Thursday, September 21, 2017

Anna Alexandrova's "A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being"

Anna Alexandrova is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King's College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. She writes on philosophy of social sciences, especially economic modelling, explanation, and the sciences of well-being.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being, and reported the following:
If only I had known about Ford Madox Ford and his page 99 test... As I didn’t, my page 99 does two things that are probably as uninteresting to most readers as they are obligatory to academics: signposting where the argument is going and bowing to relevant literature. It also has lots of empty space, which is about as informative. Please don’t judge my book by its 99th page.

But the idea I am servicing with all these accoutrements is good and right. The fundamental problem that animates this book is that today social and medical sciences are asked to speak on well-being, quality of life, and happiness – phenomena whose definitions are a matter of values – and science must speak on them while adhering to the ideals of precision and objectivity. The collision of these two ambitions – to advise on what is good for us and to do so scientifically – forces all sorts of new and distinctive compromises. As a scientific object well-being needs to have a clear and unambiguous definition (which it doesn’t normally), a precise measurement scale (which it doesn’t normally), a measurable connection to behaviours and material goods (also elusive). I have found that scientists resolve these tensions by modifying both the object of research, i.e. well-being, and the norms by which they study it. As a result of such, often sneaky, dovetailing ‘well-being’ ends up meaning something a little different and the traditional scientific ideals are also not what they used to be.

This is not in the least a criticism. There are no immutable meanings of words, nor rules of science written in the sky. One scientific norm this field has already redefined and rightly so is objectivity, which is what my page 99 is all about. If objectivity means detachment from value judgments and commitment to facts and nothing but the facts, there could be no science of well-being. It couldn’t even get off the ground in its initial act of delineating its subject matter. A better ideal of objectivity for this field is to embrace value-ladenness but set up public and explicit rules for how value judgments should be justified to the individuals and communities about and for whom this research exists. It can be done and it has to be done because good life is too important not to know about.

In a sense the science of well-being is too big to fail.
Learn more about A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue