PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Technique-Driven Research: Clarifying the Nature of Exploratory Experimentation

Neural imagers historically have faced a tradeoff: tissue can be imaged indirectly, or be stained, dissected, and imaged optically. While viable results can be produced with either strategy, a decision must be made between the directness and the scope of an image. However, a new preparation technique has become available to biological imaging, which recasts the options available to the researcher. CLARITY, in which tissue is rendered clear to allow for the direct imaging of larger areas of tissue, is this technique. CLARITY allows researchers to look for larger networks, circuits, and interactions in the brain matter. This has resulted in something that I call technique-driven research: research that is framed and developed in relation to a particular experimental technique or instrument. In many ways, the research in the wake of the introduction of CLARITY has an exploratory character. This is similar in spirit to the kinds of cases of exploratory experimentation (EE) introduced by Friedrich Steinle (1997) and Richard Burian (1997): the research that involves CLARITY often does not follow the standard view of hypothesis-driven research. However, technique-driven research does not easily fit into any account of EE present in the history and philosophy of science. In this paper, rather than simply add on to the account, I use this case of CLARITY to clarify the nature and commitments of EE.
I proceed as follows. I start by introducing the technique CLARITY. I discuss its development from the laboratory of Karl Deisseroth, and its growing use in biological imaging (Chung & Deisseroth 2013). With this case, I detail technique-driven research. I describe the exploratory characteristics of the research, and the ability for studies using CLARITY to ascertain novel instances in the identification of novel scientific phenomena of interest. I then show that, in spite of its exploratory character, the case of CLARITY does not fit into the descriptions of EE given by Steinle, Laura Franklin-Hall (2004), or Kevin Elliott (2007). Though these descriptions each capture important aspects of the nature of EE, they either lack specific, systematic characterization, or the characterization they provide fails to capture the roles of techniques and technology in research. Drawing from the limitations of these descriptions, I present a clarification of EE. This clarification is sensitive to the different kinds of theory and the various roles of methods that are involved in exploratory research.

Burian, R. M. (1997). Exploratory experimentation and the role of histochemical techniques in the work of Jean Brachet, 1938-1952. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 19(1), 27-45.

Chung, K., & Deisseroth, K. (2013). CLARITY for mapping the nervous system. Nature methods, 10(6), 508-513.

Elliott, K. C. (2007). Varieties of exploratory experimentation in nanotoxicology. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 313-336.

Franklin, L. R. (2005). Exploratory experiments. Philosophy of Science, 72(5), 888-899.

Steinle, F. (1997). Entering new fields: Exploratory uses of experimentation. Philosophy of Science, S65-S74.

Author Information:

David Colaco    
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh


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