Science, Epistemology, and Values

In my previous blog post on Science and Values, I introduced Douglas’ taxonomy of values and their roles in science. She distinguishes between direct and indirect roles for values. Values play an indirect role in science when they determine the importance of uncertainty related to the evidence accumulated. Because no hypothesis is ever completely verified, acceptance of a scientific claim is a function of the importance of making a mistake by not accepting it. The importance can be expressed in ethical concerns, for instance, when discussing whether a substance may be toxic for plants on the one hand, or for children on the other. According to Douglas, ethical and social values must play an indirect role here. They can play a role also in deciding research priorities and/or acceptable methodologies. However, ethical and social values per se are not evidence. They should not act as stand-alone reasons for accepting or rejecting a hypothesis – they should not have direct roles. As Douglas puts it, a value is not evidence.

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However, the distinction is less straightforward than it seems. Kevin Elliott shows how difficult it is to make sense of the indirect/direct dichotomy. Whereas I described Douglas’ framework as an attempt to get rid of the value-free science ideal, Elliott seems to interpret Douglas’ work as an attempt to reinstate a new version of such an ideal. Of course, it would not be as simplistic and naïve as the traditional idea of value-free. Rather, it is an attempt to map the different ways in which science and values influence each other, while at the same time recognizing that there is a locus which is value-free.

The distinction may be conceived as a logical distinction, namely “values do not stand in evidential relationships with scientific statements”, though they can play a role in choosing rules of acceptance for scientific hypotheses. But, as Helen Longino notes, data support hypotheses only in light of a set of background assumptions, in which choice is heavily value-laden.

Kevin Elliot 300x360Kevin Elliott, associate professor Lyman Briggs College MSU; used with permission.

Another way of grasping the distinction is by understanding it in terms of epistemic attitudes. Values play a direct role when they support scientists’ belief that a statement is true. On a different note, values play an indirect role when they contribute to scientists’ acceptance of a statement “as an appropriate basis for action." However, this distinction is problematic because it assumes a sharp difference between belief and acceptance, which is controversial to say the least. As Elliott notes, “Given a philosophical perspective that sees belief as being so tightly connected to action, it is not clear that the epistemic attitudes (…) could be neatly distinguished.” Analytic epistemology aside, it is also dubious that in scientific practice such a distinction even exists.

A third way to look at the distinction is by interpreting it according to a sort of consequentialist framework. However, Douglas’ formulation is problematic. Sometimes it seems that she understands ‘indirect’ as values that are concerned with the potential consequences of error, and direct in all other cases. At other times, she seems to imply that values have an indirect role “if they involve foreseen but unintended consequences” and direct when they involve both foreseen and intended consequences. Even this way of understanding the distinction seems to be problematic to function as an ideal of science because of the difficulty of its interpretation.

But what if we think about the distinction as a tool to evaluate the way scientists produce claims of various sorts? For instance, if we see the direct/indirect role distinction as a logical one, then this would serve as a tool to push scientists to think about the way they have instantiated evidence appraisal and whether this has been influenced directly by values. In terms of epistemic attitudes, the distinction would be useful to scientists to evaluate whether they have acted in light of the attitude either of acceptance or of believing. In all these cases, the direct/indirect distinction is used to understand how values influenced science and how we can correct undesirable aspects of this decision process. However, Elliott points that this way of understanding the usefulness of the distinction assumes that scientists’ reasoning is transparent. But this is not the case. Both introspection and rational reconstruction are unlikely to show every single aspect of the way scientists have reasoned in a specific context. At the level of scientific communities, this is even worse; rational reconstructions in this context are highly idealized because of the lack of evidence concerning a scientist’s stream of consciousness. This is not just a problem with Douglas’ work, but I would say it is an issue of a relevant portion of the philosophy of science literature.

While prima facie Douglas’ distinction between direct and indirect roles of values in science seemed straightforward, at a closer inspection, it looks controversial and can be potentially interpreted in different ways.