Henk de regt

Understanding Scientific Understanding

"My working hypothesis would be “let’s look at understanding as a skill”. Knowledge is not just facts that we have to transfer."

The interview was led by Sophie Veigl with pre- and post-interview work done in preparation with Lynn Chiu and Rebecca Hardesty.
Cosmas Damian Grosser transcribed the interview.

What is it for an expert to have scientific understanding of, say, climate change? Philosopher of science Henk de Regt just received the prestigious 2019 Lakatos Award for addressing this very question in his book “Understanding Scientific Understanding” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

For those not familiar with Henk’s work — or the philosophical area of scientific understanding and explanation in general — here’s the central issue: we all agree that offering understandable explanations is a central aim of science. Yet… what do we mean when we say that a theory is understandable? Understood by whom? How do you know when understanding has been achieved, when somebody’s truly understood a scientific theory? What does it take to help someone understand something? What are they supposed to think, feel, or do, exactly, so that, at the end of the day, we can say “yes, they finally understood!”?

When can we say “yes, they finally understood!”?

Henk argues that scientific understanding is fundamentally a skillful act. To understand a scientific theory is to be able to use it in the right way. The theory must be intelligible, of course. With a good understanding of a theory, we should be able to construct a model of the world and figure out “what’s next,” that is, what comes of it.

Different fields of science, however, have varying ideas about what makes a theory intelligible (have you seen some of those crazy complicated mathematical models only few can understand? Well… the experts think they’re perfectly intelligible... to them.). Therefore, on Henk’s view, understanding is context-dependent — it is relative to the standards set by a scientific community.

But what about the public understanding of science? If the aim of scientific understanding is supposed to make the public understand a scientific theory… we can’t force the public to be just as skilled as an expert. What does it mean for members of the public to understand a scientific theory, then?

This intriguing question is precisely Henk’s next step. We were excited to have the opportunity to interview Henk in Vienna this October, when he was invited by philosopher of science Tarja Knuuttila (University of Vienna) to give a talk on “Models, Intelligibility and Scientific Understanding.” Led by PhilofSciComm Sophie J Viegl, we (intern Cosmas Damian Grosser and PhilofSciComm Lynn Chiu) sat down with Henk at the elegant Cafe Eiles, a traditional Viennese café built in at the turn of the 20th century.

The following is a condensed version of our interview. We appreciate the time he took speaking with us and look forward to his upcoming work!

-- Lynn Chiu

The Interview

Congratulations on the new position at Radboud University in Nijmegen! What brings you to a position that is related to science communication?

It's something that I just started. The book — Understanding Scientific Understanding — is really about expert scientific understanding. So, after I published the book I thought “okay what do I want to do next?” and then I realized that I want to look into this direction of public understanding of scientific expertise, or communication between experts from different disciplines and especially the public. I’ve already read some papers in Public Understanding of Science, about different models, specifically the deficit model. But I just started, and I moved, I got a new job. I was a professor in philosophy of science for 18 years at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where I did all this work on scientific understanding. But this summer I moved to Radboud University in Nijmegen, where I am now at the Institute for Science in Society, which is part of the Faculty of Science.

"My working hypothesis would be “let’s look at understanding as a skill”. Knowledge is not just facts that we have to transfer."

Congratulations also on winning the Lakatos Award for your book Understanding Scientific Understanding! If we were to recommend this book to science communication researchers and practitioners, which parts do you think would interest them the most?

The first and the second chapters are introductory chapters, so I would recommend these. The first chapter gives an overview and an introduction. In the second chapter, I analyse the notion of skills and the conception of intelligibility. I think that would be best. The second half of the book contains historical case studies, and I develop my theory of scientific understanding in more detail. But in the second chapter I survey ideas that I think are most relevant for science communication.

You studied both physics and philosophy. How does your training influence the ways in which you think about science communication in general, or specific issues in particular?

I did a bachelor in technical physics and when I moved to philosophy many of my physics students thought “wow, this guy has gone mad.” In my master studies I was specializing in philosophy of physics which is mainly about abstract theories like relativity theory, quantum theory and so on. At the time when I was studying physics there was a huge public interest in these theories even though they were very abstract. They were covered in popular science books on physics. And I also read some of these books and I think this is one way of doing science communication that is very useful. I had this idea to study the ways in which the authors managed (or didn’t manage) to communicate these abstract scientific theories or ideas of concepts to the public. This often involves the use of metaphors and analogies. Some people are just very good in doing this.

Speaking about philosophy, it is of course important to appreciate that social scientists have already been working on the issue of science communication, so we need to ask for the unique contribution that philosophy can provide. I think philosophy can add perspectives, help reflect on what is important, and add a normative perspective. It is also an interesting fact that everyone in science communication agrees that the deficit model is a failure but there are still scientists who think that way. So, what exactly can philosophy contribute? My working hypothesis would be “let’s look at understanding as a skill”. Knowledge is not just facts that we have to transfer. And there is this basic idea in philosophy of science, it´s a simple idea that still many people don’t realize, namely that you can have experts with different opinions. That is something that you have to understand nowadays: experts disagree.

Tell us about one of your current projects that involve science communication!

I am currently collaborating with Tarja Knuuttila, Natalia Carrillo-Escalera and Linda Holland, my PhD student. The project involves a collaboration with neuroscientists. We collaborate with Benjamin Drukarch, a neuroscientist in Amsterdam. He was part of a group of philosophers and neuroscientists who implemented philosophy in neuroscience. So Linda joined their group and Benjamin was interested in the neuroscientific debate on the action potential, which involved the Hodgkin-Huxley model and alternative models. And it turned out that Tarja and Natalia are also working on this topic. We decided to collaborate, and to also include scientists. We need to convince them to come to a philosophy of science conference, and here the communication part is important.

The practice turn in philosophy of science emphasizes that philosophers should refocus their investigative aims from the “products” of science to “processes”. And, if focused on products to view them as processes and in constant flux. Do you think this perspective should be included in science communication?

Of course, it is unrealistic to claim that the public has to know all the details of debates. But there should be some basic knowledge and ideas how science works. And science is not just a process, it is a process that involves skills. And not just that, public understanding of science is also a skill, a skill you need to acquire. The question is how to acquire these skills and how they can be taught. Which skills are required for public understanding? That is something I want to research. And science communication is not only communication to the public. Interdisciplinary communication is also a form of science communication. One of my tasks in my new institute is to establish connections and relations, maybe also collaborations, with scientists in other institutes. I’ve already got in touch with some of the physicists, some of them are interested in philosophy. That’s something I want to establish, working with the scientists themselves.

How would you communicate your area of expertise, understanding-based epistemology, to a public audience?

I think that this is probably not easy, but I believe that it will be helpful in the end. For example, Kevin McCain and Kostas Kampourakis just published a book Uncertainty (Oxford University Press). The general theme is that science can’t give certainty. They also have a chapter on understanding and they make it very clear that we should see science as producing understanding and not producing truth. If you say, “well, science can’t give you the truth”, then you have to come up with an alternative, right? And that might be understanding. Of course, we have to back this up with a theory of understanding. We also need to criticize the views of some philosophers who think that you can’t have understanding without truth.

Thank you Henk, for sharing with us your insights on science and philosophy communication, respectively. We are looking forward on collaborating through the Philosophy of Science Communication Network!