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Abstracts for Departmental Seminars

Seminars are held on Thursdays from 3.30 to 5pm in Seminar Room 2. There is tea and coffee before the seminar at 3pm in Seminar Room 1, and there are refreshments afterwards at 5pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Agnes Bolinska.

Lent Term 2020

Show overview

16 January Ali Boyle (Trinity Hall, Cambridge)
Nonhuman episodic memory, scepticism and psychological kinds
For around 20 years, a significant research programme in comparative cognition has been investigating whether nonhuman animals have episodic memory – the form of declarative memory involved in remembering past events. This research programme has yielded many apparently confirmatory results, across a wide range of species. Yet there is little consensus on whether animals have episodic memory. Why is this? There are a number of grounds for scepticism, but here I focus on just one family of sceptical views, which I call 'kind scepticism'. Kind sceptics argue that the evidence doesn't support the hypothesis that animals have episodic memory, since it fails to rule out that they have a form of memory that, though similar to episodic memory, differs in kind. This raises a difficult question about how to delineate episodic memory as a psychological kind. I suggest that kind sceptics and advocates of nonhuman episodic memory are committed to different answers to this question, and that their disagreement can't be settled by appeal to the objective structure of the world, but only by appeal to pragmatic considerations. This dispute is in a sense terminological, but significant – since it brings into focus important questions about what the episodic memory research programme aims to, and can, achieve.
23 January Milena Ivanova (HPS, Cambridge)
How atoms became real
This paper revisits the debate on the reality of atoms. At the turn of the 20th century, many physicists treated the atomic hypothesis with scepticism, claiming that atoms were fictional entities. While many, such as Ostwald and Poincare, changed their minds after the publication of Thompson's and Perrin's experiments, some, such as Mach and Duhem, continued to oppose the reality of atoms despite the experimental support. I argue that at the heart of this debate are methodological arguments that influenced physicists' stances both before and after experimental evidence in favour of the reality of atoms. Ostwald and Poincare were able to accept the reality of atoms since the atomic hypothesis became scientific on their terms in light of being experimentally testable, with the multiple ways of calculating the number of atoms in a volume being particularly convincing. Conversely, Duhem and Mach continued to reject the reality of atoms since they held that science should offer explanations that do not go beyond the observable. I evaluate the arguments on both sides and reflect on how philosophical stances impacted on what scientists were willing to accept as genuine scientific evidence.
30 January Sabine Clarke (University of York)
Pick your poison: insecticides and locust control in colonial Kenya
Literature on the use of insecticides in the tropics after 1945 is preoccupied with the WHO's Malaria Eradication Programme. This scholarship describes a form of technological hubris in which scientists rushed to deploy the quick fix of DDT on the widest possible scale, fuelled by belief in the power of Western science and buoyed by Allied victory. This paper focuses on trials to control locusts in Kenya after 1945 using synthetic insecticides to tell a different story. It shows that approaches to the use of new synthetic insecticides in Britain's African colonies were often informed by debate about the relative costs of different locust control measures. This reflected the weaker economic position of Britain in comparison to the USA, backers of the WHO programme, but more importantly, regimes of locust control that used substances such as gammexane were evaluated in Kenya against pre-existing methods. In other words, the notion that DDT and related chemicals were wonder weapons of such power that they marked a radical departure from past measures, and quickly rendered all previous insect control methods obsolete, is not borne out by this study. The use of the new insecticides was dependent upon calculations of advantage versus cost in comparison to well-established existing methods. In addition, previous experience with arsenic bait and pyrethrum shaped the testing and deployment of gammexane in significant ways, including evaluation of its toxicity. The perception of the new chemicals as part of a continuum of poisons also informed the attitudes of Kenyan herdsmen. Their suspicion of gammexane was not merely the result of a distrust of Western science and the colonial government, but arose directly from the experience of seeing their cattle poisoned by arsenic bait during the interwar years.
6 February Miriam Solomon (Temple University)
On pluralism in psychiatry
I have argued that pluralism about methods and/or theories is good for science, because it can increase empirical success, but bad for scientific authority, because it hinders consensus. Psychiatry has been dominated by a single conceptual framework for the last forty years (the DSM framework) and enjoyed considerable professional authority. Because of the 'crisis of validity', this dominance has recently given way to a pluralist situation in which several different approaches to disease nosology are being developed. In addition to the DSM framework, there is the RDoC program, the network approach, the mechanistic property cluster approach, and others. My paper will explore the challenges and difficulties of working with pluralism in psychiatry, making constructive suggestions for future research.
13 February
at 4pm
Fifteenth Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine
Sarah Richardson (Harvard University)
The maternal imprint: gender, heredity and the biosocial body
The rise of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and the fetal programming hypothesis is part of a forceful reassertion, over the past decade, of wide-ranging theories of the maternal-fetal interface as a critical determinant of lifelong health and intergenerational patterns in disease distribution. Presenting a history of maternal effects science from the advent of the genetic age to today, this talk analyses three intertwined dimensions of scientific speculations about the long reach of the maternal intrauterine imprint: interest in the power of maternal effects science to disrupt genetic determinist ideas about human fate; conceptual and empirical debate over how to study such effects given their crypticity; and claims about the implications of maternal intrauterine effects for women's well-being and autonomy. In each historical period, scientists' views about what can be empirically studied, and indeed known, about human maternal effects are entangled with cultural beliefs about women's and men's reproductive responsibilities and shaped by scientists' politically and historically situated convictions about the relative importance of genes or social environment to life outcomes.
20 February Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij (Birkbeck, University of London)
The case for modelled democracy
The fact that most of us are ignorant on politically relevant matters presents a problem for democracy. In light of this, some have suggested that we impose epistemic constraints on democratic participation, and specifically that the franchise be restricted along competency lines – a suggestion that in turn runs the risk of violating a long-standing condition on political legitimacy to the effect that legitimate political arrangements cannot be open to reasonable objections. In this talk, I outline a way to solve the problem of public ignorance without restricting the franchise. The proposal involves filtering the electoral input of a universal franchise through a statistical model that simulates what the public's political preferences would be, were it informed on politically relevant matters. The result is modelled democracy. I make the case that such democracy both solves the problem of public ignorance and satisfies the aforementioned condition on legitimacy.
27 February Andreas Daum (University at Buffalo)
'I am rhapsodic man': Alexander von Humboldt in search of himself
In recent years, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) has resurfaced as a heroic, public figure. Popular accounts and new text editions suggest that the Prussian-born scholar is one of us in the 21st century: ecological in his thinking, democratic in his beliefs, and far ahead of his own epoch. In contrast, Andreas Daum calls for carefully historicizing Humboldt. Based on an ongoing biographical project, his talk will concentrate on the 1790s, when the young Humboldt pursued widespread research interests and simultaneously tried to reconcile his divergent passions. Rather than navigating on a straightforward course toward his American journey and a future era, Humboldt became entangled in the uncertainties of the revolutionary times that surrounded him. He embarked on a rhapsodic search of himself as a mensch, researcher and friend to his male companions.
5 March Noemi Tousignant (UCL)
Postcolonial blood infrastructures of hepatitis B (a view from West Africa)
The development of serological markers for hepatitis B infection kindled a rush, beginning in the late 1960s, for West African blood (as well as liver tissues). These tissues were processed – mostly or in part in the US and France – to generate evidence of an aetiological link between persistent viral infection and cirrhotic/cancerousliver damage; to map out patterns of viral circulation; and to evaluate the efficacy of the first human blood-derived hepatitis B vaccines. The exchange of blood (and liver bits) as research material was, from the outset, coproduced with modes and moments of viral contact among bloodstreams, as well as the prospect and practice of modulating immunities by relocating antigens between bodies. By speaking of 'blood infrastructures', I want to draw attention not only to the material underpinnings (and economies) of research on, exposure to and immunization against hepatitis B in the 1970s–1980s – including in Mali, Senegal and The Gambia – but also to explore how their respective stakes, interactions and geographies were entangled. These entanglements, I suggest, illuminate key postcolonial dimensions of, and thus persisting inequalities in, hepatitis B knowledge and antibody production.