Value, Scientific

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Value, Scientific

Few terms are as subject to confusion as the word value. Used as a noun, it denotes objective things, states, processes, or qualities that are approved, desired, or found worthy by at least one valuer (e.g., "At first, money was Scrooge's only value."). Used as a transitive verb, however, it denotes the subjective condition of appreciating, approving, or desiring something (e.g., "I value your smile."). It may refer to what is positively appreciated by a single subject, but also to what is found worthy by groups, who may share purposes, preferences, and norms (e.g., "Middle class values are in flux."). Since different individuals or groups may approve different things, values between valuers may clash, and debates may rage over whether someone else's value is really a value at all. Further, since many different, and sometimes incompatible, types of things may be found worthy even within the same group or by the same individual, there may be internal clashes. Wealth, practical skills, social graces, moral virtue, artistic beauty, intellectual insight, spiritual fulfillmentall may be found worthy in principle, but perhaps not equally worthy in all circumstances. When values conflict, were some not really values after all? The response of this entry will be pluralistic, recognizing many different species of value as entirely genuine, firmly grounded in human goals and purposes, and therefore inescapably interconnected, though often in tension.

The purposes of science, a human activity involving economic consequences, technical skills, social mores, ethical concerns, aesthetic judgments, intellectual thirsts, metaphysical preferences, and religious implications weave themselves into a skein of reinforcements and conflicts within at least three distinguishable domains: the needs of scientific practices, the goals of scientific theorizing, and the norms of culture generally.

Values and scientific practices

Sometimes overlooked are the values that initially draw people into engaging in scientific practices. Today going into science is a way of earning a living. This has not always been so. Before the professionalization of the modern sciences, scientific work required private means or wealthy sponsors. Private economic values, though real, can hardly be basic. Sheer delight in acquiring and using skills for manipulating the natural order would doubtless be more fundamental historically and psychologically. Even deeper would be a lively curiosity about the way things work that leads some people to probe and tinker. And behind the enterprise as a whole loom human needs that might be met if only answers could be found and events controlled. Social goals, such as fame and prestige, or the hope to be first at solving a problem or developing a technique, also figure into the rich mixture of motivating values.

Techniques carry with them their own set of values. A technique is a generalized way of doing something. It presents a norm for approximation. A skill is the disciplined capacity to carry out a technique, requiring attentiveness and muscular control coordinated to deal with particular circumstances. At a minimum, scientific practices inherently call for the technical values of accuracy and precision, and of approximating, as well as possible, the norm represented by the technique. They demand that the practitioner acquire and maintain personal skills capable of providing regular, repeatable outcomes. Replicability, therefore, emerges from practice as a primary scientific value. And with replication comes counting. Quantifiability, to whatever extent circumstances allow, is a value rooted in the practice even of a lone scientific investigator.

The social character of modern scientific practice underscores and amplifies the importance of these values of accuracy, replicability, and quantification. Others who have acquired the necessary skills must to be able to achieve similar results. They must come up with similar numbers. Further, the practice of scientific publication reinforces the built-in need for such values as precise experimentation and record-keeping, accurate reporting, accountability to colleagues, readiness to submit to community standards, and (in principle at least) even the willingness to welcome the possibility of falsification in the larger interests of scientific reliability.

Where truth-telling, cooperation, and community responsibility are involved, technical values implicit in scientific practices lead inexorably to ethical ones. But not all ethical values relevant to scientific practices are internal to the requirements of technique alone. Scientific values do not generate compassion. Independently acquired moral standards of scientists are needed to forbid some kinds of practiceswhere humans might be subjected to torture or vivisection, for exampledespite the possibility of making interesting discoveries. Such external restraints involve still larger normative conceptions. What is it to be a human person? What sorts of practices are compatible with a person's moral status? Different ages and cultures give different answers, which may ultimately root in religious commitments or metaphysical convictions. The science of anatomy was dependent at one time on systematic grave robbery, since autopsy was forbidden on theological grounds. The practice of vivisection on dogs and cats was supported by the followers of René Descartes (15961650), who held that animals, lacking speech and rationality, had no souls and therefore were incapable of feeling pain.

Values and scientific theories

Values motivating the construction of scientific theories certainly include the same curiosity noted in connection with scientific practices, but now the quest is not simply for how things work, but why. What is going on behind the scenes? What makes things happen as they do? Part of what is valued here is enhanced ability to control outcomes by grasping hidden processes. But for many there is also a deep thirst for understanding simply for its own sake.

If understanding offers intrinsic as well as instrumental value, there are other important values prerequisite to achieving this end. These are the intellectual values that make intelligible theory possible, beginning with logical consistency (since inconsistency cancels meaning and makes any account of things impossible), including systematic coherence (since the elements of an account need to hang together if they are to tell a unified story), andin the case of all empirical sciencesresting on evidential adequacy and comprehensiveness (since if a theory is to be about something, it must take account of as much data about that something as possible). There are potential conflicts among these values, since coherence is more easily achieved if evidence can be limited to exclude inconvenient facts; contrarily, adequacy can have freer run if it ignores norms of consistency and coherence. Still, the job of theorizing must operate within these tensions.

Working within such human limitations, additional values are often important to the construction and later acceptability of theories. Theorists may be inspired in their constructive quests by the aesthetic values, for example, of simplicity and symmetry. Community acceptance may be influenced, as well, since an elegant theory is more to be admired, and may be easier for minds to grasp, than a ramshackle construction. However, since there are many different ways of approaching simplicity and other aesthetic values, as well as multiple interpretations of coherence, and arguably clashing estimates of relevance, it is clear that human judgments of better or worse continue to be indispensable and pervasive in the theoretical sciences.

Undergirding all such judgments are fundamental ethical and religious values. Moral integrity is required in acknowledging available evidence, perhaps despite personal preferences, and following the logic of argument where it leads. Further, acceptance of the value of knowledge as a fundamental good, commitment to the norms of honesty, and reverence for the pursuit of truth, even in limited domains, may lead to (or flow from) unlimited, or ultimate, expressions of value so intense and comprehensive as to be functionally religious.

Values and scientific culture

Cultures shaped by scientific practices and theories reap huge economic values, as technologies developed by unprecedented understanding of how things work provide unprecedented means of control and exploitation of the Earth's wealth. Unfortunately, equally huge economic and environmental disvalues, too, haunt scientific cultures whose grasp of physics and chemistry outstrips understanding in ecology, sociology, and the humanities.

Intellectually, scientific theories offer scientific cultures unprecedentedly adequate and coherent accounts of how things are, as well as how they work. In particular, the grand narrative woven from scientific cosmology, physics, astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, paleontology, and archaeology provides a new framework for interpreting the universe. Since the powerful hunger for such frameworks has long been fed by older, nonscientific narratives, there is inevitable conflict with comprehensive prescientific alternatives in which maximally intense values have long been invested. Efforts to oppose or nullify evolutionary theory, for example, can be seen as counter-attacks against scientific thinking by disaffected members of scientific culture whose primary religious values are threatened.

The primary scientific values, in contrast, are found in loyalty to a public methodin experimental practices as in theorizingin which all evidence is honored in principle and conclusions are proportioned to fact and norms of logic. Such values advocate a rational culture, in which all disputes are resolved by dialogue. As noted above, however, unsupplemented scientific values emphasize quantitative over qualitative considerations and are notably lacking in compassion. In the much needed dialogue between science and its culture, scientists are not the only ones who deserve a hearing.

See also Value, Value Theory


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frederick ferrÉ