Saturday, August 13, 2011

How value laden is science?

A common view of science is that it is completely objective and free from the personal values of scientists.

Kirsten Birkett has a nice section in her book Unnatural Enemies: An Introduction to Science and Christianity which discusses how values do enter science and it is never completely ojbective. Most of the discussion is in terms of how values enter decisions about which research gets done because it gets funding.

However, I think there is an additional major area, theory acceptance, where the personal values of scientists enter science. Consider, the question: What kind of evidence is required to convince an individual scientist that a particular theory is valid, i.e. gives a satisfactory description of experimental data?

Here are some issues that come into play.
-role of curve fitting
-role of computations and modelling
-independent confirmation from other research groups
-status and track record of the authors
-whether ones skepticism is weighed by a possible conflict of interest of the authors [e.g. are they confirming or refuting their own theory].
-the weight given to the "simplicity" or "beauty" of the proposed explanation.
-the weight given to other possible alternative explanations.

My experience from almost 30 years of scientific research is that these values vary significantly between individual scientists. I suspect my "standards" are sometimes higher than those of some of my colleagues.
I would like to think this is partly driven by a theological conviction about "the total depravity of man" which results in an impressive ability to deceive ourselves.
But I do not have a monopoly of this view. Richard Feynman, one of the most famous theoretical physicists of the 20th century, was an agnostic but often said "the easiest person to fool is yourself."

I should stress that this post is not at all claiming that most scientific knowledge is just "wishful thinking" of scientists. Most of what is in text books is on very solid ground. It is just the latest results, and particularly some of what makes headlines in the popular press.
Eventually, theories accumulate enough evidence to convince the majority of the scientific community, are refuted, pass away for lack of evidence, or are superseded.

The point is that personal values do enter how science is done in practice. There are no universally agreed criteria for widespread acceptance of a theory. Individual scientists make this decision based on their own personal criteria.

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