Friday links: what’s philosophy of science for, student-advisor cartoons, and more

Also this week: with four one free parameters I can fit an elephant, good news about lack of racial or gender bias in NIH grant reviews, social psychology continues to not replicate, speciation beer, and more

From Jeremy:

Two more canonical social psychology results (both cited over 1300 times) failed to replicate in big preregistered multilab replications. In both studies the treatment effect is precisely estimated to be very near to, and not significantly different from, zero. Here’s a reasonably comprehensive list of all replications from cognitive and social psychology. (ht @noahpinion)

Relatedly, this is pretty funny. 🙂

Good news: a new unreviewed preprint finds no evidence of racial or gender bias in NIH grant reviews, not even if you restrict attention to white male reviewers. The estimate is statistically precise, so the finding of no effect is not a matter of lack of statistical power. The result comes from a clever experiment involving assigning fake names to real NIH grant proposals. I’ve skimmed it, it’s from researchers who work on this topic for a living, and the design and analysis were preregistered and look very solid and thorough to me. For instance, the analysis considered both the reviewers’ numerical scores and their word choices in their reviews. And there were procedures to detect reviewers who may have recognized the PIs as fake, and to assess the sensitivity of the results to those reviewers. As the authors note, the study addresses only how study sections evaluate proposals, not factors that might affect the proposals themselves (e.g., variation among PIs in access to mentoring and other support). And it doesn’t address other possible reviewer biases, such as favoring proposals by famous PIs. (ht @noahpinion)

An overview of how Columbus, Ohio is bucking the decline of many northern US cities, thanks in part to Ohio State University.

Individual vs. group selection, California politics edition.

This is cool: an as-yet-unreviewed preprint describing an equation with one free parameter that can fit any bivariate data plot arbitrarily well. Turns out Von Neumann was wrong: you only need one free parameter to fit an elephant, not four. I will have to add this line to my list of the best sentences scientists get to say:

This single parameter model provides a large improvement over the prior state of the art in fitting an elephant.

The secret sauce is the discrete logistic equation (aka the logistic map) in the chaotic regime. I’m not sure this has any direct practical applications, but the conceptual implications seem pretty profound: the usual intuition that more free parameters = more flexible model is wrong. Analogous to how the logistic map shows that even simple ecology can generate complex population dynamics. (ht Marginal Revolution)

A new book about efforts to use randomized controlled experiments in areas of social science in which that’s never been a common approach. Looks interesting; this is a debate I follow a bit on blogs. (ht Marginal Revolution)

How multicausality can actually help with causal inference in the context of SEMs. Unreviewed preprint that I haven’t read, but that I suspect will be of interest to many of you. (ht @noahpinion)

An interview with prize winning philosopher of science Michela Massimi (ht @RELenski). Here’s one good bit:

Dismissive claims by famous physicists that philosophy is either a useless intellectual exercise, or not on a par with physics because of being incapable of progress, seem to start from the false assumption that philosophy has to be of use for scientists or is of no use at all.

But all that matters is that it be of some use. We would not assess the intellectual value of Roman history in terms of how useful it might be to the Romans themselves…I see the target beneficiary [of philosophy of science] as humankind.

Crocheted bacteria.

Speciation beer. (ht Andrew Hendry, via Twitter) In the past, they’ve also offered Genetic Drift beer, Cambrian Explosion beer, etc. Even though I am into evolutionary biology and am a beer nerd, I confess that this brewery’s distribution method wouldn’t really be my thing even if I lived close enough to their brewery to participate in it, which I don’t. But Meghan lives in Michigan, and right now she’s on sabbatical and so presumably has tons of time on her hands. So anybody who wants a bottle of this, email Meghan your order and I’m sure she’ll happily oblige. 😉 In the comments, please suggest ecological and evolutionary jargon terms that would be good beer names. 🙂 I’ll start: “Coexistence” would be a good beer name, especially for some hybrid style.

From Brian:

A lovely illustration of why the academic PhD advisor-advisee relationship is fraught even with the best advisers (power-imbalance) yet can be wonderful (from Math With Bad Drawings). Basically PhD Comics but with a heart-warming twist.

11 thoughts on “Friday links: what’s philosophy of science for, student-advisor cartoons, and more

  1. Some suggestions for beer names:

    “Intermediate Disturbance” – an unpasteurised beer, full of wild yeasts and bacteria, guaranteed to cause disturbance in the, err, intermediate areas of your body.

    “Latitudinal Trends” – a very strong brew that quickly takes you from 90 degrees vertical to 0 degrees horizontal. Not to everyone’s taste, considerable debate as to how to describe the flavour.

    “Nature Reserve” – served in several small glasses. Or one large one.

      • I’ll take what I can get…. SLOSS seemed a bit obvious but I guess it could be “Sloshed” which is a great old Brit term for getting drunk.

    • “reminds me of Universal Differential Equations”

      Huh, interesting, never heard of that. And clicking through, I’m not sure what I expected UDEs to look like, but it wasn’t that.

  2. I apologize for the lengthy comment. It got a bit out of hand as I was typing it. But I wanted to share a personal story of how reading a little bit of philosophy of science has been a direct benefit to both my theoretical and experimental work in science.

    I found the interview with Massimi interesting, and she makes a very important point that for the philosophy of science to be useful, it doesn’t need to be useful to science. But I didn’t like the focus on the philosophy of physics, in particular. And I don’t think we have to concede the point on the usefulness of philosophy of science to science. To see this, I think it is better to turn away from the grand theories and ‘big’ questions and instead look at more local impacts. Especially if we want to see “progress”, it is useful to have a fine-grained view.

    For example, Massimi talks about the proliferation of modelling approaches in the sciences. This is extremely important to read about: especially because specific scientists (or sometimes even subfields) get locked into a particular approach to modelling and can’t make sense of how others operate. I had the benefit of seeing modelling from inside a few fields in quick succession: physics, computer science, and biology and I’ve found that philosophical reflection on this, for example by building a taxonomy of the types of mathematical modelling, has helped me be a better modeller.

    More concretely, and recently, I’ve tried to figure out how to properly abstract objects like evolutionary games so that they can be operationalized. I would not have been able to make a distinction between the perspective of ‘operationalizing’ versus ‘having reasonable assumptions’ if I was not reading philosophy of science. Eventually, I was able to make this distinction more concrete by looking at the contrast between reductive vs effective evolutionary games as linked to different conceptions of fitness. But on my own, I could only express the difference in the clunky and confusing language of individuals versus populations, which was easy to conflate with discussions of the level of selection. Only by going into the philosophy of biology literature, and learning a bit about how philosophers have divided the conceptions of fitness they saw in scientific practice, could I find the right language: token vs. type fitness.

    Now all this might seem like idle theory building on idle philosophy. But it isn’t. It allowed my colleagues and me to define a new kind of game assay and directly measure games played by cancer as first-class objects instead of as a background theory. In the process, no grand theory was built and no huge claims about the basis of reality were necessary (although I might have made some in my blog posts), but nuts-and-bolts science ‘progressed’ because I was able to take advantage of ideas developed, clarified, and refined by philosophers of science.

    So at least I am personally in debt to philosophy.

    But I suspect my experience is not that atypical, or at least doesn’t have to be. They key feature is to focus on ‘small’ questions (both for science and philosophy) instead of ‘grand puzzles’ and then scientists can get directy benefit from philosophers. Of course, this is all in addition to the other benefits to culture and society that philosophers provide and Massimi discussed.

    • I very much like your taxonomy of modelling. It’s also nice to see someone from the same University (I’m in the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology at the moment) following this blog, which I wouldn’t have been able to predict. 😉

      I definitely agree about philosophical issues being key to really the more creative side of science: What questions do we ask? What experiments or models do we use, and why? Sometimes these questions have answers dictated reasonably by standard practice, but in interesting cases they are unclear, and one’s fundamental approach (influenced, potentially, by philosophical thinking) becomes crucially important.

      • Thank you, Andrew!

        I had extended the taxonomy slightly since that first post with the addition of abductions. But now that it’s four years later, I think the whole thing needs a bit of an overhaul. It is in the queue for the blog.

        It is indeed nice to bump into someone from the same place. That happens all too often: instead of meeting on campus, one encounters people from just across the street at conferences or blogs. If you send me an email at “[last name] [dot] [first name] [at] gmail [dot] com” then I’d be eager to coordinate a meet up. I’m over at Oriel and CS.

    • I’ve certainly found my own scattered reading in philosophy of science helpful in my own thinking about ecology. Like you, the philosophy of science I’ve found most helpful isn’t concerned with the ontological status of fundamental physics, but rather is concerned with smaller, more practical and domain-specific issues.

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/why-ecologists-might-want-to-read-more-philosophy-of-science/
      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/philosophy-of-science-101-for-ecologists-recommended-readings/

  3. My contribution is in the style of bad hop puns out of which which craft brewers never seem to run: Punctuated Hoppilibrium.

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