Monday, March 8, 2010

From the land of Minnehaha.....

Last week I traveled to Minneapolis to meet with and give a talk to a large and simulating group of philosophers and historians of science, including faculty, students, and post-docs in many different primary disciplines. I was embarrassed to learn for the first time that UMN has a long history of being one of the prominent centers for philosophy and history of science, and to meet people whose work I should have known.

This is a group of very thoughtful and knowledgeable people who are interested in diverse subjects, including the degree to which science is driven by theory, method, or other considerations. They meld history with philosophy in interesting ways, and I learned a great amount in just two very busy days.

To ground these disciplines in the primary sciences in which they are interested, departments like Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior have 'embedded' faculty members whose primary appointment is in History. These faculty members have regular interactions with the science faculty members, and there seems to be mutual respect and interest, as the pure-science researchers are led to understand more about the history of their often-unstated ideas, and how they may play into current research.

Most scientists that I've met have little interest in these 'soft' areas, and are obsessed with their next papers or grants. They often denigrate anything other than new methods or means to advance their technical careers. This narrows science and fosters the excess reductionism or dream of simplistic answers to complex questions that we think is a problem in many areas of science these days.

Unlike some anthropologists of science, the people I met in Minnesota are not voyeurs of science. They're not there to see how science is really done in any 'Gotcha!' way, and not to find fault. They're there to learn, and to fit current practice into what they know about the history and philosophy of knowledge in their particular area of interest (I was visiting life-scientists, but I think the same happens there--and perhaps was first to happen there--in regard to physics).

I'm very interested in epistemology, philosophy, and history of science. I'm nothing of an expert in this at the professional level, but I do try to keep up with the most important conceptual issues as they apply to daily practice, theory, and interpretation in science. Whether I do it well, or incompetently, I had a great chance to learn a lot from a group of conegenial professionals. The Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science site would be a good place for readers of this post to see what's going on there.


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