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Philosopher: We cannot ignore the fact that science is not value-free

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From Daniel J. McKaughan at Big Questions Online:

The idea that science is a “value-free” enterprise is deeply entrenched. “Under standard conditions, water boils at 100°C.” This and countless other facts about nature are mind-independent; that is, they do not depend on what you or I think or feel. And the procedures by which we discover such facts are available to and respected by a diverse public, man or woman, black or white, rich or poor. It may seem, then, that the activities and results of science are inherently insulated from racism, sexism, political agendas, financial interests, and other value-laden biases that permeate the larger social context. Some even vigorously insist on keeping values out of science.

Do you agree? Many philosophers of science do not. Indeed, the idea that science is or should aim to be value free — even as an ideal — has been widely challenged in recent decades, with some arguing that values can, in fact, be seen to influence scientific practice in all manner of ways. I would go so far as to say that this is a feature of science that we cannot afford to ignore.

Such considerations have led some to reject the idea that it is the responsibility of scientists only to inform the public about how probable a theory is, given the available evidence, leaving policymaking to citizens or their elected representatives. Instead of this proposed division of labor, these scholars argue that scientific experts are citizens themselves, and since they are often best attuned to the relevant social and moral considerations, they should take a more active role in offering policy recommendations as part of their civic duty.

If we chart the latter course, we benefit from having scientists serve in more significant advisory roles, but we risk embroiling science in the worst manifestations of our political disagreements and disenfranchising non-scientific voices. More.

One way of putting it might be, if science is to be a blatantly political enterprise, aimed at power, not truth, admitting that fact may help us understand some of what is called “science” today – and the attitudes that follow directly from that. See, for example, the ongoing scandal of peer review, which is nearly irreformable because so few hearts are really for reform. And then there is…

See also: Cannibalism love: We do get some odd-seeming messages from science these days… Nuwer recounts her experience of eating chef-prepared human placenta.

Darwin’s wastebasket: The evolutionary purpose of suicidal behaviour

Darwin’s wastebasket: “Evolutionary” explanation for female genital mutilation

and

Peer review “unscientific”: Tough words from editor of Nature

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