Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Mapping Values in Science and Society

How to make your values explicit

Making decisions about social issues, including scientific ones such as climate change and bioengineering, requires values as well as facts. One good way to make such values explicit is to diagram them using cognitive-affective maps, which display emotional attitudes as well as concepts.

 Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence, combining psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, linguistics and computer modeling. My new book, The Cognitive Science of Science, investigates the structure and growth of scientific knowledge by considering the psychological, neural, and computational processes that underlie explanation, discovery, and conceptual change. The second-last chapter discusses the roles that values play in science.

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 Making good scientific decisions requires attention both to epistemic values concerning knowledge and to social values concerning human welfare. In an earlier post, I showed how diagrams called cognitive-affective maps can be used to help resolve conflicts by increasing mutual understanding of emotions as well as belief systems. The same technique is useful for making explicit the complexes of values that underlie important decisions.

 Here is a map of my own system of knowledge-related values. The positive values are shown by green (for GO) ovals and the negative values are shown by red (for STOP) hexagons. Values that are mutually supportive are linked by solid lines, whereas values that are incompatible are shown by dotted lines. I have many good reasons for preferring truth to error, objectivity to bias, explanation to mystery, coherence to inconsistency, and evidence to faith.


Good scientific decisions, however, require attention also to social and ethical values that also need to be made explicit. Here is a map of the values that I think are most appropriate for people, including biological needs such as food, water, health, and shelter, as well as psychological needs such as relatedness, competence, and autonomy. These positive values, shown by green ovals, contrast with negative values such as malnutrition, illness, and isolation, shown in red hexagons. Ideally, we want decisions about controversial scientific issues in environmental and medical ethics to be made in ways that combine the best epistemic values such as truth with the best social and ethical values such as human needs. It sometimes happens, unfortunately, that decisions are made that combine bad epistemic values such as ignorance of scientific evidence with bad social values such as concern only with the rich and powerful.




If you would like to draw your own value maps, you can find simple instructions here, along with a free computer tool, EMPATHICA, that facilitates their construction. I suggest that you map out your own system of values about knowledge and society and reflect on how they can be improved to yield better decisions about how the world is and how it ought to be.


Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.


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