The Science Seminar Series: March 25, 2010
Sonar Technology as a Philosophy of Science Case Study
Dr. Christine A. James
Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies
Valdosta State University
Time: 4:00 -5:00pm
Sonar, an acronym for “sound navigation and ranging,” refers to a variety of underwater imaging technologies. Recently, the United States Navy has met with some criticism for using long-range, low frequency sonar. Environmental groups have argued that the sound disruptions caused marine mammals, especially those capable of echolocation, to beach along the Pacific Northwest. The alternative type of sonar recommended by Greenpeace was “ambient noise”, “passive” sonar, also known as acoustic daylight imaging. The research team of Michael Buckingham at Scripps Oceanographic Institution in La Jolla, California made a careful study of acoustic daylight imaging sonar. In 2005, I made a research trip to Scripps and met with Michael Buckingham to ask him about the environmental and ethical implications of the various types of sonar. By 2006, the controversy over sonar technology was back in the courts, as the Navy sought to establish training grounds for new sonar operators in shallow waters of the Atlantic and off the coast of the southeastern United States. In the fall of 2009 appellate courts and the Supreme Court handed down decisions regarding the necessity of Naval training using sonar, the importance of impact statements (a form of precautionary science). There has also been a renewed investment in research at Scripps and Woods Hole on marine mammals potentially affected by sonar.
Philosophers of science analyze underlying principles and methods used by scientists. The case of sonar technology and its history provides a rich example for a variety of key questions in philosophy of science: subject-object relationships and perception, objectivity of scientific results, the use of instrumentation to augment human senses, and the broader issues of ethics and law.
This presentation will explore the most recent developments in the courts on this case study, and will analyze the approach that the Scripps research team has taken with regard to the Navy, the courts, and the environmentally concerned citizens invested in the issue.