The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Methodology411: science and truth

March 12, 2010

Fascinating little op-ed over at The Guardian Online today (h/t Jesse Crane-Seeber) called, provocatively, “Scientists should stop deceiving us.” The punchline of the piece is that “in holding that the intellectual aim of science is truth alone, scientists seriously misrepresent its real, problematic aims, and thus prevent urgently needed critical assessment by scientists and non-scientists alike.” Chief among these “problematic” aims, we learn, is the preference for unified theories “that attribute the same laws to all the phenomena to which the theory in question applies”; coming in a close second is the “humanitarian or political dimension” of science that leads it to produce knowledge that can be used “to enhance the quality of human life.”

The tone of righteous indignation in this op-ed is kind of startling to me; “deceiving” is a strong accusation, and the implication here is that scientists have sceret value-laden agendas that are somehow affecting their work and their results. To which I say: okay, sure, maybe there’s a great conspiracy to foist unified theories (!) on an unsuspecting public, but if scientists were to be “deceiving” the public I’d expect it to be for something a bit more nefarious than a formal principle like this. (Parenthetically, the author is just wrong when he suggests that a preference for unified theories is “a substantial thesis about the universe independent of evidence”; it’s a methodological principle, not an empirical claim, and methodological principles are pretty much by definition independent of evidence since they structure what counts as “evidence” in the first place.)

Indeed, this op-ed seems to me to be precisely the kind of misunderstanding of science that results when people operate with an unreflective neopositivism as their tacit philosophy of science. Neopositivists — the linear descendants of Vienna Circle positivists via a Popperian shift in the United States during the 1960s — hold that knowledge is the truest (having the most “verisimilitude”) representation of mind-independent reality that can be achieved through the process of successively proposing and falsifying hypothetical generalizations. This is entirely empiricist inasmuch as no lawlike generalization ever has anything but provisional certainty attached to it; there’s no way past experience to grasp causal powers of mechanisms in any kind of definite manner. In such a conception of science, “values” can only appear as distortions — as obstacles to clear representation, since they would presumably not be falsifiable propositions (and if they were then it’s unclear why we’d call them “values” in the first place). And operating with such a conception of science, the discovery of the fact that scientists operate with non-falsifiable notions, both formal epistemic principles like “unified explanation” (which is, parenthetically, not characteristic of all “science” — even the physicists referenced by the author would agree that unified explanations break down in very high-energy situations, or in the smallest incremments of time following the beginning of the universe) and purposive epistemic principles like “enhancing human life,” looks scandalous.

News flash: it isn’t. Scientific explanation hasn’t been about a classically objective representation of mind-independent reality since the invention of quantum theory, and arguably even before that. Contemporary mind-world dualists — scientific realists, we call them — accept the intertwining of the observer and the observed in ways that would make neopositivists shudder (if there were any left to listen to them: there basically aren’t neopositivist philosophers of science any longer, and so neopositivism lives on only among the laity, or among those social scientists who desparately want to emulate what they think that physics was doing in the time of Isaac Newton . . . but that’s another rant for another post). And contemporary mind-world monists — pragmatists, analyticists, etc. — are not only happy to acknowledge the central role of value-commitments in the production of facts, but they would and do argue that only value-commitments permit the production of facts, because without such commitments there’d be no way to focus on or isolate anything in particular in order to study it. There was this German social theorist named Max Weber . . .

Anyway, the main point of the op-ed seems to be that we should indignantly demand that scientists come clean about their value-commitments. No objections there, as long as we all understand that such demands are unlikely to disclose some kind of worldwide conspiracy to enslave the human race to the tyranny of a secret cabal of pro-environment activists. (The op-ed seems to taking some odd swipes at climate science, or at least participating in a debate about it.) I don’t even have any objection to the notion that there ought to be public debates about the value-commitments appropriate to scientific research; indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that the central contribution of scientific research to public debate is to systematically work out the implications of particular value-commitments in practice, and in so doing make those value-commitments available for a more robust debate and discussion.

But accusing scientists of “deceiving” the public? That’s uncalled for, especially since the public still seems to operate with the old neopositivist notion that scientific objectivity and value-commitments are somehow incompatible. We ought to be trying to educate people about how science actually works, not fanning the flames of the kind of sweeping anti-intellectualism and no-nothing-ism that transforms every question into a matter to be answered by private opinion. If there’s any deception going on, it’s the deception perpetrated by those who erroneously think that science provides classically objective answers to difficult questions and thus relieves us of the burden of dealing with them in our usual messy, practical way. Including the author of the op-ed, who should have chosen a different target for his ire.

website | + posts

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.