What to do if you think researchers have overlooked a significant issue? (Day 5 of Learning Road Trip)

“What to do if we think that researchers have overlooked a significant issue for 100 years?
The case of quantitative genetics and underlying heterogeneity”

Presentation to History & Philosophy of Science Department at Indiana University, with publicity to science departments

Claims of issues overlooked are routinely made or implied in the conceptual systemization of biologists’ work that dominates philosophy of biology in the North America.  Even if I am wrong about the specific case, the title question (reduced, if need be, to 5 or 10 years) should be asked by scientists and by sociologists and historians as well as philosophers of science.  In this talk I address the in-principle question, describe a specific case, and review a range of ways I have been working to influence scientific debates around the case.  The crux of the case is that quantitative genetics has not given much attention to the implications of underlying heterogeneity.  By this I mean that, although relatives may be similar for a given trait because they share more genes or environmental conditions than unrelated individuals, the genes and environmental conditions underlying the development of the trait need not be the same from one set of relatives to another.  The possibility of underlying heterogeneity has significant implications for the analysis and interpretation of classical and modern quantitative genetics.

What happened: See visual aids for talk.  Very few scientists attended, so there wasn’t much push back on the specific case.  What became clear to me while describing the “range of ways I have been working to influence scientific debates around the case” is that I have been pursuing multiple, mostly indirect paths of influence, and there is room for a single-minded focus on the case, which would lead me into deeper interactions with scientists.  I have to decide if influencing scientists is important enough to me and, if not, find a way to clarify and convey what path I am taking.

During the first part of the talk on the in-principle question, members of the audience were asked to provide their own responses to the question on note cards before I showed my hand.  Only two responses conveyed something distinctively in the vein of HPS, that is, developing a framework for explaining why the researchers had overlooked the issue (or why those who had looked at it were overshadowed).  Most of the notecards recommended interacting with the researchers or doing the research oneself (which would lead to interaction with researchers once you tried to get work published).  Variations on this theme as well as other kinds of responses are tabulated below.

Key to columns in the table

Q. Stay Quiet

R. Interact directly with researchers, e.g., submit ideas to science journals, do research in the area

PS. Interact with philosophers of science, e.g., submit ideas to philosophy of science journals

HSPC. Tease out hist., social., pol., cultural background & implications

W. Communicate with wider audience, e.g., tease out the political implications

O. Other

Write an article for a national paper (if you’re a science writer/journalist); submit an opinion article to the science section of national newspaper. X
Write articles and books, after talking with an array  of scientists in the field, laying out the relevant evidence and arguments.  Try to get publicity and advertising for your article/book within the science community as well as philosopher community; send email; do more research related to problem. X X
Seek conversation with those working in the field; email and talk to researchers. X
We:  Scientist – get support, write a grant, and start a research project; We:  Philosopher – tell them, tell each other X X
Approach a researcher or two . . . see how they feel about your opinion. X
Find similarly interested parties and work together to show why the issue must be addressed; attempt to understand if the issue has been purposefully ignored, and why. X X
Nothing is ever completely overlooked!  Do a better literature search to find the small minority of scientists who did deal with the issue; Find something that can be reinterpreted as dealing with the issue even if that means imposing your views in a procrustean way. X
Knock on the door, ask the researcher.  Explain your issue, ask “why?”; if satisfied, STOP, if not, depends on the issue. X
Very hard to get funding to look back at a ‘resolved’ issue; hard to research without funds; conference talks have lower bar for acceptance so easier to get collaborative discussion; senior colleagues have flexibility, respect to look back, convince them first. X
If neglected [or] something assumed to be: demonstrate inconsistencies within in the status quo by:  reanalysis of their old data, theoretical models, new experiments; share findings via paper, meeting, talk, etc. X
Give talks in science departments. X
Be able to prove that it is significant and overlooked; explain why it has been overlooked (accident, technical limitations, etc.); show that it can be addressed; suggest how to address it (whose work to continue). X
Consult with colleagues and network of experts.  If problem is important and remains unexplained submit articles to scientific journals and seek to develop an argument to publish. X
Try to raise in both the philosophical and scientific literature. X X
Start by asking “Why do they/are they overlooking this? i.e. What conceptual, cultural, practical, theoretical reasons are there for this gap?”; ask do they know of this gap? Find friendly ears and “bulldogs” (science bloggers, etc.) to help champion the change. X X
Email specific researchers and/or science bloggers (ex. P. Z. Myers) X
Publish a book; get a grant; hire grad students, i.e. lackey (they will work on your problems) X
Triple check my reasoning; talk to my advisor; don’t get excited because I’m probably wrong. X
Write a serious case for the claim that something has been missed; then….incentivize it! Show that the researcher who cracks it will get great acclaim. X X
Get a research team together to do it yourself; contact scientists. X
In principle, there is no such thing as overlooking, because it is part of the social system; overshadowed or eclipsed rather than “overlooked.” X
Find a way to directly interact with the relevant researchers:  attend their talks and ask questions; give interdisciplinary talks; visit their office? X


(Start of road trip; forward to Day 6)

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