Tinkering in the Lab: Lecture by Dr. John Bickle
Anglo-American philosophy of science has been theory-centric since at least the ascendance of scientific realism in the late 20th century. While more recent work has tended away from concerns about science “in general,” and more toward “foundational” questions specific to particular sciences, and has focused more on experimentation and actual scientific practices, the attitude that everything in science begins and ends with theory, its confirmation, and its progress, remains stubbornly recalcitrant (although it is now expressed more surreptitiously). A recent focus on experiment tools and their patterns of development in laboratory-driven sciences like neurobiology challenges this theory-centrism. Tools that revolutionized neuroscience, at least in the eyes of neuroscientists, developed by way of atheoretical tinkering in the laboratory—by solving engineering and technological problems, by trial-and-error, and even by seer serendipity—and not by the systematic application of theory. A common general pattern runs through these cases: laboratory tinkering => new experiment tools and designs => theory progress. I’ll argue for this pattern by way of some history of the development of a number of neurobiology’s most influential experiment tools: the metal microelectrode, the path clamp, gene targeting by homologous recombination, and optogenetics and DREADDs.
John Bickle, PhD, is a Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Mississippi State University, and an Affiliate Faculty of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.