The cat i' the adage

"The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement" Karl Popper (1902 - 1994)

Friday, February 18, 2005

Motives and scientific validity

Dick Taverne, writing in this morning's Guardian, argues that research should not be regarded as suspect merely because it derives from the business sector and is driven by the motive of making profits.

In the end motives are irrelevant to the validity of science. It does not matter if a scientist wants to help mankind, get a new grant, win a Nobel prize or increase the profits of her company. It does not matter whether a researcher works for Monsanto or for Greenpeace. Results are no more to be trusted if the researcher declares his values and confesses that he beats his wife, believes in God, or is an Arsenal supporter.


Logical empiricist philosophers of science, such as Carl Hempel, used to distinguish the "context of discovery" from the "context of justification", stressing that scientific rationality applied only to the latter. For example, Kekule said that the idea for the ring structure of the Benzene molecule came to him in a dream he had of a snake taking its own tail in its mouth; but the source of the idea was quite irrelevant to its scientific validity which depended ultimately on how it corresponded to observable reality. In like manner, the underlying motives of scientists lie on the "context of discovery" side of the distinction. We cannot, or at least should not, dismiss research simply because it is funded by the private sector.

The motives of publicly funded researchers are equally open to scrutiny, and we should not, in any case, assume that truth is more surely found where motives are the purest.

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