Tuesday 29 January 2013

The Cancer of 'Values'; Or, you can't hang your 'values' on a peg

Another interesting post at Duck of Minerva, this time on science and 'values' in human rights scholarship:
Questions of personal biases and valid science permeate all facets of science; of course, we as social scientists face these questions all the time in our research.  Do personal biases get in the way of our science?  Is there any way around our personal biases?

I’m a firm believer that the process of science allows us to eliminate many of the potential biases that we carry around with us. ...
My somewhat Latourian take on this issue would be this: Of course science allows people to get around their personal biases; that's the whole point of science as a formal, social, discursive, argumentative, agonistic, critical, collective process.  Without this science has nothing.  However, scientists can only 'get around' their own biases by making their experiments and reasoning public and having others reproduce their experiments and reasoning.

But let's define 'bias' broadly.  Is assay result X the product of a hitherto undiscovered protein or a contaminated batch of enzymes?  Contamination is a 'bias' to the experiment in that it is an unwanted variable intruding upon the artificially purified experimental design.  The scientist can take many steps to check, doublecheck and crosscheck their results but ultimately the only thing that will establish result X as a fact rather than an artifact is the experiment's successful reproduction by other scientists in other labs around the world.  An individual scientist's personal preferences on the outcome of an experiment may prove to be an extraneous variable intruding upon the experimental design, that is to be determined.  However, the way they overcome this is not by being 'value neutral' in their own minds as such, it is by designing their experiment as best they can and then submitting the whole process to critical peer review, which may or may not validate their claims.

No individual scientist can or should ever be 'value neutral' -- if they didn't care about the outcome of the experiment why would they bother doing it?  The only 'neutrality' science can have emerges in its sociality, in its practices of argumentation -- in being validated by numerous different values.  It isn't about 'checking your biases at the door' so much a not letting them intrude into your experimental design.  'Values' are not an item of clothing that you can arbitrarily hang up on a clothes peg -- that's a very poor metaphor, albeit a common one.  Being 'scientific' is better described, I think as an ongoing process of drafting, redrafting and self-critique prior to the social critique of peer review.  If your conclusions are based on nothing more than your own wishes and wants then your arguments will be undone as easily as pointing out a batch of contaminated enzymes.  If the argument draws upon no more support than empty rhetoric then it'll be quickly exposed as hot air.  A strong argument requires more evidential and rational support than a statement of desires.  Scientists needn't transcend their values, they need only produce an argument that is stronger than the values that inspired it.

Human rights research has precious little in common with molecular biology and it can never follow the same scientific practices or adhere to the same standards (nor should it want to) but it can follow a similar process: produce arguments that are stronger than the values they are inspired by; produce arguments that can be validated by a wide range of value orientations.

So, no, a cancer researcher needn't have any specific value orientation in the sense of being 'pro-' or 'anti-' cancer (though one would hope that it is not the former!) but nor can or should any researcher be 'value neutral' -- our values get us out of bed in the morning.  Wanting to produce objective knowledge about cancer: that's a value in and of itself.