Case study: Hasok Chang

Hasok profile image.jpg

Programme: Wolfson Research Professorship; September 2017 - August 2021

Name of PI: Professor Hasok Chang, Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

Title of research: Philosophy of Active Scientific Knowledge

Amount awarded: £165,000

How can the philosophy of science be made more relevant to scientific practice today? As part of his Wolfson Research Professorship, Professor Hasok Chang is addressing this aim through a two-part project as a showcase for a different way of practising the philosophy of science. Professor Chang’s approach to achieving this is by offering a realistic ideal of knowledge, challenging the widespread view that science should be able to provide a proven universal truth about reality.

Why is this important?

When science fails to attain an impossible ideal that is attributed to it, it can result in misleading narratives entering the mainstream of society; for example, "evolution is just a theory so it should be treated equally with intelligent design" or "climate change theory is not proven completely so it is only as good as its denial." What is needed therefore is a practicable ideal of knowledge that captures best practice while indicating how it can be improved further.

Through his award, Professor Chang sought to investigate this by researching and writing two books, to be published by Cambridge University Press and University of Chicago Press respectively. The first, titled Realism for Realistic People, is devoted to reforming the philosophy of science by revitalising the philosophy of pragmatism, which focuses attention on practices rather than just facts and ideas. The second book, How Does A Battery Work? is a historical study that both illustrates and guides the philosophical programme. The subject of this historical study is "battery science" in the 19th century, which generated both fundamental theories and useful practical devices in close mutual connection. With the sponsorship of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, Professor Chang has also conducted laboratory work reproducing some electrochemical experiments from the 19th century, in order to immerse himself more fully into the past scientific work and also to recover some now-neglected old insights. He also studied German in Vienna to enable the reading of materials to aid his research. During his award, Professor Chang secured seven fully funded new PhD students as part of a group working on topics closely related to his own research.

Outcomes arising from the research

Since the start of the grant period he has published eight academic papers relating to these projects and has several more forthcoming. Professor Chang has disseminated preliminary findings to wide audiences beyond his own discipline including scientists and science educators and has been invited to more than 40 talks and deliver keynote lectures at conferences throughout the UK and overseas including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, South Korea and Spain.

Through the award, Professor Chang has furthered his work on the history of electrolysis in the 19th century and engaged in a special collaboration with scholars in the area of chemistry education, critically examining the treatment of electrolysis in modern textbooks. This collaboration has resulted in a co-authored paper for the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice.

Now in its final year, Professor Chang plans to complete and submit manuscripts for both of his books to be published in 2021.

“Among philosophers who care about the place of science in society, there is a great felt need for a philosophy of science fit for purpose in informing scientific practice and its social engagements, fully informed by the history of science. This award has allowed me to have a long uninterrupted period of time during which I was able to immerse myself into two major book projects simultaneously, which would have been simply impossible under normal circumstances. I thank the British Academy and the Wolfson Foundation most sincerely for giving me this opportunity, as should anyone else who will benefit from my work.”


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