ISH Goes Extinct at the PSA

Joyce Havstad writes...

This past week, the Philosophy of Science Association (PSA) met for its biennial meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.  The conference ran from Wednesday, November 2 to Sunday, November 6, though talks didn't start until 9am on Thursday morning.  The very first set of talks that morning were all collections of presentations sponsored by related societies, and one such collection was dedicated to the philosophy of paleontology, featuring—you guessed it—your charming and dedicated regular contributors here at Extinct.

Our session was sponsored by the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB, generally shortened to ISH, but also known as ‘ishkabibble’, due to the extensive acronym).  Big thanks to both ISH and the PSA for supporting us here at Extinct.  Our session featured Adrian Currie as chairperson, with Derek Turner, Leonard Finkelman, and myself offering short talks of about 20 minutes each.  We called the session “ISH Goes Extinct at the PSA” (cue the groaning).

From left to right: the crew of Extinct just prior to the start of their PSA session; Leonard giving a talk that I couldn’t possibly do justice to here; the author of this post awkwardly posed in mid sentence.  (Thanks for the end photos, Adrian!)

My talk was titled “Paleontological Science and Values,” and I want to continue with that theme today—not least because Derek has already brought discussion of the relationship between science and values to Extinct, in a recent blog post of his own.  I’m not going to quibble with Derek’s analysis of the concept of stabilizing selection as a thick concept, though.  What I want to do instead is to query some of the initial framing that Derek employs, in order to get his discussion of the value-ladenness of stabilizing selection off the ground.

Let me start with a bit of historical work.  I think that probably we can trace the picture of science as value-free in a number of different ways.  If we’re focused on the shape of science as an institution that doesn’t really get going until sometime during what is commonly thought of as the (Western) Enlightenment period, then we might want to say that the value-free picture of science dates all the way back to Francis Bacon’s 1620 discussion of the method of science and what he argued was a necessary separation between science and the state, in his Novum Organum.  If, however, we’re focused on the value-free picture of science as something that emerges with meta-theoretical work on the normative structure of science by science studiers, then we might say that Max Weber’s 1904–1905 treatise on (social) scientific practice, entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is where it all starts.  We’d probably also want to mention Robert Merton’s influential 1938 follow-up Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England.

And if we’re in the philosophy of science business (as both Derek and I are), then it’s quite common to describe the logical positivists, circa the 1920s–30s and beyond, as painting a rather bold and brightly-colored value-free picture of science.  But I think that there is notable heterogeneity amongst the logical positivists on this issue—the issue of the relationship between science and values.  Though it’s true that some logical positivists endorsed a value-free picture of science (A. J. Ayer being the most common example here), others did not.  Rudolf Carnap, for instance, may have thought that a value-free science was ideal, but I think that he admitted that such an ideal was unattainable in actual scientific practice, which requires pragmatic value-laden commitments.  Other logical positivists who admitted to and engaged with the role of values in science include Philipp Frank, Carl Hempel, and Otto Neurath.  [For an introduction to this historical topic, I recommend chapter 3 of Heather Douglas’ Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (2009); for a dedicated treatment, George Reisch’s How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science (2005).]

Now, Derek starts his discussion of values in paleontology with three main points: (1) that “we philosophers like to draw a sharp distinction between descriptive and normative claims”; (2) that the logical positivists of the 1920s–30s are perhaps responsible for the value-free image of science; and (3) that most philosophers of science today don’t share that image.  I don’t see the historical stuff that I’ve been saying as in tension with Derek’s point 2; rather, I see it as adding some detail, which can be used to surround and complicate the original point.  What I primarily want to do in this post, though, is to call Derek’s point 3 into question—by challenging his point 1.

Here’s the thing about point 1, the point about philosophers liking a sharp distinction between descriptive and normative claims.  Although that might very well be true of most philosophers, I’m a philosopher, and I really don’t like this distinction.  I especially don’t think it’s a sharp one—not when it comes to scientific claims, anyway.  It’s not that I don’t understand the distinction: descriptive claims are supposed to be claims about how things are, and normative claims are supposed to be claims about how things ought to be.  Rather, it’s that I think that scientific claims are pretty obviously descriptive-normative hybrid claims; hence, there’s no sharp distinction, in this realm at least.

Consider the following claim: "The Earth is at the center of our Solar System."  That’s a descriptive claim, though it’s not a scientific one.  Here’s another claim: "The Earth is not at the center of our Solar System."  Again, that’s a descriptive claim, but this time it is also scientific, because it’s supported by a whole host of carefully-made observations, theoretical justifications, and methodological commitments.  Scientific claims are not mere descriptions; they are empirically-supported, theoretically-explained, methodologically-justified descriptions.  To call a claim scientific is to say that this is a claim that science endorses.  To endorse something is to say something like “I believe this, and you should too.”  [Here I’m echoing Heather Douglas’ 2004 discussion of objectivity, also in her 2009 book (see page 119).  She says that to say a claim is objective is to say that “I trust this claim, and you should too.”  I think that to say a claim is scientific is to say something very similar.]

So, scientific claims are claims about the world (descriptive) that the practice of science says we have good reason to endorse (normative).  Here’s another way to make this point: when we say that something is a scientific claim, we are not merely describing the way that the world is.  Rather, we’re describing the way that science sees the world.  We’re saying that science sees the world in this way, and so, we should (probably) see it that way too.  That’s what we mean when we say that science is about facts.  Facts are a very special kind of description—they’re the supposedly correct descriptions.  And that notion of correctness is totally normative.

In sum, I think that scientific claims are a very special subset of descriptive claims concerned with purported matters of fact.  Normative claims are concerned with what might be termed ‘matters of ought’—how we ought to live, what we ought to do, how we ought to think, and what we ought to believe.  So again, a subset of these normative claims will be scientific ones; some of the normative claims about what we ought to believe will be scientific claims.  Claims such as: “Darwin was right about gradualism,” or “Darwin was wrong about the tempo of evolution.”  These are scientific claims with a normative dimension having to do with what Darwin ought or ought not to have thought, and what we ought or ought not to agree with, based on which description does or does not agree with what scientific observation, theory, and method imply.

Derek giving a lovely talk to a great audience at the 2016 PSA in Atlanta, Georgia.  I hope he one day forgives me for this blog post.

Ok, what’s the point of all this?  Well, certainly not to pick on Derek.  (Sorry, Derek!)  It’s just that, like I said, I really don’t like the idea that there is a sharp distinction between descriptive and normative claims, because scientific claims are a perfect example of claims that are both descriptive and normative, and because I think that our tendency to think of scientific claims as merely descriptive actually reveals that point 3—most philosophers of science don’t share a logical positivist value-free picture of science—is also incorrect.  I think that our tendency to maintain a sharp distinction between descriptive and normative claims actually indicates a corresponding tendency to maintain a (relatively) value-free picture of science.

Framing the discussion of the relationship between science and values as a discussion about the relationship between descriptive and normative claims supports the view that science stays generally within the domain of description whereas value is relegated to the domain of normativity.  This then generates a model for discussion whereby some particular scientific concepts (in Derek’s terms, the ‘thick’ ones) turn out to be value-laden, and unusually so.  This framework also underwrites a view of values (or again, in Derek’s terms, the 'human' ones) as restricted to the political and moral but not the aesthetic and epistemic realms.  In contrast, and to distill my argument here into a set of three alternative main points, I think that: (a) epistemic values are genuine, human values; (b) science is epistemically and thereby human-value-laden; and (c) the epistemic values borne by scientific claims have normative force, often via their implicit social content.

Obviously, I prefer a framework that treats epistemic considerations, among others, as proper values with attendant normative force.  I think that treating scientific claims as mere descriptions backgrounds all of the observational, theoretical, and methodological work that has been done to support the relevant claims.  This is precisely the work that supports the endorsement of the claim that implicitly goes with tagging it as scientific.  Tagging a claim as scientific is to acknowledge the value of all that observational, theoretical, and methodological work.  Scientific claims are value-laden.



Bacon, F. (1620), Novum Organum (various English translations available, out of copyright).

Douglas, H. E. (2004), “The Irreducible Complexity of Objectivity,” Synthese 138: 453–473.

Douglas, H. E. (2009), Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press).

Merton, R. K. (1938), “Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England,” Osiris 4: 360–632.

Reisch, G. A. (2005), How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Weber, M. (1904–1905), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in English in 1930, by Allen & Unwin).