Spring Semester 2016
(January 22: Susan Wolf)
"Precision Medicine & the Challenge of Sharing Genomic Results"
ABSTRACT: In January 2015, President Obama announced plans to fund a nationwide Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). A year later, plans are under way to assemble a large and diverse cohort of 1 million participants to build a prospective research resource to fuel population-wide research. The PMI aims to use a new model of research driven by highly engaged patients actively partnering in data collection and having broad access to their own results as well as the cohort’s aggregate results. However, there remain big questions about this ambitious plan for return of results. For the last decade, the research community has actively investigated and debated those questions. Among them is how to determine what results are sufficiently understood to return, whether individuals should have access to uncertain results, and whether family members should be able to obtain a loved one’s genetic results that may have implications for relatives. These questions raise pressing issues in ethics, law, biomedical science, and clinical care. (return)
(January 29: Margaret Carlyle)
"From Paris to St. Petersburg: Portable Anatomies in Enlightenment Europe"
ABSTRACT: In 1759, the French surgeon Sauveur-François Morand (1697-1773) was in the final stage of preparing an anatomical collection for transport to the court of Elizabeth of Russia (1709–1762), where it would be dispatched to the Medical Chancery of St. Petersburg. This “Arsenal of Surgery” was four years in the making and comprised custom-made objects fashioned by anatomical modellers, as well as joiners, cutlers, goldsmiths, and sculptors. Shortly before its departure for Russia, Morand presented the collection to members of the Paris Royal Academy of Sciences accompanied by its most remarkable contributor, Mlle Biheron (1719–1795), who demonstrated on her lifesize wax woman. With the Academy’s stamp of approval for his scheme, Morand issued a Catalogue with the royal printer detailing the Arsenal’s contents and the intricacies of trafficking anatomical knowledge.
This talk situates the ultimately failed attempt to transmit the Arsenal from Paris to St. Petersburg within the broader context of Mlle Biheron’s three decades in the business of modeling anatomical waxworks. We discuss Morand’s project alongside the second attempt by philosophe Diderot (1713–1784) to bring Biheron’s wares to Russia, as well her independently arranged exhibitions in London. We see how forms of royal patronage, as well as the creative roles of medical intermediaries and experts, were a central feature of attempts to circulate scientific knowledge in the form of object lessons. It follows that the quality of what we call ‘portability’ conferred increasing prestige both to patrons and clients who participated in the circulation of anatomical hardware, while simultaneously presenting challenges beyond those experienced in more localised forms of knowledge display. By way of conclusion, we demonstrate how the patron-client exchanges characteristic of Enlightenment knowledge production and transfer were replaced by the Revolution’s nationalization of medical education. (return)
(February 5: Larry Stewart)
"Reviving Thomas Beddoes: The Chemical and Medical Alternatives of the Late Enlightenment"
ABSTRACT: Thomas Beddoes asserted the oft disputed proposition that social and medical revision went hand in hand. Among 18th century republicans he was far from alone. While his pneumatic chemistry proved no panacea, Beddoes reflected a widespread group of chemists and medics who were intent on confronting orthodoxy at every opportunity through novel, chemical and electrical, therapies emerging from private laboratories. This seminar examines Beddoes’ extensive search, with his many supporters, for medical alternatives during the chemical revolution. In so doing, it reveals Beddoes as a highly-influential and much regarded, if politically divisive, figure by the early 19th century.
(February 12: Otávio Bueno)
"Visual Evidence and Styles of Scientific Reasoning"
ABSTRACT: The notion of style of scientific reasoning has been used as an analytic tool for the characterization of significant features of scientific practice (in particular, by Crombie  and Hacking ). Styles of scientific reasoning are different from scientific theories in a given domain of inquiry: styles are broader than theories, and they are not so dependent on features of the particular domain. In this work, I provide a characterization of the concept of style of reasoning that overcomes some difficulties that have been raised against this tool (by Bolduc ). I then examine the role played by visual evidence in a characteristic style of reasoning found in much of contemporary sciences, which I call instrumental style. The implications for the normative nature of styles and some limitations of visual evidence in the sciences are finally examined. (return)
(February 19: Richard Hirsh)
“Shedding New Light on Rural Electrification: The Neglected Story of Successful Efforts to Energize Farms in the 1920s and Early 1930s
ABSTRACT: Traditional histories of rural electrification usually glorify New-Deal efforts of the 1930s to bring electricity to farmers, enabling them to enjoy modern amenities like their urban cousins. Though not disparaging the productive work pursued by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), created in 1935, this talk challenges the standard narrative by highlighting extensive electrification efforts undertaken in the 1920s and early 1930s by utility companies, farmers, and previously unrecognized agricultural engineers. Working at land-grant colleges, such as the University of Minnesota, these academic engineers served as intermediaries between farmers and utility managers, and they helped quadruple the number of rural homesteads that obtained electricity in the years between 1924 and 1931. (Not incidentally, the first rigorous experiment to determine how to electrify farms occurred in Red Wing, Minnesota, managed by UM agricultural engineer, Earl A. Stewart.)
The talk will also include an explanation of why the traditional historiography of rural electrification has remained so prevalent and popular. It suggests that historians may have paid inadequate attention to the context of the pre-Depression era, when government rarely became involved in enterprises undertaken largely by business organizations. More significantly, perhaps, historians found the standard narrative appealing because it contains colorful characters and a good-versus-bad storyline. (return)
(February 26: Marc Ereshefsky)
"Science and Metaphysics: Lessons from Microbiology"
ABSTRACT: The typical view of biological individuality is that such individuals have parents from one species and start life as single zygotes. However, recent work on microbial consortia challenges this view. The lesson from microbiology is not merely that we have been wrong about our favored account of individuality, but that we have been wrong to assume that there is one correct theory of individuality. Given the contingent nature of evolution we should expect a plurality of kinds of individuality. When we answer the question ‘What is a biological individual?’ with a plurality of accounts, we are more successful than we think. (return)
(March 4: Mara Mills)
“Speed Listening by Blind Readers and the History of Audio Time Compression”
ABSTRACT: Talking Books for blind readers spurred the commercialization of mainstream audiobooks after World War II, but the two formats soon diverged in terms of reading strategies. This talk will discuss the cultural imperative for aural speed reading that drove early time-stretching innovations in the magnetic tape era, allowing playback rate to be changed without affecting pitch. (return)
(March 25: Bruce Glymour)
"Evolutionary Biology and Inertia in Theory Change: A Preliminary Indictment of Explanatory Commitments"
ABSTRACT:Kuhn famously argued that scientific paradigms are immensely resilient to empirical evidence against their core theories. I offer a tentative and contentious diagnosis of one such case in evolutionary biology. Post-Synthesis evolutionary theory has been characterized by three nominally distinct theories of natural selection—classical population genetics and its extensions, quantitative genetics, and the halfway house occupied by models employing variants of the Price equation. Notwithstanding their important differences, all share the idea that selection is to be understood in terms of differences among types in one or another measure (generally called fitness) defined as some function or partial function of a probability density over reproductive success. Models implementing that idea immediately confront some intractable problems that limit their explanatory and predictive power. There are alternative conceptions of selection which do not face exactly those problems, and the mathematical tools requisite to them were available either before or roughly contemporaneously with the Synthesis itself. While more orthodox models generally employ the analysis of variance or covariance in both discovery and explanatory contexts, the alternative models rely on regression and path analysis, and in so doing generate importantly different kinds of explanation and are vulnerable to a different suite of errors. In this paper I delineate (some of) the problems plaguing traditional models, and explore the idea that their continued dominance in both evolutionary population biology and philosophy biology is owed in large measure to a prior commitment to the explanatory importance of one kind of non-causal, statistical explanation. (return)
(April 1: Jan Golinski)
“The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science”
ABSTRACT: Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was a pivotal figure in the emergence of new scientific disciplines at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but his career cannot be understood through the traditional narrative of specialization and professionalization. Davy was a protean individual who forged his social persona with remarkable creativity. He exploited his institutional location to build a charismatic reputation with a public audience. He applied new electrical instruments and powers to reconfigure the discipline of chemistry. And he engaged in a sustained and profound exploration of his own subjectivity, through testing nitrous oxide and galvanism on his own body, and through literary exercises of poetry and fiction. Social ambidexterity, interdisciplinary creativity, and sometimes grueling self-experimentation were the keynotes of this extraordinary individual’s self-made identity. I shall argue that Davy’s experiments in selfhood illuminate the historical formation of the man of science in an era when social institutions and personal subjectivity were both in flux.. (return)
(April 8: Deborah Mayo)
“How to Stop Refighting the Statistics Wars”
ABSTRACT: If a statistical methodology is to be adequate, it needs to register how “questionable research practices” (QRPs) alter a method’s error probing capacities. If little has been done to rule out flaws in taking data as evidence for a claim, then that claim has not passed a stringent or severe test. The goal of severe testing is the linchpin for (re)interpreting frequentist methods so as to avoid long-standing fallacies at the heart of today’s statistics wars. A contrasting philosophy views statistical inference in terms of posterior probabilities in hypotheses: probabilism. Presupposing probabilism, critics mistakenly argue that significance and confidence levels are misinterpreted, exaggerate evidence, or are irrelevant for inference. Recommended replacements—Bayesian updating, Bayes factors, likelihood ratios—fail to control severity. (return)
(April 15: Oren Harman)
"The Price of Altruism"
ABSTRACT: Survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest? Since the dawn of time man has contemplated the mystery of altruism, but it was Charles Darwin who posed the question most starkly. From the selfless ant to the stinging bee to the man laying down his life for a stranger, evolution has given rise to a most perplexing behavior. Set against the sweeping tale of 150 years of scientific attempts to explain altruism, here is the moving story of a brilliant and troubled scientist - George Price - who paid the ultimate price for wrestling with the mystery of altruism. (return)
(April 22: Erik Conway)
“Dreaming of Mars Sample Return: How scientific desires have shaped NASA’s Mars program”
ABSTRACT: Not yet available.(return)
(April 29: Philip Kitcher)
"Progress in the Sciences -- and also in the Arts"
ABSTRACT: The view that the sciences make progress, while the arts do not, is extremely common. This lecture will challenge it. I begin by distinguishing teleological progress from pragmatic progress. You make pragmatic progress not by coming closer to a goal, but by solving some of the problems of your current state. Scientific progress should be seen as pragmatic. When the point is recognized, it becomes evident that scientific progress has social dimensions. A socially embedded notion of scientific progress then allows for a parallel concept of progress applicable to the arts. (return)