Use-Value of Scientific Knowledge

Rationally Speaking is a podcast created by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef of New York City Skeptics. Dr. Pigliucci is currently a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, but he also holds two other PhDs in genetics and botany. Ms. Galef is a writer and public speaker with a BA in statistics, who has a particular interest in science, technology, and rationality. In their podcast entitled “Is anthropology still a science?” they respond to the American Anthropological Association’s decision to remove all references to science from their mission statement—an interesting topic, and their discussion is worth hearing, but I’m particularly interested in a short exchange about the use-value of knowledge.

First, Dr. Pigliucci distinguishes between advocacy and science using ecology as an example (since he spent a considerable amount of time earlier in his career studying invasive species):

If you study the environment, you are an ecologist, but if you are advocating on behalf of particular, you know, types of defense of the environment or managing of the environment then you are an environmentalist or you are interested in policy and things like that, so you’re not doing science anymore . . . . If I publish an article as an ecologist, I’m expected not to do advocacy; in fact, the article would very likely be rejected if I started doing advocacy in a scientific journal, because the editor would correctly point out that what the science of ecology is about is to find out how things are, not to make value judgments or suggestions about value judgments . . . . That doesn’t mean that the same person cannot involve himself or herself in both activities, but it does mean that the two activities are, it seems, distinct . . . . If you want to make your department or your association or your journal mostly about advocacy, then you really ought to be, in fact, decoupled from the science branch.

Julia responds, “I’d like to talk a little bit more about the question of whether the knowledge in anthropology is generalizable or not . . . .” She refers to a comment on the Rationally Speaking blog from a grad student who asks, “what is the purpose of anthropology if not to produce generalizable knowledge? Of what empirical use is anthropology to anyone if it doesn’t produce this kind of knowledge?” Elaborating on this idea, Julia asks, “are the questions that it asks specific questions, like describing this particular society or this particular culture, or . . . are we trying to get at general principles of why things happen the way they do?” And later, in clarification, “what is the use, I mean, should anthroplogy be asking these specific questions, or should anthropology be trying to answer general questions?”

Dr. Pigliucci replies:

Why is it that certain people . . . see ungeneralizable knowledge as [un]worthy of science? I don’t think that’s the case. . . . There’s a lot of knowledge in science that is not actually generalizable . . . [such as] almost anything you get out of evolutionary biology. . . . One of the problems with the study of invasive species is precisely that it seems very hard to find any generalizable conclusions. It seems to be the fact that invasive species behave in a fairly idiosyncratic way. . . . But that doesn’t mean that that research is useless, because, for instance, if it comes to managing a particular species that is invasive in a particular area, . . . well, then you want to know a lot of specific knowledge about that particular system, and it doesn’t really matter whether that knowledge is generalizable or not–you have a problem to solve, and you’re solving it upon scientific grounds, you’re not solving it in a nonscientific manner . . . . It’s pretty clear,

he goes on,

that science is a highly heterogeneous kind of enterprise that addresses a variety of questions at a variety of levels, and these questions may have different degrees of generalizability, and some of the specific questions may be actually more useful, frankly, than general questions. We may come up with some general platitudes about, for instance, again, the behaviour of invasive species, but if they’re not particularly useful in terms of managing the species in the field, then it seems to me that we haven’t gained that much.

This is an interesting exchange, to me, because it implies that even scientific knowledge has some kind of use-value, and that the use-value of the knowledge is more or less the point of creating that knowledge. This is particularly interesting coming from Dr. Pigliucci, who argues for the importance of distinguishing the creation of scientific knowledge from the use of it. (I will note that it’s not a foregone conclusion that all or most scientists would agree that the purpose of creating knowledge is for its use-value; even Dr. Pigliucci seems to suggest that the goal of generalizable knowledge, as opposed to specific knowledge, is to contribute to the development of overarching theories—as is the case in physics, for example. Still, it’s not clear what the point of such a theory would be.) I agree from a practical perspective that what’s published in a scientific journal should be science, as opposed to advocacy, but I don’t think journal articles are the be-all-and-end-all of science as it’s practiced. If a scientist’s job is merely to produce scientific knowledge, but we argue that knowledge is produced for its use-value, then whose responsibility is it to make use of that knowledge?

An anthropologist who also commented on the Rationally Speaking post suggested that in the case of anthropology, at least, advocacy cannot really be separated as cleanly from science as Dr. Pigliucci would like. He suggested that a picture of anthropology that ignores the use-value of the knowledge it creates (i.e., “tak[ing] all of our research data and go[ing] up into the Ivory Tower”) doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of anthroplogy. Thus, although I agree with Dr. Pigliucci about the distinction between science and advocacy in principle, I’m not sure that looking at a field such as anthropology through that lens gives an accurate or complete picture of what’s going on there (it might give a picture of what should be going on there, but that’s not a scientific approach to studying anthropology). Nor does it give an accurate picture of what’s going on in ecology. If we look at science as it’s practiced, I think both ecologists and anthropologists are equally likely to use their knowledge for advocacy purposes as part of their jobs, and in the case of anthropologists, this occurs under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association.

To give a concrete example, here is the goal of some ecological research that was conducted by a friend of mine:

. . . to determine if channel geomorphology controls (a) the sensitivity of small streams to the altered rates of terrestrial inputs that result from riparian management, and (b) the extent to which these changes are conveyed downstream.

Is this science or advocacy? Or both? Maybe it makes more sense to look at certain applications of science as a part of advocacy, rather than an activity done by a discrete group of people to create knowledge that’s used by another discrete group of people. In this case, a problem is identified with our current forest management practices, some research is carried out to determine the specifics, some recommendations are made, some regulators are lobbied, some policies are changed. And in practice, as Dr. Pigliucci acknowledges, several of these steps might be done by the same person. But this doesn’t mean that the articles produced by this project were motivated by value judgments, and I don’t think this is grounds for “decoupling” the scientific part of the forestry department from the advocacy part, even though the forestry department is ostensibly “mostly about advocacy.” (Forestry, according to the Association of University Forestry Schools of Canada, is “the art and science of protecting, conserving and managing forests.”) I’m inclined to think it’s more likely that the invocation of such a distinction in a discussion about anthropology is a result of some kind of bias.

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