Value-Driven Science

I am apparently a sociologist now, and apparently one of the criticisms made of the discipline runs as follows:

By explicitly positioning itself as a field that empathizes with the unfortunate (and by its favoring of liberal policy prescriptions) does sociology not relinquish its claim to be performing value-neutral scientific investigation?

As far as I can tell, this question makes sociologists squirm, and often eventually exacts a concession that they are not performing value-neutral research; that they perform science, but informed by values.

That’s extremely worrying, of course, since a major point of science is supposed to be to minimize the extent to which one’s values influence the reported results. It’s very easy to say that one’s conclusions do not have less validity simply because the investigation was motivated by personal moral values, but in practice it creates a worrying problem of trust. If someone’s research is value-driven, what do I believe would happen if the facts conflicted with the value? Does the scientific aspect prevail, or the moral? If, say, a researcher considers their work to be driven by their opposition to U.S. imperialism, and I go to Country X to show the devastating consequences of U.S. policies, but then uncover strong evidence that the devastation was caused by an internal factor, what do we expect of that researcher? At best we would probably expect them to abandon the case and go looking for another one where U.S. policies did cause harm, at worst we would expect distorted and untrustworthy results. The former could be acceptable or not, depending on what the question is. If the question is “How, in cases where U.S. policy caused harm, did that harm occur?” then it’s perfectly fine to switch subjects, because one is being explicit that the question focuses on cases where something did happen rather than where something didn’t. But if one’s question is “Did U.S. policies cause harm?” then obviously, searching for cases where they did is bias. Or to take another example, if one’s pro-labor politics influence one’s research on labor unions, what happens when the researcher studies a union, only to find that it is corrupt and inept? It’s hard to think that a pro-labor researcher, with a personal investment in the success of the union movement, wouldn’t at least do some fudging.

That is a massive problem. But I think there’s a very easy way out of it, that allows one to both have value-driven research and be scientific and trustworthy. Of course, if one’s value is producing evidence of U.S. harm to other countries, that creates a bias problem. But surely the reason one holds that value is that one wants people not to be harmed, and wants to expose harm where it exists. All that is necessary is to prioritize the underlying value that informs the surface value. My values are not “I want Union X to succeed.” Why would I be interested in Union X succeeding, if it was corrupt and harmful? I shouldn’t be afraid to criticize Union X if it ceases to serve my underlying value. I want it to succeed if it helps make the lives of working people better, and I don’t if it doesn’t. It’s always been very bizarre to me that people will cling to something that is actually in conflict with their political beliefs simply because it is supposed to be on their “side.” For example: I join the Communist Party because I want the liberation of humankind from its miseries. Then I see that the Communist Party is actually reproducing exactly the miseries I detest. But, often, instead of jettisoning the Communist Party because it has ceased to serve my value committment, I jettison my value committment!

Good values have nothing to fear from the truth, and therefore should never lead to bias. I state the “value” driving my sociological research as follows: Human  life should be made as good as it can possibly be, and I want to conduct research that aids in that. So if conservative policy prescriptions end up making human life better, I should be happy to embrace them, because they are serving my value! Why would I ever entertain a bias in favor of liberal policy prescriptions? My only bias is in favor of human wellbeing, but that’s not a bias that troubles the scientific nature of the research at all. (I happen to have a political belief in what I call pragmatic utopian libertarian socialism, but that’s because I believe such a system would best serve human ends, and I modify the conception of my political ideal as I learn new facts about human beings.)

One’s values can even be more specific than that. For example: as part of my committment to human wellbeing, I believe that finding and rooting out racism is important. But a committment to ending racism should not cause one to be biased in one’s research on the amount of racism that exists. I should be perfectly happy to conclude that racism is less bad than I thought (in fact, this should be cause for celebration). I certainly don’t want there to be more problems in the world. Now, I suspect there is still a great deal of racism, but the point is that I’m not invested in that conclusion by my personal values. I wouldn’t resist evidence that I was wrong. Why would I? I’ve nothing to be afraid of, my committment is only to human wellbeing, so facts about the world are never going to trouble it and I’m thus never going to need to hide evidence. Bring on the facts! (I certainly have unconscious biases, but I’m trying to root those out too.)

Thus, it is perfectly fine to have research driven by moral values. It can still be trustworthy. It just has to be driven by certain kinds of values that are not invested in having the facts come out one way or the other. But I don’t know why any value worth holding would want to distort the facts.