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Value-Free Science?

Value-Free Science?

Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge

Robert N. Proctor

ISBN 9780674931701

Publication date: 10/01/1991

Why have scientists shied away from politics, or defended their work as value free? How has the ideal of neutrality come to dominate the world of science? These are some of the central questions that Robert Proctor addresses in his study of the politics of modern science.

Value-Free Science? emphasizes the importance of understanding the political origins and impact of scientific ideas. Proctor lucidly demonstrates how value-neutrality is a reaction to larger political developments, including the use of science by government and industry, the specialization of professional disciplines, and the efforts to stifle intellectual freedoms or to politicize the world of the academy.

The first part of the book traces the origins of value-neutrality prior to the eighteenth century. Plato and Aristotle saw contemplative thought as superior to practical action, and this separation of theory and practice is still invoked today in defense of "neutral science." In the seventeenth century the Baconian search for useful knowledge allowed a new and closer tie between theory and practice, but it also isolated moral knowledge from natural philosophy. Another version of neutrality was introduced by the mechanical conception of the universe, in which the idea of a benevolent, human-centered cosmos was replaced with a "devalorized" view of nature.

The central part of the book explores the exclusion of politics and morals with the emergence of the social sciences. Proctor highlights the case of Germany, where the ideal of value-neutrality was first articulated in modern form by social scientists seeking to attack or defend Marxism, feminism, and other social movements. He traces the rise and fall of positivist ethical and economic theory, showing that arguments for value-free science often mask concrete political maneuvers. Finally, he reviews critiques of science that have been voiced in recent debates over critical issues in agricultural science, military research, health and medicine, and biological determinism.

This provocative book will interest anyone seeking ways to reconcile the ideals of scientific freedom and social responsibility.

Author

  • Robert N. Proctor is Professor of History and, by courtesy, of Medicine, at Stanford University.

Book Details

  • 344 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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