CFP: Special issue on ‘Shaping Identity’ of Journal of Philosophy, Science, and Law

Within the context of ongoing debates about medical and social models of disability, the Journal of Philosophy, Science, and Law invites authors to submit new manuscripts that address the ethical and legal implications of interventions aimed at modifying the bodies of individuals with physical or mental impairments or disabilities.

Topics suitable for this Call for Papers include but are not limited to ethical and legal issues emerging from:

The use of bionic eyes
The use of cochlear implants
Prosthetics for everyday use or competitive sports
“Normalizing” surgery for individuals with Down Syndrome
Limb lengthening surgeries (e.g., for individuals with achondroplasia)
The use of growth hormones
The use of “neuroenhancement” drugs (e.g., to improve focus, memory, or other cognitive functioning)
Laws that influence decision making on behalf of disabled children (e.g., the Swedish law requiring parents to consult with member of the Deaf community prior to agreeing to cochlear implant surgery for their child)
Growth attenuation procedures
Familial or community pressure to modify or refuse modifications of one’s body

Manuscripts submitted for inclusion in this special issue must be original work and should not be under consideration with any other journal. The word count for submitted manuscripts, including references and notes, should not exceed 5000 words. Manuscripts should be accompanied by an abstract of no more than 200 words.

Authors should adhere to the Journal’s publication guidelines:

Authors should submit their manuscripts and abstracts via email attachments no later than October 1, 2013 to Dr. Yvette Pearson: ypearson[AT]odu[DOT]edu. Please write “JPSL Disability” in the email subject line.

Accepted manuscripts will be published online by March 1, 2014.

‘Neurobollocks’ and Naomi Wolf’s Vagina

Yesterday I was at the KCL History of Science and Medicine reading group which is run by CHH’s Ludmilla Jordanova. We were discussing a piece of writing which I had chosen. It was the introduction to Elizabeth Wilson’s 2004 book Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body. The main argument here is that feminist critics (think Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter et al) spend a lot of time talking about the body without taking the actual mechanisms of how the body works into account. Wilson thinks that feminist cultural critics are mistaken to think of biology, and particularly neurological explanations of events, as reductive. She is making a case for paying close attention to neurological processes within cultural studies in order to expand the understanding of the self which is communicated there.

This struck me as being one end of a spectrum which sees the recent trend for popular ‘neuromania’ (I’ve blogged about Raymond Tallis on this topic before) at its other end. Neuromania means that everything cultural gets explained by (pseudo) neuroscience. This has also been called ‘neurobollocks’ and brilliantly attacked in a recent article in the New Statesman. I, like many, have recently had my attention focused on this apparent trend in thought by feminist writer Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina: A New Biography.

This book has been widely slated in the press. The review on the Neurocritic Blog says ‘this unlikely combination of pseudoscientific and mystical elements provides a little something for everyone to hate,’ a review in the New Statesman says ‘Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” is full of bad science about the brain’ and the review on Slate declares ‘Naomi Wolf’s New Book About Her Vagina. It’s as ludicrous as you think it is’ and that in the book, ‘she uses faux academic language, and science.’

The main criticism levelled against Wolf in these reviews is that she is using bad and un-respected science to support her claims. Whilst this is a serious criticism of the book, another question which arises is why she even turns to the science in the first place? Why does Wolf need to ‘wow’ her readers with (pseudo) neuroscience in order to tell us the apparently new and amazing fact which has actually always already been known to anybody with any degree of human understanding? The vagina is actually connected to the mind/brain! Emotions, neurobiological processes and vaginal functionality are interrelated! Wow. Did Wolf really think we need (faux) neuroscience to prove this?

Towards a climate of collaboration

Last week I attended “A problem shared: securing a future for our planet: Margaret Atwood in conversation with Sir Brian Hoskins,” hosted by the Royal Society of Literature. The speakers discussed their concerns regarding climate change and the environment, drawing upon their respective backgrounds in literature and atmospheric science. I found both the packed auditorium and the passionate involvement of the speakers encouraging. However, it struck me that the discussion was framed as between two ‘opposing’ fields—literature and science—while the methods of analysis and interpretation that the two disciplines share could have been productively emphasised.

Both scientists and artists struggle with how to convey their sense of urgency about environmental issues. An audience member asked Atwood why one of her novels contains an apocalyptic flood instead of demonstrating the slow decline that is more likely to occur with climate change. If she is trying to communicate present dangers to the environment, the man asked, why not mimic the likely process? The comment and subsequent discussion implied that slow decline might not be a subject about which people want to read. However, this may oversimplify the purpose of fiction as a means to inspire ‘ethical’ action.

Sir Hoskins agreed that climate scientists have also struggled with how to communicate the urgency of global warming: trends are gradual, and most people do not experience the changes in immediate, visceral enough ways to make them sit up and take notice. How do both writers and scientists tell the story of climate change (which is often based in probabilities rather than certainties) in a way that the public will listen?

Though I may wish that everyone could have the experience of reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction, it is unlikely to happen. Even if it did, as Atwood admits wryly, her fiction’s bleak outlook can often “put people off” completely. It is sometimes dark, disturbing, or ambivalent. Instead, the majority of individuals are likely to get their information about global warming and climate change from mass-market journalism, television or Internet news. It seems as though environmentalists from all disciplinary backgrounds would benefit from choosing their rhetorical tone and language wisely and consciously within these mediums, perhaps sharing with one another skills of effective communication.

Also, methods and skills could be integrated from across the disciplines in order to deliver better child education on these issues. When asked how schools should instill a sense of responsibility for environmental protection, Sir Hoskins replied that youth should be taught the “underlying science” (or scientific tool kit) in order to form their own conclusions. Atwood suggested students be brought out of the classroom and into nature more often, learning to appreciate what they might someday lose. To these suggestions I would add using literature itself as a teaching tool for science. I have found, from my own experience teaching a college composition course on the theme of ‘the ethics and politics of science,’ that in addition to learning scientific data, the study of rhetoric can help students develop their own informed opinions. Students benefit from knowing how to spot hyperbole, melodramatic or mixed metaphors, and invalid logical constructions in written argumentation. They can thereby form their own conclusions about which authors deserve more attention and respect.

I could go on about the other highlights of the talk. My favorite comment by Atwood was “we never make things (i.e. objects) that are not a product of our deepest, ancestral fears and desires” and by Hoskins “I don’t believe in climate change; I think the evidence is good. Science isn’t about ‘truth’, it’s about evidence.” Unfortunately, some closing remarks, while meant to underline the positivity of interdisciplinary dialog, rather reinforced a schism between science and the humanities. The claim was made that the event proved writers can talk ‘on par’ (I paraphrase) with scientists. To me, this comment simply re-invoked the stereotypical differences between the disciplines (science=real data, literature=fuzzy studies) that it sought to negate. One conclusion was that the two fields need each other, because if it were not for literature, science would lack a mode of expression. I, for one, hope that is not true. Literature is more than a vehicle for social values, and science is not at all free from them. For contemporary issues of such urgency as climate change, perhaps it would be more useful to frame the discussion as between concerned citizens with complementary methods of inquiry.