An Interview With Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science

This time around, we're talking to Janet D. Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science.

What's your name?
Janet D. Stemwedel. But you can call me Dr. Free-Ride, since that's the pseudonym I used when I launched my blog. (It came from a discussion with my ethics in science class about whether I was a free-rider for having earned a chemistry Ph.D. paid for in part with public funds -- as science Ph.D.s in the U.S. are -- without paying the public back by being a practicing chemist.)

What do you do when you're not blogging?
I teach philosophy at San Jose State University. I hang out with my better-half and our kids. I coach soccer. I try to garden. When possible, I sleep.

What is your blog called?
Adventures in Ethics and Science

What's up with that name?
I blog about ethics and science. Given how topical the subject seems to be practically all the time, it's fair to say that navigating the waters of responsible research is an adventure. But really, I think it would be a more subtle and interesting adventure even without so much fabrication, fraud, and plagiarism.

How long have you been blogging, anyway?
It will be two years this coming February.

Where are you from and where do you live now?
I was born in Chicago, grew up in New Jersey, went to college in the Boston area, came to the San Francisco Bay Area for grad school, and managed to stay here since then.

Would you describe yourself as a working scientist?
Nope, I'm a working philosopher. ("Honey, come quick! There's a working philosopher! Get the camera!")

I do, however, seem to spend a lot of time hanging out with working scientists. I have a professional interest in the various aspects of what working scientists do; I'm just not doing those things myself.

Any educational experiences or degrees you'd like to mention?
Yes, I have a Ph.D. in chemistry and one in philosophy. It wasn't something I planned in advance. But, once I realized I didn't want to be a chemist, it seemed to make more sense to get a Ph.D. in philosophy than to try to "be" a philosopher with only minimal training. Bad philosophy is not something the world needs more of.

What are your main academic interests, in or out of your field?
I'm really fascinated by the ways epistemology (how we get knowledge) demands a certain set of ethical commitments. I'm also interested in the local norms of different scientific communities. And, in the "philosophy of science" part of my research, I'm trying to work out the conceptual and methodological "toolbox" that distinguishes chemistry from other scientific fields.

More broadly, I'm curious about the conditions that make some people very science-curious (or science-enthusiastic) and make others view science as incomprehensible or scary or something for other people to worry about. I don't think science-y people are born, so how are they made (or un-made)?

The last book you read?
I'm just finishing Kepler's Witch by James A. Connor. It discusses, among other things, the way Johannes Kepler tried to get his science done while dealing with his mother's trial for witchcraft. In some ways, modern scientists have it easier.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
No papers to grade, time to drink coffee and catch up on reading, a walk by the creek with my family, and then a dinner with friends who like to talk about ideas.

What's your greatest habitual annoyance?
People driving while X where X={talking on the phone, reading a book, putting on mascara, eating cereal and milk from a ceramic bowl, struggling to light the hashpipe}. Yes, I have witnessed each and every one of these values of X on my commute. Gotta love the Bay Area!

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Kate Fansler in the Amanda Cross mysteries -- she's an English professor/detective, and gets grumpy about some of the same grammatical issues that make me grumpy.

Lisa Simpson.

Michael Tolliver in Tales of the City. Working out how to be happy without dumping on other people is hard work, but he doesn't give up.

Your favorite heroes in real life?
Kepler. He managed to moderate his Platonism with a respect for the observational data, which is no mean feat. Also, he seemed to want a world that was less caught up in political and religious divisions, which I also would like.

What's your most marked characteristic?
My naive belief that people would rather be honest and fair and kind than not, and that communication is possible if the parties involved keep at it.

What's your principal defect?
I require sleep -- and significantly more of it than I did when I was younger. Also, since I come across as very reasonable, I end up on lots of committees.

What quality do you admire most in a person?
A willingness to say, "I'm not sure about this." The courage to be open about your uncertainty means you have some room to learn something new.

Who are your favorite writers?
In no particular order: Azar Nafisi, Montaigne, Sarah Vowell, Armistead Maupin, Herman Mellville, and Cecil Adams.

What would you like to be?
Tenured. Well-rested. Taken seriously by enemies of scientific integrity (because I am gunning for them!).


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