HSS Reflection: Practices, Science, and Criticism


Dan Hicks


November 14, 2014

This is the second of my posts this week about the 2014 HSS/PSA conference. Here, I’d like to think a little about Andrea Woody’s comments on the paper I read at a HSS session on “technoscience as practice.” The session was organized by Tom Stapleford— a friend from my time at Notre Dame — and also included Catherine Jackson and Edward Jones-Imhotep, who are all historians.

My paper — you can read it at the link above — was a philosophical (too philosophical for a few members of the audience; I don’t blame them) account of practices, based largely on the account that I developed in my dissertation. The account draws a great deal on the conception of practices sketched by Alasdair MacIntyre in several of his works (most famously, the second half of chapter 14 of After Virtue.) In brief, a practice is a complex, collaborative, socially organized, goal-oriented, sustained activity. The account is designed to incorporate insights from work in the history and sociology of science over the past 50 years, without falling into the trap of “anything-goes relativism” or noncognitivism that (many philosophers think) is a central commitment of that research.

In her comments, Andrea raised two questions for my view, which go right to the heart of what I’m trying to do. Here’s how I would paraphrase them, based on her slides (which she was kind enough to share with me and the other speakers in the session) and my notes:

  1. Can we distinguish goods of excellence from goods of efficiency while remaining outside of a practice? What if scientists adopt a set of norms and goals that make it much more like football than what we would recognize as science? (That example comes from Ernan McMullin giving a critique of Larry Laudan, if I recall correctly.)

  2. Is it really true that practitioners are (or even must be) “realists” about the norms and goals of the practice?

These are important questions for my account. Let me first explain why they’re important, and then gesture towards some answers.

Regarding the first question, I’m not so concerned about science gradually becoming football, simply because it doesn’t seem like a live possibility. But I am concerned about actual cases in which science promotes oppression, such as racism and sexism, and the commodification of science. Reflecting these concerns, I very much want an account that can help us recognize that, when science becomes oriented towards oppression and domination, something has gone wrong; and indeed help us clarify in exactly what sense something has gone wrong. In a paper published earlier this year, I suggested that this problem is now at the center of work in science and values. A negative answer to Andrea’s first question means that our critical resources for evaluating scientific practice are quite limited, and far more limited than I would like. It seems to push us too closely to “anything goes relativism.”

Andrea’s question might be motivated, in part, by the seeming thinness of my account of the distinction between goods of excellence and goods of efficiency. I characterize goods of excellence as having four features: they’re intrinsically valuable, progressive (in a complex technical sense), integrated (valuable for realizing other goods of excellence), and owned collectively. How does this help us say what’s wrong with commodified or sexist science?

By definition, commodified science is science done for the sake of wealth. But wealth isn’t intrinsically valuable. It’s not valuable for its own sake; instead, it’s valuable only because it can be used to do other things. Even if we think of Scrooge McDuck, taking great pleasure from swimming in his money bin, the money itself is still not intrinsically valuable; Scrooge values it because it gives him pleasure. Furthermore, commodified science is owned privately, and there’s some reason to think that our institutions for the private ownership of knowledge conflict with and frustrate ongoing scientific research. So commodified science fails to have three of the four features.

The problem with sexist science is that it collaborates with patriarchal power structures, among other forms of oppression. It thereby frustrates the practices of feminists and other activists working to alleviate oppression. We might also question whether sexist science is owned collectively — i.e., we might be able to argue that it’s “owned” by men rather than by women, and hence is the private property of just one gender — and whether it’s intrinsically valuable — especially if it leads to false belief, but perhaps even in some cases where it leads us to true belief.

Regarding the second question, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the language of “realistic” and “relativistic” either. So let me explain what I was trying to do.

I wanted to contrast two views of the norms and goals of a practice. On the one hand, for practitioners qua practitioners, engaged in practical deliberation (i.e., practitioners trying to decide what to do), at least some of the norms and goals of the practice serve as assumptions or premises in their practical reasoning. Insofar as someone calls these assumptions into question, they are or should not be members of the community of practitioners. Consider the way the scientific community responds to data fabrication, for example.

On the other hand, from a perspective outside the practice, it’s easy to see that these norms and goals are the contingent products of very messy political and economic interactions, and consequently it’s extremely easy to call these norms and goals into question. Consider, again, history and sociology of science over the last 50 years, and the skeptical implications some have attempted to draw out of this work.

To add a third hand, I think the role of feminism in science has been so important because many feminist and women scientists have combined both views, to the great benefit of scientific practice. Recognizing that androcentrism and sexism in science are products of the way science has been embedded in patriarchy, these scientists have been able to identify various methods and assumptions as androcentric and sexist. Replacing these assumptions and methods has led to great progress in some fields of science, even by the lights of scientists who don’t share any deep feminist commitments.

All together, I think philosophy of science needs to be able to incorporate the empirical insights of historians and sociologists into the ways science actually works, without giving up on the possibility of evaluation, criticism, and other kinds of normative assessment. And feminist science has shown us that these empirical insights can actually provide leverage for valuable critiques that lead to progress. (Note all the evaluative language in that last sentence.)

So I think this is what I was trying to get at with the language of “realistic” and “relativistic”: We want to recognize both that the norms and goals of science have substantial normative authority, but also that the content of these norms and goals are contingent and sometimes require (by their own lights, and the lights of other perspectives) modification. Many scientists engaged in normal science (in Kuhn’s sense) recognize the normative authority of the norms and goals of scientific practice, but fail to recognize their contingency. Many historians and philosophers have exposed the contingency, but at the risk of completely discarding normative authority. Feminist science is especially valuable because it can recognize both of these things at once.