Someone* once said that scientists need to study philosophy of science about as much as birds need to study ornithology. And there’s definitely some truth to that, as evidenced by the fact that plenty of scientists do plenty of good science without any philosophical training.** But in this post I’ll argue that it’s not entirely true. There are reasons why scientists might want to read some philosophy of science.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a professional philosopher of science. I had several philosophy classes as an undergrad. My favorite two profs were both philosophers, so I took as many classes with them as I could. None of my classes were in philosophy of science, though. Since then, I’ve perhaps read a bit more philosophy of science than the average ecologist has; I’m not sure. But my reading is haphazard, not systematic. I also attend the philosophy seminars at Calgary when the topic of the talk interests me. I’m not saying I know a massive amount, but I have found what little I know to be valuable. There’s an old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing–but as long as you recognize that you only know a little philosophy, I think knowing a little is worth a fair bit.
Disclaimer #2: I just went back and re-read this post and thought “Man, I really sound like I’m talking up my own philosophical chops here, what with all these links back to my own posts!” Sorry, I honestly didn’t mean this post to come off like that. It’s just that, when I was searching my memory for examples, I kept thinking of ones from my own posts. I’m too short on time to go back and rewrite the whole thing with different examples. So I’m just going to leave it as is. And if you want to make fun of me in the comments for apparently not being able to recall anybody’s blogging but my own, well, I can’t say I blame you.
Here are some reasons why
birds should study ornithology you, a practicing ecologist who only cares about doing good ecology, might want to read more philosophy of science.
- Because everybody has an implicit philosophy of science, and reading philosophy can help you make yours explicit. And by making it explicit, you make it better. All of us have opinions about what makes for good science–but we often aren’t aware of the implicit (and sometimes dubious) assumptions on which our own opinions are based. It’s good to be explicit and self-conscious about why you do science in the way you do. If nothing else, so that you can explain your work to others. For instance, I’m quite self-conscious about why I work in microcosms. At the risk of overgeneralizing from my own anecdotal experience, I think too much methodological debate in ecology is based on implicit, unexamined assumptions. I think methodological debate often is very useful–but not if it’s just people trying to elevate their own unexamined personal preferences to the level of general methodological principles. Along these lines, I was interested to read that evolutionary biologist Joan Strassmann is planning to do some philosophically-oriented posts on the role of predictions in science, in order to lay out and clarify her own thinking about how to do effective science.
- Because n-th hand knowledge of Popper and Kuhn isn’t really a “philosophy”. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are by far the two most famous philosophers of science in history. They’re the only ones whose work is widely familiar to scientists. Or rather, I should say that selective, simplified, n-th hand versions of their work are familiar to scientists, since I suspect the majority of scientists haven’t actually read Popper or Kuhn (full disclosure: I’ve read Kuhn’s Structure, but I haven’t read any Popper). In my experience, scientists mostly aren’t familiar with the full views of Popper and Kuhn, or the fact that both changed their views over time. For instance, many scientists are quite keen on Popper’s idea of falsifiability–scientific theories should be subjected to empirical tests and discarded if they don’t pass. But in practice few scientists are ever willing to give up an entire theory based on a single “critical test” that doesn’t come out as predicted, even though that’s exactly what a strict Popperian would do. And quite rightly too–there’s very good reason to think that a strict Popperian would be a bad scientist! Which doesn’t mean Popper was totally wrong (he wasn’t). It’s just to say that, if you think of yourself as a “Popperian”, well, are you sure you are? To take another example, many practicing scientists aren’t aware of the many ambiguities in Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm”, and would probably disagree with Kuhn’s view that different paradigms are incommensurable (see this old post). Just as you wouldn’t take Darwin as the last word on anything to do with evolutionary biology, you really shouldn’t take Popper or Kuhn (especially n-th hand Popper or Kuhn) as the last word on anything to do with philosophy of science.
- Because a lot of philosophy of science today is closely linked to, and can inform, actual scientific practice. If your mental image of philosophy is of abstract, abstruse debates far removed from real-world issues, you should get out more. Yes, there’s philosophy like that–but plenty of philosophers dislike that sort of philosophy just as much as you do (e.g., here and here). There’s a whole school of thought in contemporary philosophy of science (sometimes dubbed “new experimentalism“) that pays very close attention to the nitty-gritty details of actual scientific practice, with the goal of figuring out why that practice works (and why, sometimes, it doesn’t). For me, reading this sort of philosophical work is a bit like looking at myself in the mirror–it helps me see more clearly what I’m actually doing. For instance, Meg recently posted on the power of combining diverse approaches in science. There’s actually a philosophical literature on that–on the role of independent lines of evidence in scientific inference. Or see this old post for discussion of the very tight, direct links between one’s philosophy of Bayesian statistics and one’s actual statistical practice. Deborah Mayo and William Wimsatt are two philosophers who are very grounded in actual scientific practice (there are many others).
- To help you critique problematic philosophy of science, some of which comes from ecologists. For instance, Robert Peters’ A Critique for Ecology lays out Peters’ version of “instrumentalism”, a long-standing (and currently minority) viewpoint in philosophy of science. Briefly, and very roughly, instrumentalism says that scientific theories should make no claims about anything that can’t be directly observed, or at least that any such claims can’t be said to be either true or false. For this reason, the only feasible and legitimate goal of scientific theories is to make purely phenomenological predictions, as opposed to, say, explaining what we observe. You don’t have to be a philosopher to see obvious problems with Peters’ views. For instance, Brian’s noted in the comments on old posts that Peters questioned the reality of genes! But many of those obvious problems are sort of superficial–they’re symptoms of deeper problems. Knowing a bit about philosophy of science helps you diagnose problematic philosophical claims. Knowing a bit about philosophy of science also helps you separate the wheat from the chaff, helps you recognize the good bits of a problematic philosophy. For instance, there are specific contexts in which it makes sense to aim for purely phenomenological predictions (e.g., this old post of Brian’s, or this post from theoretical ecologist Florian Hartig).
- To help you recognize when what appears to be a scientific debate is actually a philosophical debate. At least some debates in ecology, and science more broadly, are really philosophical debates rather than scientific debates. And while scientific debates that are really philosophical debates may not be common (although see following bullet), they tend to be among the most important debates, I think. They tend to have big and widespread implications for how science is done (physicist Sean Carroll is good on this). In ecology, I think Tilman vs. Grime on how to think about plant competition is ultimately a philosophical debate (or maybe they’re just talking past one another because they can’t agree on what the question is or what would count as an answer). The “null model wars” over how to study interspecific competition famously turned into an explicitly philosophical debate. Debates about the role of mathematics in ecology are philosophical debates. There’s a huge philosophical literature on how mathematics can help us understand, explain, and predict the empirical world. Debates over whether ecology should seek predictions, explanations, or both are philosophical. Should ecologists seek to discover and explain general laws? That’s a philosophical debate. Further afield, I think the ongoing inclusive fitness kerfuffle mostly is a philosophical debate (and not a particularly helpful one). Bayesian vs. frequentist statistics is a philosophical debate (one which is showing signs of progress). But conversely, I think much (not all) of the top-down vs. bottom-up debate in ecology was an empirical scientific debate, and that data settled the biggest issues. It’s very helpful to be able to recognize and separate different sorts of debates. For instance, Abrams and Ginzburg (2000) does a nice job of teasing apart the debate over “ratio dependent” predator functional responses into empirical issues vs. conceptual/philosophical issues.
- Because ecology is a young discipline, and so is naturally prone to conceptual and methodological arguments. Ecology is a pretty young discipline, one still in the process of figuring out what it wants to be. That process has only been going on in a big way since roughly the 1960s, and many of the people who were most influential in that process are still alive. It’s only to be expected that ecologists are still going to be debating what ecology is and how to do it. Such debates are philosophical.
- To help you recognize philosophical debates in ecology as just instances of much larger debates. When philosophical debates in ecology do arise (whether or not they’re recognized as such), they’re hardly ever unique to ecology. Instead, they address in an ecological context the same philosophical issues that crop up in other fields of science. For instance, consider the debate over whether “neutral models” should be treated as “null” models, which must be rejected before we’re entitled to infer the operation of any process not included in neutral models. The same issue crops up in other fields (e.g., evolutionary biology), and is just a special case of the much broader issue of how false models (such as neutral models) can help us learn the truth. Jay Odenbaugh is one philosopher who’s done a lot of work connecting philosophical debates in ecology to larger philosophical issues that crop up in many fields. Christopher Eliot is another.
- To keep you from mixing up philosophical debates, long-standing debates, and pointless debates. Some ecologists feel that any long-standing debate must be pointless. Some ecologists also feel that philosophical debates are pointless, because philosophical debates can’t be settled solely by empirical data and any debate that can’t be settled by data is pointless. I strongly disagree (see here, here, and here).
- It trains you to be precise, explicit, and logical. Philosophers, at least in the “analytic” tradition, are trained to make valid logical arguments: to make precise, explicit assumptions, and then derive the conclusions that follow logically from those assumptions. I’m a big fan of being precise, explicit, and logical. A lot of unnecessary confusion and pointless argument, in ecology and elsewhere, arises from failure to be explicit and precise. For instance, as longtime readers know, I think one big problem with the “intermediate disturbance hypothesis” (IDH) is that it’s very unclear exactly what the hypothesis assumes. Another big problem is that, insofar as the assumptions are clear, those assumptions don’t actually imply the predictions they’re widely thought to imply. (Here is the first post in my long series on the IDH). As another example, I’ve written in the past about the confusion that’s resulted from ecologists failing to be precise in their use of the term “stability”. As a third example, there’s currently debate over how “objective” pre-publication peer review is. But that debate unfortunately is somewhat confused because different authors use the word “objective” to mean different things, often without seeming to realize it. Worries about the extent to which peer reviewers agree are quite different from (albeit related to) worries about whether it’s appropriate for reviewers judge papers based on their importance. Yet many people, including me, often describe both as worries about the “objectivity” of peer review (see this old post). The point is not that there’s a single correct definition of “objectivity” (there’s not), or that substantive debates can be settled by appeal to a dictionary (they can’t). The point is simply that it’s confusing when different authors use the same word in different ways without recognizing that they’ve done so.
- It encourages some useful mental habits. For instance, paying attention to one’s choice of words. Choice of words can mislead us in science, often in quite subtle ways. Another useful mental habit I’ve picked up from philosophy is taking arguments to their logical conclusions. For instance, in this old post I consider Jim Brown’s suggestion that macroecology is like astronomy, and try to pursue that analogy as far as it will go. It was a very helpful exercise that taught me a lot about macroecology. I’ve also found that reading philosophy encourages me to think broadly, and helps me see analogies and connections between apparently-different situations. I’m sure that habit of looking for analogies helped me recognize the relevance of the Price equation to ecology, a topic on which I’ve written several papers. It’s also why I do so many posts based on what might seem to be rather off-the-wall analogies (e.g., this, this, and this).
In a follow-up post I’ll be providing an annotated bibliography of philosophy of science for ecologists.
*Sorry, can’t recall who. Feynman? As usual, if you want background research you should be reading Brian’s posts.
**It’s funny that practicing scientists routinely bemoan “cookbook statistics”, complaining about those who just follow statistical “recipes” without really understanding what their chosen statistical method is doing and why. But many of the same scientists are more than happy to do “cookbook science”, without knowing any philosophy of science.