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Science and values

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q149-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

The relationship between science and values is a complex one, with values having the potential to influence science either positively or negatively (see Values). On the positive side, it seems clear that responsible scientists need to pay attention to ethical values like promoting public health and protecting human research participants (see Responsibilities of scientists and intellectuals). On the negative side, scientists run the risk of sacrificing their objectivity when they try to promote their personal or political values (see Objectivity). In response to this tension, philosophers of science have tried to clarify the differences between appropriate and inappropriate influences of values in science.

Historically, one influential view was that values can legitimately influence scientists’ choices about what to study and how to apply their findings, but values should not affect scientists’ reasoning about what conclusions to draw. (For the history of this view, which has been called the ‘value-free ideal’, see Douglas 2009.) During the 1970s and 1980s, philosophers began to challenge this view, arguing that some values (often called ‘epistemic values’) can play a legitimate role in scientific reasoning itself because they provide reasons for thinking that a theory is true. On this view, when scientists evaluate theories, they should consider whether the theories have epistemic characteristics (i.e., values) like explanatory power, scope, predictive accuracy, and internal coherence. Extending this view, some philosophers began to argue that ethical or social values could also play positive roles in scientific reasoning. For example, feminists argued that scientists could sometimes improve the objectivity of science by critiquing scientific theories with feminist values in order to challenge scientific ideas that reflected sexist biases (Keller and Longino 1996; Longino 1990) (see Feminist epistemology; Gender and science). Another argument for incorporating ethical values in scientific reasoning was that scientists have to decide how much evidence to demand before drawing conclusions, and those decisions should incorporate ethical judgments about how problematic it would be to make a mistake (Douglas 2009) (see Induction, epistemic issues in; Inductive inference).

It is now widely accepted among philosophers that values have legitimate roles to play in scientific reasoning, but this raises important questions about how to limit inappropriate influences of values (see Postcolonial philosophy of science). This issue is especially significant given the finding that some groups have been motivated by financial or ideological values to spread disinformation about topics like climate change, evolution, vaccine safety, COVID-19, and the safety of industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals (e.g., McGarity and Wagner 2008; Michaels 2008; Oreskes and Conway 2010). Some scholars argue that the key to addressing these problems is to make sure that scientists are guided only by ethically justifiable values (e.g., Brown 2020; Kourany 2010). Others argue that the roles that values play in scientific reasoning should be limited so that they do not interfere with scientific evidence (e.g., Douglas 2009; Steel 2017). Still others argue that the best solution is to maintain a diverse scientific community that is structured to ensure that the influences of values are critically assessed (e.g., Longino 1990; Solomon 2001). Managing values in science may ultimately require attending to a number of different norms for good scientific practice and finding ways to prioritise and apply those norms effectively in a wide array of situations (Elliott 2022).

Citing this article:
Elliott, Kevin C.. Science and values, 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q149-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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