Books  General Natural History  Philosophy, Ethics & Religion 

Value-Free Science?: Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge

By: Robert Proctor

331 pages, Tabs

Harvard University Press

Hardback | Dec 1991 | #130402 | ISBN: 067493170X
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NHBS Price: £57.95 $71/€65 approx

About this book

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 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 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 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 18th century. Plato and Aristotle saw contemplative though as superior to practical action, and this separation theory and practice is still invoked in defense of "neutral science". In the 17th 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-ventered cosmos was replaced by a "devalorized" view f 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 articulate 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 manoeuvers. Finally, he reviews critiques of science that have been voiced in debates over crucial issues in agricultural science, military research, health and medicine and biological determinism. This book should be of interest to anyone seeking ways to reconcile the ideals of scientific freedom and social responsibility.


Part 1 "Pure Science" and the Baconian critique: the cosmos as construct; Baconian caveats, royalist compromise; the devalorization of being; secondary qualities and subjective value. Part 2 The politics of neutrality in German social theory: the German university and the research ideal; empirical science and specialized expertise; the Werturteilsstreit, or controversy over values; the social context of German social science; neutral Marxism; Max Weber and Wertfreie Wissenschaft. Part 3 The legacy of neutrality - positivism and its critics: Catholicism without Christianity; logical positivism; positive economics; emotivist ethics; social theory of science; realism versus moralism; critiques of science. Conclusion: neutrality as myth, mask, shield and sword.

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Robert N. Proctor, author of Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis, is Professor of History of Science at Stanford University.

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