Faculty Spotlight: Zina Ward

FSU Department of Philosophy assistant professor and future FSU Interdisciplinary Data Science Master's Degree Program faculty Zina Ward.

Zina Ward is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. She earned her Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science from the University of Pittsburgh in 2020. Ward will join the IDS faculty this fall.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I did my bachelor’s at Williams College and then spent two years at Cambridge University, where I completed master’s degrees in philosophy and in the history and philosophy of science. I came back to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, which I received last year. Early on in the pandemic, I finished and defended my dissertation remotely, and then moved to Tallahassee to join the Department of Philosophy at Florida State.

When did you first become interested in philosophy?

I started off as an economics major in college, in part because I felt like economics offered a rigorous way of studying human choices. Over time, though, I became more interested in various critiques of economic models and methods: the accusation that economics is overly mathematized or that it relies on the unrealistic assumption that humans are “homo economicus” (fully rational agents). When I took a class on philosophy of science, I realized that philosophy allowed me think about those foundational sorts of issues. I ended up double majoring in philosophy and economics and writing an undergraduate senior thesis in philosophy on idealization in economic theories.

You’re set to be one of the faculty members teaching as part of the new FSU Interdisciplinary Data Science Master’s Degree Program. What are you most looking forward to about that experience?

I’m looking forward to working with data science graduate students in our new course on Data Ethics. It will be a fun seminar to put together, since the ethics of machine learning, AI, and big data are research areas that are just exploding right now in philosophy.

How does philosophy lend itself to data science?

Philosophy has numerous connections to data science. First, there are important ethical questions about how data should be collected, stored, and analyzed. For instance, how should patient privacy be protected in large medical datasets? Or, if we use a machine learning algorithm to decide who to release on bail or which job candidates to interview, how can we determine if the algorithm is fair? Philosophers have been talking about topics like privacy and fairness for a long time, so philosophical work can consider these questions in a careful, systematic way.

With my background in philosophy of science, I’m also interested in more “epistemological” questions about data science. For instance, when do we gain causal information from data analytic methods and when do they give us something else? And what’s the best way to compare and choose between different computational models?

What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?

My primary research areas are general philosophy of science, history and philosophy of cognitive science, moral psychology, and social epistemology.

One project I’m working on is a historical and philosophical study of the “muscles versus movements” debate within neuroscience, which was about whether single muscles or complex movements are represented in the brain’s motor cortex. I’m studying the history of this debate from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, and examining what the debate can tell us about the concept of neural representation. I’m interested in mental representation because it plays a big role in the study of the mind: psychologists and neuroscientists talk all the time about what the mind or brain “represents.” This particular historical debate is fascinating because it was occurring just as modern neuroscience was getting its start, and lots of pioneering neurologists and experimentalists weighed in.

I’m also engaged in ongoing work on values in science. This research area concerns the role that non-epistemic values — social, moral, political considerations — play in scientific research. Practical issues like when and how we should rely on science, and who should be trusted as a scientific expert, arguably turn on understanding the role of values in science.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is it important?

The philosophy of science can contribute to ensuring scientific research is ethical, methodologically sound, and interpreted appropriately. Science plays such a huge role in our lives today that it’s important to take a broader philosophical perspective on how science is conducted and what kind of knowledge it gives us.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your research?

I’m lucky the pandemic hasn’t interrupted my research very much. As a philosopher, I can make do with a computer, library access and a few books!

At the same time, the pandemic has made questions about public trust in science and the role of values in science all the more pressing. I’m looking forward to seeing the field address these sorts of pandemic-related topics in new ways in the coming years.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

I thrive in a bustling department, and there’s tons going on here: reading groups, conferences, colloquia, work-in-progress talks, and so on. While I’ve been enjoying the virtual versions of all of these things, I can’t wait to participate in person next year. From what I’ve experienced so far, I also appreciate the research support at FSU and administrators’ emphasis on work-life balance. It’s a great environment for someone like me who’s just beginning their academic career.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I enjoy working with students who are discovering what’s fun about philosophy for the first time or more advanced students who are eager to hone their ideas and philosophical skills. On the research side, it’s so much fun to read literature where people are doing interesting work, and even more so if you realize you might have something to add.

Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?

My professional role models include Helen Longino, Robert Cummins, and Lorraine Daston — all academics who are still currently active. I’m most influenced by my family, my partner, my undergrad adviser, my mentors in graduate school, and my graduate school friends and peers.

How do you like to spend your free time?

I like to cook, play tennis and play music. It’s been fun exploring the trails and parks around Tallahassee since I arrived, and I’m trying to get back into rollerblading after a 20-year hiatus.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

I hope they leave my classes with a bit more intellectual humility: an ability to critically examine their own beliefs and values, and a willingness to revise them.