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Papers from the Colloquium

Theme 4: Evidence and Context

Respondent: Dr Hasok Chang
Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London

I would like to begin by noting a fundamental agreement with Jason Davies: considering something as a hypothesis, or assessing evidence for it, only makes sense in a broader context. But I have a slight disagreement as well, since I think that the context is not always a narrative. Quite often the relevant context is structure. For a very simple example, take something called Prout's hypothesis from 19th century chemistry. This was the idea that all chemical elements had atomic weights that were integer multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen. This idea made sense in the context of an organised system of chemical elements, but there was no discernible narrative underlying that system. (And there may well be yet other types of contexts, too, in addition to narrative and structure.)

I think it is indeed important to note that these contexts are rooted in the academic disciplines in which we work. Jason's emphasis on narratives, in itself, seems to be a product of a particular disciplinary context, namely that of the historical sciences. But that does not invalidate his main point (here I am collapsing two of his levels, narrative and discourse): these contexts are what define disciplines, and we expect clashes when different disciplines come together.

I would like to take a broader view of evidence, as reasons for believing something. Then it becomes clear that what counts as evidence at all depends very much on the disciplinary context, which provides the standards of evidence. (Thomas Kuhn made a similar point in his discussion of incommensurability.) Let me go back to the example of Prout's hypothesis. For most chemists, only results of chemical analyses counted as evidence for or against Prout's hypothesis. For later physicists, separation of isotopes by the mass spectrometer was the key; for example, chlorine with its atomic weight of 35.5 seemed to violate Prout's hypothesis, but chlorine on earth turned out to be an accidental 3:1 mixture of two isotopes, chlorine-35 and chlorine-37. For William Prout himself, metaphysical-theological arguments were important, as what recommended the hypothesis to him was the simplicity that must be present in God's plan for the universe.

Departing slightly from Jason's talk now, I would like to make a few remarks on the nature of evidence and interdisciplinarity at the point of action. Why is there interdisciplinary clash at all? Why don't we just have disconnection and mutual incomprehension between different disciplines? Disciplines clash only because they actually come together. And it is when there are specific, concrete problems to solve that disciplines tend to come together. For example, sending an astronaut into space requires input from physics, astronomy, computer science, materials science, chemistry, nutrition, physiology, psychology, and even politics. And there are clashes in evidential considerations because different contexts generate different reasons for believing something or not.

Finally, since we are not simply discussing interdisciplinarity in general but interdisciplinary studies of higher education, I must ask: how does all of this bear on higher education? In higher education we do have concrete problems to solve. If anyone had doubts about that, the recent case of the discussion of the proposed merger with Imperial College should have dispelled them. In the course of that discussion, educational philosophy mixed with economics, pedagogy with transport and infrastructure, and history came to bear on everything else. Heads of different departments were suddenly engaged in serious conversations with each other. The lesson, I think, is that we do always have concrete problems to solve in higher education, though this only came to be apparent thanks to a drastic problem. That, in my view, is one of the strongest arguments for promoting interdisciplinary studies of higher education.



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