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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why policy needs philosophers as much as it needs science | The Guardian


"Philosophers could help policy makers to ask the right questions. But to give this practical help, academic philosophy must take lessons from open science." writes Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, they teach in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas. They are co-authors of Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy.

A Greek flag flutters by a statue of the philosopher Socrates in central Athens. 
Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

In a widely-discussed recent essay for the New Atlantis, the policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz argues that science is in deep trouble. While modern research remains wondrously productive, its results are more ambiguous, contestable and dubious than ever before. This problem isn’t caused by a lack of funding or of scientific rigour. Rather, Sarewitz argues that we need to let go of a longstanding and cherished cultural belief – that science consists of uniquely objective knowledge that can put an end to political controversies. Science can inform our thinking; but there is no escaping politics.

Sarewitz, however, fails to note the corollary to his argument: that a change in our expectations concerning the use of science for policy implies the need to make something like philosophical deliberation more central to decision making.

Philosophy relevant? We had better hope so. Because the alternative is value fundamentalism, where rather than offering reasons for our values, we resort to dogmatically asserting them. This is a prescription for political dysfunction – a result increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic.
 
Of course, deliberating over values is no more a magic bullet than science has turned out to be. But whether we are talking about scientific results, or ethical, social and political values, a lack of certainty does not mean that evidence cannot be marshalled and reasons cannot be given.

Practically speaking, this implies employing individuals with philosophical training in a wide variety of policy and regulatory institutions: not as specialists whose job is to provide answers, but to ask the right kinds of questions.

As it is currently constituted, academic philosophy is not up to this task. A premium is placed on theoretical rigor, at the loss of social significance. This reflects the institutional form that philosophy has taken. Prior to the twentieth century, philosophers could be found in a variety of occupations. Since 1900, however, they have had only one home – the university, and within it, that peculiar institution known as the ‘department’. Philosophy departments ghettoize ideas, steering philosophers toward problems of interest to their disciplinary colleagues – at the cost of practical relevance to wider societal concerns. Even applied philosophers suffer from a form of disciplinary capture.

Indeed, what Sarewitz says of academic science is painfully true of most philosophy and of the humanities generally. Philosophers have mimicked scientists in all the worst ways: practicing a highly specialised discipline and speaking primarily to one another. One telling sign of this: of the approximately 110 PhD programs in philosophy in the United States, not a single one emphasises the importance of training graduate students to work outside of the academy.
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Source: The Guardian


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