… though truths are only significant for someone or some society, they may, nonetheless be truths.
… We hardly want to limit science to the investigation of things that don’t matter much to us one way or the other. The application of assumptions appropriate only to things that don’t matter to those that do is potentially a disastrous one.
This is from Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology by John Dupré (2012). This first is from the chapter ‘What’s the Fuss about Social Constructivism?’:
… Nature doesn’t determine what science we produce, because there are indefinitely many sets of truths we could articulate about nature. Which we choose to articulate will depend on the interests of a particular investigating community. We want, as Philip Kitcher has recently put it, to distinguish the significant truths. And though truths are only significant for someone or some society, they may, nonetheless be truths.
… Those most strongly opposed to constructivism are those who believe that interactions with nature completely determine scientific belief and, in connection with proper scientific methodology, determine true beliefs about the world. Of course there is a good deal of nuance possible to such views. No one supposes that all beliefs about nature ever held by honest scientists are true; it is acknowledged that science may be very difficult, and take many attempts. And it is generally acknowledged that there are, in principle, indefinitely many true facts about the world, so some account is needed of the process by which a finite set of these is selected as being worth including in the corpus of science. However, such optimists will at least assume that science approaches the truth, and they are likely to believe that in some areas it has even reached the truth. They will also want to explain failures to achieve truth in terms of some kind of failure of scientific method — perhaps failure unavoidable at that point in history, perhaps excusable in many other ways, but nevertheless in some way a deviation from the ideal interaction with nature that will, in the end, lead to the true story of how things are. Thus one concrete issue that tends to divide constructivists from their critics is the universality of scientific knowledge. If nature will eventually tell us the true story, then all sufficiently diligent enquirers should converge on the same story. If knowledge involves also something that we contribute, then different communities of enquirers may contribute different things, and come out with different knowledge.
As examples, Dupré uses two examples: systems of classification, and genetics/genomics. I’m giving a bit from the conclusion of the former:
… nature appears to have underdetermined the taxonomy of her products, an outcome that is easy to understand when one reflects on the process, evolution, that we take to have generated those products. However, it is important to stress that the claim is not that there are no natural divisions to be found between kinds or organisms. Rather, there are too many. We have to choose which to focus on, and such choice will inevitably and appropriately be constrained by the theoretical ends that our taxonomies are designed to serve. In this respect the situation is parallel to the social case. There are countless divisions we could emphasize between humans, and many have actually been emphasized. Which are emphasized, investigated, and perhaps thereby deepened, will depend on our interests and goals. These interests drive the production — or construction — of the great range of biological categories we distinguish and in turn make possible the various kinds of knowledge that different groups of us develop about the biological world. This range of categories, however, represents only an infinitesimal fraction of the distinctions that could, in principle, be made.
… The greatest danger of social constructivism, perhaps, is one that is shares with most sweeping isms about science, that it should harden into a general and restrictive set of claims about science in general. As I have argued extensively elsewhere, I can see no reason to suppose there is any true such set of claims. Science is an extraordinarily diverse set of activities. The ways these activities are shaped by social forces are diverse, and the plausibility of adopting a realist attitude to the claims made within these activities is highly variable.
This next is from the book’s subsequent chapter, ‘The Inseparability of Science and Values’:
… Many terms of ordinary language are both descriptive and evaluative. The reason is obvious. Evaluative language expresses our interests which, unsurprisingly, are things we are interested in expressing. When we describe things it is often, perhaps usually, in terms that relate to the relevance of things for satisfying our interests. Sometimes we try to lay down rather precise criteria for applying interest-relative terminology to things. These range from the relatively banal — the standards that must be met to count as a class I potato, for instance — to the much more portentious – the standards that an act must meet to count as a murder. In such cases we might be tempted to say that the precision of the criteria converts an evaluative term to a descriptive one. It is important to notice, however, that the precision is given point by the interest in evaluation. The same is often the case for operationalized terms in science. More often in everyday life, the terms are a much more indeterminate mix of the evaluative and the descriptive: crisp, soggy; fresh, stale or rotten; vivacious, lethargic, idle, stupid, or intelligent; or, recalling J.L. Austin’s memorable proposal for revitalizing aesthetics, dainty or dumpy.
This, I think, is the language that we use to talk about the things that matter to us.
… What I want to say about physics is that if most or all of physics is value-free, it is not because physics is science, but because most of physics simply doesn’t matter to us. Whether electrons have a positive or a negative charge, or whether there is a black hole in the middle of our galaxy are questions of absolutely no immediate importance to us. The only human interest they touch (and these they may indeed touch deeply) are cognitive ones, and so the only values that they implicate are cognitive values. The statement, ‘Electrons have negative charge,’ is thus value-free in a quite banal sense: it has no bearing on anything we care about.
I said that these were matters of no immediate importance, and the word ‘immediate’ is crucial. It is often pointed out that physics also tells us how to build nuclear power stations or hydrogen bombs. Here, we are, to say the least, in the realm of values. There is no unique nuclear power station that physics tells us how to build, nor could there be a general theory that applied to the building of any possible power station. Physics assists us in building particular kinds of power stations, and particular kinds of power stations are more or less safe, efficient, ugly, and so on. I doubt whether anyone could seriously suppose that there was a value-free theory of nuclear power station building, let alone hydrogen bomb construction. The argument that physics is value-laden beyond the merely cognitive values mentioned in the last paragraph seems most plausibly to depend on some such claim as that physics really is, contrary to appearances or propaganda, the science of bomb-building. Examinations of the extent to which physics is a project funded by the military lends some credibility to such a view, but it is not one on which I shall offer any judgment. My point here is just that the value-freedom of physics, if such there be, has no tendency to show that science is in general value-free.
As further examples to support his claims, Dupré looks at sociobiology and economics. I quote only from the former:
… sociobiologists often begin their investigation of rape with observations of flies and ducks. If we have a good understanding of why sexually frustrated mallards leap out from behind bushes and have their way with unwilling, happily partnered passing ducks, then the essential nature of rape is revealed, and we can start applying these insights to humans. And of course one thing that this blatantly ignores is the fact that human rape (and I doubt whether there is any other kind) is about as thoroughly normative a concept as one could possibly find. Someone who supposed they were investigating the causes of rape but, since they were good scientists, were doing so with no preconceptions as to whether it was a good or a bad thing, is deeply confused: they lack a grasp of what it is that they are purporting to investigate.
… The point of this is not to argue that there is no place for science in relation to such a topic. On the contrary, there are quantitative and qualitative sociological questions, psychological questions, criminological questions, and no doubt others, that are of obvious importance. The point is just that if one supposes one is investigating a natural kind with a timeless essence, an essence that may be discovered in ducks and flies as much as in humans, one is unlikely to come up with any meaningful results. Though this is an extreme example, in that the value-ladenness in this case is so obvious that only the most extreme scientism can conceal it, I think it is atypical only in that obviousness. As I argued in the opening section of this chapter, fact and value are typically inextricably linked in the matters that concern us. And we are most often concerned with matters that concern us.
… For large tracts of language, centrally the language we use to describe ourselves and our societies, the factual and the normative are thoroughly interconnected. Where matters of importance to our lives are at stake, the language we use has more or less profound consequences and our evaluation of those consequences is deeply embedded in the construction of our concepts. The fundamental distinction at work here, is that between what matters to us and what doesn’t. There are plenty of more or less wholly value-free statements, but they achieve that status by restricting themselves to things that are of merely academic interest to us. This is one reason why physics has been a sometimes disastrous model for the rest of science. We hardly want to limit science to the investigation of things that don’t matter much to us one way or the other. The application of assumptions appropriate only to things that don’t matter to those that do is potentially a disastrous one.