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A Tapestry of ValuesReview - A Tapestry of Values
An Introduction to Values in Science
by Kevin C. Elliott
Oxford University Press; , 2017
Review by Elena Popa
Sep 12th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 37)

What is scientific knowledge? How do considerations on the nature of scientific knowledge affect normative judgments on how scientists should approach their subjects of investigation? On a widespread account, science provides a picture of the world as it is. This picture, attainable through what Thomas Nagel deemed 'the view from nowhere', implies that scientists can and should conduct their investigation independent from personal goals, beliefs, or values. The central desideratum at stake here appears to be objectivity. Closely related to this view, the value free-ideal states that scientists should avoid influences from values when conducting their research. Current debates in the philosophy of science have been raising worries concerning both the attainability, as well as the desirability of the value-free ideal. A different understanding of objectivity emerges with rival views, such as value-neutrality - a weaker statement, claiming that certain results of scientific practice can be achieved without taking a stance with respect to values, or value-ladenness - stating that scientists cannot avoid values in their investigations. (See Reiss and Sprenger for an overview.) Given the increasing emphasis on values in recent studies of science, Kevin C. Elliott's A Tapestry of Values is an important and timely introduction to the topic.

         In relation to current debates, Elliott's introduction takes the stance of value-ladenness. On one of the book's main claims, values are not only inevitable in scientific practice, but they often help in exploring new theories or in engaging with issues of public interest. In this sense, Elliott's recommendation is that '(1) value influences should be made as transparent as possible; (2) they should be representative of our major social and ethical priorities; and (3) they should be scrutinized through appropriate processes of engagement between different scholars and other stakeholders' (p. 11). Elliott's arguments are rooted in numerous case studies from the history of science. In interpreting these cases, philosophical concerns intertwine with issues regarding the communication of scientific results, the sociology of science, problems of policy, and practical challenges scientists face, rendering the book of interest to a wide audience. Elliott's discussion of the roles of values falls into two broader categories: their influence on the scientific activity (chapters 2, 3, and 4), and their employment in communicating scientific results to the public (chapters 5 and 6). The latter issue expands to ways of engaging the public in scientific practice (chapter 7).

         Regarding the influence of values on scientific theories, Elliott holds that values determine the topics scientists deem worthy of investigation, the methods they preferentially employ, and the aims they pursue. For instance, in chapter 2 Elliott makes a convincing case on the role of values in ascribing low priority to studies of cognitive differences across gender or race. His discussion concludes that 'if it appeared to provide evidence against differences in cognitive abilities, it would probably have limited impact, but if it appeared to provide evidence for cognitive differences, it would probably be misinterpreted in ways that prevented many talented people from achieving their full potential' (p. 23). With respect to the choice of methods (chapter 3) one compelling illustration regards the questions asked in medical research on depression: 'much of the recent medical research on depression has focused on questions about the molecular pathways that contribute to the phenomenon and the possibility of developing drugs that could alter those pathways' (p. 56). Elliott explains this problem through the importance of patents in the pharmaceutical industry, but also through the focus on biological explanations of depression in 1970-1980 psychiatry (as opposed to, say, psychological ones). More emphasis on the values of the patients could lead to more in-depth research on the effect of psychotherapy or exercise in treating depression. Concerning the aims of research and values (chapter 4), the example of Rosgen's classification of streams illustrates a conflict between different values: is it acceptable to use a simple, but at times inaccurate, model for the restoration of rivers? Elliott holds that 'the key (…) is to clarify the overall goal that we are aiming to achieve' (p. 68). Thus, while scientists may prefer a model as accurate as possible, policy makers may be more interested in classifications that are easily applicable and can yield quick results.

         Moving on to the communication of results to the public, Elliott raises the problem of uncertainty (chapter 5). Should scientists announce results which may bear significant public impact with a higher degree of confidence, as James Hansen did with regard to global warming? Elliott points out that credibility may be hindered by scientists being too reserved or too bold in their public statements. In this sense, distinguishing between different approaches, suited for the appropriate contexts, makes the values as well as the consequences at work more transparent. Elliott demarcates between clean-hands-science, a modified version of clean-hands-science, and advocacy. The first pursues the objectivity desideratum; the second provides interpretations and clarifications of the scientific data, while the third aims at serving society. A deeper underlying issue regarding uncertainty is raised through Douglas's (2000) concept of inductive risk. According to Douglas, upon facing the possibility of erroneous conclusions, scientists employ values in deciding the amount of evidence necessary for accepting a given theory. Thus, the issue runs deeper than communicating results, to the implication that determining which scientific claims are true is a value-laden process, and a different concept of objectivity is required. (See Douglas 2004 for further considerations on objectivity.) These considerations on balancing the ideal of objectivity and the reach to the society are continued by Elliott's discussion in chapter 6, on how to present scientific findings. Considering his example from medical terminology, 'myalgic encephalomyelitis' is more medically accurate, and it makes the diagnostic more likely to be taken seriously than 'chronic fatigue', but may appear too sophisticated for the public. By contrast, a term such as 'systemic exertion intolerance disease' may be more accessible to the public, while at the same time being descriptive of the medical condition. Finally, in chapter 7 Elliott spells out how scientific research can engage the public in four main ways: bottom-up, top-down, interdisciplinary engagement, and engagement with institutions and laws. Once again, the examples are illustrative, particularly on how the activity of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power influenced research on AIDS drugs, running across different roles for values discussed in the preceding chapters.

         Elliott concludes by reinforcing the three marks of the apt use of values in science: transparency, representativeness, and engagement: 'what makes values legitimate is not that they are of a particular sort (e.g., conservative or liberal, religious or secular) but that they are incorporated in a transparent fashion, with adequate discussion about whether they meet our ethical and social priorities while doing justice to the empirical evidence' (p. 163). Elliott's model of assessing the legitimacy of values in science is supported by the cases analyzed along the main lines of inquiry in the book.

         While Elliott's main argument successfully employs a toolkit of philosophical concepts to answer questions regarding values and scientific practice, a potential shortcoming lies in the relatively minor role attributed to certain distinctions and overall philosophical background, which could be employed to provide an even sharper perspective on the role and status of values. This holds for both particular distinctions, as well as for specifications on differences between the hard cases and the more straightforward claims. For instance, the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic (or cognitive and contextual) values is only marginally discussed in the introductory chapter. A wider use of the distinction, along with the clarification that there are also debates over epistemic values may have enabled a broader perspective on the status and role of values in science. To use an example of a strictly epistemic conflict from cognitive psychology, in addition to rivaling interpretations of experimental data, the nativism versus empiricism debate on the origin of concepts involves different epistemic values. Empiricists would endorse parsimony (positing innate structures is undesirable because it would provide a more complex explanation for something that can be explained through learning alone), while nativists would endorse a model with more generality (innate structures would enable continuity between animal and human cognition). (See Carey's spelling out of two assumptions guiding research on cognitive development (2009: p. 14).) Some values discussed in the study cases from Elliott's book could also be interpreted as epistemic (for example, Vavilov's team defending the seed collection for moral reasons – future benefits of improved agriculture for the people, as well as epistemic ones – the investigation would be unable to proceed without the plants). Likewise, a more in-depth clarification of some of the case studies discussed and more emphasis on the genuine conflicts may have further emphasized the importance of studying values in science. While conflicts between speed and accuracy in restoring rivers, or distinguishing between native and non-native species in conservation biology express genuine concerns in decision-making, other conflicts may be explained away. For instance, publishing only favorable data on a drug may be classified as bad science rather than an example of an unquestionable conflict of values between the public and a company. In this context a new argument for making values transparent may emerge: telling apart cases where certain interests and values should not drive scientific research (such as Vavilov's case, or concealing data on the effects of Paxil on children) from cases where there is an actual choice between values determining what to study, or what to ask from a model. If these choices are sometimes between epistemic values, as exemplified above, the case for value-ladenness would only become stronger.

         Likewise, Elliott's answers to potential objections are not always entirely convincing. On the problem objectivity understood as full agreement between scientists being a misinterpretation of values on the ground that complete agreement is never found in scientific practice (pp. 172-173), the opponent may reply that while most current scientific practice is value-laden, value-neutrality may work as a desideratum, a point where scientific theories may converge. Scientific realists may defend this position, and, as sketched in the beginning, the motivation for the value-free ideal may go beyond a 'linear model', to a metaphysical conception enabling a view from nowhere. While this explanation would complicate the discussion, and give it a more philosophical turn, it may also explain the historical prevalence of this view and its appeal. (And also among philosophers, see the survey by Bourget and Chalmers where 75% of the respondents supported scientific realism.) These shortcomings, however, do not affect the main argument of the book, which, on my view could be strengthened through a stronger use of the philosophical background.

         Overall, A Tapestry of Values addresses issues of interest to scientists, philosophers and sociologists of science, the public, and policy makers alike: how to disclose which values are at work in scientific research and how to evaluate them. The philosophical background may assist students from scientific backgrounds in comprehending the wider context and underlying distinctions and arguments, while the case studies provide the philosophy or sociology students with examples, as well as information on the historical and social context. In this sense, Elliott's book provides a sound starting point for the study of values in science.

 

References

 

Chakravartty, A. 2017. "Scientific Realism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/scientific-realism/>.

Bourget, D., Chalmers, D.J. 2014. What do Philosophers Believe?. Philosophical Studies 170 (3): 465-500.

Carey, S. 2009. The Origin of Concepts. Oxford University Press.

Douglas, H. 2000. "Inductive Risk and Values in Science". Philosophy of Science 67: 559–579

Douglas, H. 2004. "The irreducible complexity of objectivity". Synthese, 138(3), 453-473.

Nagel, T. 1986. The View from Nowhere. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Reiss, J., Sprenger, J. 2017. "Scientific Objectivity". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/scientific-objectivity/>.

 

© 2017 Elena Popa

 

Elena Popa, Assistant Professor at American University of Central Asia


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