Saturday, 19 May 2018

Essay review Democratic values and their role in maximizing the objectivity of scienceObjectivity & diversity: Another logic of scientific research, Sandra Harding,

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A Volume 59, October 2016, Pages 121-124 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2015), pp. vii +217, Price US$25.00 paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24136-4 Author links open overlay panelManuelaFernández Pinto ManuelaFernández Pinto Universidad de los Andes, Colombia Get rights and content Previous article When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Socially concerned philosophers of science have argued for the importance of diversity in science. A diverse scientific community is not only desirable in terms of social justice—science after all should be open to talent regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or socioeconomic background—but is also taken to improve the process of knowledge production, to add epistemic value (see e.g., Fehr, 2011; Intemann, 2011; Longino, 2002). Diversity concerns also appear with respect to other social groups beyond the scientific community, groups which are directly affected by the results of scientific research and whose considerations scientists have traditionally ignored. Diversity in this sense is a democratic value or norm, one stating that each and every one (who's competent) has the right to participate in making decisions that affect them. Accordingly, if we want a more inclusive democratic society, one that takes into account the interests of all its citizens, then stakeholders ought to be included in the scientific decision making process as well. However, this democratic value of diversity seems to be in deep conflict with the traditional epistemic value or norm of objectivity, according to which the methodology of scientific research ought to maintain the evidence free from values, interests, or assumptions that the scientists might be bringing into the research process. In her new book Objectivity & diversity: Another logic of scientific research (2015), Sandra Harding aims to show that, despite their apparent conflict, the democratic norm of diversity and the epistemic norm of objectivity can be mutually supporting. That is, instead of understanding them as opposing each other, one can understand them as cooperating and providing resources for each other. The book addresses one of the main problems that socially concerned philosophers of science face today: How to reconcile social justice goals, such as inclusion, representation, diversity, etc., with the epistemic goals of scientific research, primarily the production of scientific knowledge. Or in other words, how to give up the value-free ideal, acknowledging that scientific research is permeated with social and political values, without thus having to compromise the epistemic appropriateness of science. Objectivity & diversity is hence Harding's latest contribution to the science and values debate, a topic that has significantly engaged philosophers of science for at least two decades (see e.g., Douglas, 2009; Kitcher, 2001; Kourany, 2010; Lacey, 2005; Longino, 2002; Solomon, 2001), and whose importance she has actively emphasized even earlier (Harding, 1986, 1991). Among feminist philosophers of science, Harding is mostly known for her contributions to standpoint theory and her own program of strong objectivity. Starting from the Marxist view according to which in a society with social inequality the prevailing knowledge system tends to represent the interests and values of the dominant group, standpoint theory argues that science is not value-free but instead is guided by the interests and values of the most privileged. In order to avoid the dogmatic influence of such values and interests in science, and thus maximize objectivity in this scenario, Harding has persistently claimed that researchers should “start research from outside the dominant conceptual frameworks—namely in the daily lives of the oppressed groups such as women” (p. 30). Similarly, Harding argues that the traditional standard of objectivity as value-free is too weak to identify shared assumptions in scientific research, e.g., the sexist, racist, or homophobic assumptions that remained hidden in scientific research for so long. She advocates instead a new standard of strong objectivity, which includes the self-examination of shared background assumptions within the scientific community (Harding, 1991, 149). The program of strong objectivity hence complements standpoint theory: Given that in unequal societies the dominant knowledge system represents the values of the dominant group, groups that have been traditionally marginalized are in a better epistemic position to identify the underlying shared assumptions that influence scientific research, thus contributing to maximizing objectivity. In Objectivity & diversity, Harding appeals again to the methodological advantages that she finds in standpoint theory and the strong objectivity approach, adding also the contributions of postcolonial studies and science and technology studies, to which she has dedicated most of her recent work (see e.g., Harding, 2008 and 2011), in order to weave the arguments for her mutual support claim. Moreover, she considers this claim as a point of departure from the traditional logic of rational reconstruction and towards a new logic for conducting scientific research. Harding provides six arguments for the claim that the democratic norm of diversity and the epistemic norm of objectivity can be mutually supporting. The first argument relies on standpoint theory and its strong objectivity program to show that homogenous scientific communities have proven incapable of identifying the shared social commitments that permeate their research, producing ignorance about the aspects of nature or society that do not interest them. They have nevertheless produced empirically reliable results, i.e., vaccines that work, planes that fly, etc. In this sense, it would be wrong to conclude that all research shaped by social values ought to be rejected. Science can be value-laden and still be reliable. In her second argument, Harding appeals to feminist and postcolonial studies, which, starting from the standpoint of women and poor people in the Global South, have shown that the development policies widely implemented soon after the Second World War as a strategy to counter poverty in the Third World, were largely misguided by shared social assumptions about women and poor people and thus became a huge failure by 1970. A crucial example in this respect was the androcentric model of labor central to development policies, which did not take into account most of women's labor as work (e.g., domestic and caring labor, sex work, and volunteer work), thus damaging women's chances of flourishing. Accordingly, Harding argues, “recognizing the value of women's different needs and desires—which are different for different groups of women—provides ways to improve the objectivity of mainstream development thinking. Maximization of objectivity and a full account of diversity can provide resources for each other” (p. 79). In a similar vein, Harding's third argument uses the case of indigenous knowledge systems to show that diversity and objectivity can be mutually supporting. Using the navigational system of Micronesians and the hunting practices of the Canadian Cree as examples, Harding argues that indigenous peoples have survived and flourish using reliable knowledge of their surrounding acquired through an extensive process of empirical trial and error, sometimes through millennia. In fact, Western science has made crucial progress thanks to the appropriation of pieces of indigenous knowledge systems (think for example about the development of pharmaceuticals). Thus, the reliability of research results is not damaged, and is even improved, by the local cultural values and interests of the indigenous groups, providing thus another example in favor of the mutual support claim. Another of Harding's compelling arguments stems from the recent research on the history of the philosophy of science. Following George Reisch's How the Cold War transformed philosophy of science (2005), she emphasizes that even philosophy of science has been shaped by its social and political environment. In particular, Reisch claims that the strong commitment to value-freedom as a standard of objectivity endorsed by philosophers of science in North America during the second part of the twentieth century is closely related to the harsh political climate that logical empiricists had to endure as immigrants in the US during the Cold War. Being most of them socialists, they had to redefine their philosophy as politically and socially neutral in order to fit in the antisocialist climate of the US. In this sense, not even the value-free ideal can be considered free of value commitments. The fifth argument of the book challenges the claim that religious beliefs are taken as damaging to science, whereas secularism is taken as positive for science. However, as Harding sharply points out, secularism is not independent from the religious beliefs it stems from. As non-Western scholars have pointed out, Western secularism appears rather Christian and even Protestant. Furthermore, this is coherent with the work of science studies scholars (e.g., Jasanoff, 2005; Daston and Galison, 2007), which highlights the moral dimensions of Western epistemology. In this sense, “secularism is always conceptualized within religious understandings of the world” (139). Thus, we find in Western science an example of how spiritual and religious beliefs do not necessarily damage, and even buttress, the reliability of scientific results. Here Harding touches on the rather controversial issue of how to deal with supporters of creationism or intelligent design. To start with, one should notice that Harding is not arguing that religious beliefs are always conducive to scientific knowledge, but rather that they can be in some cases. As with the other social, cultural, and political values, Harding is searching for the best values to fulfill the task of maximizing objectivity. Here however she takes a weaker stance. Instead of rejecting creationism or intelligent design as cases were religious values are not conducive to maximizing objectivity, as in the case of sexist or androcentric science, Harding claims that we must acknowledge instead the importance of evolutionary biology for current scientific research, and thus we can encourage its study without undermining the belief on particular creation narratives. I find her stance here a little puzzling, for creationism and intelligent design appear to give precisely the type of explanations that completely avoid the self-examination of background assumptions that Harding aims to prevent with the strong objectivity approach. Finally, Harding takes the alignment of the mutual support claim with the insights of the social studies of science and technology as one last argument in favor of her claim. In particular, the idea that the democratic norm of diversity and the epistemic norm of objectivity support each other stands in line with STS's core claim that science and society co-produce and co-constitute each other. In this sense, research in STS supporting the latter also serves as further support for the former. To conclude, Harding argues that the mutual support claim together with the new logic of scientific research that it encourages call for a new scientific self, one that is primarily dynamic, disunified, and ongoing: “My point here is that a “knowing community” is always dynamic, as its representative institutions and the citizens that animate them engage in critical debate, rethinking and revising scientific and technical agendas and their own roles in advancing them” (p. 173). The book thus aims to show that objectivity and diversity are not necessarily incompatible and, furthermore, that they can actually provide useful resources for each other. Many of the arguments of the book also open the door for what Harding calls a multiplicity of sciences. Contrary to the still popular unity of science thesis, according to which sciences can be unified into a coherent whole, Harding supports the idea that science is disunified and plural; a result that follows from her accounts of feminist philosophy of science, indigenous knowledge systems, and the reappraisal of the philosophy of the Vienna Circle. Here Harding is taking a stance on the current debate in philosophy of science regarding scientific pluralism. She contributes in an interesting way to the debate when she highlights that unity and disunity mean different things for Western scientists and from the perspective of postcolonial non-Western scholars. For the former, unity means the triumphalist and exceptionalist character of Western science as the only “real science”. For the latter, “unity means enforced assimilation to modern Western sciences and destruction of the resources and the rights of other cultures to design and manage their own ‘different’ knowledge systems” (p. 120). In this last sense, disunity would be the recognition that Western science is just one of many “culturally local” sciences. Although Harding's multiplicity of sciences thesis is compatible with scientific pluralism, it also differs significantly from the type of pluralism put forward by Kellert, Longino, and Waters (2006). According to these philosophers, a pluralist stance on scientific research amounts to not making any a priori assumptions regarding the possibility of obtaining a unified single scientific account of a particular phenomenon, i.e., not assuming a monist approach to scientific research. Rather, whether this unified explanation can be achieved or not, they claim, is an empirical question (2006, x). Harding, on the other hand, considers that leaving this as an open empirical question “fails to recognize that the unity and disunity of nature and of their theories about nature are discourses, not facts. And at this moment and place in history and social relations, the unity position discounts the value of a “world of sciences” to non-Western societies as well as to Western ones” (p. 121). In other words, Harding takes monism to be more than just an empirical thesis: Monism is a discursive tool that currently serves to perpetuate the value of Western science over all, and undermines the possibility of a multiplicity of sciences. To maintain the argument at the empirical level ignores the cultural power of the unity of science discourse, and further contributes to maintaining its hegemony. At this point, Harding is taking a strong stance on the character of scientific knowledge. As she has done before (Harding, 1986), she rejects a purely empiricist approach, given her commitment to standpoint theory and the assumptions that we do not all start from equal conditions in our quests for scientific knowledge. Instead, due to current social inequality, the dominant knowledge system, Western science, reflects the interests and values of the dominant group, Western society. With this starting framework, an empirical approach won't do the trick, since it is unable to identify the authoritarian or dogmatic character of some of our current approaches to knowledge, and instead assumes that everyone is playing on a leveled field. In other words, even if the empirical evidence hasn't yet settled the question between monism and pluralism, Harding suggests we have good sociocultural reasons to be pluralists (p. 122). I admire Harding's ability to see beyond the internal processes of scientific knowledge production, something which does not seem to concern Kellert et al. (2006), and to clearly state the broader epistemic problems that arise from a socially and culturally authoritarian scientific project. Here is where Harding's most interesting contributions have been all along. First as a feminist philosopher of science concerned with the dominant androcentric and sexist science (Harding, 1986, 1991) and now, following the contributions of postcolonial science studies, concerned with the dominant Western and Eurocentric science (Harding, 2015; but also 2008, 2011). This is a much needed and rarely seen analysis in the philosophy of science. Readers might be wondering how Harding deals with the “demon of relativism”, as she calls it, given her commitment to a multiplicity of sciences project. Indeed, the threat of relativism seems to appear in most of the book's arguments. If we want to give scientific credit to feminist science, indigenous knowledge systems, science guided by religious and spiritual values, etc., wouldn't anything soon count as a scientific endeavor? Harding's quick answer to the relativism question is a practical turn: “The demon of relativism doesn't get to take over such conversations if we keep in focus the fact that these diverse knowledge systems are practically useful for particular, always local, social projects … It is the practical answer if the way people select which knowledge strategy on which to rely that insures that relativism issues can't arise” (p. 103). Following Ian Hacking (1983), Harding sets as the basic criterion of scientific inquiry “the success of interventions in nature,” leaving aside the realist's concern with accurate representations of nature. If we focus on practical rather than representational success, Harding thinks we can avoid the philosopher's concern with relativism. Of course, this is a move that would leave many philosophers of science, especially realists, unsatisfied, but at the same time it's a perfectly consistent move given her overall project. Let me finish by highlighting a point that requires further clarification. Harding has shown us that objectivity and diversity are mutually supportive, and that in many cases, such as the ones she has carefully chosen for her argument, a democratic or social justice value, such as diversity, can contribute to maximizing objectivity. Diversity, however, can be interpreted at least in two different ways throughout the book. On the one hand, Harding's plea for diversity can be interpreted as a plea to acknowledge the value-ladenness of science and the multiplicity of values that have contributed to the production of scientific knowledge throughout the history of science, including Western values. For instance, she grants that scientific research guided by militaristic or corporate values produces reliable empirical results: “Their research produces guns that shoot accurately and seeds that tend to produce the crops they intended” (p. 151); and so does research conducted under the influence of Protestant values and interests: “So examples can be found in modern Western sciences of how even spiritual and religious experiences, beliefs, and interests need not damage the reliability of scientific research results” (p. 155). In these and other examples, Harding is pressing the reader to acknowledge that even what we consider to be the most reliable cases of scientific research are in fact value-laden and that therefore the traditional ideal of objectivity as value-free is pointless. In this sense, diversity and objectivity are not necessarily incompatible. On the other hand, the acceptance of a multiplicity of values and interests would surprise any scholar who is familiar with Harding's work and her standpoint methodology. As she argues, “in order to obtain more objective accounts of nature and social relations, researcher should start research from outside the dominant conceptual frameworks—namely in the daily lives of the oppressed groups such as women” (p. 30). The plea for diversity thus can also be interpreted, and perhaps better interpreted given Harding's philosophical commitments, as a plea for not only crediting those knowledge systems outside the dominant Western framework as scientific, granted they are “successful interventions in nature,” but also for recognizing that research guided according to the interests and values of those outside the dominant conceptual framework does a better job at maximizing objectivity. As she claims in the introduction of the book: “What is the diversity on which I focus here? As indicated above, one central concern is to include in scientific decision making the groups that heretofore have been excluded from participating in decision about research that has effect on their lives” (p. xi). So in these cases, it seems that Harding is interpreting diversity more narrowly as a democratic or social justice norm, encouraging research from the standpoint of the groups outside the dominant Western framework. In this sense, diversity is a resource for maximizing objectivity. So the question is: Which of the two interpretations of diversity previously described is used in her mutual support claim? Following the argument of the book, Harding has compellingly shown that diversity and objectivity can be mutually supportive in the sense that they have been mutually supportive in a series of examples in the history of science, including Western science and even philosophy of science. In other words, following the first interpretation of diversity, Harding has given us enough evidence to show that diversity and objectivity have been compatible. Now, it is not so clear that Harding give us enough evidence in the book to show that diversity, understood as starting research from the standpoint of all those outside the Western tradition, is a resource for maximizing objectivity. Of course, it can be a resource for maximizing objectivity, as she has clearly shown in the case of Western science appropriating parts of indigenous knowledge systems and thus producing more reliable scientific results, as in the case of many pharmaceuticals. But if Harding wants to defend the stronger claim that starting research from the standpoint of all those outside the mainstream is always or for the most part better for maximizing objectivity, then it seems that she needs further argumentation. Of course, the strong objectivity approach may grant that a position outside the dominant knowledge framework is better for scrutinizing the methods and background beliefs of the dominant knowledge system, but there are many possible positions outside the framework, and it is not clear that all of them have equal epistemic value. In particular, it is not clear why we should encourage all of them, following the democratic value of diversity, instead of picking some of them, perhaps the positions of the most marginalized or of the groups that are most in need, and even explicitly reject some others, perhaps the positions of extremist groups. To put it another way, the reader might keep wondering how exactly is it that diversity, or any other democratic or social justice value, is preferable or does a better job at maximizing objectivity than any other political, cultural, religious, economic, or social value. Harding claims that “The values and interests of antiauthoritarian, pro-democratic social movements appear to be promising candidates for research communities to call upon in order to increase the comprehensiveness and reliability of research results” (p. 37). Yet she does not give a direct argument in support of such values; such an argument would be worth clarifying in order to buttress the mutual support claim. The problem of deciding between competing sets of values for guiding scientific research has become a crucial point in the science and values debate. Once we accept that science is value-laden, the concern for objectivity becomes in part a question about which values would do a better job, epistemically. While some might argue that this remains an empirical question (Anderson, 2004; Longino, 2002), others have argued that we have good reasons to prefer democratic, anti-authoritarian, or egalitarian values (Harding, 2015; also Kourany, 2010). Much is still to be unpacked however regarding the epistemic advantages of democratic values, especially regarding the reasons these values ought to be preferred over others (the new perspective of feminist standpoint empiricism, might be a good starting point in this respect (Intemann, 2010; Rolin, 2016; Wylie, 2003)). For, as Harding acknowledges, research guided by a variety of others values (e.g., religious, corporate, military, etc.) provides perfectly reliable results. What is then the crucial epistemic advantage, the maximization of objectivity, that diversity allows over other values? This is the open question that remains not only for Harding's Objectivity & diversity, but for philosophers engaged in the science and values debate more broadly. Acknowledgments I would like to thank Sharon Crasnow, Kristina Rolin, and Richard Oosterhoff for their useful comments on earlier drafts. References Anderson, 2004 E. 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