Friday, July 27, 2007

Why is this okay?

There was a recent article in the New York Times called "Study says obesity can be contagious". The article is about a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine that says your chances of gaining/losing weight increases as close friends gain/lose weight. I'm not sure if it is just the reporting or the actual article, but there doesn't seem to be a hint indicating that it is just correlation. There seems to be a causal mechanism being posited. Here are a couple of choice quotes:
"Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus, researchers are reporting today."
"The investigators say their findings can help explain why Americans have become fatter in recent years — each person who became obese was likely to drag some friends with them."
"Proximity did not seem to matter: the influence of the friend remained even if the friend was hundreds of miles away."
I think the best comment upon this is the one that closes the article in which a doctor at Cambridge says that good science is repeatable while this study is unique.

There are probably several things about this to discuss, of which I am competent in more or less none. I don't know enough about statistics and statistical methodology to comment. There seem to be causal mechanisms posited wildly. I hope this gets discussed somewhere by someone more knowledgable. But, there is a general question that I have based on ignorance. Biology, psychology, and physics get a lot of play in the philosophy of science world. I have a book on the philosophy of linguistics, but I never see anything else about it. Is there much of a sub-discipline of philosophy of medicine (the assumption being that medicine is a science)? There seems to be so much work done in medical research that seems possibly philosophically relevant, but doesn't get a lot of attention even though (because?) it is in the public eye.


joyrexus said...

Re "I have a book on the philosophy of linguistics [ ... ]". Curious, what book?

Shawn said...

It is The Philosophy of Linguistics in the Oxford Readings in Philosophy series, edited by J.J. Katz. The articles in it are mostly by heavy hitters like Harris, Chomsky, Quine, Katz, Fodor, Postal, and others. I've only read a couple of essays in it. Despite being written by big names, I didn't really find them helpful. Both Quine's and Chomsky's articles were kind of lame.

Once John Perry told me that for all disciplines X, philosophy of X gets less attention than X. For X=physics, that still amounts to a lot of attention. For a maligned X like linguistics, philosophy of X is practically non-existent.

joyrexus said...

Hmm. Curious now as to whether there's any distinction to be drawn between the philosophy of language and the philosophy of linguistics. Or if the latter just refers to any debates occurring between philosophers and linguists.

FWIW, some of my favorite run-ins:

Rorty's critique of Chomsky in "The Brain as Hardware, Culture as Software"

Chomsky's early (1957) review of Sellars ("Some Reflections on Language Games").

Pippin's comment regarding Hegel's likely response to Chomsky's criticism of Davidson in New Horizons:

"Indeed, Hegel’s version of the theory [of normativity] seems to do, in effect, exactly what Chomsky worried about when criticizing Davidson (past winner of the international ‘Hegel Prize’). When Chomsky accused Davidson of ‘erasing the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally’ and complained that this would push a study of language (conceived in either a Davidsonean or a Brandomian/Hegelian, holist way) into a ‘theory of everything’, Hegel would simply nod and agree and wait for what he would recognize as some sort of criticism to appear. ‘Das Wahre ist das Ganze’, after all."

Shawn said...

I didn't know that Chomsky wrote a review of Sellars's work at any point. Also, where is that Pippin quote from? Whenever I read Chomsky writing about philosophy of language, I always get the vague feeling that there is something amiss. He's usually concerned with syntax while philosophers of language tend to be concerned with semantics.

The philosophy of linguistics is about philosophical problems in linguistics (that's the unhelpful answer). If we restrict linguistics to semantics, then linguistics and philosophy of language look similar. Not the same though since there are things in each camp that the other is not concerned with (or at least not nearly as concerned). If we don't make that restriction, then linguistics is differentiated from philosophy of language more. There are questions of empirical methodology for example. There are issues about the prescriptive/descriptive approach (not covered in that book). There are ontological questions, like in this post by Nate, which seems like an excellent example of the philosophy of linguistics.

joyrexus said...

"Didn't know that Chomsky wrote a review of Sellars's work at any point."


"Also, where is that Pippin quote from? "

Pippin's review of Brandom's TOMD. (Well worth reading in full, as is his exchange with McDowell. I must say, I find the ongoing dialogue between him, Brandom, and McDowell to be one of the most interesting out there. Some very subtle and profound distinctions get made, particularly in how they each understand Sellars' thought.)

Kenny said...

When I read the NYTimes article on that study, I had similar worries. My assumption was that they graphed the friendship network, and then saw obesity spread along chains in order, which would eliminate the possibility of obesity causing friendship rather than the other way around. There's certainly literature on the philosophy of statistics, as many of the CMU people should be able to tell you about.

As for the phil of language vs. phil of linguistics - I think there's not really a clear distinction a lot of the time, but the latter would tend to be more concerned with technical questions in some sense.

Shawn said...

Thank you for the links. I'll check those out later.

I actually talked about this article with some folk from CMU who do some of the philosophy of stats/causal inference stuff the night I saw the article. I believe they were similarly suspicious. Tonight I had a doctor tell me that he thought the conclusions of the journal article were valid as an observational study. He was not nearly as suspicious.

Where is the informed blogosphere discussion of this? Does no one find it odd?

I'm kind of surprised that no one else likes the idea of an autonomous philosophy of linguistics. I'm inclined to thnk that the following is true: phil. of language != philosophy of linguistics. I'd go further and say: phil. of language != linguistics. You might be able to argue for an inlusion relation in the first case, but I don't think one would hold in either direction in the second. I probably agree with Kenny's comment that philosophy of linguistics (the little bits I've seen) deal with the technical aspects of that discipline (and the methodological bits too). That is probably not going to be too different from philosophy of physics. However, the relation of philosophy of language to linguistics is, in my estimation, a thorny subject.