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

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Qualitative Methods in Philosophy of Science: What can we learn from talking to scientists?

In this poster, I will be presenting preliminary data and results from an interview study with scientists conducted over the past 6 months. This study is part of a larger philosophical project on the social epistemology of scientific collaborations. The aim of the poster is to show that empirical methods, like qualitative interviews, can be an useful methodology for philosophy of science. In recent years, there has been more philosophical projects employing empirical methods, from experimental philosophy to sociological studies (see Wagenknecht, Nersessian, Andersen 2015). In presenting this poster, I hope to start a discussion about the methodology of philosophy of science and about what we can learn as philosophers from talking to scientists. While I believe that qualitative methods are important to developing an empirically informed philosophy of science, I also think that there are limitations to the method which must be acknowledged and worked through in taking on a project of this nature.

The study consist of a series of interviews with a small interdisciplinary collaboration between two PIs and their labs. One PI is an evolutionary ecologist and the other is a bioinformatician. The other members are a graduate student and a post-doc. Over the course of the study, I followed the collaboration by going to their weekly lab meetings for over two months. I conducted several one-on-one interviews with each lab member which were recorded and transcribed. The data would then be coded and analyzed using the theory-driven thematic analysis approach (see Braun & Clarke 2006). In the poster, I will give details about the data collected and present some initial findings. The study is expected to conclude in the fall.

My research questions for the study are to learn about how collective justification come to be in groups and whether or not knowledge claims from the group can be attributed to individuals or to the group as a whole; my questions were based in existing debates in the philosophical literature on collective epistemology. In the poster, I argue that one positive way empirical methods can enter into philosophy of science is in the form of an extended case study. While case studies face problems of generalization as they are often idiosyncratic, they are still useful as a starting point of philosophical theorizing. We may still learn things in this case that may be transferable to other cases. Also, empirical methods may be suitable to investigate problems in social epistemology but may not be directly relevant to questions in philosophy of biology. We must face some skeptical worries such as scientists often say things that they don't act on. I supplemented the interviews with observations and in my analysis gave greater weight to instances of concrete examples over opinions.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), 77-101.
Wagenknecht, S., Nersessian, N. J., & Andersen, H. (2015). Empirical Philosophy of Science: Introducing Qualitative Methods into Philosophy of Science. In Empirical Philosophy of Science (pp. 1-10). Springer International Publishing.

Author Information:

Haixin Dang    
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh


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