Questioning Value-Free Science

Lisa Gannett reviews Harold Kincaid, John Dupré, and Alison Wylie (eds.), Value-Free Science? Ideals and Illusions at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Elliott Sober’s “Evidence and Value Freedom” (Chapter Five) and Heather Douglas’ “Rejecting the Ideal of Value-Free Science” (Chapter Six) take opposing positions on the role of values in scientific reasoning.

Sober contends that an outright dismissal of the ideal of value-free science risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Sober argues that value-free science is properly defended by the assertion that the truth of a proposition can be determined independently of knowledge of the ethical and political consequences of belief in the proposition, and not, as the ideal’s defenders frequently assume, by rejection of the view that the ethical and political consequences of belief in a proposition provide evidence for its truth. This holds in some cases, as does its entailed symmetrical claim: even if James is right that believing in God improves people’s lives, these ethical consequences do not provide evidence that God exists; conversely, the theist’s well-being depends only on her belief in God and not God’s actual existence. But there are counter-examples: when a physician believes a drug is safe and prescribes it to her patients, their well-being depends on the drug’s actual safety — hence, the ethical consequences of the physician’s decision are evidential. Nevertheless, an asymmetry between facts and values persists: the drug’s safety can be discovered by scientific investigation alone, whereas the ethical judgment cannot be made without this knowledge.

Douglas reaches the opposite conclusion — that nonepistemic values are logically necessary for scientific reasoning. Douglas emphasizes that scientists make many choices in the course of their research: what methods to use, how to delineate data, how to interpret findings. In policy-directed scientific research, where uncertainties exist and errors come with consequences, these choices will be influenced by the interplay of epistemic and nonepistemic values in weighing potential risks.