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Teaching philosophy of science to scientists: why, what and how

Abstract

This paper provides arguments to philosophers, scientists, administrators and students for why science students should be instructed in a mandatory, custom-designed, interdisciplinary course in the philosophy of science. The argument begins by diagnosing that most science students are taught only conventional methodology: a fixed set of methods whose justification is rarely addressed. It proceeds by identifying seven benefits that scientists incur from going beyond these conventions and from acquiring abilities to analyse and evaluate justifications of scientific methods. It concludes that teaching science students these skills makes them better scientists. Based on this argument, the paper then analyses the standard philosophy of science curriculum, and in particular its adequacy for teaching science students. It is argued that the standard curriculum on the one hand lacks important analytic tools relevant for going beyond conventional methodology—especially with respect to non-epistemic normative aspects of scientific practice—while on the other hand contains many topics and tools that are not relevant for the instruction of science students. Consequently, the optimal way of training science students in the analysis and evaluation of scientific methods requires a revision of the standard curriculum. Finally, the paper addresses five common characteristics of students taking such a course, which often clash with typical teaching approaches in philosophy. Strategies how best to deal with these constraints are offered for each of these characteristics.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Philosophers of science tend to treat science as a broader category than standard English usage—more akin to the scope of the Latin scientiae or the German Wissenschaften, including the social and engineering sciences, and (to a lesser degree) the humanities. This will also be my usage in this paper.

  2. 2.

    I know of no reliable data about course numbers for any country. But anecdotal evidence collected from friends and colleagues in the philosophy profession shows that most of them are regularly involved in teaching PoS to philosophers, while only few teach it to science students.

  3. 3.

    Cf. also: “Most scientists receive no tuition in scientific method, but those who have been instructed perform no better as scientists than those who have not. Of what other branch of learning can it be said that it gives its proficients no advantage; that it need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned?” (Medawar 1969).

  4. 4.

    For Bachelor degrees, the respective requirements are to have “advanced knowledge of a field … involving a critical understanding of theories and principles” and the ability “to solve complex and unpredictable problems in [her] specialised field” (ibid.). These definitions by the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) aim to relate different countries’ national qualifications systems to a common European reference framework, and thus are a good predictor of the near future standards at European universities. Similar standards exist outside of the EU as well (e.g. Ontario Council of Academic Vice Presidents 2008).

  5. 5.

    Note, however, that he makes this recommendation not in any of his textbooks, but in some separately published paper.

  6. 6.

    Roughly, their argument is that analyzing the data might be a fruitful way of developing theory, even if no theoretical model of the relationship between endogenous and exogenous variables has been explicitly formulated. Such an approach would still presuppose theory in various ways, but not in the way mainstream economists claim is required.

  7. 7.

    For an investigation of 70 textbooks from the main scientific disciplines, see Blachowicz (2009). He concludes (i) that textbooks tend to present a simple empiricist view of science that inaccurately downplays theoretical and pragmatic considerations, (ii) that they overstate the demarcation between scientific and non-scientific inquiry, providing a stereotyped view of the latter, and (iii) that they tend to downplay the prevalence of controversy of science, eliciting the inaccurate picture of methodological harmony.

  8. 8.

    And, as a side effect, improving their communication skills will also improve students’ ability to write scientific papers!

  9. 9.

    Some European countries have acknowledged this role and have introduced legislation requiring philosophy education for scientists. Examples are the Swedish “högskoleförordningen”, that mandates courses in “Theory of Science” (Vetenskapsteori) for most teacher examinations. The Finnish national graduate program requires philosophy of science courses for PhD students. The Danish re-instated (by decree of parliament, no less) the examen philosophicum which requires a course of philosophy of science for all undergraduate students.

  10. 10.

    A quick survey of the relevant prospecti reveals that most of the top general PoS programs (according to the Leiter report 2011) follow this pluralist line. In LSE’s Master program, “you can learn about both general philosophical problems raised by the sciences and particular philosophical-foundational problems that emerge in specific sciences”. University of Pittsburgh’s HPS1653 “provides a broad survey of a number of important issues in philosophy of science”. Carnegie Mellon’s 80–220 “examines some historical case studies (…) against which we will assess views pertaining to the significance, justification, and production of scientific knowledge”. Cambridge’s HPS undergraduate program investigates “how the sciences achieved their position in our society … the processes of scientific knowledge, technological projects and medical strategies … how and why these enterprises exert their powers and how they are trusted, contested and changed” (quotations from program websites).

  11. 11.

    It is noteworthy in this context that philosophers of science are rarely trained in applying these tools and models to scientific texts. At best, specific (excerpts of) texts are cited as illustrations for these tools. Hence as a side effect of my argument here, it seems recommendable to develop formal training methods for philosophy of science students to practice the analysis of scientific texts.

  12. 12.

    Recent publications like Macrina (2005) and Shamoo and Resnik (2009) offer plenty of case material for such analyses.

  13. 13.

    Note that I am making an argument against assuming a historical and comparative perspective on philosophy. Clearly, to teach a successful PoS course requires using many examples from science, and hence requires relying on the history of science. But these two historical perspectives are clearly distinct, and one can extensively employ the latter without having to make use of the former.

  14. 14.

    I will restrict myself here to how arguments from section 2 affect optimal teaching strategies, and also take into account what philosophers of science typically consider optimal teaching. For more general suggestion on optimal teaching strategies, see Biggs and Tang (2011) or Mazur (1997).

  15. 15.

    As the attentive reader will notice, I am here—on the philosophical level—explicitly not practicing what I preach for the science level: while I argue that the ability to reflect and analyse scientific methods is a crucial part of a scientists’ education, I want to avoid too much reflection or analysis of the philosophical methods used in this. The reason for this is that philosophy in this contexts provides a service for the scientists: the methods for analysis and reflection, and it needs to be confident of its methods to render this service well.

  16. 16.

    A related option—that avoids some of the time-sensitive issues of this approach—is to let them write a criticism of a research paper they had written at an earlier time, applying the concepts and tools that they hopefully acquired during their PoS course.

  17. 17.

    This method was invented in the 1990s by Sören Törnkvist of the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm (as reported by Lars-Göran Johansson of Uppsala University). A similar technique was presented by Hardcastle and Slater at PSA2012 in San Diego.

  18. 18.

    For more information on Chang’s teaching method, called the “Nicholson Journal”, see www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/fellows/jackson/nicholsons.

  19. 19.

    Some commentators have argued that this constraint could be avoided by offering philosophy of science courses designed for specific disciplines, e.g. physics, economics or dentistry (as for example offered at Aarhus University). However, as I argued in section 2, an interdisciplinary perspective is also an important teaching tool: studying the methods of other disciplines helps to overcome a conventional methodology. Thus I am hesitant to call for a specialisation of PoS courses at the cost of an interdisciplinary perspective, although this perspective is of course a challenge for teaching.

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Acknowledgments

For valuable discussions and insightful comments I thank Hanne Andersen, Mieke Boon, John Cantwell, Marion Godman, Sven Ove Hansson, Jesper Jerkert, Inkeri Koskinen, Jaakko Kuorikoski, Caterina Marchionni, Samuli Pöyhönen, Kristina Rolin, and the audiences at Helsinki University, KTH and at the 2013 Meeting of the German Society for Philosophy of Science in Hannover. Remaining mistakes are my own. Financial support from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) and the Finnish Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (TINT) is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Till Grüne-Yanoff.

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Grüne-Yanoff, T. Teaching philosophy of science to scientists: why, what and how. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 4, 115–134 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-013-0078-x

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Keywords

  • Methodology
  • Science education
  • Philosophy of science curriculum