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Past seminars 2022

Wednesday 2 November

Collaborative Assessments for Trustworthy Science: the repliCATS project

Fiona Fidler, Fallon Mody, Eden Smith, Martin Bush (HPS, University of Melbourne)


Launched in January 2019, the repliCATS project is now in its fourth and final year. The project has evaluated over 4,000 published research articles from across 8 social science disciplines, eliciting group predictions, judgements and reasoning using a structured deliberation and decision protocol. Over 1200 reviewers from 46 countries have participated in our elicitation and evaluation workshops. In this talk, we will present some preliminary findings of how our replicability predictions and ‘confidence scores’ compare to the outcomes of ground truth assessments (e.g., actual replication and reanalysis studies), and outline the unique mixed methods analysis that produced these scores. We will also discuss the benefits a structured deliberation and decision protocol can bring to the peer review process, and the need for formal peer review training.

Note: The repliCATS project is funded under the US DARPA SCORE (Systemizing Confidence in Open Research Evidence) program.

Wednesday 26 October

Synthetic Biology and the Goals of Conservation

Chris Lean (University of Western Sydney)

The introduction of new genetic material into wild populations, using novel biotechnology, has the potential to fortify populations against existential threats, and, controversially, create wild genetically modified populations. For example, the efforts of University of Melbourne researchers to genetically modify coral to fortify them against climate change. I discuss and problematize, in light of genetic intervention, what I consider the three core goals of conservation: biodiversity, ecosystem services, and wilderness. This uneasy relationship, however, does not forgo the use of such interventions. Instead, it highlights the need for serious intellectual work to be done for us to reconsider our ethical duties to nature at times of global environmental and technological change.

Dr. Christopher Lean is a Research Fellow in the Centre of Excellence for Synthetic Biology. He previously held research positions at the University of Sydney and University of Dalhousie. He is a trained philosopher of science whose research focuses on philosophy of the life sciences (biology, ecology, medicine) and technology (biotechnology, data ethics). Recently, he has been writing on the role of biotechnology in conservation science, climate change mitigation, and invasive species control. He has previously addressed issues ranging from: how to measure biodiversity, the ethics of de-extinction, evolutionary explanations in cancer and ecological communities, the moral and legal ramifications of online genetic genealogies, and whether ecology has laws of nature.

Wednesday 21 September

Controversies, fails and oddities: science, policy and the public

Peter Parbery (HPS, University of Melbourne)


When science advice is cited as a basis for government policy, the legitimacy of the outcome is often presented as self-evident. This paper explores how legitimacy may be assessed, drawing on two controversies from the 1990s: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and genetically modified foods. These examples highlight the need for governments to actively and demonstrably manage four compounding risks to the legitimate application of science in policy processes: uncertainty, bias, ideology and corruption. I argue that managing these overlapping and ambiguous ‘debasements’ is central to healthy policy processes, outline some contemporary approaches, and highlight some implications for debates over climate change and Covid-19. The analysis is informed by my experience in science; science communication; sociology of science; and in government as a specialist socio-economic policy adviser.


Peter Parbery is a PhD candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne. 

Wednesday 14 September

All in the Family? Science and Nepotism at early modern universities


Gerhard Wiesenfeldt (HPS, University of Melbourne)

Like other feudal institutions, early modern universities have often been accused as being beset with nepotism. Indeed, there are many examples of appointments for which personal relations were more important than intellectual ability. This talk will look at these nepotistic structures but, instead of using it to criticise pre-modern structures, aims to analyse their functions for the production and transmission of scientific knowledge. I will look at the formal structures of universities as guilds, which operated in analogy to craft and merchant guilds. Consequently, family and friendship politics framed academic careers intellectually as well as structurally. The central argument will be that these nepotistic structures were not as hindering to the advancement of science as often portrayed but could maintain knowledge production more effectively than possible alternatives.

Wednesday 7 September

Scientific and Indigenous networks in the collections and papers of the Wernerian Society, Edinburgh, Scotland


Amanda Lourie (Deakin University)

In the first half of the nineteenth century Edinburgh was an important and vibrant site of scientific research, teaching and debate. The Wernerian Society formed during this period, inspired by the geological work of Abram Gottlob Werner and guided for most of its existence by Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh, Robert Jameson. A natural history museum, curated by Jameson, provided a link between the Wernerian Society and the university and gave opportunities for Jameson to develop networks for specimen collecting as his natural history students headed out into the world. This paper will consider the networks between the Wernerian Society and the colonies on the Australian continent. Whilst not bountiful, specimens and information were extracted from Dharug and Gadigal Country, palawa Country and Whadjak Noongar Country. Analysis of these networks also reveals the exchange of colonial specimens within Britain and more locally Scotland. They show, as defined by Tony Ballantyne, the web of formal and informal networks of colonial governance, the Royal Navy and Army and commerce with science across the empire. Finally, inspired by the work about First Nations Keeping Places by Gunaikurnai and Monaro Ngarigo man Robert Hudson and non-Indigenous historian Shannon Woodcock, this paper considers what these networks mean when we think about the Country and communities the specimens and knowledge were taken from. By understanding the relationship between animals, Country and people, new ways of engaging with and understanding natural history collections may be developed.


Dr Amanda Lourie is currently a research fellow on the ARC project ‘Entangled Knowledges in the Robert Neill Collection’. In this project she works with Associate Professor Tiffany Shellam and a range of historians, scientists and museum curators based in WA, Canberra and the UK, guided by and working with the Menang Nyungar community, whose Country is around Albany, Western Australia. This paper is drawn from Amanda’s work on this project. She has worked as a researcher in native title and undertaken cultural heritage work focusing on Indigenous histories, most recently for GLAWAC, and has undertaken historical research for the Yoorrook Justice Commission. Amanda has been a project officer and researcher for the ARC project, ‘Howitt and Fison’s Archive’ and is a researcher for the ARC project ‘Indigenous Leaders: Lawful Relations’. Amanda also works as a casual academic and has had articles published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Oceania, Provenance and the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. She completed her PhD, ‘From paddock to page: ethnological engagement in 1850s–1860s colonial Victoria’, at Deakin University in late 2017.

Wednesday 24 August

What’s behind discovery? (Science Festival Seminar)

Kristian Camilleri (HPS, University of Melbourne) & Suzie Sheehy (Physics, University of Melbourne)

Popular histories of science often tell a story of progress based around great ideas and great individuals. However, historians and philosophers of science have long pointed to the other factors that are involved – social structures, economic forces and the combined talents of many people. Join us for this special History and Philosophy of Science Seminar to explore the factors that lie behind scientific discovery, in conversation with historian of quantum mechanics, Kristian Camilleri, and particle physicist Suzie Sheehy, author of “the matter of Everything: Twelve experiments that changed our world”. Kristian has an interest in how personality shapes the progress of science, and Suzie’s book focuses on the material nature of experiments as well as the contribution of often-unsung women in science. Together they will go behind the common ‘great man’ stories of science to explore the nature of discovery.


Kristian Camilleri is a Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science Program in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, having taught there since 2007. He is a leading scholar in the history and philosophy of modern physics, and has published extensively on the history of quantum mechanics. He has also written on the role of metaphors in science and the epistemology of thought experiments. He is currently working on a book project with the working title, Quantum Mechanics and its Discontents: The Making of a Scientific Orthodoxy.

Suzie Sheehy is a physicist, science communicator and academic who divides her time between her research groups at the University of Oxford and University of Melbourne. Her research addresses both curiosity-driven and applied areas and is currently focused on developing new particle accelerators for applications in medicine. Suzie’s recent book, The Matter of Everything, is a celebration of human ingenuity, creativity and curiosity, pulling physics down from the theoretical and putting it in the hands of the people: a powerful reminder that progress relies on the desire to know.

Tuesday 24 May

Gradualism as a constraint on theorising in comparative and evolutionary psychology

Rachael Brown (Centre for Philosophy of the Sciences, ANU)

In From Signal to Symbol (2021, p. x) Ron Planer and Kim Sterelny argue that any “adequate” theory of language evolution “must identify a plausible trajectory from great-apelike communicative abilities to those of modern humans where each step along the way is small, cumulative and adaptive (or at least not maladaptive: there might be some role for drift)”. They are not alone in invoking such a constraint. Gradualism is cited as an important assumption amongst those concerned with the evolution of cognition and the nature of animal minds going right back to Darwin’s mental continuity thesis (Darwin 1871, The Descent of Man).

The gradualist assumption is typically invoked by scholars wishing to push back against the anthropocentric allure of human uniqueness; the idea being that the postulation of the evolution of entirely novel cognitive capacities in our lineage alone is evolutionarily implausible. Indeed, Planer and Sterelny call the capacities such theories postulate “miracles” (2021, p. 213). In this paper, I explore the evolutionary justification for the gradualist assumption in comparative and evolutionary psychology given the understanding of phenotypic evolution offered by contemporary evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). In particular, I ask, are evolutionary trajectories made up of “small, cumulative and adaptive” steps indeed more evolutionarily plausible than those that postulate entirely novel cognitive capacities within lineages? If so, why? Ultimately, I offer a novel account of gradualism as a constraint on theorising in comparative and evolutionary psychology which better reflects our best science contemporary evolutionary science.

Rachael is the Director of the Centre for Philosophy of the Sciences and a Senior Lecturer at the School of Philosophy in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. She works primarily at the intersection of the philosophy of biology, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of science. Rachael is particularly interested in the evolution of cognition and behaviour; the relationship between Evo-devo and the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis; model-based reasoning in biology and philosophy; and methodological issues in the study of animal behaviour and cognition.

Tuesday 10 May

The multiple discovery of the replication crisis


Nicole Nelson (Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

In 2011, events in both biomedicine and psychology triggered discussions about the replicability of scientific findings. Although the preceding and precipitating events in these fields were quite different, their conversations about replication showed surprising similarities. Drawing on Robert Merton’s framework for analyzing multiple discovery in science, I will argue that the nearly simultaneous emergence of this narrative across fields suggests that there are shared historical, cultural, or institutional factors driving disillusionment with established scientific practices. This talk asks whether the replication crisis might be better understood as an epiphenomenon of other transdisciplinary rearrangements, such as the emergence of the field of metascience or the expansion of the open science movement.

Nicole Nelson is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who uses ethnographic and historical methods to study methods development and uncertainty in the biomedical sciences.

Tuesday 3 May

Niels Bohr’s Influence and the Notion of Scientific Personality


Kristian Camilleri (HPS, University of Melbourne)

It has often been said that Niels Bohr exerted a greater influence on twentieth century physics than any other physicist of his era – including Albert Einstein. In this paper, I attempt to understand how it was that Bohr came to exert such an enormous influence over physicists’ views on quantum theory in the 1930s. The question of Bohr’s influence poses a particular challenge for the historian because very few physicists seem to have understood exactly what Bohr had to say, yet many were happy to defer to him on matters of interpretation. Understanding Bohr’s influence thus requires us to disentangle the many facets of Bohr’s charismatic personality and his unique standing within the physics community in the interwar period. Here I argue that part of Bohr’s influence derived from the extraordinary power he exerted through the spoken word, his gifts as a scientific administrator, and the wide appeal of his philosophical vision. But equally important was the was the way in which Bohr managed to navigate the volatile economic and political context of the 1920s and 30s. The vivid contrast between Bohr and Einstein serves as an instructive example of the importance of “scientific personality” in understanding the historical contingencies that shape the formation of scientific orthodoxies.

Kristian Camilleri is a Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science Program in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, having taught there since 2007. After studying physics as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, but in his first year he discovered history and philosophy of science, and never looked back. After completing his Bachelor of Science, he completed a PhD in HPS at Melbourne University. Since then Kristian has established himself as one of a leading scholar in the history and philosophy of modern physics, and has published extensively on the history of quantum mechanics. He has also written on the role of metaphors in science and the epistemology of thought experiments. Kristian coordinates and teaches a range of subjects at undergraduate level in the HPS program. He has also supervised several Masters and PhD theses. He is currently working on a book project with the working title, Quantum Mechanics and its Discontents: The Making of a Scientific Orthodoxy.

Tuesday 26 April

The Good Species


John Wilkins (HPS, University of Melbourne)

The question of what a species is has been answered in various ways, but one way is to deny that species are anything singular, but instead that a pluralism of species “concepts” is required, leading to issues regarding the choice of metrics, the uses of these conceptions in conservation biology, horticulture and agriculture, and so forth. One use of “species” that has had desultory notice, except by Yuichi Amitani, is the term “good species”, which suggests that species played something other than a theoretical role in biology, especially botany. In this talk I am going to suggest a (practice-based) solution, or rather a description of how biologists come by the notions they employ.

John Wilkins did his PhD at the University of Melbourne. He has researched and taught at the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Melbourne. He has published several books: Species: A History of the Idea (2009, the first edition of this book), Defining Species (2009), The Nature of Classification (2013, with Malte C. Ebach), and edited Intelligent design and religion as a natural phenomenon (2010). He is the author or coauthor of 28 papers and 13 book chapters. John is currently Subject Coordinator at the University of Melbourne School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, where he has previously been a research fellow. He is co-editing a book: Species and Beyond for CRC Press.

Tuesday 12 April

Embracing and Distancing the Deceased through Cremation


Michael Arnold (HPS, University of Melbourne)

This is a case study of technology acting in the world.
In this case study I present observations and analysis of the implications of cremation for the embrace and distancing of the body, the personhood of the deceased, the committal of the body and the disposal of the body. These observations are situated and are informed by participant observation at secular funerals in Australia and the UK, key informant interviews with death industry insiders in these countries, and participant observation in crematoria in Australian, the UK and the US.

Among other things, it will be argued that in the material work associated with the funeral and cremation, the body and personhood pass through numerous stages of intimate embrace and distancing. Through these stages the personhood of the deceased and the presence of the body, and then of the cremains, waxes and wanes – through the viewing, where the deceased is visible for the last time, through the gathering and the entry of the coffin bearing the body, through the eulogies and tributes, through the committal, the dismissal, and the final disposition, culminating in the final disposal of the body – if indeed a final disposal occurs. While a funeral that deploys a cremator often shares these important rituals with a burial, it is argued that each technology opens up space for the performance of a significantly different committal, final disposition and final disposal, and a significantly different embrace and distancing of the deceased.

Michael Arnold is a Professor and Head of Discipline in the History and Philosophy of Science Programme at the University of Melbourne. His on-going research activities lie at the intersection of contemporary technologies, life and death. Michael has been a Chief Investigator on many research projects, has co-authored several research books and over 150 other research publications.

Monday 4 April

First Nations Knowledge of Shellfish in Australia


Joint University of Sydney/University of Melbourne/AAHPSSS Seminar

Mitchell Gibbs (University of Sydney)

Throughout the world, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), held by First Nations peoples, and its incorporation in shellfish aquaculture and coastal management. In Australia, however, this understanding and incorporation of First Nations TEK of shellfish aquaculture and coastal management is in its infancy. In contrast to Australia, in Aotearoa (New Zealand), there is a rich history of knowledge of shellfish, understanding of cultural practices and the use of stories and ancestral sayings. We reviewed the current state of incorporation of TEK of shellfish in both Australia and Aotearoa. We find that TEK in Aotearoa has improved aquaculture and provides evidence of the value of incorporating TEK in the production of shellfish. We are only now just beginning the journey in Australia to understand and document TEK and practices held by First Nations people. Aotearoa provides valuable lessons on the importance of TEK and guidance for the respectful incorporation of TEK into shellfish aquaculture and coastal management in Australia. If we are to appropriately restore and manage our coasts, then we need to incorporate First Nations Australians knowledge, and respect and protect their connections to traditional sea management.

Mitchell Gibbs is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Geosciences, at the University of Sydney. Mitchell holds a PhD degree in Marine Biology/Biochemistry. Mitchell Gibbs is a Thunghutti man through kinship of the Dunghutti nation.

Wednesday 23 March

Drawing Down the Moon: The nineteenth century history of the moonscape

Martin Bush (HPS, University of Melbourne)

In October 1864, an illustration by Louis le Breton appeared in a popular astronomy book by Amédée Guillemin. Two years later, the Morning Post would comment on this image as “one freak of imagination”. This was a moonscape – picture of a lunar landscape seen from the point of view of an observer on the surface of the Moon. Such images were new, dating back to the 1850s, and by the mid-1860s were still uncommon. However, over the coming decades they would go from being a novelty to a commonplace, as in Jules Verne’s Around the Moon, James Nasmyth’s The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite, and the Urania Theatre’s stage production “A Trip to the Moon”. The development of the moonscape arose from thinking about the Moon as a place. A primary impetus for this was the burgeoning geological thinking about the Moon. It also was shaped by mid-nineteenth century thinking about place and travel in the context of the new interest in tourism. This paper traces the history of the moonscape across the mid- to late-nineteenth century and draws some implications for how the Moon has been thought about.

Martin Bush is a Research Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Martin is a historian of the cultural history of popular science with interests including popular astronomy in Australia in the era of the lantern slide, visual communication of science, planetariums, and the science communication work of the Ngarrindjeri Australian David Unaipon. Martin also coordinates the qualitative analysis of expert reasoning as part of the repliCATS project. Other metaresearch interests focus on public trust in science and public reasoning practices.

Thursday 18 March

The ghost in the machine has an American accent: Challenging US-centric values in AI models with culturally and linguistically diverse texts


Rebecca Johnson (University of Sydney)

A preprint for the paper underlying this talk can be found here.

In 2020 OpenAI launched the world’s largest Artificial Intelligence (AI) language model, GPT-3. The training dataset included most of the Internet, two book depositories, and English language Wikipedia. Despite impressive outputs of GPT-3, multiple papers have shown the model to be capable of generating toxic content in areas of gender, race, and ideology. OpenAI restricted access to GPT-3 till potential areas of misuse could be better understood. The authors of this paper were granted access and challenged GPT-3 with a range of culturally and linguistically diverse texts designed to explore the model’s outputs in a value diverse context.

OpenAI has noted flaws in the training process in their release paper and in a more recent paper detailing a potential fix with “values-targeted datasets”2 named Process for Adapting Language Models to Society (PALMS). Developers of PALMS highlight the fact that there is “no universal standard for offensive or harmful content”, and that their work is done through a US centric lens. We present the results of challenging GPT-3 with texts in six languages, from nine countries representing four continental regions. We explore how GPT-3 is a reflection of the values it is trained on and discuss the results in the context of a globalised world. Using ideas of value pluralism, we identify and unpack potential concerns for large AI models trained primarily from one cultural lens. We propose that any machine designed for use on a global scale, should carry a plurality of values and speak with a wide range of the world’s accents.

Rebecca Johnson is PhD Candidate in Tech Ethics at The University of Sydney. She is Founder and chair of PhD Students in AI Ethics. Listed on the 2019 and the 2020 “100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics” by Lighthouse3, San Francisco, she was co-host of the first Women in AI Ethics – APAC Summit 2020. She is also a member of OpenAI closed GPT-3 and APAC ambassador for MD4SG (Mechanism Design for Social Good).

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