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Are Philosophy’s Glory Days in Bioethics Over? (guest post)

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How has philosophy’s role in cognate disciplines been changing? We could ask this question about philosophy and political theory, or cognitive science, or business ethics, or theoretical physics, and so on. In the following guest post, the focus is on philosophy and bioethics.

Authors Vilius Dranseika, Piotr Bystranowski, and Tomasz Żuradzki (Interdisciplinary Centre for Ethics, Jagiellonian University) examine the claim that philosophy’s role in bioethics is diminishing. They take a data-driven approach to the problem, looking at trends in how frequently philosophical work is cited, and how often especially philosophical topics are discussed, in bioethics literature. In addition to putting forward their view of the matter, they are seeking feedback from readers about this method and their particular application of it.

Are Philosophy’s Glory Days in Bioethics Over?
by Vilius Dranseika, Piotr Bystranowski, and Tomasz Żuradzki

There is a familiar claim that, when compared to the early days of bioethics, the role of philosophy in bioethics has diminished. Let’s call it the Disconnection Thesis. The latest discussion of this claim can be found in a recent American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) target article, “The Place of Philosophy in Bioethics Today” (Blumenthal-Barby et al. 2022). While the authors do not openly endorse the claim, much of the paper consists of suggestions how the role of philosophy in bioethics could be made more pronounced. However, do we know whether the Disconnection Thesis is true? How could we test it? And even if we concede that philosophy plays a relatively small role in bioethics today, can we check whether that role was significantly more marked at some earlier stage of this relatively young academic field?

In this blog post, based on our commentary just published in AJOB (Bystranowski, Dranseika, Żuradzki 2022b) we would like to do two things. First, we describe several attempts to test the claim that the role of philosophy in bioethics has diminished. Second, we want to encourage the readers to suggest what other observable—and testable—patterns we could expect were this claim true.

First, we hypothesized that, if the Disconnection Thesis is true, older bioethics articles can be expected to relatively more frequently cite philosophy articles. To test this, we downloaded Web of Science citation data for papers published in the four key bioethics journals: American Journal of Bioethics, Bioethics, Hastings Centre Reports, and Journal of Medical Ethics. For all references in the four journals in a given year, we calculated the proportion that cited articles published in philosophy journals. To identify philosophy journals, we used the National Science Foundation (NSF) journals classification. NSF classifies 21,304 journals in total, of which approximately 1% is classified as Philosophy. This, however, required a few manual corrections: we added Ethics, Philosophy & Public Affairs, and Social Philosophy & Policy to Philosophy, and excluded Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal and Christian Bioethics. As can be seen in Figure 1, the proportion of citations to philosophy journals is relatively stable over time—while the Disconnection Thesis would predict a decline. One can also ask whether this proportion (hovering around 4% of all citations to journals classified by NSF) is lower than could have been expected. It is difficult to say. On the one hand, philosophy journals constitute only approx. 1% of journals classified by NSF, thus 4% of citations may after all be quite remarkable. On the other hand, it is not obvious what prior expectations one should have in this situation. We leave it to the reader to decide whether this level of engagement with philosophy is best interpreted as ‘consistently low’ or ‘consistently high’. The important point is that neither of these interpretations favours the Disconnection Thesis.

Figure 1. The proportion of number of references to Philosophy journals to the number of all references to journals in a given year for four key journals in bioethics (American Journal of Bioethics, Bioethics, Hastings Centre Reports, Journal of Medical Ethics, established, respectively, in 1999, 1987, 1971, and 1975) in combination (top) and individually (bottom). Lines represent locally estimated scatterplot smoothing with 95% confidence intervals. Based on Web of Science citation data and (manually corrected) NSF journal classification.

It is worth mentioning that NSF classifies most of philosophy of science journals not in Philosophy but in Science Studies. Manually reassigning the main philosophy of science journals to Philosophy does not alter the picture significantly.

Second, we decided to check whether bioethical issues that are most tightly linked to philosophy become less pronounced over time in bioethics literature. To select bioethical issues that are ‘paradigmatically philosophical’ we drew on our earlier topic modeling study (based on a a corpus of 19,488 texts published since 1971 in seven leading journals in the field of bioethics and philosophy of medicine; Bystranowski, Dranseika and Żuradzki 2022a). For each of the 91 content-based topics from our model (as well as 6 framing topics, see below), we calculated Pearson’s coefficients for correlation between the prominence of a given topic in a document and the proportion of citations from that document to Philosophy journals. These results are provided in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Pearson’s coefficients for correlations between the prominence of a given topic in a document and the proportion of citations from that document to Philosophy journals. Highlighted rows correspond to the 6 “framing topics.” Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. Opaque dots correspond to coefficients that do not significantly differ from zero. For descriptions of individual topics see Bystranowski, Dranseika and Żuradzki (2022a).

Using this approach, topics most associated with philosophy are: Abortion: philosophical issues, Doctrine of double effect and act/omission distinction (or Omissions), Metaphysics of beginning of life (or Embryos: identity); Health and wellbeing, Justice and equality, Principlism debate. Looking at diachronic developments in the prominence of these six topics in the four key bioethics journals suggests that neither of these topics exhibit a downwards trend (see Figure 3a). In fact, each of them exhibit a moderately positive trend.

Figure 3. The mean prevalence of (a) the six content-based topics most strongly associated with citing Philosophy journals and (b) four framing topics, across 5-year periods (from 1976 to 2020) in four key journals in bioethics (American Journal of Bioethics, Bioethics, Hastings Centre Reports, Journal of Medical Ethics).

Finally, our topic model also allowed us to identify six topics that we interpreted as corresponding not to specific content-based themes but rather to distinct methodological perspectives and forms of discourse employed in bioethics and philosophy of medicine. As indicated in Figure 2, some of these ‘framing topics’ (Cohen, Priva and Austerweil 2015) were associated with philosophy in the sense that the more a document was associated with this topic, the higher was the proportion of philosophy citations in this document. In particular, such ‘philosophical’ topics were Moral philosophy discourse and Definitions of concepts. Other framing topics (particularly, Qualitative empirical bioethics and Quantitative empirical bioethics) were negatively associated with the proportion of philosophy citations. As can be seen in Figure 4b, neither of the two ‘philosophical’ framing topics seem to be displaying the pattern suggested by the Disconnection Thesis. Moral philosophy discourse is gaining prominence in bioethics over time while Definitions of concepts is remarkably stable over time. A somewhat more complex pattern is exhibited by the two least philosophical framing topics. Both Quantitative and Qualitative empirical bioethics are virtually absent till 1990s, then they gain in prominence, while showing signs of decline in the most recent decades (possibly due to empirical bioethics moving to newly established journals, such as AJOB: Empirical Bioethics). One could perhaps raise a possibility that the Disconnection Thesis is partly motivated by the latter two framing topics gaining visibility in bioethics journals around 2000-2010. Under this hypothesis, the increased visibility of empirical perspectives in bioethics journals perhaps contributed to the impression that bioethics is moving further away from philosophy.

Overall, in our three attempts to test the Disconnection Thesis, we failed to find evidence for it. What we see triangulating several different approaches, is a relatively stable—and sometimes even increasing—association of bioethics with philosophical scholarship, topics and modes of argumentation. Were we looking in the wrong places? We would like to use this opportunity to encourage the readers to suggest what other observable—and testable—patterns we could expect were this claim true, as well as what other data sources we could use in further study of this question.

A more extended discussion can be found in our “The Disconnection That Wasn’t: Philosophy in Modern Bioethics from a Quantitative Perspective“.

References:

Blumenthal-Barby, J., S. Aas, D. Brudney, J. Flanigan, M. Liao, A. London, W. Sumner, and J. Savulescu. 2022. The Place of Philosophy in Bioethics Today. The American Journal of Bioethics 22 (12):10–21. doi:10.1080/15265161.2021.1940355.

Bystranowski, P., V. Dranseika, and T. Żuradzki. 2022a. Half a Century of Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine. A topic-modeling study. Bioethics 36 (9):902–925. doi:10.1111/bioe.13087.

Bystranowski, P., V. Dranseika & T. Żuradzki. 2022b. The Disconnection That Wasn’t: Philosophy in Modern Bioethics from a Quantitative Perspective. The American Journal of Bioethics 22 (12), 36-40. doi:10.1080/15265161.2022.2134490

Cohen Priva, U., and J. L. Austerweil. 2015. Analyzing the History of Cognition Using Topic Models. Cognition 135: 4–9. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.11.006.

Originally appeared on Daily Nous Read More

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