Scientific Methodology

The core of my research and my dissertation project is an integrated historical and philosophical exploration of scientific methodology in comparative psychology.  It contributes to a historicist understanding of knowledge generation by investigating two complementary processes in scientific inquiry: entrenchment and reflection. Across three examples – scorpion suicide research, maze research, and Morgan’s canon (an interpretive rule in animal psychology) – I develop parallel accounts of how claims and practices can become baked into science (entrenchment) but also critically analyzed and revised (reflection). Each case in the dissertation also stands as an independent historical contribution. My research emphasizes that scientists do not just revise and improve knowledge claims, but the very conditions under which knowledge is generated and tested. I argue for renewed appreciation of long-term reflective and corrective processes in science, but caution that science is not inherently self-correcting and it takes constant work to secure the conditions for self-improvement.

The Relaxation of Natural Selection

Late 19th and early 20th century scientists took it for granted that modern western society with its security, medical technology, sanitation, abundant food, and duvets, represented a relaxed or permissive selective environment compared to the past. They worried that the comforts of modern (western) civilization were inhibiting effective selection of the very traits that made them successful. This concern is sprinkled throughout early genetics and eugenics, without fealty to rightwing or leftwing politics. My research on this topic so far has centered Nobel prize winning geneticist Hermann Muller. A complicated figure, he was a socialist and anti-racist who shunned the reactionary politics of early 20th-century eugenics, yet nonetheless believed that, if done carefully and voluntarily, social guidance of reproduction should be part of the socialist project. He worried especially about human mutation accumulation. In a 1950 paper, “Our Load of Mutations,”  Muller argued that relaxed natural selection together with the careless use radiation was leading to the piling up of deleterious mutations among humans.  I am currently recovering the history behind Muller’s controversial paper, clarifying his argument, and exploring its connections to concerns about mutation accumulation and the relaxation of natural selection that persist even into sections of modern-day genetics.  One key question is whether research on human mutational load, through baked-in assumptions and practices, is poisoned by its past.

Outreach and Its Limitations

Science is one of our most import epistemic guides to the world, and yet both public policy and private behavior are often frustratingly out of step with the evidence. Climate change and vaccine hesitancy are two prominent examples.  Many have diagnosed this as a lack of public trust in science, and contend that scientists need to engage in actions that rebuild public trust, such as transparency and outreach. Scientific self-improvement is good regardless, but evidence of declining trust in science is limited. Rather, I hold that philosophers need to take seriously that even scientists on their best behavior cannot necessarily out-compete slick anti-science PR campaigns and captured regulatory agencies. Whether or not scientists should be just another advocacy group is irrelevant – the position has been forced upon them. I argue that scientists and those in adjacent communities need to think beyond trust and outreach, and look towards organizing, if they wish to see their views reflected in public policy.