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

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M220
Individual papers
Ethics, Experiment and Confirmation in Environmental Studies

Generalizing and confirming multi-proxy reconstructions: A case study in data-laden simulations, uncertainty, and methodology

Kimberly Brumble (Indiana University Bloomington, United States)

Recently, philosophers have debated whether simulations present novel challenges for the philosophy of science and, in particular, for replication. Ensuring that a simulation replicates its target system requires the ability to observe each one independently. However, a class of simulations exists that cannot be evaluated independently from the target system because the simulations themselves provide the only means of access to the target system. Simulations based on paleoclimate proxy data are one such case. Paleoclimate proxies are biological and geological phenomena such as ancient tree rings, ice bores containing pollen records, sedimentary deposits, and coral reef growth patterns. Data are collected from these natural instruments and used to study the past states and behavior of historically remote ecological and geological systems such as regional and global climate patterns (e.g., precipitation averages and temperature patterns) as well as ecological systems such as forest density and composition. The historical remoteness of the target system and the reliance on proxy data make paleoclimate reconstructions the only means to observe these past systems and conditions. Additionally, proxy data suites require a considerable amount of data handling and adopt considerable uncertainty from multiple aspects of the reconstruction process. These aspects mean that replication attempts of individual reconstructions can only check methods for errors and thus cannot lead to any strong inferences about the target system. Rather than appealing to replications for generalization of results, paleoclimate reconstructions are typically evaluated for robustness across sufficiently different suites of proxy data and statistical methods. While similar kinds of methodological challenges may exist in using more traditional proximate systems, the degree to which data-laden constructions like paleoclimate reconstructions must rely on inferences across sufficiently different reconstructions make them methodologically novel.

A duty to cognitively enhance animals

Yasha Rohwer (Oregon Institute of Technology, United States)

In this paper I argue that sometimes humans have a duty to cognitively enhance other animals or at least research the technology to do so. In this paper I will use as a case study a particular set of animals: smaller Australian marsupials. Many of these animals were nearly driven to extinction after the introduction of the fox and the domestic cat to the continent of Australia. Ecologists conjecture that these marsupials do not have the behavioral flexibility to cope with these novel predators. Humans have wronged these animals in the past and are still doing so, and many argue that we can have duties of restitution or restoration to nonhuman animals and other species, which have been wronged (e.g. Taylor 1986, Wenz 1988). Traditional means of conservation simply cannot fulfill our duties to these animals; therefore, there is a potential duty to cognitively enhance them.

The very idea of a natural laboratory: A philosophical assessment

Stephen Friesen (Indiana University Bloomington, United States)

There are special places on earth that command public and scientific interest; places such as Yellowstone National Park and Galápagos National Park. Such places are frequently referred to as natural laboratories, in a variety of different contexts including scholarly writing. This ascription is rarely explained or defended. The purpose of my presentation is to bring this idea under critical examination: to understand whether and how philosophical sense can be made of this notion of a natural laboratory, and what implications or consequences follow from such an ascription. The very concept of a natural laboratory is deeply problematic insofar as it conjoins two contexts, or ideas, that are usually juxtaposed by scientists and philosophers of science: nature, and the natural processes we wish to understand, and the laboratory; an artificial, highly controlled environment in which we hope to better understand nature. In ecology, especially, there is a perennial concern about whether the results of highly controlled laboratory experiments can be generalized "in nature" or in natural systems. From the standpoint of experimentation, then, there is an intrinsic problem with the very idea of a natural laboratory. What does the metaphor of the natural laboratory signify, other than the scientific and educational value of some place, such as Yellowstone National Park, and the Park Service’s commitment to science-based decision making? Is it largely rhetorical, functioning like a grant-writing trope, or a normative assertion about jurisdictional power/reform? Is it a substantive description of a special place that provides information about causal, ecological structure in these domains? My paper explores these questions and offers perspectives for moving forward with the idea of the natural laboratory.