PSA Report: The Philosophy of Commercialized Science

This past weekend, November 4-7, Montreal was host to the annual meetings of the History of Science Society (HSS) and the Philosophy of Science Association (PSA). Many of us at The Bubble Chamber attended and presented our own work. Over the next couple of weeks we plan to offer reports and reflections on some of the sessions we attended. Starting things off, here is a report from a session on a topic that should be of particular interest to Bubble Chamber readers: “The Philosophy of Commercialized Science”. I’m not going to offer any commentary right now, but I think there’s still a lot of interesting information here!

Sergio Sismondo – Corporate Interests and Medical Science

Sergio Sismondo started off the session by telling us about the practice of ghost writing pharmaceutical studies. Most of us have probably heard that pharmaceutical companies often perform their own internal studies and pass off those studies to academics for “editing”, leading to the appearance that the study was independently conducted. Most of us have probably also heard that there is a huge bias in the published literature towards research findings favorable to pharmaceutical companies, and that that bias disappears when not counting studies sponsored by those companies. However, the details Sismondo presented were fascinating.…

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Brox

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I was driving to the train station last week, and because of Daylight Savings Time (thanks so much for that, George Vernon Hudson) I’ve been doing so in the dark for the past few weeks. As I drove down one street, something struck me as being terribly wrong. It took me a moment to realize what it was: a lack of streetlights. For some reason, this one street was dark, and it really creeped me out.

The fact that I have become so reliant on artificial light; that its absence strikes me so forcefully, makes me all too typical an example of our modern age. In Brilliant, Jane Brox tries to unpick exactly how I (and everyone else) came to this point. While I found the book unsatisfactory as a history of science, it had several sections that were first-rate cultural history.…

Is Scientific Knowledge Anything Special?

Distinguished philosopher of science Helen Longino says, “It is tempting to think that scientific knowledge is like ordinary knowledge except better”.1 Scientists are not the only ones who purport to make knowledge claims about the world. Courtrooms, police detectives, historians, investigative reporters, and many more make such claims too. Is scientific knowledge any different from other forms of knowledge? Is it in some sense better?  If so, by virtue of what? Is it, perhaps, worse? Science is increasingly complex, demanding the cooperation of more people with varying expertise, and becoming more susceptible to the influence of commercial interests. Does this make it less reliable than other forms of knowledge? Have your say.

  1. Helen Longino (2002). The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press: p. 124.

Weekly Roundup

  • Renowned historian of science Steven Shapin writes a lengthy and interesting article for The New Yorker about the history of cancer research, seeing the ‘War on Cancer’ as exposing “an enduring fault line in the nature of medicine itself—is it a future-oriented science or is it a present-rooted, caring practice?”. Shapin continues by asking “How can you balance the need to understand the fundamental mechanisms of a disease, and the need to treat sick patients now, with whatever knowledge and therapies are at hand?”. The article covers a lot of ground, including a revealing analogy between the War on Cancer and the War on Terror – both ‘Wars’ construct a unified enemy out of a heterogenous collection of specific threats. Well worth reading, especially for anyone who has been with a cancer patient through their treatment, or for anyone who harbours an omnipresent oncophobia.
  • Matthew Nisbet at The Age of Engagement details his proposal for engaging the public on climate science in light of the now-divided Washington. Nisbet argues that engagement has to be pursued at the local level, and focus not just on the scientific arguments but the social, institutional, ethical, and economic dimensions of climate debates. His post is based on a more detailed proposal.
  • The New York Times reports that the Republican mid-term election victories could spell trouble for science funding.
  • When a UK newspaper distorted tropical forest expert Simon L. Lewis’s statements regarding possible consequences for the Amazon rainforest from global warming, Lewis decided to take action. In this column from Nature he tells the story of his fight and offers advice for other scientists displeased with their treatment by the media.

The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

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Next time you’re sitting down to watch CSI, CSI:NY, Bones, Navy:NCIS or any of the other dozen or so television shows that strongly feature forensic science, spare a thought for where the science began. When did police forces first start using science in a serious way to catch the bad guys?

That’s the question addressed by Deborah Blum in her delightful new book. Despite the subject matter (a series of grisly murders and accidental poisonings) Blum manages to write a book that is eminently readable, even for the non-ghoulish. Rather than dealing with the entire history of forensic science, she wisely chooses to present a micro-history, looking at the rise of forensic chemistry in New York of the Jazz Age and Great Depression.…