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Class Notes: February 7, 2011

vgaffney's picture

"Under the Knife"
Intro: Paper guidelines and learning each other’s names activity:

Today we began class by going over the guidelines for our papers. Afterwards we continued with an activity to learn each other’s names. We were invited to ask the person on our right both his/her name and whether or not he/she would be willing to put a part of his/her body under the knife (if so, which). A number of students said that they would unwilling to put any part of their bodies under the knife. Some students, however, said they would be willing should it be medically necessary—thereby drawing the distinction between “cosmetic” and “reconstructive” procedures, with the latter being deemed more medically necessary or appropriate. It was interesting to see the overwhelming majority of the class unwilling to undergo procedures that would alter their appearance; however, there were some students who would be willing to undergo reconstructive or cosmetic procedures. This activity introduced one of the main topics of the class: the ethics and legality (in terms of insurance coverage) of various appearance altering procedures. Prof. Anne Dalke also brought up a show she and Prof. Liz McCormack had seen called “The How and the Why” which touched on women in science—though, as one student said, didn’t get into the deeper questioning of gender categories.

Boundaries of Science in Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow:

Prof. Liz McCormack discussed the similarities and differences between Darwin’s hypothesis of the selfish gene and Roughgarden’s hypothesis of the cooperative gene. Because Roughgarden takes a narrative approach to her research—constructing a narrative—and also makes hypotheses and then looks for corresponding data in the environment, the question was raised whether or not Roughgarden was making the same error as Darwin. The following were among the responses:

        - Roughgarden’s approach was not as “absolute” as Darwin’s, but rather more willing and open to looking into                  further research

        - The two approaches are not “theoretically different” and in fact there is a greater degree of similarity between the           two

        - Professor McCormack emphasized the importance of raising awareness of the scientific process as it is actually               practiced in scientific investigations. She stressed the importance of looking for ways in which “science interacts with         other human activities”. Such awareness raises additional questions concerning what science is and what society is.

        -  Roughgarden’s approach is an example of science crossing over into the social realm, effectively “going through               the boundary” of the two for research

Was the fact that Roughgarden’s counter-examples were in the minority significant/have implications for research?

        - One student brought up the important point that though the scientific process involves looking for a trend in the             data, it is important to take the outliers into account as well; this was something Roughgarden succeeded in doing

Binary: claims that are refuted, and claims that might be true. This binary brought up the interesting point that scientific progress depends on things being refuted rather than being proved true.

Biology is practiced in cultural context, any other current debates? Because science can’t give black and white break down, it becomes a political issue:

        -  Abortion—when life begins; disagreement among scientists

        -  Stem cell research—could provide cure for devastating diseases, but is harvested from a living thing

        - Global warming

Concluding thoughts: “clean aspect of scientific method is problematic in cultural sphere”. PhreNic’s blog post summarized the need for categories as humans, yet the problems such categorizations ultimately present.

The role of tension to generate new knowledge:

        -  A number of students said they liked tension, particularly within the academic realm. Among the reasons:                         promotes better perspective, leads to a desire to learn more in order to find a better understanding of the                         opposing ideas and the relation between them.

        - Professor McCormack also brought up the concern that with the elimination of tension perhaps we would                          eliminate progress as well.

Professor Anne Dalke: Enhancing gender identity with cosmetic surgery:

        -  We went over the three articles and then were asked to think about what Haraway, Clark, and Roughgarden                   would say in response.

        -  One student brought up the point that since Haraway’s main idea is about blurring the boundaries—and thus                   establishing no distinction between male and female—cosmetic surgery is identifying a boundary that does not                 actually exist

        - Another student brought up that Haraway would have a problem with dividing the body into component parts                   because this goes against her notion of having everything exist in relation to others and blurring the distinctions

         -  We concluded by discussing the gap between the philosophical (Haraway) and the practicality (economic efficacy            in a country like Peru, where appearance directly impacts getting a job) of such procedures

Visual exercise:

We spent the last 15 minutes on a visual exercise in which we were expected to decide on a micro and macro level whether or not a certain procedure should be covered by insurance. Micro being whether we think as individuals if the treatment should be covered and macro being whether as a member of Congress we would decide on their coverage.

We had six colored stars which corresponded to our votes (Micro level: blue- should be covered; purple- unsure; red- shouldn’t be covered and Macro level: green- should be covered; orange- unsure (need to lobby); yellow- should not be covered)

After the activity we looked at some of the results, particularly those which showed almost unanimous decisions. Among these were: penis enlargement and breast enlargement. Students expressed their feeling that both are unnecessary procedures and perhaps not as psychologically relevant as the other procedures (cleft lip, leg lengthening etc.).

Concluding thoughts: most of the defenses provided for various procedures were anecdotal, meaning that most responses were sticking to the micro-level. We were reminded that it is important to look at the issue from a macro level and deciding whether or not these surgeries enable the preexisting norms in our society. Perhaps refraining from these procedureswould allow us to avoid the normalizaing procedures prevalent in our country. With no norms we’re not enabling the notion of disfigurement, abnormality and defect. 

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