Doctoral candidate Michelle Pham has been awarded a prestigious year-long dissertation fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This nationally-competitive award will cover a full year of dissertation research from September 2016 to August 2017. Michelle's dissertation project aims to understand the nature of scientific consensus as it operates in scientific practice. She explains "Outside scientific communities, the image of scientific consensus is often rhetorically necessary for enacting changes to public policy" -- for example, addressing global climate change. However, she points out, "when we put such political purposes aside, there remain important, separate questions about how science achieves consensus and what role consensus plays in the context of research practice."
Within her field of philosophy of science, Pham argues that it is important for philosophers to consider consensus as well as the more commonly addressed question of how to maintain dissent and diverse perspectives within communities. While some philosophers have pointed at the dangers of consensus emerging from a "groupthink phenomenon," she insists that despite "historical and social psychological reasons for why philosophers have not conceptually engaged with scientific consensus, this lack of engagement is a mistake." In an effort to correct this, Pham tackles two central questions -- "What is consensus good for?" and "What is meant by consensus, and by whom?" -- with a sensitivity to both the history of the philosophy of science and the history of science itself.
The aim of her dissertation project, Pham explains, "is to articulate an account of scientific consensus that explains (a) why it might be valuable in research practice and (b) what we mean by it." She has identified examples of cases in which scientific consensus has been achieved in a variety of different ways. In articulating these differences, her project has important implications for thinking about the general aim of scientific practice, and, more broadly, about how the testimony of expert scientists affects public policy decisions in the public sphere. With the aid of the SSHRC dissertation fellowship, Michelle is making steady progress on these important questions. We look forward to learning more!