What Can Philosophy Bring to Science and Society?

Photo by Mina Carson

Whether its the Earth revolving around the Sun, evolution, or climate change, ideas from science never stay neatly contained within a box labeled “science.” Once scientist’s ideas are out among the general population, they have little control over where they might go or what directions they might take. This is one area where the philosophy of science can intervene.

Sharyn Clough has been doing philosophy of science at Oregon State University since 2003. The energy and passion she brings into her work can be infectious. She is quick to make a joke and share a laugh, but also slow down to concentrate and figure out the best way possible to convey her thoughts.

Clough explained to me that the philosophy of science covers areas that scientists normally don’t because they aren’t encourage to do so. 

In philosophy of science, “people are encouraged to think more carefully about the broader conceptual issues that frame the ways experiments get set up while also doing translational work between technical issues and other conceptual issues that might be of interest to the humanities or general public.”

How does one become a philosopher of science? It’s not really the kind of career one dreams up as a child. In Clough’s case, it involved following her own curiosity and interest as she made her way through college.

Clough had started out studying social psychology and neuropsychology at the University of Calgary, where she completed her undergraduate work in 1987. With these two areas, Clough examined questions of religious experiences and also the role of the hippocampus in the memory of rats.

Under these conditions, a disconnect began to arise for Clough between the questions about religious experiences being put to rats, but also humans, and the answers she and other researchers were able to give. 

For her, there was a “misfit between the kinds of hypotheses that were conceived of and the means by which those hypotheses were being tested.” Clough wanted to know just what was leading to that misfit.

“I ended up looking at the culture of science and it’s relationship to broader worldview and cultural issues,” she explained. 

By studying folklore and how psychological processes were studied elsewhere, like in India, Clough was led to start asking what kind of cultural assumption were driving those differences.

During this time, Clough also came across feminist theories, and how gender socialization might affect whether or not someone could approach the world objectively. It was assumed that men were more objective due to how they were raised.

“I thought this was interesting for about six months,” Clough said with a laugh. The longer term effect was that it got her interested in feminist theory and how it might relate to science.

When she began looking for a Ph. D. program in 1989, Clough hadn’t even heard of the philosophy of science. But it ended up being a perfect fit when she combined it with women’s studies and history of science at Simon Frasier University in British Columbia.

One area of Clough’s work that got the most traction was that on the relationship between gender and germs. Researchers had found that autoimmune diseases like lupus and asthma were more common among women. At the same time, others had hypothesized that exposure to germs in childhood helped to prevent these diseases. Clough’s contribution was to bring these two lines of research together and add an explicitly feminist perspective.

Clough argued that these diseases were more common among women because the differences in how girls and boys tended to be raised affected how exposed they were to germs that could build up their immune system. Unable to test her hypotheses herself, Clough laid them out for others to explore and what to look for along cultural, racial, and class lines. Positive responses came in from all over the world.

When our conversation shifted towards science and the public, Clough offered a slightly tweaked alternative to the authority based way science is often presented in the media.

“If we’re going to put our efforts anywhere, it needs to be into education about science literacy. On one side, non-scientists need to know how to read graphs and science reports. On the other side, the sciences need to become more integrated with philosophy and history of science to understand how science is culturally situated. That situatedness can then become a part of scientific and empirical investigations.”

This gets to Clough’s thoughts on the relation between facts and values. Her thoughts run so counter to what we usually understand about facts and values, that it can be hard to wrap your head around it. But Clough has developed these thoughts over her career looking at the intersection of feminist theory and science, so they’re worth the effort.

Clough pointed out that discussions of values mostly cast them as separate from facts that have evidence to back them up. But, and this is the tricky part, she argues that some values can also have evidence backing them. Clough’s work with gender and germs was a perfect case in point.

“We need to make notions of objectivity more complex. Some see it as not having any biases or political commitments. That you’re neutral,” she said. 

This isn’t only an “impossible” demand to make on scientists, but an “incoherent” one. It makes more sense to Clough to admit to and empirically test our biases and values.

“If we identify a bias, let’s throw it in the mix and test it and play with it. We could make something like being a democrat an independent variable. If we pretend that scientists don’t have biases or values that doesn’t help build public trust. When values and biases are detected in science sometimes the public reacts as if this is a betrayal of trust. But that is an unrealistic expectation for the public to have. What we can reasonably ask scientists to do is to put their own biases under critical scrutiny.”

“If we created a world in which scientists were more forth coming about biases, we could actually have more robust facts. At the moment, admitting is portrayed as a weakness, but its only a weakness if its untested.”

More recently, Clough has begun shifting her attention towards peace literacy and it’s integration at all levels of education. Central here is empathy, which connects with Clough’s focus on understanding one’s own and other biases in the realm of science.

“Recognizing that we are always biased involves having a certain humility towards our hypotheses, an acceptance of uncertainty, something that ties in with my interest in empathy and peace as important skills to encourage in students, even or especially students in science.”

by Andy Hahn

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