Angela Potochnik and
the philosopher's role in science communication
The interview was conducted by Sophie Veigl with pre- and post-interview work done in preparation with Lynn Chiu.
We met with Angela Potochnik and Melissa Jacquart to talk about their approach to science communication as philosophers of science. Angela and Melissa are both faculty at the University of Cincinnati and co-built the university’s Center for Public Engagement with Science. Angela’s main focus lies in modeling approaches in biology, taking into account the influence of practitioners and audiences of science. Melissa’s core area of study, on the other hand, is model and simulation practices in astrophysics. This year, they are organizing a public engagement with science workshop aimed at philosophers.
Nice to virtually meet you both! Tell us more about the workshop. Who is it for and what to you hope to achieve?
Melissa Jacquart: Yes! We had a workshop planned for May 13th through 15th, 2020, but unfortunately that was postponed due to the pandemic. We have been trying to figure out what to do. Do we move everything online? Do we postpone it and try and find new dates to hold it in person? There are definitely components that are easily adaptable, such as some of the lectures that we have planned, but we were also trying to really do some hands-on interacting types of things. We have now decided to hold it online, on three consecutive Fridays: April 30th, May 7th, and 14th 2021.
The “Public Engagement and Philosophy of Science” workshop is an interdisciplinary workshop that will bring together academics and practitioners to develop theoretical and practical resources for public outreach and engagement about science. The aims are to (1) develop connections between philosophy of science and other disciplines with expertise in public engagement and (2) identify and help develop distinctive roles for philosophers of science in the interdisciplinary project of engaging the public with science.
Our workshop is focusing on four areas of public engagement: the first is science communication, that is, public-facing events, writing, and social media. The second is science education, engaging with students and educators about science. The third is Informal science education, that is science encounters for all ages in settings such as museums, zoos, and libraries. And then lastly scientific work with communities: research with public participation, such as citizen science and community-based research. The workshop is free, but we do require registration. There will be both asynchronous and synchronous components.
As an output of this workshop, Angela and I are working with other UC faculty and graduate student researchers to develop four white papers focusing on the contributions philosophy of science can make to these four areas. The white papers aim to serve as a “beginners guide: how and where to start” document for philosophers of science interested in undertaking research in public engagement efforts.
Which aspects of your career, which experiences made you want to get into science communication as part of your academic job as philosophers of science?
Melissa Jacquart: For me, it was definitely my experience working at the National Science Foundation. All NSF proposals are judged on two criteria, intellectual merit and broader impact. People hate the broader impacts criteria. I really struggled with trying to understand why, and I think it's because a lot of people just don't know what to do with it. It's not something that you're necessarily trained in as a scientist. Very early on I thought, "I'm really interested in theses broader impact criteria. I want to better understand why people find it so frustrating that they have to communicate to other people." At my first postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked with Michael Weisberg trying to figure out philosophy of science and astrophysics through films. That was really great. All of that really solidified this interest in how we talk to non-philosophers and non-scientists about what we're up to, through all these different media platforms, through education or broader impact criteria or films. Obviously, ending up at the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science has just really solidified my interest and ability to think about
Angela Potochnik: For my part, I feel like my interests in public engagement have developed as some of the impulses and norms in our field have been shifting as well. In graduate school, I was interested in how philosophy of science could address where science fits in society and how it relates to the public. However, I couldn’t leave a lot of room for that in my philosophical projects. It was kept lurking in the background.
The biggest transition for me is right after I got tenure, which happened in 2013. I became really interested in trying to think more broadly about what the work of a philosophy professor could be. I think it was really important to that thought process that I'm in a department that is supportive of thinking expansively about what philosophy is. I was able to really redefine some parts of my work away from what I had taken on board as standard ways of thinking about philosophical work.
Let’s talk about the particular role of philosophy in science communication. For the last 30 years, this was more in the hands of STS scholars. I would be interested in what you think are some unique aspects philosophy might contribute to science communication.
Melissa Jacquart: STS scholars are trained in a very specific approach to thinking about science, and so are philosophers. But these different skill sets and different lenses for looking at similar issues that can really help then to giving different insights.
Angela Potochnik: Typically, I say, "Well, scientists do science, philosophers of science study the practice of science," but of course the latter is true of STS as well. What springs to mind for me is this textbook that I coauthored with Cory Wright and Matteo Colombo a few years ago, our experiment in trying to give what you might call a philosophical introduction to science rather than an introduction to philosophy of science. Throughout the book, you're not asked to buy into philosophy of science as a discipline or the importance of doing it. It is philosophical in its approach, but all of that is kept in the background and it's just about science as a form of inquiry and set of practices. That came to mind as an attempt on what it would look like to teach the practices and patterns of science predicated on all of the work that philosophers of science have done rather than focusing on that as a topic itself.
Following up on a lot of things you both just mentioned, one thing is the value-free ideal of science. Do you also see some scicomm efforts in talking with scientists about how to talk about values in science?
Angela Potochnik: This really is motivating a whole lot of the work that I have done in philosophy of biology since my dissertation—that is, dealing with scientists who see themselves as having very different commitments, methodological and otherwise, from other biologists. I don't necessarily care about convincing scientists that values influence their work more than they recognize. I care about a downstream implication of that: the recognition that you can have legitimate work that has a different starting point from your own work. Because if there are these early decision points that are made with particular aims in mind, then you find yourself at different end points. Science is stronger when scientists appreciate that variety.
This also picks up on something I was trying to say about the complexities of public understanding of COVID-19: you can hear things that sound incompatible, but there's a story to tell about how we got to those claims based on certain decision points and how in fact they are compatible claims on related but distinct questions.
Both of you work quite closely with scientists. Are there some specific challenges to that, and what are your strategies for overcoming these challenges when collaborating with scientists?
Melissa Jacquart: I think the earliest and hardest challenge is learning each other's vocabulary and context. Philosophers use a lot of words in very different ways than scientists do. I think part of what you have to figure out early on is, when you say “confirmation,” what that means to you is very different than what it means maybe to a scientist. Or if you're talking about “hypothesis testing”: there's a sizable philosophy literature that comes along with that phrase, but the scientist just might be using the word very casually. I think one of the hardest things is getting on the same page and understanding each other's language and vocabulary. And also understanding that what you think is interesting is probably going to be different than that of the scientists you're working with. But I think that's also the fun part about working with scientists , that is, figuring out where you have these kinds of differences, because that's often where the really interesting philosophy lives.
Angela Potochnik: Part of the work too, is in figuring out what each party brings to the table, and so how to meaningfully collaborate. This brings to mind conversations I remember having around how philosophers can give good talks for scientists and vice versa as well. Things go wrong when we each starts to try to mimic the other, rather than doing a careful job of figuring out what we actually bring to the table with our disciplinary backgrounds, and making those complement one another.
Melissa Jacquart: Especially early on, and definitely as a graduate student, you're very preoccupied with ideas like, "I need to be an expert in the science if I want to go talk to the scientist. I need to know everything about it.” There is also this worry that the scientist will think, "What's this philosopher doing here? They don't know what they're talking about." But in some ways, I now think the fact that you might not know quite as much about the science leads to really interesting questions. I have some peers that I've really admired for their humbleness or willingness to be vulnerable in saying, "I don't know what that means.” Often that's where some of the really interesting discussions come from.
Would you say that your experiences interacting with researchers also help in addressing audiences that go beyond the scientific audience?
Melissa Jacquart: Speaking to the comment that I just made, that's one of the places where I think I've really learned the most. I appreciate other peoples’ willingness to just ask a question when they don’t know something. This feels different from some academic contexts because, for academics, so much is tied up to knowing things , since that is often what you're evaluated on. In some of my public engagement with science activities, it's just people genuinely being curious. They don't care if they know or if they don't know something, and so they're more willing to ask these questions.
Angela Potochnik: I don't think that all valid philosophy of science is work that scientists have to care about, but if you are engaging with scientists about a bit of work than probably it should be. I had a crushing early experience. I sat in on Joan Roughgarden's lab meetings towards the end of my time in grad school at Stanford. It was really valuable in all of these ways, and then the day came where they read a paper draft of mine, and I was so excited about it. When it came time to respond to the draft, they all sort of shrugged: "It's fine. It’s just, we don't care about this topic. We've moved on from this." It was so devastating. If I'm going to engage with scientists about some bit of philosophy of science, I better make sure that there's something at stake for them too.
To generalize from this to engaging with the public about science: you can't just assume people want to better understand the science that you care about or the philosophy of science that you care about. Nor can you just tell them that these are things they should care about. Rather, everything needs to be couched in real concerns or interests that people already have and how those might relate to the science. This fits back with my answer to what's distinctive about science communication during COVID-19. We are in this scenario now where people have immediate concerns such that they are actually looking to the science and what we can say from the science. That interest is all conditioned on how the science relates to their existing projects, not just an abstract interest in ideas about science.
Let’s talk about some recent philosophy of science trends. One big trend is philosophy of science and practice, and scientific understanding in contrast to scientific knowledge. I am intrigued by the notion that it is sufficient to provide “true enough” accounts, in exchange for the aim of absolute truth. How much of that, how much of our very recent philosophy should be part of communicating philosophy to other audiences?
Angela Potochnik: I think that idea is actually incredibly important, and I don't think it's that hard to convey. This point has been really inspirational for me in my recent book, Idealization and The Aims of Science. I've had the opportunity to talk to members of the public in certain contexts, and then also scientists in other contexts, about those ideas. I've been shocked at how easy it is to convince both parties of this.
There are definitely pitfalls of potentially cultivating too much cynicism about science and what we can know through science. But I think it's an incredibly important point for both addressing and working with scientists and engaging with members of the public. One significance is that this helps make sense of all of these different scientific findings that, as I said before, can look on the face of it as if they're contradicting one another.
Are there some tips and tricks you have for how to communicate your philosophy to a scientific audience? Is there anything that you could say, "Well, this works pretty well, this doesn't, and so on?"
Melissa Jacquart: One thing I found helpful in talking about some of my astrophysics work with scientists is actually attending to the things that, for a philosophy audience, I would assume are obvious. I do a lot of work on the relationship of models and computer simulations and astrophysics. When talking with astrophysicists, I often take the time to explain what the philosophical questions are and some of the background to that. Oftentimes, just explaining the general philosophical background of, "Here's a question and why, in philosophy, we think that's interesting," ends up being the focus of my Q&A. One astrophysicist might ask me, "Well, why would someone even think that?" and then it turns out somebody else in their same department is one of these “someones”. So I end up with these cross-talks between department members in the Q&A of my philosophy talk, even though I am not participating in that conversation. That's a big win because now I have two astrophysicists talking about this philosophical issue, which they didn't even realize they had different views on.
Let’s wrap our conversation up by talking about the center, and its recent founding history!
Angela Potochnik: Our Center for Public Engagement with Science started three years ago. I have learned since then how long it really takes to create such a thing! I started out saying it was a “pretend” center; now I say it's a “baby” center. It's becoming more real every day. We have a hodgepodge of projects at the moment, but I think that there is a pretty clear logic to them: projects that span research about public engagement with science, direct outreach activities, and then also student training in public engagement.
Increasingly, the student training, especially graduate student training, is taking up a lot of our attention, which is, I think, a very good thing. We have adopted a deeply interdisciplinary approach, pursuing a variety of projects that broadly contribute to science outreach, how the public engages with science, and also theorizing what public engagement with science is and how it works.
Melissa Jacquart: We're also developing an interdisciplinary graduate course in public engagement with science, where we bring science grad students and humanities grad students that are interested in sciences together. We teach them some of the background related to doing public engagement with science and then we put them into interdisciplinary groups to develop outreach activities as a group. That's one of the things that we've been working on.
It is important to appreciate that there are other disciplines that have been doing forms of public engagement for years and years and years. So how do we tap into what they've already been doing, and how can we learn what they're already doing? What can we learn from people who have been doing science of science communication? What can we learn from people in STS? What can we learn from people who've been doing science education in libraries and things like that?
Angela Potochnik: That's another interesting thing about the Center work, coming at it from a philosophy of science background. Philosophy of science, and philosophy in general, aspires to such generality and lack of situatedness in many respects. It's really interesting to be doing work that explicitly takes on board being spatially situated in a local community instead of in an international academic community.
Melissa Jacquart: That was one of the things that was really striking to me about coming here and starting to work with Angela: the power of really getting to know your own city and knowing what's important to your community locally, especially because so much is often focused on the international philosophy of science community. It's a really interesting and striking contrast, what it means to gain credibility and for people to know your name in a local setting and to develop relationships in that context. It's a whole new different relationship that you have to learn how to navigate and how to build. We have these standard norms when it comes to building academic relationships, but community relationships are very different.
Circling back to the defining issue of our times-- how do you judge the science communication efforts regarding the corona pandemic in the US? What did you like? What didn't you like?
Angela Potochnik: It seems like there's never been as much popular interest as there is right now on what we don't know and why we don't know. The role of scientific modeling and scientific knowledge versus misinformation is another theme that seems well represented in broad treatments of academic themes, scientific and philosophical, related to the epidemic. It is really interesting as someone who cares about public engagement, to see the rapid pace of communication development and update. For example, the “flatten the curve” idea progressed day-to-day from a highly abstract notion, to Carl Bergstrom's little graphic that he thinks may effectively communicate the notion, to a widely shared component of our understanding of COVID-19.
Melissa Jacquart: One of the interesting things I've found is instead of being a producer of scicomm I've been more of a consumer. So it's been interesting from that perspective: to look at some of the other philosophers of science in the field and see how they've been framing things. That's been really interesting.
Angela Potochnik: I'm also bowled over by the awesomeness of Ed Yong as a science writer (with The Atlantic). I think I have maybe had this implicit assumption that individuals don't matter so much in the direction of public opinion, that it’s more about widely shared ideas, but I’m not convinced some individual voices clearly matter. We have these cases of one individual putting a point a certain way, or choosing to emphasize one thing versus another, that ends up amplifying into something much more significant, including what we might frame as social change.
To find out more about the University of Cincinnati Center for Public Engagement with Science and its activities visit https://www.artsci.uc.edu/research/centers-institutes/cpes.html.