The Biggest Problems Facing Science — How Different is Philosophy?

A few reporters at Vox conducted an unscientific survey of scientists to unpack the sense they’ve been getting that “science is in big trouble.” The result is a list of the seven biggest problems facing science, based on responses from 270 scientists.

What are they?

  1. “The way money is handed out that puts pressure on labs to publish a lot of papers, breeds conflicts of interest, and encourages scientists to overhype their work.”
  2. “The problem here is that truly groundbreaking findings simply don’t occur very often, which means scientists face pressure to game their studies so they turn out to be a little more ‘revolutionary.’… perverse incentives can also push scientists to cut corners in how they analyze their data.”
  3. “Testing, validating, retesting — it’s all part of a slow and grinding process to arrive at some semblance of scientific truth. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should… Scientists face few incentives to engage in the slog of replication.”
  4. “Numerous studies and systematic reviews have shown that peer review doesn’t reliably prevent poor-quality science from being published.”
  5. Too much science is “locked away in paywalled journals, difficult and costly to access… [and]  the publication process itself for being too slow, bogging down the pace of research.”
  6. “Science is poorly communicated to the public…. So many laypeople hold on to completely unscientific ideas or have a crude view of how science works.”
  7. “Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful…. The day-to-day experience of being a scientist [is] grueling and unrewarding.”

Explanations of these items and some possible solutions can be found in the article at Vox.

To what extent are these the big problems of philosophy?

  1. Money: There are some concerns about how big money may be shaping the landscape of contemporary philosophy. But typically the larger problem is the purported shortage of money that threatens philosophy at some schools.
  2. Perverse Incentives: While incentives in science may cause scientists to overhype their work, in philosophy there are concerns that the incentives lead to philosophical conservatism or timidity, that is, to “boring” contemporary philosophy (though see this and this).
  3. Replication: We don’t do this, but I recall someone suggesting a service that might perform something analogous to this for philosophy, that is, explicating the arguments of papers in a bare-bones format and checking the arguments for validity and the premises for truth or falsity (if someone recalls where this was discussed, please let us know).
  4. Peer Review: Yes, we have a number of issues here, from concerns about fairness, to the question about how a reviewer’s objections to a paper’s argument should affect the decision to accept or reject a paper, to overwhelmed referees and possibly a shortage of publication slots, to problems with uncommunicative editors, to rules for special issues, and so on.
  5. Access: Like the sciences, a number of philosophy’s important journals are accessible only through expensive individual or institutional subscriptions. However, philosophers have been good at establishing workarounds (and there’s this resource for science materials). Additionally, there has been an increase in open access journals in philosophy. (There are open access teaching resources, too.)
  6. Public Communication: There may be more public philosophy projects going on now than ever in the history of philosophy (see various posts on the subject), though there seems to be a recognition that philosophy is in need of better marketing (and yes, these pages need some updating).
  7. Stress: Indeed, life as a young academic is stressful; the stress can have multiple sources: professional, financial, familial, personal, and it and other factors can lead to depression. But life is no less stressful, it seems, for the young trader, young lawyer, young musician, young restaurateur, young manager at Amazon, young non-profit director, young fisher, etc. This is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement for the various career paths in academia and outside of it. But it is not clear that this is a special problem for academics.

There are, of course, other ways to cash out the above problems, along with some different problems altogether.  And there may be special problems specific to philosophy because of the nature of philosophy.

What do you think? What are our biggest problems? — not our biggest philosophical problems (we can leave that for another time), but the biggest problems confronting the philosophy profession.

And don’t say, “kids these days…

David Schnell, "Landscaping"

David Schnell, “Landscaping”

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