New Paper: Scientific Disagreement

Here’s something I’m going to try to do from now on. When I have a new paper coming out, I’ll write up a little comment on how the paper came about and what it says. Here’s the first such post.

Naftali Weinberger and I have a new paper coming out in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science A. It’s called “Making Sense of Non-factual Disagreement in Science”. I thought I’d write something about how the paper came about.

Naftali and I both used to work at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and we’d talked on and off over the two years we overlapped there about writing something together. We both had an interest in interdisciplinary science and we both felt that there were lots of interesting things still to say about that topic. Despite these aligned interests, we never really had a clear idea about what specifically we could write about and so our plan to collaborate remained just a plan.

The idea for the paper only really came together when it became clear that we would both be leaving Tilburg in the summer of 2018. There was a call for papers for a special issue that sparked our idea that the “hook” for our paper could be the idea of disagreement among different groups of scientists. (The actual plan to submit to a special issue fell through). Naftali had been wanting to write something about a specific disagreement between causal modellers and epidemiologists (section 2 of the paper) and this seemed like a good starting point to talk about disagreement in science more generally.

We only really started writing the paper once we had both left Tilburg (I for Leeds, he for Pittsburgh). We traded drafts back and forth across time zones and had a few skype calls to discuss the overall thrust of the paper. Overall, the paper came together rather quickly, and with fairly little friction. (However, at the eleventh hour, Naftali changed all the spelling to American English, and I’m not sure I can really forgive him for that…)

The basic point we make throughout the paper is that disagreement can be subtle and complex. Different groups of scientists bring different methodological assumptions to the table and it might not be obvious where the source of a dispute really lies.

This suggests that scientists might need help – help from philosophers of science – to understand the real source of their disagreements. Philosophers can mediate disputes between groups of scientists. This is something I have suggested in the past in my work on econophysics with Karim Thebault and Alex Reutlinger ( One, Two ). This paper provides several examples of such interdisciplinary disagreements, and hints at the role philosophers can play.

However, the paper also has a cautionary aspect. We don’t think that the way for philosophers to “help” is by subsuming a particular instance of interdisciplinary disagreement under some grand philosophical view about the competing implicit philosophies of the scientists involved. There’s always a temptation to explain some feature of scientific practice by reference to grand philosophical theory, and we think that that temptation must often be resisted. There’s an incentive to tie discussion of scientific practice very tightly to philosophical theory, since that’s what reviewers for philosophy journals want to see: they want the case studies discussed to be in the service of advancing philosophical theory. But sometimes a case study is just a case study, and it’s no less valuable for being so.

Marie Curie Individual Fellow

I’m a philosopher at the University of Leeds.