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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Zoom on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm UK time unless otherwise stated.

Organised by Helen Anne Curry and Sam Robinson.

Lent Term 2021

21 January
Christopher Clarke (CRASSH Cambridge and Erasmus University, Rotterdam)
How does process tracing work?

Political scientists working in the qualitative tradition claim to be using a method that they call process tracing. They claim that process tracing is a method of causal inference similar to that used by historians, a method that has a distinct logic from the statistical logic used by social scientists working in the quantitative tradition. But it's unclear what this logic is. I suggest that there are two types of process tracing: (a) process tracing to test a 'start-end' hypothesis, and (b) process tracing as an end in itself. While the logic of this first type of process tracing is easy enough to uncover, the logic of this second type of process tracing is more mysterious. I make some tentative proposals. The upshot is that, although process tracing is indeed a distinctive method of causal inference, it has much more in common with quantitative/statistical inference than its advocates currently recognize.

28 January
Polly Mitchell (King's College London)
Truth and consequences

In his 1987 paper 'Truth or Consequences', Dan Brock candidly describes his experience working as an in-house philosopher with the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine. Brock asserts that there is a deep conflict between the goals and virtues of philosophical scholarship and public policymaking; whereas the former is concerned with the search for truth, notwithstanding the social consequences thereof, the latter must be primarily concerned with promoting good consequences. He argues that when philosophers are actively engaged in policy-making, they must shift their primary goal from truth to the policy consequences of their actions. I will argue that while Brock is right to highlight the tensions between scholarly and public philosophy, his conclusion that these tensions amount to a 'deep conflict' reflects a needlessly pessimistic view of the possible shape and nature of applied philosophy. I will sketch out an account of applied philosophy which denies the need to choose between truth and consequences. Consideration of the nuance and complexity of the political and social landscape in which philosophical practice takes place is not distinct from philosophical practice but, on the contrary, a crucial part of applied philosophy. Applied philosophy, far from representing a dilution of gold-standard philosophical methods, can be understood to embrace a distinctive way of doing philosophy – one which sees truth and consequences as compatible ends.

4 February
Josie Gill (University of Bristol)
Race, science and literary studies in the 21st century 

In this talk I will consider the ways in which narratives from genetic science have been used to frame approaches to race in literary studies. I will interrogate the presumed anti-racism of this framing, and how this use of science disrupts contemporary theoretical assumptions about the relationship between the disciplines- namely that literary scholars tend to be critical or sceptical of science. I will argue that reading contemporary fiction alongside, rather than in opposition to, genetic science, enables us to apprehend the biofictional nature of race itself, and the cultural and literary contexts in which racial scientific ideas – including those that are situated as anti-racist – arise.

11 February
Sixteenth Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine
Sasha Turner (Johns Hopkins University)
Doctors v. midwives: Caribbean medical encounters in the age of pronatal abolition

Note: this will take place from 4.00 to 5.30pm

Measuring, experimenting on, and dissecting sick and dead black bodies, physicians, scientists and naturalists claimed expertise to prove and document racial differences. Racial science bolstered slavery's social order and white medical authority by scientifically rendering blacks as inferior to whites and therefore incapable of contributing much to society beyond brute labour. Uncovering the invention of racial science remains important to disrupting the tendency to ignore the bonds between medicine and slavery. And yet, how do we acknowledge the debt modern medicine owes to Africans and their descendants when the archive from which we are to produce knowledge of such debt was designed in exclusionary terms? How do we reconnect medicine to transformative transatlantic social and cultural interactions when it untethers itself from the quotidian? This methodological reflection explores how we might approach non-traditional medical history sources, specifically plantation slavery and abolitionist records, to reveal how politics and culture shaped medicine. It examines how the debates to end the slave trade and the interaction between enslaved midwives and learned, expatriate physicians influenced medical practice, ideas and regulation.

18 February
Tiago Saraiva (Drexel University)
Guerrilla warfare as sampling: Amílcar Cabral, African independence and the writing of transnational history of science

The paper follows the convoluted transnational historical trajectories of sampling techniques in the 20th century between the United States, Southern Europe and West Africa. It makes the case for acknowledging the historical relevance of statistics in imagining political alternatives to capitalist and colonial forms of relating to the land. Sampling first embodied emancipatory promises in the New Deal enabling the reform of American agriculture to serve wider constituencies and restore the land it relied on. The first part of the text explores the emergence of sampling techniques in the Statistical Laboratory at Iowa State University and the process through which the extended federal network of the United States Department of Agriculture made such methods into the watermark of a major experiment with American democracy in the late 1930s. The second part follows the trajectories of sampling out of the US into Southern Europe after World War II through the work of American experts that transitioned from New Deal agencies into FAO (the UN food organization) advancing statistics as the basis for European reconstruction under American hegemony. The paper ends by discussing how sampling methods learned by Amílcar Cabral in Portugal from UN experts and later applied in the agricultural survey of the colony of Guinea Bissau became instrumental for his role as leader of the guerrilla that would lead to the country's independence in 1973.

25 February
Chiara Ambrosio (University College London)
Drawing processes

In their recent manifesto for a processual philosophy of biology, John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson (2018) propose a shift – at least as far as biology and the life sciences are concerned – from substances to processes. Recent work across art, biology and process ontology (Anderson, Dupré  and Wakefield, 2019) has begun to build a visual epistemology of processes by bringing the practice of drawing, as a pathway to process thinking, back into the laboratory. In this talk, I contribute to this emergent line of philosophical inquiry, and in particular I propose a pragmatist epistemology for drawing processes. Pragmatism, which I consider in its original delineation by the philosopher and scientist Charles S. Peirce, is uniquely placed – as a processual philosophy with a strong grounding in scientific practice – to contribute to this new area of investigation. My argument will focus on the simplest building block of drawing: the humble line. Combining an established body of literature in the field of visual studies (Ingold 2007, 2015; Faietti and Wolf 2015) with theoretical pragmatist writings as well as examples of drawings by Peirce himself, I will argue that the activity of 'making visible' through line drawing counts as a form of experimentation in a distinctively Peircean, pragmatist sense –  and it does so in a way that cuts across the dichotomy between 'static' entities or mechanisms and 'dynamic' processes. 

4 March
Richard Noakes (University of Exeter)
Messaging Mars and the dead: technology and fiction in Britain, 1900–1939

In his 1948 novel No Highway, Nevil Shute featured a protagonist Theodore Honey who, like Shute himself, was a British aeronautical engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. When not researching aircraft design, Honey also dabbled in the spiritualist practice of automatic writing which ultimately helped him locate a plane that had crashed owing to a fatal design flaw about which he had been warning his employers. Both Honey and Shute capture aspects of early twentieth British engineering culture overlooked in the historiography, not least engineers' interest in writing fiction and in other-worldly communication (both planetary and spiritual varieties). We tend to associate this convergence of engineering, other-worldly communication and fiction in the 1920s and '30s with cheap American magazines or 'pulps' that came to define science fiction as literary genre. As John Cheng has argued, these serials encouraged readers to write their own fiction and pursue more speculative lines of scientific and engineering research typically neglected by professionals. Although Britain didn’t have its dedicated science fiction magazines until the late 1930s there were many British authors writing novels and short fiction featuring science and engineering in the three decades after H. G. Wells's 'scientific romances' of the 1890s. This paper analyses the careers of those authors with strong engineering and scientific backgrounds and what insights this yields into questions of the functions of the technological imagination, the relationships between 'amateur' and 'professional' engineering, and the foundation, in 1933, of the British Interplanetary Society.  

11 March
David Teira (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia)
Data agnosticism in medical emergencies: a tale from the past

Historians of statistics have mostly focused on the algorithms for data analysis in clinical trials. We do not know much yet on the history of those data: for instance, how the data should be formatted to be considered credible. Our claim in this paper is that without prior agreement on what counts as proper data, not even 100 years of hindsight will close a controversy on a medical treatment. Our case study will be Jaime Ferrán's three submissions to the Prix Bréant, an award of the French Academy of Sciences to incentivize research on cholera. Ferrán, a Spanish independent physician, claimed to have discovered a vaccine in 1884. The following year, he tried it on thousands of patients during the cholera outburst in Valencia. The results of his trial sparked a controversy in Spain and abroad on the vaccine's efficacy, that continues today. Some historians consider Ferrán's experiments persuasive enough and accuse the Academy of chauvinism for not awarding him the Breant. Our counterfactual question is: what sort of data would have closed the debate? Drawing on archival records of the award, we suggest that Ferrán failed to format his data in a way that conformed to the emerging standards for data presentation at the Academy. This led the Bréant jury to remain agnostic about Ferrán's vaccine efficacy. As the controversy on Ferrán's vaccine shows, this epistemic agnosticism is rarely appreciated. Furthermore, with an unfolding emergency, it is often considered morally indefensible. Yet, our lack of agreement on Ferrán suggests that, without a prior agreement on what counts as proper data, no amount of moralizing will bring about a consensus on experimental outcomes.