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UK Scientists and Philosophers Advocate for a Wide, Diverse Approach to Knowledge Curation in Chemistry

By Jennifer T. Allen 

Photo of Julia Bursten, Rebekah Duke-Crockett, and Chad Risko
Julia Bursten, Rebekah Duke-Crockett, and Chad Risko

When Rebekah Duke-Crockett, a first-year Ph.D. student in chemistry, took Julia Bursten’s Philosophy of Science graduate seminar, she began thinking about the wealth of insights philosophy has for chemists. The questions brought up eventually led to a collaboration between Duke-Crockett, philosophy professor Bursten, philosophy Ph.D. alum Ryan McCoy, and chemistry professor Chad Risko.  

That collaboration culminated in a recently published article in the Journal of American Chemical Society: “Promises and Perils of Big Data: Philosophical Constraints on Chemical Ontologies.” 

“Philosophers of science spend a lot of time thinking about problems and questions relevant for chemistry but, unfortunately, chemists are often unaware that philosophers of science exist,” Duke-Crockett said.  

Both Duke-Crockett and Risko attended small liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate degrees and cite their early introduction to a broad range of topics including philosophy, ethics and critical thinking, as key to their continued interest in the connections between chemistry and philosophy.  

“I have long been fascinated by the intersection of chemistry, philosophy and history,” Risko said.  “Julia gave a presentation in the Department of Chemistry a few years ago where she discussed the philosophical study of how people who develop models think about the world around them and how their decisions impact the outcomes of their science. As someone who develops models to study chemistry, this presentation truly hit home.” 

Philosophers are experts in mapping the connections among structures, properties and material identities that are relevant to classification in science. As Bursten said, “We’ve been doing it since the time of Plato and Aristotle.”  

Bursten points out that scientific research is entering a new era with the advent of big data and, at the same time, public trust in scientific methods is eroding.  

“Interdisciplinary collaborations between philosophers and scientists can improve science’s ability to give explanations and reasons for why it is advancing in the ways it does,” Bursten said. 

In their article, Duke-Crockett, Bursten, McCoy and Risko advocate for a pluralistic approach to building chemical ontologies. They think chemists should not aim to build a single, unified database of all chemical and material species.  

“Some see this as a radical position because one view of the aim of science is to create a grand unified account of all empirical knowledge,” Bursten said. “We push back on this view because we see science as a deeply diverse and human activity, informed by the ever-changing needs of societies in which scientific research is conducted.”  

Bursten said the team believes approaching chemical classification with a pluralistic mindset allows scientists with differing interests and needs to build the models and conceptual tools that will most effectively advance their research programs, rather than simply conforming their research to a single standard that may not suit their purpose.  

“We hope to influence the ways that chemists build digital tools to house data that classifies chemical species in the big-data era of chemistry and beyond,” she said.  

Both Duke-Crockett and Risko also acknowledge the hope that chemists will begin collaborating more with philosophers of science and vice versa.  

“We have a lot to learn from each other in terms of processes that we follow during our studies and the impact of our efforts beyond the minutia of these individual efforts,” Risko said. “Over the last several months, I have spoken with colleagues across the country and globe about our collaboration and the discussion often strikes a chord of interest that I hope facilitates future efforts at the intersection of science and philosophy.” 

Read the full article in the Journal of American Chemical Society here.