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Problems in the Special Sciences Project

Philosophers of science investigate general questions involving scientific knowledge and reasoning, such as the nature of evidence, scientific objectivity, and causation. But they also investigate many questions at the boundaries between science and philosophy (indeed, W.V.O. Quine said that science and philosophy are continuous with each other). With this project, each of us will investigate one interesting problem in the special sciences and educate the rest of the class about it.

Project stages

1. Pick a topic and decide whether to present alone or in a group.
I have provided a list of problems in the special sciences, plus some interesting problems in general philosophy of science. This is not an exhaustive list, but please ask me about the relevance of other ideas. You may plan to research a topic by yourself, or you may work in a group of 2 to 4 people.

What is due on December 11: in your project proposal, please provide your name, the names of any other class members you are working with, a complete description of your topic (at least two sentences), citation information for one source you plan to consult, and your first and second choice for presentation dates.

Places to search or browse as you identify a topic, other than journal articles and philosophy books:

Wikipedia, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, TED Talks, The Edge, 3 Quarks Daily, bloggingheadstv

2. Plan a presentation.
I will work with you to schedule a presentation date, though you may not get your preferred date. Plan your presentation to last 10 – 20 minutes for individuals or 15 – 30 minutes for groups, including time for discussion. I require that you make a handout for the presentation which gives basic information about the problem, a few questions for discussion, and the sources you consulted. Each presentation should make use of at least two sources, and at least one of those should be peer-reviewed or not primarily online.
Presentations should be clear, informative, and interesting. You’ve sat through boring presentations, right? So think about what you can do to prevent your presentation from being like those presentations. Become sufficiently comfortable with the material so that you can talk about it without reading a prepared speech. You may use PowerPoint if you wish, but I only recommend it if you have information that is best communicated visually. Also, think about whether there are other ways to communicate about your topic—drawing a diagram on the board or giving a quiz or bringing in a model, to take some examples.
Each person on a team may get a different grade. There is no requirement that each team member speak; you may divide the labor as you wish. However, if you do not speak or if the work is divided unequally, please do let me know about how you divided the labor, so that you will get the credit that you deserve.

3. Write a blog post.
At least one person on each team will need to get a wordpress.com account and send me your preferred e-mail address so that I can add you as a blog contributor. If you’ve never contributed to something like this, don’t be intimidated—the interface is easy to use. If you have worked on something like this, then I welcome your ideas about design, content, and links! If you are working on a team, the whole team will get the same grade for the blog post. Due date: one week after your presentation.

Below are some external blog posts that may serve as good examples for how to communicate philosophical information well and how to provide links that others might use to research the topic themselves. Often, Wikipedia pages, like this one, are good models. Other Wikipedia pages are admirable, but more detailed than what I would expect for our blog. Finally, beware of online sources, wiki pages included, which are confused or misleading.

Thought Capital on Pseudoscience

Atoms Arranged Meaningwise on De Se Knowledge

Dr. Freeride on Philosophy of Chemistry

4. Discussion paper.
Finally, write up your research in a 2-3 page (600-900 word) paper. This can be based on your presentation and blog post but should go beyond these, and especially should consider any questions that were raised in the class discussion. The paper is an opportunity to work on making your written arguments more clear. I value writing that is concise and lucid. It is due the last day of class, but you may turn it in early if you wish.


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