In this episode of the podcast, Samara meets with the University of Melbourne’s own Dr Kristian Camilleri to talk about the Disunity of Science.
Kristian highlights the problems with a a singular, homogenous vision of science and argues for seeing the sciences as diverse and differently evolving practices. This 'disunity' becomes clear when we appreciate that scientific disciplines often employ very different methodologies and have developed in divergent ways. The disunity of science also has practical implications, as scientists may face barriers when collaborating if they hold to an overly simplified model of science. Recognising science as highly variegated allows for a more helpful and accurate understanding.
Samara Greenwood | 00:05
How do you view science? Is it a unified discipline with a single method and history, or is it a collection of diverse practises that can vary greatly in how they developed and how they determine knowledge?
My guest on today's episode of the HPS podcast is Dr Kristian Camilleri, senior Lecturer in the history and philosophy of science program at the University of Melbourne. And, more importantly, primary supervisor on my PhD. Kristian is a historian of physics, author of the book "Heisenberg, and the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: the physicist as philosopher", as well as an outstanding lecturer. He teaches such fabulous subjects as Plato to Einstein, God and the Natural Sciences, and the Dynamics of Scientific Change. Today on the podcast, Kristian will be discussing the concept of the disunity of science.
Hi, Kristian, and welcome to the podcast, it's great to have you on.
Kristian Camilleri | 00:57 Thanks for having me. Samara Greenwood | 00:59 Before we discuss the topic of the day, could you begin by telling us a little bit about how you came to history and philosophy of science? Kristian Camilleri | 01:05 Yeah, that's, that's an easy one. I initially enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne with an intention of majoring in physics, which I did do. But in my first year, I was very eager to take a history of astronomy subject, run through the history and philosophy of science department as it was then. And I fell in love with HPS. I decided, after taking a couple more subjects, that I would add it as a second major to my Bachelor of Science. At the end of my three, which stretched out to four years - I deliberately overloaded so I could do lots and lots of history and philosophy of science subjects - I had a decision to make, and it was really, in the end, a no-brainer. I decided to pursue history and philosophy of science. I did honours and then eventually did a PhD.
Samara Greenwood | 02:02 What was it about history and philosophy of science that you fell in love with? Kristian Camilleri | 02:05 Ah, that's a good question. So initially, it was that it asked the sorts of questions that I'd hoped would be answered in a science degree, but was finding weren't. Secondly, I found myself drawn to history in a way that I had never been in high school. It is perhaps ironic that if I reflect back on my high school years, the subject I hated most was history. I couldn't imagine anyone would find chronicling dry and dusty events from the past as something intellectually stimulating and enlivening. But then I got to study some history of science, and I should also point out, I had really good teachers.
Keith Hutchison was a lecturer. He would eventually be my supervisor, my doctoral dissertation supervisor and Neil Thomason, who taught philosophy of science back then, were incredibly good teachers, very giving of their time, but also they made the subject matter really come alive in a dramatic way, and I was hooked.
Samara Greenwood | 03:10 Excellent. And you said there were certain questions that came up in HPS that didn't come up in science that you were interested in. Can you remember what kind of questions they were? Kristian Camilleri | 03:19 They were questions of a philosophical nature. Questions like, what's energy, right? So you, you learn, of course, in physics how to use the concept of energy in a mathematical formal sense. You learn the conservation of energy, the laws of thermodynamics, but there are certain philosophical questions that just have to go unanswered as you work your way through the syllabus.
Philosophy of science tends to reflect carefully on such questions. You might think, well, you can just give a rough and ready definition, but what happens is that - once you ask a simple question - it opens up a Pandora's box of epistemological and metaphysical questions.
And I found that really attractive and something that I warmed to. I should point out that those were philosophical questions, but increasingly through my degree, I found myself gravitating towards history. Though I have always tried to strike something of a balance between the history and the philosophy. Now my personal view is that the two can be done well together, though it is an effort.
Samara Greenwood | 04:36 Absolutely. I'm also interested to know what you see as the central value of HPS then as an academic field. What does it bring? Kristian Camilleri | 04:44 Let's break that question into two. For science students, or for those interested in studying the sciences, history and philosophy of science opens them up to a deeper understanding of the way their work as budding, aspiring young scientists fits into the wider world. It also might help probe some of those deeper philosophical and historical questions, how we have come to have science in this way.
It certainly hasn't been always this way. Once upon a time, the most respected parts of the university were certainly not the natural sciences, they were theology and philosophy. And that's far from the case today, no disrespect to those enduring disciplines. How has it come to pass that science occupies the very important place it does in modern society?
That then gets me to the second part. What value might it be to someone studying the arts and humanities? If it is the task of the humanities to understand the world in which we live, Science and technology and medicine have a very important role in that world. And what you often find is, if you do subjects in history or politics or sociology, you get a brilliantly rich view of those disciplines. But the science is often left out of the picture. Here, history and philosophy of science, which includes sociology of science and technology, fills a very important gap in people's understanding. So for both science students and for art students, and of course for anyone else interested, I think it's a very important subject.
Samara Greenwood | 06:39 So turning to the topic of the day, can you tell us about the concept of interest that you've chosen to discuss? Kristian Camilleri | 06:48 Yes, I'll talk a little about the disunity of science.
So this is an idea that got a lot of traction some years back, perhaps the 1990s, if my memory serves me correctly. It began to dawn on scholars, historians and philosophers of science, that this thing we call science was actually not one thing.
It's very easy, of course, to imagine that it is. We have faculties named after it.
We label certain disciplines as sciences, but not others. But as one reflected, it became increasingly evident that it is a proteus. It changes form. It doesn't have a universal essence to it.
Now, the listener will think, but of course it does. There's a scientific method. There's a preoccupation with empirical information. It's all based on experiential knowledge. This may well be true and I wouldn't deny that, but the way in which the sciences go about their business turns out to be rather different.
Or if I might put it this way, I'm fascinated with the differences between the sciences rather than what they might all have in common, though, that's clearly important. So just to give you a sense,
the kind of world that a conservation biologist works in, the kind of values that inform their work, the kind of methods, the kind of research questions and how they fit into a wider picture will be very, very different from someone who works at the Large Hadron Collider as a particle physicist.
This sounds obvious when I say it like this, but probing more deeply the disunity of the sciences actually is very interesting because the very object of study of history and philosophy of science is of course science. But it turns out to be a very slippery concept when you broaden your horizons.
This is also something that most science students won't get much exposure to sadly. Increasingly that is a critical lacuna, something missing in their education, because they'll only be disciplined in one of the sciences and they may get the mistaken impression, 'this is how science is'. This can be a problem because if they, later in their careers, work with other scientists from other disciplines, there are real and documented barriers to that based on having a single model of science to work with. So it has actually practical import. It's not just an ivory tower philosophical question. So the disunity of science is the one that I'm interested in.
Samara Greenwood | 09:46 So could you expand a little on those distinctions between the idea of unity of science, on one hand, and the disunity of science? How do they differ? Kristian Camilleri | 09:55 So the unity of science has been cashed out in a number of different ways. One of the old ways was the notion of a scientific method. If anyone googles it, you'll find a number of references and some nice pictures about the cyclical scientific method. But I would invite the listener to look a bit closer and research a bit more widely. You'll find competing and varying views of the scientific method. And it's not hard to come up with counterexamples. So for instance,
hypothesis testing is a fairly standard view of the scientific method. But it's not one that you'll find undertaken by a protein crystallographer.
So let me give you an example. A protein crystallographer, let me be clear, does really important science. Protein crystallographers work out the structure of molecules, and we're talking about super complex, macro molecules that might have thousands of atoms in them.
They actually have to work out the three dimensional spatial position of all those atoms. No one in their right mind comes up with a hypothesis and then tests it. Would it be possible even to articulate such a hypothesis? It is a much more interesting process of gradually piecing together the various parts and structures of the molecule based on, of course, a deep understanding of biochemistry, but not a small amount of trial and error as well.
So there's just one example, but I could give dozens.
The scientific method has turned out to just break down upon closer inspection. Of course, this is not to say hypothesis testing doesn't go on, any psychologist will tell you it's the bread and butter, but if you look across the sciences, you'll find a much richer, diverse picture. That's one contrast between the unity of science and what I'm calling the disunity of science.
Other ways you might look at it is the histories of the various sciences. So we tend to have this picture, and it is even one that we as historians of science might be guilty of perpetuating, that science sort of evolved out of one trunk of a tree like philosophy and all the science are sort of sprouted off as different branches.
This is a very old idea. You can find it in the French philosopher Rene Decartes. The actual historical record suggests something much more complex and different.
Certain sciences, certain disciplines we would call science, had much more complex histories, which probably if we look away from physics and natural philosophy and we look at other areas like ecology, did not sprout off from some central branch. In other cases, their origins lay more with trade practises. Right? And so the disunity of sciences is also reflected in these complex histories. And I'm not saying those sciences now don't interact with one another, they clearly do, but a much richer picture emerges rather than this simple forking or branching tree that we often have at the back of our minds.
Samara Greenwood | 13:18 I understand there's also a link between the idea of the disunity of science and how best to consider indigenous and traditional knowledge systems. Could you tell us something about that? Kristian Camilleri | 13:29 Yes. I'm someone who's very interested in all knowledge systems, traditional and indigenous knowledge systems, and there's been a push in recent years to examine what we would call modern science alongside other forms of knowledge. In fact, there are, in some quarters a pushed to include indigenous knowledge within the teaching of science. It's a controversial idea. If you bring my thesis, it's not mine of course, but the thesis I've been discussing of the disunity of science, then this notion that there are indigenous knowledges and something monolithic called western science is actually going to be an obstacle to a better understanding of how these different knowledges work together.
To take my example from earlier, the conservation biologist and the particle physicist, there's no question that the conservation biologist is going to have a better conversation with a traditional, a custodian of the land in, in Australia than a particle physicist. I don't even need to go into that in any depth. I'm sure the listener can appreciate that for themselves. And so to call everything that we do, science actually portrays all these important differences. Not only that, the way we usually characterise science as a single monolithic entity is often derived from our understanding of physics.
Now, I'm a historian of physics, but I cannot see how that extrapolates very well to lots of other sciences. What happens is we end up with these glib, cliched views, which actually don't help the practical matter of dealing with interactions between different knowledge systems very well. In the interests of pursuing that project a little further, I think one of the important things one has to bear in mind is that science comes in many shapes and forms. And different shapes and different forms might have more going for them in a dialogue with traditional knowledge systems than others.
Samara Greenwood | 15:45 Can you tell us a little bit more about how the disunity of science fits in with philosophy of science? Kristian Camilleri | 15:51 Right. So there are many, many important questions in the philosophy of science. One would be:
How does an explanation work in science? So for a long time, of course, using physics as the exempla science, which all other sciences mimic in some way, we would think that it's a covering law. You reduce everything to laws, and most people when they're not thinking about it, say that's what science does.
Science describes a lawful ordered world, and it's our job to understand what those laws are and how they work in very complex situations.
Not to deny that's the case but there is also a historical way, for example, of explaining things. So to use the historical maxim to understand something is to understand how it came to be like that. So you can apply this to galaxies, mountains, human beings, the emergence of a new species.
Now, when you are explaining the coming into being of a mountain range, you do have to use regularities. You know, there are things about rocks and the surface of the earth that you have to understand, but it's also a highly contingent one-off. This particular mountain range has this particular configuration, and that's even more the case in evolutionary explanations, right? There are very contingent historical circumstances that led to the emergence of a particular species. Environmental concerns, et cetera, et cetera. In this sense, those explanations actually look a lot more like explanations that we historians give for something like the rise of the Roman Empire or what brought about the First World War.
Explanations - not just methods, but the form that explanations take - actually vary greatly across the sciences.
There are those that are sceptical of some of the things the sciences say, who will point to universal forms of explanation and methods in order to be sceptical of what certain sciences say. So they'll say, "well, it's clear that climate science doesn't operate by the usual hypothetical deductive method, positing hypotheses and testing them. And so that's a reason to be incredibly sceptical of those sciences or what they tell us about the world." But once you appreciate the richness and diversity of forms of explanation and methods, you begin to see those arguments carry very little water that would bring down science in total.
Samara Greenwood | 18:26 Is there a concern there that when you go down the disunity route, where does it all disappear to? Does it potentially undermine science?
Kristian Camilleri | 18:33 Absolutely. Some people fear that the borderline between science and non-science may just dissolve away all together. I'm not struck by that fear. If it turns out linguistics fits all the conditions of a science, I'm happy to call it a science. And in fact, in other languages, the word science actually encompasses far more than it does in the English use of the word.
This does not mean everything becomes a science. Rather that all the sciences have their own rigorous systematic ways of going about knowledge.
And I'd add one more thing to this if I might, Samara.
Often the ways of acquiring knowledge in my view, are very dependent on the objects of knowledge. So if you are studying the nervous system, you need to find a method that gets to grips with this very elusive but complicated structure. You might need to perform experiments. If you're dealing with the interior of a star, you cannot use the same methods or explanations. What has happened historically, in my view is that the various sciences latching onto these almost infinite number of possible objects you could study, have found their own way and found ways to get better.
To quote Dudley Shapir's famous phrase, "we learn how to learn." But I would only add to that in different domains that turns out to look different. Of course, one can just speak nonsense about any subject matter, but the sciences have matured each in their own way, and they should, in my view, be given a degree of autonomy in the way they have historically formed ways of getting to grips with their various domains of study.
Samara Greenwood | 20:26 Are there perhaps downsides that you can see with looking at science in this sort of disunity kind of form? Kristian Camilleri | 20:32 That's a tricky question. Of course, there are a number of, let's call them disciplines or nascent areas of study, which would like to proclaim themselves as sciences and could well exploit the disunity thesis and say, "well, you accept there are a plurality of methods and explanations, Why don't you admit these ones?" And we might look upon them rather suspiciously. They don't seem very rigorous, they don't seem grounded in empiricism. So that may well be a problem. I'm more of a pragmatic bent. I think you treat every claim on its merits. I am not suggesting there is absolutely nothing that all the sciences have in common. One would be they all pursue knowledge in one form or another. So that's not in question. I'm only suggesting that there are really interesting differences which make a difference. Samara Greenwood | 21:30 Well, that leads well onto my next question. One thing I've noticed in my own studies in HPS, is that you do quickly develop quite a different, more complex, and I would say more compelling image of science. So how would you see the disunity of science relating to perhaps a more accurate image of science more generally?
Kristian Camilleri | 21:50 Yes, I think we are sort of seized by the singular model, what's called the 'singular model [of science]' in the literature. And so every time we reflect on science sociologically, historically, philosophically, in just public discourse, we happily use the word and the word often betrays a lack of understanding. This can be problematic.
So for instance, one might say science never operates with any value system, any social or political values, and that would be a good thing. But it would be hard to say that's actually true of conservation biology, which clearly has a mission informed by certain values, values many of us might support.
We also often speak of science and technology, right? But it's hard to see much technology coming out of evolutionary biology. I mean, yes, genetics definitely, but I'm talking about the deep past. What tends to happen is we kind of slip into these big labels, and I'm talking about public discourse, not what academics might do at the university. And this is problematic. This is problematic because what happens is everyone gets tarred with the same brush. Even a slightly more nuanced picture along the lines I've been describing, I think would be very helpful for public discourse.
Samara Greenwood | 23:08 And for a general listener, how can it help them better understand science in a more complex way in this contemporary world?
Kristian Camilleri | 23:18 Not succumbing to the tendency to overgeneralize and think that one size fits all is already a good first step. Even a political critique of science - science has led to, let's be honest, a number of problems in the modern world. But even saying that - has biology participated in those problems? When casting blame and looking for solutions for real world problems, a more nuanced view of the variegated nature of science is incredibly helpful.
Samara Greenwood | 23:50 Fabulous. I wanted to say thank you for joining me today, Kristian. I've thoroughly enjoyed the discussion.
Kristian Camilleri | 23:57 Thanks very much. Samara Greenwood | 24:00 Thank you for listening to the first season of the HPS Podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science. To learn more, check out our website at www.hpsunimelb.org. There you can also find links to our blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Insta, as well as show notes for today's topic. I'm Samara Greenwood, and my co-producer is Indigo Keel. We look forward to having you back again next time.