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In this special, 5th week edition of Nature League, Brit explores the concept of nature and life on Earth in the context of another discipline in a segment called "Nature+". In this episode, Brit is joined by philosophy professor Dr. Soazig Le Bihan and SciShow producer Caitlin Hofmeister to discuss nature in the context of philosophy.

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 (00:00) to (02:00)

Brit: I have also had my adventures on the Atlantic indeed. [Laughter] I'm happy to say-

Caitlin: That was a pirate [Laughter] 

Brit: Don't tell them. That is ASL for pirate, I'm almost positive.


Welcome back to Nature League! This month, we've been discussing the topic of life on Earth. And it just so happens that this month has five Thursdays, so for the fifth week of this special month, Nature League will produce a special segment called Nature Plus.

Nature Plus is a segment where we'll investigate nature in the context of something else. For our first Nature Plus segment, we're going to explore nature plus philosophy. Basically discovering how philosophy can help us explore, learn about, and love life on Earth. So I am lucky to have some friends here to help me out with the topic. And I am so excited to introduce them to you now. So first I will have Caitlin.

C: Hello! I am Caitlin. I produce Scishow, all the Scishow channels, and so that's how I met Brit. I was a philosophy major in undergrad, and so when you were talking about doing this, we started talking about the Wilderness Act of 1964. So that's why I get to be here! 

B: Yay! [Laughter] We are super lucky to have Doctor Soazig Le Bihan here today. Uh, and she will introduce herself.

S: My name is Soazig Le Bihan. I am a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana. I work in the philosophy of science, um more precisely I worked for a long time on philosophy of physics, and recently I've changed gears to work of philosophy of ecology. 

B: So I, last semester, I don't know why I did this.

S: I don't know. 

B: I'm glad that I did. But I decided to go on a new adventure, and I pirated my way over to the philosophy department because I saw that there is a course being offered that is philosophy of ecology. Now I know ecology in book form, in text, and all of this. And it actually started because Soazig came to my wildlife department and gave a brief introductory to philosophy of science. 

S: I don't know why I did that. 

 (02:00) to (04:00)

B: Well, I'm glad that we both did these things. And I'm sitting here in the back probably definitely doing other homework and then looked up and was like "wait what? there's something called philosophy of science?" I thought philosophy was, uh, that group of stoners that didn't want to major in something harder. 

C: Philosophy's so hard.

B: It is. 

S: It is one of the harder studies. 

B: Well it is, and so again like, and I learned so much and that's one of those things, like I love it when things prove me wrong. Like when people prove me wrong, or other things, I'm like awesome, 'cause that reminds me to keep my mind totally open to things. 

So what's cool is that all three of us work with science in one way or another, right? And so how does philosophy kinda tie into what you do, either on Scishow or the way that you think about the pieces of science that you do.

C: Yeah. I'm not a scientist, but I play one on the internet.

B: It's true. 

C: So I was doing some reading this weekend to kinda prepare for this, and just like thinking through philosophy reading and putting myself back in that brain, I think everyone should be a philosophy major. No offense, but-

B: No! I agree now. I think it should be required that all the wild life and ecology and science PHD students should go into a philosophy class. And then this thing happened where I remembered that PHD stands for doctorate in philosophy so there's, yeah. 

C: But yeah, so I was thinking about it, and like figuring out what someone is communicating through the written word and then through conversation is like I deal with that every single day. 

B: With science communication.

C: With science communication. And even just like having employees and making sure that they understand what's happening, like trying to interpret what I think my boss wants me to do. Like that brain work that I learned from trying to work through philosophy readings I use constantly, yeah.

B: And then you have you have a metaphor that I love, um, about how philosophy and science go together. 

S: Right, so that's not the only way that philosophy can deal with science. Right, but what we call "philosophy of science", which is a discipline, there philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of ecology, philosophy of economy, philosophy of whatever you want, right?

 (04:00) to (06:00)

But the way philosophy of science as a discipline deals with science is basically to ask how it works. Um, so for us, all data, all scientists. And the analogy that I like-

B: [laughs] I love that.

S: -is Tim Maudlin. Tim is a professor at NYU now, used to be at (?~4:20). What he says is that when you can think of scientists as concert pianists, and so they work really hard everyday. You know, they prepare to master very technical pieces and they practice and practice and practice until perfection. 

And then the philosopher of science is the guy who comes, runs a few cords, maybe a few pieces, and then starts dismantling the piano to see how it works.

C: Yeah. 


S: And so that's basically what we do. We look into the inner workings of science.

C: I love that, yeah. 

S: So that consists of asking questions like "are models and theories, uh, good accurate representations of the world?" "Is the goal to predict or is it to explain or to do something else?" "Can science be value free, and if it is not, what are the ways in which values can interfere with science in a way that's legitimate or not legitimate?" Those are the kinds of questions we ask.

C: Yeah.

B: Mechanism is one thing, but there is this higher level of  why to care, what does it mean, and then what also is laden on top. So like, you talk about this idea of values, and I've done big data analytics, and so tried really just to double-blind, triple-blind, everything, use numbers to tell the story. Even the fact that I asked that question though, there's my values.

C: Yeah. Yeah.

B: Like they're right there. Like of course there are values there, I asked the question because I cared, because I wanted to find out something about biodiversity, right? Maybe it's good to recognize that, like I think scientists in general are afraid to put that out there because it means they're doing quote "bad science". But maybe the better thing, what I've been thinking about recently, maybe it's good to say "hey, here's the thing. I do conservation genetics. I like world with more species rather than less."

 (06:00) to (08:00)

B: That's not based on a fact. And science is what I like. And then you can go on.

C: Right and then you know- Totally, you know where you're coming from. And that way, then, you can also communicate with someone who's coming from somewhere different than that. That's like why would we conserve animals when we can just bring them back scientifically, like, after they go extinct. Like what's the difference between that animal versus the animal that went extinct?

B: Right. Right. 

C: And so if you don't know what value place you're coming from, then how do you even have that conversation?

S: It's true. I mean these are the questions that you don't have the opportunity to ask, or to address, within the ream of science itself, right?
B: Right.

S: You focus a little- a little on important problems, those are important and fun problems, but you don't- you don't step back and say "Well, what are my assumptions here? Why do I value biodiversity? Why is that important to me? Maybe it doesn't matter how many species we have. Why is it so important?" Unless you have a good answer to this, then your work doesn't make much sense.

C: Yeah.

B: Right.

S: Or at least you have an assumption within your work that you're not aware of and is not well grounded in reasoning or evidence. And that's a problem. (?~7:05)see the problem, right? 

B: Yeah, well I now see it as a problem.

C: Yeah, that's not good research. Yeah, yeah.

B: Yeah, because, I mean, the whole thing with the scientific method is, it's like oh we learn all about this to then ask a question. Or like what are the assumptions of the study? I've never seen in a scientific journal article "the assumptions were that I value because of an intrinsic feeling that I have."


C: I love being outside.

B: Right, but that's so valid as an assumption to say that you love being outside, like that- that is a part of that story, right?

C: Yeah.

S: It is a part of it, but- as soon as you voice this, as soon as you start articulating reasons, then you make yourself vulnerable to criticism.

C: Totally.

S: It's important to know where we come from, how we justify it, how it can be criticized, and what answers we can have against this criticism, because otherwise again, you're on shaky grounds. All the time.

B: Yeah.

C: But if you are on shaky ground, you want to know that you're on shaky ground.

S: Exactly.

 (08:00) to (10:00)

C: If you're in America born citizen and you think that national parks are intrinsically valuable, it's probably because you're an American born citizen and you visited those parks. And like, that's a great thing, but that doesn't mean that that is the only way that things need to exist, and so once you know that, then you can stack your argument or focus your research into, like, why those thing's are important and then talk to people about how they're important. 

B: Exactly. And like ecology is such a cool place for all this to intersect. People who do ecology have gone there, instead of say molecular or biology, because it is complex, because it is big, because it is dirty, and it's confusing and all over the place.

S: Right.

B: What a wonderful playground for a philosophy of science approach, philosophy of ecology-

S: Right.

B: Because not only do you have all of those questions on the front end, but you have the questions on the back end. And what I mean by that are the questions about application.

S: Right. 

B: So like what do we do as managers, like as people who work as wildlife biologists for the forest service, who are making a choice about that land right there.

C: Yeah.

B: Like those back end decisions- like that's huge, right? That maybe somebody who's doing microbiology might not have that applied field. 

S: And that, it's what's important to me here, is that, you know, philosophy can be, sometimes be a little abstract. 

B: Sometimes?

S: And sometimes it can, honestly, be a little out of touch, right? So when metaphysicists, because they are also people working on metaphysics, right? And they get paid for it too. So they're talking about tropes, and they're talking about, um, realism about metaphysics- um, mathematical objects, all kinds of weird questions that typically don't speak to anybody besides their small group of people interested in, um, those areas. When it comes to defining biodiversity and why we value it, or when it comes to talk about invasive species. When it comes to those issues, those have practical consequences.

C: Yeah.

B: Yeah, big time.

S: And it's financial too, right? We put money onto those things.

B: I mean, millions, yeah. 

S: Exactly. So we better know what we're doing if we want to do it right. 

 (10:00) to (12:00)

S: And it is a question of right and wrong to a large extent. And so it's important to me that we stop, you know, thinking that all of this is clear and obvious and we start asking questions and maybe recognize that we are on shaky grounds. If we talk about the national parks, you know the idea, for example, those are "untouched", "pristine" yeah.

B: "Pristine".

C: Yeah. 

S: Come on, I mean-

C: You just said manage, like-

B: Yeah.

S: So one is manage. Second, there's a history here. Basically, that was the home of people who were displaced, um, or killed. 

C: Yeah.

S: And so the, the idea that this was untouched- No, there were people for millennia on those lands. Um, and you know, inhabiting this land and, um, dealing with this land, using this land. So it's not untouched. And that has some serious colonialist meaning so any time you say "oh this is pure nature", no this is the result of a heavy history which involved genocide.

C: Yeah.

B: Right. 

S: Now that doesn't mean that we want to give up on the parks and you know- I don't know, but at least recognize that something has happened there, which don't ignore the presence and impact of ingenious people for all those centuries, I mean millennia, because that's just a total mess.

B: Recognize.

C: Yeah.

B: I think the biggest thing here is assumptions. I think when we are- we go through rigorous amounts of  learning about a scientific topic. So like for me, I'm in a PhD program right now, which means that I spent a good amount of time getting very specifically into something. And I think the assumptions happened so long ago that they are not present.

S: Right. 

B: So those assumptions about, like invasive species or ecosystem services or biodiversity honestly were probably formed in like seventh grade, you know? 

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah.

B: Like, in an intro to biology class-

C: And subtly.

B: And so subtly. And so like, here I am carrying years of assumptions that are so far back that I haven't asked those questions.

 (12:00) to (13:02)

B: And I'm so thankful to be able to ask them now even though it makes me crazy. But I'm glad that I'm asking them, and I'm on my own journey with it. And so we're hoping that by kinda sharing a little bit with you that you might ask these questions too and kinda consider maybe your own assumptions or what it means to look at that ground and see the biases and make a stronger, maybe more accurate and respecful story out of it. This was awesome. Thank you guys. 

S: Thank you so much.

C: Thank you! Thank you!

B: Thank you for being on the nature league, yes and make sure you come back next week where we are gonna start our brand new month with a brand new theme that is: biodiversity.

S: That's exciting.

B: We'll see you then!