How to think about Science: An Introduction to Philosophy of Science

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The way science works raises deep and pressing philosophical questions that should concern everyone engaged with sciences. Is there a way to demarcate science from pseudo-science or ideology? How is scientific knowledge made reliable? Is it giving us access to reality or is it merely a tool, e.g. for successful prediction or explanation? The so-called “analytic” project within philosophy of science focused on these and similar (by now) classic questions. During the second half of the 20th century, when history of science and the intermingling of science and society were gaining a more prominent role in philosophical debates, attention in philosophy of science diversified towards further questions, for instance: What follows philosophically from looking at the history of science, in particular the study of scientific revolutions? If social values influence sciences, is that legitimate? In which sense, if any, is science itself social and political, and therefore normative? And what to do with radical science skepticism as in climate change denial?

Part I will focus on the methods of science and introduce issues about how science and society connects. It will have lectures and exercises in small groups and close with a mid-term test. Part II will concern core epistemic goals of sciences, i.e. things scientists aim at, such as generalization, classification and explanation. When can one generalize the result one derived in a specific study and what is the danger in doing so? What are the pitfalls of classification, e.g. when people are sampled for a specific study? When can one jump from correlation to causation in order to explain a phenomenon and what is a causal explanation? We will discuss major works and some special and controversial cases regarding these epistemic goals, such as the debates about whether it is scientific to say that “smoking causes cancer” or that “humans cause climate change”, whether there are still scientific reasons to talk about “races”, and how phenomena such as homosexuality are constructed via so-called “looping effects” – people reacting to the generalizations made by scientists and changing the basis for these thereby. Part III will discuss how science skepticism arises by economic influences (e.g. with respect to the so-called “merchants of doubt”) and how science and society interrelate and influence each other. This will include discussions about objectivity, trust, science skepticism, biases and the production of ignorance. Part II and III will involve exercises in groups to increase the depth of the learning experience. The course will close with a final triadic-feedback group exercise for writing a short philosophical essay.

Learning Outcomes: 

By taking an abstract, philosophical stance, students will learn how to think about science in a philosophical manner – that is, regarding science in general and regarding their own respective disciplines. They shall understand how sciences function epistemically and socially

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