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Tim Lewens (HPS Cambridge) (hybrid), Is there a Direct Role for Values in the Heart of Science?

3 April | 17 h 00 min - 18 h 30 min

Tim Lewens is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He works on the philosophy of biology, biomedical ethics, and general philosophy of science. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Why We Disagree about Human Nature (edited with Beth Hannon, OUP 2018).


Video of the talk


Heather Douglas has been an important advocate for the constructive roles of social, ethical and political values at every stage of the practice of science. She has offered a careful account of when such values are deployed in appropriate and inappropriate ways. In particular, she has argued that if values were accorded a ‘direct’ role within ‘the heart of doing science—during the characterisation of data, the interpretation of evidence, and the acceptance of theories’, then this would amount to ‘wishful thinking’ in place of evidence.

Having set up Douglas’s case against a direct role for values in the ‘heart’ of science, this talk moves on to note two claims that might seem to stand in tension with that case. First, as Elizabeth Anderson has stressed, building a cogent evaluative case in favour of a claim about what ought to happen is not a simple matter of saying what one wishes were true; a good ethical case has a kind of discipline to it. Second, some theorists—and here I concentrate on work by Anna Alexandrova—have argued that scientists do and should defend ‘mixed hypotheses’; that is, hypotheses that implicate both factual and evaluative content. Putting these two claims together, the prospect of a legitimate direct role for values comes into view in the internal phases of science. It happens when the evaluative aspects of mixed hypotheses are given disciplined ethical support.

If these two claims (about the disciplined nature of evaluative reasoning, and about the need for mixed hypotheses) are true, then why is it so hard to find examples where scientists give direct support to their (mixed) hypotheses by appealing to values? I use cases from research on conservation science and cognitive evolution to show that hypotheses can be ‘mixed’ in Alexandrova’s sense, and yet the role for values in the case for those hypotheses remains indirect. This means that there is a route whereby Douglas’s prohibition on direct appeals to values in the heart of science can withstand the two claims explored in the middle part of the talk. However, the talk closes with a suggestion that the key distinctions between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ roles for values, and ‘internal’ and ‘external’ phases of science, need to be reconsidered in the light of the preceding discussions.


Two examples of Tim Lewens’ recent publications:

  • Lewens T (2020) Blurring the germline: Genome editing and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Bioethics 34:7–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12606
  • Lewens T (2019) The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: what is the debate about, and what might success for the extenders look like? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 127:707–721. https://doi.org/10.1093/biolinnean/blz064


3 April
17 h 00 min - 18 h 30 min
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