Anthony J. Gavin at Ways of Worldmaking has a great discussion of value neutrality in science, specifically relating to Canadian science policy. His discussion is based on a CBC debate between University of Ottawa biologist Katie Gibbs, who argues that federal politicians ought to be discussing science policy during the leadership campaign, and columnist Clive Crook, who argues that scientists should just stay out of politics altogether and simply provide politicians with objective facts on which to base their decisions.
Gavin’s whole discussion is interesting, but I was particularly intrigued by this line of argument:
Gibbs’ view puts value-content not into the facts discovered by scientists, but into science itself. Usually scientists and philosophers of this persuasion appraise whichever their notion of the scientific method: used to arrive at facts by way of the testing of hypotheses against empirical observations, through the fuse of several degrees of abstraction. The facts themselves do not have any value-content, but the scientific method does. Her view envisions greater autonomy for researchers and rings of class individualism and elitism, affording value to an epistemic culture in-demand rather than their specific product. Crook’s view, on the other hand, is conservative against the progressive element contained in the rising intellectual microcosm within the capitalist class.
Neither view seems quite correct to me. Facts have value-content, both inwardly and outwardly. Consider the fact, “75% of all casualties in World War II were civilians”. If you’re interested, that’s nearly 50 million people. Value-content comes into this fact through the productive means which birthed it. For example, does a person who succumbs to a lingering lung infection from having inspired a modicum of Mustard Gas several years after the end of the war count as a casualty? What about the countless infants in the following generation that would die simply for having been born into crushing war-torn poverty?
Outwardly, the fact is harrowing to hear. It makes me unhappy. It makes me dislike war. No doubt my reaction upon hearing this fact is socially and culturally conditioned, but this does not rob it of its value-content. If anything, it correlates value-content with shared evaluative practices and norms. It seems that we are inclined to make use of facts when we reason, and that we evaluate facts according to our own worldviews and against our own experiences.
Methods, such as experimental practices and statistical models of inference, do not have value-content, but are value relevant in their factive manifestations. Value judgements are made even in ostensibly minute methodological details. But ‘science’ (supposing a group of spuriously connected methodologies) has no intrinsic value. Science is the dominant epistemic culture living in a postcolonial and multicultural society. Public uptake of the scientific worldview is as much a role for the scientist-as-citizen as it is a role for science journalism. The understanding of and receptivity to scientific facts is a function of the ideological outgrowth of the institution, whose expansion under the neoliberal model is fueled by market forces.
My instinct is to argue the opposite: that facts could conceivably be value free, given suitable precision, but the decisions that scientists make never can be. Gavin argues that “casualty” is an inherently value-laden term, pointing to the agonizing decisions required to define just what a casualty is, and the emotions that such considerations engender. I agree that all of the decisions involved in defining casualty are decisions that involve values, but I don’t see that this makes “casualty” itself value-laden, once the decisions over how to precisely define it have been made. Conversely, the decision to accept a statement such as “We expect average global surface temperatures to rise by two degrees over the next century” is no less value-laden for having no obvious “valuey” words. I believe that Heather Douglas’s discussion in Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, supports my view, but Gavin’s discussion makes me wonder if I’ve misread her.