Teaching Philosophy of Science... With Science!

Adrian Currie writes...

This month we’ve been thinking about paleontology in the philosophical classroom. Joyce started with some motivation: the philosophy of biology (philpaleo’s natural resting place) is young, and so there are likely founder effects. That is, the idiosyncratic interests of the people who first started thinking about biology philosophically may determine the central questions of the discipline. If so, considering issues from an (until now) largely ignored paleontological perspective aids in broadening and diversifying that area: and this lesson extends into pedagogy. Matt Haber’s guest post reflected on how paleontological input—in his case typological vs transformative thinking—can be used to challenge general preconceptions, both in the classroom and philosophy more generally. For my post, I want to focus on how (and why) we might add more direct connection with science into our philosophy-of-science teaching. To begin, I thought some background would be useful.

Probably too much preamble

I made it through 4 minutes of sixth-form biology. At the beginning of the first class, the teacher handed out a bunch of plants.  The task:  take them home, keep them alive, and observe them ‘scientifically’. This struck me as dreadfully boring. With nary a second thought, I had snuck out, wandered into music, and asked to switch classes. And that was the last time I formally attended a science class.  This might be surprising, given that understanding science is basically my job now. But I came to philosophy of science not through a love of science, but a love of philosophy. Like many Australasian philosophers, I was a committed naturalist: I thought that the best way to understand knowledge and the world was through science. So, understanding science, it seemed to me, deserved centrality in philosophical study.

(Incidentally, you might wonder if I still think this. Probably not: I don’t think philosophy should have a centre in the first place).

I don’t think coming to science via philosophy is a problem: indeed, philosophy works best when people with different backgrounds and perspectives are involved—but this is not the place to defend that claim. I’m interested here, in how one might get students like I was, students who don’t care about science for science’s sake, students who are—dare I say—in the humanities, to engage with, care about and even learn how to interact with real science as philosophers. Not just in the abstract; but dirtier, hands-on and concrete. Well, dirtier, hands-on, and concrete by philosophy’s standards.

In the last six or seven years of teaching philosophy that abuts science, I’ve found myself upping the interaction with what you might call ‘first-order’ science: as opposed to explaining scientific case studies as described in philosophy papers, or in simplified ways, or (god forbid) using text-books, I’ve demanded that students find and read scientific papers themselves, and have had them interact directly with the philosophical source-material (er, I mean scientists). I’m not pretending any originality here – it’s not as if getting philosophy of science students to read science papers and talk to scientists is a lightning-bolt idea, for instance I *think* I stole the ‘make them find a scientific paper to illustrate a philosophical problem’ strategy (see below) from Paul Griffiths.

My teaching has roughly fallen into two camps: science-focused courses (philosophy of biology, ecology, and so on) and more standard philosophical fare (metaphysics, for instance). I’ve noticed that students often have a much easier time engaging with questions like ‘does time flow?’ than they do with questions like ‘is ecology testable?’. And I have a theory about this: in the science case, the students feel as if there are all of these nasty facts lying about for them to trip over, and their thinking is constrained by their fear of saying something ignorant or false. Science has just so much authority.

So, science can be pretty intimidating. To get us in the mood, here’s a specimen from a recent paper on quantum simulation from Science:

“Several other notable features of many-body localization (MBL) have been uncovered, such as the description of fully localized systems by coupled localized integrals of motion (14, 15). This underlies the absence of particle transport but allows the transport of phase correlations, leading to a characteristic logarithmic growth of the entanglement entropy in the case of short-range interactions” (16–20).

Now, I sorta know what that means. It’s certainly not gobbledegook. But science uses highly specialized, concentrated, jargon-fuelled language which makes non-specialist understanding and engagement difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. And moreover doing so is extremely rewarding, both for increasing our understanding of science and the philosophy of science, and, more fundamentally, for decreasing science’s mystique. (And anything I can do to burn down the split between the so-called ‘2 cultures’ I’m going to do).

The central point underlying this is that the ability to think about and engage with science philosophically is a skill much like being a good scientist is. And skills need to be learned and practiced. I’m going to sketch three things I’ve incorporated into my teaching(more-or-less successfully…) which I think aid in learning how to engage: case-study based assignments, field-trips, and guests. Hope it’s useful!

Case Studies

It’s a good idea to force students…um-I-mean…structure student’s learning opportunities so as to engage with actual scientific literature. One way of doing this involves case studies.

The basic idea is to ask each student to find a scientific case study and use it to illustrate and—hopefully—critically engage with one of the philosophical issues raised in the course. The students are expected to present a relatively detailed description of a scientific study or dispute in reference to articles published in scientific journals (I've done this both as presentation-based assignment and in written form). This can sometimes just include a single assignment, as I’ll describe it below, but I’ve also had students carry their case study with them throughout the course. One advantage? Each student becomes an expert on some relevant bit of science, which means everyone has something their's alone to contribute.

For instance, suppose we’re exploring Carol Cleland’s distinction between experimental and historical science (briefly, the former tests hypotheses by carefully controlling for false positives and negatives, the latter by searching for ‘smoking guns’ which can discriminate between competing hypotheses). Students might look for cases of historical scientists doing—or not doing—what Carol thinks they do. They could, say, consider whether Zachos & Sprinkle’s (2011) use of simple models to test theories of ancient echinoderm development is a counter-example to Carol’s claim. Zachos & Sprinkle appear to be using a computer model to test between historical hypotheses—and it’s unclear whether these might be smoking guns! (that was a sneak peek at my next post…)

In the assignment, I ask the students to explain their scientific cases in reference to the journal articles in which they appear. They are graded on how well suited, described and integrated the case study is (in my experience, if something isn’t explicitly and clearly part of a student’s grade, they typically won’t care about it…).

A fair few students react in near-horror at the idea of going out and finding their own case studies, but I’ve also (nearly always!) been delighted at what they dig up. My advice for finding case studies is not to charge straight into scientific journals. If you’re not great at reading scientific papers, then you might not immediately see the inherent awesomeness and philosophical interest of, for instance, a recent paper in Paleobiology entitled Ecomorphological determinations in the absence of living analogues: the predatory behavior of the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) as revealed by elbow joint morphology. Instead, I recommend first hitting science journalism sites and blogs like the PLOS paleo community and science daily to locate exciting cases, and then chase up the papers. This has the added benefit of letting students experience first-hand the somewhat startling disparity between what a scientific paper says and how it is reported in the media.

This approach has become a staple of how I teach philosophy of science, and is generally very successful. One plus is that I get to learn about a bunch of science which is both interesting and useful for my research. Earlier in the year in Calgary, I learned about theories of woolly-mammoth extinction, the histomorphology of Dimetrodon sails, what happens to coral reefs during mass extinction events, signs of warfare in the Pleistocene, the scavenger vs hunter theories of T. rex ecology, and that we don’t know why nannoconids went extinct 120 million years ago after all, to name a few.


I’ve only done this once (to the magnificent Royal Tyrrell Museum), but getting the students out to a site, a lab, or a museum certainly generates a buzz. Getting out of the classroom also encourages camaraderie among the students, and it provides a set of joint experiences and knowledge that can be drawn on throughout the course. The folk at the Tyrrell, especially Don Brinkman, were extremely giving with their time, and the experience was, well, *insert embarrassingly gushy, nerdy adjectives*. In addition to wandering about the museum, we were also treated to a fairly extensive backstage tour. Behold:

 Myself and sundry examine a particularly impressive assemblage of gar at the Tyrrell.

Myself and sundry examine a particularly impressive assemblage of gar at the Tyrrell.

One highlight on the tour was getting to talk to fossil preperators while they work:

 Don Brinkman looks on approvingly as Mark Mitchell is *very patient* with myself and sundry budding philosophers

Don Brinkman looks on approvingly as Mark Mitchell is *very patient* with myself and sundry budding philosophers

As well as seeing brand new discoveries, such as this cast of very recent Albertan trackway find:

 Don Brinkman explains said trackways, found by a team including Ben Borkovic, of Extinct  fame !

Don Brinkman explains said trackways, found by a team including Ben Borkovic, of Extinct fame!

I think in retrospect I would have organized the fieldtrip later in the course (it was around week 2), as I suspect that once the students had better developed their philosopher-of-science chops they would have been better positioned to engage the scientists and their materials from a philosophical perspective. One way to go would have been to have pre-arranged questions, perhaps identified some philosophical theories to test. A striking aspect about the fieldtrip was sharing common experiences, which we referred to as we read various philosophical theories about the sciences. When we read Caitlin Wylie’s work on fossil preparation, for instance, having actually talked to preperators and seen their work was invaluable.


As a philosopher of science, I typically find that maximizing my contact with scientists is irreplaceably fruitful. Wanting the same for my students, I’ve found that inviting scientists in to talk to the class is a great way of doing this. In a recent course in Calgary, I invited a bunch of historical scientists from a range of fields—evolutionary biology, archaeology, paleobiology, cosmology, etc… to come and speak to the class. Generally, we’d spend somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes (class was 3 hours), listening to the scientist describe some aspect of their research, and then asking them questions about it. It was fascinating to watch as the students learned how to have fruitful conversations with scientists and to notice differences in how they reason. An evolutionary biologist who focuses on living analogues thinks differently to a paleobiologist interested in finding interesting patterns in the fossil record.

The guests proved an integral, and fascinating, addition to the class. I was pleasantly surprised by how willing everyone was to give up their time to come talk to a bunch of budding philosophers, and how open they were with us (especially considering I cold emailed the vast majority of them!). This may in part have been due to the kinds of science we were investigating—historical scientists, particularly paleobiologists, are very used to public outreach and in my experience are very happy to hang out with philosophers. (As an aside, I’ve always been a little bemused when other philosophers of science bemoan how hard it is to be taken seriously by scientists—I’ve almost always found palaeontologists, archaeologists, ecologists and climate scientists to be generous, friendly and engaged…) A further benefit was that it gave me the opportunity to learn about the research going on around the university, and the chance to meet a bunch of fascinating people.

Overall, I’m just beginning to think about and implement various ways in which teaching philosophy of science can involve actual science, without excluding the less-scientifically-knowledgeable. I’m really interested in hearing about what other people have done, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and so forth. Getting everyone—scientist or no—to critically engage with science strikes me as both important and suited to philosophical pedagogy. And interacting with scientists and scientific publications does much to aid this.