Introducing Dr Kate Lynch, Lecturer in Philosophy of Science

We are excited to announce the appointment of Dr Kate E Lynch as Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). Dr Lynch is a philosopher of science and a biologist, whose work brings together philosophical analysis and empirical investigation. She is also a talented science communicator with a keen interest in engaging the broader public in discussion around key contemporary issues such as the impact of emerging genetic technologies or how to prioritise conservation efforts. Current HPS student Rachelle Madden talked with Kate about her research and teaching interests and her work with the Australian Academy of Science.

What subjects will you be teaching and what is most interesting to you about these?

In 2023 I taught Philosophy of Science (HPSC20026), which I really enjoyed. I especially like teaching this subject to science students, who often come to the class with a lot of assumptions about how science works – assumptions which we challenge. In particular, it seemed like students were really interested in the question of whether science is in the business of discovering objective truths, whether or not science is value-free.

In 2024 I have the pleasure of teaching this subject again, and I’ll also be teaching first- and third-year students, in Science, Philosophy and Society (HPSC10002), which I will co-coordinate with Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, and The Dynamics of Scientific Change (HPSC30035), which I will co-coordinate with Kristian Camilleri.

Can you tell us about your background in both biology and philosophy, and what led you to bring those together in the field of HPS?

Like many HPSsters, I moved back and forth across various disciplines before finding my home here. My first undergraduate degree was in Philosophy and Psychology and after completing honours in Philosophy I was a bit stuck with what to do with my life. While working a very boring administrative job, I took on a lot of volunteer roles including as a wildlife carer and rescuer, and volunteer zookeeper at Taronga Zoo (Sydney). That got me interested in studying biology; so, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Advanced Science and, within the first year, realised that genetics was my jam.

In particular, I loved the quantitative mathematical side of genetics and, though I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I began my appreciation for the history of science through learning genetics. Before all the molecular methods we have today, scientists had to come up with ways of predicting inheritance patterns, inferring how close genes were on a chromosome etc., using only phenotype (trait) data and family resemblances. This resulted in some very clever experiments, methods and formulas for indirectly inferring things about genes. As a genetics student you get to engage in a lot of problem solving, rather than just rote learning how the biology works. So that got me hooked.

Within the first year in the science degree, I also enrolled in a PhD in Philosophy. So, I did my PhD (full-time) at the same time as my biology degree (part-time). I’m not sure that would be allowed these days. No one told me I couldn’t do it, so I just went ahead with it, and finished up both degrees at roughly the same time. It was a very busy three and a half years, but was super useful in the end, as my Philosophy PhD was about causation in genetics and how to interpret quantitative genetic results. I worked with people in both departments to formulate those ideas, and made connections in the biology department, which led to my first postdoc, where I metamorphosed into a biologist for three years and ran experiments on flies and fish. That job was essentially testing whether the philosophical ideas in my PhD held up to empirical scrutiny.

Working in a lab taught me a lot about actual scientific practice and how divorced it can be from the ideal experiments philosophers might come up with at their desk. There was a lot of error and setback, which is typical for experimental work. I enjoyed my time in the lab but ultimately missed having time to read and write. I also had some internal moral struggles around that period with conducting animal research – particularly on vertebrates (I was studying freshwater fish) – and decided it wasn’t for me. So, I switched back to being a philosopher, working in an interdisciplinary health research centre at the University of Sydney – the Charles Perkins Centre.

That was a great environment for me because I got to work with a lot of scientists but didn’t have to do the drudgery involved in running experiments. And it’s the way I still like to work today. HPS is the perfect environment because I can undertake independent philosophical projects, but also continue to collaborate with scientists on more applied problems that could benefit from philosophical thinking.

Some of your research is about death certificates – what drew you to this line of research?

My overarching interest here is in causation and explanation. Philosophers have been discussing causation for a very long time and, typically, the discussions focus on how to define or identify causes and distinguish them from non-causes. But no matter which philosophical theory you choose, this results in what Peter Menzies (my PhD supervisor) called ‘the problem of profligate causation’. For any given effect, there are a near infinite number of things that count as causes. Say you strike a match and it lights. What caused the match to light? Well, striking the match is the obvious response, but the presence of oxygen in the room is also a cause under many philosophical accounts. And then, assuming transitivity of causation (something contested in philosophy), whatever caused those causes also count as causes.

So, my desire to light a candle caused the match to be struck; that desire might have been caused by a power outage, which was caused by a lightning strike, which was caused by a storm, etc. The number of causes just blow out. But people don’t tend to focus on all of those factors; they usually just pick out one or a few causes as the causal explanation. Philosophers call this causal selection. And causal selection happens all the time across science and medicine. Scientists tend to focus on genes and microbes, rather than other contributing factors.

The reason I became interested in death certificates is that they are a globally institutionalised document which constrains causal selection. Doctors must pick out a single causal chain leading to death in order to complete the death certificate and identify the underlying cause of death. So, they are forced to select the most important or salient causal explanation. This is interesting to me because when you talk to doctors about how they do this, many of them are dissatisfied with the format of death certificates constraining them to putting down just a single cause. There’s also a lot of disagreement and discussion about which causes are most important. Areas of science like this where there is dissatisfaction and disagreement are music to the ears of a philosopher! Why do people disagree and why are they dissatisfied? Can philosophical ideas about causal importance and causal explanation help? That’s what I’m exploring in the death cert project.

You recently gave a talk in the HPS Seminar series on Indirect Genetic Effects. Can you tell us more about this?

Prior to my interest in death certificates, I had been working on causation and explanation in genetics. This is another area of science where there is a lot of disagreement and debate – this time on how to interpret human genetics results. Here again, I set out to figure out why people disagree and debate how to interpret these results.

In behaviour genetics there is a phenomenon called ‘gene environment correlation’, where at the population level, genetic differences and environmental differences are associated. This can happen for multiple reasons and I’ve shown in previous work these reasons map onto distinct causal pathways. One way it can happen is that people can have an initial genetic predisposition to seeking out or constructing an environment. So, in a sense, genes are causing environmental experience.

For example, imagine a group of children who inherit a gene which makes the musty smell of books extremely pleasurable to them. Those children will probably go out of their way to seek out and surround themselves with books. Being surrounded by books, they’re probably more likely to pick them up and read them. Contrast this to children with a gene mutation which makes the smell of books unbearable – they avoid them. These children are not going to spend much time reading. If you compare these children and assess their reading ability, the first group will do better.

Under standard quantitative genetics models, this will be attributed to a genetic difference – and reading ability will look “genetic” (heritable). Something seems wrong about this; the better causal explanation (I think), is the environment – books or no books. And, if the environment changed slightly, so that books were made of different materials (perhaps now everyone has a Kindle), this difference would disappear. This example illustrates an unintuitive way that a high heritability estimate (a common measure in human genetics) can make something seem ‘genetic’. By constructing thought experiments like this and seeing where intuition pulls people, philosophers can help understand the exact reasons why scientists disagree about how to interpret results.

You are an incoming co-convenor of the HPS Seminar Series (alongside Dr Jacinthe Flore). What types of seminars can we look forward to attending in 2024?

We have lots to look forward to this year! There are a lot of history, philosophy and social studies of medicine talks coming up and we hope to showcase research from lots of up-and-coming ECRs with fresh perspectives in these areas.

In an episode of The Philosopher’s Zone podcast you discuss the contributions philosophers can and do make specifically in the field of biology. What are your top three?

I think one contribution that philosophers are great at, which I pointed to above, is helping scientists figure out why they disagree and find something problematic. Another is providing clarity about the concepts biologists use. Some common examples are individuality, sentience, causation, emergence, reduction. In fact, conceptual clarity can inform the first approach. Often disagreements arise because biologists are talking past each other: they mean something slightly different by ‘emergence’ than their colleague; so, when they fiercely disagree about whether something is emergent or not, they might actually agree more than they think!

The other contribution I would mention is helping think through the implications of empirical research results. What does it mean that a mouse with an altered microbiome spends more time along the walls of a maze? Does that warrant the claim that ‘disrupted microbiomes cause anxiety’? (I think not.) Or what about the fact that slime-moulds can navigate through a maze to a food source; does that make them conscious? To answer this question, we need some idea of what it is to be conscious, what anxiety is (and what it might look like in non-human animals), when we have grounds for making causal inferences, etc.

Earlier this year you became a member of the National Committee for History and Philosophy of Science for the Australian Academy of Science. Can you tell us what your focus will be as a member of this committee?

One thing I’m interested in focusing on here is getting HPS embedded into the education system – at the secondary and even tertiary level. I also think HPS has an important role to play when thinking about how science is communicated to the public, and the effects that poor communication can have on public perceptions and trust in science.

Dr. Kate E. Lynch is a member of the National Committee for History and Philosophy of Science with the Australian Academy of Science. She has published on topics such as quantitative genetics and effective conservation, and can be heard discussing causation and death and de-extinction on ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone, with David Rutledge. You can also hear more about Kate’s work on this recent episode of SHAPS’s HPS Podcast.

Kate coordinates the second-year subject Philosophy of Science (HPSC20026). She also co-coordinates the first-year subject Science, Philosophy and Society (HPSC10002), with Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, and the third-year subject The Dynamics of Scientific Change (HPSC30035), with Kristian Camilleri.