HPS Colloquium: On Bias in Science


Location: 214 DeBartolo Hall

Join us as guest speaker Dr. Holman presents his recent research!  We meet every Tuesday before Fall Break at 4 PM for coffee, snacks, and a chance to catch up before the presentation begins.  Please note this session will meet in 214 DeBartolo Hall instead of our usual space.

The standard definition of bias holds that it is a systematic deviation from the truth.  I will argue that giving up the value-free ideal of science necessitates a move away from this definition.  For example, the precautionary principle requires us to keep a potentially unsafe chemical off the market even at the expense of mistakenly restricting access to greater number of chemicals that are safe. Yet numerous philosophers have argued that the inaccuracy induced by the precautionary principle is an appropriate infusion of values into science (e.g., Heather Douglas, Kevin Elliott, Justin Biddle, Daniel Steel, etc.).  Moreover, there seem to be cases of epistemically problematic practices that do not result in a systematic deviation from the truth.  For example, a pharmaceutical company that compares a standard dosage of their drug to a suboptimal dose of their competitors seems to be a clear case of bias. Yet though the results may be misleading, so long as the dosages are reported, the results are accurate (i.e., “unbiased”). 

I offer a definition of bias that classifies the use of the precautionary principle as unbiased and the rigged drug trial as biased, and sorts through a number of other similar tricky cases.  In so doing, I suggest this conception of bias prepares the ground to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable roles for values in science, what Torsten Wilholt and I have proposed to call “The New Demarcation Problem”.

Bennett Holman is a visiting scholar at Michigan State University.  He has an M.A. in Developmental and Clinical Psychology from York University and a PhD from the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine.  He has been an Assistant Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and a visiting fellow at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy and the Oxford Center for Evidence-based Medicine.