Putting the “Ph” in Science PhDs

My goal is to put the Ph back into a PhD. I want to restore more philosophical thinking into the doctoral degrees that students earn here.

So says Arturo Casadevall, chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University, in the Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine. Casadevall thinks that bringing philosophical thinking, particularly in epistemology and ethics (why not philosophy of science?), into graduate science training, would help the scientific enterprise, which he thinks is not “as healthy as it should be.” He is hoping to launch a movement that gets scientists to return to science’s “philosophical roots.”

What’s wrong with science’s “health”? Casadevall says:

Science remains humanity’s best hope for solving its most vexing problems, from feeding the malnourished, to finding alternative energy sources, and protecting us from pandemics and meteorites. But the way we train scientists now is not optimal for tackling these big challenges. Rather than thinking big, the current system encourages students to think small. It provides potent incentives for behaviors that are sometimes detrimental to not only scientists but also science and, by extension, to society as a whole. A winner-take-all hyper-competitiveness discourages cooperation, encourages poor scientific practices and deters new talent from entering the field. Graduate programs since World War II have produced excellent postdoctoral fellows. However, attempts to create well-rounded scientists have been thwarted by an increasingly demanding, grant-focused environment. As a result, we channel students into already narrow and highly specialized areas, teaching them more and more about less and less. One sad consequence is the inability of many scientists to talk about their work and ideas in a way that’s comprehensible by voters, politicians and even scientists in other fields.

Huh. I wonder if similar things could be said about the proposed cure. Philosophy is not as grant-driven as the sciences, but nonetheless it exhibits many of the same “symptoms” of specialization (and it is not clear that the specialization is, on balance, problematic, in philosophy or the sciences). So I am curious about the picture of philosophy Casadevall is working with.

Nonetheless, philosophers should welcome interest from other disciplines, and it is difficult to argue with his calls for training in logic, more rigorous scientific methodology, and a consideration of the ethical implications of scientific research.

The whole piece is here. (via John Protevi)

USI Switzerland Philosophy
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
8 years ago

Readers might also be interested in a recent Mbio piece by Casadevalla, Howard, and Imperiale which consideres some key questions in epistemology and philosophy of science for microbial pathogenesis and the study of infectious diseases: “An Epistemological Perspective on the Value of Gain-of-Function Experiments Involving Pathogens with Pandemic Potential” http://mbio.asm.org/content/5/5/e01875-14

8 years ago

I associate today’s big thinkers that can change the world with those gifted in computer science/technology, and not philosophers. Bill Gates is trying to develop water/refrigeration solutions for Africa, and I don’t think he’s doing it by reading the classics. It seems to be purely driven by tapping into innovation/entrepreneurship available in a high-tech world.

Also with respect to training scientists, what would thinking big look like? Is this akin to swinging for the fences instead of being happy with singles and doubles? It seems that would produce a lot of failure, and I am not sure grad students investing years of their lives to fail is a sellable proposition.