One of the most important results in philosophy of science is that every observation is "theory-laden", i.e. that the outcome of any scientific experiment is affected by the theoretical presuppositions held by the investigator. Because of this, it is very difficult - maybe impossible - to draw the boundary between science and metaphysics. W.V Quine best described it at the conclusion of his 1951 paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism":

Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.

If we are to agree with this result, that any observation is theory laden, doesn't it follow that any observation is also value-laden as well?

One would assume that no matter how neutral an investigator tried to be, her theoretical presuppositions are informed by her values and the ethical system she operates within. It would become impossible not just to draw the boundary between science and metaphysics, but between science and axiology (the study of values and ethics) as well. The is/ought problem is turned on its head because no matter how hard one tries, they are always influenced by their "oughts".

My questions:

  • If all observations are theory laden, is it possible to still isolate these observations from the investigator's values and ethics?
  • Does the reverse hold? Since we can't separate science from values, does this mean that science does indeed inform our values and ethics? Does this make any ethical statement "science-laden", and it is legitimate to claim that our current best scientific theories predetermine which ethics systems we can subscribe to?
  • Do Quine's (and similar) results challenge Hume's is/ought distinction?
  • 1
    Related: Dewey, John: Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938) and what has been called Werturteilsstreit between Max Weber and Gustav von Schmoller in Germany, a dispute about the question if social sciences and economics should only build descriptive theories and let politics decide about normative questions or add normative judgements themselves and give qualified advice to politics. Weber had the idea of sciences free of values.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:08

1 Answer 1


I tend to interpret Quine's conclusion in terms of the readers' side of things: in order to interpret even the most basic, small facet of a scientific result, you need to impose a big background of theory. For an obvious example, take the report that the Higgs Boson has a mass of XXX +/- YYY GeV/c^2; huge amounts of background knowledge are required to even make sense of this one reported number. Even something as basic as "we measured the thickness to be ZZZ mm with calipers" implies a theory that the thickness of the whatever (as opposed to say, its surface roughness) is the salient factor in this context. Similar considerations affect the practitioners' reporting: they can't provide all of the background information so they need to assume (usually implicitly) that the reader will interpret their results in the light of a commonly held theory. This then pushes back into what practitioners actually do: if I can't sensibly communicate it within the theoretical constructs of my scientific community, then it's not worth doing (or if I do it, I'll end up being outside my scientific community).

Science has values. Not just that the people of the scientific community have values, but rather the enterprise of doing science imposes/requires a minimal set of values, i.e. things that are deemed "of value". These include things like: complete, transparent, and accurate reporting of findings; reproducibility of the processes used to derive the results; dispassionate reporting et al. When you interpret scientific results you can (or at least should be able to) assume that these results are being reported in accordance with these values. These are the values of science, as an ideal, and in my estimation/view the values that shape the actual practice of science as we know it. You can go down a rabbit hole of the hows/whys/wheres of deviations from these ideals do occur within science and/or when enough of them are violated we are no longer dealing with "True" (Scotsman) science etc. But for the purposes of this discussion, it makes sense to accept that science (or with more detail: sepcific communities with science) has some intrinsic/essential values.

That these core values of science affect how results are conveyed and interpreted is a more subtle point, and can be described in a way that makes this interaction less interesting than the theory-ladenness of science. In considering theory ladenness it is relatively easy to come up with counterfactuals: e.g. without special relativity, measuring masses in GeV/c^2 doesn't make sense. Trying to construct the same kind of counterfactuals where the essential values of science are violated leads to situations where you are not dealing with science. Public policy research institutes, which adhere to a different set of values, produce research papers that include specific objective facts, but are not doing science. As I currently understand it, some segments of the biomedical research community have stopped doing (or failed to do) science, since the cherry picking of positive outcomes amounts to incomplete reporting of their results. The point is these core values are, for some contexts, less interesting because they are just part of the background that comes into play when discussing science at all.

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