Sunday, 1 June 2014

Are All Scientific Theories Inherently Political?



This is a critical commentary on Elizabeth S. Anderson’s paper, ‘Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and a defence’*. I focus on only a single - though important - part of that paper: her account of how “value judgments” and “background assumptions” impinge on (all) scientific theories. More specifically, I focus on Anderson’s account of how political and/or ideological value judgements and background assumptions do so. That supposition, I would suggest, is at the heart of her paper.

Scientific Theories and Value Judgments

There is indeed a “logical gap” between observation/data and theory. It doesn’t automatically follow that we need necessarily plug that gap with “value judgements”; as Elizabeth Anderson argues. I suppose it depends on what Anderson means by “value judgements”. Considering the rest of her paper, she doesn’t mean by value judgments those judgements as to what makes a theory simpler, more explanatory, more “powerful”, or more “empirically adequate” (or a mixture of all these); which most scientists and  philosophers of science accept as determinants of scientific theory. It's more likely, in this paper at least, that she's talking about ideological and political value-judgements. At least that’s the impression I get from her paper and the hints she gives within it. 

I would also need to know what Anderson means by “background assumptions”. In any case, those background assumptions would be - or would go alongside - the various value judgments; and those value judgments - or at least some of them (as I’ve just stated) - could very well be ideological and/or political in nature. There may be various background assumptions which will be “used to argue that a given observation constitutes evidence for a given hypothesis” (482); but need they be political and/or ideological in nature? 

Of course there'll be a problem with my question, at least according to certain political theorists. And that's the view that all background assumptions or value judgments can't help but be ideological and/or political in some - or in many - ways. Here the political theorist’s argument will be about the necessity of the scientific theorist’s ideological and/or political background assumptions. However, wouldn’t the political theorist’s belief (about scientific theorists or theories) be a case of arguing in a circle or begging the question if he already accepts the necessity of political and/or ideological background assumptions impinging on scientific theory-construction? If he already believes in that necessity, then isn’t he bound to find such ideological and/or political background assumptions/value-judgments? However, what if some scientific theorists are anti-political, apolitical or just ignorant of politics? Here again the political theorist will back himself up with the statement that “everyone is political” – even when that person (or scientific theorist) is non-political, apolitical or politically ignorant. That anti-political or apolitical scientific theorist must, say, simply accept the given ideologies and political realities of their milieu simply because they don't question them. Likewise, even the politically ignorant must be political and/or ideological in some kind of way – even if in a rudimentary kind of a way.

The other thing is that we'll need to know what kind of scientific observations Anderson is talking about. Is she talking about observing the effects of particle interactions in a bubble chamber or the effects of having a low income on a family? You can argue that political and/or ideological value judgements/background assumptions may affect the latter, but what about the former? Indeed in principle – even if only in principle – ideology and/or political background assumptions needn’t necessarily impinge on one’s scientific observations of a poor family either. What if we programmed a computer to do that observing? What if we used someone from a completely different culture or one who wasn't poor, rich, or particularly political? (Although, I said earlier, the political theorist will reject that latter possibility and probably the former ones too.)

I may not be being entirely fair to Anderson by my pitting bubble-chamber observations with the observations of the effects of a low income on the lifestyle of a family because Anderson provides her own (more likely) example of how politics and/or ideology can impinge on scientific research and indeed on scientific observation. She cites the example of evolutionary theory as well as work in genetics. Here too she finds copious examples of politics and/or ideology intruding on scientific theory. But this is evolutionary theory and genetics we're talking about: both of which clearly and obviously impinge on both the human and the social – as everyone knows. Despite that (and again): what about observing the effects of particle collisions in cloud-chamber? Does that also have political and/or ideological parallels with work in evolutionary theory and genetics?

So the problem noted earlier will arise here too: which kind of observations is Anderson talking about? Is she talking about all scientific observations and all scientific theories? Specifically, she says that “it is not unreasonable to use any of one’s firm beliefs, including beliefs about values, to reason from an observation to a theory” (482). What kind of observations is she talking about there? Is she talking about all scientific observations?

Because the phrase “value judgment” is so vague it's initially unobjectionable for Anderson to state that theories which “incorporate value judgements can be scientifically sound as long as they are empirically adequate” (482). But there is also a problem here too. Is it also a question of these value judgements when it comes to deciding what actually makes a theory “empirically adequate” in the first place? (Now does that work for or against Anderson’s stress on value judgments in science and epistemology?) If data and/or observations underdetermine theory (as the theory has it), then the fact that a theory is empirically adequate may not amount to much if hiding in the bushes behind that empirical adequacy are not only value judgments/background assumptions, but also political and/or ideological value judgments/background assumptions. If that’s the case, then, surely, empirical adequacy may not amount to much (if indeed there is such a thing). 

Many philosophers of science have argued that empirical adequacy is easy (i.e.,  because data and/or observations always underdetermine theory). If that’s true, then perhaps background assumptions/value judgments really do take on an importance which we otherwise didn’t expect. Perhaps empirical adequacy weighs less on the scales than the prior value judgments/background assumptions which are made and which then impinge on that empirical adequacy (or on what we take to be empirically adequate).

The Epistemic Evaluation of Scientific Theories


Anderson says that the logical gap between “the epistemic evaluation of theories cannot be sharply separated from the interests their applications serve” (480). Yes they can… surely? Normatively it may be wrong to do so. (That too would depend on one’s normative stance on these issues.) Again, this would - or could - be more the case of a normative judgement or epistemic evaluation being applied - by the feminist epistemologist - to the otherwise neutral or apolitical epistemic evaluations of scientific theories. What's being said by Anderson is normative in itself. It’s not a case of saying that scientific theorists indulge in epistemic evaluations which are sometimes (always?) political and/or ideological. It’s more a case that Anderson believes that they should indulge in such evaluations. That is, a scientific theorist can, or does, separate his theory - and even his epistemic evaluations - form “the interests their applications serve”. Anderson - or the feminist epistemologist - is saying he shouldn’t do so.
This, then, ends up being less of a project in discovering the value judgements or background assumptions - specifically political and/or ideological ones - involved in scientific theory-construction, and more a case of the feminist epistemologist saying that the scientific theorist should have a political and/or ideological attitude towards the political applications of his theories. Not only that. The scientific theorist should have the politically/ideologically acceptable (not the true, correct or empirically adequate) attitudes towards the applications of his scientific theories. Similarly, this must also mean that this is also all about scientific theorists having the wrong kind of political and/or ideological background assumptions and making the wrong kind of value judgments; not just a case of them simply having background assumptions and making value judgements. 

We have crossed over another and wider logical gap: the gap between scientific theory and the outright political and/or ideological assessments of - or normative judgements upon - those scientific theories.

This account must be correct because Anderson herself says that it is (at least indirectly). She says that feminist naturalised epistemology “rejects the positivist view that the epistemic merits of theories can be assessed independently of their ideological applications” (480). However, to be fair, it could be that Anderson is simply quoting or characterising Longino’s view here as she brackets Longino’s name after that passage (which isn't in quotes). Despite saying that, the rest of her paper does suggest to that she does indeed endorse Longino’s position.

Here again it’s not the case of Anderson - or any other feminist epistemologist - discovering the scientific theorist’s political and/or ideological positions which impinge on his accounts of the “the epistemic merits” of his theories. It’s more a case of Anderson saying that ideological and/or political considerations should impinge on his accounts of the epistemic merits of his theories. Not only that. It should be the correct ideological and/or political considerations which do so.

We've moved from discovering - or simply acknowledging - the role and importance of ideology and/or politics in the construction of scientific theories; to the view that scientific theorists should be fully ideologically and/or politically aware all the way through the process of scientific theory-construction. To be more specific, the scientific theorist should always keep his eye firmly fixed on all possible future “political applications” of his theories.

The Political Applications of Theories


i) Firstly Anderson stressed the “logical gap” between observations/data and the theories which arise from them.
ii) Secondly she noted the logical gap between the “epistemic evaluation of theories” and “the interests their applications serve” (480).ii) Finally Anderson also noted the logical gap between scientific theories and their political applications (which is obviously related to ii)).

Just as Anderson discerns the possible ideological and/or political content of scientific theories which aren't - to many others or the scientific theorists themselves - apparently ideological or political at all; so now she also tackles the political and/or ideological use of scientific theories. 

Specifically she says that “a theory is [can be] used to support unpopular political programmes” (479). We would of course need to be clear what it means to use a theory let alone what is means to use a theory to “support unpopular political programmes”. Nonetheless, Anderson does say that such a use wouldn’t necessarily show us that “the theory is false” (479). That’s certainly true. Isn’t it the case that theories in quantum mechanics have been used - directly or indirectly - to build the atomic bomb which was itself used for blatantly “political programmes” (from the bombing of Hiroshima to sustaining, some may argue, the Cold War)? However, just as my ballpoint pen can be used to stab someone’s eye out (but which can't be blamed on either the inventor of ballpoint pens or their manufacturers), so theories in quantum mechanics - or at least those who thought up the theories - can't be blamed for Hiroshima or for the Cold War. 

In principle, even if a scientific theory states that women are mentally inferior to men (in whatever way you like – this is a what-if story), that too doesn’t automatically mean that it will be used to support political programmes of female oppression or even be used as a theoretical excuse to force women to stay at home. That possible theory of the mental inferiority of women could be true and still not be used for forcing women to stay at home of for any other discriminatory political or social practice. 

Anderson cites her own example of a bad political application of a (possibly true?) theory: the case of Steven Goldberg who “uses his theory of sex differences in aggression to justify a gendered division of labour that deliberately confines women to low-prestige occupations” (479).

Anderson, as stated earlier, she says that although there may be bad political applications of a scientific theory, that doesn’t make the theory false. And here too she talks about another “logical gap”: 

“The proponents of the programmed [should respect] the logical gap between fact and value” (479).

Presumably the scientific theory incorporates the fact half of the fact-value binary distinction. However, even if the theory is applied to building nuclear bombs, that is still - on the surface at least - only an application. It can still be argued that the value bit of the equation only comes in later on; or only when it's about the appliers of the theory. (Such as the technologists or the political decision-makers.) It can still of course still be argued that scientific theorists are - or at least should be - fully conversant with the political applications of their theories. Or should they? This doesn’t seem to be a question of the scientific theorist being burdened down with hidden or unacknowledged values (specifically political and/or ideological ones); rather it’s really a question of values (specifically political and/or ideological ones) being foisted or imposed upon them by feminist epistemologists or feminist philosophers of science (or even by people directly involved in either politics or political theory). 

This would suggest that all this is actually about the normative claim that scientific theorists should be politically and/or ideologically biased; rather than them only being politically and/or ideologically biased (in the wrong direction). In other words, all the ideological and/or politics is coming from one direction: from the feminist epistemologist (or from the feminist philosopher of science). If scientific theorists don’t know - or care - about the political applications of their theories, it’s hard to accuse them of using ideological and/or political value judgments or of having ideological/political background assumptions. All the politicising or the making of value judgments may – or seems to - come later: from the feminist epistemologist and/or from the political appliers of scientific theories. Although, as said earlier, Anderson (or another feminist epistemologist) may argue - and many political theorists do argue this way - that the scientific theorist not caring - or even not knowing - about the political applications of his theories is itself a deeply political and/or ideological stance.


*) Elizabeth S. Anderson’s ‘Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and a Defence’, as included in the anthology, Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings (page 459), edited by Yuri Balashov and Alex Rosenberg.

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