International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M240
Organized session / standard talks
Propagating research results

Elihu Gerson (Tremont Research Institute, United States)

Recent work on the mobility of research results across different settings has extended conceptual work on extrapolation (external validity, Cartwright) to consider the propagation of research results across settings (Morgan, Leonelli). This work also builds on recent scholarship on translation of research, which studies the conditions under which research results can be -- and are -- used to foster both basic scientific understanding and applications within and beyond techno-science. The approach developed in this emerging literature complements and deepens traditional social science approaches to the diffusion of innovation, which rely heavily on models of contagion in populations (Rogers), but have not paid much attention to the epistemological consequences of the movements of materials, results and concepts across sometimes widely differing environments. This session further extends work on propagation by separately analyzing different aspects of the propagation of data, observation techniques, and models. Our results underscore the importance of examining the different ways in which conventions are created and modified during propagation, and suggest approaches to the analysis of propagation mechanisms.

From the tragedy of the commons to public goods and n-person games

Jason Oakes (University of California, Davis, United States)

The model in Garret Hardin’s 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons (henceforth Tragedy) described a scenario in which shepherds spoil a common pasture through over-grazing. In Hardin’s view, individual choices for personal gain lead to collective ruination, thus requiring a central authority to enforce extraction limits. This study compares the adoption of the model in two of the specialties that took it up, public choice theory and behavioral science/psychology. Researchers in both fields resituated different parts of the model in different ways, and their local contexts meant that they were changed significantly for their new environments. In the public choice work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, the commons were characterized as public goods (which later became common pool resources) and institutional failure ensued when “demand begins to exceed supply”. The local situation hinged on explaining collective action in the context of rational individual choice. In behavioral science, Robyn Dawes re-situated Hardin’s model as an n-person game with the option of cooperating or defecting. This approach leads to multiple possible end states. In both cases the problem addressed by Tragedy’s model was left behind. Uncontrolled population growth and the need for coercive authority to restrain it dropped out of the picture, replaced by arguments for markets, and the viability of rational cooperation under particular circumstances. The context of re-situation substantially changed the model, and model propagation entails the emergence of novelty as models address different problems in different local situations.

Data journeys in biology

Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter, United Kingdom)

This paper builds on the notion of data journey, which I define as the movement of scientific data from their production site to many other sites of use within or beyond the same discipline. In previous work, I characterised data journeys as a defining feature of the epistemology of data-centric biology, which marks both its relative novelty as an historical phenomenon and its peculiarity as an approach to scientific inquiry. I now wish to reflect on data journeys as a useful tool to examine the conditions under which scientific data are disseminated and effectively used in biology and beyond, paying particular attention to what ‘effective use’ may involve. I focus in particular on online databases as infrastructures set up to facilitate data dissemination and their multiple re-interpretations as evidence for a variety of claims; and on the wealth and diversity of expertise, resources and conceptual scaffolding used both by database curators and by database users. Through the reconstruction and careful analysis of data journeys, a great deal can be learnt about the multiple roles and valences of data within research, ranging from their essential function as evidence to their importance as currency in trading, tokens of identity and means to foster the legitimacy, accountability and value of scientific research within a variety of contexts. To illustrate these points, I use cases of data journeys from model organism biology and phenomics.

Propagating new data collection and analysis techniques

Elihu Gerson (Tremont Research Institute, United States)

Science studies scholars have long thought that new ways of collecting and analyzing data are difficult to transmit effectively, requiring much patience and learning from both producers and users of emerging techniques. When instruments are undergoing development or major refinement, transferring a new technology to a new context and making it work properly can be a very difficult process. Traditional social science approaches to the problem of diffusion are of limited use in understanding this process, since they are typically based on simple contact models of diffusion in populations. The “ladders and bridges” model of propagation developed by Cartwright, Morgan, and others offers a promising approach to analyzing how new observation analysis techniques are desituated, packaged, and resituated. Field observation of a biochemistry laboratory involved with the extension of several important instrument families suggests that these techniques propagate differently than either large datasets or models. For example, propagating observation techniques, especially in the early (i.e., pre-commercial) stages of development, relies more heavily on personal contact and collaboration, and is relatively dependent on the facilities and character of the research sites involved. This appears to be true even when there are published protocols for using techniques, and classes to teach them. I construe these differences as resulting from the relatively high need for effective coordination among the many different activities that go into desituation, packaging, and resituation of instruments.