Tuesday, June 03, 2008

CPA Report 1: Woooah Canada

Thanks for tuning in to the blog for the CPA report. Wait, is anyone still tuning in?

For those who don't know, the CPA meeting is part of this wild all-Canadian Academiganza called simply Congress 2008, or maybe Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. In addition to CPA, there is the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Science, the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, the Canadian Society for Adult Education, and so on ad infinitum. It's located on the lovely UBC, which is a wildly huge and beautiful place, in a totally different part of Vancouver that I've never been to before. Getting here was pretty okay, about 4 hours of flying total, and 2 hours of layover in San Francisco (spent having dinner with Corbett, who is awesome). I'm staying in a dorm. Enough about all that.

The first talk I went to was a part of the Canadian Jacques Maritain Association meeting, on "A.N. Whitehead's View of Experience in General and of God in Particular" by Richard Feist. The talk included not only discussions of Whitehead on God and experience, but also his idealism, anti-Kantianism, and views on physics, as well as discussions of Leibniz, Kant, Stephen Hawking, Henri Bergson, Nicholas Rescher, David Lewis, the question of why there is something rather than nothing, black holes, Kip Thorne, logical positivism, Kuhn... Well, you get the idea. It was fun. But it was... not particularly careful.

Next I checked out "What You Don't Know Can Help You: The Ethics of Placebo Treatment," by Daniel Groll, which was actually about 70% conceptual analysis of "placebo" and about 30% ethics. Ethically, placebo treatments still count as deceptions. It was actually the analytic part that bothered me. He ended up saying something like, a placebo is a "treatment" where the only causally efficacious part of the treatment goes through the route of a cognitive state of expecting to get better on the basis of the treatment. I wondered whether it really made sense to talk about "placebos" outside the context of something like placebo-controlled trials; that is, it seems to me that the concept of "placebo" comes about in methodological discussions about controlling a certain kind of bias, which gets labeled "the placebo effect," and gets resolved by placebo-control. But outside something like that context, or some other context, it seems difficult to understand what a placebo is. Daniel responded that doctors in context of treatment rather than research still "prescribe" sugar pills and the like. I'm not sure what to make of that. I think knowing the history of the use of the term would help.

Jeremy Howick pointed out to him that there is no such thing as a placebo simpliciter. A sugar pill is not a placebo for a diabetic, and perhaps in certain psychological cases, changing expectations really is an effective treatment. That seems of a piece with my worry, that he's trying to do context-free something that is pretty context dependent.

Last before lunch, Jacob and I checked out "Probability Judgment and the Problem of Uninformative Statistics" by Paul Thorn. I had not even marked it down as one of the options, but Jacob pushed me into thinking that it was probably the right sort of thing. I had been thinking instead of attending "Zoophilic Encounters: Thinking about Bestiality," which sounded sexy (so to speak). Jacob ended up apologizing to me afterwards. I don't think it was a bad talk for what it was, which was a pretty formalistic philosophy of probability theory talk. I told him afterwards that I think I must have some tacit knowledge that I hadn't been able to deploy once he started trying to convince me about why the talk would be good, about avoiding probability theory talks and papers. Maybe now I can avoid them with explicit knowledge that they tend to be... not of interest to me.

Next up: A defense of Deweyan Democracy, a paper on Popper's politics with yours truly commenting, and Jacob on evidence. Stay tuned!

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