The Italian coffee pot, a dialog on values in science (2): From value pluralism to the unity of scientific values

Photo: Pezzetti Italexpress

[Read the first part here]

LORENZO: Alright, Violeta, we may admit that the members of a scientific discipline may agree to assess the conjectures and models each of them is proposing according to some consensual rule, and we may also admit that this rule may be impartial, in the sense that it will often go against the particular theory any particular member of the group may actually be defending: I simply cannot force the rest of my colleagues to admit the rule that accidentally happens to favour my own theory. But this only means that scientists will not be ‘selfish’ in the sense that the rules according to which they collectively decide to assess their theories will be rules not favouring particular individual members of the scientific discipline, but, according to the kind of individualism you were defending, they can be very selfish indeed, in a different sense.

VIOLETA: What do you mean?

LORENZO: I mean that they can choose methodological rules that benefit the interests they have as scientists, the interests of their scientific communities, instead of the interests of the rest of the citizens.

FAUSTINO: And of the private companies they work for.

LORENZO: That’s right. But even in the case of areas of research of little commercial impact, it is possible that scientists, or academics, install methodological norms and practices that favour purely speculative reflexions, instead of more practical conclusions. And even it is possible that these norms do not tend to select theories that are ‘right’ any relevant sense. Relevant for the general citizens, I mean. Or ‘true’, if you like.

VIOLETA: Of course, I admit that this may happen. But this would not be a criticism of my individualist point of view, only an invitation to promote institutional changes in science that favour the participation of the types of individuals whose interests you want to protect.

FAUSTINO: If by ‘types’ you mean ‘groups’, Violeta, would your claim not entail that you always have to look for the point of view of some kind of collective.

VIOLETA: Well, I wouldn’t say that, even if you identify some types of interests by distinguishing different kind of groups, and different behaviours and norms in different groups, this are only the preferences and ideas ‘of the group’ in a derivative sense, for they are the preferences and ideas of the individual members of the group. Each individual has to learn them from what she observes in the group… but she always has the possibility of deciding whether she accepts it or not, or if she joins a different group.

FAUSTINO: I doubt this is always as easy as you suggest…

VIOLETA: Probably not in the case of a single member; but if the norms that are in force in a group are not beneficial for a sufficiently big number of its members, it will not be as difficult for this ‘subgroup’ to change the situation, as it would be for a single individual. After all, saying that all decisions are made by individuals is not equivalent to saying that they do it without taking into account the decisions of the other people.

FAUSTINO: Sorry, Violeta, but I cannot avoid suspecting that all your individualism is a subterfuge to defend the scientific, economic and political statu quo. Your ‘individuals’ are nothing but an abstract, fictional construction, pure rhetoric. Real people are not like that, they are not as rational as you assume, they follow more or less blindly the norms they have learned from the group, and the reasons why the norms are the ones they are are hardly the ones that the individuals consciously think they are… when they happen to think about it!

VIOLETA: Well, your ‘social ontology’ is rather incompatible with mine.

LORENZO: I would say they are both incommensurable.

VIOLETA: Perhaps. But I cannot see how you can study a human reality without making some kind of minimal assumption of rationality, particularly if you aspire to use the conclusions of your study in making some kind of social improvement: you have to talk to the people in order to persuade them that it is better for them to do such and such.

FAUSTINO: OK, this discussion will lead us to very deep problems in the foundations of social science and in metaphysics, so I prefer to stop it, and go to a different question your talk of this morning leaved me a little perplex. You connected the chatter about values and individualism with the idea that your view might offer a defence of the old-fashioned idea of ‘the unity of science’. Radical individualism and unity of science are, for me, like water and oil: they cannot go together!

LORENZO: It was shocking for me as well, Violeta. Unless there is a strong uniformity between the beliefs and preferences of your individuals, assuming, as you do, that there is only the preferences and beliefs of individual scientists seems to entail that the only way of describing the reality of science is by means of a radical pluralism. What am I losing?

VIOLETA: You are not losing anything: mine is a radical pluralism. More radical than yours, for you are pluralist in the sense of a plurality of cultures and groups, and not of individuals. I admit that, in any given moment of the history of science, millions of different and conflicting ideas, criteria, norms, preferences, etc., co-exist, as they do in almost any other complex social reality. What I am suggesting is that under (or above) this colossal diversity, there is a structure relatively simple and uniform, in a similar way as the diversity of life is supported by a relatively simple and unified genetic code and bio-chemistry.

FAUSTINO: Anything contains as many traits in common with anything else as one may desire.

LORENZO: Not at all, Faustino: if any classification were absolutely conventional, it wouldn’t pay to try to build any one of them.

VIOLETA: Actually, what I am trying to say is very simple. My claim is that science, considered above all as a system of practices and social institutions, shares a typical scheme of values, so to say. The scheme will be slightly different (or much more different, in some cases) from one historical case to others, but they will share nevertheless a typical structure, and some central elements, i.e., some central values.

LORENZO: ‘Values’, I guess, in the sense you explained before, isn’t it? And what do you exactly mean by ‘structure’? Are you drawing a map of values, or something like that?

VIOLETA: Exactly. Let me elaborate a little bit. I understand by ‘values’ those goals that the individuals pursue by the application of the criteria of choice they have collectively agreed to employ; i.e., values are anything that can be taken as a legitimate reason to justify a normative criterion in a public deliberation, any criterion that allows you to publicly argue that something is right or wrong. Values are not simply ‘something that somebody wishes’ (any element in your own preferences has this property, and values are only), but ‘something that somebody wishes and that has agreed to use as a criterion of collective choice’. The first thing to do, hence, in order to draw a map of values in scientific activity will be to look for the patterns of justification that are used in the relevant scientific field: what criteria are collectively used in the arguments publicly deployed to decide if to accept or to reject a model, a datum, an experiment, a paper, a grant, a permanent position, etc., is legitimate or not. The values to be plotted in our map will be the goals that this patterns tend to promote.

FAUSTINO: Science-fiction, again. I doubt that you may clearly identify such criteria as a coherent set, in the sense that some of the practices you identify will promote some goals, and other will promote other goals, or will go directly against the goals you had previously identified.

LORENZO: Well, if science has existed for so long, if scientific disciplines are so stable as they seem to be, and if the practical and empirical success of many branches of science has been so high, let us give Violeta the benefit of doubt: some degree of coherence must surely exist within them, don’t you think?

VIOLETA: Thanks, Lorenzo. In any case, I insist in that I am not assuming nothing different from a radical plurality of values, and there may be all kind of conflicts between them. My conjecture is that this plurality is not un-structured; that, if you draw the plot, with arrows pointing from some values to others indicating that the latter are used to justify the former, a relatively similar structure appears in the maps of all scientific disciplines.

FAUSTINO: Sorry, the coffee is ready; let me go to the kitchen for it.

VIOLETA: Excellent; this will give me the opportunity of showing to you that the shape of this shared structure of values characteristic of science is actually the shape of an Italian coffee-pot.

LORENZO: An Italian coffee-pot? What are you talking about.

To be continued.

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