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Kinds and degrees of understanding: The interplay between scientific expertise and everyday understanding

The project addresses questions regarding degrees and kinds of understanding, with a focus on the relations between scientific understanding and understanding in other domains.

Understanding is highly valued in the sciences and in everyday life. This research project addresses the question: How to account for degrees of understanding?

It appears intuitively plausible that understanding comes in degrees. Typically, biology students have more understanding of evolutionary theory than laypeople, but less than their professors. Also, it seems fair to say that Isaac Newton had more understanding of gravity than Descartes but less than Einstein. But how precisely should such differences in degree of understanding be conceptualized and explicated?

An immediately related question is whether understanding can differ only in degree or also in kind? For example, do experts have a higher degree of understanding than laypeople, or is their understanding of a different kind?

The project addresses questions regarding degrees and kinds of understanding, with a focus on the relations between scientific understanding and understanding in other domains. The central research questions will be applied to three concrete problem situations, exemplified by three concrete cases:

  1. Transdisciplinary problem contexts: scientific experts and the insanity defence
    In so-called transdisciplinary problem contexts expert scientists interact with professionals and the wider public, where each group brings its own understanding of the problem. I will investigate how their understandings differ, and how conflicts may be resolved.
    As a concrete example, I will study the role of scientific experts in the courtroom, especially in cases of appeal to the so-called insanity defence, which may lead to conflicts between scientific understanding and everyday understanding of human behavior.
  2. Historical development of science: from phlogiston to oxygen theory
    Differences in degree of understanding might also be found in the history of science. It seems plausible that today we possess a higher degree of scientific understanding than, say, our ancestors in 1800. But can the historical development of science be regarded as a process in which the degree of understanding increases?
    I will answer this question via a study of the transition from phlogiston to oxygen theory in chemistry, which involved radical conceptual changes that do not fit the picture of cumulative processes. I will investigate how the apparent increase in degree of scientific understanding can be explained, given these conceptual changes.
  3. Expertise and everyday understanding: the case of quantum physics
    Science not only influences our daily life in practical ways but also affects our worldview and everyday understanding. Accordingly, public understanding of science is important. How does expert scientific understanding relate to public understanding? Do laypeople understand science in the same way as experts but to a lesser degree, or is public understanding of science a different kind of understanding?
    I will answer this question by studying selected popular-scientific publications by scientists and science writers, to investigate how these succeed (if at all) in conveying understanding of quantum physics to the general public.

The project addresses topical philosophical issues, but it is also important from a wider perspective. It will illuminate the role of understanding in complex real-life problem contexts, provide insights about how science functions in the public arena, and contribute to solving problems with science education and public understanding of science.

Project details

Fellowship in the 'Varieties of Understanding' research program, Fordham University New York, funded by the John Templeton Foundation
Funding period: August 1, 2014 - July 31, 2015

Prof. dr. Henk W. de Regt (VU Amsterdam)

Varieties of Understanding