Putting the “Ph” Back in PhD

Written by Nascent Transcript writer Jennifer Zieba

May 2018

Credit: Wikimedia, Wellcome Library

The title PhD is awarded to a person who has received a Doctorate in Philosophy. I spent five and half years earning my PhD, but I came out of graduate school knowing more about vector cloning than I ever wanted and less about whether I should have started that project in the first place (the answer is ‘no’, I shouldn’t have). Until the early 20th century, scientists were considered naturalists and philosophers, and philosophers were considered scientists. Great minds like William and Caroline Herschel, James Cook, and Humphry Davy used philosophical ideas and logic to make discoveries that impacted decades of future scientific endeavors. However, current scientists have become completely separated from the philosophical aspects of their own work. The philosophy of science attempts to uncover and unravel the very core of scientific reasoning, and it is our responsibility as scientists to better our own work by putting the “Ph” back in PhD.

The philosophy of science is the study of what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This includes the structure of the scientific method, how observations can become theories, and whether a scientific endeavor is justified, both practically and ethically, based on previous findings. These are some of the most basic, most important questions in our field. Senior scientists who have been at the top of their field for decades may, through sheer experience, be able to naturally address some of these questions for themselves.

In contrast, while science trainees like myself are taught to logically think through biological problems and puzzles, we are not encouraged to question whether our semblance of data can actually become a working theory or whether our next planned experiment represents the optimal use of the scientific method. Most of the time, we write our grants and conduct our experiments hoping that someone else will decide whether it’s worth pursuing.

I propose that trainees should be developing the ability to make that decision ourselves. In my experience, this training is lacking because the vast majority of scientists know little about the study and implementation of philosophical concepts and argumentation. We are all missing out on the opportunity to not only justify our work more effectively, but to also see our experiments framed in a larger context.

Although largely missing in current PhD training, the field of philosophy of science has been well-established for decades, and is populated by both pure philosophers and scientists who decided to pursue a second PhD in philosophy. To non-philosophers, the study of philosophy can seem like an endless series of unanswerable questions such as: What is science versus non-science? When a theory is based solely on observation with little chance of testability, can it be considered scientifically sound? (This is particularly relevant in the fields of astronomy and theoretical physics whose data is typically based on observation rather than testing a system). What counts as a good scientific explanation? How does scientific research relate to the pursuit of truth?

These are pressing questions, but they need to be translated to be useful in “everyday” science. For example, when we are assembling manuscripts for publication, instead of attempting to answer the simple yet complex question of ‘Does the molecular data I have generated reasonably prove that my hypothesis is true?’, a scientist’s typical approach is to conduct the number of experiments necessary to prove that their hypothesis is not false. This way of thinking results in a fundamentally flawed approach to research, off of which future researchers will build their work.

I recently spoke to Anya Plutynski, PhD, a professor of Philosophy with an appointment in the Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who works on the history and philosophy of science and medicine, about how her work relates to the scientific and medical fields.

“Many of the questions I’m interested in are relatively abstract,” says Dr. Plutynski, “but some overlap with the very same questions scientists themselves are interested in. For example, how ought we to classify cancers? How can we do better at translating the work we do in the lab to the ‘clinic’ and the ‘real world’? What are the challenges of communicating science to the public, and how do we best overcome them? How ought we to think about what counts as ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’ medicine, and health care—effective at what? Efficient in what sense(s)?”

I further asked Dr. Plutynski about how she thinks an understanding of the philosophy of science could benefit trainees’ daily work. “It depends—different scientists encounter very different philosophical questions in different contexts of their work.  Some are about classification of entities or type of entity, some are about theory choice, some are about measurement, experimental design, testing, methodology, progress in science, or perhaps science communication. But, whenever you’re asking a question about why and how you ought to do your science this way or that way, you’re asking a question about how you come to know. That’s an epistemological question: a question about the nature of knowledge. In this sense, scientists are doing philosophy of science all the time.”

Dr. Plutynski believes that scientists and philosophers are asking and trying to answer a lot of the same questions. Nevertheless, a gap in knowledge and collaboration between science and philosophy remains. “Many scientists are aware of philosophy of science, but they may have had a very cursory exposure, or been exposed to only the most abstract approach,” Dr. Plutynski explains. “In part, this is the fault of philosophers: we could do better to meet scientists part way and show them how and why the kinds of questions we are interested in are the very same scientists themselves are concerned with: questions about the methodology and import of science.

In part, however, lack of exposure may be the fault of scientists. Many scientists I’ve spoken to are uninterested in philosophy of science, because they assume philosophers are concerned with mere speculation, not logic, reasoning, and argumentation.” Dr. Plutynkski goes on to explain that philosophers are aware that scientists are busy and don’t have the time to delve into these broad questions. However, “many scientists find themselves facing these questions either later in their career, or early on, and only to discover that there have been philosophers of science have been debating such issues for decades. Philosophers might do a better job advertising what and why we do what we do.”

Philosophers of science publish books and articles that are meant to influence the way science is conducted. Unfortunately, few of these publications are accepted to science journals and therefore rarely make it to the desk of an actual practicing scientist. As a graduate student and now as a postdoctoral fellow, I have yet to encounter a rigorous way to implement philosophy of science into the major decisions I make concerning my own research. There needs to be a way for practicing scientists to learn to implement philosophical concepts without having to earn an additional degree in the subject.

Dr. Plutynski believes, “More philosophers need to attend science classes, conferences, labs, and workshops, and participate; likewise, more scientists might attend philosopher’s conferences, talks, etc. I’ve done some of my best work in collaboration with scientists, and most scientists I’ve worked with have appreciated having me in lab meetings to ask annoying questions. I personally think all science PhDs and MDs ought to take at least one philosophy of science class.”

While the study of philosophy seems like a Sisyphean task, it is my opinion that we, the practicing scientists, should give ourselves a little more credit in our ability to understand these philosophical concepts as well as a chance to improve our work and our methodologies by getting in touch with our inner philosopher.

If you would like to get started, here are some philosophy of science resources:

Philosophy of science authors in relation to biology:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an online resource with articles by experts in the field. Here are a few of the main articles in philosophy of science, and philosophy of the special sciences:

The Philosophy of Science Association has a webpage with links to archives of published papers, and the Women’s Caucus for the Philosophy of Science has a blog, “Science Visions” with a link below:

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