What do you get when you mix philosophers with a lab full of jellyfish?

May 28, 2019

Do science and philosophy mix? Do jellyfish and philosophers mix? Here in the Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University we give a resounding ‘yes’ to both questions. Not only do we offer a Certificate in Philosophy and Methodology of Science but during last week’s history and philosophy of science pre-conference session, Vancouver Aquarium scientists came face-to-face with professional philosophers at the Ocean Wise jelly lab

Conference Notes

Organised by associate professor Holly Andersen and MA grad student Cody Brooks, the Greater Cascadia History and Philosophy of Science conference brought delegates from all throughout the Cascadia region.  Delegates from Calgary and Vancouver, Stamford, UC Irvine and the University of Washington, came together for a one-day networking event. Short presentations covered issues including the reproducibility crisis in published research, epistemic injustice in psychiatry, and the influence of sample bias in social sciences.

Keynote speaker, Hasok Chang, current Hans Rausing Professor at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge gave an overview of epistemic iteration. He described developing and extending an idea first proposed in his book, Inventing Temperature (2004). Initially presented as a method of solving the problem of circularity in the justification of measurement standards, Chang proposes there are no inherent limits to the applicability of the iterative method. “In fact”, he suggests, “it may be impossible to avoid an iterative procedure in any process of genuine empirical learning, as inquiry must start from some basis and no set of assumptions that we take our basis of inquiry can be immune to revision.”

John Dupre, director of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (now Egenis) and Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Exeter delivered a second keynote after the lunch break. 

Philosophy undergrad and MA grad students were highly involved in the conference and during the pre-conference session held at the Vancouver Aquarium the day before.

The field trip gave philosophers the opportunity to see science in action, and scientists to see philosophy in action. The session also included visiting the education wet lab to pet several types of sea creatures found off the BC coast.

[take a peek into the world of jellies with the aquarium's Spotted Jelly Cam]

Behind the scenes in the jelly lab

Philosophy Honours student, Branwen Stroll describes what the conference group saw during their fascinating behind-the-scenes visit.

“The jellyfish lab itself was more or less what I expected -- a space cram-jammed with all sorts of aquarist apparatus and tanks, rounded at the bottom to prevent the jellyfish from ripping themselves apart. The aquarium's chief jellyfish minder answered our questions and explained what the jellyfish program does; not only does the program help conserve species but it also does research. The lab sends off samples of jellyfish for research and also perform some in-house studies for researchers who do not have the equipment and expertise to do so themselves.”

Branwen also notes that in preparation for the aquarium visit, Cody and Holly had prepared some discussion questions for the aquarium staff, asking how the institution weighs up conservation and benefit on the individual versus the species level, and how it balances welfare considerations when driving awareness, for example. “For me the most fun part of all this was watching professional philosophers chat with the staff about things like animal welfare.”

One of the aquarium’s officials talked to the group about the facility’s duty of care to housing its non-mammal inhabitants. “[The aquarium] tries to ensure that they can all "achieve maximum velocity within ten body-lengths," Branwen reports.

The philosophers also learned that the facility is owned and funded by Oceanwise, operating partially as a public-relations tool but also an important nexus of vital marine conservation research, with the government funding specific research projects. The tour concluded with one of the professional aquarists discussing Lake Victoria cichlids as a case study in aquatic conservation.

Additional reporting: Branwen Stroll
Photographs: Holly Andersen