (Institute for Oncology and Radiology of Serbia).
MK: The paper falls under one of this year’s themes: Public Health, Ethics and Law. Effective and efficient ethics reviews are a result of good research ethics administration by well-trained research ethics administrators. The paper emphasizes the need for sub-Saharan African Ethics Committees to have these administrators manage committee operations and implement review administration with explicit focus so that committees achieve their goal – conducting high-quality, timely, and responsible ethics review. Ultimately, this translates into evidence-based policies and decisions for health care services at both individual and population level.
I hope that implementation of this paper’s recommendations would capacitate ethics committees in sub-regions and ultimately in sub-Saharan Africa. This would lead to a tremendous improvement in ethics review process and to harmonization of ethics review processes and practices in the regions and Africa as a whole, thus improvement of the effectiveness and efficiency of ethics committees. The result would be timely reviews that allow conducting research to improve timeliness of public health interventions, health services delivery, health care policies and decision making. And, this could cut down on waste of resources from delayed reviews and loss of funding which depends on timely review of proposals.
FN: Thank you. We wish you safe travels and look forward to speaking upon your return.
This bursary is sponsored by Wiley on behalf of its bioethics journals.
Read the latest in bioethics from your peers around the world, and submit your paper today. Click on the journals below to access groundbreaking research in an increasingly relevant, ever-evolving field, and check back here soon for a post on Dr. Kasule’s top bioethics article picks!