[Note: this is the second of a series on being a jerk in academe. For the introduction to the series, click here.]
Now I'm going to explain how philosophers sometimes "swagger." But to do that, I'm going to provide a little background here.
When I was a freshman in college, I took an introduction to biology class that had three components. The first was the regular three-day-a-week lecture. The second was the one-day-a-week lab. The third was a philosophy component. For that philosophy component, we met one hour a week in a class taught by a professor who specialized in bioethics and in particular, the question of animal cruelty. All three components worked together very well, and collectively they constituted one of the best classes I ever had. The lectures were done well, and the biology professor, in addition to introducing us to the nuts and bolts of the science, also asked us to engage some of the more fundamental questions about why scientists believe what they do and whatnot. (He also occasionally made strawman arguments about what Christians believe, and I found those arguments and the bully-pulpit style in which he delivered them to be rather disconcerting, but that's a discussion for another post.)
Even the lab was good, helped (in my opinion) by the fact that neither the biology professor or philosopher really cared for dissecting, on the (again, in my opinion) very reasonable grounds that what one learns from dissecting in a freshman-level biology class is not going to be of much use even to those who go on to become doctors and veterinarians.
The philosophy of science component was particularly stimulating. The course itself and the readings we did challenged my perception of what science was and could be. For the first time I read (and probably misinterpreted) Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions.* In particular, we were challenged to interrogate the claim that "science is value free." For the first semester, we had to write a paper on that topic, and although I forget the exact parameters of that paper, the question was more or less "discuss critically the idea that science is value free."
Although every one of the small handful of philosophy classes I've taken have insisted that there are no right answers, there always has been one, and in this case, one element of the "right answer," so to speak, was to point out that the statement "science is value free" is itself a value statement, not only a statement about what science is, but about what it is supposed to be, on the ground that even discussing the value-freeness of science is to engage in a discussion of values and to assign values to science.
This "right answer" irked me. One reason its irked me was that I didn't come up with it and received a lower grade than I might have (lower by a few points....I still got a pretty good grade). Another reason is that it seemed like an unfair rigging of the game. A hapless science researcher, doing his or her research, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and complaining about young earth creationists, is confronted with the question "is science value free," and simply by answering, he or she concedes the point. It seemed to me that the question was posed in bad faith, and the gotcha was that nothing is value free. Quod erat demonstratum.
At least, that's how I interpreted the "right answer" at the time. In fact, I believe a more charitable way to look at the point is not to think of it as rigging the rules of the game, but rather as a way to demonstrate that value assumptions are not so easily got rid of by saying, for example, that scientists are only trying to find "the truth." Not only is "truth" definitely a value, but one might plausibly have to subordinate other values to get there.
One of the examples the professor gave was what was (and probably is) known as "stage 2" testing for some lifesaving medications. In this type of testing (which I presume was double blind), some terminally ill patients were given potentially lifesaving, but so far not FDA approved, medications, while others were given placebos. This was done in the name of trying to figure out how effective, if effective at all, a proposed medication was. The professor's point was that at least some terminally ill patients were being denied potentially lifesaving treatment all in the name of finding out "the truth" (and, he might have added, in the name of getting a government agency to sign off on the treatment). In this situation, he argued, a researcher couldn't just plead off by saying "science is value free." In some cases, perhaps, such an overriding of values is called for, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.**
Pointing out these kinds of basic assumptions is what philosophers are supposed to do. And if any circumstances are appropriate for such pointing out of basic assumptions, a philosophy class is one of those circumstances. But there's a certain gotcha'ness that almost, though admittedly not quite, can venture into what seems like tu quoque territory, tu quoque being the argument by which person A tries to refute person B's argument by pointing out that person B is a hypocrite or at least not personally representative of what person B is arguing for. There's a sense in which once one points out that another person relies on assumptions he or she is arguing against, that person's overall point has been refuted.
In the case of the scientist, it seems quite clear to me that the researcher would admit that seeking "truth" is a value, but that the researcher did not mean that when he or she said science is value free. In other words, insisting on the starting value-claim seems to miss at least part of the point. Pointing out the starting assumption is indeed important and needs to be done, and I personally experience a pretty high level of Schadenfreude whenever scientists are knocked down a few pegs by being reminded that they, too, belong to the human race and engage in value-begging and question-begging assumptions. Still, scientists should be given their due after the quality of their founding assumptions has been pointed out.
Now, I say that this is a way that "philosophers" swagger. Maybe that's wrong, although the few explicitly philosophy-inclined persons I know do that kind of assumption-calling occasionally. Maybe it's more accurate to say it's a philosophy-lite swagger, in which people who have maybe taken a philosophy course or two, or who style themselves as particularly perceptive, use this assumption-calling as a way to refute arguments.
I know I do that sometimes. One libertarian commenter at the League (now called "Ordinary Times") occasionally calls out liberal commenters on their moralism. In particular, he calls out those who might say, (to use a made up, but within the pale example), that derivatives trading is "immoral" and ought to be abolished. In one case, I tried to remind that person that calling out other persons' moralism is in its own way a "moral" claim, and that the libertarian principles that person believes in are in some ways reducible to moral claims about the rightness of certain forms of regulation or about creating a just society. I think I was right, and I think anyone who calls out moralism in others does well to place his or her own moralism into context, if only to provide a fuller picture of what he/she is objecting to.
Still, my calling out elided an important point. This commenter wasn't claiming that he was free of moral assumptions so much as he was pointing out a certain type of lazy argument, an argument that assumes because a certain situation is undesirable, it is therefore so wrong that anyone who engages in it is morally suspect, and that the right remedy is, in this case, some sort of law declaring the wrong thing wrong without even addressing why people engage in the "wrong" thing to begin with. (I submit that another problem with poseur philosophers is that they write in long convoluted sentences whose meaning is hard to decipher. Even so, I hope the last pre-parenthetical sentence of this paragraph is clear.)
*Pointing out other people's alleged misinterpretations of Kuhn seems to have become a cottage industry among those who "truly understand what Kuhn was saying" almost as if Kuhn wrote the Bible, and proper interpretation of the Bible is the way to find the good life in this world. My own take is that (some of) the misinterpretations of Kuhn might be useful.
**I've since come to realize, by the way, that my professor's example
was a bit too neat. The problem of some being denied potentially
lifesaving medications in order to test the effectiveness of a product
is not nonexistent. See, for example, protests in the 1980s over such
testing schemes for anti-HIV medications. However, I suspect that in a
lot of cases, the difference is not always between potentially
lifesaving treatments and placebos, but between treatments that might
have some effect (say on a patient's protein production or whatnot) and
no effect. As a friend of mine, who had a relative who suffered from
pancreatic cancer and agreed to participate in a study, said, there was
really no possibility offered that his relative would improve at all,
and the researchers were very upfront about this reality. Still, the attitude has existed. Paul de Kruif, in his book Microbe Hunters, also demonstrates the attitude that at least some people place a value on finding a control group in order to gauge the effectiveness of potentially lifesaving treatments. The book is his account of how early twentieth-century scientists combated what were then very serious diseases by isolating the microbes responsible and issuing treatments. For one such disease (I forget which), he notes a unique situation in which doctors with a prospective treatment for a particular disease were confronted with a ward-full of sufferers. Instead of cordoning off half of the sufferers to receive placebos and giving the treatment to the other half, they decided to treat everyone. De Kruif says this move was understandable, but he laments the decision, portraying it as a lost opportunity to discover the truth about that treatment's effectiveness.