The Italian coffee pot, a dialog on values in science (3): Science doesn’t do it itself, it has to be done

Photo: G.A.T.

[Read Part 1 & Part 2]

VIOLETA: You know the shape of the classical Italian coffee-pot, like the one Faustino has just braught. It consists of two truncated cones or pyramids, joined by their narrowest parts. I claim that the structure of the maps of values of a scientific discipline has a structure similar to this. Remember, we are tracing a map consisting of a set of points; each point represents a value, and is linked to other points by arrows, indicating that one of the values is valued as a means to attain another value.


VIOLETA: On the one hand, we will have a lot of values on the basis of our diagram: all those things a scientist knows she has to do, in order to get her projects well done. I shall call these values the “instrumental” ones. They will occupy the basis of our coffee-pot. On the other hand, there are values that consist in the things for which we want the knowledge or the results produced in the discipline.


VIOLETA: Well, put anybody there. Remember I am a pluralist, as well as an individualist.

FAUSTINO: Then, “the things for which somebody wants the knowledge”.

VIOLEETA: That’s OK. In a nutshell, these are the possible applications of the output of the discipline we are considering. I not only mean practical applications, but also scientific applications, in the sense that the knowledge produced within a discipline may be subsequently used in other disciplines. But, within the realm of a specific discipline, I shall call these values the “final” ones, and they will be situated in the upper part of the graph.

LORENZO: I see. We have the two bodies of our coffee-pot: the instrumental values in the basis, and the final goals on the top.

VIOLETA: Exactly. The values in the upper part are the ones that make that some scientific problems are more “interesting” or “important” than others, whereas the values in the lower part are the ones that tell how the research processes have to be carried out.

FAUSTINO: And what’s in the middle?

VIOLETA: My thesis is that there are a few values just between both areas of the graph, whose role is to justify the methods to which the lower part refers. I mean that a particular practice is something that has to be performed because the scientists think that performing it in such and such way produces an output that has such and such qualities. These middle values are, hence, the properties that an ‘acceptable solution’ must have in order to be acceptable as a right solution to a scientific problem. I also think that these values are, as I told, just a few ones, and this is why the middle of the graph is narrower than the upper and the lower segments, giving it the shape of the Italian coffee-pot.


VIOLETA: Furthermore, and going again to the pluralism topic: probably, in different scientific disciplines the values inhabiting the lower and the upper part of the graph might differ; in some cases, the instrumental (or the final) values of both disciplines will overlap a lot, and in other cases they will be almost completely different. They will employ very different methods, and they will be applied to very different goals, so to say. But the middle values, the central values of science, will be, instead, not only very similar between different disciplines, but they are very probably exactly the same ones.

FAUSTINO: Surprise me, Violeta: are they the truth, the rationality, and other celestial musics?

VIOLETA: You’re close. My conjecture is that there are exactly three central goals, not as perfectly defined concepts (no one is), but with a margin to be adapted to different circumstances.

FAUSTINO: And they are…

VIOLETA: In the first place, something I shall call approximate empirical truth. Its position in the middle is easy to understand: regarding other instrumental values, we worry about performing “well” some methods, often very sophisticated and tiresome ones, because we want to reach true knowledge. I mean, we prefer method A to method B because we think it is more likely that using method A we will reach accepting theories, models, hypotheses, etc., that are true, or, at least, that are approximately true, and (to the extent of our capabilities) empirically true. Exactly in the same sense in which you prefer having a true idea about how much food there is in your fridge, instead of having a false, or less approximate idea. And, regarding the final values, the reason why we worry about having true ideas is because we think that true information is in general more efficient for letting us get our other goals, than having totally misguided ideas.


VIOLETA: In the second place, there is another very central goal, which is scientific glory.

FAUSTINO: Don’t say you see, Lorenzo, because you see it as little as me. Please, explain it, Violeta.

VIOLETA: Of course, but it’s easy. Real researchers, flesh and bone ones, struggle in their work not only to get ‘right answers’, but in order to be recognised as the ones that got the right answers. This particular type of fame may have different flavours in different fields, but is something common to all of them; it belongs in the human nature, very probably.

FAUSTINO: I wouldn’t say no.

VIOLETA: And, lastly, there is also an important central value, which is economy, or efficiency. I mean, the most economic use of the total set of resources that have to be employed in the scientific work. Including a particular wisdom about when some goal has to be in part sacrificed for another.

“In a nutshell: the structure of the value-map of a scientific discipline will contain lots of very different values, there is value pluralism within the discipline (there are many values, and different scientists may value them differently), but there is a clear threefold division: instrumental values on the ground (good practices), final values on the top (applications), and our central values in the middle: truth, glory, and economy. These three middle values are common to all disciplines, contrarily to what there is in the other two parts of the coffee-pot. Actually, the middle is the part where coffee is inserted. You also need water, and you want the drink, but without good powdered coffee in the middle, you get nothing.

FAUSTINO: I have my doubts about whether the value you call ‘truth’ might not be something completely different, like ‘consistency with received ideas’, or “with the powerful”, or something like that, but I shall not press you now on this. I prefer that you explain to us why glory has to be ‘in the middle’ of the graph (I think I understand the centrality of “economy” well enough). Is it just because it is common to all disciplines?

VIOLETA: Not only. The main reason for “glory” to be central is because, even if for individual scientists it may often be a final goal, it is not so from the point of view of the people external to the discipline, or for ‘the citizens’, i.e., for society at large. From the point of view of a regular citizen, fame, the pursuit of glory, is just an instrument that society employs in order to get science done.

LORENZO: I see. If I may put it in other terms: science doesn’t do it itself, it has to be done. Well, serve us finally that coffee, Faustino; I badly need it.

FAUSTINO: I wouldn’t say no.

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