Recently we had the pleasure of organizing ‘The Philosophy Exchange Philosophy of Science Graduate Conference’ (PSGC 2021). The idea to put on our first conference came about in March 2021, and we got down to planning shortly after. The first step; deciding on a theme. We wanted something that would be accessible and interesting for a large group of attendees and speakers, while still providing a meaningful focal point for discussion. After bouncing around some ideas, we settled on ‘Philosophy of Science: From Theory to Practice’.
Our initial plan was for the conference to be a hybrid online/ in-person event, with the in-person component taking place at the London School of Economics. But this became infeasible when LSE announced, due to the pandemic, that attendees who were not LSE students would not be allowed at the event. Moving the conference fully online was a disappointing decision to have to make, as quite a few potential attendees from outside LSE had expressed an interest in joining us in-person. But the conference still ended up producing plenty of rich interaction between members of the philosophy community.
Despite the restriction to online attendance only, we managed to attract a sizeable audience, of somewhere between 15 and 40 people for each talk, who very nicely contributed to some rich Q&A sessions. We were happy to hear from one attendee – a philosophy graduate student who made it to most of the talks – that he felt the format of a graduate student conference made for a comfortable question-asking environment, where attendees from a variety of backgrounds, and levels of expertise, were made to feel welcome. This was a contrast, he suggested, with the typical non-graduate conference, where it can feel that a Q&A is dominated by a small number of insiders to the wider academic discussion that a paper is part of.
Some of the discussion also spilled over onto the Discord page we created for the conference. There are various paid softwares and services out there that create platforms for hosting online conferences. But our experience suggests that Discord – which allows creating a forum, with various sub-channels, dedicated to the conference – is an excellent way to do this free of charge. As well as discussions of the talks, the Discord page worked well as a place for networking, banter, and verbal lunchtime discussion between attendees.
Another successful part of the conference was the lively Gather Town social. We would recommend using Gather Town for online conference socials, or something similar with games and separate rooms. If the in-person attendees can split off into separate rooms, with two or three people to a laptop, this can even work well as a way to include online attendees in some of the socializing at a hybrid conference. This kind of arrangement led to a surprisingly seamless hybrid social between online attendees and some of the members of philosophy exchange who had gathered in London to attend the online talks together.
Wide Variety of Topics
We were pleased to see that the student presentations covered a wide range of areas of science, and subfields of philosophy. This included philosophy of maths, statistics, AI, political science, microbiology, physics, theoretical economic modelling, dream psychology, and set theory, as well as work on social epistemology, science policy advising, and the scientific realism debate. This happened despite the fact that our process for anonymously reviewing and selecting abstracts did not involve trying to ensure such a breadth of coverage.
The presentations were of high quality, which was not surprising since we received over 30 submission and had to make some tough calls to choose only 14 speakers for the available student speaker slots. All submissions were anonymously reviewed by graduate students from philosophy exchange, who gave them scores from 1 to 5. If the two judges had a ‘substantial disagreement’, of two points or more, they would need to have a chat and come to some agreement. The scoring criterion was, ‘how clear and well-argued a talk would I expect this speaker to give on the day of the conference’.
All in all, we felt this system for reviewing worked well, and would recommend it to other conference organisers who have to whittle down their submissions to fit a limited number of slots. Since we are philosophy and science nerds, we wanted to back our impression of how well our procedure worked with some kind of quantitative evidence about its inter-rater reliability (to use a social science term)! The key raw figure for this assessment was that 6 out of our 32 reviews led to a substantial disagreement. This gives a fairly impressive p-value of 0.0035 against the null hypothesis that our reviewers were no better at avoiding substantial disagreement than random chance (i.e. if our procedure for selecting scores between 1 and 5 was completely random, giving a 43% probability of substantial disagreement for each abstract, the probability of as low or lower a number of substantial disagreements as 6 would be 0.0035). Strong evidence that our procedure is at least a tiny bit better at avoiding substantial disagreement than random chance scoring is perhaps hardly a resounding endorsement (there is also modest evidence, with a p-value of 0.06, that it was least 10% better than random chance!). A more serious piece of evidence of inter-rater reliability, or so we would suggest, was that all six substantial disagreements were easily resolved after some brief discussion between the reviewers.
In terms of the quality of the talk and discussion, not to mention attendance numbers, the highlights of the conference, unsurprisingly, were our two fabulous keynote speakers; Johanna Thoma and Alistair Isaac. As she said at the start, Johanna’s talk had something for everyone in the audience. Entitled ‘Pure Risk Paternalism: What it is and How to Avoid It?’, it had elements of normative decision theory, philosophy of measurement, philosophy of economic modelling, and moral and political philosophy. It was a superb talk and very nicely set up the lively and engaging Q&A that followed.
Alistair’s talk also led to an excellent follow on discussion in the Q&A. Entitled ‘High Precision Measurement: Theory-Neutral Knowledge from Theory-Laden Practice’, it was a fascinating excursion into philosophy of measurement, as applied to the history and contemporary practice of physics. We were introduced to the intriguing problem of the ‘bandwagon effect’, and shown how high precision measurement provides a tool to solve it, with all this leading to a novel perspective on the theory laddeness and observer the independent reality of measured quantities in physics.
Overall we are very pleased at how well PSGC 2021 has gone. We are extremely grateful to Johanna and Alistair for giving up their time to make this conference happen, and for the excellent work they presented to us on the day. We would also like to extend our thanks to everyone who contributed to the conference by attending, presenting, submitting an abstract, or even just sharing it on social media.
We definitely do not plan for this to be the last Philosophy Exchange Graduate Conference. Watch out for our upcoming values in science themed conference, which you will be hearing more about very soon!