Science and Values: The Politicisation of Science ((forthcoming))

Venue: Bielefeld University

Location: Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Event Date/Time: Oct 21, 2008
Abstract Submission Date: Mar 25, 2009
Paper Submission Date: Mar 25, 2009
Report as Spam


The ESF-Conference Series on “Science and Values” will be hosted by Bielefeld University and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF), and is organized by the Institute for Science and Technology Studies (IWT) of Bielefeld University in cooperation with the pertinent standing committees of the European Science Foundation. The series will encompass three conferences in a biennial schedule beginning in 2009, and again in 2011 and 2013. The topics of these conferences will be politicization, commercialization, and medialization of science, respectively.

At least four types of values are involved in the process of knowledge acquisition: epistemic, economic, ethical, and social values. Epistemic or cognitive values express the commitment of science to the quest for understanding and truth. Economic values commit science to contribute to technological progress or increasing utility. Ethical or moral values concern demands of persons for health, liberty or integrity; social values express demands of social groups to participate in political decision-making or to be protected from being discriminated against or being socially degraded other¬wise.

The relationship between science and value is double-edged and becomes manifest as value-relevance and value ladenness. “Value relevance” refers to the observation that science is a significant factor for the persuasiveness of value commitments in society. Such commitments may be strengthened by their conformity with a system of knowledge or undermined by their lack of coherence with it. For instance, geneticists point out that humans form a comparatively young species and that, for this reason, they resemble each other genetically more than the members of other biological species. This close genetic relation was invoked in support of ethnic equality. Claims to biological superiority, as advanced in racist ideologies, are discredited by the fact that the genetic variability within ethnic groups is larger than the difference between them. “Value-ladenness” expresses the converse influence, namely, that values may affect what counts as scientific knowledge. Values are part of the confirmation procedures in science and thus contribute to determining what is accepted as part of scientific knowledge. In this vein, epistemic values like explanatory power are brought to bear on judging hypotheses, moral values are employed in judging the legitimacy of the means of knowledge gain, and social values influence the description of the evidence and the focus of research. For instance, human archaeological remains were frequently interpreted earlier on the social model of the breadwinning male and the housekeeping female, whereas today the working couple tends to provide the role model for making sense of relevant fossil data.

Each conference will bring together the knowledge and reflective competence of three disciplines. The philosophy of science is invoked for analyzing the epistemic procedures used in different social configurations and for illuminating the general cultural impact on science. The sociology of science is additionally drawn upon for identifying the influence of diverse institutional settings as they emerge in present-day society and for capturing the various social forces that act on science. The history of science is simultaneously of crucial importance for dealing with the question of whether the philosophical and sociological features identified before are really novel or turn out to be familiar company, perhaps in a different guise. Such analyses of experts from science studies will be enriched with the experience and understanding of the practitioners, i.e., scientists working under value-related pressure (as it arises from practical challenges and social demands). In addition, representatives of relevant social groups (such as stakeholders) and the media will be included where appropriate.

The conferences are envisaged to cover the boundary area of academic discussion and public debate. Scholars in the humanities have increasingly adopted a notion of knowledge and expertise as it prevails in the sciences: they focus on small problem areas, usually remote from everyday experience and public attention. Narrowly targeted projects certainly amount to an increased professionalization of the humanities and should not be criticized for this. At the same time, however, specialized research endeavors of this sort need to be supplemented with a more general culture of reflection in which questions from the public arena are taken up and seriously considered rather than being transformed into specialized modes. Therefore, the conference series, in addition to pushing the research lines further ahead, is also envisioned to provide venues for a broad reflection and a dialogue with a wider audience. It is an obligation of the humanities to stay in touch with the general intellectual debate, to take up visions and concerns as they are articulated in the public arena, to subject them to thorough reflection, and to submit the results to the general public.

Further expected audiences include politicians in science-related areas, foundations sponsoring research, and experts on scientific policy advising whose intention is to intervene in science and to prompt the production of an outcome of a certain kind. But such objectives are difficult to pursue. Science is a human creation which has, like the economy, acquired features which were not intended at the outset, and constitute initially unnoticed by-products of earlier choices. Such emergent features are not recognized instantly; they need to be studied systematically like natural phenomena in order to be understood. In view of the Baconian insight that the power of intervention is typically based on understanding the relevant processes, science governance and science policy can be expected to benefit greatly from a superior account of how science works, as it were, and what role values play in it. Thus, the general intention is to study the complex entanglement of epistemic, economic, ethical and social values in order to explore ways to uphold the epistemic prospects of science, to secure its contribution to the betterment of the human condition and to keep science in conformity with our ethical and social commitments.

Science has gained an immense practical relevance in the course of the past century. Today, research often brings non-epistemic uncertainties in its train, and the risks going along with the implementation of scientific novelties have generated the requirement that science be accountable. The traditional way of dealing with this challenge is to anchor the responsibility of science in the ethics-based duty of individual scientists to accept responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their work. Scientists themselves are called upon to take the wider impact of their research into account and to waive conducting research projects which might interfere with the common good.

Ethical values are commonly employed in attaching moral constraints on experimental setups used in research. The limitations that ethical values place on the means of knowledge gain are undisputed. Still, in some cases, for instance in stem-cell experimentation, it is under debate what precisely our shared moral commitments demand or prohibit. In addition, ethical values are relevant for judging technologies and for assessing the risks associated with them. For instance, putting future generations in jeopardy by leaving problems to them which we do not solve (e.g., disposing of nuclear waste) is frequently considered unacceptable in a moral respect.

The alternative to an individual-centered, ethics-based approach is to devise appropriate institutions which regulate the assessment procedures in science. Institutional ways of ascertaining the accountability of science usually proceed via the democratization of science. Participation and the involvement of stakeholders have become keywords in science and technology policy. Granting participatory rights to social groups is widely taken as a precondition for legitimate and sustainable decision-making, and as a basis of the accountability of science. However, such decisions are constrained, on the one hand, by scientific expertise which implicitly involves normative commitments (such as utility evaluations inherent in probabilistic risk estimates). They are embedded, on the other hand, in a tight legal framework. The interaction of value commitments in science, politics, and the law, as they become manifest in participatory procedures, is an important topical area.

A general worry in this field is that the inclusion of sociopolitical values in the confirmation practice of science tends to undercut the objectivity of science. For instance, in the field of expertise, science-based advice for political decision-mak¬¬ing is in constant danger of becoming identified with one of the warring political factions. By tying its judgments too intimately to certain sociopolitical values, science runs the risk of losing its credibility. On the one hand, including such values in the assessment procedure is mandatory for a responsible science. On the other hand, a social bias of science tends to undercut the overarching authority of science which derives from its factual basis. A science tied too intimately with social values might lose the capacity of “speaking truth to power.” As a result, the increasing politicization of science might undermine its credibility. To the extent that science enters the social arena and becomes part of political power play, the scientific claims to objectivity and trustworthiness tend to be sapped.


Additional Information