Why Policy Needs Philosophers As Much As It Needs Science (guest post)

The following is a guest post* by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, both professors of Philosophy at the University of North Texas and co-authors of Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. This essay originally appeared in The Guardian and is reposted here with permission of the authors.


Why Policy Needs Philosophers As Much As It Needs Science
by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman

In a widely-discussed recent essay for the New Atlantis, the policy scholarDaniel Sarewitz argues that science is in deep trouble. While modern research remains wondrously productive, its results are more ambiguous, contestable and dubious than ever before. This problem isn’t caused by a lack of funding or of scientific rigour. Rather, Sarewitz argues that we need to let go of a longstanding and cherished cultural belief – that science consists of uniquely objective knowledge that can put an end to political controversies. Science can inform our thinking; but there is no escaping politics.

Sarewitz, however, fails to note the corollary to his argument: that a change in our expectations concerning the use of science for policy implies the need to make something like philosophical deliberation more central to decision making.

Philosophy relevant? We had better hope so. Because the alternative is value fundamentalism, where rather than offering reasons for our values, we resort to dogmatically asserting them. This is a prescription for political dysfunction – a result increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic.

Of course, deliberating over values is no more a magic bullet than science has turned out to be. But whether we are talking about scientific results, or ethical, social and political values, a lack of certainty does not mean that evidence cannot be marshalled and reasons cannot be given.

Practically speaking, this implies employing individuals with philosophical training in a wide variety of policy and regulatory institutions: not as specialists whose job is to provide answers, but to ask the right kinds of questions.

As it is currently constituted, academic philosophy is not up to this task. A premium is placed on theoretical rigor, at the loss of social significance. This reflects the institutional form that philosophy has taken. Prior to the twentieth century, philosophers could be found in a variety of occupations. Since 1900, however, they have had only one home – the university, and within it, that peculiar institution known as the ‘department’. Philosophy departments ghettoize ideas, steering philosophers toward problems of interest to their disciplinary colleagues – at the cost of practical relevance to wider societal concerns. Even applied philosophers suffer from a form of disciplinary capture.

Indeed, what Sarewitz says of academic science is painfully true of most philosophy and of the humanities generally. Philosophers have mimicked scientists in all the worst ways: practicing a highly specialised discipline and speaking primarily to one another. One telling sign of this: of the approximately 110 PhD programs in philosophy in the United States, not a single one emphasises the importance of training graduate students to work outside of the academy.

This suggests the need for something analogous to the open science movement, directed towards the humanities. Open science marks a sea change in how science is done: with its call for open data, open laboratories, open peer review and open access. Promoted by bodies like the Wellcome Trust, European Commission and US National Academies, open science emphasizes the importance of transparency from the design of research projects to the reporting of results. An equivalent “open humanities” initiative could help to bring philosophy out of the study and into the community.

Sarewitz doesn’t speak in terms of open science. Rather, he revives Alvin Weinberg’s call for “trans-science”, a problem-oriented approach to inquiry that is judged by its success in the real world, rather than by disciplinary metrics. Weinberg says that trans-science begins with an act of “selfless honesty” where experts acknowledge that an issue has exceeded the boundaries of their domain.

Trans-scientists have to know when they don’t know – otherwise they’ll labor under the illusion (and perhaps fool others too) that they are capable of solving problems that they can’t. This is the stuff of Socrates. For Socrates, wisdom consisted in knowing that one doesn’t know. He exposed the self-assured expert as a poseur, pronouncing on matters outside his jurisdiction.

If trans-science is our new ideal, then Socrates is back in business. Philosophers working within the Socratic model can bring useful skills to our knotty problems, including hermeneutics (thinking through issues that allow varying interpretations and framings), ethics (uncovering and analyzing hidden value commitments), and epistemology (assessing different claims to knowledge).

But as important as these activities are, more crucial is the propagation of a distinctive mindset: a commitment to explaining one’s values and to giving a hearing to the values of others. This will require philosophers to also let go of their cherished claims to expertise, and engage in humble collaborations with others. Above all, they need to stop talking only to one another.

Society has long hoped that science could dispense with the need for politics. Philosophy has tried to turn open questions about the good life, beauty, and justice into arguments that experts can seal shut with certainty. It turns out, however, that we all are doomed to philosophize. So let’s find ways to do it better, in public venues that are open to all.

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Doug MacKay
Doug MacKay
7 years ago

I agree that public policy decision-making could benefit a good deal from philosophical reflection. I’m a philosophy PhD but am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. Public Policy requires both its undergraduate majors and its PhD students to take a core course in ethics and decided to hire a full-time philosopher a few years back to teach them. I’ve found our students, as well as my social scientist colleagues, to be very receptive to talking and writing about the ethical aspects of policy. Being in an interdisciplinary department has also significantly changed my research, making it much more applied. I suspect my position is fairly unique in the U.S., but it strikes me that public policy schools and departments are a potential avenue for philosophers to train future policy analysts in philosophical thinking.

John Turri
7 years ago

I appreciate the attempt to promote the relevance of philosophy and open-minded collaboration. That all sounds great.

At the same time, I think that this is at least partially undermined by statements such as this: “Philosophy relevant? We had better hope so. Because the alternative is value fundamentalism, where rather than offering reasons for our values, we resort to dogmatically asserting them.” I assume that the authors are unaware of how insulting this contrast could potentially be. Value fundamentalism is not the opposite of philosophy. Philosophy is not the sole province of offering reasons for values. Researchers in other disciplines outside of philosophy are equally capable of offering careful, intelligent, and persuasive arguments for conclusions, both theoretical and practical. Weakening the proposal to pertain to “something like philosophical deliberation” is a little better, but it still comes across as presumptuous and insular, because it clearly suggests that offering reasons is more like what philosophers do than, for instance, what scientists do. As someone with extensive experience interacting with philosophers and scientists, I find that to be a completely inaccurate and unfair portrayal.

Openness in research practices also sounds good in many ways, but it seems like a completely separate topic from community engagement or utility. At least in my own case, it is unclear what the authors had in mind here. Relatedly, when considering, say, the methodology of armchair theoretical reflection that is widespread in recent Anglophone philosophy, it is again unclear to me what this openness would consist in. For scientists it typically involves pre-registering a study, making available all the stimuli, code, data, analyses, etc. What exactly would it involve for armchair philosophizing?

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
7 years ago

Once again Frodeman and Briggle give an analysis that is deeply equivocal on who the philosophers are and what philosophy is. If anyone who attends to recognizing what they don’t know – or to giving reasons to support value judgments – counts as a philosopher, then as John Turri’s comment shows – philosophers are everywhere. They themselves say “we all are doomed to philosophize.” And yet their calls for action are not directed at this wide body of philosophers, but only at the academic philosophers that they simultaneously privilege and disparage.

What is the philosophy that is needed by the larger world, and what is it about the academic philosophers that F&B malign that makes them uniquely well-suited to provide that? Despite their frequent return to these same themes, they have yet to provide a clear answer.

7 years ago

I would be interested to know what public policy experts (academics, think tank presidents, etc.) consider to be the biggest advancements in their field over the past 50 years.
– Explosion of data availability
– Added rigor of statistical methods
– Expansion of randomized controlled trials (RCTs)/field experiments
– What else? Any that would be considered philosophically oriented? I cannot think of any offhand.

Reply to  tlp
7 years ago

“Any that would be considered philosophically oriented? I cannot think of any offhand.”

I work in policy analysis theory (my reading of this site is driven largely by the fact that I am trying, as a policy researcher, to engage with the world of academic philosophy) and there are plenty of important advances that have been grounded in philosophy. I would also note that since policy studies as a discrete descriptive and prescriptive pursuit is only a little bit older than 50 years, pretty much most major advances fit in there. A lot of the crises in public policy come down to epistemological and ontological disputes.

Anyway, putting aside advances in quantitative and formal methodologies, you are still left with profound philosophical changes to the field:
1. The cognitive revolution has led to a rapid adoption of cognitive approaches to reasoning and decision-making (and remember, philosophy is one of the cognate disciplines of cognitive science).
2. Parallel to that, many policy theorists have turned away from positivist assumptions to an explicitly interpretivist approach grounded in a wide variety of philosophical works, from the Frankfurt school onwards.
3. Many theorists working in science and policy have engaged directly with Popper (though frequently to disagree with him), Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc. etc.. to analyze concrete, real-world science policy creation.
4. Policy is intertwined with law, and a lot of policy questions implicate legal philosophy.

I mean, in my own work I’ve cited Sarewitz (who I think is more philosophically engaged than some of the posters here give him credit for) — also Kant, Hegel, Kuhn, and Bhaskar, among others (which may out me if anybody cared enough to track down my dissertation once it’s finished…).

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  tlp
7 years ago

None of these seem to be advancements unless they truly inform those using them and cause them to make better analyses and decisions. The explosion of data availability is fine and good, but unless that data is used in logical, rational and ethical ways, it is of no use. I am reminded of an exchange in the old movie The Paper Chase, wherein professor Kingsfield confronts Brooks, who has a photographic memory: To paraphrase when Brooks can only recite facts and cannot analyze them – “Mr Brooks, a photographic memory is of no use to you unless you can understand and analyze those facts in your skull” (or about that). New methods, ways of gathering data and amount of data gathered, are all good. But are there new methods for applying the data in a practical manner? If so, great, if not, see “Mr Brooks” comment.

Ben Gibran
7 years ago

The authors are right to point out that there is a misfit between academic philosophy and more policy-driven analysis. Before philosophers can make a useful contribution to the public sphere, they’ll need to recognize the limitations of their own discipline. No one I know has expressed this more succinctly and powerfully than Stanley Fish:

“Now it could be said (and some philosophers will say it) that the person who deliberates without self-conscious recourse to deep philosophical views is nevertheless relying on or resting in such views even though he is not aware of doing so. To say this is to assert that doing philosophy is an activity that underlies our thinking at every point, and to imply that if we want to think clearly about anything we should either become philosophers or sit at the feet of philosophers. But philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game.”

Philosophers need to have a clear view of the ‘precincts’ of philosophy, and not attempt to bring intellectually parochial ‘games’ into policy discussions. Knowledge of basic psychology, sociology and economics is essential. Above all, philosophers need to repudiate philosophy’s ill-founded claim to be ‘Queen of the Sciences’, and see it for what it is, a highly in-bred discipline with a basic flaw, its purely theoretical approach which lends itself, quite frankly, to the ‘ivory tower’ syndrome. The authors are right to suggest, “This will require philosophers to also let go of their cherished claims to expertise, and engage in humble collaborations with others. Above all, they need to stop talking only to one another.”

Doug MacKay
Doug MacKay
7 years ago

I think that philosophers can be particularly helpful with respect to policy in cases where policy-makers and academics run into philosophical problems, and can benefit from discussion with people with training in philosophical reasoning and knowledge of the philosophical literature. Take RCTs. The conduct of RCTs raises all sorts of ethical questions and philosophers can play a role in helping investigators and IRBs work through them. I attended two highly interdisciplinary conferences this past summer featuring philosophers in conversation with political scientists, economists, development experts etc about the ethics of experimental interventions, and I think both were useful for all involved:
Sometimes these discussions don’t go well, particularly for the reasons the other commentators cite above – i.e. philosophers not having sufficient knowledge of the context in which they are working. But, these discussions can go well when they proceed in a true collaborative spirit. For an example of this, see Nancy Cartwright’s excellent and accessible book on the value of RCTs, given the problems of generalizability that they face:
Philosophers can also contribute to debates around wellbeing, another topic that is hot right now in policy circles:
In sum, I think I agree with some of the skepticism expressed above; but, in my experience, philosophers have something to offer if they approach questions in a collaborative spirit and are committed to becoming informed about other disciplines/contexts.

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
7 years ago

How much of why philosophy does not play a more prominent role in policy is due to being “insular” or “talking only to each other” (which I see as true only of very technical issues — do mathematicians talk to others about pure math theories? or quantum physicists to non-physicist policy makers?), and how much is the deep seated anti-intellectualism of our society, coupled with a sort of deification of science? That is, liberal arts folk, philosophers, etc…are eggheads and living in Ivory Towers; scientists produce really neat stuff like GPS systems, cell phones, etc… So we listen to those scientists, but eschew those liberal arts types (“they’re like artists and produce nothing practical”). It is too easy to parody philosophy and its observations, just like art. Why engage with those who will demean, parody and caricature your contributions when you can converse with those who share your values, goals, and vocabulary?