Thursday, October 24, 2013

Is Science Value-Free?

While scientists must adhere to the moral of intellectual honesty in order to produce reliable results by the scientific method, science itself is moral-neutral. That means science cannot make judgments about values or morality. To emphasize that point, here are a few good, authoritative quotes:

“…science is not equipped (and it does not pretend) to make value judgments on these [emotional or psychological] matters.” –Massimo Pigliucci (2002:153)
“…while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.” –Stephen Jay Gould (1999:4-5)
“…morality consists not in any relations that are the objects of science; …not in any matter of fact which can be discovered by the understanding…the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”- David Hume (1740:Volume III, part I, section I) (I know this quote is a little hairy, but Hume is an important figure in the philosophy of science)

Here’s a great website about what science cannot do (presented by the University of California at Berkeley with funding from the National Science Foundation): Science has limits

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince you that science is limited and that it does not encompass all possible areas of human knowledge. And that is true. (Don’t forget it!) But now I am going to throw a fun little wrench into the discussion by giving you these quotes:

“Science is supposed to be value-free.  It is presumably completely objective and free from such human frailties as opinions, goals, and desires.  Because science is done by humans, however, it is never value-free.” –Gary Meffe and Ronald Carroll (1994:21)
“…All applied science is done because of value judgments.  Scientists in fact have a dual role.  First, they carry out objective science that both obtains data and tests hypotheses…They can also be advocates for particular policies that attempt to change society….But it is crucial to separate these two kinds of activities”–Charles Krebs (2001:12)
“No matter how objective scientific research might be, its findings often lead to conclusions that are value-laden.” –Ernst Mayr (1982:79)
“…science is neutral only at the level of methods and not at the higher level at which problems are selected and fields defined. That higher level is determined by values, politics, funding, and…paradigms…which in turn are products of culture, psychology, and political power.” –David Orr (2004)

This is certainly true of my own field, conservation biology, whose very name reveals that it is a marriage between a value system (conservation) and a science (biology). The same could be said of medicine, psychology, or various other fields that apply technology or scientific knowledge to practical problems. Therefore, I have found it helpful to use the following definitions:

Science is: The scientific method and the resulting body of knowledge (facts, hypotheses, theories, laws).

Applied Science is: The scientific method, the resulting body of knowledge, and the interpretation and application of this knowledge, including to value-based questions.

In applied science, we conduct our research in the realm of science but communicate and apply it outside that realm. Note that the values inherent in applied science are not subject to the scientific method and are thus open to debate from opinions contributed by sociology, economics, ethics, religion, and other segments of human knowledge. BEWARE: Representing one particular value system as the “scientific” one is intellectually dishonest and decreases the credibility of any scientist who would make such a claim.

Because applied science is so prevalent in our society, I believe that our science students today should be trained to think and converse across the boundary of science without violating it. In such communications, violations lie not in crossing the boundary from science to non-science but in failing to acknowledge the boundary. Communicating science as if the boundary is not there undermines scientific credibility and perpetuates conflict.

I believe that religion and science can either be competitors or cooperators in causes we all care about; the key lies in how the two communicate across the science boundary.

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