Is Value Neutrality Possible?

Objectivity, also known as value neutrality or impartiality, is one of the highest ideals of science. The principle behind it is that science studies mind-independent reality, i.e., that which continues to exist even if no consciousness is there to perceive or think about it. This mind-independent reality is devoid of all values – there is no such thing as “good and bad” or “useful” or “beautiful” when it comes to, say, galaxy formation or evolution by natural selection. A major criticism of science levied by critical theory is that value neutrality is impossible, even if we are to take the assumption that mind-independent reality exists and that mind-independent reality is value neutral. As such, instead of blinding ourselves to the values and biases that are inextricable from science, we ought to import the “correct” values into science (e.g., feminist science).

That it is impossible for human individuals to be value neutral is probably uncontroversial. Picking out other people’s biases is so easy as to be nearly automatic. Except, of course, when it comes to ourselves. This is as true for the typical average person as it is for the most brilliant of scientists and philosophers. Michael Shermer has said that “Smart people are very good at rationalizing things they came to believe for non-smart reasons” (I also highly recommend Barbara Drescher’s three-part article on the irrationality of MENSA members: see part 1, part 2, and part 3). The point being, even intelligent people are not free of bias and importing values in their judgements.

Science as an institution, however, is purposely engineered so as to limit such biases. Or, at least, to correct for them in the long run. Because individuals are never free of bias, science (ideally) is supposed to be replicable and falsifiable, such that even a person with completely different values can replicate the experiment and determine whether the results actually hold or not. Through a constant process of replication, ideally any bias that may have been introduced by an individual scientist will be discovered and eliminated or corrected for.

This has not always been optimally employed in practice. The scientific method itself has had to be scrutinized and reexamined throughout the centuries, being tweaked and fine-tuned to remove baseless assumptions. This is where diversity can be a strength (diversity in the commonsense view, not capital-D Diversity in the Social Justice sense). Having multiple different viewpoints from people with multiple different backgrounds allows scientific research, and the philosophy of science, to be approached from multiple angles. Assumptions that might appear self-evident to some group of people might not have any well-founded basis. A good example of this is how in the past clinical trials was often done on only male subjects since female menstrual cycles were thought too add too many extraneous variables, thus relegating women to a sort of variation on a theme (i.e., men were the “default” person and women were just men with some other messiness piled on top). It was assumed that whatever worked for the male subjects would also work for the female subjects, since testing on male subjects was simply removing those extraneous variables of menstrual cycles. It was only when women began entering the fields of science and medicine did this baseless assumption (that men are the “default” human and women just a variation on that theme) get exposed for being erroneous (and even harmful). Thus, opening science up to more perspectives (of sex, gender, race, nationality, culture, political affiliation, etc.) helps with the self-correcting function of the scientific method.

Value neutrality, as I said, is impossible for an individual. But for science as an institution, it is an ideal to strive for. The benefit of diversity should not be to turn scientific research into a never-ending argument about the correct “episteme” or “standpoint” from which to approach it, but instead to uncover the ways in which science does not live up to its ideal of objectivity. Attempting to import the “correct” values into science faces even greater problems than constant vigilance against any such values. For instance: who gets to decide which values ought to be imported? By what criteria are we to determine what the “correct” or “good” values are? Can this be done without having the “wrong” or “bad” values polluting any decision as to what the “right” or “good” values consist of?

In other words, because science will never be perfectly free of personal biases and values does not mean it ought to be saddled with more baises and values imported by whatever political faction happens to be in charge. Discovering where biases and values are influencing science should be in the service of rooting them out in endeavoring to greater objectivity, not holding the uncovered values up against some politically correct set of values handed down by administrators, bureaucrats, and politicians.

There will of course be certain values both within and outside of science. That truth is important (i.e., has universal value above and beyond any parochial or idiosyncratic interests) is a value judgement that acts as a guiding star for science in general. Then there are value judgements about what research is important or useful, and therefore deserving of funding. This latter takes a certain precedence over the former insofar as funding isn’t based on what is “more truthful” (whatever that means) but what will be better for the progression and flourishing of human civilization (i.e., more funding goes toward treating ailments than, say, the life cycle of some obscure algae). Yet even here, the notion that the truth is important comes into play, since it is the case that science based on what is true will be more useful to humans than science polluted by various biases and values. For instance, medications based on rigorous scientific research are more effective than homeopathic remedies or crystals at treating symptoms and diseases.

In inquiries outside of, but adjacent to, science there are common values which the vast majority agree science should not be allowed to transgress. Widely accepted scientific ethics, such as informed consent, are important restraints put on science. Few people, if any, would desire to live in a world where science possesses untrammeled liberty to experiment on humans without their knowledge or consent. We would also not want such unfettered science to destroy the environment, either. This is in spite of the fact that, should science be so liberated, scientific progress could potentially accelerate at a much greater pace. In these cases, however, there is tangible harm being done to people and the environment.

In the case of removing, say, a white, male-centered bias in medical science, it is actually doing less harm (and more good) to eliminate such erroneous values. Put differently, biases and values ought to be minimized when doing so reduces harm and/or increases benefit. What maintaining an ideal of value neutrality does, aside from removing hindrances to finding the truth (i.e., such as if my values compel me to reach incorrect conclusions or ask the wrong questions), is make science more accessible to more people. If, for instance, we imported the values of Scientology into science, then the institution of science itself would be less accessible to most people who do not share those values. Striving for value neutrality should mean that if an old white man in the United States and a young transgender woman living in Tanzania both perform the same experiment, they can (ideally) compare their results on equal footing (i.e., neither one can appeal to their traits or identities to give their work greater legitimacy, they must only appeal to the experimental methodology and the acquired data).

I think the term values neutrality is fitting. Values, as discussed, will never be fully eliminated from science. But value neutrality says that no individual or group of people should be permitted to favor their own values or interests over that of any other. In other words, to the extent that values are inextricable from any human endeavor, science should permit only of values that are most universal and impartial to any particular set of values. There should be no barrier to entry on science based on individual or group characteristics. Appeals to one’s race, gender, culture, political affiliation, etc. should not be used in determining the merit of one’s methodology or data. To the extent that the ideal of values neutrality is not lived up to, this should be taken as impetus to discover in what ways personal biases and values are being introduced so as to eliminate them, not just trade them for some politically correct set of values.