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Abstracts for Departmental Seminars

Seminars are held on Thursdays from 3.30 to 5pm in Seminar Room 2. There are refreshments after the seminar at 5pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Agnes Bolinska.

Easter Term 2018

Show overview

26 April Remco Heesen (Philosophy, Cambridge)
Statistical biases in peer review
Various biases are known to affect the peer review system, which is used to judge journal articles for their suitability for publication and grant proposals for their suitability for funding. These biases are generally attributed to cognitive biases held by individual peer reviewers. For example, gender bias in peer review is explained by the (explicit or implicit) gender bias of individual peer reviewers, as evidenced by the generally lower scores given to submissions authored by women. Here I introduce the notion of 'purely statistical biases': biases in peer review that arise even when individual peer reviewers are unbiased. This notion suggests that certain social groups or research programs may be disadvantaged by the peer review system even in the absence of cognitive biases. I use formal models to identify three possible mechanisms for purely statistical biases. The first mechanism relies on differences in information about authors available to decision makers. The second mechanism relies on differences in the underlying distributions of the 'quality' of submissions. Finally, the third mechanism comes into play when reviewers judge submissions on multiple criteria: aggregating these judgments into a final decision leads to a third possible source of bias.
3 May Wendy S. Parker (Durham University)
Explaining the recent 'hiatus' in global warming: models, measurement and media
In both scientific journals and the blogosphere, there has been much discussion of a recent 'hiatus' or 'pause' in global warming. Climate skeptics have characterized the hiatus as a major problem for climate change science. In response, climate scientists have invested significant time and energy investigating the hiatus and have developed explanations of it that require no revision to existing theory or models. This talk will provide an overview of these efforts, in order to illustrate some striking features of explanatory practice in climate science. It will focus in particular on the important contributions of computer simulation models, as well as some of the challenges and limitations associated with their use. The analysis will suggest that quantitative 'how-plausibly' explanations are the best that can be hoped for in the case of the recent hiatus.
10 May Erika Milam (Princeton University)
Creatures of Cain: the hunt for human nature in Cold War America
After the Second World War, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. This talk charts the rise and precipitous fall of a theory that attributed man's evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder amid the tense social climate of Cold War America. The scientists who advanced this 'killer ape' vision of humanity capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity's problems, even answer fundamental questions of human identity. The killer ape theory spread quickly from colloquial science publications to late-night television, classrooms, political debates, and Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, however, scientists were sharply divided. Then, in the 1970s, the theory unravelled altogether when primatologists discovered that chimpanzees also kill members of their own species. This discovery brought an end to definitions of human exceptionalism marked by violence. Some evolutionists reacted by arguing for a shared chimpanzee-human history of aggression even as other scientists discredited all such theories as sloppy popularizations. The legacy of the killer ape persists today in Americans' conviction that fundamental questions of human nature are resolvable through science.
Wed 16 May Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University)
Giant Power: energy technology and the long history of post-truth
Special time: 1–2:30pm
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary named 'post-truth' its word of the year, defining it as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief', the Oxford Dictionary provided a useful addition to our vocabulary. Yet in the history of science and technology one can find many examples of attempts to undermine facts that threaten social or economic interests, as well as of appeals to emotion and belief to support those interests. In this paper, I explore an early 20th century example: the campaign by the National Electric Light Association (NELA) to undermine political support in the United States for publicly generated and distributed electric power.

By the 1920s, the private sector was providing electricity to millions of urban customers in the USA, but rural Americans had been left mostly unserved. Elsewhere in the world, including Germany, Canada and New Zealand, government involvement in the marketplace had ensured that electricity reached rural as well as urban customers. In response to this situation, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot proposed 'Giant Power', a plan to pool electricity under the guidance of state government to ensure that all citizens received power at a fair price. Pinchot and other advocates of this plan noted that in Canada, just a few miles away, electricity was not only more extensively delivered, but also cost less.

In response, NELA sponsored a major propaganda campaign designed to discredit public power by insisting that privately generated electricity was cheaper and more reliable than municipal- or state-run electricity, and that public power was socialistic and un-American. This campaign involved advertising, editorials in newspapers (many ghost-written), the re-writing of textbooks, and the development of school and university curricula designed to extol the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism and demonize government intervention in the marketplace. The campaign worked in part by finding, cultivating and paying experts to endorse the industry claims and cast doubt on factual information supplied by independent third parties. It also appealed to emotion – love of country – and fear – fear of communism. I conclude by suggesting that our current state of affairs is not as novel as the OED suggests, and that we may learn from the lessons of history on how to identify and address 'non-truth' claims.
17 May Twenty-Third Annual Hans Rausing Lecture
Andreas Malm (Lund University)