Progress in Science & Society: Workshop with P. Kitcher

June 14, 2017
Leibniz Universität Hannover (Biomolekulares Wirkstoffzentrum, BMWZ)

Program | Abstracts | Speakers | Venue & Practical Information | Call for Papers

Philip Kitcher (New York):
“Progress in the Sciences and in the Arts”
(keynote on Wed, June 14th)
“Radical Pragmatism” (evening lecture on Mon, June 12th)

Marta Bertolaso (Rome):
“What progress, if any, in cancer research?”

This talk contributes to the philosophical discussion on progress from the standpoint of a deep analysis of cancer research over the last decades. According to many interpretations of the available data, despite immense efforts and investments, we are losing the “War on Cancer”: cures are still rare and limited, and the few improvements for people affected by cancer seem to come more from caring practices and healthy lifestyles than from particular discoveries coming from cancer research. So “is there progress in cancer research?” seems to be an important and stimulating question for the philosophy of the life sciences in practice. I propose that cancer research exhibits progressive collective orientation that (a) seeks the maximization of ‘non-trivial determinism’ (a concept taken from systems biology and to be explained further); (b) pursues a lasting social and epistemic ‘mandate’ (a new notion I want to introduce); (c) increases the ‘adequacy’ of scientific practice to the domain of study. This kind of ‘progress’ – a concerted change in epistemological assumptions and research practices throughout the scientific community – might be the right way to conceive scientific advancement along several dimensions, including approaching the enduring goal set by the society: the goal of care.

Vanessa Rampton (Zurich):
“Progress in Science and Society: The Case of Medicine”

Medicine presents a special case for the notion of progress and the related goal of creating a good life for all. While modern medicine is sometimes touted as the prime example of how technology can improve human lives, a debate is currently underway about to what extent technological advances imply trade-offs or costs in other fields, and can be in tension with the wishes of patients they purport to serve. At stake is medicine’s self-identity as a technology-based progressive enterprise, in which intervention is the favoured course of action, as well as the expectations of the patients it handles.This contribution uses medicine as a case study to reflect on the suitability of the notion of progress and the conceptual assumptions that underpin it. To do so it argues that ambivalences are inherent in the concept of (medical) progress, and that progress should be conceived as a second-order concept describing an attitude whereby ambivalences are accepted and consciously managed. Drawing on examples from end-of-life care and other fields, I investigate persistent tensions between general advances in medical technology, and the concrete, lived experiences of human patients. Such an account makes a valuable contribution to the broader discussion of the merits and challenges of the notion of progress.

Manuela Fernández Pinto (Bogotá):
“Pragmatic naturalism for commercially-driven science

In contrast to Kitcher’s “top-down” approach, in which the ideals of well-ordered science and the ethical project help diagnose current scientific practice, I develop a “bottom-up” approach, starting with the complexities present in current commercialized science, in which ethical, social, and epistemic goals, interact with commercial goals. In these cases, different notions of progress coexist, sometimes overlapping and mutually contributing to each other, but other times clashing, and mutually obstructing one another. To illustrate the latter, I examine the case of BiDil, the first drug approved in the US for exclusive use in African-Americans, showing that when the ethical, social, and epistemic goals of research are steered to secure the achievement of economic goals, the end result might end up compromising the original aims. In this sense, the problem with strategies to make the scientific process more democratic and inclusive in commercially-driven research can be characterized in terms of a misalignment of research goals. To fully understand this, a careful examination of the actual social organization of scientific inquiry and its multiplicity seems pressing. Only when taking into account the current context of scientific practice, and not an idealized version of it, would philosophers be able to capture the practical pressures of scientific inquiry and thus develop the pragmatic naturalism that Kitcher envisages.

Parysa Mostajir (Chicago):
“Progress as Universalist and Pluralist: A Hidden Conflict”

Kitcher’s account of progress is both universalist and context-dependent. These aspects rely on different but related assumptions from Dewey’s philosophy. The universalist aspect derives from Dewey’s evolutionary notion of humans as organisms in homeostatic relation with their environment, in which all human striving is, essentially, an attempt to overcome experienced challenges. The pluralist aspect derives from Dewey’s empiricist theory of the complex experiencing subject, in which a rich array of experiential challenges arise and require resolution. A problem occurs upon considering the democratic element of progress: our all-embracing goal is to create a good life for all. Based on the above conceptual assumptions, there is no obvious reason a human—an organism whose goal is personal relief from experienced challenges—would extend this goal to include anyone else, let alone “all”. Indeed, under this view, there is reason to believe that other humans would constitute mere aspects of the individual’s physical environment, to be manipulated to one’s desired ends. The oppression and objectification of women supply an unfortunate example. The question arises, Who defines who “we” are, those for “all” of whom we pursue the good life? If we can succeed in instrumentalising others, why, according to Kitcher’s theory, shouldn’t we?

Jan-Willem Romeijn (Groningen) & Remco Heesen (Cambridge):
“Epistemic diversity and Editor Decisions: a Statistical Matthew Effect”

This paper offers a new angle on the common idea that the process of science does not support epistemic diversity. Under minimal assumptions on the nature of journal editing we prove that editorial procedures, despite being impartial in themselves, disadvantage less prominent research programmes. In particular (generalizing previous work in psychometrics and in social epistemology) we show that the quality of editorial decisions, as measured by false positives and negatives, is lower for programmes that on the whole deliver fewer good papers or perform worse in editor assessments. This purely statistical bias in article selection further skews the existing differences in the success rate and hence attractiveness of research programmes, and exacerbates the reputation difference between the programmes. Importantly, the assumptions needed for the results can be based on real differences between the programmes, but also on differences among programmes that manifest themselves in the editorial procedures. The paper ends with a number of recommendations that may help promote scientific diversity through editorial decision making.