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New journal article by DK fellow Sophie Veigl

© Matthias Gil Hawraneck

Sophie Veigl has published an article in the prestigious scientific journal RNA Biology. "Use / disuse paradigms are ubiquitous concepts in characterizing the process of inheritance" can be accessed at Taylor & Francis Online.

The abstract reads: "In recent years, a Lamarckian theme has found its way back into academic discourse on evolution and inheritance. Especially the emerging field of transgenerational small RNAs has provided at least a proof of concept for the inheritance of acquired traits. Yet it remains unclear whether the Lamarckian concept of inheritance will in fact have its rennaisance or whether it will remain the rallying cry for the outlaws, heretics and enfants terribles of molecular biology. As unclear as the future of Lamarckian theory is its content and reference. Since the formulation of the Philosophie Zoologique, Lamarckian thought has been de- and reconfiguring in and out of the scientific literature and become an umbrella-term for all kinds of unconventional modes of inheritance. This essay will argue that heritable small RNAs might in fact provide a case of genuine Lamarckian inheritance. Moreover, it will be claimed that not only the very broad concept of 'inheritance of acquired traits' applies, but also that Lamarck's mechanistic insight into a use / disuse relation might help to explain a specific mode of transgenerational inheritance."

New book by DK fellow Alexander Linsbichler

Alexander Linsbichler's new book Was Ludwig von Mises a Conventionalist? A New Analysis of the Epistemology of the Austrian School of Economics re-examines praxeology, the methodology of the Austrian School of economics, and presents the unique argument that Mises defended a form of conventionalism. The monograph offers a conventionalist reading which renders the Austrian School more accessible for mainstream economists.

"This innovative book challenges the mainstream reading of Ludwig von Mises as a contested 'a priori' proponent of the Austrian School of economics. It offers new insights to Mises’ methodology and epistemology by interpreting his praxeology as conventionalist. In doing so the author opens novel perspectives for contextualizing Ludwig von Mises’ work in the history of the Austrian School and the long term 'Methodenstreit' since the 19th century."

- Friedrich Stadler, DK Faculty Member

A flyer with additional information can be downloaded Initiates file downloadhere.

Featured Project: The ontic-epistemic debate on mechanistic explanation

Opens internal link in current windowHernán Bobadilla Rodríguez

The literature on mechanistic explanation has become a favoured platform to debate ontic and epistemic views on explanation. Traditionally, the focus of this debate has been the nature of explanation, i.e. what explanations are. On the one hand, the epistemic view suggests that explanations are an epistemic activity that increases our understanding and knowledge of a phenomenon (Wright, 2012: 382). Such epistemic activity is embodied in acts of communication, texts/models, or mental representations (Craver, 2014). In the context of mechanistic explanations, the epistemic view suggests that texts, models and mental representations advance our understanding of mechanisms responsible for a phenomenon. From an epistemic point of a view, explanations are subjective. In particular, we are allowed to claim that a phenomenon might have many distinct explanations, depending on the different texts, models or mental representations that we use to understand it.

On the other hand, the ontic view of explanation holds that an explanation of a phenomenon is not a text, model, or mental representation, but an objective part of the causal structure of the world, a "full-bodied" thing (Craver, 2007: 27). New mechanists like Craver, Glennan and Machamer have adhered to this view (see also van Eck, 2015: 7; Wright, 2012: 376). For them, such objective part of the causal structure of the world is a mechanism, which explains the phenomenon by being responsible for it. From this point of view, phenomena in the world have explanations (i.e. there are mechanisms responsible for them) even if we do not know them, and the role of science is to discover these explanations.

The debate evolved from discussing what explanations are to what explanation means. This development did not advance the debate. Later, the emphasis of the debate changed from discussing the nature of explanations to the normative constraints of explanations. That is, the debate now focuses on setting the conditions that make an explanatory text a successful explanation. From an ontic conception, explanatory texts are successful if they describe the (causal) structure of the world (Illari, 2013: 250). In particular, a mechanistic explanatory text must refer to the relevant mechanisms in the world. From an epistemic point of view, explanatory texts are successful if they advance understanding and knowledge of a phenomenon of interest (Illari, 2013: 250). In particular, a text is a successful mechanistic explanation if it is designed in terms of activities, entities and organization, proper of mechanisms, and advances our knowledge of the mechanisms in the world.

Although the debate evolved towards discussing the normative constraints of successful explanations – the "normative turn" – the ontic-epistemic divide was retained. Now, instead of discussing which view captures better the nature of explanation, the debate focuses on which normative constraints, ontic or epistemic, are pre-eminent. However, Illari (2013) exposed that advocators of both views actually hold both ontic and epistemic constraints to assess the success of explanations. In particular, Illari reviews the work by Craver (advocator of the ontic view) and Bechtel (advocator of the epistemic view) and reveals that both of them accept ‘rival’ constraints in their accounts of explanations. Illari concludes that no view of explanation has normative priority over the other. This would be known as the "integrational" account of explanation (van Eck, 2015).

The integrational account was not universally acclaimed. For example, Van Eck (2015) argues that ‘causal role’ discovery is an epistemic prerequisite, more fundamental than any other epistemic and ontic constraint. And Sheredos (2016) argues that the relation between ontic and epistemic constraints is not one of integration, because they are actually autonomous: in some explanations (e.g. general explanations) epistemic constraints are prior, and in other explanations (e.g. singular explanations) ontic constraints are prior.

References: Craver, C. 2014. The Ontic Account of Scientific Explanation. In Kaiser, M.I., Scholz, O.R., Plenge, D. & Hüttemann, A. (Eds.) "Explanation in the Special Sciences: The Case of Biology and History" (Ch. 2, pp. 27-52), Synthese Library, 367. Dordrecht: Springer; Craver, C. 2007. Explaining the brain: mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Illari, P. 2013. Mechanistic Explanation: Integrating the Ontic and Epistemic. Erkenntnis, 78 (Supplement 2), 237-255; Sheredos, B. 2016. Re-reconciling the Epistemic and Ontic Views of Explanation (Or, Why the Ontic View Cannot Support Norms of Generality). Erkenntnis, 81(5), 919-949; Van Eck, D. 2015. Reconciling Ontic and Epistemic Constraints on Mechanistic Explanation, Epistemically. Axiomathes, 25(1), 5-22; Wright, C. 2012. Mechanistic explanation without the ontic conception. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 2(3), 375-394; Kaiser, M.I., Scholz, O.R., Plenge, D. & Hüttemann, A. (Eds.) "Explanation in the Special Sciences: The Case of Biology and History" (Ch. 2, pp. 27-52), Synthese Library, 367. Dordrecht: Springer.

Public Lecture by Joshua Bauchner

Wed, 21 June 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Gustav Theodor Fechner in the Threshold, on a Walk

The research of the Leipzig savant Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) spanned the gamut from electricity and magnetism through various theories of measurement to the souls of plants and was a direct forerunner to a number of the twentieth century's most prominent sciences of mind, including laboratory psychology, psychoanalysis, and logical empiricism. This presentation situates Fechner at the head of a of loose movement in the nineteenth-century sciences of mind and body that employed conceptual tools to interrogate their interaction. For Fechner, the key concept was "the threshold," which allowed him to at once deepen his experimental research in perception and connect it to  his panpsychic philosophy. The concept was further embedded in his daily practice of walking, which served alternately mental and physical ends and thus crossed the mind-body threshold itself.

Joshua Bauchner is a PhD candidate at Princeton University (USA) and a visiting fellow of the DK program "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts" at the University of Vienna.

Public Lecture by Sophie Juliane Veigl

Wed, 14 June 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Does small RNA biology provide an empirical case for scientifc pluralism?

Over the last decades, scientific pluralism has become a prominent term in the philosophy of science. Very shortly and broadly, scientific pluralism can be taken as the claim that to approach certain scientific phenomena, more than one theory, explanation or method might be required. While literature on the many instances of scientific pluralism within the sciences is accumulating, it has yet not been assessed in what ways those meta-scientific claims are resonant with the practices and ideologies of researchers in their respective fields of study. One way to address this problem is to conduct sociological studies in a field that has been attested to be pluralist. One eligible research area is small RNA biology, which studies – amongst other things – the inheritance of small RNAs which is independent from DNA. Thus, if small RNAs are in fact alternative (epigenetic) trajectories of heritable information then explanatory scientific pluralism of inheritance would be true – at least from the metascientific perspective. In this talk, preliminary data accumulated from a laboratory study in Tel Aviv will be discussed to ask, how much scientific pluralism is really permitted by the field and what implications might be drawn from that for philosophical conceptualizations.

Sophie Juliane Veigl is a fellow of the DK program "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts" at the University of Vienna.

Public Lecture by Hernán Bobadilla Rodríguez

Wed, 10 May 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Mechanistic explanations in network models

In this presentation I discuss the explanatory role of network models. In particular, I provide an evaluation of the kinds of explanation that network models provide, and compare them to mechanistic explanations. I defend three main points:

1) network models are not intrinsically explanatory;
2) when they explain, they do it mechanistically;
3) when they do not explain, they still might be contributing to the discovery of a mechanism.

Hernán Bobadilla Rodríguez is a fellow of the DK program "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts" at the University of Vienna.

Guest Lecture by Dr. Karen Kastenhofer

Wed, 3 May 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Studying a ‘newly emerging technoscience’: accounting for change and stability in science

How can we conceive of the so called ‘newly emerging sciences and technologies’ (NESTs) in science and technology studies? What is to be understood under labels such as ‘systems biology’ or ‘synthetic biology’? What do they stand for and what are the potential scientific and societal implications of these phenomena? The introduction of systems or synthetic biology within the scientific literature comes with a surprisingly stable narrative: they are new, they have been enabled by technological innovation, they come with a paradigm shift and they have revolutionary potential. Case studies comparing the emergence of synthetic biology in UK and France already point at the institutional aspects that factor in such change (Molyneux-Hodginson and Meyer 2009, 2016). Nyhart (1995) and other historical studies of change and stability in biology (e.g. Strasser 2002) have also highlighted this point.

The presented case study aims at illustrating the ways a local institutional landscape shapes how a new field such as systems biology is established, as what it is established and how it is perceived and impersonated by scientists. To do so, I will focus on four aspects: the impact of generational patterns, the impact of (sub)disciplinary fragmentation, the impact of institutional logics and the impact of the broader national innovation regime, all of which adhere to specific locales at specific historical times. As a result, I not only draw a picture of the context dependency of a technoscience’s emergence, but also of the relative narrowness of the scope of an announced revolution – the one often related to systems biology and synthetic biology in the media discourse – and the relative radicalness of the rather tacit change its context of emergence faced in the meantime.

Karen Kastenhofer is a scholar in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at the Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Guest Lecture by Prof. Ulrike Felt

Wed, 26 April 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

(Anti)Nuclear Times: Austria’s anti-nuclear position and its relation to national identity building

On March 22, 2011, during the Austrian National Assembly debate on “Current Perspectives on Austrian and European Energy Politics after Fukushima,” the Austrian chancellor affirmed “that probably nobody in the Austrian parliament would give a speech in favor of nuclear technology.” And he insisted that it is “an obligation for Austria” to continue “stand[ing] up against the nuclear lobbies, [. . .]—in particular because we had a clear vote of the population in Austria against nuclear energy in 1978 and we have made ourselves Europe’s spokesperson for not enforcing nuclear energy as a future technology.”

This extract from the parliamentary protocol forms the starting point of my paper, which will invite to reflect on how it became possible to make such a clear, affirmative statement which would find agreement and support across all political parties and be publicly recognized as the Austrian position towards nuclear energy. Using “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Jasanoff 2015) as a core sensitizing concept, I wish to draw attention to the close entanglement of technological developments and preferred ways of living and social order in any given society. While imagination more generally speaking is a key-field of social practices, as well as an important element in negotiations between how we can act and more broadly defined fields of the possible, speaking of a sociotechnical imaginary focuses more narrowly at “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures performed through science and technology.”

The presentation will show that in order to understand how Austria’s anti-nuclear position could become a core element of the nation’s technopolitical identity, we need not only to study the events around the 1978 referendum on nuclear energy (Zwentendorf). Rather we have to carefully trace the different kinds of work needed after the referendum to transform the fragile outcome of the vote into a robust and stable sociotechnical imaginary of anti-nuclearity.

Ulrike Felt is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna.

Public Lecture by Dr. Hanna Lucia Worliczek

Wed, 5 April 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

The visual disciplinarization of the cytoskeleton. On the metamorphosis of cell biology through the adoption of immunofluorescence imaging

This paper traces a substantial visual, epistemic and disciplinary change in cell biology during the 1970s, a field strongly associated with evidence from microscopic imaging. This change was initiated by the adoption of immunofluorescence microscopy from diagnostic research on infectious diseases. The use of fluorescent dyes in combination with artificially produced antibodies made it possible to stain proteins of interest specifically, thereby allowing for a visualisation of the molecular architecture of cell components. In comparison with electron microscopy, the dominant imaging method of the 1950s and 1960s in cell biology, the epistemic qualities of this new technique allowed researchers to acquire different and novel kinds of knowledge. Cell biologists defined what had thus far remained a hypothetical cellular entity using immunofluorescence microscopy: the cytoskeleton as a network of fibres that was responsible for cell shape and motility. The application and establishment of this imaging method re-defined the cytoskeleton as a complex evidence-based entity of significance equal to that of canonised structures such as the cell nucleus. Based on interviews and sources from professional institutions in the USA, such as the Journal of Cell Biology and the American Society for Cell Biology, I will trace the development of a new sub-discipline: cytoskeleton research. I aim to understand and reconstruct how this new field was established until the early 1980s and how visual evidence from a recently adopted imaging method was used to re-shape the field of cell biology.

Hanna Lucia Worliczek is a fellow of the DK program "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts" at the University of Vienna.

Guest Lecture by Prof. David Bloor

Wed, 29 March 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

The Cambridge Cockpit: Wartime research on pilot fatigue in a comparative context

During WWII members of the Psychological Laboratory in Cambridge carried out a series of intriguing experiments on pilot fatigue. I shall describe these experiments and the theoretical analysis given to their results. I shall also ask whether comparable experiments were conducted by German psychologists. This attempt at comparison can be carried out successfully but it encounters a number of interesting problems and raises some significant methodological questions for the sociologist and historian of science. I shall offer some tentative answers to these questions.

David Bloor is Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh Science Studies Unit, Scotland.

Guest Lecture by Prof. Nick Hopwood

Wed, 22 March 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Proof and Publicity in Claims to Human in Vitro Fertilization

Born following in vitro fertilization in Britain in 1978, Louise Brown made global news as the first ‘test-tube baby’, the work of a team led by the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and the physiologist Robert Edwards that was eventually recognized by a Nobel Prize. Yet she was far from the first to be announced. Since the 1940s various researchers had reported having fertilized human eggs to produce embryos and even infants. Journalists warned large audiences to anticipate all manner of brave new worlds. This talk will take that publicity seriously, while focusing on how scientists pressed these claims and how their colleagues assessed and contested them. It will pay special attention to the negotiation of standard criteria in journals, handbooks and newspapers, at conferences and on television. This will offer fresh perspectives on the founding achievement of reproductive biomedicine and on communication in science after World War II.

Nick Hopwood is Professor of History of Science and Medicine at the University of Cambridge (UK).

Guest Lecture by Prof. Martina Merz and Dr. Sophie Ritson

Wed, 15 March 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

The “750 GeV Bump” in the Light of the Tri-Relation between Media, Theory, and Experiment

On 15 Dec 2015 the two biggest experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider independently announced results, illustrated by a ‘bump’ around 750 GeV of small significance, which indicated the possibility of ‘new physics’. The announcement was followed by a flurry of activity. Within only two days, theoretical physicists had uploaded several dozen papers on the resonance at 750 GeV while major newspapers and physicists’ blogs spread the news across wider communities and publics. Behind the scenes, experimental physicists in the ATLAS and CMS collaborations gathered additional data and continued their analysis under heightened attention. Those watching the LHC were concerned with the evolving status of the 750 GeV resonance with additional data: would the observed excess become a ‘discovery’ of new physics or would it disappear, rendering the initial result a statistical fluctuation? The status of the observed 750 GeV resonance assumed special importance in view of the belief and hope of physicists that the LHC would discover novel phenomena. Half a year later, in August 2016, this belief was tempered when both experiments declared that the bump was a statistical fluke.
This recent episode of a non-discovery provides an interesting and multifaceted study case for STS and HPS scholarship. In this paper, we will explore the management of credibility as it is exposed and performed within the lively public debate involving different actor groups and media (e.g. preprints, blog posts, talks, newspaper articles). With a focus on the tri-relation between media, theory and experiment, this paper will investigate also how credibility is attributed to distinct actor groups differentially. In addressing these issues, we will pay attention to how this episode of a non-discovery brings to the fore the implicit and explicit norms and standards underlying experimental and theoretical practice.

Martina Merz is Professor of Science Studies at the Department of Science Communication and Higher Education Research, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt | Wien | Graz. Sophie Ritson is a post-doctoral researcher in the project "Producing Novelty and Securing Credibility: LHC Experiments in STS-Perspective", funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).


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