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Archive for the ‘Science, Values, and Democracy (Fall 2009)’ Category

Posts below this one reflect readings and discussions from HUHI 6305: Science, Values, and Democracy in Fall 2009. To read those posts from the beginning, start here.

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Well, it’s been far too long since I’ve blogged. My apologies to all and sundry. Tonight I will try to sum up where we’ve been the last few weeks and how the readings for tomorrow relate to the issues from the previous week.

Lately we’ve winded our way from Heather Douglas’s new book, Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal to McGarity and Wagner’s Bending Science to articles on the commercialization of science by James Robert Brown, Martin Carrier, and Matthias Adam in The Challenge of the Social and the Pressure of Practice.
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We spent the last three weeks of class discussing Heather Douglas’s new book, Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal. In the course of our discussions, a number of burning questions came up. I sent some of those questions to Professor Douglas, and she kindly agreed to answer our questions.


Q: Are there not more compelling arguments for the value-free ideal in light of Rudner’s arguments? As it stands, we had a hard time seeing the philosophical motivations for the eventual acceptance of the ideal in the mid-20th C.

Heather Douglas: When I first began looking at this literature, I was really surprised at how weak the arguments for the value-free ideal were. Now, it might be that I missed something in the historical body of work from that period, and so I would love to hear about key aspects of arguments I just overlooked. There could also be arguments made for the value-free ideal that were not articulated at the time– perhaps about the need for similar standards across scientists to assist with the unity of science. Of course, Kuhn 1977 would make that sort of approach problematic. I have a hard time figuring out any purely philosophical motivations, so I would be open to the excavation of them.
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By way of both further discussion of Heather Douglas’s book and introductory remarks on Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research, I’d like to raise a few questions about McGarity’s and Wagner’s approach on the basis of some of the distinctions given to us by Douglas.

In particular, I’m concerned that McGarity and Wagner are relying on an over-simple idea of what science is about and what would count as “bending” science. That’s not to say that they haven’t brought out some truly disturbing cases, or that many of their worries aren’t valid. Nonetheless, I think there are important critical concerns to raise, here.
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While most of it is not directly relevant to the issues in this class, Hasok Chang’s 2004 book, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress, is one of the better works of history and philosophy of science in the last several years. In it, Chang traces several different aspects of the attempt to create, standardize, expand, and theorize the measurement of temperature from the early 1700’s to the late 1800’s, narrating the history and exploring the philosophical implications.

Towards the end of the book,[1] Chang attempts to get at some overall lessons about measurement, justification, and scientific progress. He concludes, as many philosophers of science have, that in order to understand scientific progress, we need to “look away from truth”(227). Instead, what we need to look toward are what Chang calls “epistemic values” or “epistemic virtues,” and what Douglas calls “epistemic criteria” and “cognitive values.” Chang says,

I follow Lycan (1988, 154-156) in insisting that the epistemic virtues are valuable in their own right, regardless of whether they lead us to the truth. Even if truth is the ultimate aim of scientific activity, it cannot serve as a usable criterion of judgment. If scientific progress is something we actually want to be able to assess, it cannot mean closer approach to the truth. (228, emphasis mine)

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In this week’s readings (chapters 4-6 of the book), Heather Douglas makes good on a lot of the titillating suggestions from last week. Before switching to discuss that, let me bring out some nagging questions from last week’s post and class discussion. Then I’ll bring up some important points for this week’s readings.
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Knowledge is the number one commodity in a post-industrial society. Thus, it is only natural that the way knowledge is obtained and how it is applied would become big business under this circumstance. Almost every major university traverses the tricky arena of intellectual property and supports the entrepreneurial endeavors of their faculty, students and staff through research and commercialization departments. Private companies spend billions of dollars every year on the research and development of new technologies that bolster their profits. Ultimately, this reality has both positive and negative side effects on knowledge itself. There is no question that the “innocence” of knowledge can be altered by the corrupting force of the dollar. However, we can also attribute great advances in our understanding of the natural world to the support of private and public funding. This dichotomy is, and will remain, at the core of how knowledge is obtained and applied in the 21st century.        

In this paper, I will not linger on the question of whether or not “pure knowledge” is harmed by the forces of commercialization. (Despite the corrupting power of the dollar on theory, I think it is safe to say that the scientific community as a whole is mainly helped by the value placed on knowledge in a post-industrial society). Rather, I will attempt to explain how our hyper-dependence on technology and the subsequent value placed on scientific knowledge affects public opinion and policy making. I will attempt to clarify this argument by looking at the following areas:

1. What is a post-industrial society and does the United States fall under that criterion?

2. What forces provide the greatest amount of funding to the scientific community and what research areas receive the most funds?

3. How is scientific research and data used in policy making? 

4. Does our daily dependency on technology allow for a climate in which the masses are too easily influenced by leaders who use “scienctific knowledge” to back their political agendas?

5. Just how corrupting is the influence of funding? Are scientists producing knowledge to meet the needs of political leaders? Or are leaders simply taking, and often times distorting, knowledge obtained through “pure” science?

I am aware that these are ambitious questions that will most likely be left partially unresolved at the end of this paper. Your feedback and guidance is highly appreciated during my quest to resolve these problems!

Rodney L. Pearson

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