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Some people, like Sam Harris, say that science has values of its own. According to him, even a statement like "Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen" is value-laden. But I don't think that it is value-laden, it is simply a factual statement. Perhaps demonstrating that statement to be true requires values, but that statement by itself is true whatever your values are. So, then, what have professional philosophers (besides Sam Harris) written or said about this matter, of whether science is value-free, and also whether even basic scientific statements are value-free?

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    No, it is not. At least the search for truthis highly valued. See Scientific Objectivity Commented May 10 at 15:59
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    Harris would be the person to justify his own claim (although I don't know that he said that, but if he did say that, then wherever he said that may also be the place he justifies that). If one says "according to [someone]", it's good practice to back that up with a reference. My response to Harris, and to you, would be "what do you mean by values". I don't know that we can answer this without a specific definition of values, because that could mean wildly different things to different people.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 10 at 15:59
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    @user4894 Sure, all the ancient dead rich white aristocrat hobby-scientists were completely objective. ;P I somewhat doubt we've ever had an environment realistically capable of ensuring perfect objectivity or independence.
    – Erhannis
    Commented May 11 at 2:01
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    Science seeks for objectivity. Value is subjective.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented May 11 at 14:04
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    Where did Harris say this? In what context? Please clarify and cite.
    – Vector
    Commented May 11 at 23:20

9 Answers 9

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I'm happy to report, that science is a human endeavor, and humans are never value-free, so neither is science. That's a feature, and not a bug. For instance, some of the most important values of science are intersubjectivity, rationality, empiricality, democracy, and fallibilism. In other words, the modern scientific methods (there are many flavors) champion the ability to build consensus from reason and observation by anyone who can follow the basic premises on how to practice science. The sciences strongly discourage any subjective conjecture that neither makes sense nor fails to be rooted in observation or physical testing and disagrees with consensus. And ironically, science always preaches its own short-comings.

Scientists are fallible, paradigms can be wrong, tests and calculations can mislead or have error, and basic scientific theory itself must be examined for theory-ladenness. Of course, this is the philosophical ideal. Not all science lives up to scientific values. Many actual scientists have little to no philosophical training and run afoul of the values that the great scientific thinkers like Bacon, Popper, Carnap, and others have advocated.

One of my favorite science history books is The Rise of Early Modern Science by Huff (GB), because it makes a great case for the interrelation of cultural values and the values of science. Specifically, it examines why modern science is a distinctly Western institution and rooted in the development of the European university system with traditional Greek democratic values. Science began to arise in other polities like the Middle and the Far East, but didn't catch on until the gaps between the West and the East were self-evident and carried real political and economic consequences.

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    @gs I believe you when you say you have no idea. You think it's a coincidence that science began with the Ancient Greeks who also invented philosophy and democracy? Read GER Lloyd's Greek Science 2-part volume. Read Huff's book. Also Bronowski's Science and Human Values. Also read The Rhetoric of Science by Gross, particularly the chapter on social norms (11). Scientific communities are political bodies with rhetorical practicalities, and 'scientific consensus' is by definition a democratic sociological phenomenon as the CCCP learned with Lysenkoism.
    – J D
    Commented May 10 at 18:25
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    @gs That's possible but not necessarily true, unfortunately. “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” - Isaac Asimov. Thus, good science is always democratically inclined, but good democracy isn't always inclined towards science. Intelligent design is favored democratically in some regions of the US, and that is antithetical to science.
    – J D
    Commented May 10 at 19:33
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    @Vector humans are annoyingly value-laden because they know they will spend most of their time in a box that's leaden.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:28
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    Your comment "Scientists are fallible" doesn't go far enough: Scientists know they are fallible. A fundamentalist does not believe that he is fallible, only that others are fallible: he has his Holy Boo of Answers. Error correction is the essence of @gs linking science and democracy: our leaders are fallible, so we need to be able to fire them when they screw up, and we would like to do it without filling the gutters with blood. Incidentally Popper (Back to the Pre-Socratics) suggests Thales may have been the first teacher to urge his students to go beyond him, rather than following him. Commented May 11 at 22:34
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    @Vector yes, atoms are nearly eternal, so are probably not particularly concerned about the future.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 23:41
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When Harris cites the atomic description of water as being thoroughly value-laden, the two questions that come to mind are

  1. If all those hidden, unspecified values he is talking about are removed from the description, does water then no longer consist of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen? If so, what IS the resulting "correct" description?

  2. If all those hidden, unspecified values he is talking about are removed from the description, does water at the end of the day still consist of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen? If so, what difference in the real world does the asserted value-laden-ness of any description of water make, and why should anyone waste their time arguing about it?

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    The difference is not in the subject matter, it's about the people doing the science. A value-free "correct" description is not something that exists. Any description that anyone can think of will always be value-laden. The point is to be aware of that and get over the idea that we can have "pure" statements of fact.
    – blues
    Commented May 11 at 18:02
  • @blues Ding! Ding! Ding! You got it. Our values, that so rudely insinuate themselves into darn near everything we do, from breathing to building atom smashers, are to keep breathing, and be more and more healthy and happy for a longer time. Can there be any dispute about that? No? Gosh, let's either get something done, or go to the bar and play pool.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:22
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    @blues The point is to be aware of that and get over the idea that we can have "pure" statements of fact . What is not pure about the statement Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen ?
    – Vector
    Commented May 11 at 23:37
  • @scott rowe, Ding! Ding! Ding! now if only you lived in corvallis, oregon then to hell with pool, we two could simply and conveniently go to my garage and enjoy shots of reasonably-priced spirits. Commented May 12 at 2:49
  • @nielsnielsen Science isn't "the collection of all objectively true facts", it's a set of processes to facilitate determining, correcting, and communicating such facts. Removing implicit values from those statements is probably not possible, since it's arguably inconceivable to consider value-free verbal statements. But if the values were significantly altered, it would change nothing about water itself, but presumably would alter the statement-- how it's stated and whether it's stated at all.
    – Jay McEh
    Commented May 13 at 20:58
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This seems to be the quote with some context.

"Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, "Well, that's not how I choose to think about water."? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn't share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn't value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

The impression I get is that the Sam Harris isn't saying something post-modern. Consider the list that @causative gives of other ways of seeking knowledge: I think the Horseman means that we cannot really have a useful conversation with anyone who insists that his holy book trumps science, or who subscribes to any of the other ways on the list.

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    Someone's personal value system has no bearing on empirical scientific proofs. Well, that's not how I choose to think about water. is irrelevant. I myself don't think about water as h2o, I think about it as a refreshing liquid. That doesn't mean that refreshing liquid's chemical composition is not h2o,
    – Vector
    Commented May 11 at 19:21
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    @Vector Congratulations: you've won today's award for stating the obvious. I suggest you pick one of the belief systems that causative lists: any of these believers could insist that an empirical scientific proof is irrelevant to their beliefs. If I understand Harris's argument, he is saying that a productive dialog is impossible with these folk. How would you convince a Talib, for example? Commented May 11 at 20:56
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    @Vector I'll give you an example that is closer to your home, then: the religious right in the US. Consider Florida's ban on meat grown in the lab: “Florida is fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals. We will save our beef.”Assuming you disagree with De Santis on scientific grounds, I could imagine him saying that your personal value system has no bearing on The Truth[TM]. Commented May 12 at 0:21
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    @SimonCrase I'll give you an example that is closer to your home... - sorry, I don't understand what point you're attempting to make, or what it is you think I don't understand. The problem of having a scientific conversation with a Talib or with the religious right in the US is the same. You haven't clarified anything. we cannot really have a useful conversation with anyone who insists that his holy book trumps science, or who subscribes to any of the other ways on the list - That is the obvious point here.
    – Vector
    Commented May 12 at 18:08
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    @vector How do I know that a fundamentalist has run out of arguments? When he stamps his foot and says "that is the obvious point here". "Obvious" is a shorthand for "argument weak here: thump pulpit loudly". Commented May 12 at 18:45
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Yes, science has values, and specifically they are values of academic inquiry. First there is the value that we should seek knowledge with high priority (by no means a culturally universal priority); and then there are the values of how we should go about seeking knowledge.

Science proposes that we should seek knowledge through the scientific method. We should record data from the natural world, analyze the data, and discuss and criticize these findings through peer review. We should use statistics to analyze the presence or absence of regularities in the data. We should build models based on the way we think a system works, and compare the models to the data. We should set up experiments when possible to help detect causal influences. We should treat evidence and argumentation as higher forms of proof than just someone saying so, regardless of that person's status.

This can be contrasted with other modes of "seeking knowledge":

  • Read what was written in a holy book
  • Accept without question the word of a religious, political, or secular authority
  • Rely on rumors and anecdotes
  • Believe what we feel in our hearts to be true
  • Accept what our friends and peers think

Science's values are that the scientific method of seeking knowledge should be preferred over these other methods.

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    I agree with the list of shoulds and I know that calling them 'values' is a kind of shorthand, but it is important to keep clear the fact that values are mental states occurring in individual humans (and perhaps some animals). I love the word Should, but its use seems contentious and fraught with peril, up to and including world wars, tens of millions dying of preventable starvation or flooding and so on. It would (cousin of should) be so wonderful if humans could (... nevermind) get their act together and agree more often about critically important things. Well, time for breakfast.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:06
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Separately, I'll address this:

"Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen" is value-laden. But I don't think that it is value-laden, it is simply a factual statement.

Importantly, all language carries normativity with it. So, first, let's acknowledge that the statement is in scientific English, which is the de facto lingua franca of science. That's a value because it is both a convention and a preference. Of course, it might not always be the case. It used to be Latin. It may be Hokkien in the future. Who knows. But this is the shallow revelation of effaced value; the strong case is theory-ladeness. From WP:

Semantic theory-ladenness refers to the impact of theoretical assumptions on the meaning of observational terms, while perceptual theory-ladenness refers to their impact on the perceptual experience itself. Theory-ladenness is also relevant for measurement outcomes: the data thus acquired may be said to be theory-laden since it is meaningless by itself unless interpreted as the outcome of the measurement processes involved.

What this means is that talking about the definition of water, it prefers the atomic theory over a classical theory of elements. It also has other biases. What is water? H2O? Does that exclude or include heavy water? Is ice water? It's H2O, right? What about the properties of water? Is the specific density 1.0 an objective fact of the universe? Is the boiling point of water universal? What about outside of STP? Which scale? What sort of scientific instruments are used to measure water? Doesn't the very act of reasoning about water mean we have to introduce a logic to infer water? Is the blueness of water an objective fact or a subjective construction of the mind; atoms don't have colors, right? If "The O–H bond length is about 0.096 nm", doesn't presume a preference for using meters instead of inches or smoots? Isn't that a value? If water self-ionizes, is H2O a valid description, or shouldn't we use H3O+ + OH- to describe it since strictly speaking the molecules are constantly disassociating? In fact, isn't the use of H2O inaccurate when examining water described by its Lewis structure?

And that's just a series of what are values that affect the simplest fragment of natural language that involve using the lexemes 'water' and 'H2O'. So, when we use words, when we measure, when we prefer theories, all of those are subjective choices that express effaced values. That those subjectivities are declared "objective" is a political function of philosophical intersubjectivity.

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    It's "H2O", not "H20"
    – Nayuki
    Commented May 11 at 16:34
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    @Nayuki Good catch. Corrected.
    – J D
    Commented May 11 at 16:38
  • Gosh, lots of questions. The answers are found in the effectiveness of taking a particular stance, answer, point of view, etc. There is no point in even having a question in thought except to do something with the result. We are hopelessly, helplessly instrumental about pretty much everything. Because Death.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:35
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This answer replies only to this part:

But I don't think that it is value-laden, it is simply a factual statement.

It's both. Given appropriate definitions of water, hydrogen, oxygen, parts, and composition, it is a fact that water is composed of one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. The values are in the definitions.

Here's an inconclusive list of values in "Water is composed of one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen."

  • It makes sense to identify individual processes at all.

  • It makes sense to identify some individual processes as things.

  • It makes sense to identify some things as substances according to their generalized traits, and not as individuals after all. i.e. "water" and not "that wet stuff over there."

  • It makes sense to identify substances with the impossible-to-ever-actually-exist hypothetical pure substance composed of their most common constituent parts.

  • It makes sense to decompose such substances into their constructive parts.

  • It makes sense to refer to constructive parts as what they would be like had they not been constructed, even though they were significantly transformed by the construction and even though no spatial boundary can be drawn around any one of the supposed components which excludes the other supposed components.

  • Molecules and atoms are the kind of processes that ought to be described as things at all, and not, for example, a series of locally similar events.

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  • Which kicks the can to "it makes sense". The goalpost though is: "because it actually works when we do it that way." It is constructive, productive, instrumental, practical, effective... When we do that. Things that work win. They take the cake. They get the cookie. They come in first. Reliably. Conclusively. Predictably. Why this has not made it in to some people's minds is beyond me. We have the 'values' we do because they not only don't kill us, but make us more likely to survive and flourish. But, then, I'm an engineer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:14
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    @ScottRowe valuable values have value!
    – g s
    Commented May 11 at 21:35
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    @ScottRowe although I'd note that while "water is H2O" is very useful if you want to know, e.g. what molarity of hydrogen and oxygen you'll get if you electrolyze water, it's not useful at all if you want to know, e.g., that you can electrolyze water, in which case you need to also know that water sometimes isn't H2O... Which brings us along to the valuableness of the values underlying the recognition that that, however valuable the values definitions reflect, other definitions are possible. Maybe it's values all the way down...
    – g s
    Commented May 11 at 21:42
  • I feel myself falling helplessly in a value vortex :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:49
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Sam Harris (sigh…)

Science is designed to be value-neutral. I mean that literally: the motivation behind trying to establish a scientific method was to separate out human desires by testing against empirical observations. Of course, people have desires — religious beliefs; career ambitions; deep-seated prejudices, fears, and biases — but all of those are expected to give way in the face of empirical results.

Humans are obviously value-laden. We would all (for the most part) prefer that splitting the atom be used to create sustainable energy, not radioactive devastation. But the science of developing atomic fission isn't influenced by how those fission products will be used by other people. It simply tells us what works and what can be done, and leaves the valuation of what should be done to other fields.

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    Our buddy Michaelson was forced to change his mind by the evidence he gathered. I think... But he still wished it was otherwise because it would have made more sense to him. "Honesty is such a lonely word"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 18:01
  • +1 : Sam Harris (sigh…)
    – Vector
    Commented May 11 at 19:25
  • But believing that designing something value-natural is a positive thing is in itself a value. Believing there is, you know, value in serpateing out human desires is, well, a value. Commented May 13 at 13:33
  • @IanSudbery: Well, obviously. But the fact that people have a value for science does not imply that science has values. Harris is equivocating: trying to suggest that statements like "water is composed of H<sub>2</sub>O" (i.e., statements of the form "this pragmatically works empirically") are value claims of the same type as statements like "murder is bad" (i.e., statements of the form "one should/should not do this"). But that's silly on the face of it. Commented May 13 at 15:04
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Science is not value free

You said it yourself. You said that water is to parts hydrogen and one part oxygen - you have made a leap of faith based on your values. You believe that a measurement of science automatically imparts some truthy or falsy properties to the world. That is not neccesarily so. It is so if you are a materialist; what you measure is what is actually there. You could step back into instrumentalism; a measurement and a theory exists solely for their own sake and makes no judgement about the world. What we know is that IF we measure, we find water to return a RESULT that corresponds 2 parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. That this applies to actual, unmeasured water is a value based implicit assumption. But instrumentalism has its flaws also, to negate that results tell us anything about the actual world is also a value based assumption.

Now, is it possible to set up a science that completely avoids mixing human values into itself? I doubt it, but doubt never made anything impossible. I do believe as long as there are humans there to design and experiment, measure and predict, conclude and summarize - there will be values.

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  • After that we should be fine.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:39
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Absolutely, this is a thought-provoking question. Philosophers like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have explored the philosophy of science, emphasizing that while scientific facts, such as the composition of water, are objective, the process of science itself involves values. These values include integrity, curiosity, and the quest for truth. Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts suggests that scientific progress isn't just a linear accumulation of facts but also influenced by the subjective perspectives of scientists. Therefore, while basic scientific statements might seem value-free, the broader practice of science is embedded in a context of human values and societal influences.

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  • It is "value free" if we happen to unconsciously hold those values at the time. Like, holding a 10,000 Volt wire is safe, if you don't touch anything else right then.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 21:43

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