Friday, November 24, 2006

Expertise, Again

Over at Knowledge and Experience there's a post about fetal monitoring, which happens all the time, even though its value hasn't ever been demonstrated. This is in the news since The New England Journal of Medicine just published a study showing that fetal oxygen monitoring makes no difference to the health of the baby. And this study will probably be the end of fetal oxygen monitoring, one of the few times when a technology hits the dust bin.

But as the post points out, fetal heart monitoring is nearly omnipresent even though its value is equally dubious. In the case of fetal heart monitoring, its use became so widespread so quickly that everyone was doing it before its value could be studied. And no it is too late to turn back.

The post links to an editorial noting the limits of fetal heart monitoring. The limits are well known - its no better than listening to the fetus with a stethoscope - so why is it still done?

The editorial gives a few reasons. One is that physicians simply aren't trained to use stethoscopes to listen to babies. So they have to rely on the fetal monitor instead. Another reason is fear of lawsuits - but as the editorial points out, doctors who rejected fetal heart monitors in favor of more old fashioned methods could still argue that they are meeting current recommendations.

A final reason, the one that interested me the most, is that some physicians claim that the fetal heart monitors do provide valuable information - it just takes an expert to properly interpret the results.

This interests me because of the book I recently finished teaching: Bishop and Trout's Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. Bishop and Trout argue in favor of algorithms that can do a better job than experts in diagnosing disease, determining which parolees are likely to commit more crimes, etc. In turns out that experts aren't nearly as good as they think they are. Worse, when this is pointed out to them, and they are supplied an algorithm that will improve their results, the experts still find reasons for deviating from what the algorithm recommends.

On a psychological level this makes perfect sense. We'd hate to think that a stupid algorithm can do better than we can, and we'll also think that we can recognize special circumstances where the algorithm will fail. Unfortunately, both of those beliefs are false. The algorithm can do better than we can and, on the whole, when we deviate from the algorithm we do worse than if we hadn't.

The case of fetal heart rate monitoring seems to be a perfect example of this. So some doctors continue using the monitors, knowing full well that studies have shown their limitations. But they continue to use the monitors claiming that they have special expertise in reading the results. As Bishop and Trout argue, we should be especially skeptical of such claims.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

American Philosophy

The 2006-2008 Leiter rankings just came out. Naturally, I was interested to see the rankings of departments strong in American Pragmatism. The rankings are here.

A couple points. First, as I noted earlier, it's odd that the overall history of philosophy rankings don't include American Pragmatism (or even American philosophy more generally), even though it is listed as a specialty.

Second, the rankings made me think about the Leiter rankings in general. For one thing, I think there's a halo effect as far as where departments are ranked.

For example, the top rankings in American Pragmatism (Miami, Sheffield, Toronto) go to departments that are also ranked in the Leiter report. The next tier of departments (Southern Illinois, Vanderbilt, SUNY Buffalo) aren't ranked in the Leiter report at all.

This seems odd, since at least Southern Illinois and Vanderbilt have built their departments around American Philosophy; they may not have the perceived strengths across the board that Miami, Sheffield, and Toronto have, but as far as American Pragmatism goes, the departments in the second tier seem at least as good as the ones in the first. And maybe a graduate student is more likely to get a job coming out of, say, Toronto, than Southern Illinois, but even that I'm not sure of, and I'm not sure it should matter to the rankings.

This also raises a more general question: what makes a department a good place to study American Pragmatism (or any other subdiscipline)? In the case of even some of the top-ranked departments, it's just one or two professors -- who don't focus exclusively on American Pragmatism.

But if that's all it takes, then there are lots of places where one could study American Pragmatism. My own graduate experience is an example: I was fortunate enough to attend a university where there was enough expertise to write a dissertation on American Pragmatism, even though none of my committee members, I suspect, would have listed it as a specialty.

What mattered, and what made it a good place to write a dissertation on American Philosophy, was instead the character and support of my committee members -- which of course is not something the Leiter rankings measure.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Haslanger on Knowledge

I should have blogged about this a few weeks ago. One of the papers I assigned was Sally Haslanger's "What Knowledge Is and What It Ought to Be." The .pdf is here.

Haslanger's approach is pragmatic: she defends an epistemological approach that starts with the question "what use is knowledge?" She calls this the "analytic" approach (a clever bit of rhetoric).

One of the advantages of this starting point is that it bypasses a bunch of standard epistemological problems: the proper analysis of "knowledge", the problem of skepticism, etc.

Haslanger's answer is that knowledge is a precondition for moral agency, and moral agency is intrinsically important for creatures like us. I like this approach (and not just because it bypasses skepticism) because it emphasizes the connection between the concept of knowledge and actual practice. Again, this is a pragmatic point: as Peirce and Dewey would have asked, "why do we have this concept at all? what difference does it make?"

These questions are all too often shunted aside, but they are desperately important.

My point in talking about Haslanger is that her argument fits in nicely with the conclusion of Bishop and Trout's Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. Like Haslanger, Bishop and Trout emphasize the practical importance of epistemology and the concept of knowledge. Moreover, the point of theorizing about knowledge isn't to arrive at a Gettier-proof definition, but rather to recognize both the practical importance this concept has and the importance of improving our ability to pursue, recognize, and defend the truth.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

Rob at Helpy-Chalk has a post about mechanical voting machines. We still have them in New York, though probably not for long. You go into a booth, close the curtains, and pull levers indicating your choices. When you open the curtains your vote is recorded.

It's a great system. As Rob points out, there's a satisfying feeling in pulling the lever. I've used punch cards and I much prefer this sysytem. At the end of the day, I believe, the judges open the back of the machine and read the number of votes for each candidate, like reading an odometer.

Already today there have been reports of problems with electronic voting machines. Here's one. And this makes me like the mechanical machines all the more. I'm not even sure if they need electricity to run. In addition, when we asked the judges what they thought of them, they were unanimous: they think these machines are great, too. For one thing, there just aren't the same concerns about fraud or hacking.

This is one of those places, I'm convinced, that the low-tech solution is miles ahead of the high-tech system. I'll be sad when New York moves to another, most likely inferior, system.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"The Troubles With Standard Analytic Epistemology"

Bishop and Trout in their book Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment make a withering indictment of what they call "Standard Analytic Epistemology" (or "SAE"). I'm about 95% in agreement with their claims; 5% of me wants to believe that there is still some good in SAE, particularly out at the contextualist margins.

Anyway, here are some choice quotes. Their point is that SAE really only reports on the intuitions of academically-trained philosophers; as a result, its usefulness in the real world is just about nil:

So what is SAE geared to tell us about? We suggest that it tells us about the reflective epistemic judgmnets of a group of idiosyncratic people who have been trained to use highly specialized epistemic concepts and patterns of thought....The conservative goals and methods of SAE are suited to the task of providing an account of the considered epistemic judgments of (mostly) well-off Westerners with Ph.D.'s in Philosophy. (107)

And on the question of whether SAE can better account for the justification of beliefs than their alternative:

What about the belief recommended by SAE? Its main advantage seems to be that it is the belief that is deemed justified by a bunch of really smart philosophers who have reflected seriously on thier notion of justification. (117)