Normative language in science

Mirowski and Van Horn discuss how the growth of CROs has coincided with the decline of “truly new drugs” (p. 533), or drugs that are new and substantially different from those that are currently available.  Although CROs have been described as a “success” and are noted for their “efficiency,” these claims belie the fact that they have not increased the production of “truly new drugs.” (pp. 532-533)

I think this discussion raises an important issue, which is only implicit in what the authors say.  That is, we should be critical of the use of normative words like “success” and “efficiency” in science.  In the authors’ example, “success” seems to be measured by the number of drugs approves and the speed of their development (p. 532).  If that is all that “success” means, then we just need to remember how the word is defined in this context.  But the word “success” has normative significance; to call CROs “successful” seems to imply that they are good or better than the alternatives.  There are, after all, other possible ways of measuring success.  If we measure success by the number of “truly new drugs” being developed, then CROs seem not to be so successful.

How we define success is a normative question (at least if the word is to retain its normative significance).  Until we determine how “success” ought to be defined in this context, we should be critical of the use of the term.  We can say the same about other normative terms, such as “efficiency.”

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