Interaction of scientific values

Eline van Bloois

24 July, 2021

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Recent years have witnessed an emerging consensus that science is not – and cannot be – completely free of values. Which values may legitimately influence science, and in which ways, is currently a topic of heated debate in philosophy of science. These discussions have immediate relevance for science teaching: if the value-free ideal of science is misguided, science students should abandon it too and learn to reflect on the relation between science and values – only then can they become responsible academics and citizens. I investigate ways in which reflection on science and values can be incorporated in science education. In particular, I try to show how recent philosophical insights about science and values can be used in courses for students in Health Sciences and in debates in the context of Big Data.

An example of the interaction between science and values concerns the way a choice between biomedical approaches and clinical trials is made. Assuming that there is money available for only one type of research project, then what are the reasons a scientific committee can have for choosing for one proposal over another. How do they choose between a proposal that focuses on the underlying mechanisms of a bodily disorder (biomedical approach) and a trial to determine the effect of a medicine to recover the patients suffering from the same disorder (clinical trial)? Students easily understand that values – such as explanatory success, applicability, reliability and scope on the one hand, and social relevance and financial feasibility on the other – are necessary to make a choice between these two research proposals. A more difficult, and more interesting, question is why certain values prevail over others.

The same holds for the influence of values on Science in the application of scientific research. If medical research regarding a potentially dangerous influenza virus results in the development of an effective therapy, the answer to the questions whether and, if so, how this therapy can be applied, depends on the values involved. Values such as generality (the expected scope of the therapy), safety (the degree of the health risks), individual freedom (should the therapy be prescribed compulsory?) and financial conditions determine the answer to these questions. It is clear that these answers, among others, depend on the political views (and ideological sources) of the government.

Students may be very apt to discuss these questions, and these discussions could indeed be helpful to better understand the interaction of Science and values. However, in my courses it is even more important and interesting to reflect on the influence of values in the 'heart' of scientific practices: what role do values play when a hypothesis or theory is tested?

Dr. Edwin Koster
University: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Department: Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities
Courses: Philosophy of Education, Philosophy and Ethics
Favourite beer: I like to drink 'una clara' - a fresh draft beer mixed with lemon juice - that reminds me of the time I lived in Madrid and enjoyed it immensely ...

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If you want to know more about Edwin Kosters research, you can find his most recent publications

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