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

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Exploratory Science: A Case Study from Within

How does scientific knowledge advance? For fields trading in laboratory research, experimentation and publication are both essential to the establishment of new scientific claims. These activities have been re-evaluated in recent years by philosophers interested in various aspects of scientific practice. The rise of the category of exploratory experimentation reflects a growing awareness that theory, though always present, is often not pre-eminent in scientific research. Philosophers of biology have been especially active in defending the importance of exploratory methods when the systems under study are particularly complex or uncharted [1]. Meanwhile, philosophers have joined historians and sociologists of science in attending to the ways in which scientific papers are highly selective accounts of actual research. Observers differ, however, in the degree to which they view these texts as the primary locus of credentialing for scientific claims [2].

The philosophical issues attending both experimentation and publication can be jointly illuminated by looking in detail at the unfolding of particular research projects from conception to publication. This poster presents such a case study for a laboratory project in which I was both the primary experimenter and primary author. Using laboratory notebooks, meeting notes, and presentations produced over a period of four years, I analyze the exploratory nature of both experimentation and publication in my project as well as the larger research program of my lab.

I first present a visual mapping between the chronology of my experiments and the figures in the published paper. I then illustrate key stages in the evolution of several figures and describe the changing conceptual role each one played in the developing argument. These examples reveal a highly non-linear process in which the first experiment destined for publication became the last figure of the paper, and another set of experiments was temporarily discarded as uninformative before rising again to support a pivotal point in the narrative of the paper.

Finally, I locate my project within an ongoing research agenda spanning seven years and four additional publications. Though my lab has identified many previously unrecognized physiological phenomena, only a small subset have yet succumbed to mechanistic analysis. As our publications have provided increasingly reductive explanations, they have appeared in increasingly prestigious journals. This trajectory invites a narrative of exploratory experimentation yielding to hypothesis-driven research, but the reality is more complicated. Each stage of the project has been facilitated by a new round of exploratory work, driving hypothesis testing in a reciprocal manner.

In this research project, exploratory activities pervade the entire process of knowledge production, from experimentation to the construction of a published narrative. The interplay between the production and presentation of data suggests that philosophical distinctions between discovery and justification, or exploratory and theoretical research, do not map neatly onto the units of scientific practice. These concepts describe different epistemic roles that are performed fluidly and iteratively by scientists at work.

[1] Hist Phil Life Sci 29.3 (2007)
[2] Schickore, Phil Sci 75.3 (2008)

Author Information:

Devin GouvĂȘa    
Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science
University of Chicago


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