Will Saletan’s dated but still fantastic profile of 2012 Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka is worth reading:
Shinya Yamanaka, a scientist at Kyoto University, loved stem-cell research. But he didn’t want to destroy embryos. So he figured out a way around the problem. In a paper published five years ago inCell, Yamanaka and six colleagues showed how “induced pluripotent stem cells” could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells. Today, that discovery earned him a Nobel Prize, shared with British scientist John Gurdon. But the prize announcement and much of the media coverage missed half the story. Yamanaka’s venture wasn’t just an experiment. It was a moral project.
Freddie rejects the notion that data exists in a vacuum:
Empiricism exists within a framework of theory, and theory cannot be derived empirically. The fact-value distinction is real. (This argument of mine is illustrative of its own point: I take it as an empirical truth, not a normative statement, but its empirical claims are necessarily grounded in theoretical assumptions.) And fact-value problems exist for both the commission of empirical projects and the evaluation of empirical results.
While I sympathize with this stance, Freddie is wrong to think that journalists are going to–or should–reflect on the fact-value distinction. When scientists themselves routinely push a simplistic model of empiricism, it’s not fair to expect Ezra Klein to resolve that disagreement. Here’s the lengthy comment I left:
Great post. But methinks the problem doesn’t start with Klein as much as it does with academics. The delusion that empiricism alone can solve our problems started with us, and we continue to promote it. The Ezra Kleins out there are simply following our lead.
While I sympathize with your efforts…there are sound historical, institutional, and cultural reasons why social scientists are not the standard-bearers for empiricism and its connection to theory.
For better and for worse, it’s usually the natural and physical scientists who speak on these matters. Even more specifically, it’s often physicists. And trust me, they are not going to accept that “science exists within philosophy.” I have tried to raise this very point before, and I can’t begin to describe the ruckus it caused.
If your goal was to pick a fight, you couldn’t have chosen a better title. I can predict my friends’ response: “What? Are you trying to say that the mass of the electron depends on philosophy? That there are norms about the existence of gravity?”
These discussions always get reduced to something like gravity. Again, trust me because I’ve been there.
You’re trying to raise a very complicated idea. One that requires a ~1,000 word example to even get started. It’s a bit much to expect wonks to descend into this territory.
It’s especially harder when much public outreach about science and empiricism by academics stress that data alone can set us free, that empiricism is a way to free ourselves from our pre-conceived philosophies, and that thinking otherwise is the first step to destroying the Enlightenment.
If you want to change Ezra Klein, start with the physics professor down the hall from you.