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Future Research Talk
Why Do Biologists Use the Methodologies That They Do?
William BAUSMAN (University of Geneva)
2019-01-22 15:00 - 2019-01-22 16:30
Organized by KLI

Topic description / abstract:

The biological sciences are home to many research programs, each investigating different domains in different ways. How are we to explain this extant methodological diversity? To begin to answer this, we should analyze research practices in context. Considered pragmatically, scientists use tools and methods to investigate aspects of the world for particular purposes. This means that we need a taxonomy of theoretical and modeling strategies, experimental strategies, domains in the world, and purposes, because differences in each of these potentially make a difference to the structure of research programs. Biologists and philosophers have characterized the tradeoffs within modeling strategies and experimental strategies. In this talk, I propose to expand this work understand the tradeoffs that exist across modeling strategies and experimental strategies.

My working hypothesis is that some combinations of strategies fit together better than others for certain domains and purposes. I aim to characterize these groupings and to understand why they fit together well. I will support my argument through a comparative analysis of programs across biology. My first case study for the comparative analysis is two families of research programs—Neutralists and Selectionists—spanning in evolution, paleobiology, and ecology. Each family starts with similar modeling assumptions and modeling strategies, but then must deal with the differences in access to data and control of experimental system. This case study suggests the differences that domains and purposes make on experimental and modeling strategies. The plurality of research programs and methodologies in biology then is due in part to the plurality of domains and purposes investigated and the tradeoffs across modeling and experimental strategies.


Biographical note:

I am interested in how scientists use research tools, strategies, and inferences to investigate complex systems in domains without a guiding theory. I am currently writing on how to do scientific metaphysics from the perspective of biological practice and on why we should characterize methodologies in terms of more than the questions they ask. I have published two articles on what biologists mean when they talk about “null hypothesis testing”, distinguishing three distinct meanings. When biologists are not clear about what they are doing, they can illegitimately privilege “null” hypotheses over others. When they are clear, the support can be evaluated and improved. My dissertation is the first historical and philosophical analysis of Stephen Hubbell’s Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography. I exhort ecologists to move beyond thinking in terms of Popperian hypothesis testing. I am currently a postdoc at the University of Geneva with Marcel Weber. I was a postdoc on Templeton Project From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics. I did my PhD in Philosophy from the University of Minnesota with Ken Waters. I did my BA in Philosophy with a Physics minor at UC Santa Barbara.