Despite growing up outside a traditional religious framework, André Eberspacher, a double major in philosophy and chemistry, had a belief system of sorts. He explains, “I was raised treating science like it was the truth. This was not really my parents’ intent, but I was never a religious person so I turned to science to I find out what the world is. That’s where the answers are, I thought.”
This faith was challenged when Eberspacher began pursuing chemistry as his field of study. He came to think that science isn’t about finding an absolute truth. Rather, it’s simply the process of trying to construct the best explanation for the phenomena around us. “If you are trying to treat science like it is going to give you the answers you’re looking for, then it’s going to be misleading for both scientists and those learning about science.”
Eberspacher explains, “I treated science like it was absolutely true for the longest time and have come to realize that it’s not, which is kind of like my own weird version of a crisis of faith.” However, with that loss of faith came a gaining of trust. “I now realize it’s not ‘oh, science will have all the answers’ because it doesn’t. The beauty of this conversion is that now I realize that there are still reasons to trust science.”
Trust in the Scientific Process
Trust is a necessary part of understanding the results of scientific research. Assistant professor of philosophy Collin Rice thinks this building of trust in science is key for successfully communicating its results—for both believers and skeptics.
Rice shares his experience taking students to Washington DC to learn about policy-making decisions: “Some policy makers just handed us these pamphlets on climate change and what we already know about it. But there was nothing in this material about the process by which we knew it. I found that deeply troubling because if you don’t trust the process or understand how it works and you already don’t believe it, then the claims in front of you aren’t going give you a real reason to change your mind. It’s only by getting people to see the process of science and see both that it’s messy but can be reliable that you can get some of that trust that you need.”
Rice recently taught a seminar on science communication with graduate students from multiple fields, including philosophy, journalism, and various sciences. “One of the things that we talked a lot about in my grad seminar was how important disagreement is. And, actually seeing scientists disagree and argue and have to grapple with objections and criticisms actually builds trust in the process, much more than scientists just saying, ‘we all got together in a group and formed a consensus about this.’”
Eberspacher credits his discussion of the scientific process for winning a “Best in Show: Research Project” award at this year’s Celebrate Undergraduate Research & Creativity (CURC) Showcase. Under the guidance of Dr. Debbie C. Crans and graduate mentor Kateryna Kostenkova, his research focused on measuring the survival of vanadium compounds in various environments. The eventual goal of the research is to support the treatment of brain tumors through a targeted and minimally invasive procedure. He explains his presentation style, “When I was presenting, I never said that any of this was set in stone. I said, ‘I did this. I have these observations. They kind of show that this conclusion might make sense.’ I didn’t want to tell anybody that anything was absolutely true. I think this set me apart from other presenters.”
Unlike Eberspacher, Rice finds that many scientists are hesitant to reveal the difficulty of the scientific process to the general public. He explains, “Science is messy and it’s difficult. Science is hard and it has a lot of challenges to overcome, but it sometimes does. We should be sorting out when it’s going well and when it’s going poorly. This is better than just saying ‘It’s science. Be interested. It’s science. You must trust it.’ We should get people to think more critically about when they should or should not buy into the results.”
Philosophy and Science Communication
Assistant professor of chemistry Megan Hill became dismayed about the lack of public engagement and trust in the scientific process. “As I’ve watched the deterioration of public belief in science over the last few years, I became increasingly compelled to do something about it. I realized that part of the problem stems from the way scientists communicate their own work, or their inability to do so.”
To turn her frustration into action, Hill teamed up with Rice and biology faculty Kate Wilsterman to think through both the practice of science and communicating its process to the larger public. The team began with a reading group focused on The Fight Against Doubt: How to Bridge the Gap Between Scientists and the Public by Inmaculada de Melo-Martín and Kristen Intemann. The authors demonstrate how ill-founded dissent regarding scientific claims can seriously impede research and scientifically-backed public policy. They propose that we enhance the trustworthiness of the scientific community by shedding light on the contextual framework in which scientific research and its resulting claims are made.
Rice explains the goals of the reading group, “For me, the primary goal was how to communicate the results of philosophy of science to the public. We focused on how to talk about idealization, how to talk about values in science, and how to talk about social structures and power dynamics in science. We wanted to take some lessons from epistemology, distill them into something applicable, and think through how we could change the way we teach science and how people engage with it.”
Breaking Down Silos
Part of this project for Rice is figuring out what skillset or what questions or things that philosophers do that would uniquely help in this space. He wonders how we should think about expertise and the limits of various fields of inquiry. One thing is certain. Rice doesn’t think that these conversations should be happening in isolated silos.
“I tend to think that what we really need is a panel of people that can field different types of questions. We ought to stop doing a philosophy conference over here and a science conference over there. Instead let’s be in the same room so that when the conversation shifts and the question ‘how is this inference justified’ comes up, we can appeal to the philosophers. Or, ‘What is the empirical data? How do we collect it?’ Those are questions for the scientists. We need to have some clarity about when the conversation is shifting into different spaces. And you’re going to need the science communication folks in the room too. They’re much better at getting people excited about science through story-telling.”
Eberspacher credits philosophy for his ability to do science better and to speak clearly about it. “Scientists tend to throw really big words back and forth between each other on academic papers that can create the walls of an echo chamber. To get out of that, you need to be able to talk about things in a way that explains an idea.” Eberspacher’s training in philosophy and philosophical writing has taught him how to structure and defend arguments—a skill that goes well beyond philosophy papers. “In terms of science communication, you have to explain to people what you’re doing. Understanding how to break down concepts into core ideas is a skill I’ve learned from philosophy that I think I’ve really benefited from.”
Rice thinks these skills are essential to sharing scientific research—a skill more likely found in a philosopher or a communicator than a scientist. “I don’t pretend to know how to do the science any better than the scientists. But somehow the communication question with non-scientists seems like a space in which knowing how to talk to people with different background assumptions or different views is something philosophers spend all our time doing. And scientists spend very little time doing this, at least when it comes to radically different background assumptions.”
Benefits of Philosophy for Scientific Practice
As a philosopher of science, Rice has spent his career focused on issues of conceptual concern within the practice of science—for example, how creating ideal models affects scientific results or how justification operates in scientific discovery. In his collaborations with scientists, they often come to realize how philosophical their work actually is—despite those aspects being implicit or underdeveloped in their practice.
For example, “I’ll talk to scientists about epistemology and they say, ‘yeah, that sounds like what I’m doing. I have to deal with how to weigh evidence and the kinds of questions that you’re interested in.’” Rice explains how scientists have assumptions about how science should work, but they’re often not well analyzed or critiqued. “They just do it the way that they were taught by the field. They haven’t dug very deep or thought through how there could be disagreement about how to do that or about which statistical analysis is justified and all those sorts of questions. I think philosophy has a significant role to play in making that thinking more central and explicit to scientific practice itself.”
Hill concurs with Rice’s assessment and has seen the benefits of thinking philosophically about her own work: “I’ve come to realize through our reading group that we need to be much more transparent about how science works – how we develop hypotheses, how we gather evidence to confirm, refine, or reevaluate our hypotheses, how we utilize models and assumptions throughout this process, and eventually how we get to a theory. And this, of course, is where philosophy becomes most critical in our work.”
Wilsterman sees the advantage of scientists and philosophers working together and learning from one another. “I think we’ve had some great conversations that clarify field-specific norms around how we justify and motivate the science we do, and how we approach the reasoning process.” She also sees the benefits for her students, “I would love to see more biology students take philosophy courses, to inform both their understanding of how biology has come to be what it is today, and to improve how they generate and work through their own questions.”
Building Philosophy into the Science Curriculum
Eberspacher can’t imagine studying science without studying philosophy. “I think it’s incredibly important that STEM majors engage with philosophy, especially philosophy of science, to gain perspective on what they’re doing. Science is complicated and hard. If you want to understand what it is that you’re doing and to appreciate what you’re actually doing, then studying philosophy is essential.”
Rice, Wilsterman, and Hill plan to continue their work together—both in further collaborative inquiry and in building philosophy into the introductory science curriculum. With an internal grant from CSU and their respective departments, the reading group will expand to 10-12 faculty and the group will host an international philosophy of science workshop—a gathering that saw its first iteration this spring. The trio also plan to apply for national grants to support the curriculum project, including a coauthored book on embedding philosophy into science education.
Wilsterman believes they have already come up with some good starting places in identifying challenges and goals for how they can use the science curriculum at the college level to build public trust in science. Looking ahead, she hopes to see this generate content or modules that science faculty can incorporate over the next five years. “I think lots of biologists think this kind of discussion is valuable but that it’s hard to find time for it and make changes in our practice. I think folks will be interested in using any curricular materials we generate, and I hope we can lower the bar to these kinds of interdisciplinary discussions in ways that will build stronger connections between our natural sciences and humanities faculty.”
Hill sums up the goals of this long-term interdisciplinary collaboration: “We hope that by increasing the interactions between scientists and philosophers, that we can teach each other more about our practices to develop a deeper understanding of how science works and how philosophy can be leveraged to both help us ‘do better science’ and to learn to communicate it to wider audiences with and without scientific backgrounds.”