5th Biennial Conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP) Aarhus 2015

Parallel Session 5B
Thursday, 25 June 2015, 15:30–17:30 in G1
Session chair: Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter)
Organized by: Hans Radder (VU University Amsterdam)
Symposium: Practising Philosophy of Science in the Public Interest


Over the past decade, politicians and science policy organizations have increasingly demanded science (including the social sciences and humanities) to have a ‘social impact’. Accordingly, funding agencies and science policy organizations have included such impact criteria in their assessment procedures. In practice, if not in theory, this often amounts to a requirement to demonstrate that the proposed research shall either have some economic value or shall contribute to the solution of a concrete problem of a specific target group. Thus, this policy strongly promotes applied research.

These developments are also highly relevant for philosophers of science. From a philosophy of science perspective, there are three possible responses. First, one may deny the legitimacy of the requirement and reclaim the value of basic science, in the sense of knowledge for its own sake. Second, one may acknowledge the value of basic science (including fundamental philosophy) for the individual scientists and scholars, but at the same time emphasize that it also constitutes and serves a public interest. Thus, this response rejects the claim (implicit or explicit in much current science policy) that only applied research can be of public interest. Third, one may argue that the application of philosophy of science to socially significant issues has been wrongly neglected during many decades. Accordingly, one may focus on specific problems faced by science in society and attempt to contribute to their solution, or at least their clarification, from the perspectives of ontology, epistemology, methodology, social philosophy, or (research) ethics.

We think that the first response is both unjustified and unfruitful. Given the big role of science in society, excluding this subject from philosophical reflection is artificial and reinforces the current, marginal position of the discipline of philosophy of science. The second and third responses (which are, or should be, compatible) see reflection on the role of science in society as a basic responsibility for philosophers of science. This includes and even requires fundamental philosophical research. For instance, research on why ‘social’ impact should not be reduced to creating economic value or solving concrete, short-term problems and, more basically, research on what constitutes a (long-term) public interest.

The symposium will include four papers. Each of the papers discusses and illustrates the public interest of philosophy of science. They include both general analyses of the ways in which philosophy of science can be of public interest and concrete cases showing how this may work out in practice.

The How and Why of Philosophy of Science’s Societal Impact
  • Hans Radder (VU University Amsterdam)


The question of whether, and if so how, academic philosophy can contribute to the resolution of societal problems is often seen either as very difficult or as irrelevant. Underlying this assessment is the view that philosophy is an abstract, theoretical endeavour that cannot, or only with great difficulty, be applied to the concrete, practical issues in the wider society. In this paper, I argue against postulating such a theory-practice gap. While it is correct that philosophy is primarily theoretical, there is no fundamental gap because our life-worlds also include theoretical, and even philosophical, notions and issues.

From this perspective, valuable contributions to debates on these notions and issues by philosophers, including philosophers of science, are not at all impossible or irrelevant but rather challenging and rewarding. An important consequence of the fact that there is philosophy in (societal) practices is that ‘having an impact’ requires a two-way interaction rather than a one-way application of academic philosophy to practical problems. We start by studying the nature and role of philosophically relevant notions and issues in societal practices, investigate whether these notions and issues can be clarified with the help of our philosophical knowledge and skills, and submit the results of our academic investigations through participation in the relevant societal debates.

I will illustrate these general ideas with two examples. The first concerns the philosophical issue of genetic reductionism, applied to the case of (human) motherhood. New reproductive technologies have enabled what is called ‘surrogate motherhood’ (Schermer and Keulartz 2002). This has led to a non-trivial differentiation in the notion of motherhood, especially in the case of gestational surrogacy: is the ‘real’ mother the woman who has ‘commissioned’ the baby and will raise it, the ‘genetic’ parent who has donated the egg cell, or the woman who has gestated and delivered the baby?

The second example, concerning current patenting practices in (academic) science, shows that the proposed approach is not limited to ethics. If we study these patenting practices in detail, we encounter a variety of philosophically relevant notions and issues (Radder 2013). For instance, natural entities and theories or concepts are excluded from patentability. Therefore, it is crucial to establish which kind of things are natural and which artificial, and which entities are theoretical or conceptual rather than material or physical.

In the case of both examples, we will see that philosophers of science may significantly contribute to the debate on the relevant issues on the basis of their philosophical knowledge and skills.


  • Schermer, M. and Keulartz, J. (2002): ‘How Pragmatic is Bioethics? The Case of In Vitro Fertilization’. In J. Keulartz, M. Korthals, M. Schermer and T. Swierstra, Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture (Dordrecht: Kluwer), pp. 41-68.
  • Radder, H. (2013): ‘Exploring Philosophical Issues in the Patenting of Scientific and Technological Inventions’, Philosophy and Technology, 26(3), pp. 283-300.
Should Scientific Ontologies Reflect Public Interests?
  • David Ludwig (VU University Amsterdam)


While it is widely agreed that some areas of scientific practice (e.g. research funding) should reflect public interests, scientific ontologies are often considered to be internal scientific issues. Whether a scientific entity exists does not depend on public interests and ontological issues should be clearly separated from social concerns. One may therefore suspect that any consideration of public interests in scientific ontologies presupposes a radical and highly implausible constructivism. The aim of this talk is to develop a framework for the incorporation of public interests in scientific ontologies that does not presuppose any implausible constructivist or conventionalist claims.

My starting point are current debates about scientific kinds that build on assumptions about property clusters and inductive reasoning. Scientific ontologies are not conventionally constructed but reflect empirical discoveries about the cluster structure of reality that allows scientists to make relevant predictions. While this argument is often used to defend moderate accounts of natural kinds, I argue that it also supports the claim that scientific ontologies are underdetermined by empirical evidence. For example, current controversies about race and genes reflect the large variety of genetic ontologies that are compatible with our empirical knowledge. Genetic properties can be clustered in countless ways that support different inductive inferences. Human genetic diversity can be organized in many ways and therefore requires that scientists incorporate epistemic and/or social considerations in the choice of their ontological frameworks.

In a second step, I argue that epistemic values should not have priority over social values in debates about scientific ontologies. Epistemic values are often considered prior in theory choice because they are assumed to be truth-indicative: a theory with certain epistemic virtues is more likely to be true while a theory with certain social virtues is not more likely to be true. However, choices between scientific ontologies are often not about truth in the first place. For example, competing genetic ontologies organize human diversity differently but there is little point in calling one of them true and the other one false. I therefore argue that there is no good reason to exclude social values from ontological choices or to consider them to be of only secondary importance.

Finally, I propose two models of incorporating public interests in scientific ontologies. First, well-ordered ontologies attempt to balance epistemic and social concerns on the basis of the current state of empirical knowledge. Second, radical ontologies focus on particular social concerns that are widely ignored in research. I suggest that both models serve different functions in scientific practice. Well-ordered ontologies provide a helpful ideal in science policy and in applied ontology building. Radical ontologies are vehicles of social critique that aim to empower marginalized voices in science.


  • Kaplan, J.M., & Winther, R.G. (2014). Realism, Antirealism, and Conventionalism about Race. Philosophy of Science 81 (5), 1039-1052.
  • Kitcher, P. (2011). Science in a Democratic Society. New York: Prometheus Books.
  • Ludwig, D. (forthcoming a). Indigenous and Scientific Kinds. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
  • Ludwig, D. (forthcoming b). Against the New Metaphysics of Race. Philosophy of Science.
  • Slater, M. H. (2014). Natural Kindness. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, published online first.
The Social Relevance of the Philosophy of Climate Science
  • Anna Leuschner (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology)


Due to its economic, ecological, and social relevance climate science is under strong societal pressure: despite huge uncertainties climate scientists are forced to provide reliable information to policy-makers as fast as possible. Philosophers of climate science explore to what specific scientific and societal challenges climate science is exposed:

First, they have provided methodological insights into the question to what extent climate models and simulations can be reliable despite data uncertainties and a limited understanding of both the physical functions of the climate system (particularly feedbacks, e.g. from clouds or permafrost) and the development of socio-political conditions (e.g., Biddle & Winsberg 2010; Lloyd 2012). I’ll argue that these discussions provide the public and policy-makers with important information on the methodological reliability of specific results of climate science.

Second, they have been concerned with problems of consensus finding and policy advice in climate science. The concept of well-ordered science has been discussed in this context as well as the question whether climate scientists have a specific responsibility, e.g. to speak and write “for the broader public” (Kitcher 2011: 164), or “to combat, piece by piece, the misrepresentations brought in support of the recent attacks on the integrity of climate scientists and of the IPCC” (Keller 2011: 26). This discussion sheds light on the particular responsibility of both the IPCC and individual climate scientists.

Third, they have discussed how science and society should deal with climate change denial and manufactured doubt (e.g., Biddle & Leuschner forthcoming; de Melo-Martin & Intemann 2014). I’ll discuss whether the attacks on climate science that are sponsored by the oil and gas industries are detrimental – be it epistemically (by hindering the scientific discussion and leading to skewed scientific results) or morally (by postponing climate change mitigation measures).

I’ll conclude that by providing science, politics, and the public with these substantial information, the philosophy of climate science sheds light on the social relevance of philosophical reflection and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the problems and potentials of policy-relevant sciences.


  • Biddle, J. & A. Leuschner (forthcoming). Climate Skepticism and the Manufacture of Doubt: Can Dissent in Science Be Epistemically Detrimental? European Journal for Philosophy of Science.
  • Biddle, J. & E. Winsberg (2010). Value Judgements and the Estimation of Uncertainty in Climate Modeling. In: New Waves in Philosophy of Science. P. D. Magnus & J. Busch (Eds.). London: Palgrave Macmillan, 172–197.
  • de Melo-Martin, I. & K. Intemann (2014). Who’s Afraid of Dissent? Addressing Concerns about Undermining Scientific Consensus in Public Policy Developments. Perspectives on Science 22 (4), 593–615.
  • Kitcher, P. (2011). Science in a Democratic Society. New York: Prometheus Books.
  • Keller, E. F. (2011). What are Climate Scientists to Do? Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science 5 (1), 19–26.
  • Lloyd, E. (2012). The Role of ‘Complex’ Empiricism in the Debates about Satellite Data and Climate Models. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43 (2), 390–401.
A Satanic Mill for Science?
  • Daniel Hicks (University of Western Ontario)


In the early twenty-first century, the social value of scientific research is often understood in terms of the production of wealth. In other words, scientific research is a commodity: it is done or produced for profitable sale on the market and, like any other commodity, its value is measured by the exchange value that it commands on the market.

This paper criticizes this ‘commodity conception of science’ by recalling Karl Polanyi’s (1944/2001) notion of a ‘fictitious commodity’. Polanyi argued that there is a fundamental tension within any self-regulating, market-based economic system. On the one hand, such a system requires that all aspects of production be regulated by the market. So specifically, land and labour are all treated as commodities. But labour ‘is’ actually human beings and the activities that constitute our lives. Human beings are not actually produced for sale, and so are not commodities. Instead, labour is a ‘fictitious commodity’. Furthermore, this institutionalized fiction has ethically pernicious consequences. As Polanyi puts it, “the alleged commodity ‘labor power’ cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity.”

I argue that Polanyi’s notion of a fictitious commodity applies equally well to scientific research. Descriptively, much (though not all) scientific research is conducted for the sake of improving human well-being, not for sale; and so it is not actually a commodity. Ethically, treating scientific research as though it were a commodity has pernicious consequences similar to those of treating labour as though it were commodities. I illustrate this with the development trajectory of genetically modified [GM] crops. While GM crop development and use is rationalized with heroic rhetoric of ‘feeding the world’, almost all actual GM crops are used for pest control.

Time permitting, I respond to a possible objection. Polanyi’s critique might be read as assuming something like the distinction between pure and applied science, and as arguing that applied science is, as such, ethically problematic.

In response, I draw on Dewey’s discussion of the maxim ‘the end justifies the means’ (1939/1988), and MacIntyre’s discussion of ‘compartmentalization’ in modern society (2006, among others). In light of these analyses, the problem with fictitious commodities is not, as such, applying them to other uses. Rather, the problem is with treating human lives and scientific research as though they were ‘only’ commodities; the way in which profit concerns take priority over all the other values. In this way, the mistake of commodifying science is symmetrical to the mistake of giving absolute priority to epistemologically ‘pure’ science.


  • Dewey, John. ‘Theory of Valuation.’ In: The Later Works, 1925–1953, edited by J. A. Boydston, Vol. 13. Southern Illinois University Press, 1939/1988.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair. ‘Social Structures and their Threats to Moral Agency.’ In: Selected Essays: Ethics and Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation. Beacon Press, 1944/2001.