What can HPSers do for society? What is socially relevant HPS?

History and Philosophy of Science, even by academic standards, is a somewhat obscure discipline of the humanities.  The march of science and technology often seems to proceed regardless of any commentary, critique, or analysis from historians, philosophers, sociologists, and even policymakers. So why think there is any potential for a history and philosophy of science to become “socially relevant”?…

What are today’s most important science policy issues and challenges?

While I love my history and philosophy of science, and find them important for understanding the nature of modern science, I also do my best to engage with one of the only areas of public and political discourse where my historical and philosophical study of science might prove useful – science policymaking. It’s often remarked that science policy has a dual nature, or at least an inherent ambiguity, as the term covers both scientific input on policy-making (“science for policy”), and policy-making for working scientists (“policy for science”).  Within those two very widely defined areas there is everything from crafting environmental policy meant to manage the great lakes and generating epidemiological models to help understand what the best national health strategy is (science for policy) to building and negotiating new innovation frameworks, determining the values behind government granting schemes, and providing and facilitating digital networks for working scientists (policy for science).

With all that in mind, I’m curious to hear what historians and philosophers of science think are the important issues of science policy today, out of all the various issues that could be listed under that vague yet still reasonably narrow banner.

I’m also curious, especially if anyone has strong opinions on this, whether their historical and philosophical context aids them in deciding their position on such policy issues, or whether they choose their stances based on partisanship, ideology, greed, whatever non-academic decision vector.  I’m excited to hear, regardless.…

But that’s not how it is! Practical problems with applying idealized representations

I’m currently in the midst of studying for a candidacy exam on a very specific topic: idealized scientific representations.  A scientific representation or model is considered idealized, according to one influential account, if (a) it includes or asserts some falsehood, (b) this falsehood simplifies the model in some relevant way, e.g. to make calculation easier, or to make explanations clearer, and (c) the falsehood approximates some relevant truths about the system(s) being represented.  Idealization, then, is a specific type of misrepresentation, distinct from useful fictions and plain falsities (since idealizations must at least approximate the truth).  Examples of idealizations in science include (by no means exhaustively): Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom, the ideal gas law, the model of the ideal pendulum, astronomical models that treat the Earth as a volumeless point-mass, ecological models that assume strict regional barriers, the economic assumption of perfect access to information about prices, and just about every line of best fit ever drawn.

There is a fast-growing literature on this topic, which is understandable given that all modern sciences seem replete with idealized representations. Indeed, according to some people working in this area, the methodological novelty that Galileo (arguably the founder of modern science) hit upon was not simply the use of mathematics to represent nature, but the use of idealized mathematical representations.  Regardless of its origins, idealization seems to be a practice that lies near the foundation of today’s scientific practice. Given the pervasive use of idealized representations in science, there are many worthwhile philosophical questions to be asked about it. For example, what notion of “approximate truth” is appealed to here?  How can we learn things by making false assumptions? What are we learning about the world through idealized representations?

The issues surrounding idealization that interest me most usually involve the application of idealized representations in critical settings, e.g. when crafting public policy on the basis of predictions derived with idealized models.  Unsurprisingly, applying scientific representations that are known to include simplifying falsities makes everyone feel a bit uneasy, especially when the success of such applications really matters, and even more so given that we have some clear cases of idealization gone awry.…

Is there such a thing as “cutting-edge” history and philosophy of science?

It is sometimes remarked that, in contrast to the sciences, there is no such thing as “cutting-edge” or “state-of-the-art” research in the humanities, e.g. in the history and philosophy of science.  But this is, at least in some senses, certainly false: the historical research conducted on any area of scientific inquiry is different than the work that precedes it, so it is possible to have research that is more recent than anything else.

What must be meant when people deny the existence of “cutting-edge” research in the humanities is that there is perpetual disagreement in the humanities, whereas the sciences often resolve into long periods of consensus.  In most scientific disciplines, at least on the surface, practicing scientists generally agree about what is modern and acceptable, and what has been left behind and is now dated.  But how clear-cut and stable is this bifurcation of academia’s “two cultures”?  Do the sciences really resolve into substantial consensuses that allow for “state-of-the-art” assertions to be made about what we know on the basis of research in the fields to date?  Do areas of the humanities, specifically the history and philosophy of science, never resolve into similar consensuses, that allow for “state-of-the-art” assertions to be made about what we know on the basis of scholarship in these fields to date?…

How go the Science Wars?

This week’s debatable relates not only to the history of science, but also to the history of the history of science, the history of philosophy of science, and the history of the sociology of science. It’s also related to the present day: I want to know what everyone thinks the current state of the ‘science wars’ is.

Remember back in the 1990’s, when there was that huge, mutli-faceted debate happening between working scientists, realists, and rationalists on the one hand, and anti-realists, skeptics, postmodernists, relativists and sociologists of science on the other?  There was a time when scientists were so angered by the things that some sociologists of science and other science critics were saying that they attacked on all fronts: many working scientists and other “anti-postmodernists” would vitriolically and categorically condemn the work of science critics as nonsense. They would associate such critics, for example at their own relatively exclusive conferences, with creationists and UFO-theorists. And perhaps most famously, in a special issue of a sociological journal meant to be an assessment and evaluation of the “Science Wars,” Alan Sokal, a trained physicist, famously published a hoaxed article made up of near-gibberish strings of fancy words, “arguing” for many conclusions about which the editors of the journal were known to be sympathetic.1

  1. Less well known, when compared to the “Sokal Affair” is the so-called “Bogadanov Affair”, which some science critics claim demonstrates how physicists, too, can have the wool pulled over their eyes, as the editors of Social Text were when Sokal published in their special issue.

Reaching for the stars and staying down to earth

Astronomers recently discovered an Earth-like planet, orbiting a Sun-like star, at an Earth-like distance, only 20 light years away. 1  The lead scientist in this project, Steven Vogt, has gone so far as to state that he is basically “100% certain” about the existence of life on the newly discovered world, a bet placed primarily on the planet’s distance from its sun.2  The only inhospitable-sounding part of most descriptions is the planet’s catalog-derived name – Gliese 581 g.

The subsequent public uptake of this discovery, for example by NBC’s Brian Williams, has gotten many people rightly concerned about the social consequences of generating hype about this astronomical discovery.  After reporting on this astronomical discovery during the nightly news, Williams finished his report by stating, “It’s just nice to know that if we screw this place up badly enough there is some place we can all go.”  David McConville, a science educator, responded with an avatar-based video, arguing that statements like Williams’s are routinely used to “subconsciously justify the continued destruction of our planetary ecosystems,” and that he should therefore retract his insinuation that Gliese 581 g could serve as a “back-up” Earth.  It’s not at all clear that he’s wrong about that.

  1. This discovery has not gone undisputed, however.  Here is a discussion of the controversy surrounding this “finding”
  2. This claim has, rightly, come under intense criticism from astronomers.  As Mark Thompson put it, “We can’t even be 100% sure it’s made of rock!!!”

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?

  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.

Can evolutionary principles help us explain behavioural differences between men and women, and if so, to what degree?

Historians and philosophers of science engaged in evolutionary thinking, along with several evolutionary biologists, are sometimes suspicious of two purportedly scientific disciplines: evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  Since the “scientific status” of these disciplines is, in particular, a favorite issue for many of us at The Bubble Chamber, it seemed appropriate to make it the topic of our first “debatable” post.  The post itself grows out of material recently taught by Vivien Hamilton in one of her courses at Toronto’s IHPST.  The idea behind “debatable” posts is that we will outline a contestable topic that readers will carry forward in the comments section; so please, feel obliged to take issue with anything in this post that you disagree with, and to address any aspect of the issues raised, in the comments section.…