Epistemic values

July 30, 2013

Before listing the different types of epistemic values that I have observed in Bianca’s lab and explaining them within the context of Bruno Latour and Thomas Kuhn, I want to start with an example of how axiology, the study of values, is everywhere in our daily experiences.

Let’s take the experience of baking cookies. Why is it that when you make chocolate chip cookies you don’t spread out the chocolate chips on the countertop to check for tiny rocks or non-chocolate chips in the mix? Why don’t you sift through the flour to see if there are bugs or pieces of grass inside? If you saw anyone doing this you would think that they are not only being inefficient, but that they also must be a little crazy. However, this type of behavior is completely normal in different situations. For example when you make bean dip from a bag of pinto beans it is necessary to check for rocks and random non-bean particles in the bag.

The difference in these two situations has to do with our knowledge of how each item was produced. We consider the manufacturer, the environment of production, the market where we bought the food as well as many other factors when we prepare our food. These different factors that we take into account, as well as the other factors that we choose to ignore, are the epistemic values that are inherent to our cooking experiences. These values teach us about what is important to us during the cooking process. This can allow us to reflect on what our society desires from restaurants, markets, grocery stores and other places where these values become entwined with economical, political and philosophical issues. Do we value how quickly our food is prepared? Or are we more concerned with the quality of every ingredient? By exploring the axiological questions that are embedded in our daily experiences we can learn how our values influence the narrative of our lives.

So how does this relate to the science laboratory, the place where we supposedly learn concrete facts about our world? Well, even though it would seem otherwise, there are values embedded within the scientific process. These epistemic values are intrinsic to scientific research, and they can teach us a lot about the knowledge produced from the physical sciences.

There is an illusion that the scientific method offers an objective representation of reality. The scientific method is thought to separate the physical sciences from the humanities and the social sciences because it has a method of discovering facts about our world. When we read science reports we see graphs, lists, charts, and numbers that act as proof of the results that were produced in a lab. We think that these are concrete results because there was an objective method behind the acquisition of the data. However, this could not be further from the truth of what actually goes on during the research process.

My time in the lab has shown me how the scientific method is full of epistemic values. These values are embedded within every step of the scientific process, but they are often ignored. Science prides itself as the discipline that offers objective truths about our world, but once these epistemic values are brought to the surface the scientific method looses its reliability. The knowledge produced from the research is so richly entangled with values that the results of the research end up representing our reality about as well as a fictional narrative.

In his book Science in Action, Bruno Latour shows what happens when you express doubts about the results produced from the scientific method. He walks his reader through the process of doubting a visual representation of experimental results and discusses the intrinsic flaws embedded within the physical sciences. In chapter 29, called Laboratories, Latour begins with a dissenter who questions a figure that he sees in an article in the scientific journal, Nature. The dissenter goes to the professor, who says “You doubt what I wrote? Let me show you.”

Latour explains how when visiting the “laboratory in order to settle [his] doubts about the paper, [he was led] into a labyrinth” (Latour). When he looked at progression of how laboratory instruments produce numbers, which are then used to make the graphs that are published, he did not gain a better understanding of the scientific process of knowledge production. In fact he only became more confused. It became clear that “any number of incidents could blur the tiny peaks [of the graphs] and turn the regular writing into a meaningless doodle” (Latour). Instruments cannot interpret the data that they spit out, so you must have someone talk for them. Latour points out all the disjunctions between scientific instruments, interpreters, dissenters and professors to prove that science is full of hidden epistemic values.

Thomas Kuhn, the most famous philosopher of science of the 20th century, lists his standard criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a theory as accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity and fruitfulness. While this is not an exhaustive list of all the epistemic values that are found throughout scientific research these five categories do well to show how epistemic values frame every research project.

Let’s take accuracy for an example. While running experiments in the lab this summer I found that the accuracy of the instruments that we used were of little importance. There were many times when I would measure the concentration of a solution and get three strikingly different numbers. So then what? I make an average of these three? Or is one an outlier, so I should record the mean number between the two most similar points? Or should I take more measurements? It seemed that it didn’t matter because we moved on with our experiments, not giving the bizarre set of numbers a second thought.

There are many constraints that affect these epistemic values in the lab. My project was rushed along, making accuracy and consistency of little importance because the results were essential for a grant proposal that was due at the end of the month. Other constraints were money, time and resources. When there is no more grant money and the research project is incomplete, the most important aspect of the research usually becomes the results, or the fruitfulness of the results. The researchers need to prove that they accomplished something so that they will receive more funding to continue their work. This usually leads to the epistemic values of accuracy and consistency to become less important to the research team, while the scope and fruitfulness of the results to become more important.

The fact that Bianca’s lab did not value the accuracy of the different measurements throughout the experiments that I ran can mean many things. First, just because the accuracy of the instruments was of little importance in my experiments does not mean that accuracy is not an aspect of the scientific method that is important to Bianca’s team. Maybe my experiments did not need to have the same degree of accuracy as other research projects. All of the results from my experiments would have to be repeated, so perhaps accuracy is only important when you are conducting an experiment for the second or third time. The first time is just a way of getting a feel for the restraints and problems that arise during the experiment.

Also the accuracy of a measurement is dependent on the calibration of the instrument. This opens another door to more epistemic values in the lab. How do you know if you can trust a measurement from a machine? Which machines are necessary for an experiment? Are the machines designed to save the researcher’s time? Or does the instrument conduct a measurement that is impossible for the researcher? By looking at which instruments researchers use, when they use these instruments, and to what degree the researchers trust the measurements from the machine you can see some of the epistemic values in the lab.

So, it seems that the epistemic values of a research team differs from project to project, and that these values are dependent on the desired outcome of the research. Are the experiments just for the research team? Or is the data obtained from the experiment going to be published? Accuracy would become more valued in the latter case because the publication of the experiment would need to be based on concrete figures and results. But when is this ever actually the case? When are results ever concrete?

By acknowledging these epistemic values that are embedded within the scientific method we can form a better understanding of the types of knowledge that science provides society and what this knowledge can tell us about our world. By understanding that the knowledge produced from the physical sciences is just as full of values and biases as the knowledge produced from the social sciences and the humanities we can begin to combine these different sects of knowledge. This is an integral step in order for academics to engage in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects in our future. 


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