Primatologists and praying farmers show us why it takes a flexible brain, and many perspectives, to unlock truly groundbreaking science.
Define science. It seems like a simple request, but it's been the cause of debate for philosophy over the years. "There are all sorts of things that go under the name of science," says Philip Kitcher, as he runs through the various branches of science, both obvious (physics, chemistry) and not (detective work, economics). All use different tools, and deal with different matter, so much so that finding a common denominator is difficult. The only thing these distant disciplines seem to share is the scientific method—a way of thinking, reasoning, and testing ideas. This is something we all participate in, whether knowingly or not, when we are confronted with problems we need to overcome: why is the sink leaking, and where did I leave my keys? It makes the question of what is science and what isn't it hard to delineate. There is also a second defining feature of science, but this one is not always put into practice as it should: open mindedness. Historically, science has been closed off to people outside of a certain class: Western, affluent gentlemen (as per the Royal Society of science's stipulations). But as society becomes more open, broader perspectives are coming into the mix, and they remind us of why the best scientists possess flexible minds, capable of seeing beyond the limits of their own experience. Kitcher takes two examples—female primatologists who transformed our understanding of primates in the 1960s, and Balinese farmers who outsmarted Western engineers through prayer—as evidence for why we make greater breakthroughs when our minds are wide open. Discovery in science, it seems, is in direct proportion to diversity. Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter:How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.
Is race a trivial quality of humans, or of deep social importance? Who gets to decide whether race exists or not?
How many different races are there? Pick a number, any number, says philosophy professor Philip Kitcher. Wherever there is an agenda there is a division to be made; race is a social construct with scientific levers. "If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from biological science and psychological science over the last century, it’s that there’s an enormous amount of variation within the groups that we’ve traditionally thought of as races, far more than there is between the groups we’ve traditionally thought of as races." This makes sense; historically, we've drawn the line wherever it has suited the mainstream agenda. Humanity can be divided into two races, which would see Africans, Europeans and most Asians as one unified race. Or it could be divided into three races, which would separate Africans into their own group. You can keep dividing humanity down into more and more refined biological groups until you have 10 or 20 or 30 different races. But what would be the purpose? Our mistake has always been confusing groups for classes anyhow. Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter:How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.
People tend to bandy around the term "scientific consensus" a lot, but what does it actually mean?
People tend to bandy around the term "scientific consensus" a lot, particularly when talking about climate change. When 97% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is a real thing, you have to wonder about the remaining 3%. Are they being true skeptics, or are they holding out for ulterior motives? Philip Kitcher blows the "skeptics" idea out of the water; the scientific consensus that human beings have been making the world hotter has been agreed upon for close to 100 years, and climate scientists who disagree are disagreeing with the fundamentals of science itself. Kitcher goes on to predict what havoc future generations might have to face if we don't look hard in the mirror about climate change. We shouldn't wait until lizards start living at the north and south poles to change our human behaviors—we should be the change today. Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter:How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.
Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Previously, he taught at the University of California, San Diego, and before that at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Science in a Democratic Society, and most recently The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.