32: Value-free science?

April 10, 2011

We all think that science is about objectivity and “just the facts, ma’am.” Not so fast, philosophers, historians and sociologists of science have been arguing now for a number of decades.

To begin with, there are values embedded in the practice of science itself: testability, accuracy, generality, simplicity, and the like. Then there are the many moral dimensions of science practice, both in terms of ethical issues internal to science (fraud) and of the much broader ones affecting society at large (societal consequences of research and technological advances). Then there is the issue of diversity, where until very recently, and in many fields still today, science has largely been an affair conducted by white males. Finally, the issue of which scientific questions we should pursue and, often, fund with public money. And to complicate things further, should scientists consider the societal consequences of their research before deciding to publish?