Thursday, February 3, 2011

Science and Values, Part 1: The Constitutive-Contextual Distinction

I’m beginning to research my next essay, which touches on that thorny issue of “science & values” [S&V]. I hope to be blogging quite a bit about this, as I have quite a bit of background reading to do.

I begin with a well-known distinction in the S&V literature, which is primarily associated with Helen Longino.

(1)  A value is constitutive of science if and only if it is necessary for doing good science.
(2)  A value is contextual in science if and only if it is sometimes (but not always) useful for doing good science.

While it marks a subtle change, I want to suggest that we offer something that falls in between (1) and (2):
(3)  A value is invariant in science if and only if it is always useful for doing good science.

What’s the difference between constitutive and invariant values? It is possible for something to be always useful and yet not necessary for doing an activity well. For instance, having an accurate three point shot is always useful, but not necessary, for being a good basketball player.

In the paper I’m working on, I’ll suggest that several “theoretical virtues,” e.g. simplicity, scope, precision, etc. are invariant scientific values. Moreover, I’ll be arguing that some of the most vociferous critics of the virtues should accept this claim, given their other commitments. I suspect that they have resisted this claim because the constitutive-contextual distinction poses a false dilemma. The true dilemma is between invariant and contextual values, with constitutive values simply being a particularly demanding form of invariant values.

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