Value Judgments in Science

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

Liam Kofi Bright: Du Bois' Democratic Defence of the Value Free Ideal

Secondary Texts for Instructor

W.E.B. Du Bois: `The Propaganda of History' in Black Reconstruction
Richard Rudner: The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgements

Helen E. Longino: Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Values in Science

Suggested Courses

Introduction to Philosophy of Science
Introduction to Feminist Philosophy
Social Epistemology

Overview

W.E.B. Du Bois was, for most of his scientific career, an ardent defender of the now-unpopular principle of `value free inquiry' for science. By this he meant: scientists should not change how willing they are to accept or reject hypotheses in light of the social consequences of the hypothesis rejection or acceptance. Against this, a lot of philosophers of science nowadays think that scientists must take into account the consequences of different types of error before deciding whether or not a claim can be accepted -- and so, for instance, if it would lead to social disaster if we accepted a claim that turned out to be false, we may permissibly demand more evidence before accepting the claim than we would a trivial or abstruse claim with no social consequences. Du Bois' arguments against the permissibility of such changes in standards turn out to relate to his picture of the place of science in a democracy. In particular, Du Bois worried that if scientists were allowed to change the standards for when something can be accepted, they would be tempted to go easy on hypotheses that favoured social reforms they supported. This would lead to bad science getting done as we accepted too many false claims, bad social reforms being implemented as scientists are not necessarily the best judges of what social reforms should be supported, and ultimately to the loss of public support for science as an enterprise.

Discussion Questions

  • Must scientists really treat life-or-death questions with immediate practical bearing exactly as rigorously as abstruse highly theoretical questions?
  • Why shouldn't scientists seek to support their favourite reforms through their work -- aren't they citizens too?
  • What relationship should exist between science and political or cultural life?

Activities

Have students consider what Du Bois would say about current controversies in climate science or evolutionary biology or holocaust denial (e.g., how would he explain what went wrong in the `climategate' controversy --- see here). Then have them try to identify how somebody who disagrees with Du Bois and sees a valuable role for value judgements in scientific decisions might handle those cases. Discuss challenges in ensuring scientific pedagogy or institutions really can make scientists the kind of `epistemically pure' truth seekers that Du Bois demands they approximate to.

Author Information

Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon University / London School of Economics)
liamkbright@gmail.com