WASS PhD course: Politics and ethics in science - Revisiting the ideals of ‘value-free’ and ‘critical’ science

Organisator Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS)

wo 8 januari 2014 tot wo 22 januari 2014

Locatie Leeuwenborch, building number 201
Hollandseweg 1
6706 KN Wageningen

Discussions about the politics of science are saturated with soul-searching questions. Do you as a scientist just seek a well-paid career, want to satisfy your curiosity and extend the frontiers of knowledge or do you want first and foremost to contribute to making the world a better place to live? If you think that your scientific contribution can help create a more just, more free, more healthy, more friendly or more sustainable society, does it tell you anything about the kind of science you will have to develop? Do you think it is legitimate to have such commitments as a scientist? Wouldn’t it endanger the “objectivity” of your work? Should you be open and transparent about your commitments? Even if scientists claim their work to be value-free, the results of their work will probably be used in certain ways. Are you willing to assume responsibility for the uses to which the knowledge you create will be put? Scientists are expected to take nothing for granted and to adopt a critical attitude toward all kinds of prejudices, preconceptions and received views. But shouldn’t they also take a critical stance towards existing social and political arrangements?

 Quite a number of social scientists actually subscribe to some ideal of a critical social science. Claims about the power-laden nature of science are frequently and easily made. The premise of this course, however, is that we (including the conveners of this course) are very often not exactly clear about what the reasonable basis is for the ideal of a critical social science. In this seminar series we will discuss whether the reasons for a critical social science are sufficiently persuasive and attractive to follow as an ideal.

An old debate continued

The above series of questions are not entirely new. They have been raised since the conduct of (social) science first offered the possibility of an occupational career. A clear response to all these questions was given by the classical doctrine of the ‘value-freedom’ of science. This doctrine makes a sharp distinction between the spheres of facts and values and holds that science is only competent to judge about facts. Hence it is not legitimate, according to this doctrine, for scientists to pass any ‘value judgments’ on the desirability and acceptability of particular policies or states of affairs (at least not in their role of researchers or lecturers). The ideal of ‘value-freedom’ found an eloquent defender in the German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) and was also supported by positivist schools in science. It was strongly opposed, however, by representatives of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

In recent years, new openings in this old debate have been made by the American philosopher of science, Heather Douglas, and the British social scientist and philosopher, Andrew Sayer. Both reject the ideal of ‘value-free’ science, but do it in different ways and with different arguments. They also provide different guidelines to researchers about how to responsibly incorporate values in their scientific work. Both agree that researchers should generally make more work of justifying their ethical commitments. While Douglas sticks to the traditional distinction between facts and values, Sayer takes the even more radical step of challenging this very distinction. He also tries to lay the foundation for what he considers a genuinely critical social science.

Structure and aims of the course

In this course we will read and critically discuss several central texts on science and values from Max Weber, Michael Buroway (who links Weber with contemporary social science), Heather Douglas and Andrew Sayer. Participants are expected to prepare sessions by providing summaries and formulating questions and points for discussion. They will also be encouraged to link up the issues discussed in the literature with problems they encountered in the course of their own work. The aim is to collectively search for ways of dealing more satisfactorily and fruitfully with such problems.