Faculty Spotlight: Michael Weisberg

Just like traditional on-campus classes, Penn LPS Online courses emphasize communication and connection with instructors as well as peers. Our courses are designed and delivered by Penn faculty who bring years of teaching experience as well as professional expertise to the classroom. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to introduce you to some of the outstanding instructors who make our courses so immersive and effective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Meet Michael Weisberg

Dr. Michael Weisberg is Bess W. Heyman President’s Distinguished Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Penn, the interim director of Perry World House, the editor-in-chief of Biology and Philosophy, and director of the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance. He is the author of Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World and co-author of the landmark photographic study Galápagos: Life in Motion. Dr. Weisberg has served as an advisor to the Republic of Maldives, Republic of Palau, and Republic of Fiji; as a senior negotiator at United Nations Climate Conferences, he attended the 2023 Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai. Dr. Weisberg received his PhD and MA in philosophy from Stanford University and a BS in chemistry and BA in philosophy with highest distinction from the University of California at San Diego.

With Penn LPS, Dr. Weisberg has taught philosophy of science courses for the Master of Liberal Arts degree, and helped develop SPRO 1000: Scientific Reasoning for Penn LPS Online’s Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree. Dr. Weisberg was selected to address the graduating class of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies Class of 2024 at the graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

How did the Scientific Reasoning course come about?

The online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree was a chance to rethink all the assumptions about what an undergraduate education could look like. The more typical undergraduate thing would be a critical thinking course, basically a logic course. And we thought that sounds great, but what else do we want citizens to know? If you work in a law firm or a dentist’s office, and you’re not necessarily going to become a philosophy major or a chemist, what do you need to know about logical or mathematical reasoning and how science works? So my colleague Daniel Singer and I took elements from logic and elements from the philosophy of science, such as how evidence is gathered and how scientific explanation works, and we put those together into a course. The goal is for anyone who takes SPRO 1000: Scientific Reasoning to feel comfortable reading about a scientific finding and having the critical distance to ask, could this really be the case or is this too good to be true? What’s the bias of the person telling this to me?

What makes scientific reasoning a valuable skill?

So much of our society is built on technical knowledge, and it is really important to be comfortable evaluating this knowledge in order to make decisions like who to vote for or whether to take certain medications. Yet for the vast majority of people, at least in the US, scientific education ends in high school. I feel lucky to be a professor: if I have a question about physics, I can talk to a colleague in the physics department. But for many people, their only continuing connection with science might be with their physician. So the goal of the course is to help lifelong learners engage with technical knowledge in order to make incredibly consequential decisions.  

You have a scientific background yourself, in addition to philosophy. What drew you to study both fields?

I went to university with the intention of becoming a scientist. I majored in chemistry, but I had to take a range of courses in different disciplines, so in freshman year I took a philosophy of science course and really got a lot out of it. At the beginning, it seemed like something that I was just taking because it was interesting, and I didn't see that yet as my path. Then I realized that the kinds of questions that philosophers of science were asking—essentially questions about how science works and how we can actually come to understand the vast universe—those were the questions that had always gripped me. I decided to minor in philosophy, and then eventually decided to major in philosophy as well as chemistry.

I always encourage my students to be very open-minded about what they study because you don't know where it's going to take you. I still think about the world in a special way as a chemist, but I went to graduate school to study philosophy. I also did work in evolutionary biology and ecology along the way, so I picked up a lot of background in those sciences. My dissertation and PhD work was looking at how simple and approximate models can be used to develop theories about complex systems.

Do you find that having a scientific background benefits your approach to philosophy, or vice versa?

In the recent years of my career, when I spend most of my time working in the policy space, and climate policy in particular, it's been very useful to be someone that has a humanistic background. I have a lot of training in writing and communicating, and philosophy is useful because there’s a lot of emphasis on logic and trying to see through the noise to the fundamental issues. There are a lot of considerations when you're thinking about global politics, and both physical sciences and social sciences are necessary to design solutions that work for everybody.

Interdisciplinarity doesn't just happen. That’s something that I think is very important as we think about how to train the next generation of students: Interdisciplinarity only happens with really hard work on both sides to meet in the middle, and it helps if there are some people who feel comfortable moving back and forth. But the bottom line is that climate change is where science and society are meeting. Climate change is an existential risk for humans and ecosystems, and addressing it requires a massive political response as well as scientific knowledge.

How did you get involved in global climate discussions?

It's not a very obvious point-A-to-point-B line. There were two or three important steps in the middle. My first exposure to science meeting politics was a court case where a school district in central Pennsylvania wanted to teach creationism instead of evolution in biology classes. This is a philosophy of science issue; a lot of the court challenges had to do with how we define what science is. I found it really interesting being involved in that case, and started to research how the public engages with science. Then I got involved with Penn students and faculty and community members in the Galápagos Islands, co-developing research projects to look at human impacts—at first on wildlife, but eventually wildlife and health and climate change. And Perry World House has opened the doors for me to meet people who are involved in the nuts and bolts of climate policy work. At first I got involved the way that professors usually do: going to the climate negotiations, making technical submissions. But in international policy circles, most of the intellectual inputs are coming from NGOs and not from universities, and there’s a real opportunity for universities to think creatively about specific areas that are difficult to manage. Our research group worked with Maldives for quite a few years, and were able to advise the Minister of Environment on negotiating positions that were really important to them, like adaptation and funding to address loss and damage.

So that is a very long answer that scratches at the surface of the full story: a journey with a lot of steps that involved a lot of taking opportunities when they arose.

That sounds like an object lesson in the effectiveness of an interdisciplinary education.

My career is a good example of the fact that you don’t really know how all the things that you’re learning will come together to help you solve the next problems—so I advise students to just dive into the things that you’re passionate about learning. The world is going to keep changing, and the important thing is that you develop some depth of knowledge and skills and interests that you can bring to the table.

There’s no single course that’s going to tell you how to solve big challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss—if there were, we would have solved them. Those are big tent problems that take all different kinds of creativity and interests, so it’s important to keep studying the things you care about.

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