International Conference 2012

Abstracts Detail

Philosophers and their potential role in scientific and public debate on the acquisition of new knowledge and emerging technologies.

Rene von Schomberg

European Commission

One can distinguish, within the thought tradition of philosopher Charles Sander Peirce the plausibility of knowledge claims from the predictability of individual statements in the context of scientific discourse (Von Schomberg 1993). For instance, epistemic discussions in science can be characterized as discussions triggered by controversies arising from the acquisition of new scientific knowledge, whereby scientific methods and the fundamental understanding of the nature of the subject matter often become subject to dispute themselves (Von Schomberg 1993). In such cases, the authorities within scientific disciplines are mutually challenged in terms of which discipline can claim to offer the best solution to the problem in question. Recent examples of epistemic discussions in science include the debates between molecular biologists and ecologists on the risks of GMO’s, the debate on climate change as either being induced by human interventions or as caused by natural cycles, and the debate between K. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley on the plausibility of molecular nanotechnology and engineering (Drexler 2003; Smalley 2003).

Typically, epistemic discussions induce public debate long before any scientific closure on the issue is to be expected and provide a significant challenge for developing reasonable public policy. Which group of scientists should policy makers (although, often, only implicitly) policy approaches. Unidentified and unacknowledged epistemic debate can result in unbalanced public policy: the until recently not uncommon ‘‘wait and see’’ character of public policies of nation states on climate change, or the concentration on the promises and blessings of all kinds of new technologies provide examples whereby public policy takes sides prematurely in a scientific debate that is still unfolding.

I will make a case that there is a role for philosophers to contribute to the analysis of in the increasingly complex interface between science, policy, the legal sphere and public debate. Their role among others can be:

1. To identify the status of affairs in scientific debate beyond singular disciplines and the (ir-)relevance for policy (How can we appeal to science, if the science is uncertain or only plausible?)

2. To clarify the relationship between knowledge and (urgency) of action.

3. To propose models for the assessment of the quality of knowledge for decision making.

4. To spell out the normative assumptions in the process of knowledge acquisition in science.

5. To contribute to the setting of research and innovation priorities.

6. To contribute to the public debate on the use of science in policy and emerging technlogies with a qualified expertise(based on what they can do under point 1-5)