Tuesday, July 15, 2014

science & philosophy

I've been catching up on interesting bits and pieces about science, universities, gender equality,... that I missed during the last few months. A piece that got me thinking a lot is the Pub-Style Science Hangout from April. The topic was " Philosophy and Science" and it was an hour long discussion about the concept of the scientific method, if there is something like basic rules all scientist do/should follow in their research, what these rules are, how much our perception of "what is good science" is influenced by the labs we've been working in or our cultural background.
We scientists often enough think we are a notch smarter than most other people and with this much more aware of how the world functions and all the not so obvious cog wheels contributing to this. And of course we know how research should be done such that the results lead to rational explanations about the world around us - unbiased, based on a sound and logic foundation. We are convinced that our research is not influenced by our personalities or the way we approach it. But how can we be so sure about that? At least I have not spend much thought on these aspects of my research and I'm sure the majority of my colleagues has neither.
The scientific method and the philosophic concepts behind "doing science" were never a topic during my undergrad education. The curriculum contained an optional course about Science Philosophy for 3rd year students. None of us took it, because at the time it did not seem to be important knowledge. However, in hindsight it could have offered me a totally different view on my thesis research and the following years in my PhD lab. 
As an undergrad the science world is usually very small. Maybe one has been abroad for some studies, maybe one has changed to a different university. Some people have the opportunity to actually work in a lab as student assistants during their undergrad years, but for most people the thesis research is the first "real science" they do. If you ask them about science and philosophy, they might come up with ideas about ethics - don't copy and paste work of somebody else. But to realize that the way science is done is dependent on the specific lab, the people in the lab, the supervisor, the faculty, the university and the whole cultural background takes at least a project in a different lab or a close collaboration outside the well known orbit. These differences include the usage of different methodologies to answer the same question, as well as the way a research hypothesis is developed (if at all), the way collaboration takes place (if at all) and the attention that is given to ethical questions (if at all). To realize that the way science is done in my lab is not the Holy Grale, but just one shade of a very broad spectrum, can broaden the view and maybe lead to new, innovative approaches to research. Not only for the students but for researchers in general. During my education and even until now there has never been an offer from the universities side to discuss this topic - a great opportunity missed to encourage the critical thinking we all hold so high.
Maybe it's common at other universities to discuss the philosophical aspects of science and research with the students or even with the faculty members? I'd love to hear about it!


  1. History and Philosophy of Science was the most valuable course I took as an undergraduate - it wasn't required, but it was an option.

    At my current department we have a few sessions on philosophy of science built in to the core module on statistics, research design etc. so all the students get some exposure to it - I wish I got to teach them because it's just such interesting material!

  2. It's great that all the students get in touch with this topic! I think it's very valuable material for them, not matter which career path the choose later on.