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Science: Value-neutral or Value-laden - Article

يكشنبه, ۲۷ تیر ۱۳۹۵، ۰۴:۱۸ ب.ظ


It is being said that values should have nothing to do with scientific outcomes because science is about objective truth, not what we want to be true; and ‘cognitive science’ is no different. In this essay, I will challenge this notion and will argue that scientific practices are not value-neutral, but they are value-laden. It means that scientific research and outcomes are not just about objective truth. Also, they are not only ‘cognitive values’ that should be considered in practicing science, but ‘moral values’ also have to be taken into account. Cognitive science is not an exception to the range of the implications of these notions.

The key terms I will discuss are ‘value-neutrality of science’ and ‘value-ladenness of science.' Value-neutrality in science means that scientist has to keep her biases and emotions while dealing with scientific research, matter, and situation. Furthermore, scientific researches and outcomes do not imply any particular implications and are not a matter of value judgment because they are merely means to goals. On the other hand, value-ladenness of science says that scientists have not and cannot keep their biases and emotions while dealing with scientific research, matters, and situations. Also, scientists should not be indifferent regarding the implications and usage of the outcomes of their researches. This essay will provide three main arguments in defence of value-ladenness of science. Each of these arguments will follow with some objections and then some answers to these objections will be provided. 


Historically, this debate has changed its focus over the previous few decades. In the first half of the twentieth century, science was put to a higher place than the cultural differences. Later, in the second half the twentieth century, two contexts for science defined: the context of discovery and the context of justification. Then the concept of value-free science preserved for the context of justification in which evidence and reasons have to be used. However, even in this context science cannot be value-neutral. However, some philosophers proposed that in addition to evidence and logic some epistemic directions and guidance are required for scientists to choose between researches and theories, and they name this guidance as ‘epistemic values’ or ‘cognitive values.' Some believed that these ‘cognitive values’ should be the only values that scientists have to adhere while conducting ‘internal stages’ of scientific research. However, for ‘external stages’ of scientific practices - including selecting researches, choosing methodologies, and use of human and animal subjects - non-cognitive values have to be considered as well. Therefore, the ideal of value-neutral science refers to the internal stages of scientific conducts (Douglas, 2000).

Therefore, the ideal science is presumed to be value-free or value-neutral. The value in this context specifically refers to ‘moral values’ not ‘cognitive values’. In other words, science has to adhere to cognitive values but not to the moral values. The so-called ideal science has two main features. First, it is being stated that science does not take into account any value judgement or non-cognitive values; and if any research becomes engaged in such value judgments, it will be an example of bad science. Second, science merely provides means to predefined or will-be-defined goals, or it can show if the goal is achievable or not. This picture of science has taken as the descriptive image while it does not comply with what scientists do day to day. In all research areas, including cognitive sciences, scientists do make value judgments, so the ideal image of value-neutral science is more prescriptive than a descriptive one. However, the concept of value-neutral science is not possible to be applied to all aspects of science, and it has raised some objections. On the other side, some arguments have been provided to defend the concept of value-ladenness of science. Here three of them will be provided, and some of the objections that have been raised will be answered.

Argument 1

Science has value-ladenness by participates, directly and indirectly, in society and centre of powers by providing scientific outcomes and technologies (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010) Scientific research requires an investment of money and time, and the allocated funds usually are to find out an answer or solutions to particular and pre-defined question and issue. Also, scientific research often is chosen with a very close eye on the possible use of their outcomes and results. Therefore, receiving funds and practicing scientific research are not value-neutral activities (Stevenson and Byerly, 2000). Therefore, it may be true that science directly does not set goals, but by approving and accepting researches and projects scientists tacitly do agree with the goals by providing means to them. Such decisions should not be considered as ‘external’ to science as accepting the funds takes the research to provide its result for the funder. For example, an agency may provide the fund of research on the relation of ethnicity and cognitive abilities in humans. Moreover, that agency favours supports by government or state funding who back racism and ethnic group differences. In this case, accepting the fund and showing that ethnicity and the genetic endowment has a close relation with humans’ cognitive capabilities, even if the research results be ‘inapplicable’ at this stage, is implicitly in favour of that government or that racists view (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010).

In response to the above claim and argument, it has been objected that science does not provide goals and cannot imply its implications, but it only is a mean to achieve the goals, or to show that the goals are unrealisable. Therefore, science qua science has not to evaluate, either socially or morally, the goals and the implications of their practices (Weber, 1992). In response, it can be said that the objection assumes that science is merely some sets of theories. However, science is a social practice; therefore, it indirectly (if not directly) affects goals by accepting the funds and resources. This process of resourcing and receiving funds is not something that can be abandoned from the whole picture of how science works in society. 

Argument 2

Scientific research, results, and outcomes can be used to evaluate and support political views, social norms, and some particular form of life. In other words, science is capable of changing our understanding and therefore our fundamental values and form of life (Longino, 1990). Scientific facts and findings also can be used to back and justify politicians’ decisions and policies. These scientific facts also may be used to shape social norms and to play the role of social standards for evaluating forms of life. For example, a widely accepted social norm is ‘social equality.' One of the implications of social equality is equality in providing learning opportunities across the various social groups and genders. In this case, if a scientific research shows that there are significant differences in the ability to learn between genders, or between different social groups based on their ethnicity, then it will undermine the social value of ‘equality between the sexes’ or ‘equality between ethnic groups’ (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010).

One objection to this argument is that science may raise some social and moral debates, but it is mere because of accepting and applying the finding and results of scientific research in people’s life. However, this objection dismisses that science is considered as one of the most powerful epistemic authorities in society. Just a century ago the role of science in shaping social decisions was insignificant, but today’s science plays a significant role in experts’ decision making. It means that if there is any conflict between our so-far believed and respected values and scientific results and findings, it is the former that comes to an end (Kitcher, 2001). Also, society and people’s form of life are not indifference to scientific findings and claims. Any new finding has its consequences on people’s belief, values, and decision-making processes. Therefore, as these kinds of effects are being justified by scientific discoveries, non-cognitive values have to be considered in conducting scientific researches (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010).

Argument 3

Science is about data gathering, data elaboration and evaluation, categorisation, and accepting or refuting hypotheses. Therefore, scientists have to decide when they have sufficient information and evidence to accept or reject a hypothesis. They also have to decide when it is a proper time to stop a research or conduct a new one (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010). As long as that the scientific research implies some actions and these actions are exposed to errors, scientists decisions are in need of moral evaluation of their consequences, in addition to cognitive judgment (Rudner, 1953).

It is objected to this argument that science by no mean is responsible for the implications and consequences of the knowledge it provides into society. What science can provide in this sense are merely warnings against probable consequences of any misuse or misinterpretation of scientific results. Science needs to conduct cognitive value judgments but not moral value judgments of what it is practicing because science is a mean not a goal (Glass, 1993). Furthermore, some philosophers have objected to this argument by proposing that the application of science, which is what may comply value judgment, is not the science itself but ‘technology.' It is ‘technology’ that intertwines and can affect/be affected to/by them, and scientific research is nothing more than a ‘truth-seeking’ practice.

In response, it can be said that it is not only the implication of science, here ‘technology,' which affects human life. However, as long as science changes our domain of knowledge and the way of our understanding of our surroundings can influence our worldviews, beliefs, values and life. Therefore, the consequences of science are not limited to technology. Furthermore, technologies which are based on scientific researchers increasingly are becoming goal-oriented and end-specific. It means that it is not easy to distinguish or separate the origins, the means, and the goals. Some technologies have a certain and definite purpose. For example, a bunker bomb or a missile with nuclear warhead have specific functions, and there is no way to use them in other ways that what they have been built for that. In other words, the scientist who conducts scientific research that directly will be utilised in making mass destructive weapons is responsible for it as there is no other use for such weapons except immoral activities (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010).

Also, the objection is an idealistic and prescriptive view of science, but the realistic and descriptive view nature and dynamics of science in the society show something else. Scientists actively participate not only in cognitive value-judgments but moral value judgments while they decide on the way the research have to be chosen, conducted, and revealed. In fact, researches nowadays are put directly in the context of their applications that shows the role of moral value judgment in science apparently (Lekka-Kowalik, 2010).


In contrary to what may come into mind at first, a value-laden science is not a deviation from the objectivity of science. What has been argued is that science requires to adhere to moral norms and values, and to be responsible for conducting scientific researches. It is also about the responsibility of science to consider the implications and usage of its findings. It means more considerations by scientists about value judgment and non-cognitive values regarding the impact of their researches are required. In other words, a scientist - as a scientist per se - cannot ignore the consequences of her scientific conducts for society.  The provided arguments do apply to all areas of science including cognitive science. More specifically, cognitive science, because of its engagement with human’s cognitive capabilities and direct impact on human’s form of life, education, and beliefs, should be more in attention in this regard. Understanding the role and the responsibility of science in a value-laded perspective requires believing in the strong presence of science in moral, social, and political decision-making processes; not as a standalone set of formulae.

Furthermore, considering non-cognitive values in the process of decision making for scientific conducts will shed light on the distinction between what are called ‘good science’ and ‘bad science.' Moral values will make this distinction clearer as they show probable risks in accepting and conducting any research. So taking value judgments into account makes the conducting of a good science easier. It also favours public authorities to observe and evaluate the scientific researches and their corresponding implications much easier. The other aspect that a value-laden science will help with is in correcting the widely accepting concept of ‘authoritative science.' It means by taking a value-ladened approach to science; it will no longer play the role of supreme authority which always can provide us with precise answers. However, its inherent nature of uncertainty can be acknowledged and by the means of value judgment, some agreement on scientific decisions can be achieved. In other words, putting aside the ideal of a value-neutral science provide us more transparency and clarity on discussions about what cannot be agreed on in the paradigm of value-neutral science.



Glass, B. (1993). The ethical basis of science. In R. E. Bulger, E. Heitman, & S. J. Reiser (Eds.), The ethical dimensions of the biological sciences (pp. 43–55). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, P. (2001). Science, truth and democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lekka-Kowalik, A. (2010). Why Science cannot be Value-Free.  Science and Engineering Ethics, 16 (1), 33-41.

Longino, H. (1990). Science as social knowledge. Values and objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press.

Rudner, R. (1953). The scientist qua scientist makes value judgement. Philosophy of Science, 20, 1–6.

Stevenson, L., & Byerly, H. (2000). The many faces of science. An introduction to scientists, values, and society. Boulder: Westview Press.

Weber, M. (1992). Value-judgments in social sciences. In R. Boyd, Ph. Gasper, & J. D. Trout (Eds.), The philosophy of science (pp. 719–731). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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