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The philosophy of science

Two new philosophy hires reinforce the department's strength in the philosophy of science, a field committed to questioning the terms, methods and convictions of modern science.

Jan. 5, 2007
By Anita Martin

From the alchemy of Mesopotamia, through reason-based classical antiquity, to today's evidence-driven science, we have transformed our approach to the natural world. But while today's science daily awes us through unlikely discoveries and innovations, some of the oldest questions in the field are still up for debate.

Looking for a class?

At Ohio University, classes on the philosophy of science range from survey courses to more specialized curricula, such as philosophy of biology (PHIL 412) and the philosophy of time and space (PHIL 426).

Check the course offerings to find philosophy of science classes available this academic  year: http://iliad2.cats.ohiou.edu/courses/


Arthur Zucker, chair of the Department of Philosophy, explains that modern science is based on predictions, evidence and confirmation. "But what counts as 'confirmation'?" he asks. "What counts as 'evidence'? How can we compare and evaluate predictions?" 

These are just some of the questions that philosophers of science ponder at Ohio University. Philosophers of science, according to Zucker, have always been a part of the university's faculty. But recently, the field has emerged as a particular concentration, thanks, in part, to the department's two hires: assistant professors Francis Longworth and Wendy Parker.

The two join the ranks of Scott Carson, Philip Ehrlich and Zucker, himself, all of whom specialize in some aspect of science philosophy. In addition, many philosophy faculty members claim specialty in related fields, such as metaphysics, epistemology (the study of knowledge) and the social sciences.

Information technology

President Roderick McDavis distributed copies of a Sept. 6 letter he and Faculty Senate Chair Phyllis Bernt sent jointly to the faculty. It outlines four goals for the upcoming academic year: improving faculty recruitment and retention, assessing general education, giving faculty members a voice in information technology decisions and strengthening academic integrity.

McDavis also reported that progress is being made on the 20-point plan rolled out in July for strengthening the information technology function. Creating a perimeter firewall and phasing out the use of social security numbers are very high priorities. He also noted that the university is on track to hire a new chief information officer this fall, and faculty members are serving on the search committee. "This summer we focused our attention on moving forward with fixing our problems," he said. "We'll be updating you with reports throughout the year."

Cause and effect

At age eighteen, a visit to the Grand Canyon enflamed Longworth's curiosity about the natural world. This led him to the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford University, and eventually to an early career in the applied field of oil exploration.

Then, while working with computer simulations of geological processes, Longworth began to worry about the reliability of such tools. "We tend to think that computers are infallible, but we need to question them in science," Longworth says. "I soon realized that I was more interested in examining the scientific process itself."

Longworth enrolled in the Imperial College of London, where he composed a doctoral dissertation on "Causal Inference in the Earth Sciences." He followed that up with a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, where his dissertation focused on "Causation, Vagueness and Pluralism."

Questions of causation continue to dominate his research. "We use causation as an everyday term: 'this caused that,' 'what were the causes of death?' and so on," Longworth says. "The problem lies in determining what we mean by that."

Longworth's research stands out in that he looks for multiple theories of causation, rather than just one. "If I get a rock and throw it through a window, you might say the window breaking is dependent on my throwing the rock. That describes the theory called 'counterfactual dependence'." he says. "But I prefer to look at many levels: at forces of physics, like the composition of the window or momentum transfer; or even at the idea that I may be somehow morally to blame for breaking the window."

Laws of physics, laws of Congress

Parker, like Longworth and many philosophers of science, pursued science first. "I remember in second grade we had a unit on the weather. I just thought it was the most interesting thing," she says. 

Parker was completely sold on weather until those first few philosophy courses at Northern Illinois University. In the end, she graduated with bachelors in both meteorology and philosophy. Later, as a doctoral student in the philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, Parker took a year's leave to study atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. Ultimately, she returned to Pittsburgh, where she finished her degree and fused her interests into one by examining methodology in studying weather and climate. 

"In my mind, the difference between science and the philosophy of science lies in the questions you're asking," Parker explains. "The climate scientists may ask: 'what effect do clouds have in the energy balance?' The philosopher of science instead wants to know: 'what methods could possibly help us to address that question?'"

Upon earning her Ph.D., Parker won a Congressional Science Fellowship and served for a year on the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The program hires science post-doctorate scholars to serve as resources for Congress.

"Many staff members in Congress have backgrounds in political science or law or history," Parker says. "Fellows help to communicate policy-relevant science, such as new climate change results, to decision makers."

Parker's academic research examines simulations used in science and, in particular, computer simulations in climate change research. Her current projects include analyzing goals of climate modeling and developing a coherent framework for evaluating such models. 

Questioning convention

In Longworth's experience, not all applied scientists care to worry about evaluating their computer simulations, or what causation fundamentally means. "If you just want to find oil." he says, "you may not be interested in what appear to be abstract questions." 

But ultimately, he adds, such seemingly abstract questions prove very relevant to the methodology of working scientists. What's more, when tackling the more fundamental questions, the distinction between science and the philosophy of science begins to blur.

"At this stage, any theoretical scientist is going to be aware of philosophers of science," Zucker says. "Just look at the problem of quantum mechanics and how it relates to the rest of physics. Questions like that are as philosophical as they are scientific."

In his philosophy of science survey course, Zucker encourages students to question things they thought they knew ? even what they read in their science textbooks. "Sometimes the philosopher needs to muddy the waters," he says. "We take a concept that you thought you understood, point out what may need clarification and why, and then leave it open for discussion."

Longworth and Parker agree that the philosopher's job is to never stop questioning. "The principal question, often overlooked, about any term is 'what does that precisely mean?'" Longworth says. "And as soon as a definition is proposed by a philosopher, another philosopher often rebukes that meaning."

According to Parker, it's not necessarily the scientist's job to ask such questions, but someone should. "It's almost always helpful to get a somewhat detached evaluation of what you're doing, to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your methods and assumptions," she says. "It's easy to get in the habit of doing something someone told you to do without reflecting on why you're doing it, or whether there's a better way."

Anita Martin formerly worked with the dean's office for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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