Practice-oriented controversies and borrowed epistemic credibility in current evolutionary biology: phylogeography as a case study

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Arroyo-Santos, Alfonso; Olson, Mark E.; Vergara-Silva, Francisco
preprint description
Although there is increasing recognition that theory and practice in science are intimately intertwined, philosophy of science perspectives on scientific controversies have been historically focused on theory rather than practice. As a step in the construction of frameworks for understanding controversies linked to scientific practices, here we introduce the notion of borrowed epistemic credibility (BEC), to describe the situation in which scientists, in order to garner support for their own stances, exploit similarities between tenets in their own field and accepted statements or positions properly developed within other areas of expertise. We illustrate the scope of application of our proposal with the analysis of a heavily methods-grounded, recent controversy in phylogeography, a biological subdiscipline concerned with the study of the historical causes of biogeographical variation through population genetics- and phylogenetics-based computer analyses of diversity in DNA sequences, both within species and between closely related taxa. Toward this end, we briefly summarize the arguments proposed by selected authors representing each side of the controversy: the ‘nested clade analysis’ school versus the ‘statistical phylogeography’ orientation. We claim that whereas both phylogeographic ‘research styles’ borrow epistemic credibility from sources such as formal logic, the familiarity of results from other scientific areas, the authority of prominent scientists, or the presumed superiority of quantitative vs. verbal reasoning, ‘theory’ plays essentially no role as a foundation of the controversy. Besides underscoring the importance of strictly methodological and other non-theoretical aspects of controversies in current evolutionary biology, our analysis suggests a perspective with potential usefulness for the re-examination of more general philosophy of biology issues, such as the nature of historical inference, rationality, justification, and objectivity.