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

This is an experiment I’m trying out. I’d like to invite all of the participants of my seminar on Science, Values, and Democracy to become contributors to this blog, and members of the larger philosophy of science, sciences studies, and UTD communities to comment.

You can find the syllabus for the course here:


If you’re interested in contributing, just fire me an email.

Next week’s reading is one of the more intense of the quarter (Part one of The Challenge of the Social and the Pressure of Practice. It’s five essays of fairly serious philosophy. It’s not like reading Heidegger or anything, but it will take you some time and careful attention to work your way through it. I look forward to next week’s discussion!


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By way of explaining the rationale behind the course—and by extension, this blog—it might be helpful to examine the triad of terms that define our topic.


Whatever claims we’ll make about the influence of values, democracy, or politics on the sciences, the natural sciences are the test case. If we can establish such a claim there, the case is much easier for the social sciences or technology. The reverse isn’t true, since excuses can be made in the latter cases for the lack of “purity” such that natural science remains untouched. Nonetheless, I’ll chiefly use the term “science” as broadly as possible, unless otherwise necessary and noted, to include natural and social sciences, modern technology, and medicine.

Now, when we talk about science, we could mean either of two things:

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Here’s my preliminary thoughts on today’s reading, Part I of The Challenge of the Social and the Pressure of Practice: Science and Values Revisited, The Play of Values Within the Core Areas of Scientific Research.

First off, let me say, for those of you who made it through all the readings, good work! I realize now that this is one of the tougher sets of readings, in terms of quantity (five essays by separate authors), technical sophistication, and diversity of topics (some intricacies of confirmation theory, the history of biometrics and population genetics, feminist philosophy and politics, images of science, pragmatism, realism, and constructive empiricism, etc.). Most weeks will either be less material, material that is all of a piece, or at a lower level of technicality.

To bring all this together, I want to touch on some main themes and questions in this section. These authors run the gamut from old-fashioned anti-values folks, to fairly nuanced middle positions, to strong advocates for a science entirely inflected with social values. Comparing their views helps to bring out some differing assumptions and approaches.


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Time to finish up my thoughts on the first section of The Challenge of the Social and the Pressure of Practice. If you haven’t done so, you might want to read my earlier post first. I hope you’ll share your thoughts as well.

One thing we don’t want to do in this complex and controversial discussion of science and values is to talk past one another, to seem to agree or disagree when we are in fact talking about different subjects. One way we might make that mistake is to not specify, or not be clear about, where, exactly, science is supposed to be influenced by values. The authors in this section are, by and large, fairly clear about this, though you might miss it if you don’t look to carefully.


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Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy aims to give much-needed attention to those questions which, in his estimation, philosophy of science ought to be able to answer: “the ethical status of various kinds of scientific research, the impact that science has had on our values, [and] the role that the sciences play in contemporary democracies”(xi).  These questions are, Kitcher thinks, both natural ones deserving to be posed and answered, as well as ones that are traditionally ignored by philosophers of science.

In the book, Kitcher is contending with two extreme perspectives on science, the “science enthusiasts” who believe that true science is the pure search for objective knowledge, to which questions of ethics, values, and politics are irrelevant, and the “science detractors” who deny that objectivity, viewing science as thoroughly infected by values and politics, in such a way that science tends to be an “instrument of oppression”(xi).

Kitcher’s via media is to provide a two-part account of the proper role of science in a democracy. In the first part, Kitcher argues against the detractors that science is, indeed, an objective, truth-seeking enterprise, but against the enthusiasts, he argues that the contents of science are contextual and interest-relative—both what we inquire into and the categories that structure are inquiry are sensitive to our interests and purposes. This part culminates in the claim that what science seeks is not mere truth, but significant truth, and scientific significance is a matter of the practical and epistemic interests served by various scientific ideas and projects, along with the myriad logical and empirical connections between them. Today’s reading covers this first part.

In the second part, this contextual representation of scientific significance is used as an input to an ideal democratic procedure—a deliberation between idealized representatives of the preferences of actual citizens take up this information, mutually inform one another about their preferences, with the goal of consensus at best, or a majority-supported compromise at worst—with the output being the ideal research agenda for science, a schedule of priorities for research meeting the interests and purposes of our society. Kitcher calls this ideal “well-ordered science,” and setting out this ideal, defending it, and tracing its consequences for the responsibilities of actually practicing scientists is the main goal of the second half of the book, which we will discuss next week.

To start off the discussion, let me just raise some questions about Part 1:


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I didn’t manage a follow-up to my post on the first part of Kitcher’s book. This is actually a topic I’ve written about, so you can see my thoughts on Kitcher in the early sections of that paper. I seem to have failed to convince anybody in class that “curiosity” is not a good way of capturing the whole of epistemic significance, but it is one of my main arguments in the paper. (I’m working on getting that paper published, so any comments on it would be appreciated.)

I’d like to talk a little bit about Kitcher’s recommendation for understanding the role of science in a democracy. First, let me point out what I think is an inconsistency in Kitcher’s setup for the discussion.


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This week, we’re discussing the first four chapters of George Reisch’s book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, Don Howard’s “Two Left Turns Make a Right” (from Logical Empiricism in North America, which also has several other great essays), and Alan Richardson’s “Engineering Philosophy of Science: American Pragmatism and Logical Empiricism in the 1930s”

In the Introduction to Science, Truth, and Democracy, Philip Kitcher begins,

From time to time, when I explain to a new acquaintance that I’m a philosopher of science, my interlocutor will nod agreeably and remark that that surely means I’m interested in the ethical status of various kinds of scientific research, the impact that science has had on our values, or the role that the sciences play in contemporary democracies. Although this common response hardly corresponds to what professional philosophers of science have done for the past decades, or even centuries, it is perfectly comprehensible. (xi, emphasis added)

And later, he describes his book “as an attempt to venture into areas that philosophers of science have neglected“(xiii, likewise).

One of the goals of this week’s readings is to call into question the historical claim that the sort of topics discussed by Kitcher (and likewise, by Longino, Kourany, etc.) have been generally neglected by philosophers of science.


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