Episode 52 - Federica Russo

Introduction. Interview begins at 1:54

Nick: Dr. Federica Russo, welcome to the SCI PHI Podcast. How are you this afternoon?

Federica: Thanks you for inviting me. I am very well this afternoon. It is nearly evening here in Europe actually.

Nick: Where in Europe are you calling us from?

Federica: I am calling from Brussels today, although as you know I am based in Amsterdam.

Nick: Oh wow, okay. What brings you to Brussels?

Federica: Family reasons. Family is based here.

Nick: And as we’ve spoken over the phone, you have a new four-month-old daughter, is that right?

Federica: Yeah, that’s correct. Maybe our listeners may hear at some point weird noises from my daughter, but she’s fine.

Nick: Fair enough, fair enough. So, I guess there’s probably been a lot going on recently. How’s the term and semester been for you?

Federica: The semester has been quiet. Especially because I’ve been on maternity leave until October. I won’t be teaching until January of this year. So it has been quite relaxed in some ways and busy in other ways. I’m working on research proposals at the moment mainly. So not a lot of admin meetings and teaching, so it’s different from previous years I would say.

Nick: Any research proposals you’d care to share? Which ones are you working on?

Federica: There is an individual grant that I’ve been working on that I am waiting to hear the results about, and this is going to be a big research project if it is granted on public health from epistemological perspective mainly, and also with implications for policy. Another one is a network grant that I’m working on with a number of colleagues, interdisciplinary in the [inaudible] sciences, the social sciences and humanities, a bit complicated to explain. But these are the two main ones.

Nick: Well, perhaps we can come back to those to discuss. Well, why don’t we go ahead and start back at the beginning, Federica, we can learn about how you got into the philosophy of science, how you ended up in Amsterdam teaching and studying in philosophy. So why don’t you tell us a little about your origin story. Where did you grow up?

Federica: I grew up in Italy, in the Northeast of Italy, in the [inaudible] region. And then I started as an undergraduate in Padua. And at that time, Padua was kind of a place where you would find a lot of Aristotelians, Kantians, Hegelians, and just a tiny bit of philosophy of science. There were people who were doing analytic philosophy, but they were definitely the minority. But I was interested in philosophy of science mainly, I guess because the question that interested me at that time, and still does in many ways, is, how do we know stuff? And so science was the obvious place of where you start. So I did as many courses as I could in philosophy of science, including my bachelor thesis and then, yeah, just got started that way.

Nick: Before you got into the bachelor's thesis though, the' how do you know stuff' question is a big one. Were there times growing up that you explored this in other ways or just more remedially?

Federica: It is a big question and probably that's why I still find it interesting, intriguing, and worth investigating. And the perspective I took, kind of to tackle this question was from the methodology of the sciences. But from this one, of course, you can look into more general questions about, what is knowledge? But yeah, the starting point was really in specific scientific fields, how do you need the modems in a way that allow you to build a knowledge of something? And so it started in a very modular way. And this is how in the beginning I looked into the social sciences and epidemiology and the biomedical sciences more generally, etc. You see. So it is a kind of a common thread that you can find in my philosophical production, kind of looking at different scientific fields and asking how do we get to know this and that.

Nick: So was this question of how do we get to those instances: was this supported in your studies at Padua? I mean, did you find yourself right away in the support of other philosophers or were you, as you mentioned, looking in the sciences.  And what was your experience like there?

Federica: Ah, that's interesting because I hope my Bachelor’s supervisor would not listen to this. So when I started my bachelor thesis, the specific part that was intriguing me was how we build the knowledge from probabilities and statistics. But he was not so keen on me doing a whole bachelor thesis on this. And so I did a kind of a compromise bachelor thesis on philosophy on causality and biology.

Nick: How is that a compromise for him? Could you explain a little bit more?

Federica: It was a compromise because my supervisor wanted to learn more about biology and so he was kind of getting help from students to know a lot about the philosophy of biology that at that time was a rather emerging field. Now it is definitely established, and a big subfield within the philosophy of science. But at the time it was still kind of an emerging one

Nick: And probability and statistics weren't of interest? Or weren't quite as -- well to him, I suppose.

Federica: No, I guess he didn't see an interest in delving into probability and statistics from the perspective I wanted to take. Because what I was interested in was, what is the relation between probability and causality? Which of course is another big theme that has been discussed in the literature. And so, I wanted to understand how we build statistical generalizations and how they contribute to, or to what extent do they contribute to establishing causal knowledge, let's say. And that was pretty general and done over the years, I managed to narrow this down to apply a big question like this into specific fields like the social sciences, using quantitative methods or epidemiology itself that is by and large quantitative. So I kind of got to this, but in another way, eventually.

Nick: Okay. So it sounds to me, as the story you're painting, is that getting into the philosophy of science there was a pretty clear path. Did you have any other interest, either academic or other intellectual pursuits you were considering at the time?

Federica: Logic was my other big interest, but I couldn't really see a whole career or a kind of a long-term research project that I had with logic. Probably because I was not so much interested in the foundations but more on the applications. So I don't know, it was a strange thing. So eventually it was philosophy of science. That one, yeah, we'll do count of the formal element in philosophy of science is present. So I didn't lose it on the way, I would say.

Nick: And so I believe you might be the first individual I've spoken to who studied philosophy of science at Padua, in Italy. Could you tell us a little bit about your perception of the philosophy of science as it's practiced — as it's taught in Italy?

Federica: I'd say this is a difficult question because of course, what I learned over the years of changing countries and institutions is that traditions are not just national but also very local. So at the time I was a student in Padua, the kind of philosophy of science that was taught, it was mainly the history of philosophy of science and a lot of it was learning about a circular philosophy and philosophy of physics to some extent. There were other topics on the rise and so I got to study, say, Van Frassen at that time. But it was, yeah, mainly what we would call now the analytical philosophy of science tradition, the Anglo-Saxon tradition in philosophy of science. And in many ways, this may still be the dominant tradition in Italy or at least this is my perception. Although other people kind of do a different philosophy of science and more historically oriented or they look at other traditions. But they, my perception, they are the minority with respect to the analytical one.

Nick: Okay. Okay. And so in being taught a lot about history of philosophy of science, it sounds like your bachelor's thesis was more specifically in a more of like an analytic philosophy of science project, or something; not necessarily a historical project but I guess at the time, was HOPOS as it's called, is that something you had wanted to pursue?

Federica: Yeah. So I think it's interesting the way you asked this question because uh, being trained in Italy I got to do history of everything. This is how we do most of the philosophy in Italy. We do history of this, history of that, etc. And so the historical perspective is really kind of built in, in the way we were trained. But perhaps probably for this reason, in the first years after my bachelor, I try to move away from history and do, on the one hand, a much more contemporary stuff. And on the other hand, trying to develop my own views and express them in my own words. So we're kind of developing my own arguments. So you see instead of doing exiges or reconstructing issues and other things. So kind of the HOPOS was the tradition that you mentioned was not really what I was off. Although there is a sense in which I have been trained in that tradition.

Nick: I think that's a really good point to make. I think that's really good to identify the assumption in my question of that it does seem like a later choice to separate from the history, but almost if you're doing philosophy of science in some way, you're engaging in historically — if you're trained in this way as you're describing — that maybe you're not doing these reconstructions. But history is a very big part of doing philosophy of science which is definitely not the case for everyone. For many folks.

Federica: Okay. That's definitely true, yes.

Nick: Oh, all right. So, yeah, I guess tell us a little bit about, I guess then that transition to separating from history what. So it sounds like it has some very early on interests, your early interest in the philosophy, in the sciences, beginning at university.  What came next in terms of your decision? Was it a fairly simple decision in terms of, this is what I want to do? I would like to go, I'd like to go into academia. I would like to study. How did that decision come about?

Federica: Yeah. So as an undergrad way to work, to finish my study, I did have a few intentions of doing a Ph.D. I mean, as often happens in life, it's kind of opportunities to come up or things just happen. And at that time I was an Erasmus student in Belgium, so I was an exchange student from Italy. I went to Belgium and this is where I got an opportunity to serve my proposal for a Ph.D. and the proposal got accepted. So I went straight into a Ph.D. after my bachelor really. And so I didn't have to ask myself the hard questions on whether to continue in academia or not. Because it did happen quite naturally and relatively young and relatively easily. And interestingly the project, the Ph.D., at the beginning was again on causation but pretty much tailored to physics examples. Because at that time that was what was most common to do at that time. We started a lot of Wesley Salmon to be clear. And then what happened was, that probably the second interesting episode in my kind of early stages of my career, I was giving a seminar as a master's student enrolled in the Ph.D. program on causality, and a demographer came to attend the seminar. And after my presentation, he gives me a business card and says, come to see me and have a chat. And that was a revealing event for me because he explained to me what he was doing. He's a daily practice as a demographer and I could follow most of it up to a certain point.

And then it was a moment where I was totally lost. I had no idea what he was doing. And this is where I understood that most of what was in my bibliography was basically the philosophy of science and talking about something but not the real scientific practice. And that was one thing. And the other thing was that it seemed to me that we had a more of a kind of fuming intuitions about what causation is in a physics or a physics-related domains in the fork of physics, for instance, and much less about kind of what happens in the social sciences. And so this became the next intriguing question for me. How do we establish knowledge about causes in an unstable domain such as the social realm?  So my Ph.D. thesis shifted from very classic topics to less explored topics, notably a quantitative, causal analysis in the social science?

Nick: Right. So how did you go about getting at that question of how to establish knowledge of causality in the social sciences?

Federica: I went back to school. So I started attending classes in statistics, for instance. I started studying textbooks in social science methodology. I started talking to social scientists, at least to those who were available when I did my Ph.D. and trying to get a grip on what was going on in there. And from there, asking my philosophical questions again. So these changed quite a bit how I pitched the core of my Ph.D. thesis if you see what I mean.

Nick: So you went back to school. So what was it about? What is the connecting with the statisticians? What sort of getting some additional training in these things? What do you think that provided you and your philosophy of science practice?

Federica: I think it gave me, well, of course, a firsthand knowledge of what I wanted to talk about, which is always a good thing to get especially because I didn't have a double training as a bachelor student. But apart from that, it was on the one kind of getting a sense of how physicians and scientists and scientists in general proceed philosophical questions. What are the philosophical questions that they feel more or less pressing, more or less relevant?  This is one thing. And the other one is acquiring a vocabulary in order to talk to them. And also acquiring a way of explaining to them, what's the philosophical point of why is this a philosophical question, or philosophical problem? Because the things that may seem obvious to us that they have a philosophical component or these kinds of dilemmas, conundrums for some reason may not be obvious to them. And so even explaining to them what the problem was, it was an incredibly useful exercise for me.

Nick: Yeah. This might be a challenge. Can you think back, if possible, to any particular conversations or at least particular problems with which you could recall explaining to scientists and kind of how you went about doing that?      

Federica: Yes. Maybe I have a good example because I'm not sure I've succeeded on this one, even after many, many years. So one longstanding collaboration I have is with the demographer that I mentioned before, but also with the statistician and econometrician. The two of us have been working together for over a decade now. And one thing that economic reasons are interested in is representing probabilistically a data generating process. So the point I was trying to get across to my colleague was what it means that this equation or sets of equation represents something or ease the mechanism in the world itself. And I'm not quite sure I managed to explain the difference to him in a convincing way yet. So because the two levels I find are still confused when we discuss things together. So whether we are really talking about mechanisms in the social world or whether we are talking about the way we represent mechanisms that may be eventually unknown still, but that we can still get grip on them by a probabilistic representation. Is it making sense now?

Nick: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's getting clear. Well, it's trying to come in. So what I hear is trying to communicate the kind of problem that you might have in the kind of a way to think about as you're working it. So this demographer was looking at, did they use the term, the vocabulary, like a social mechanism of some kind or did they talk about mechanisms at that time?

Federica: I guess partly I'm using even more contemporary vocabulary because using mechanisms became more popular in more recent years, but yes. So this was talking about the things, real things in the world and the way we represent them. So kind of our knowledge of them and whether you should go fully realist about them and assume that your probabilistic representation is a kind of a faithful representation of them or whether, I mean, what other views can you hold?

Nick: Yeah, no, that's fascinating. Well, certainly. Yeah. And to philosophers of science like us, we're generally captivated by these kinds of questions and want to kind of suss them out. I mean, did you find it necessary to ever to try to communicate, like ever a kind of consequence of why we should even be considering these questions and thinking about these questions in the realm of science? Like do you feel like you were doing this kind of work in the service of science? Or was it more of using the science to get at these other philosophical problems?

Federica: Oh yeah. That's interesting because ultimately you're asking what the role of philosophy of science is.

Nick: Yeah. But I guess I'm trying to put myself — because I've had the consult with these questions recently with scientists and coming as a philosopher of science, I'm sitting down and I'm trying to figure out what's the best way to actually engage with them and just to talk? And it turns out, for example, like I've spoken with folks about who are doing research in decision making and it might be decision making that is impaired decision making. In the case of alcohol use disorders, whereby folks who struggle with either controlling or moderating their alcohol use, tend to make different kinds of decisions. But it turns out the scientists are interested in what exactly do we mean by a decision? When those decisions do take place, what is responsible for those decisions? What exactly is a risky decision?

So I think they really do see, at least in this particular case, there is a grip on trying to understand and unravel this philosophical issue related to decisions. And so this is where they're — while doing the science, they're still kind of also doing philosophy as a result. And so, yeah, I guess I was just kind of curious about what it is, in your instance with your engagement with the demographer, I guess, what were you guys up to?

 Federica: Yeah. So I guess the way you would describe my engagement with these scientists, but also with other scientists, I came to collaborate later on is not merely descriptive. So I'm not talking to them just to get a faithful picture of what they do. I do aim at some kind of normative aims eventually. But not normative in the sense that, okay, I figured it out, what they have to do and then I tell them you have to do this, and this is the right method to do this — no. I guess, I really started with this approach because I want to deeply understand what happens. And the normative is also collaborative with them. So it is with them that they want to develop a concept or a nuance using, developing a specific methodology and so on. Because if there is something useful that philosophy can do for science, it's really improving the science itself, but then you do it together. I have a beautiful result and now you guys go in and implement it because this is the right way of thinking about causality evidence or whatever.

So over the years I've been seeing myself as involved in the scientific process, let's say.  And always trying to understand what would be useful for me to do. So what would be useful to developing philosophical terms? Not just trendy fashion but really what it is that these specific subfields in science needs at this very moment. And it seems to me that science does need a lot of philosophy for the simple reason that the methods they develop have to be accompanied by concepts. And if they don't think enough of the concepts, and this may simply be because of time constraints, then we have to join forces because we philosophers, it's exactly what we do, thinking about the concepts. I don't want my concepts to be just abstract, detached from the practice or irrelevant. So I'm trying to do this work as part of the scientific process, so to speak. I hope this is making sense.

Nick: This is making great sense. Yeah. And my apologies if I'm asking questions that you already essentially described or explained. But, no, no, this is helpful to me and hopefully helpful to listeners to kind of suss out exactly what we mean and what it is. I think you've done a great job clarifying so far. Wow. Okay.

So I'm looking over some of the projects and some of your work. There's a number of great things that you've done so far. Would you care to describe, I guess, a little bit of what came out of your graduate work and kind of what are maybe some of your big projects that were particularly impactful in your career or your way of thinking in philosophy?

Federica: Would that be impactful on me or that I made an impact on?

Nick: Could be both. If you'd like to maybe we could start with something that you feel was perhaps impactful on the field and then maybe get to, or in, and if that happens to be something. Yeah. Describe how it might've been impactful on you.

Federica: Many people know my work for what has been called the Russo-Williamson Thesis and it, arguably, has made an impact on the field at least because it sparked a very vivid debate on philosophy of science on questions related to a causation in medicine or generally how we establish causal relations. And I guess the reason why I think this is impactful is not so much because many people started debating this and writing papers to show that we were wrong.

Nick: Yeah. I'm seeing this right now.

Federica: No, I don't take these to be the sign of the impact really. I think that the sign of the impact, the fact that scientists that showed the interest in the thesis and we explored ways of making these implemented in, for instance, in the guidelines or in discussing evidence of mechanisms in medicine, you see. So to me, this is an important part of my research, not so much because philosophers are talking about it, but because scientists have any interest in it.

Nick: Great. Great. Yeah. So could you maybe give us the sort of the brief description of the Russo-Williamson Thesis and a kind of what it kind of does in the science? And then maybe some of the criticisms that you've received.

Federica: So the thesis can be formulated in a very simple way. The thesis says that to establish causal relations in medicine, and also elsewhere, you need evidence of correlations and evidence of mechanisms or put it in a slightly more philosophical jargon, evidence of difference making and evidence of production, for instance. And this has been formulated as an epistemological thesis and the methodological thesis not as an ontological thesis. So we are not saying what causality is but we're saying how will you get to establish whether something is causal or not.

Nick: Right. So in the case of smoking, a lot of folks who have written on, in the case of whether smoking causes cancer, for example, is a basic application of this.

Federica: Yeah, exactly. Of course, when you reason on well-known examples such as smoking and lung cancer, of course, we do know a lot already. So this seems rather uncontroversial and this is where I find it interesting because of course you can reason backward and say, "okay, now we do know that smoking causes cancer and what is this claim composed of," etc. But I think interestingly, if you look at more controversial cases, then you will see that this is what you strive to obtain evidence of. And it doesn't mean that you always have it.

Nick: What's an example of a controversial causal case in medicine?

Federica: Oh, well, most of the causal relations that are still under discussion or debate. So many causes of cancer are not for sure. So the cell phone radiation, for instance, there is a debate on that and of course we are not entirely sure whether these cause brain cancer. But if you read the instructions of your mobile phone precautionary, they will say that you should kind of put it quite away from your head, just in case.

But I mean even looking at a historical examples. So recently I was looking into the controversy of the relation between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. And even when you look at the very, very early studies, you could see how they, of course, they are trying to establish that there is a correlation between exposure to asbestos and cases of mesothelioma. But they were also trying to establish whether there is any biological plausibility.

And, famously Bradford Hill in his nine viewpoints talked about biological plausibility. So of course, the thesis does not claim that unless you have a mechanism that is fully described, you cannot establish causation. The thesis aims to say that this is exactly the evidence that you are trying to gather in order to. And of course, you can establish a causal claim and to various degrees depending on the quality of your evidence. And this is what we have been trying to do in our latest project in the EBM+ network. We've looked at the evidence of mechanism is---I'm sorry, because this is something that hasn't been done. So if you take again the field of medicine broadly construed something that scientists, statisticians, epidemiologists, did very well, was being able to establish tools to assess the quality of, for instance, RCTs, randomized controlled trials. So we do know when a trial is better than another because of the data they collected. Because the way they analyze the data. Because of a number of parameters. But something that we know much, much less is how well is, or how good is the evidence of mechanism data that is available. How do you assess it? How do you compare results from different research groups? And how do you consign in case different groups to reach different conclusions about mechanistic links and so on and so forth.

Nick: Some big questions. Yeah. Yeah. So I've noticed, and just looking through a number of papers that there've been quite a few people speaking directly to your thesis. Either making some kind of critical point or applying it to a new case or a new way of thinking. Have you found anything of interest in some of these responses to your work, by having sort of this kind of named thesis out there and have gotten it the attention? Have you seen, have you traced like kind of the knowledge building in these responses and your response to the responses? Like has anything come about from that?

Federica: Some criticism made kind of sense from a philosophical perspective. Because, of course, in philosophy, we tend to be super precise about things. So whether the thesis is establishing a necessary condition, sufficient conditions, what happens in case you don't have evidence of correlation or evidence of mechanisms etc? But in many ways this criticism, I don't think I did much to the thesis. Whereas other papers made more interesting points. For instance, I'm trying to explore what the thesis may mean in different subfields within medicine itself. Because of course a large part of say, a motivation of the thesis is the use of randomized controlled trials, but randomized control trials are not used everywhere in medicine. So you may want to ask questions about whether this is widely applicable or what evidence of correlation may mean in other areas.

So I guess the interesting question is not whether the thesis is right or wrong because I don't think that's the point of it. I guess the interest of debating the thesis is what does this tell us about establishing knowledge in different fields, whether they are comparable, whether they are different and ultimately why we would need these two components? What kind of information are they really providing? And to a certain extent, the mind to reason is that we need evidence of correlation or of difference making because you need to be able to identify relevant factors.

But this relevance, it's not just a statistical relevance, and if you are unable to locate these factors in appropriate mechanism you may miss crucial information, for instance, about how to intervene. And when I say these, what I had in mind are questions about policy. Because maybe you identify relevant factors and you also have a pretty good understanding of a disease causation, say at the biological level. And yet for policy reasons, you may not intervene at a biological level. You may instead try to reduce exposure by working more at the social level or the socioeconomic level. So correlations and mechanisms give you very complimentary information in many ways. So this is getting very long.

Nick: This peaks my own interest. I appreciate you going into describing and then in sussing out. Yeah, what it is, how we should think about this thesis, too. I think it’s really good to get at the kind of understanding what kind of knowledge that it can bring to us or can provide. I mean the consideration of mechanistic evidence is challenging, especially when there are, well — I imagined there are particular biological sciences, specifically health sciences, that have a little bit firmer grasp on established mechanisms or not necessarily established, but maybe more robust findings and support. What of those health science fields that do not maybe establishing particular mechanisms or integrating particular mechanistic understandings are not so strong? What can the thesis do for those fields? I'm thinking maybe things like psychiatry.

Federica: I haven't looked in psychiatry, but I know, for instance, Liz- Marie Anderson in Denmark, is looking into the thesis in the context of psychiatry. So you may want to have a chat with her about what she thinks. But another area that where we have very uncertain knowledge of mechanisms is within the health sciences is molecular epidemiology that have been studied in some detail in the past two years. This is where people are trying to establish a biomarkers, biomarkers of an early clinical changes and dental disease development, et cetera. And what seems to be very, very interesting here is that at some point, at least this is my understanding of what is going on in this field, is that they are not even trying to describe the full mechanism. But they want to reconstruct the salient points of the mechanism by using biomarkers.  So going back to the thesis again, the point is not to have the complete full mechanism because maybe if the reality is so complex, you will never get this picture.

Nick: So what do you mean by salient points? Points that can be intervened on?

Federica: One example I have in mind while I speak is now that they talk about the hallmarks of cancer and they don't even try to describe the full mechanism leading to cancer, but they try to identify some key characteristics that occur. And the question is whether they have occurred in the same order, in the same way, etc. And the point is that they may not be characteristics on which we can intervene, but this may be characteristics that can give us a sense of where we are in the development of cancer as a process. Then, of course, you may ask a question, why this is still a way of mechanistic understanding of the phenomenon? And I think it is mechanistic because having an epistemological point of view, you relate this to the how question. So you tried to embed the knowledge of these characteristics, so hallmarks, etc., in a slightly bigger picture of how things developed. And so you see usually want to give an explanation. And then I guess also answering the question of whether you can intervene or not. Most of the time you can't really intervene on those factors. That's a different point I guess. Yeah.

Nick: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Well, thank you for explaining that a little bit more. Okay. So you mentioned one, this certainly is the work that has really impacted the field. I think that's really impressive to have some of your work be applied or considered and reflected upon not only in philosophy but in health sciences to an end by scientists. So I applaud you for that. I suppose this could be the similar work that has had perhaps the most impact on your way of thinking. But is this work or another work that in doing so, in investigating and has contributed to your way of understanding, how we gain knowledge as you put it, as sort of your central question of what you've been looking at all your life?

Federica: Yeah. So lately what has made a lot of impact in my thinking is the philosophy of information. And the reason is that the way I look at the philosophy of information is mainly as a philosophical method. That also has, of course, important consequences for philosophical concepts such as knowledge itself. But I mean, what I really take from the philosophy of information is the way of looking at philosophical questions, not in absolute terms but always relative specific context. So this gives me a methodology where I start with the smaller questions and then build up the bigger ones. So to begin with, we don't seem to realize that the same philosophical question may receive different answers depending on the level at which you pose the question. So if you ask her what is reality? We chose, of course, a huge question and you ask these to a physicist or to a philosopher or to a biologist or to a layperson, you may get very different answers. And what becomes interesting, I guess, it's not whether one is right and the other is wrong but whether a different answer may co-exist, and if they do co-exist and why is it so. And if they diverged, why they diverged or should they diverge?  So if you ask a question about reality, I doubt anyone will deny that I have a computer in front of me and also a glass of water and my mobile phone is an object and things like that. But then if you want to ask, what is the nature of reality? A much more kind of a lower level, I don't think, I mean physicists or even high energy physicists will give you the same answer. So how do we reconcile ideas that are, at least at first sight, they are so different?

And it is in the same vein that I've been asking the same question about causality with my colleague. Because causality is notoriously a notion that has received too many different answers from the philosophers, from the biologists, from the physicists, from the logician, you name it, right? And in our book we counted no less than 20 different accounts that are in contemporary philosophy of causality. So how do you reconcile these things? And I guess the only way you can reconcile them is precisely by chopping up the questions and trying to understand what these accounts are doing for you. And the flows of information to come back to the original point, gives me a method to play with here.

Nick: Different notions of causality?

Federica: Yeah. In this case, causality.

Nick: Yeah. Yeah. So I guess since we're in the interest of time, so I noticed you've been working on things related to big data and the philosophy of information. So what kinds of questions are you really interested in? And given that you've said that there are a number of ways, depending on the kind of question. Is the question the focus is on how do you reconcile these ideas? Or is that more of like a point to get at: "Okay, we need to be selective and careful about the kinds of questions that we're asking." What are the questions that you're interested in?

Federica: I mean that data are becoming interesting to me is not because they are big. It's not because they are data in which there is an excellent work done by other people for instance of course. But it is because they are expressions of technology-driven research and this is where I want to understand what technology is contributing to knowledge production. And so in a sense, I ask questions that philosophers of science have kind of left aside a bit. Because we did investigate how we produce knowledge of how would we come up with theories about what is the role of technologies in machines doing that? What is the role? And I do want to go beyond the naive intuition that with the microscope you see the smaller and the telescope you see bigger. There is something else that they do and there is some scholarship investigating that. There is for instance, of course, the typical position we are acting in representing intervene. But even then, I mean, I guess there must be something deeper about the very concept of knowledge that we may want to dig out in this investigation. Knowledge then becomes distributed, embodied, connected, the metro of connections more than representation. Technology becomes part and parcel of the way we produce knowledge and the philosophy of information, again, gives me tools here because of artificial agent. 

Nick: Could you say more about those tools?  My mind doesn't go exactly to what those tools are.

Federica: Yeah. Yeah. I was getting to that one concept. No, no, that's fine. One concept that fit the philosophy of information developed, is the notion of information and organism. Now we are informed, we humans because we process information, but there are artificial agents that are likewise in forks. And so the question is how we interact among in forks? And it doesn't really matter that we draw a line between being human and nonhuman but the fact that we interact with the technologies in many ways to produce knowledge. So the philosophy of information gives me tools to move away from essentially the questions about what distinguishes humans from machines and focus on the interesting part. What it means that we interacted with the machines to produce knowledge and what are the consequences of that?

Nick: Yeah. I'm fascinated by this term, by the way, this is great. Okay. No, that makes sense. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, yeah, I noticed on your website you mentioned you're doing some work related to big data practices and helping us to rethink the notion of objectivity with a collaborator. It seems like something of fairly recent interest. Great. Well, we're getting a little bit closer to the end of our time but before I get into my final question, why don't you just tell us a little bit about what you're currently thinking about? What you're currently working on? Any new developments and in your research trajectory.

Federica: I mean, this stuff on technologies I would say is a new development because I did some work on it, but there is much more that I want to do. And hopefully I should be writing a book about techno-scientific practices in which I do investigate more closely the role technology plays and the consequences this has on notions such as a causation or a knowledge itself. The other project I had and for which I hope to get some funding in the near future is to connect to the philosophy of science question that I've been working on for over a decade now. With the questions on an ideological, political level. So we have been talking for a long time now about the Russo-Williams Thesis and what it means epistemologically and methodologically, the sciences, etc. But something that I think we should be doing next is how these things connect to ethical, political probe.

So what difference does it make or what are the implicit or explicit ethical, political principles that connected to give notions of mechanisms or given the notion of health or given notions of evidence? And I give you an example so that you get a sense of what I had in mind. So if you have a concept of health that involves both biological factors and socioeconomic factors, for instance, then you may become normative about how to intervene in different ways. So obesity, how would you fight obesity? If obesity also has social economic causes then you may have to intervene on the industry, the food industry.  Or if you only intervened by giving informational food labeling, basically what you're saying is, I give you the information and then you're totally free to act as you want. So these are specific ethical, political principles that you are implementing in your policy. But you may act differently depending on how you conceive health or causation or you may act differently depending on what implicit or explicit ethical political principles you adopted. Whether you are [inaudible] for instance. This is making some sense or it's still very nebulous.

Nick: Well, I mean, it's complicated.  I'm trying to kind of, I mean the way in which — yeah, I mean what I see is just like the philosophy having really strong consequences for the way in which we make sense of particular ways in which we understand information and what we understand these causal links. As well as the way in which we understand certain interventions in relation to them.  Because this is really great. I know you've done a really nice job articulating and characterizing this, so I think that's essentially what it is. That's great. Yeah. That's fantastic. Why don't we close with the final question I've been asking guests, which is, what do you see the greatest challenge philosophy of science is today?

Federica: To me, at least personally, the great challenge is really being in a fruitful dialogue with scientists and policymakers and use a translates into doing work together so not just the talking about what they do, but also kind of doing stuff together. It is a challenge because what is at stake is really the elements of philosophy more generally for science and for policy and in a moment where the humanities more generally are seen as kind of a cherry on the cake but not as an integral part of our scientific thinking, et cetera. And this seems to be a high stake.

Nick: I think that's very true. In Amsterdam, is this a particular place? So it seems like wherever the folks, my experience has been in that philosophers of science are, might be a little bit more socially and politically connected depending on where they're kind of stationed, where they're connected with and/or the particular science with whatever they're interested in. For example, big data. There’s a lot to do there with policy. Climate science is a lot to do there with policy. What is it like, I guess, I would say for you in Amsterdam, and I don't know, in connecting with policymakers there?

Federica: It is not easy and it is never easy because many of these contexts depend on how things go personally. So you may have a very good personal contact with the person or you may just meet a person at the wrong moment and it doesn't go ahead. But at the moment I'm making good contact with the people working in the university hospital, academic medical center. And through them, I'm getting connected to policy people who have interests that are quite similar to my own at this very moment. But it is a slow process and the process that requires a lot of patience and resilience and you should never give up. So then I guess something that is often underestimated is the language barrier because we all speak English as a kind of lingua franca of science.

But of course many of these discussions also happening in the local language and in the local culture. And they do speak Dutch. But of course, my Dutch is not as good as my English. So this sometimes does create a bit of difficulty. But just to give you an example, there was a very controversial book published by one of the councils, in the Netherlands, criticizing very strongly evidence-based medicine and this was an intern criticized by eminent [inaudible] in the Netherlands, etc. And so if you want to get into this debate, it's not just because of your ideas, you connect locally to the people who are active in those debates and you can communicate with them in their own cultural terms and language, etc. So yeah, that's all to say it's happening slowly, but yeah, getting there.

Nick: Well, Federica, thank you so much for coming on and taking the time to chat. I'm glad we got to do a sort of a more philosophy heavy kind of conversation style. Actually, that was a lot of fun for me. I hope you enjoyed it too. Is there anything you'd like to mention at the end, to kind of leave us with? Anything to plug or discuss, some of your work, another program?

Federica: Apart from a big thanks to you for inviting me for having this stimulating conversation. Maybe one thing that I would like to say is that much of what I've been doing, philosophy is not just my own work and even though this debate the Russo-Williamson Thesis has two names actually behind it. There are many more names and if you visit the EBM+ website you will see some of these names. So this to me is important, not because I'm kind of formally giving credit to these people, but because I do see philosophy as a solipsistic enterprise, I really see it as a kind of collaborative project. So again, to go back, it's not a question of whether I'm right or wrong. The question is, well, what can we do together to make this work if it has to work? So yeah. So big thanks to all my colleagues who have been with me over the years, I would say.

Nick: Very well said. Well, thank you so much again. Once again for taking the time to chat. Have a very lovely Wednesday evening in Brussels and yeah, hope to speak to you again soon.

Federica: Thank you so much, Nick.

Nick: Okay. All right, take care. Goodbye.

Federica: Bye.




Nicholas Zautra