About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Comic books and counterfactuals

by Massimo Pigliucci

So, I had my first DragonCon experience during Labor Day weekend. I gave a couple of talks and participated in two discussion sessions for the skeptic and science tracks, and generally admired bizarre costumes and semi-naked people hanging around. (I also got to see William Shatner, Martin Landau, and Mark Sheppard, but that’s another story.)

One of the nice surprises of the conference was an evening session (8:30pm on a Sunday) on “Comics and Philosophy,” featuring a talk by Christopher Belanger, of the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology at the University of Toronto. The talk specifically focused on “Counterfactual Cognition and Ethical Dilemmas: Lessons from Duncan The Wonder Dog,” and just in case you are wondering who Duncan The Wonder Dog is, I’ll spare you the google search.

Christopher entertained an audience of more than a hundred young people (some tattooed, some dressed in shall we say highly imaginative and unconventional ways) while trying to explain that comic books can function like thought experiments to explore the implications of counterfactual conditionals.

Christopher was exploiting a growing movement sometimes referred to as “... and Philosophy” in which academic philosophers write for the general public using pop culture as a vehicle. I have contributed to a few of these myself, particularly The Daily Show and Philosophy (on the Socratic method), and the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (on logic and inference) and The Philosophy of the Big Bang Theory (on scientism). (Also check my student Leonard Finkelman’s contribution to Green Lantern and Philosophy. He also has one coming up on the complexities of the relationship between Superman and Lex Luthor.)

The point of events like the one at DragonCon and of the “...and Philosophy” books (there are several other series by other publishers, by the way) is to bring philosophy to the general public using a palatable and yet informative platform. And that’s where the trouble starts. It seems like most of my colleagues cannot be bothered to hide their contempt for such lowly degradations of their cherished discipline. Never mind that if philosophers (and other academics) insist in not talking to the public because they are too busy analyzing (for the thousandth time) every single phrase of every one of Kant’s minor works, very soon there won’t be an academic discipline of philosophy at all. That’s because academic departments do not exist to do scholarship, but to serve students. The scholarship is a perk one gets in exchange for the grueling career path that goes through an endless PhD, one or more postdocs, and seven years of tenure track. But make no mistake about it: it’s a perk, not a right, and most certainly not the raison d'ĂȘtre of academia.

This is true also for the sciences, though to a lesser extent because scientists typically bring in the other currency that administrators care about: hard cash from grants. Even so, when I was running a lab it was the same story: writing for a blog, organizing “Darwin Day,” writing books for the public and so on were activities looked upon with a mixture of amusement and disgust. Clearly, if someone spends time doing that sort of thing s/he cannot be that good a researcher, otherwise s/he would care much more about another grant proposal or published paper (never mind that about a third of papers published in primary science journals are never cited once, and that most of the rest are read only by a handful of the author’s close colleagues and friends).

Michael Shermer told the story of how Carl Sagan didn’t make it into the National Academy of Sciences because of the perception that he wasn’t a sufficiently productive scientist — even though the record shows that he was as or more productive than plenty of others who were in fact admitted into that august body. Things have surely improved a bit since, as shown for instance by the fact that Stephen Jay Gould was later welcomed into the NAS, despite a Sagan-like perception of him shared by many of his colleagues. It is also now the case that the NAS, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Society for the Study of Evolution and a number of other organizations have moved beyond just paying lip service to the idea of talking to the public and have actually started to take the concept seriously. The NAS publishes position papers and organizes workshops on issues such as climate change and evolution, the AIBS hosts regular workshops for teachers, and the SSE has instituted a permanent education committee that bestows an annual prize to scientists who make a contribution to the public understanding of evolution — it’s called the Stephen Jay Gould prize, and has so far been awarded to Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Sean Carroll, and most recently Ken Miller.

Philosophers have been a bit more slow to pick up on the idea that they need to talk to the public, but there are at least three good reasons to do it: a) it is the public that pays for most academic positions in university departments; b) the continued existence of philosophy as a professional academic discipline depends on people giving a damn about it; c) it is one of the goals of a field whose etymology traces back to the Greek term for “love of wisdom” to expand the circle of people capable of thinking philosophically.

Of course, the problem here may in large part be yet another consequence of American anti-intellectualism (other examples include the election of George W. and the popularity of Jersey Shore). I first noticed this when I realized that all three magazines of philosophy for the general public of which I am aware (Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Think) are published in England, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of practicing philosophers is to be found in the US. And let’s not even get started on the fact that philosophers are regular guests (and sometimes hosts) of radio and TV programs throughout Europe, particularly in France and the UK (take that, Oprah!).

I keep being told that philosophy is a stuffy old field that cannot possibly interest the public, and yet my own regular philosophy meetup in New York is almost a thousand members strong — and we are neither the only nor the largest such group in the city! Events that I help organize with the Center for Inquiry and other local groups belonging to the Reasonable New York coalition, for instance on the nature of consciousness, on ethics for secular humanists, and an upcoming one on free will, regularly draw hundreds of paying participants, filling up whatever venue we set aside for them. And the Rationally Speaking podcast — which often deals with philosophical issues or at any rate adds a philosophical flavor to whatever Julia and I talk about — gets downloaded between 10 and 30 thousands times per episode. Other philosophy podcasts, like Philosophy Talk or Philosophy Bites, do even better.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at seeing more than a hundred young people huddled in a hotel conference room to listen to the connection between comics, counterfactuals and possible world scenarios. But it surely was a hell of a validating and entertaining way to spend an evening.


  1. Shirley someone interested in bringing philosophy and evolution to the public should have a more intellectual view of anti-intellectualism than a cheap rag on George W. Bush and Jersey Shore. First of all, claiming the election of Junior proves anything about anything is itself close to anti-intellectual. He got 50 million votes (about 20% of all people 18+) and you can't narrow down a single one of those votes to one issue, much much much less than saying it represented anti-intellectualism. As for Jersey Shore, only 8.5 million people watched the show recently. Total audience who follow it might be 10 million. That's 3% of Americans. And I bet none of those people watch it to express their anti-intellectualism. (Have you seen The Situation? Those are great abs!) Calling Jersey Shore anything but cheap escape entertainment is a stretch. But as an example of American anti-intellectualism?!? That's nuts.

  2. Um, not much interest in this one, I guess. Oh, well. Calling your rag anti-intellectual wasn't right. It's elitism. And I bet there is a correlation between elitism and philosophy professors.

  3. Norwegian,

    really? That's what you took from the essay? Okay, I'll bite. First, Jersey Shore type of entertainment is what Neil Postman was referring to when he wrote "Amusing Ourselves to Death." That sort of escapism is profoundly anti-intellectual.

    Second, Bush was elected in great part because of the extremely anti-intellectual ultra-christian ultra-right, not to mention the derisive label of point-headed intellectual his campaign attached to Gore to further appeal to Bush's base.

    I rest my case.

  4. I think philosophers have a serious public perception problem in America. In my experience, when people hear "philosopher" they think of Alan Watts, Buddhism, Timothy Leary, or their hipster barista.

    The only reason the UK is any better is because they have an upper class with something like a noblesse oblige for learning philosophy (and it tends to be continental). They're extensively taught philosophy, classic literature, and proper etiquette at a very young age in their public schools (which is something like private school for Americans). Basically, these schools churn out characters from a Wodehouse novel. This isn't the norm for the UK. They still have their fair share of anti-intellectualism, but the BBC tends to guard against this somewhat. Although, they've faltered in recent years.

    This is a popular philosophy radio show in the UK. It is very biased towards continental philosophy, and it has sort of a romantic approach for appreciating philosophy. They basically treat philosophy like fine literature.

    So, when I see people that are involved with philosophy in the UK. It's usually much more facile than I think you'd want. It's used as a kind of an upper class signaling device. The equivalent of a Rolex for an American. And likewise, people outside the upper class adopt this signal for vanity.

  5. Eid,

    you may be right on several counts, but I disagree about In Our Time. It is an excellent radio show, and it certainly does not have the continental bias you attribute to it. Trust me, I wouldn't listen to it via podcast when I go to the gym otherwise...

  6. No, that's not what I mainly took from your essay. It's just one small point that I think is ridiculous.

    Mark Erickson

  7. Agreed. BBC4's In Our Time is a wonderful programme. I can detect no discernible continental bias in its programme themes and when it covers traditionally analytical topics, such as Logic and Laws of Nature, I see no bias in the discussions.

    Besides, IOT is perhaps the only popular show which covers Godel's incompleteness theorems, materialism, C.S. Peirce and American pragmatism and logical positivism!

  8. I share Massimo's frustration. I think the climate for public outreach in most academic disciplines is improving, at least in the sense that a lot more lip-service is being paid these days to the importance of public engagement for the health of the disciplines. But the professions themselves are still having a very hard time recognizing and validating this work within university settings.

    In most universities this kind of work is actively discouraged, in the sense that there are few if any structural incentives and many structural disincentives. At best, if you've got good colleagues who care about public engagement then they'll slap you on the back and tell you you're performing a valuable service, but the mechanisms of promotion, tenure and professional advancement in academic institutions systematically work against it.

    We have science journalists who play a valuable role in bringing the sciences to the general public, and the sciences benefit from their work. Why don't we have more philosophy journalists?

  9. Your post reminds me of my college experience. I studied philosophy as an undergrad at what is considered one of the top ten philosophy departments. I found it interesting that I estimated around 90% of the students in the department were transfer students (including myself). We were all community college students who grew an interest studying philosophy at CC's while the lower division classes at this university didn't interest the students enough to become philosophy students.

    As I studied there I found (and a large amount of the other students agreed) that there was a big disconnect from what we studied at our CC's and what a research department taught. I knew the CC’s geared their teaching to topics that they believe would interest their students but I figured since I loved studying philosophy I would be interested in what was taught at the university level. Continental philosophy was pushed away to the German dept. and subjects like applied ethics were looked at with disdain. While I might be able to understand some of their reasoning, I also had a hard time considering their topics worthwhile. I remember spending a quarter in an epistemology class that only studied Gettier problems and wondering how more and more philosophers would give new necessary and sufficient conditions that would (predictably) fail.

    When I graduated I realized that out of the 100+ students, probably five or so were interested in grad school. You could take in consideration that many of those planned to be law students, but many others went in with plans to get a PhD and left looking for a job or another subject to study.

  10. jermox,

    I hear you. But two things: first, at least the kind of skills one learns in philosophy are "portable," ad educators say - unlike a lot of stuff you learn in a lot of other majors.

    Second, you would have had a very similar experience in science departments: most of what my colleagues do there (I used to be a research biologist) is pretty much of interest to only themselves and three other people in the world...

  11. You can have your Entertainment and eat your Philosophy too!


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