How should we frame solutions?

Graduate: 2/24
Undergraduate: 2/25


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Lecture Notes

So far, we have looked at two key moments in scientific inquiry: choice of problem to solve, and choice of methods to collect data. As we have seen, those moments involve various choices that may have consequences for what we value, and thus we bear responsibility for the value judgments implicated in those choices. Decisions about data collection are most significant, ethically speaking, when the research subjects are humans or sentient animals. Such research subjects have interests and welfare that need be considered when deciding how to collect data. When it comes to choice of problems, we must decide not only how to prioritize the problems we might choose to solve, i.e., our research agenda, but we must also decide how to frame those problems. Choice of how to frame problems depends not only on the perspicuity of the framing, but also the value-laden assumptions that we make when we frame problems in a certain way. Those framings can further encourage us to look for and accept only certain kinds of solutions. For example, Evgeny Morozov worries that “technological solutionism” will force us to see problems only in terms of the efficient, marketable solutions that we already tend to prefer.

This week, we look at the solutions that we propose and pursue to solve those problems. In scientific inquiries, potential solutions are generally referred to as “hypotheses,” while in technological inquiries, the solutions are often (not always) new tools or modifications to old tools. As with problems, there are really two types of choices that we face when we suggest solutions: how to frame the solution, linguistically or conceptually, and among possible solutions, which to pursue.

The language or conceptual repertoire that we develop and make use of in our inquiries has a real effect on our results. How we choose to make use of language matters. This is in part a result of the fact that most of our concepts are not purely neutral, descriptive in content, but also normative. That is, when I make use of terms like “feminine” or “divorce,” “ecosystem” or “endocrine disruption,” for example, the connotations of those terms are not merely descriptive, but also evaluative. Both our common sense and scientific languages are replete with thick concepts (a.k.a. “thick normative concepts” or “thick evaluative concepts”), which involve both descriptive and evaluative sides. Such concepts are one way that we connect our knowledge with action. So, “Divorce” might not just carry the meaning of a marriage ended, but also a negative sense of failure. When we allow that evaluation to come along with the terminology, it inevitable shapes our inquires. For example, it can make us more likely to exclude or overlook the experiences of those who find divorce to mean freedom from an unhappy or abusive situation. The role of thick concepts may not merely be a source of bias, but rather show the need for careful ethical reflection in framing ideas.

The choice to pursue one hypothesis is, simultaneously, the choice not to pursue many others. On the one hand, we may have a sense that among the hypotheses that suggest themselves to our attention, one or more is the intuitively most likely to succeed. On the other hand, certain solutions may occur to us while other alternatives, a priori no less likely to solve the problem at hand, may remain unconceived. The problem, ethically and politically speaking, is that certain systematic biases may restrict our attention to a narrow set of potential solutions. Insofar as this is the case, no matter how rigorous the methods and criteria by which we compare and assess those hypotheses, our knowledge will remain limited and biased. Most notable, historically and even in contemporary science, are choice of solutions that reflect and reinforce sexist and racist biases. Insofar as choosing different scientific hypotheses and technological solutions may not only limit our success, but also benefit or damage our interests and values, we must take care to reflect on alternative solutions and the assumptions that they carry.

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