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Science, Policy, and the Value-Free IdealReview - Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal
by Heather Douglas
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009
Review by Nicholas Maxwell
Mar 9th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 10)

In this book Heather Douglas argues that widespread acceptance of the value-free ideal for science adversely affects the way science is used in policy making.  The book is about an important issue.  It is clearly written, and is a pleasure to read.  I must confess, however that, as the author of at least four books that cover some of the same ground, and in many ways develop the argument much further than the author does here, I was disappointed to find my work entirely ignored -- as other authors may be too, whose work is also ignored.

Douglas begins with an account of two disputes about science from the 1990s: the "science wars" debate, and the debate concerning "good" and "junk" science.  She then gives a sketch of developments in the relationship between science and government in the USA from 1900 to the 1970s.  There is then a discussion of the origins of the value-free ideal for science.  This ideal holds, roughly, that only intellectual values, having to do with the determination of truth, have a valid role in science, all social values having no legitimate role whatsoever.  This view stems, Douglas argues, rather surprisingly, from philosophy of science mainly in the USA from around 1960.  It then spread, she claims, to scientists themselves.  Next, Douglas discusses the moral responsibility of scientists.  Anyone may be held responsible for unintended, harmful consequences of their actions: they are reckless if they knowingly create a risk of harm to others, and are negligent if they unknowingly create such a risk but ought to have known the risk was there.  Scientists in their professional work as scientists ought to be neither reckless nor negligent.  Thus morality has a legitimate, indeed an important, role to play in science, especially when there is the possibility of error, as there often (or always) is, and the consequences of error would be dire indeed, such as the death of many people.  The value-free ideal for science is untenable, and must be rejected.

Having established this point, Douglas goes on, in chapter five, to consider the structure of values in science.  This is the heart of the book.  She makes the excellent point that there is a sense in which all of science is based on social values, in that the decision to do or support science is based on the judgment that science is worth doing or having.  When it comes to deciding how values can legitimately influence what goes on in science, we need, Douglas argues, to distinguish two different roles for values.  There is a direct role, when a value bolsters support for a theory (as if it were evidence), and an indirect role, when a value does not "compete or supplant evidence, but rather determines the importance of the inductive gaps left by the evidence" (p. 96).  Social values have a legitimate direct role in the context of discovery, in influencing scientists in their choice of research topic and methods (an uncontroversial point).  These values have no legitimate direct role in the context of acceptance (where evidence rules supreme in science).  These values can, however, Douglas argues, have a legitimate indirect role, in influencing decisions about whether available evidence is sufficient to justify acceptance of a result.  Once these distinctions are appreciated, it becomes clear that cognitive and social values legitimately suffuse all of science.

Douglas goes on to argue that to say "a researcher, a procedure, or a finding is objective is to say that each of these things is trustworthy in a most potent form" (p. 116), and then distinguishes some nine more specific meanings this general notion of objectivity can have.  There is then a discussion of the role of values when scientists advise about policy involving risk, for example, the risk to health of chemicals in the environment.  Here, disputes between scientists about risk may be helped, Douglas argues, if scientists abandon the value-free ideal, and openly acknowledge values that may be influencing (in an indirect way) their judgments about risk.  Finally, she considers implications her value-laden ideal for science may have for the participation of the public in risk assessment and some other aspects of science.

Does this book establish that the value-free ideal deserves to be rejected?  In my view it does.  The rather general point that scientists need to exercise moral responsibility in their work strikes me as entirely valid.  I do however have some criticisms.  I begin with two minor points.

Douglas's claim that the value-free ideal stems from philosophy of science mainly in the USA from around 1960s, and then spread to the scientific community, seems to me to exaggerate wildly the influence that philosophy of science can have on science.  In fact, the value-free ideal was a standard conviction of scientists internationally long before 1960.  Indeed, it probably goes back to the decision of the Royal Society when first formed to exclude religious, political, moral and social issues from its deliberations.  Philosophers of science have merely articulated an attitude long pre-existing in the scientific community.

The chapter on objectivity equates objectivity with trustworthiness "in a most potent form".  This strikes me as a very odd notion of objectivity.  Could not a finding be objective but highly conjectural nevertheless, and thus thoroughly untrustworthy?  If we interpret the chapter as being about trustworthiness of scientific results, then it is really about confirmation, but in a somewhat disguised form.  There is a massive literature on confirmation, barely acknowledged here.  In writing about confirmation disguised as objectivity, Douglas creates the impression she is tackling almost virgin territory when in fact it is nothing of the kind.  The chapter strikes me as misjudged.  What the overall argument of the book requires, I would have thought, is a decisive demonstration of the point that a proper value-laden view of science, far from undermining scientific objectivity as many might suppose, would, on the contrary, strengthen it.  This point is made, but is obscured by other questionable matter.

My main criticism, however, is that the book fails to take account of relevant previous work on values in science.  Some work critical of the value-free ideal is discussed -- for example, papers by Richard Rudner and James Gaa -- but references are almost entirely restricted to work of philosophers in the USA.  Other work is ignored.  For example, J. R. Ravetz's Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems (1971), Brian Easlea's Liberation and the Aims of Science (1973), and David Collingridge's The Social Control of Technology ((1980) all, in different ways, discuss values in science, and are concerned with issues tackled by Douglas, but all are ignored.  And again, I have, in the past three decades, published numerous papers and four books on these issues; none receive any mention at all, despite the fact that, as I have already indicated, my work takes the argument concerning values in science much further than Douglas's book does.

Douglas and I both accept, as many others do too, that social values legitimately influence science in the context of discovery, in influencing choice of research topics and methods.  We both accept that social values may legitimately influence what is accepted in science as a basis for action, especially when action that is based on results that turn out to be false would have tragic outcomes, such as the suffering or death of many people.  As I put it somewhat infelicitously in Is Science Neurotic? (2004, p. 66) "the political dimension of science must never affect judgments of truth and falsity (except in those circumstances when being wrong would have disastrous human consequences and this provides grounds for exercising additional caution)".  Douglas's book is devoted to establishing the legitimacy of this kind of influence of social values on science.  In my work, however, I have argued for a number of additional ways in which values may legitimately influence science, all of which are ignored by Douglas's book.  I confine myself to making the following five points.

1. In my What's Wrong With Science? (1976; 2009), From Knowledge to Wisdom (1984; 2007) and elsewhere,  I argue that the content of scientific knowledge is all-pervasively and quite properly influenced by values, in that, quite properly, we want knowledge that is, in some way or other, significant, useful, or of value.  We do not want knowledge that is irredeemably trivial and useless.  Merely in order to be accepted for publication, a result, however well-established, must meet a certain threshold of potential significance or value.  Here, values influence, not which of two rival theories we accept, and not whether we decide to accept a result as a basis for action, but rather what we have acquired knowledge about.  (In other words, values here influence, not which of two views about a topic we accept, but rather which of two topics we have acquired knowledge about.)  There are endless topics we might seek to acquire knowledge about; values select out some topics as being of sufficient potential interest for us to have acquired knowledge about them.

2. In the above mentioned works I argue that values are inherent in the basic intellectual aim of science, in that science seeks, not truth per se, but rather valuable truth, significant, interesting or useful truth.  Scientific progress is to be judged, not just in terms of the amount of truth that is being discovered, but rather in terms of the amount of significant, interesting, valuable or useful truth is being discovered.  A science that acquired knowledge of a great deal of factual truth, all of which is utterly and irredeemably trivial, insignificant and useless, would not be, and ought not to be, judged to be making splendid progress.

Once we acknowledge that a basic intellectual aim of science is to discover valuable truth (and not just truth per se), it is clear that the real aim of science is profoundly problematic.  Of value to whom?  How?  When?  In what way?  What is there that is discoverable that is genuinely of value?  Do massive funds currently spent on military research really reflect the best interests of humanity?  How can science funded by the wealthy serve the interests of those whose needs are the greatest, the poor of the earth?  These are questions that ought to be of central concern to anyone interested in the role of values in science, and yet they are passed over in silence in the book under review.

I go on to argue that, if science is to make a good choice of aims, actual and possible aims for science need sustained imaginative and critical attention, as an integral part of science itself, by both scientists and non-scientists alike.  This requires that we develop a new "aim-oriented empiricist" conception of science which recognizes three domains of discussion: (1) observational and experimental results, (2) theory, and (3) aims.  The problematic aims of science need to be represented in the form of a hierarchy of aims, aims becoming less and less specific and so less and less problematic, as we go up the hierarchy.  In this way, science creates a framework of relatively unproblematic aims, and associated methods, within which much more specific and problematic aims and associated methods may be critically assessed, alternatives being developed, in the hope of improving aims and methods.  The relationship between science and the philosophy of science is transformed, in that philosophy of science (concerned with possible and actual aims for science) becomes an integral part of science itself.  The relationship between science and the public is also transformed.  As a result of doing science in this new way, we might gradually come to possess a science that does better justice to the real interests of humanity than what we have at present.

3. Douglas distinguishes between epistemic values (concerned with truth), cognitive values (concerned with such things as simplicity and explanatory power) and social values.  During the course of distinguishing epistemic and cognitive values, Douglas makes very clear that she takes for granted the orthodox view of science I have called "standard empiricism" (pp. 93-4).  This states that the basic intellectual aim of science is truth per se, the basic method being to assess claims to knowledge with respect to evidence, no substantial thesis about the world being accepted as a part of scientific  knowledge independent of empirical considerations.  Accepting this view, Douglas judges simplicity and explanatory power to be non-epistemic as there is no reason why simplicity or explanatory power should be a sign of truth.  But I have shown that standard empiricism (SE) is untenable.  In physics, only unified theories are accepted even though endlessly many empirically more successful but grossly disunified rivals can always be concocted.  This means physics makes a permanent metaphysical assumption about the world: the universe has some kind of underlying dynamic unity, to the extent at least that no disunified physical theory is true.  I go on to argue that, in view of the problematic character of this assumption, it needs -- as in 2 above -- to be represented in the form of a hierarchy of assumptions which, as one goes up the hierarchy, become less and less substantial and so more and more likely to be true, and such that their truth is required for science, or the pursuit of knowledge, to be possible at all.  Once again, we are led to the "aim-oriented empiricist" view sketched above in 2.  The aim of seeking truth presupposed to be (more or less) unified or explanatory is a special case of the more general aim of seeking valuable truth.  Granted aim-oriented empiricism, simplicity and explanatory power do have epistemic import: they are fallible indicators of truth in physics (necessary but not sufficient conditions for a theory to be judged to be a candidate for truth in physics).  This argument was first spelled out by me long ago in a two-part paper in Philosophy of Science in 1974; it is to be found in all my subsequent books, in a number of papers, and is formulated in detail in my The Comprehensibility of Science (1998).  Furthermore, I argue that standard empiricism has damaging consequences for science itself because scientists take it for granted, and seek to put it into practice in their scientific work.  Just that which anyone concerned about the value of science should be concerned to demolish, Douglas takes uncritically for granted.  Here again, neglect of previous work in the field diminishes the significance of her book.

4.  Aim-oriented empiricism, I have argued at length in my work, has profound implications for policy issues.  For, it is not just in science that basic aims are problematic; this is the case in life too.  Whenever our (personal, institutional or global) aims are problematic, we need to represent them in the form of a hierarchy, thus creating a framework of relatively unproblematic aims and methods within which more specific and problematic aims and methods may be improved as we act, as we live.  Science is of value, not just culturally and technologically, but also methodologically -- but in order to exploit this third use of science properly in personal, social and institutional life, it is essential to get clear about what the progress-achieving methods of science are.  These methods (or meta-methods) are depicted by aim-oriented empiricism.  All this is highly relevant to Douglas's theme of the role of science in policy making, and yet, of course, receives no mention in her book.

5. Ultimately, I argue that we need to bring about a revolution in science, and in academic inquiry more generally, so that the aim of academia becomes to seek and promote wisdom -- wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge, technological know-how and understanding, but much else besides.  The outcome of this revolution would be a new kind of inquiry, potentially more rigorous and humanly valuable than what we have at present.  It would put problems of living at the heart of the academic enterprise, problems of knowledge emerging out of and feeding back into this central intellectual concern.  Aim-oriented empiricist science would be an integral part of this new kind of wisdom-inquiry.

Perhaps it is as well that Douglas is unaware of these dangerous revolutionary developments.  The very modesty of her work may mean it succeeds in convincing her peers.  I certainly hope so.


© 2010 Nicholas Maxwell


Nicholas Maxwell has devoted much of his working life to arguing that we need to bring about a revolution in academia so that it promotes wisdom and does not just acquire knowledge.  He has published five books on this theme: What's Wrong With Science? (1976; 2009), From Knowledge to Wisdom (1984; 2007), The Comprehensibility of the Universe (1998; 2003), The Human World in the Physical Universe (2001) and Is Science Neurotic? (2004).  For nearly thirty years he taught philosophy of science at University College London, where he is now Emeritus Reader.


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