One of the most fascinating aspects of being on the ACI team is noticing those posts and blogs that scholars are visiting and revisiting time and time again. While the ACI Scholarly Blog Index covers every academic discipline, it’s always interesting to see which content across the various disciplines that students, faculty, and other researchers are checking out when searching or browsing for scholarly blog content. Whether researchers get there through a keyword search or through browsing the Library of Congress subject headings available in ACI, we’ll sometimes notice a blog or blog author pop up more than once among those posts that scholars are reading – no small feat, considering that we have more than 10K blogs and over a million posts!
So in this article, we’re interviewing one of those authors: Nick Byrd, who blogs at byrdnick.com/blog. Nick is a PhD Candidate in philosophy at Florida State University, where he’s also a teaching assistant and the website manager for the university’s philosophy department. With posts covering an array of topics – from reasoning, ethics, and bias to educational technology, podcasts and standards on peer-reviewed publications – it’s easy to see why his scholarly blogging has reached so many readers with interests in philosophy, the cognitive sciences, and beyond.
Nick Byrd: Philosophy & Cognitive Science Blog
Read on for ACI’s full interview with Nick Byrd.
As a PhD candidate, what interests or experiences made you choose philosophy and cognitive science for your life’s work?
From what I understand, memories are altered every time they’re retrieved. So my how-I-came-to-philosophy story has probably changed over time. Here’s the latest version:
My first college major was religion. I was pretty excited about it at first. I thought religion could provide good answers to my questions. But after taking a few courses (apologetics, hermeneutics, and world religions) I was underwhelmed. Fortunately, I also took a logic course and a philosophy course. It was perfect timing. Right as I began wrestling with the most fundamental questions, I found the perfect outlet: philosophy.
So I changed my major to philosophy. Once again, I was pretty excited about it. I thought philosophy could provide the answers that religion didn’t seem to provide. However, I eventually realized that even the best arguments in philosophy are only convincing if you have certain intuitions. So I became less interested in philosophy and a bit more interested in intuitions. Fortunately, I was taking a course in cognitive science. Again, the timing was perfect. Right when I wanted to learn about human intuition, I found perhaps the best avenue to do so: cognitive science.
So I added cognitive science coursework to my philosophy coursework and continued wondering about intuitions. Eventually, I ran a study. The data suggested that some people are more likely to trust faulty intuitions than others. Further, people who are more likely to trust faulty intuitions were more likely to have certain philosophical beliefs. They were more likely to believe, for instance, that a god exists and that scientific theories aren’t true (Byrd 2014). A recent meta-analysis seems to show that at least some of my findings generalize (Pennycook, Ross, Koehler, and Fugelsang 2016). Valerie Thompson and Kinga Morsanyi (and their colleagues) have also done really interesting work in this area (e.g., Thompson and Morsanyi 2012).
Do you find that this dual focus allows for a more complete picture? For example, are there components of philosophy that are somewhat missing in, or would improve the field or reach of, cognitive science, or vice versa?
Definitely! As I suggest above, philosophy is ultimately an exercise in human reasoning. And cognitive science tells us a lot about human reasoning. So cognitive science tells us a lot about philosophy. This line of reasoning actually sparked a new domain of philosophy awhile back called “experimental philosophy.” It’s basically — or partly — the cognitive science of philosophy.
And don’t get me wrong: philosophy offers a lot to cognitive science. In fact, some of the most influential ideas in cognitive science have come from philosophers — e.g., Jerry Fodor.
This interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science is one of its virtues. Cognitive science brings together psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, linguists, computer scientists, and other academics. This means that cognitive science has a lot of tools and resources to solve puzzles about the mind.
“[W]hether you’re research-oriented or teaching-oriented or both (gasp!), people spend lots of time producing content that would be well-suited for online distribution. So one could easily put the content they’re already creating on a blog without going too far out of their way.“
Nick Byrd on blogging
Your website notes that you’re “making a 7.5 million word philosophy text corpus from various papers and books in philosophy”. Can you tell us more about that?
Sure! As I mentioned above, cognitive science includes linguists. So while studying cognitive science, I took a course in computational linguistics. In this field, people study how language works by studying massive collections of text — a.k.a., text corpora. So while taking this course, I figured I’d use the methods of computational corpus linguistics to answer some of my questions about how philosophy and intuition work.
At the time, there wasn’t a large-scale, open-access philosophy text corpus out there. So I made one. I gathered a bunch of academic texts dating back to Plato and Aristotle and, with a few apps and lines of code, turned it into a single file of plain text. Once the file is fully machine-searchable, scholars can analyze this text corpus in all sorts of ways to address various hypotheses about philosophy. For example, some philosophers have used corpus linguistics to argue that philosophy is becoming more empirical than it used to be (Knobe 2015). Others have used corpus linguistics to argue that the way academic philosophers talk about intuitions is not fundamentally different than the way non-philosophers do (Andow 2015). I hope to — someday when I have the time to revisit my corpus linguistics project — address further questions about the way philosophers use evidence and intuitions.
We recently interviewed a scholar who runs podcasts on virology and other life sciences topics, so we were excited to read your post on using podcasts for research. What would you ideally like to see in a podcast (or podcast series) in your interest areas? Any temptations for one day creating (or contributing to) such a project in the future?
So glad you asked! I find that listening is often much better than reading, watching, etc. So when I have to read something, I often listen to it first. I use text-to-speech apps to do that — more about that on my blog here. After doing this for awhile, I realized that academic journal publishing could take a cue from podcasting by offering podcasted readings of the papers they published alongside their PDF copies. Further, they could allow people to subscribe to their journal’s feed in podcasting apps. I think this would dramatically improve the accessibility and impact of academic publishing. To answer your last question: yes! I would be very interested in working with academic journals to make this happen.
As for existing podcasts, I listen to a lot! Obviously, I like a bunch of podcasts about cognitive science and philosophy. My favorites are (in alphabetical order): Axons and Axioms, History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Philosophy Bites, Rationally Speaking, Social Science Bites, and Very Bad Wizards. The other podcasts that I listen to are on my website: byrdnick.com/blog/podcasts
One kind of podcast I’d like to see would be one that reviews the literature in philosophy and/or psychology on a particular question or topic. This would be a bit like the podcast version of a meta-analysis, a systematic review, or a handbook article. It seems like the best way to do this would just be to interview the people (or groups of people) who write such meta-analyses, reviews, and handbook articles. (And, again, I’d be thrilled to help make this kind of podcast someday.)
What thoughts or experiences led you to begin blogging?
I actually started blogging between my undergraduate and graduate studies. I was working for a university as a resident director and I found myself missing philosophical conversation. I ended up auditing some philosophy courses at the university, but it just wasn’t enough for me, so I turned to the internet.
My ultimate goal was to get feedback on my thoughts. My first blog was CritiqueMyThinking.com or something like that. Reading and blogging about philosophy quickly became my favorite hobby. I’ve been blogging since 2009. These days I blog at byrdnick.com/blog.
“I follow academics whose work I like, people who share my interests, and some random others. I can honestly say that my research has benefited from being on Twitter.“
Nick Byrd on Twitter
How do you go about selecting topics for your posts? Has your approach changed since you first started?
My approach is largely the same: I am seeking feedback and discussion (so you’re welcome to come on over and weigh in. Yes, you!). Now that I am in academia again, I sometimes share my thoughts about my research, about seminars, conferences, and my other academic musings. Finally, a confession: I sometimes use the blog to rant; it’s therapeutic and it keeps me from starting gratuitous and unproductive arguments on someone else’s part of the internet.
Topics…hmm. I don’t know how I select topics. They just come to mind. (They are probably put there subliminally by the stuff I read, the people I talk to, etc.) Oh, and sometimes topics are suggested to me by readers. In fact, one reader is working on their own guest post right now. It’s about the process of writing a philosophy paper. I just looked at their outline; it turned out to be very helpful for my own dissertation. I look forward to the post when it’s ready.
Since your research and interests touch upon different disciplines, have you found some blogging or social media activities to be more effective than others in reaching those in certain disciplines?
Good question. The internet is a wild place, so it can be difficult to find precisely what I am looking for in terms of my academic interests. I used to join “philosophy” or “psychology” groups on social media, but I quickly found that they were almost entirely dedicated to motivational memes and sophomoric arguments about politics, religion, etc. So I’ve learned to stick to the following (in no particular order):
Twitter: I follow academics whose work I like, people who share my interests, and some random others. I can honestly say that my research has benefited from being on Twitter. Here’s some lists of philosophers on Twitter: truesciphi.org/phi.html
Reddit: I am newer to Reddit, but occasionally I have found a number of valuable conversations and recommendations there. Shout out to /r/AcademicPhilosophy
YouTube: I am increasingly impressed by the quality of some of the philosophy available on YouTube. My favorites are (in alphabetical order): Philosophy Tube, The School Of Life, and Wireless Philosophy. I list more on my website: byrdnick.com/blog/videos
The Brains Blog: this is easily my favorite blog when it comes to the philosophy and science of the mind. Here: philosophyofbrains.com
Minds Online Conference: a free, annual, online conference on the philosophy and science of mind featuring scholars from around the world. The 2nd annual conference is scheduled to start in September 2016: mindsonline.philosophyofbrains.com
PhilPapers: This is a crucial and free resource for academic philosophers. Philosophers create profiles and post manuscripts and pre-prints of their peer-reviewed papers. Philosophers can also follow one another so that they can receive notifications about each others’ new projects. There are also edited bibliographies for various areas of philosophy, forums, a list of conferences/workshops, etc. It’s just awesome: philpapers.org
Philosophers’ Cocoon: this site is a fantastic resource, especially for early career philosophers like myself. philosopherscocoon.typepad.com
“[P]hilosophy is ultimately an exercise in human reasoning. And cognitive science tells us a lot about human reasoning. So cognitive science tells us a lot about philosophy.“
Nick Byrd on the interplay between philosophy & cognitive science
Do you have any advice for others in academia who want to blog but concerned about the time factor or about the “on-the-record” element of blogging?
Good question. Regarding time: whether you’re research-oriented or teaching-oriented or both (gasp!), people spend lots of time producing content that would be well-suited for online distribution. So one could easily put the content they’re already creating on a blog without going too far out of their way. Examples: a summary and/or link to a project, paper, experiment that you’re working on; a summary of a recent book; course content (syllabi, slides, lecture videos, etc.); a link to that interview you just did with ACI Scholarly Blog Index; etc.
I am probably less qualified to answer the question about blogging and being “on-the-record”, but here are some good discussions on topics around this question:
- “What are the actual costs and benefits of early-career [academic] blogging?”
- “Why I blog”
- “How To Put Yourself Out There: Media Advice For Academics”
Andow, J. (2015). How Distinctive Is Philosophers’ Intuition Talk? Metaphilosophy, 46(4-5), 515–538. http://doi.org/10.1111/meta.12151
Byrd, N. (2014). Intuitive And Reflective Responses In Philosophy. University of Colorado. Retrieved from http://philpapers.org/rec/BYRIAR
Knobe, J. (2015). Philosophers are doing something different now: Quantitative data. Cognition, 135, 36–38. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2014.11.011
Pennycook, G., Ross, R. M., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2016). Atheists and Agnostics Are More Reflective than Religious Believers: Four Empirical Studies and a Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE, 11(4), e0153039. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153039
Thompson, V. A., & Morsanyi, K. (2012). Analytic thinking: do you feel like it? Mind & Society, 11(1), 93–105. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11299-012-0100-6