Can History and Philosophy of Science be Applied in Socially Relevant Ways?

In the wake of economic crises and new austerity measures, social institutions are often rethought.  For the humanities, this can be quite threatening, as social support for characteristically intellectual activities dwindles when production is at a low and in need of heavy “stimulus,” possibly in the form of tax cuts.  Federal funding structures in Britain, for instance, have begun a re-orientation towards funding only those projects with the potential for economic or social “impact,” even within the humanities.1  This was resisted by many eminent academics in Britain, but it was especially resisted by philosopher of science James Ladyman2.  Ladyman works on the metaphysics of science, and metaphysicians often find it especially difficult to defend their projects according to criteria like “social impact”.3  Historians of Science working on esoteric topics are no stranger to similar challenges to their funding levels, based on the lack of any straightforward “social relevance” for their research into, for example, Medieval methods of timekeeping.

While I do not want to insinuate that history, science, philosophy, or any other intellectual discipline should be measured according to the standards of Britain’s “impact”-based Research Excellence Framework, I do think that it is important for historians and philosophers of science to be aware of all the different ways their activities could impact society, and not only so that they have ready responses when the people challenge the “impact” of their work.  So, for this week’s debatable, we have a very general group of questions to ask:  How can history and philosophy of science be applied, used, or employed in socially relevant ways?  How have they been applied, used, or employed?  What use do people who don’t study history and philosophy of science have for people who do study them?

This is really more of a brainstorming thread than a debatable thread, but the fruitfulness of any proposal is (obviously) up for debate.  There are several proposals for “socially relevant” projects on offer at present by historians and philosophers of science.  Some of them are primarily intellectual proposals, which would include proposals to critically engage with scientists and their institutions (Harding), to substantially engage with scientists and their theories (Fehr and Plaisance), and to provide an intellectual defense of the rationality and objectivity of science (Kitcher).  This type of proposal makes use of knowledge specific to the historian and philosopher of science – e.g. about the broader development behind contemporary scientific issues, about relevant philosophical debates, and about the historically-situated nature of science’s institutions – to do something good for science, i.e. to make science better.  Others proposals are more action-based, including working in government to help craft science policy, working as a generalized science consultant, developing science policy alternatives at an NGO, or using one’s tenured position to help draw society’s attention to problematic scientific practices.  These “action-based” proposals don’t usually make use of any specific historical or philosophical theses, but rather makes use of the historian and philosopher of science’s general ability to think about science and its social, intellectual, and material structure in non-scientific terms.

While I have found this distinction between intellectual proposals and proposals for action useful in thinking about this issue, I have also found it somewhat spurious at times.  So, I’m interested in exploring everyone’s ideas on this in the comments section, including ideas about what is “socially relevant” about history and philosophy of science, about the usefulness of the “intellectual/action” distinction, and about the viability of any proposal for practicing “socially relevant” history and philosophy of science.

  1. The new Research Excellence Framework, which will affect this reorientation, is set to go into effect in Britain in 2015
  2. it was joked that the degree to which one spoke out against the “impact” policies could be appropriately deemed the “Ladyman Index“.
  3. Much of my own work, which is by no means unique in this respect, has been oriented towards demonstrating that some practical issues depend on our metaphysical commitments, i.e. I have aimed to show that metaphysical issues can, in fact, be socially relevant.


  • Eleanor Louson
    Ellie Louson Reply

    A timely topic indeed, with humanities departments being downsized left and right. This debate raged on during my years at a small, liberal arts university, and articles in defence of the humanities are increasingly common as university presidents look for new ways to trim the fat. What’s most interesting to me in this debate is that defenders of the humanities employ strategies very much at odds with each other: on the one hand, students with backgrounds in philosophy or the broader humanities are described as the perfect workers in the “new” economy, for whom their well-rounded skill set (including critical thinking, literacy, and the ability to judge the merits of an argument) is in high demand. On the other, the humanities are defended as the “soul” of the academy, whose intangible benefit to students is worthwhile because it is just that, intangible; pursuing the humanities is akin to rejecting a pure pursuit of wealth.

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    Perhaps a further question based on Ellie’s comment:

    If the humanities justify their inclusion at public universities through benefits to students, why isn’t teaching ability the primary criteria for career advancement?

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      That’s actually an interesting connection, between tenure-standards, publications, and the “applicability” of one’s work implied by publication records. I agree that teaching historical and philosophical perspectives on science to others is probably the greatest thing we do as academics; and, of course, one more thing we do that is difficult to measure according to social and economic “impact”.

      Still, I’m less interested in problematizing the state of our disciplines and our Universities’ intellectual priorities, and more interested in devising projects and strategies for applying what we do do (whether that’s teach, write, read, or contemplate historical and philosophical issues surrounding scientific knowledge production) to social, political, and policy-problems.

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    Having knowledge for its own sake is a valuable social aim (for once I agree with Kitcher) and I don’t think humanities people should play the game of counting their “deliverables”. Having said that, there is definitely more room for philosophy of science to engage with more socially relevant issues. These are interesting issues on their own rights and we have a lot to contribute. By the way, there is a forthcoming issue of Synthese about making philosophy of science more socially relevant.

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      P.S. Why is there a monkey in this post?

      • Curtis Forbes
        Curtis Forbes Reply

        I really have no idea why I chose the monkey picture. I just googled “thinker” and that was the most interesting picture that popped up, so I thought, “why not?”

        • Boaz Miller
          Boaz Miller Reply

          Google-picture: Can History and Philosophy of Science be Applied in Socially Relevant Ways? You will see Bruce.

  • Adam M. Goldstein Reply

    Probably almost every topic in history and philosophy of science is socially relevant. Issues such as climate change, stem cell research, genetically modified organisms, controversies over vaccination and psychiatric drugs, big investments in particle smashers and space exploration (if NASA gets its way) benefit from considering core issues in scientific method and episodes in the history of science when similar decisions were made or problems were confronted. The same with changing concepts of subjectivity and individuality, for instance, in some of the studies by Hacking. I think that the history of evolutionary biology and present-day issues about evolutionary psychology and the place of science and religion next to one another are intrinsically gripping for people. Again, there are so many problems and topics standardly studied by historians and philosophers of science that touch on these issues.

    BTW, there are strong arguments to be made for philosophy and probably also history of science as well, on the basis that these courses teach analytical thinking and close reading of the kind required for almost any profession. I don’t have the article on hand, but I think that it’s generally not true that Humanities departments cost more than science or engineering departments, or that they don’t “pay for themselves.” This came up in the Chronicle sometime in the last few months.

  • Jai Reply

    Great post, Curtis. I’ve gotten several audience members in my conference talks commenting on the historical relevance of my work on medicine & deaf history–especially the ‘medicalization of the deaf’ in relation to modern debates of Deaf Rights.

    What about funding? Funding of certain project seems to obviously favor what can be considered “socially relevant”–or at least in governmental or institutional standards.

    On a related note, perhaps you should go check out John Lynch’s HSS/PSA plenary session “The Challenges and Opportunities of Interdisciplinary Teaching.” It’ll be a good place to continue the discussion raised here.

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    On things-we-can-do, there is testifying in court like Steve Fuller and Michael Ruse. Both have ended up being very controversial (I’m sure there are less controversial examples), but this seems like a good service philosophers and historians can provide – analyzing and explaining arguments and context.

    There is also engagement through newspaper and magazine articles, or books aimed at popular audiences like Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.

  • Rebekah Higgitt Reply

    In my view history and philosophy of science are always socially relevant for demonstrating the processes by which science is created, where science ‘sits’ within society, and how and why it – or aspects of it – have achieved their current levels of authority. I think that this kind of understanding of science is much more useful to society than ‘scientific literacy’, if that implies knowledge of some basic facts or principles in science (which science, which facts, how would this be used?).

    In terms of how we reach different audiences, I should add museums (since I work in one) to previous suggestions. This might mean temporary or permenant displays, but also web exhibits or information pages, and events aimed at everyone from schoolchildren to retired adult learners, novices to experts.

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      I actually love the idea of having HPS expertise in museums. There are a lot of graduates from the IHPST working in museums, now that I think of it, and several incoming grads are interesting in becoming curators. We recently started up a scientific instrument collection at the University of Toronto as well, where we amalgamate all the different science departments’ holdings and put the interesting ones on display in our department hallway, which has been a huge success. So, there’s always that sort of project, too …

  • Morna Simpson Reply

    Check out the ways Norway uses philosophy to impact society

    This particular video includes the philosopher who is advising the Norwegian government on what to do or not for the best of society.

    Norway rates highest on all the equality indicators in the developed world. The economic impact on that is that there is less spent and a much higher standard of living due to reduced homocide, teenage pregnancy, health problems including obesity, homelessness etc etc etc.

    Hope this helps.

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      That is an amazing gig. I would love to have his job, but I doubt Canada will ever open a similar advisory office. Prove me wrong, Government Canada!

  • Alicia Dudek Reply

    History and philosophy of science are crucial founding stones to understanding how our social structures can into being. Without looking at how the scientific method is used to validate and disseminate knowledge you cannot begin to understand what becomes socially relevant, much less how it became socially relevant. We must know how the basic scientific principles we use to teach and base decisions on, came to be because without knowing that how could you even begin to unravel the complex social behaviors that govern everything else.
    It is critical to include the history and philosophy of science in design and education. If you don’t believe me go read some Karl Popper, it’ll do us all good.

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      Karl Popper is actually not the bon ton in contemporary philosophy of science, and has never been. Though he has been influential, his views about the scientific methods have been heavily criticized by philosophers of science for good reasons. They have never been widely accepted, and are surely not regarded the the last and definitive word on this subject. For some reasons, this is hardly known outside HPS circles, and such deference to Popper, in my view, does more harm than good..
      The story about how knowledge is validated and disseminated is much more complex. (To be fair, Popper’s own views are more nuanced and complex than they are often thought to be.) If there is a job for the philosophy of science it is actually to make people more aware of the more complex picture, make them more attentive to philosophical nuances, and cultivate a more critical and sophisticated approach to science and questions about it.

  • Praj Reply

    Interesting post. I think that HPS can and should be more influential in guiding public discourse (admittedly a vague concept) about science. From my viewpoint, much of what passes as public debate is driven by self-celebration on the part of scientists. Science is always solving your problems, curing your disease, improving technology, etc.

    A more nuanced picture hasn’t permeated these discussions, and I feel the HPS community has a lot to offer.

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