Is Science Value-Free?

Definition: Value-laden statements make reference to something being good or bad in some way, or are biased by the someone's judgment of what is good or bad. Value-free statements about the world contain no reference to what is good or bad, nor are they influenced by anyone's judgments of what is good or bad in any sense.

Thesis 1: Science is a source of objective, value-free, facts about the world. Science has nothing to do with values, either in the statement of its theories, or in the methods it uses to obtain those theories.


  1. All intentional actions are driven by values and beliefs (as modern decision theory tells us).
  2. Therefore, all intentional actions of scientists, including the acceptance or rejection of theories, are driven by values.
  3. Therefore all of science is value-laden.

In light of this objection, perhaps there is a way of weakening the thesis to make it acceptable? Perhaps we can make a distinction between "objective" values and "subjective" values, and make the claim that science is free of subjective values?

Definition 1: Values, like truth, approximate truth, closeness to the truth, predictive accuracy, or fit with data, simplicity, unification, or explanatory power, are values that are constitutive of science. These are also called cognitive values. Cognitive values are generally related or thought to be indicators of truth.

Definition 2: Norms, preferences, beliefs, and interests that are unrelated to cognitive values of science are non-cognitive values, or contextual values (by Longino). They are called this because, unlike cognitive values, they tend to vary from one scientific context to another. E.g., preference for a theory based on the gender or race of its author. However, contextual values may be less obnoxious, like preference based on the scientific institution of its author, or on a sense of loyalty to one’s teachers or to the scientific community to which you belong.

Thesis 2: Science is a source of objective facts about the world free from the influence of contextual values.

Objection: Every scientist is, as a matter of fact, influenced by non-epistemic values, such as loyalty to teachers and colleagues, acceptance by peers, and so on, especially in judgments about what background theory to accept.

We seemed to have reached the conclusion that science is not, as it actually exists, free of non-cognitive values.

Thesis 3: (The Value-Neutrality Thesis) "When contextual values intrude into science, their influence is invariably pernicious."

Objection: When the contextual values refer to the shared values of scientific communities like (Longino’s) recognized avenues for criticisms, shared standards, community response, and equality of intellectual authority, then the result is not necessarily bad.

Is the Philosophy of Science Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Problem: The sociology and history of science explicitly study the influences of social and political values in science. Yet the philosophy of science tends to steer clear of this issue. But how can the philosophy of science be about science if it tends to ignore the influence of non-cognitive values?

A common response at this point is to chance the thesis from a claim about the way science is to a claim about the way that science should be? (I don't happen to believe that this response is satisfactory.)

Terminology: A description of science is a statement about the way that science is, whereas a prescription for science is a statement about the way that science should be, or ought to be conducted.

Thesis 4: Science ought to be a source of objective facts about the world, free from the influence of non-epistemic values.


The ‘Sociological Turn’

In the 1960s, after Kuhn, the following thesis was widely accepted.

Thesis 5: Science is (and ought to be) a process laden with cognitive values, and non-cognitive (contextual) values.


  1. It is up to the scientific community to (collectively) decide what science is bad and what science is good. "As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice-there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community."  (Kuhn, 1970, p.94)
  2. There is nothing more to the objectivity of science beyond the inter-subjective agreement amongst scientists.
  3. Science is nothing more than social psychological process, like religious or political persuasion, except that the process is constrained by scientific standards rather than religious or political values.
  4. There is no objective standard of progress in science beyond that dictated by the community. "Truth is what the scientific community says it is."

Thesis 5 is unobjectionable, I think. However, the conclusions drawn from it is disputed by philosophers of science (though widely accepted amongst historians and sociologists of science). This is known as the ‘sociological turn’ in science studies.

Next, we will look at the arguments that Kuhn put forward for these conclusions, and the objections raised by philosophers of science.