HPS Faculty Hold Half the Seats On Governing Board of National Philosophy of Science Association

Issue Date: 
April 9, 2007

Sandra Mitchell, John Norton elected to join two Pitt faculty members and one alumnus on board

Already the top-ranked scholars of their kind in the country, faculty in the Pitt School of Arts and Science’s Department of the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) now hold four of the eight positions on the governing board of the national Philosophy of Science Association (PSA). Another PSA board member is an alumnus of Pitt’s HPS program.

The PSA publishes Philosophy of Science, the field’s premier scholarly journal; organizes conventions; awards prizes for notable work; and promotes discussion and research. In February, association members elected HPS professor and chair Sandra Mitchell and professor John Norton, director of Pitt’s Center for Philosophy of Science, to the governing board for terms expiring in December 2008. They join HPS professors Ken Schaffner and Laura Ruetsche, whose terms on the PSA governing board will expire at the end of 2007.

Another PSA board member, Heather Douglas, an associate professor in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s philosophy department, earned her doctorate in the history and philosophy of science at Pitt in 1998.

Such a presence in PSA governance further speaks to the favorable reputation HPS faculty members enjoy among their colleagues and the extent to which HPS faculty participate in the philosophy of science field outside of their own research, Mitchell said.

Pitt’s HPS and philosophy departments were ranked jointly as the top programs among 42 philosophy of science departments in the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet, which conducts surveys on philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. Every other year, approximately 300 philosophers rate schools and departments by faculty and reputation.

Pitt ranked fifth among the top 50 schools for philosophy in the United States in 2006.
Because some of the more highly regarded philosophers of science work in HPS, faculty members from that department naturally will end up on the PSA governing board, according to Mitchell.

“For the premier professional organization, the premier faculty is going to be involved,” she said. “They’re both like magnets attracting the best in the field. I take the PSA elections as a mark of our reputation.”

The HPS faculty specializes in a range of subjects, including the philosophy of physics, biology, and psychiatry as well as the history of early modern science and of genetics.

Additionally, faculty members focus on certain scientific theories, such as evolution, and on particular scientists, such as Galileo. Pitt’s Center for Philosophy of Science hosts workshops and conferences that draw scholars from around the world.

Philosophers of science analyze research and theories in the context of the overall principles and rules of science, explained Mitchell, who is a philosopher of biology. They look at the structure of scientific arguments to determine the strength of presented evidence and highlight what may be hidden assumptions, she said.

“It’s an oversight of how the science is done and the methods used in research to make scientific claims,” Mitchell said. “It’s an interrogation of claims in respect to logic and coherence. Philosophers of science think about how science is done and ask how it should be done.”

For example, in the debate over intelligent design, a philosopher of science would determine what claims can truly be called scientific evidence and how they support the overall thesis.

“Intelligent design raises the question of ‘What is science?’” Mitchell said. “We look at the assumptions that are implicit, the conditions under which those assumptions were made, and whether the evidence supports or fails to support the claims.

“Overall, philosophers of science are interested in uncovering knowledge,” Mitchell added. “We want to know: What does knowledge look like?”