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World Philosophy Day: Addressing science scepticism requires a stronger understanding of the philosophy of science

On the occasion of World Philosophy Day, Nancy Cartwright (Vice President, International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology) and Benedikt Löwe (Division of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science and Technology) call for a stronger basic understanding of the philosophy of science.

The ongoing pandemic has resulted – among many other momentous consequences for science in particular and society in general – in an unprecedented engagement of the general interested public with the scientific process. An important part of this public discourse are questions about science such as:

  1. At which stage of the scientific process can we rely on a discovery? Are preprints a good source of scientific knowledge? If not, which role does the peer review process play in transforming them into a good source?
  2. What does it mean when two different scientific measures (say, the 7-day incidence rate and the hospitalization rate) give divergent accounts of the current situation? Can only one of them reflect the truth about the current situation?
  3. In what form does and should science enter the process of making policy decisions? If there is a conflict between the interests of different players in the system, how do we make sure that our decisions are wise and take all aspects into account?

The non-academic and public discussion of these and similar questions concerning the scientific developments on the COVID-19 pandemic has been encapsulated in the phrase “We have all become (hobby) epidemiologists”. The fact that many of the questions are very difficult and do not have simple answers has been abused by malicious actors to cast doubt on the scientific process and manipulate the public discussion. A careful inspection of the above questions shows, however, that they are not epidemiological questions, but rather questions about the scientific method, its role in society, and its limitations, i.e., Philosophy of Science. So we should like to correct the above phrase to “We have all become (hobby) philosophers of science”.

The dangers of manipulation of the public discussion towards science scepticism are rooted in a great lack of understanding of very basic philosophical issues about science. Surely, the public debate has also unearthed a great lack of understanding of basic statistics and of basic science, and it is quite natural to call for more education in these fields; but we should like to use this year’s UNESCO World Philosophy Day (18 November 2021) to focus on the deficiency in the understanding of fundamental philosophical ideas. The world needs more basic understanding of how the scientific process works, what scientific results mean, and how they can be used in decision processes, in short, a basic understanding of Philosophy of Science.

Both at the secondary and tertiary levels of education, philosophical issues of science should have a central place: this was demanded by the Helsinki Manifesto of the Division for Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science and Technology of ISC Member, the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (DLMPST/IUHPST) in August 2015.

In addition, philosophers of science should play an active role in policy debates that involve scientific decision making. As scientists, we can use the UNESCO World Philosophy Day to reflect on what role we can play to achieve these goals.

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

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