Science, Objectivity, and Power: A Critique of Social Pluralism

Dr. Anna Leuschner

The project addresses challenges to social pluralism. In contrast to the traditionally held ideal of scientific value-freedom, social pluralists argue that non-epistemic values inevitably play a role in the context of justification due to empirical underdetermination. Objectivity in the sense of individual neutrality is deemed to be impossible as every person’s perspective on the world is necessarily shaped by social status, nationality, sex, etc. However, this failing of individuals unavoidably falling short of objectivity is seen as being epistemically fruitful in the sense that social plurality in scientific communities helps to examine theories from different angles.

This is a traditional liberal thought. The basic form of the argument was elaborated in On Liberty. Invoking Wilhelm von Humboldt, Mill stresses the epistemic fruitfulness of social and cultural diversity. The social pluralistic epistemological argument in a nutshell is:

1) Social plurality leads to diversity and dissent.
2) Diversity and dissent are epistemically valuable.
3) Therefore, social plurality is epistemically valuable.

In various ways, this social-liberal ideal found entrance into many modern theories of philosophy of science—particularly in social and feminist epistemologies—and it shapes scientific institutions and academia in today’s democracies with good reason. However, its well-established status notwithstanding, the ideal is confronted with severe challenges since we do not live in a free marketplace of ideas; rather, scientific research is, in fact, conducted and disseminated in situations characterized by stark power differentials. I wish to analyze this problem in my habilitation, focusing on two central points:

(1) Social plurality does not always lead to diversity and dissent: if implicit biases (e.g., against women or ethnic minorities) are shared within a scientific community, this curbs the productivity and originality of targeted groups’ members.

(2) Scientific diversity and dissent can be epistemically detrimental: if certain stakeholders have the power to discredit scientists and to produce and disseminate manipulated research (as, e.g., in certain areas of environmental or health research), they not only distort public opinion, but also create an atmosphere detrimental to scientific inquiry.

The aim is to provide an analysis of these problems elucidating them so that they can be tackled more efficiently. Ultimately, I will discuss possible strategies for dealing with them, namely (1) mechanical solutions, such as changes in publication procedures or affirmative action programs, and (2) enlightening measures, in particular through science studies debunking distorting activities perpetrated by stakeholders.