Science, objectivity and ethics
Objectivity and ethics are often considered as two separate issues in science, but the position I will set out in this chapter assigns them both to the status of normative values. This is a position that the social constructionists I spoke of, in Chapter 5, would have no difficulty in supporting. Indeed I concluded in that chapter that both social constructionists and rejectionists raised important issues about the social nature of science and the outcomes of scientific practice for the wider society. However I argued that the rejectionist view was incoherent because it ignored the interpenetration of science and technology into wider society and that furthermore the relativism of social constructionism would make science impossible or unrecognisable.
The opposite of relativism is objectivism, and it is the certainty of the existence of an objective reality, about which scientists can be objective, that has characterised most of science since the time of Newton. However, in the philosophy of science (a discipline not always treated with reverence by practising scientists!) a wider range of views has been canvassed (see for example Laudan 1977; Newton-Smith 1981; Howson and Urbach 1989; Chalmers 1990; Trigg 1993), but most are characterised by a belief that some criterion of objectivity must be retained in order that science can describe and explain the world - and indeed, so that we can explain how it is we can come to have a knowledge of the world sufficient to build atom bombs, undertake genetic engineering or produce medicines that work, or in the social sciences to accurately predict voting patterns or market preferences.
Because science has been successful at doing these things its knowledge has been at the service of those who wish to use or control this knowledge. Not all of the clients or sponsors of science are ‘bad’, but a problem for science is how can we decide which are bad or good, or more generally what is the ‘right’ thing to do? Scientists once believed it was enough just to be objective, but if objectivity is a value itself how can it stand apart from other normative values? Is objectivity itself an ethical value, or is it a value of a different kind?