Can scientists be objective?

Social Epistemology 20 (2):163 – 180 (2006)

Abstract

Objectivity and value freedom have often been conflated in the philosophical and sociological literature. While value freedom construed as an absence of social and moral values in scientific work has been discredited, defenders of value freedom bracket off methodological values or practices from social and moral ones. In this paper I will first show how values exist along a continuum and argue that science is and should be value based. One of these values is necessarily objectivity for science to be possible. However the version of objectivity I will describe is socially situated in methodological practice, but also crucially in the particular purpose of a given science. Objectivity (or its absence) may be transferred vertically from practices, goals, or discourses outside science through several levels to that of the day-to-day activities of the scientist. It is also possible for this transfer to occur in the other direction and indeed objectivity can be situated in extra-scientific practices and discourses. Objectivity (or its absence) may also be transferred horizontally within particular methodological practice to other disciplines or parts of a discipline. Ultimately a socially situated objectivity is an achievement of the community of science. I will use some brief contemporary and historical illustrations from science and the intersection of science and public policy to show how objectivity has been achieved or failed.

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