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Beckett Sterner
Arizona State University
  1. Moving Past the Systematics Wars.Beckett Sterner & Scott Lidgard - 2018 - Journal of the History of Biology 51 (1):31-67.
    It is time to escape the constraints of the Systematics Wars narrative and pursue new questions that are better positioned to establish the relevance of the field in this time period to broader issues in the history of biology and history of science. To date, the underlying assumptions of the Systematics Wars narrative have led historians to prioritize theory over practice and the conflicts of a few leading theorists over the less-polarized interactions of systematists at large. We show how shifting (...)
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  2. Integrative pluralism for biological function.Beckett Sterner & Samuel Cusimano - 2019 - Biology and Philosophy 34 (6):1-21.
    We introduce a new type of pluralism about biological function that, in contrast to existing, demonstrates a practical integration among the term’s different meanings. In particular, we show how to generalize Sandra Mitchell’s notion of integrative pluralism to circumstances where multiple epistemic tools of the same type are jointly necessary to solve scientific problems. We argue that the multiple definitions of biological function operate jointly in this way based on how biologists explain the evolution of protein function. To clarify how (...)
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  3. Pathways to pluralism about biological individuality.Beckett Sterner - 2015 - Biology and Philosophy 30 (5):609-628.
    What are the prospects for a monistic view of biological individuality given the multiple epistemic roles the concept must satisfy? In this paper, I examine the epistemic adequacy of two recent accounts based on the capacity to undergo natural selection. One is from Ellen Clarke, and the other is by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Clarke’s position reflects a strong monism, in that she aims to characterize individuality in purely functional terms and refrains from privileging any specific material properties as important in their (...)
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  4. Individuating population lineages: a new genealogical criterion.Beckett Sterner - 2017 - Biology and Philosophy 32 (5):683-703.
    Contemporary biology has inherited two key assumptions from the Modern Synthesis about the nature of population lineages: sexual reproduction is the exemplar for how individuals in population lineages inherit traits from their parents, and random mating is the exemplar for reproductive interaction. While these assumptions have been extremely fruitful for a number of fields, such as population genetics and phylogenetics, they are increasingly unviable for studying the full diversity and evolution of life. I introduce the “mixture” account of population lineages (...)
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  5. Taxonomy for Humans or Computers? Cognitive Pragmatics for Big Data.Beckett Sterner & Nico M. Franz - 2017 - Biological Theory 12 (2):99-111.
    Criticism of big data has focused on showing that more is not necessarily better, in the sense that data may lose their value when taken out of context and aggregated together. The next step is to incorporate an awareness of pitfalls for aggregation into the design of data infrastructure and institutions. A common strategy minimizes aggregation errors by increasing the precision of our conventions for identifying and classifying data. As a counterpoint, we argue that there are pragmatic trade-offs between precision (...)
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  6.  19
    Coordinating dissent as an alternative to consensus classification: insights from systematics for bio-ontologies.Beckett Sterner, Joeri Witteveen & Nico Franz - 2020 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42 (1):1-25.
    The collection and classification of data into meaningful categories is a key step in the process of knowledge making. In the life sciences, the design of data discovery and integration tools has relied on the premise that a formal classificatory system for expressing a body of data should be grounded in consensus definitions for classifications. On this approach, exemplified by the realist program of the Open Biomedical Ontologies Foundry, progress is maximized by grounding the representation and aggregation of data on (...)
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  7. Well-Structured Biology: Numerical Taxonomy's Epistemic Vision for Systematics.Beckett Sterner - 2014 - In Andrew Hamilton (ed.), The Evolution of Phylogenetic Systematics. University of California Press. pp. 213-244.
    What does it look like when a group of scientists set out to re-envision an entire field of biology in symbolic and formal terms? I analyze the founding and articulation of Numerical Taxonomy between 1950 and 1970, the period when it set out a radical new approach to classification and founded a tradition of mathematics in systematic biology. I argue that introducing mathematics in a comprehensive way also requires re-organizing the daily work of scientists in the field. Numerical taxonomists sought (...)
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  8. The normative structure of mathematization in systematic biology.Beckett Sterner & Scott Lidgard - 2014 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 46 (1):44-54.
    We argue that the mathematization of science should be understood as a normative activity of advocating for a particular methodology with its own criteria for evaluating good research. As a case study, we examine the mathematization of taxonomic classification in systematic biology. We show how mathematization is a normative activity by contrasting its distinctive features in numerical taxonomy in the 1960s with an earlier reform advocated by Ernst Mayr starting in the 1940s. Both Mayr and the numerical taxonomists sought to (...)
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  9. Explaining ambiguity in scientific language.Beckett Sterner - 2022 - Synthese 200 (5):1-27.
    The idea that ambiguity can be productive in data science remains controversial. Efforts to make scientific publications and data intelligible to computers generally assume that accommodating multiple meanings for words, known as polysemy, undermines reasoning and communication. This assumption has nonetheless been contested by historians, philosophers, and social scientists, who have applied qualitative research methods to demonstrate the generative and strategic value of polysemy. Recent quantitative results from linguistics have also shown how polysemy can actually improve the efficiency of human (...)
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  10.  26
    The Objectivity of Organizational Functions.Samuel Cusimano & Beckett Sterner - 2020 - Acta Biotheoretica 68 (2):253-269.
    We critique the organizational account of biological functions by showing how its basis in the closure of constraints fails to be objective. While the account treats constraints as objective features of physical systems, the number and relationship of potential constraints are subject to potentially arbitrary redescription by investigators. For example, we show that self-maintaining systems such as candle flames can realize closure on a more thorough analysis of the case, contradicting the claim that these “simple” systems lack functional organization. This (...)
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  11. Evolutionary Species in Light of Population Genomics.Beckett Sterner - 2019 - Philosophy of Science 86 (5):1087-1098.
    Evolutionary conceptions of species place special weight on each species having dynamic independence as a unit of evolution. However, the idea that species have their own historical fates, tendencies, or roles has resisted systematic analysis. Growing evidence from population genomics shows that many paradigm species regularly engage in hybridization. How can species be defined in terms of independent evolutionary identities if their genomes are dynamically coupled through lateral exchange? I introduce the concept of a “composite lineage” to distinguish species and (...)
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  12. Review of Sabina Leonelli’s Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study. [REVIEW]Beckett Sterner - 2018 - Philosophy of Science 85 (3):540-550.
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  13. Objectivity and Underdetermination in Statistical Model Selection.Beckett Sterner & Scott Lidgard - forthcoming - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
    The growing range of methods for statistical model selection is inspiring new debates about how to handle the potential for conflicting results when different methods are applied to the same data. While many factors enter into choosing a model selection method, we focus on the implications of disagreements among scientists about whether, and in what sense, the true probability distribution is included in the candidate set of models. While this question can be addressed empirically, the data often provide inconclusive results (...)
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  14. Individuality and the control of life cycles.Beckett Sterner - 2017 - In Scott Lidgard & Lynn K. Nyhart (eds.), Biological Individuality: Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives. University of Chicago Press.
     
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  15. The Practical Value of Biological Information for Research.Beckett Sterner - 2014 - Philosophy of Science 81 (2):175-194,.
    Many philosophers are skeptical about the scientific value of the concept of biological information. However, several have recently proposed a more positive view of ascribing information as an exercise in scientific modeling. I argue for an alternative role: guiding empirical data collection for the sake of theorizing about the evolution of semantics. I clarify and expand on Bergstrom and Rosvall’s suggestion of taking a “diagnostic” approach that defines biological information operationally as a procedure for collecting empirical cases. The more recent (...)
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  16.  5
    How Data Governance Principles Influence Participation in Biodiversity Science.Beckett Sterner & Steve Elliott - unknown
    Biodiversity science is in a pivotal period when diverse groups of actors—including researchers, businesses, national governments, and Indigenous Peoples—are negotiating wide-ranging norms for governing and managing biodiversity data in digital repositories. These repositories, often called biodiversity data portals, are a type of organization for which governance can address or perpetuate the colonial history of biodiversity science and current inequities. Researchers and Indigenous Peoples are developing and implementing new strategies to examine and change assumptions about which agents should count as salient (...)
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    The FAIR and CARE Data Principles Influence Who Counts As a Participant in Biodiversity Science by Governing the Fitness-for-Use of Data.Beckett Sterner & Steve Elliott - manuscript
    Biodiversity scientists often describe their field as aiming to save life and humanity, but the field has yet to reckon with the history and contemporary practices of colonialism and systematic racism inherited from natural history. The online data portals scientists use to store and share biodiversity data are a growing class of organizations whose governance can address or perpetuate and further institutionalize the implicit assumptions and inequitable social impacts from this extensive history. In this context, researchers and Indigenous Peoples are (...)
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  18. The Epistemology of Causal Selection: Insights from Systems Biology.Beckett Sterner - forthcoming - In C. Kenneth Waters (ed.), Causal Reasoning in Biology. University of Minnesota Press.
    Among the many causes of an event, how do we distinguish the important ones? Are there ways to distinguish among causes on principled grounds that integrate both practical aims and objective knowledge? Psychologist Tania Lombrozo has suggested that causal explanations “identify factors that are ‘exportable’ in the sense that they are likely to subserve future prediction and intervention” (Lombrozo 2010, 327). Hence portable causes are more important precisely because they provide objective information to prediction and intervention as practical aims. However, (...)
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  19. Object spaces: An organizing strategy for biological theorizing.Beckett Sterner - 2009 - Biological Theory 4 (3):280-286.
    A classic analytic approach to biological phenomena seeks to refine definitions until classes are sufficiently homogenous to support prediction and explanation, but this approach founders on cases where a single process produces objects with similar forms but heterogeneous behaviors. I introduce object spaces as a tool to tackle this challenging diversity of biological objects in terms of causal processes with well-defined formal properties. Object spaces have three primary components: (1) a combinatorial biological process such as protein synthesis that generates objects (...)
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  20.  2
    Consensus and Scientific Classification.Joeri Witteveen, Atriya Sen & Beckett Sterner - 2022 - Knowledge Organization 49 (4):236-256.
    Consensus about a classification is defined as agreement on a set of classes and their relations for us in forming beliefs. While most research on scientific consensus has focused on consensus about a belief as a mark of truth, we highlight the importance of consensus in justifying shared classificatory language. What sort of consensus, if any, is the best basis for communicating and reasoning with scientific classifications? We describe an often-overlooked coordinative role for consensus that leverage agreement on how to (...)
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  21.  40
    Coordination Instead of Consensus Classification: Insights from Systematics for Bio-Ontologies.Beckett Sterner, Joeri Witteveen & Nico Franz - forthcoming - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences.
    Big data is opening new angles on old questions about scientific progress. Is scientific knowledge cumulative? If yes, how does it make progress? In the life sciences, what we call the Consensus Principle has dominated the design of data discovery and integration tools: the design of a formal classificatory system for expressing a body of data should be grounded in consensus. Based on current approaches in biomedicine and systematic biology, we formulate and compare three types of the Consensus Principle: realist, (...)
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  22.  12
    Making coherent senses of success in scientific modeling.Beckett Sterner & Christopher DiTeresi - 2021 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 11 (1):1-20.
    Making sense of why something succeeded or failed is central to scientific practice: it provides an interpretation of what happened, i.e. an hypothesized explanation for the results, that informs scientists’ deliberations over their next steps. In philosophy, the realism debate has dominated the project of making sense of scientists’ success and failure claims, restricting its focus to whether truth or reliability best explain science’s most secure successes. Our aim, in contrast, will be to expand and advance the practice-oriented project sketched (...)
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    Bats, objectivity, and viral spillover risk.Beckett Sterner, Steve Elliott, Nate Upham & Nico Franz - 2021 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43 (1):1-5.
    What should the best practices be for modeling zoonotic disease risks, e.g. to anticipate the next pandemic, when background assumptions are unsettled or evolving rapidly? This challenge runs deeper than one might expect, all the way into how we model the robustness of contemporary phylogenetic inference and taxonomic classifications. Different and legitimate taxonomic assumptions can destabilize the putative objectivity of zoonotic risk assessments, thus potentially supporting inconsistent and overconfident policy decisions.
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