Zina B. Ward

Cognitive science is primarily in the business of uncovering regularities that hold across minds. What is often overlooked – by scientists and philosophers of science alike – is that people’s minds differ significantly from one another. Although differences between healthy and diseased individuals have been extensively studied in psychology and neuroscience, variation among “normal” adults has been scientifically neglected. This has begun to change in the last few years. Cognitive scientists are increasingly aware of the theoretical significance of variation and have launched new scientific efforts to study it. Given the epistemic challenges associated with the study of individual differences, as well as the ugly history of research on human variation, it is essential to approach these efforts critically. In my current research, I examine how the methods and concepts of cognitive science must change to reflect the presence of individual differences, as well as how individual differences complicate our philosophical understanding of science.

Variation and Philosophy of Science: A significant portion of my work on individual differences examines how variation in cognitive science complicates philosophical conceptions of explanation, causation, aggregation, and modeling. As part of this work, I propose an account of what it takes to explain variation that contrasts with extant philosophical theories about the explanation of regularity. In a different forthcoming paper, I examine how individual differences can inform our views about data aggregation and the theory-ladenness of neuroimages. In addition, I am interested in how variation is related to natural kinds, which types of models provide genuine explanations (as opposed to mere descriptions) of variation, and what ethical norms ought to guide inquiry into variation.

Variation and Scientific Methodology: The other major strand in my work on individual differences explores how scientific methods can be improved in light of existing variation. One paper suggests several ways to make data aggregation in neuroscience more accurate in the face of individual differences in brain organization. Another explores how the modeling strategy known as rational analysis must be modified in order for it to constitute a potentially fruitful approach to the study of individual differences.

Values in Science: My interest in individual differences grew partly out of a concern for the social consequences of studying human variation in different ways. This concern has also led me to also develop work on the role of values in science. I am particularly interested in questions such as: What are the different ways of conceiving of values in relation to scientific choices? Is the argument from inductive risk compelling? What does it mean for groups to possess values and for those values to influence science? Is it possible to identify instances of politicized science in a value-neutral manner?

Moral Psychology: Another area in which I am interested in bringing empirical inquiry to bear on philosophical problems is moral psychology. I have written formally and informally about topics such as human agency and weakness of will. I am also interested in the ethical and metaethical implications of individual differences in people’s moral judgments and emotions.