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New chair of Philosophy Department stresses interdisciplinary links between philosophy and science

While teaching at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the late 1990s, Paul Roth cofounded an annual roundtable on the philosophy of social science that reflects his avid interest in the interrelationships of social science and philosophy.



New Philosophy Department chair Paul Roth

Photo: Scott Rappaport

Now in its seventh year, the event has become a thriving institution featuring frequent guest speakers from Europe and diverse contributions from around the world. This year’s roundtable takes place on March 11-13 at Barnard College of Columbia University.

“It was like a field of dreams—we built it and people came,” said Roth, newly hired this past fall as the chair of the UCSC Philosophy Department.

“It has had the desired effect of creating a new center of discussion for this particular area. We put out a call for papers, but we don’t select the topic. So we learn what it is that people are collectively writing and thinking about.”

Roth noted that the philosophy of social science has always been considered a subarea of the philosophy of science. But he stressed the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to the study of both science and philosophy.

“The theoretical flow used to be exclusively from the natural sciences to the social sciences,” Roth observed. “But ideas that originated in the social sciences such as game theory (mathematical ways of modeling human decision making) are now being used in the biological sciences in such areas as the study of evolutionary change.”

Roth added that recent revelations—such as that research studies of heart patients do not reflect the different effects of drugs and treatment on women—also refute the myth that the natural world is viewed with an unbiased eye by scientists.

“Scientists, like any other human beings, can wear cultural blinders and this can influence how they do their research,” Roth explained.

“Scientists might be developing skewed results by not taking into account sex biases that they are unaware of and never thought to look for. We can help make natural scientists aware of what those cultural blinders might be.”

“This is all grist for the philosopher,” Roth added. “Because the philosopher’s perennial question is: ‘Why is science successful?’ A stock answer is because it uses the scientific method. But I’m saying that method needs to be constantly examined.”

Roth said that there does not appear to be a single scientific method but instead different techniques and theories that work in different fields of science.

“I am skeptical that one could come up with a generic formulation of the scientific method,” said Roth. “Is there a reasonable extrapolation that one size fits all? When you find out what goes on in the various fields of science, you find that each has a different way of proceeding. In my view, we want to have a rich understanding of what research is—the pitfalls, the complexities, and all the connecting research agendas and resource limitations—and still get the powerful results. So I see us involved in understanding, and to possibly facilitate, the work of science.”

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