The P-Value Podcast

Is good science value-free?

September 30, 2022 Rachael Brown Season 1 Episode 6
Is good science value-free?
The P-Value Podcast
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The P-Value Podcast
Is good science value-free?
Sep 30, 2022 Season 1 Episode 6
Rachael Brown

In the late 1990s a urologist based at the university of Melbourne, Helen O’Connell, studying women’s sexuality showed that much of the orthodoxy regarding female genital anatomy was grossly inaccurate. Carrying out her own study of the sexual anatomy of female cadavers O’Connell discovered that the degree of erectile tissue present in females had been significantly underestimated. The accepted maps of the musculature of the blood vessels and clitoris failed to reflect the typical anatomy in her study subjects. Indeed, parts of the clitoris appeared to have been entirely ignored or not deemed to be part of it at all. Well might you ask How could this be? How could it be that up until just 30 years ago we had such a confused understanding of such an important part of the female body? What had gone wrong? 


Unsurprisingly, perhaps this case is a prime example of the ways that the social and moral values of society can negatively influence science. The failure of earlier anatomists to accurately characterise the female anatomy was the product of a variety of intersecting factors. First, whilst Helen O’Connell took care to make sure she was looking at healthy young female anatomy in her studies, earlier atomists had not. They had predominantly examined the cadavers of elderly women as their bodies were more likely to be suitable and available for study at the time. As such their characterisations were based on the anatomy of post-menopausal females whose genitals were not typical of younger women. To quote O’Connell “one of our cadavers was 36 years old, she looked like an amazon”. You might ask why this had not been noted before the mid-90s which brings me to the second reason for this situation. Many anatomy textbooks hark back to old data from the Victorian era when prudishness about the female anatomy was common and sexist assumptions about the function of female sex such as “women don’t like sex” and “sex is purely functional for women” were orthodoxy. The idea that women would have considerable sexual tissue was not given a lot of credence and such it was not questioned when what anatomists found was what they expected. Furthermore, most anatomists and doctors at the time were male, rather than female so had relatively little personal experience or motivation to carry out more extensive study. This sort of sexism in the study and understanding of female sexuality also extended the female orgasm. As famously argued by American historian and philosopher of biology Lisa Lloyd, there is good evidence that orgasms in both males and females are produced by homologous tissue, but theories of the female orgasm have tended to focus on its function rather than its pleasurable aspects whilst in men pleasure has been the focus.


These are prime examples of what is typically called scientific bias. Where the cultural preconceptions of the scientist or a group of scientists influence scientific practice and findings. The history of science is full of such examples in some cases with egregious outcomes for the health of minority communities, the environment and so on. In recent times, for example, the role of sexism in biasing our knowledge of female pathology has been associated with adverse outcomes for a variety of diseases ranging from heart attack to polycystic ovary syndrome. T


The case of female sexuality highlights the really negative influence that social and moral values can have on scientific progress and the ways that this can have significant knock on effects in public policy. Whilst we would hope that we would not fall foul of similar bias today, it should make us ask what other values and ideas are influencing science today? How else is the scientific process being subverted by our preconceptions?


Hello. I am your host, Dr. Rachael Brown and this is the P-Value.

When we look to Helen O’Connell and Lisa Lloyd’s groundbreaking work on female sexuality we see the insidious roll that bias can play in science. It seems reasonable to conclude from such cases, that values just have no place in science. Clearly, at least in the sexuality case, values had a stymying effect on scientific progress and negative social repercussions.

This diagnosis of the situation fits with our common-sense view that good science is objective or free of values. Good science or so it seems involves a sort of organised skepticism or a value-free ideal which requires the scientist to set aside their values and preconceived ideas about what is and is not true. This sort of skepticism goes all the way back to the early scientists and key enlightenment philosophers like Bacon and Descartes. 


But is all good science objective or value-free? Can values sit comfortably with science? 


In the next two episodes I will be pushing back on the common idea that our best science is objective or value-free, and hopefully convince you that not only are we unable to really get away from values but that they are not necessarily a bad thing to take into account in our scientific practice. 


Before we get started it’s important to be clear what we mean when we say objective or value-free here and the simplest entry into the concept is by contrasting values with facts. Facts or factive claims concern the way the world is. For example the statement “the earth is a sphere rotating around the sun” is a factive claim, similarly “the nucleus of a cell contains DNA”. Such statements can, of course, be more or less fitting with the way the world is, but nonetheless they concern matters of fact which we take to be mind-independent and objective. They are claims which will be true or false regardless of perspective and the typical domain of scientific enquiry. 

Values or evaluative claims, in contrast, are about what is right or wrong or good or bad. They are about normative moral or social concerns. For example, the statements “killing innocent babies is wrong” or “it is good to give money to the poor” or “sexism is bad” all concern values. These sorts of claims appear far more subjective and relative to perspective and it is not clear what in terms of evidence could be used to easily prove them true or false. 

When we look to the history of science, we see a great deal of emphasis on the importance of setting aside one’s value judgements or pre-conceived ideas when undertaking scientific study. This is cashed out in a number of different ways with science being described as “value-free” or “Value neutral” or ideal science as being disinterested and objective. Importantly, for our purposes, the key idea is that, good science is science undertaken driven by factual and unbiased concerns, rather than the values or ideas of the scientist about what is right, wrong, good or bad. Various measures, such as the use of scientific controls and blind studies, are intended to help ensure this is the case. 


But can we really avoid values so easily? Is good science really value free?




Harvard philosopher of science, Helen Longino, argues that some types of value-laden judgements are actually intrinsic to good scientific practice. She calls the sorts of values in these contexts constitutive values. Constitutive values are those which relate to our scientific goals such as truth, accuracy, simplicity, predictability and breadth. According to Longino, it is not typically problematic for us to choose to adopt one scientific theory over another on the grounds of holding one of these values because they are motivated by the desire to generate true claims. Simplicity, for example, is often used to arbitrate between theories in physics, the least complex theory being the most likely to be true via a parsimony style reasoning. This says, longino is a situation where values is an intrinsic part of good science.


The troublesome values, according to Longino, are what she calls “contextual values”. These are the personal, social and cultural values of scientists or their preferences about what ought to be the case. It is when these contextual values influence our scientific practice and which scientific theories we adopt that things go wrong. In the case of the female orgasm, for example, it was sexist contextual values that resulted in the biased interpretation of data. 


Longino’s distinction points to a useful place for values in science which seems benign but there remains the question of the contextual values. Even if we accept her distinction, are contextual values always bad? How can we know when we are in the good or bad case once we let in values of any type? 



When I look at cases lie that of female sexual anatomy I am struck by how obvious it seems to us now that things had gone astray but I have to remind myself that this feeling is a red herring and not get too confident. Whilst we can see now that the anatomists of the 19th and 20th Century had missed out a very significant source of bias in their studies through their own preconceived prejudices, we can’t be sure we aren’t in such a situation ourselves now. Indeed, that the history of science is littered with cases of scientists being influenced by their social and moral values (and it is), suggests the very real possibility of us being in the bad case. 


John Dupre, a philosopher from Exeter in the UK, is skeptical that there is a clear line between “good” and “bad” cases in the first place. Those advocating the value-free ideal of science are, he says, assuming that it is possible for science to be purely concerned with fact.. I.e. science only deals in facts not values. Yet, even if we set aside the sort of constitutive facts that Longino points to, Dupre says avoiding contextual facts is impossible because many scientific claims involve inherent value claims in them from the get go. 


Dupre demonstrates this by examples. He begins with clear cases. There are some claims which are clearly factual such as “electrons have charge” and others, such as “torturing chidlren is bad” which are clearly evaluative or normativ. There are however, he says, many other claims which sit somewhere in between. For example “The united states is a violent country”. Evaluating this claim requires us to be able to measure if a country is violent and it is not clear that there some fact of the matter there but rather a value judgement at play. In this sense the statement “the united states is a violent country” is neither factive or evaluative but a mixture of the two. Whether or not it is a true claim depends on how we define violent and that depends on our values. 


Dupre doesn’t see the US example to be an outlier. Rather, he says, this is the norm. Whilst in some very technical fields, most notably physics, we typically use purely factive language in our science; in most other fields, particularly biology we use evaluative language (or at least language with some evaluative content) all the time. The only reason that we even think that there is such as possibility as value-free science says Dupre is that we have focused on physics as our paradigm of “good science” when it is the outlier/the strange case. 

If Dupre is right, are we then just at the mercy of values? Can you think of examples of his different types of claims? 



Given what both Longino and Dupre say, perhaps the real issue is not whether science can be free of value but how values should influence science. We have at least one clear case on the table where things have gone wrong in female sexuality. Perhaps that can tell us something?


Again, Longino offers some useful analysis here. We can, she says, think of two ways social and moral values influence science. First, they can influence the autonomy of scientists to study what they want to study. For example leading anatomists to prioritise studying the male sexual anatomy rather than the female sexual anatomy. Whilst this is unfortunate and can lead to injustices of various sorts, this type of influence of values on the autonomy of science does not in of itself lead to falsehoods (or so Longino proposes).


A second sort of less benign influence, she says, concerns the influence of values on the integrity of science—the internal practice of observation, experiment, theory construction and inference. It is here Longino says that the real problem arises for values. Again, looking back to the Victorian anatomists, that they didn’t entertain the possibility that they were getting biased information due to elderly cadavers is an example of values influencing the integrity of science. Their preconceived ideas inappropriately influenced the outcome of their research and lead to the acceptance of a false theory. Whilst, as noted there has been injustice resulting from the failure to study female anatomy, that in of itself doesn’t mean that we had bad science. What makes the case of the female anatomy bad science concern the ways in which sexist social values impinged on the integrity of the scientific practice. What do you think, has Longino got the diagnosis right?



When the institution we know now as science was being formed in the early 17th Century, Francis Bacon identified four idols that he believed diverted scientific enquiry from its proper ideals

1. Idols of the tribe: Group preconceptions that lead people to see things in old ways. 

2. Idols of the cave: Individual weakness and biases the distort experience. 

3. Idols of the marketplace: Result from failures to use language carefully. 

4. Idols of the theatre: Manifest when people have too much respect for received philosophical systems and mistaken methods. 


These Baconian ideals are reflected in our focus on the importance of objectivity and the integrity of science today. Our discussion raises the question of how achievable these ideals really are and whether that really matters. You might be thinking what is important is not to eliminate values but to avoid the bad kind as best we can?


In the next podcast, I’ll argue that this is a mistake and we must embrace values to truly do good science.