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A philosophical perspective on science

January 2023

“The stereotype of a thinker sitting in a room all alone with their brilliant ideas has never been true.” Biozentrum alumnus Marcel Weber must know. He is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Geneva. But what does it mean to philosophize about science?

What do you do as a philosopher of science?
This question I hear from many people: “Oh wow, you’re a philosopher. But what do you actually do?” (he laughs). My job is the philosophical reflection of the life sciences and, recently also increasingly of medicine. It is the scientific reasoning that interests me more than ethical questions. How does it work, where are its limits and what justification does it have? How objective is it and how can the claim of objectivity, which is always given for science, be justified?

What questions are currently topical?
Particularly questions about values. In the context of the pandemic this topic has become acute. My new research project focusses on the question how value-free or politically neutral scientific policy advice can be. Science being an advisor to politics on matters such as the spread of a pandemic und the measures to be implemented.

How do you approach this?
Just as in scientific research you do not usually start from scratch. We start from well-known philosophical theories and considerations and try to apply them to novel problems such as a pandemic and develop them further or come up with completely new theses and arguments. As philosophers, we do not approach this empirically, which means that we do not conduct any surveys or sociological studies. We use our experiences, like all people. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, we witnessed skepticism, great political debates about measures and political polarization. We are reflecting on these experiences and circumstances.

In respect to the coronavirus pandemic did you come to any new philosophical insights?
I first need to provide a little background. In philosophy there is the theory of the value-neutrality of science. It states that so-called non-epistemic values must not play a role when assessing scientific knowledge. This includes values that have to do with ethics, politics or ideas of a good life. But we have observed for some time that this does not always work in scientific practice.

What exactly does that mean?
Most scientific findings are subject to uncertainties. Therefore, when giving scientific policy advice, we must assume that research results can potentially be mistaken. This includes various forms of errors. For example, in the case of the pandemic: scientific experts can over- or underestimate the threat of a virus.

...this naturally has consequences.
Exactly. But most importantly, these two errors are not equivalent in practical terms. When the danger is overestimated, there is the riskis of excessive measures with harmful consequences for the economy, health and social life. By contrast, in underestimating the danger we risk many human lives. Of course, good science varies its modeling assumptions and thinks in scenarios, as is repeatedly pointed out. But which results are considered sufficiently robust to justify costly measures also depends on how much is at stake. This cannot be judged in a value-free way. Therefore, today we assume that absolutely value-free advice on policy by science is not possible. What is more, the statements of scientists are covered by academic freedom. Scientists cannot be and should not be held accountable for mistakes. Errors are an integral part of science. The case is different for the government and its authorities, as they are democratically legitimized, politically controlled and are held accountable, which we see for example at elections.

If science does not necessarily give value-free advice, how can we ensure that politics implements measures that are democratically legitimate?
In theory, the government sets the goals. In China, for instance, it was the “Zero Covid Policy”. In many western democracies the goal was to prevent the overburdening of the health care systems. Science can offer recommendations for achieving these goals. However, this is not without problems.

Firstly, reasonable goals cannot be defined independently of resources and costs. This inevitably leads to a dilemma as the government cannot set goals without knowing how effective the measures will be and what they will cost. Ideally, scientists and politicians should meet and reach decisions together.

And secondly?
According to current philosophical models, decision-making also requires citizen participation. This is because the process must reflect the diverse and pluralistic values prevailing in the population. Thus, representatives of the general public should also be allowed to participate in the decision-making process. In the case of closing the schools, for example, teachers and parents should also be involved. However, during the pandemic we experienced that there was no time to get everyone on board. This resulted in some experts making recommendations on their own account and sometimes, as it seemed, without consulting each other and without seeking dialogue with politicians nor with the public. We are wondering if this shouldn’t be done differently.

How does your work come into play?
We are currently thinking about a new model for improving communication. What kind of advice should scientists provide in such a situation? To whom should this information be addressed? Should the first instance be some sort of scientific board that comes to a consensus or to a majority recommendation, which is then passed onto policy makers and the public?

And the aim of your considerations is...
to find out the appropriate and most reasonable approach for a future pandemic. A procedure that on the one hand responds to scientific findings and adequately incorporates them and on the other hand is also democratically legitimized. This is the challenge, and we are trying to create a model for this.

Have your reflections revealed what went wrong in the current pandemic?
I am in no position to criticize. We are trying to get a sense for how it worked in practice and how we could do better in the future. As philosophers, we are primarily interested in ideals, but of course we want them to be realistic.

Let’s come back to you. How did you get into the philosophy of science?
Philosophical questions always interested me. Ever since I was a student at the Gymnasium Oberwil. The subject was unfortunately not yet offered at that time and so I read up about it on my own. And I also continued to pursue philosophy during my biology studies.

Wouldn’t studies in philosophy have been the more obvious choice?
No, that was not an option for me then. Molecular biology fascinated me most. Nevertheless, philosophical questions about the sciences accompanied me constantly. This is not uncommon in the philosophical tradition. Many famous philosophers were also scientists, just think of Aristotle or Leibniz.

And how was it at the Biozentrum?
I was lucky enough to be taught by some outstanding scientists, who themselves were also interested in philosophical questions. One of them was Jeff Schatz, with whom I did my diploma. He always liked to share his big-picture thoughts about science, which could indeed be considered to be philosophical. Of course, I mostly disagreed (he laughs). The other was Werner Arber. He had a profound impact on me. Without his support, I would not have taken this path.

In what way?
We discussed and philosophized together and also published articles. My first philosophical publication was an analysis of some of his ideas. And it was through him that I met a philosopher of science from Constance, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who then became my philosophical teacher. It was only then that I realized that philosophy could also be made into a professional career. Werner Arber made it possible for me to do a PhD in philosophy of science. And four years ago, he invited me to accompany him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. I then even had the chance to shake hands with Pope Francis.

After completing your doctorate in Constance, why did you choose to move to the USA to Minneapolis?
It is perhaps not so well known but Minneapolis is home to the most important center for philosophy of the life sciences and one of the oldest centers for philosophy of sciences in North America. It was founded after the 2nd World War, partly by German philosophers who had fled Nazi Germany. This is where I did my postdoc. It was an especially valuable time for me. A hub for philosophers of science coming together and exchanging ideas.

You have two sons of primary school age. Do they also confront you with philosophical questions and ideas? 
Yes, they are very refreshing. But usually, I answer more as their dad. And of course, my children also ask what I do. I can best explain my job by saying that I am something like a teacher. They don’t find it very exciting. I think I would score more points if I were a pilot, train driver or a football star (he laughs).

Curriculum vitae
Marcel Weber has been Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Geneva since 2011. Originally from the Basel area, he studied molecular biology at the Biozentrum in the 1980s. He subsequently moved into philosophy of science and earned his doctorate at the University of Konstanz. After being a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota and several research stays abroad, he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Constance in 2009.