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Virtues and vices in scientific practice


The role intellectual virtues play in scientific inquiry has raised significant discussions in the recent literature. A number of authors have recently explored the link between virtue epistemology and philosophy of science with the aim to show whether epistemic virtues can contribute to the resolution of the problem of theory choice. This paper analyses how intellectual virtues can be beneficial for successful resolution of theory choice. We explore the role of virtues as well as vices in scientific inquiry and their beneficial effects in the context of theory choice. We argue that vices can play a role in widening the set of potential candidate theories and support our claim with historical examples and normative arguments from formal social epistemology. We argue that even though virtues appear to be neither necessary nor sufficient for scientific success, they have a positive effect because they accelerate successful convergence amongst scientists in theory choice situations.

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  1. In such accounts, knowledge is defined as a state that includes both the true belief and the virtuous source responsible for the acquisition of this belief. This is taken to block the Gettier-cases (1963) without adding an extra condition on knowledge. As Greco (2002) notes, the Gettier cases are blocked once we draw the distinction between (1) a belief being true and being the result of epistemic virtues; and (2) a belief being true because of it being the result of epistemic virtues.

  2. See Fairweather (2011) and Ivanova (2010) for a further discussion of Stump’s interpretation.

  3. The role of virtues has been further explored by Axtell (2014), Ivanova (2014) and Ivanova and Paternotte (2013) in the context of theory choice; by Morton (2014a), Vallor (2014) and Di Bucchianico (2014) in the performance of experiments and observations.

  4. Not to mention that scientific activity itself has occasionally been seen as favouring the cultivation and exercise of virtues, as pointed out by an anonymous referee.

  5. A point already made by Kidd (2011), who interprets Duhem as a virtue responsibilist (for objections to this specific interpretation, see Fairweather 2011 and Ivanova 2011).

  6. Recent works on the social dimension of virtues and vices are Rowbottom (2011), Ivanova and Paternotte (2013) and Morton (2014b); and Kidd (2014) in the case of intellectual courage (also see Roberts and Wood 2007, Chap. 5). In virtue epistemology, a similar claim has been made by Kawall (2002). Fricker (2012) has provided an influential social virtue epistemology approach to group testimony. However, even though she holds that groups can possess the virtues of good informants, she does not discuss how the virtues of individual members impact collective epistemic success.

  7. Zagzebski (2003) and Putnam (1981) consider moral virtues to be fundamental. They appeal to the Aristotelian notion of eudemonia, the idea of personal flourishing.

  8. Intuitively, moral and intellectual scientific virtues may seem quite distinct: a good researcher could be immoral, and a bad researcher morally righteous. However, this intuition equates the quality of research with the intellectual virtues it arises from. By contrast, we hold that some virtues considered as moral can influence the quality of a scientist’s output.

  9. An analogous distinction is introduced in Sosa (2007) who distinguishes between ‘transmission’ and ‘generation’ faculties.

  10. We do not mean to presuppose that virtues should not overlap, as some authors have argued for their similarity or even unity (Baehr 2011, Chap. 1). However, we intend to focus on their differences, so that the common point we later highlight does not appear built-in.

  11. Hull (1988) also famously highlighted the crucial role of credit in science.

  12. Their views are discussed with more details in Sect. 5.

  13. But also Duhem (1906), who saw it as independence from metaphysical commitments.

  14. Note that this does not exclude interests but their influence. Stump’s interpretation of Duhem’s views is that if scientists can have commitments or “ethical and political values”, they “cannot be connected directly to the scientific choice one is making” (2007, p. 158).

  15. Here we are indebted to an anonymous referee.

  16. This is not to say that virtues do not share other common points. For instance, following Aristotle, it could be argued that having the ’right motivation’ is a constitutive component of any virtue. For instance, a scientist would not be considered open-minded if she considered the merits of different alternatives at all times out of (say) conformity to a learned set of rules. We thank an anonymous referee for making this point.

  17. As a final preliminary note, we emphasise that we do not aim to define virtues and vices in instrumental terms—where character traits would qualify as virtues or vices depending on whether they lead to scientific success or failure. Quite the contrary: we have extracted from the literature what are usually considered as virtues and vices for non-instrumental reasons, in order to determine their respective effects on scientific success. In particular, in Sects. 46, we will point out that several vices can lead to scientific success, while continuing to call them intellectual vices. One who favours an instrumental view of epistemic character traits may want to use such discussion to argue that the foregoing actually makes these vices virtues; but this paper does not take such a stand.

  18. We now know that Pasteur’s evidence was inconclusive, because its strength relied on the premise that microbes cannot survive exposure to boiling water.

  19. Note that our aim is not to dismiss Pasteur, who was a remarkable scientist and an extremely skillful experimenter; on the contrary, that Pasteur was scientifically skilled and successful makes his intellectual vices and their effects all the more salient.

  20. Millikan’s oil drop experiments, performed in order to measure the charge of the electron, offer another example of beneficial dishonesty, although a more debatable one. Millikan’s deletion of one set of experimental results had the effect of reducing the statistical error of the measurements (Franklin 1998, p. 429), which made the results more persuasive and accepted with less difficulty than would have been the case from the complete set of results. However, as in other similar cases, Millikan’s behaviour may be interpreted as exemplifying Duhem’s scientific good sense, which may be characterised as guiding both virtuous and vicious behaviours (Ivanova 2010).

  21. We emphasise that the interpretation of the following works in terms of vices is our own and does not commit their authors.

  22. For Kitcher and Strevens, the widespread following of epistemic norms may lead to suboptimal results in science; pursuing personal interests can lead to collectively better outcomes. Still, in principle agents who only care about overall scientific success would equally agree to distribute themselves among projects. In this sense, following private interests is not strictly beneficial to science. However, it can be beneficial in practice, as the hypothesis that scientists only care about scientific progress is descriptively inadequate.

  23. This could also be realised by having virtuous members playing the role of the Devil’s Advocate in debates, in the interest of their interlocutor or of the whole community. We take this positive role to be also social in nature, and covered by Rowbottom’s (2011) analysis. Still, it is consistent with dogmatism having similar effects, and so does not mitigate our later claim that virtues are not necessary for scientific success.

  24. Informational diversity could also be favoured by dishonesty, which would lead scientists to hide part of their data or results and would thus favour the occurrence of different states of information within a community.

  25. Note that the benefits of dogmatism must be taken with a grain of salt, as Zollman emphasises that the concomitant presence of both corresponding diversities is likely to be detrimental, as it would ‘hinder the convergence to one action’ (Zollman 2010, p. 33). In Zollman’s words, diversity only helps if it is ‘transient’, that is, temporary. If not, scientists may never become able to converge on the best theory. Under the ‘vice’ interpretation, this means that extreme dogmatism (or its widespread combination with dishonesty) would be harmful to science. Non-formal analyses reflect this equivocal effect: for Stanford’s (forthcoming), the social structure of contemporary science has led to a detrimental degree of conservatism; however, Rowbottom (2011) argues that dogmatism can be a functional feature of science at the group level.

  26. Strictly speaking, as noted in the previous section, the case of Mendelism has a social dimension. However, it involves aggregated individual vices, the effect of which stems from their sheer number. By contrast, in the normative cases, the benefits of vices depend on the social context.

  27. In Kitcher’s and Strevens’ models though, egoistic individuals could have been better off in isolation.

  28. Which Feyerabend intended only as a mock methodological principle (Tsou 2003, following Lloyd 2000) meaning the absence of any such principle; this fits theory creation during pre-convergence science.

  29. The positive role of generation virtues for pre-convergence science looks obvious, as the pre/post convergence distinction seems to echo the generation/assessment virtue one. However, the parallel is not artificial. First, virtue epistemologists and philosophers of science developed these independently. Second, post-convergence science is not straightforwardly made more successful by assessment virtues.

  30. We do not claim such convergence to be universal but only partial. We agree with Solomon’s (2001) claim that dissent may be appropriate if properly distributed and that theories’ power of attraction should be proportional to their degree of empirical and technological success. In such cases, scientists still agree about the theories’ merits, even if other factors influence their choice to work on a specific one. Partial convergence still stems from agreement.

  31. Ivanova and Paternotte (2013).

  32. This would be true even if all instances of past successes crucially depended on vices. Actual success may be coincidental. However, the probability that this keeps being coincidental should decrease as time passes, due to the law of large numbers.

  33. Note that this strays from Duhem (1906), who thought that a decisive consensus always appears to favour the best choice in the end. However, as highlighted by Solomon and Miller, consensus can be bad, and dissent good.

  34. This does not damage the analogy, as catalysts often boost a reaction rate by increasing the probability that a reaction will happen—for instance by lowering its activation energy.

  35. Incidentally, one could push the analogy by stressing a third analogous point: just as catalysts are unaffected by the chemical reaction, virtues, as character traits, are not affected by the convergence process. However, although true, this remark adds nothing to our understanding of theory choice.

  36. Recall that by ‘successful’ we do not mean that the result should be a true or even a perfectly empirically adequate theory. Success could be limited and temporary. In other words, we do not claim that virtues guide us towards truth.


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This research was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The authors thank several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments, as well as audiences of the 2013 EPSA Conference, Helsinki, and of the ‘Modeling epistemic and scientific groups’ 2013 Workshop, Nancy.

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Correspondence to Cedric Paternotte.

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Paternotte, C., Ivanova, M. Virtues and vices in scientific practice. Synthese 194, 1787–1807 (2017).

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  • Virtues
  • Vices
  • Theory choice
  • Social epistemology
  • Consensus formation