An interview with Adam Kruchten, a Renaissance scholar of the highest calibre

Meandering through information from different disciplines is difficult for anyone – be them a scientist, philosopher, or anything else. On his website and in this interview, we’ll take a look at how Adam Kruchten learned to figure out what guided him in his passions and how he applies both scientific and philosophical thinking to understanding statistics.

HA: Adam, as an undergraduate, you studied mathematics and philosophy. Now you’re going to enroll at University of Pittsburgh to study biostatistics. How did you go from being interested in mathematics and philosophy to biostatistics?

Adam: Statistics, and inference more generally, in some form has always been of interest to me, it just took me quite some time to learn that about myself. Early in my undergraduate career I worked in research in statistical mechanics, and I was always fascinated by the probabilistic models. Idealizations could capture tremendous amounts of useful information about extraordinarily complex phenomena. Further, the same underlying notions of probabilistic modeling could be used to understand and cope with both true randomness and epistemological uncertainties without any difference in mathematics. Originally I thought I was mostly drawn in by the physics. I realized later that the physics, while interesting, was not what drew me in. It was really the methodology. I hopped around different fields, but had the same problem. Eventually I settled on math and philosophy, and there I found fields where I could study and understand fundamental issues underlying robust scientific inferences. In math I was drawn to logic, and in philosophy I was drawn broadly to issues addressing philosophy of science: philosophy of science proper, but also language, epistemology, and metaphysics. 

After graduation I took a job in applied mathematics, but my role was really mostly an applied statistician. Here I worked closely with a professor of statistics and found the underlying study of inferences that had really drawn me to numerous fields prior. 

As for biostatistics specifically rather than statistics more generally? Biostatistics occupies its place inside public health programs. I think applying statistics to public health issues is a great way to make a meaningful impact through the study and application of my underlying passions. 

HA: What role does (or will) philosophy play in your research? How do you hope to study science and philosophy hand in hand?

Adam: Beyond philosophy directly informing my statistical work, I would also like to eventually research questions that are fundamental to inference itself. When doing this kind of research you are not just relying on philosophy, you are directly doing philosophy. 

HA: On your blog you’ve written about the philosophical thesis of physicalism in a way that people without a strong background in philosophy can understand ( What sort of understanding do you think this general audience should have of philosophy? 

Adam: I try to write in an accessible way that doesn’t require much philosophical understanding, but I think I do expect readers to at the very least think “like a philosopher.” By “think like a philosopher,” I really mean several things. You should read with curiosity and openness: reading while prepared to dig deeper into elements you may not understand and with a willingness to change your own views as necessary. At the same time I think you should read with a critical but charitable mind. Critical, meaning you look for implicit assumptions, look for leaps in logic, and rigorously assess the foundations of any premises. Charitably, meaning you only attempt to criticize the best possible version of the argument: don’t set up straw men, see if small errors in argument and prose can be easily corrected, and engage with the mindset that an argument was made in good faith.

HA: A bit more specific, what can scientists do to appreciate philosophy better? 

Adam: There’s an obvious answer here which is just “read more philosophy.” This is an honest answer, but it only goes so far. I think reading more philosophy is always useful, but there is far more philosophy than even a professional philosopher could read and understand, let alone someone with a career outside of the field.

For a more practical answer I think scientists should engage in science the same way I answered the previous question. Think like a philosopher by acknowledging and assessing underlying premises and methodological assumptions in doing science.

HA: Before we finish, what’s one book everyone should read?

Adam: This is a tough one. I have a hard time suggesting one book for a variety of reasons. I think I will answer with the book I feel most influenced my thought, Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. This book is Kant’s own summary of the much longer Critique of Pure Reason. I think that reading this book shed a great deal of light on various ways of thinking I had taken for granted, and helped me come to terms with a lot of what I had, at times erroneously, assumed implicitly to be true about the world. Just as Hume awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, so did this book for me.

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