Student Research Team

from left: Jeff, Nic, Victor, and Caroline

from left: Jeff, Nic, Victor, and Caroline

from right: Nate, Mack, Melissa, and Julia

from right: Nate, Mack, Melissa, and Julia

Jason and Jo

Jason and Jo

Building on the philosophical approach we took to recent work in the social science of science communication last year, we will begin to pursue some empirical work of our own this year with the help of our new postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Jo Huxster, and an expanded team of student research assistants. We bade a fond farewell to Rachel Greenburg (class of 2015) and lost rising sophomore Erin Schwab to a project in Engineering more closely tuned to her career ambitions, but were lucky enough to pick up three new students: first-year Presidential Fellow Nate Aspinal (undeclared), junior Mack Jones (a Classics and Biology double-major), and Melissa Hopkins (a Philosophy and Psychology double-major). They join our five returning researchers, bringing the PoPUS crew up to an auspicious eleven (“one louder”, you know).

To start the term, we will be dividing our work between several distinct sub-projects under the public understanding of science umbrella, managed by Jo but spearheaded by student teams. The proximate goal will be to design some experiments that put our theoretical framework concerning the epistemic resilience of understanding over knowledge to the test and begin collecting pilot data in order to apply for further grant support. We will be updating this blog in the coming months with news of our progress.

PSA 2014

In addition to organizing a series of talks on understanding for the fall semester, we’re planning to travel to the 2014 meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, to be held November 6-8 in Chicago. Matthew will be giving a paper, and Jason will be soaking in the phil sci vibe, as this will be his first PSA. We’re especially hoping to connect and discuss our work with other members of the Joint Caucus of Socially Engaged Philosophers and Historians of Science, which put on a great session at the last PSA meeting.

Social Epistemology on Tap

goldman-and-whitcombSince we’re now at the beginning of Stage 1, we’re starting both the planning process for events connected with the project and digging into some foundation/refresher readings in social epistemology. In recent decades, philosophers have become increasingly interested in  socially-oriented epistemology. But the focus here has been on the production, distribution, and transmission of knowledge. At the same time, the difference between knowledge and understanding has been very much on the agenda of analytic epistemology. And in this case, it is quite individualistically-oriented. We want to socialize understanding (or “understand-ize” social epistemology?).

But first, we need to get our bearings a bit more in social epistemology. Alvin Goldman and Dennis Whitcomb, eds., Social Epistemology: Essential Readings seems like a good starting point. Thus, over the next two weeks, we’ll be reading and discussing papers in this collection.

And we’re off!

My colleague Jason Leddington and I are thrilled to have received a one-year, $100,000 grant from the Varieties of Understanding Project — a Templeton Foundation funded project led by Stephen Grimm at Fordham University — to enable us to study the nature and production of public understanding of science. Here’s the short description of our project:

In a democratic, industrialized society, a scientifically literate public is critical to the possibility of good policy-making. However, recent science communication has failed to generate a level of public consensus sufficient to inform rational action on important public initiatives. We propose that reorienting our epistemic goals in education, advocacy, and communication from Public Knowledge to Public Understanding might dramatically improve this situation. As it stands, however, “public understanding” is poorly understood. Social-scientific models for its promotion typically leave ‘understanding’ unexplained and fail to adequately distinguish it from knowledge. Moreover, relevant philosophical literature generally focuses on individual, rather than public understanding. Our project thus combines philosophical study of the nature of public understanding with case studies of critical science outreach efforts to: (a) develop a viable philosophical theory of public understanding alongside (b) strategic recommendations for social scientists, journalists, and policy-makers to devise better means for producing public understanding of science.

The Varieties of Understanding Project itself has a lot of great people approaching understanding from some really interesting (different) angles. Here’s the list.

From now through the end of the year (Stage 1), we’ll be working primarily on the theoretical side of things to develop  a philosophical theory of public understanding. Stage 2 (roughly January–June 2015) will apply the lessons of Stage 1 in the context of three case studies of science outreach efforts: climate change, childhood vaccine safety, and neuroscience. As part of our grant, we’ll be hosting several events and meetings at Bucknell. Please check back here for more updates and announcements going forward. And feel free to contact us if you’d like to get involved somehow.

More to come. . . .