Michael Weisberg

engaging with the public as a philosopher of science

Michael Weisberg and Deena Skolnick Weisberg are co-directors of the Penn Laboratory for Understanding Science. Michael is a philosopher of science working on models and idealizations in science as well as the public understanding of science.

We asked Michael to share how he, as a philosopher, wove philosophy of science into public engagement projects, what it is like to work with scientists and local stakeholders, and advice for budding philosophers of science communication.

The interview was conducted by Rebecca Hardesty with post-interview work done by Sophie Veigl and Lynn Chiu.

How and why did you come to engage with science communication? It seems like you have really committed to looking at something that's fairly untraditional in terms of mainstream philosophy of science.

I guess I've always been interested in the topic, but really the catalytic event for me was the Dover case, a creationism case in Pennsylvania that happened when I was an assistant professor. And not too far from the university. In the Dover case, high school biology teachers were resisting trying to teach intelligent design and the district was pushing it.

It's not new for philosophers of biology to be involved in debates about creationism, but it had been very reactive. So I started thinking about how we might take a more proactive approach. I thought that one of the things that we need to do is to think more about the cognitive science of science understanding. A lot of the work in science communication is strictly on the communication part and thinking about how to tailor the message to be both clear but also less political, less polarizing. I think these are all very valuable things, but I also thought, "Well, what if we start from ‘What do people know?’, ‘What are some of their biases in learning?’, ‘Can we use that to help us think about better messages?’"

That is how I started to produce bits of science communication and philosophy of science communication that try to actually engage people where they are and take them to new places.

“what if we start from ‘What do people know?’, ‘What are some of their biases in learning?’, ‘Can we use that to help us think about better messages?’”

I'm wondering how your training as a philosopher of science specifically affects your science communication activity or approach?

I guess there are two ways. One is that as a philosopher of science you're definitely trained to think about the bigger picture. The second thing is that I think philosophy of science, especially the kind of philosophy of science I mostly do, is quite focused on scientific methods. If you had to diagnose a couple of the problems in the way that people in our country and around the world think about science, it's that most people's science education ends in high school if not before. Their exposure to science is as a body of complete knowledge. If you think about a typical high school biology textbook or chemistry textbook, you're just reading about things that have been discovered with very little, if any, context about how they've been discovered.

Of course, anybody that has spent a time in a laboratory knows that if one in ten experiments work, that's pretty good, right? That sense of the scientific process as being something that involves a lot of productive failure is very remote from how the public thinks about it. It involves, at the edge, evidence that's ambiguous between different things. As a philosopher of science, I was thinking about methods and very tuned into that fact.

If you look at some kinds of the climate science denial discourse, a lot of times what you'll see is they'll pick up on something that seems reasonable. Things like, why did this particular data point from this one weather station in 1954 have to be changed? I mean, if you're used to thinking of science as “you go into the lab, you turn the machine on, you push a button and you get a number and that's it,”, that kind of thing does seem a bit suspect.

“If you think about a typical high school biology textbook or chemistry textbook, you're just reading about things that have been discovered with very little, if any, context about how they've been discovered.”

But as you think, "Well actually, no. You're trying to balance all this evidence, and sometimes you have things that are clearly outliers. And doing nothing to an outlying piece of data is problematic." Now of course, there are decisions that have to be made, and you can make reasonable ones or unreasonable ones. If you're fully acquainted with how the scientific community works to learn about the world, then this makes a lot of sense. But if you're just used to seeing it as a set of facts, then if anything's changed, well, that must be “dogma” or “ideology.”

The places where the typical person is exposed to science are pretty atypical compared to what the scientific community actually looks like. Trying to acquaint people with a more realistic picture of science is really useful. For instance, there is this project out of Berkeley called Understanding Science. Tania Lombrozo is a psychologist with a philosophy background. She and I were both on the advisory committee. They knew already they wanted to get away from the common idea that, "The scientific method is this five-step procedure." But they didn't really have anything to put in its place. And the complicated thing is, if you're talking to teachers, they still have to teach something. Therefore, we helped them develop a nice way of balancing these considerations, so that you have to say something but you can say something that is a bit more subtle about the processes.

This goes into the next question I want to ask you. Even though it seems like you are clearly doing philosophy of science, it seems like there's a lot of interdisciplinarity in what you do, e.g., using scientific methods, focusing on education, making interventions there, having something called a "lab." Can you talk a bit about interdisciplinarity and specifically the value of that to your research and also your lab group?

First of all, philosophy just is interdisciplinary. And it's because all the disciplines came from philosophy. Since I don't really think that philosophy has its own domain and its own kind of unique methods, there's no real issue in that. So I'd say the importance of interdisciplinarity is multidisciplinarity. You want people who know a lot about their disciplines, that have certain kinds of knowledge and certain kinds of tools to come together to work on hard problems and let the problems kind of drive what you need.

But I mean to be less cheeky about it... I think that these complex questions like, "How does the public understand science, and how can we improve that?" There is no field that studies that. And so it's many fields that study different parts of that, and the only way to make progress is to bring people together who can contribute something.

So my group has done some large-scale survey work with mixed-methods, qualitative and quantitative. We had quite a few in person, semi-structured interviews, and that led to two national surveys. And then that also led to some of our work on interventions such as short films.

The other thing is the work we are doing in the Galapagos. A lot of people ask me, "Why is a philosopher leading a huge project like this?" I mean, we have people from five schools at Penn involved, and this project has a public health component, a veterinary component, an agriculture component, education components, and a marine biology component. So why is a philosopher leading this? Part of my response is: "Well, why not?" But the real reason is this. If I were a marine biologist and my goal was to study sea lions, period, then there is no reason to take these detours. However, my goal is at least somewhat of a humanist, and I guess philosophy is still in the humanities, that is, I'm thinking about the broader picture. I'm interested in what we call “social ecology,” that is, trying to help the human inhabitants of the Galapagos come to have a different relationship with the non-human inhabitants of the Galapagos. This type of work I just don't see elsewhere. There is no discipline that studies this particular aspect. It could be any discipline that contributes to it, but I think philosophy does help you see the picture at a sufficient level of generality such that one might see why that's a good thing to do.

“I'm interested in what we call “social ecology,” that is, trying to help the human inhabitants of the Galapagos come to have a different relationship with the non-human inhabitants of the Galapagos.”

It seems like you're working with a lot of people who are not from one of your home disciplines or from one of your disciplinary backgrounds. I'm thus wondering, have you encountered differences or challenges in working with psychologists or environmental scientists, or any other sort of discipline in which you didn't particularly study?

There certainly are challenges, but I think in the Galapagos the bigger challenges are balancing my role as an educator, researcher, and partner with Galapagueños and their institutions. We have the same goals about what we want to accomplish in Galápagos, but I also am thinking about the Penn student researchers and want to make sure they are learning. This sometimes means that there may be a direct path to a goal that our local partners or I see, but that our students don’t yet see. And part of being a teacher is letting people try things out even if they might fail. I strongly believe in the idea of productive failures. However, sometimes our local partners are less interested in that because of the urgency of the problems they face.

So, the flagship projects that we work on in the Galapagos are these community science initiatives. And the idea here is, it's not the kind of citizen science where you just essentially recruit the local people as a labor force. It's a project that you co-develop with the local community. And, of course, from the point of view of just, straight biology, it's inefficient, but we're not doing straight biology. What we're trying to do is this kind of deep educational effort.

I think philosophers are sometimes terrible about this. Philosophers tend to be people who are quite bright and they're good at thinking five steps ahead. They're good chess players. But that sometimes makes these kinds of collaborations difficult. Since no one knows how to do this X, we all must put aside a little bit the feeling that we're the best and we know best how to do it.

When working with non-philosophers, you have to be willing to take feedback. I think a lot of philosophers of science would not yet be great people to talk to the public because they need to go through a process of getting feedback. When you're used to being the one giving the feedback, it's no fun. It's a hard thing.

We've covered the philosopher to the public and thoughts about scientists to the public. But what about philosophers to scientists?

I often hear people ask "Well how do you talk to scientists? How do you get started collaborating?" To that I respond "You just do it. Like, don't talk about it, just send an email to your colleague and say, ‘I would love to come talk to you about this. Could we have coffee?’" People spend a lot of time worrying about this.

Most scientists have philosophical ideas, at least some methodology, whether they like it or not. And then the question is, "What are they and where do they come from?" And unfortunately, in many cases, it is a bit of Popper and a bit of intuition. I think that a more explicit focus on methodology would be good in a lot of scientist's education. And I think you find that it is happening, too, a lot of more progressive labs or departments have a variety of approaches to methods, outreach, and more. Philosophy of science, at least as we understand it, could play a role there.

However, I don't think that it's useful for people to just give lots of philosophical lessons. What I would like to do is to try to think about ways to talk about science in a philosophy-forward way. For instance, we are working on a film about the interesting collaborations between astronomers and philosophers on a search for dark matter. In the film, we never ever say, "Here's a philosophical thesis.” The idea is to try to put the methodology forward and to make the process of science clear and at least to expose people to it. We are trying to do this in a cinematic, artistic way, but it could be done in a direct lecture-y way too. The point is to draw out the kinds of implications of using the synthetic tools of philosophy and also to talk about methods without even explicitly talking about it! It could be quite useful.

When you’re doing any kind of science outreach, how often are you tempted to reach for something simple, like Popperian falsification? Having a simple thing that you can reach to, that's better. It doesn’t have to be explicitly said, but just as part of the way it's discussed. That's something I think can make a real contribution.

I have one very final question. What advice to you have for philosophers interested in engaging with the public?

“Let's not just do another lecture. Think about places that people are going anyway so that you can meet them there.”

All these kinds of science outreach activities that universities typically do, like science cafés and those kinds of things, do you ever notice the audience is always the same? It may not be literally the same people, but there's a certain type. And they're the types that, you know, they buy all of Dawkins' new books and they go to all of these kinds of things.

But what would be really, really, amazing is if the kind of work that you guys are trying to do helps the people that aren't the completely convinced people, but the ones that hear about climate change research and think, "Oh, well this is just more ideological bullshit."

We know that a lot of these interests start cementing much earlier than adulthood. I wouldn't consider this part of our main activities, but Deena my wife, who we collaborate with, a lot of her work is in museums doing living laboratories. If philosophy of science can get threaded through science museums, which a lot of parents take their kids to, not so much because it's a science museum but because it's a thing to do, that's something! This is what I've been encouraging the PSA to think about too. Let's not just do another lecture. Think about places that people are going anyway so that you can meet them there.

Thank you so much, Michael, for the rich discussion and the advice for us folks interested in getting into the communication of philosophy of science and the philosophy of science communication. We look forward to seeing your film and projects!