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

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  17:30 - 19:00  /  DS-M460
Organized session / standard talks
Practical approaches to integrating philosophy and ecological research

Gillian Crozier (Laurentian University, Canada)

Ecology is branch of biology devoted to the relationships among organisms in the wild, and between organisms and their environments. Ecological scientists work in universities, governments, non-profit organizations, and in industry, and they study a broad range of topics, including the population dynamics of nonhuman organisms, including endangered species; the impact of industrial pollutants on wild populations; and the evolution and dispersal of wildlife diseases, including diseases that are transmissible to humans. Historically, ecological researchers have held considerable scepticism, if not downright animosity, towards ethics because of antagonistic interactions biologists have experienced with animal rights and welfare activist. Indeed, at least historically, ecological researchers have tended be particularly illiterate regarding ethics since students with ethical concerns about use of animals are often steered to other fields. The need, however, for ethical examinations of ecological research is especially acute since practicing ecologists are at the forefront of important interfaces between humans and nonhuman organisms and natural systems, and ecological research almost inevitably requires manipulation of the ecosystem being studied: sometimes the impact is minimal, but often it is not. This organized session focuses on three distinct approaches to closing this gap between ethics and ecological research. First, evolutionary ecologist Dr. Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde discusses practical steps he and his colleagues have taken to integrate ecology and philosophical ethics through the activities of a bourgeoning interdisciplinary research centre, the Centre for Evolutionary Ecology and Ecology and Ethical Conservation (CEEEC). Second, philosopher of the life sciences Dr. G.K.D. Crozier presents a decision-theoretic model for identifying the ethical values of practicing ecologists and integrating the results into ethics education modules for graduate students in ecology. Finally, philosopher of physics Dr. Dylan Gault presents a more theoretical paper exploring how lessons from physics and astronomy can inform ethical decision-making in ecological research.

Integrating ecology and philosophy in an interdisciplinary research centre

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde (Laurentian University, Canada)

In 2013, an interdisciplinary (ecology and philosophy) research centre was founded at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Canada – the Centre for Evolutionary Ecology and Ethical Conservation (CEEEC, pronounced 'seek'). This presentation highlights the centre's objectives and gives a sense of what to expect from it in the near future. Due to the escalating urgency of research regarding the effects of environmental factors such as pollution, climate change, and water management on ecological systems, ecological researchers are under increasing pressure to refine and innovate their methodologies, to adjust the communication of results with policy makers, and to shift the focus of their research. External pressures on researchers due to partisan politics, for example, has become a pressing issue in Canada, where there has been considerable recent controversy concerning the relationship between the Federal Government, the ecological research community, and conservationists. While it is being increasingly recognized that evolutionary ecologists have a significant role to play in mitigating the loss of biodiversity, support is also growing for the claim that some of the most important challenges presented by applied evolutionary ecology and conservation rest crucially on philosophical and conceptual questions: questions including what values are at stake in environmental ethics, what is meant by ‘biodiversity,’ how are environmental problems formulated, how are ecological models tested, and what is meant by the ‘extinction’ of species and what is its significance for both humans and nonhumans. Additionally, the ethical dimensions of ecological research as a profession have profound implications for the practice of ecology, and therefore for the development and dissemination of knowledge in the domains of evolutionary ecology and conservation. CEEEC's goal is to add clarity on these issues by promoting interdisciplinary cooperation among researchers on conservation and environmental issues, and by integrating philosophical and evolutionary ecological perspectives in the conservation of biodiversity.

Using decision theoretic software to integrate ethics into the training of ecological researchers

Gillian Crozier (Laurentian University, Canada)

This presentation discusses an ongoing project to initiate an ethics strategy for ecological research to increase the ethical consistency and epistemic soundness of the field. Specifically, we describe a procedure by which ecological researchers can to collectively and iteratively evaluate the ethical dimensions of their research. This procedure will, in turn, provide a solid foundation for the development of practical tools to improve the ethics of ecological research, including an ethics code for professional research ecologists and ethics training for ecology graduate students. More specifically, the decision theoretic software 1000Minds – developed by New Zealand economist and collaborator Dr. Paul Hansen – is used to survey Canadian ecological researchers to determine how they prioritize various ethical factors that are salient to their research, such as the impact of particular field studies on local ecosystems and human communities. 1000Minds offers a ready-made online survey program that is well suited to the task of helping ecological researchers to collectively rank a broad range of alternative scenarios stemming from value-laden decisions. This survey is distributed to the membership of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE) – Canada's main professional organization for ecologists. Through an adaptive series of questions that ask respondents to prioritize certain hypothetical ecological field studies over others, the software produces a weighted list of values, indicating how heavily ecologists, collectively, would prioritize various types of field studies. To validate this finding, a small group of ecologists are brought together at the annual meeting of the CSEE to discuss and analyse the relative weight they believe should be given to hypothetical field studies with a range of characteristics. The result are compared with the product of the 1000Minds survey, validating the survey's findings regarding how Canadian ecologists weigh a variety of ethical priorities regarding their research.

Uncertainty and ethical decision making in ecological research: Lessons from the physical sciences

Dylan Gault (Laurentian University, Canada)

Cost benefit analysis done to consider the licensing of a particular course of ecological research should consider two dimensions of the potential strength of the outcomes of that research: the potential accuracy/specificity of the results taken in themselves and the potential accuracy/specificity of the results when combined with other investigations. This dual consideration is particularly important for ecological research as considering only the accuracy/specificity of individual research projects may unnecessarily favour ecological intervention. Compared to research methods that highly interfere with their subject of study, indirect research methods often produce less accurate/specific results. Because of this difference, it is tempting to see methodologies with direct intervention as a necessary component of ecological research. However, physics and astronomy has done very well without access to methods that directly interfere with many of their subjects of study. A recent example is the work on cosmology to establish the presence of a non-zero cosmological constant; here teams of researchers in independent projects produced restrictions on the possible parameter space of cosmological theory in order to come to very specific and well supported conclusions about what would otherwise be surprising and controversial results. Extending this methodology to ecological research is not without challenge; issues of the unification of ecological claims and theory, issues of the extent to which ecologies present unique objects, and issues of important differences between the physics, biology, and ecological research must be addressed. However, just as physical realities keep astronomers from interfering with their subjects, ethical demands may keep ecological researchers from interfering with their subjects, at least as much as possible. If this is the case, and there is good reason to believe that it is, then carefully considering the possibility of indirect methods to produce valuable research is an ethical imperative.