Sunday, November 20, 2011

Customizing the End of the Course

As you know, we have three class meetings after Thanksgiving that are currently unscheduled. I'd like your input in deciding what we spend out time thinking about. My inclination is to devote that time to a single topic, but if it turns out that there's a pretty clear split between two topics, I may try to think of a way of spending our time on both. To poll your opinion, I have posted a survey in Moodle that you may use to register your thoughts about what you'd like to focus on in the final days of the course. It will remain open until the 22nd at 11PM. Or if you'd rather just email me about it, that's fine too.

Though there are dozens of possible directions we could go in, I tried to identify a small sampling of topics that I think would be interesting and worthwhile (see descriptions below; they'll just be briefly mentioned in the survey, so you may want to keep this window open as you complete the survey). You may make multiple selections if you'd be psyched about multiple topics. And I've left some space for you to make any comments or offer other suggestions ("write-in candidates", as it were). As always, just get in touch if you have any questions or suggestions.

Here are the options that come to mind:

Extensions of Previous Discussions:
More on Explanation, Evidence, and Inference to the Best Explanation
We barely scratched the surface on the different accounts of explanation (particularly the causal account). We could go into some detail about what it is to understand natural phenomena and how understanding interfaces with scientific inference.

More on the Social Influences on Science
The last few chapters of French's book introduce two related issues that historians and philosophers of science have thought a good deal about: how sociological factors (including gender bias, cultural/technological factors, &c.) might impact how science is done and — more troublingly — what conclusions we actually come to. 

More on the Scientific Revolutions
We examined one case study in the history of science — Galileo's role in the Copernican Revolution —, but what should we make of scientific progress in general? Is scientific progress a matter of continuous accretion of knowledge or are "leaps" (like that observed in the Copernican Revolution) more typical? The latter view is associated with Thomas Kuhn and his epochal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What would the consequences of this view of science be for our notions of scientific progress, realism, and objectivity? We could read selections from Kuhn's book and responses to it.

New Directions:
Natural Kinds and Natural Laws
We never got a chance to think about how "natural kinds" of things might play a role in our inference and explanation (Godfrey-Smith's article); and while we've occasionally mentioned the concept of a natural law, we haven't said much about how to understand that concept. There's a lot of interesting metaphysics of science to do here. What are laws of nature? What exactly makes them laws? Should we take the metaphor of "governance" seriously? Should we be realists about our classifications or are they reflections of mere classificatory prejudice or parochial interests?

The Philosophy of Biology
Since many of you have backgrounds in biology, we could examine some issues in the philosophy of biology: Does biological explanation differ markedly from explanations in other areas of science (physics, for example)? Are there laws of biology — of evolutionary theory or even about particular biological species? What are species? Are they real entities or merely conventional ways of dividing up the biological world?

Ethics and Science
What are the ethical responsibilities of scientists? How should scientific research (or publication) be constrained? How should societies go about setting our scientific priorities (e.g., to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on space-exploration or research in fundamental physics versus attempting to cure diseases that afflict other areas in the world, such as malaria)? There are many fascinating issues and case studies that we could look at under this heading (suggestions welcome too).

Case Study: Climate Science, Ethics, and the Public Understanding of Science
One issue that we are now well-equipped to tackle is the question of the "debate" about climate science. How should we interpret the scientific evidence — the use of models, inference to the best explanation, HDism, &c.? What should we make of the fact that many members of the public and government are prepared to ignore scientific consensus and amplify the dissent of a small group of scientists? Does the science tell us what we should do about climate change? If not, how should we go about deciding what to do? 

No comments:

Post a Comment