Values Without Facts
In my experience, science studies scholars earn their livelihood criticising scientists who fail to appreciate how scientific enterprises are embedded within society, social norms, or cultural values. Roger Pielke, a scholar cited in STS and professor at the University of Colorado, gives David Nutt, the UK Chief Science adviser in 2009 and Anna Glover, the chief science adviser to the European Commission in 2014 as examples. These scientists, a psychiatrist and a cell biologist respectively, espouse dedication to science and fail to appreciate politics and values involved, Pielke says. The UK government fired David Nutt for saying some illegal drugs were less risky than legal ones … [please read below the rest of Part II].
Sudall, Edward. 2022. “Constructive Critique: Social Value in Science Fact.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (8): 57-74. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-752.
The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Editor’s Note: Edward Sudall’s “Constructive Critique: Social Value in Science Fact” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part II. Please read Part I. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
Articles in this dialogue:
❦ Barker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. 2017. “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (8): 1-10.
The European Science commission chided Anna Glover for her pronouncements that genetically modified organisms are safe (enough). Pielke elaborates their failings in light of STS scholar, and Arizona State university professor, Daniel Sarewitz’s assertion that “politics can isolate values from facts no more than science can isolate facts from values”. But is the Sarewitz or Pielke claim a fact or a warranted claim? If not, what are Sarewtiz or Piekle trying to prove? The statement implies that values should have more credence than facts in decision-making because facts are always entangled with values, but such a claim is strangely circular.
Values are also always entangled with facts as well: what ought to be (values) very much rests on the confidence we have in what is (facts). The assumption Pielke and Sarewitz have is that scientists should leave it up to democratic representatives or citizens to decide and leave the scientific evidence and its pretensions at the door when asked to do so. In The Honest Broker and How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse, for instance, both argue so.
Why facts should be seconded to values, or science seconded to representatives, or scientists seconded to politicians is never justified without recourse however to a claim it would be better that way than otherwise. And for it to be better presupposes worse and better justifications, and worse and better evidence from the get-go. Neither Nutt nor Glover believes that telling the science has no values involved, as Pielke contends. On the contrary they clearly believe there is value in telling facts in order to bother commenting on controversies at all. Nutt, for example, follows the evidence that drug policy in the UK is worse than it could be, so could be improved with drugs harm proportional to regulation and legislation; Glover follows the evidence that genetically modified organisms are safe enough; so efforts to prevent them should aim at better priorities, such as sustainable soil use. International United Nations reports agree with Nutt, and a cadre of Nobel laureates agree with Glover; they are in good company. Their folly in misunderstanding politics does not bear the brunt of blame, but politicians and interest groups who search for and censor the answers to suit their interests—they do.
The assumption from social scientists like Sarewitz and Pielke, none the less, is that the social ‘realm’ should be prioritised above physical or biological realms, partitioned off, and that politics and democratic deliberation should hold priority above science and scientists. What these scientists don’t get is that it’s a social issue, they say. But if there are really no hard or fast criteria for what counts as politics and science or values and fact, why should the Pielklian vision of politics dominating science prevail? On the contrary, the Pielke and Sarewitz sharp barb that scientists believe in objective science can be turned back against them as another admonition: science studies scholars fail to appreciate how society and social mores’ subjectivities are themselves embedded in indifferent scientific causes and effects. Distinguishing facts from values is possible. Because, evidence includes more than social assertions, such as neuroscience facts, for example, which can inform valued and evidenced policy.
To recount a science-as-argument idea from science-philosopher Carl Hempel: if we consider each arguer in academic debates to be putting forward justifications then some justifications are more objective and useful and merited than are others. Justifications that draw from facts ought to have more weight than opinions (a norm) because such approaches lead to better outcomes (a fact). We ought not to oversubscribe antibiotics (a norm) comes from evidence that it artificially selects for antibiotic resistance (a fact). If someone values their freedom enough to reject a vaccine (a value) then they are more likely to get ill (a fact) which has consequences on what they ought to value (a norm): their short-run freedom in avoiding vaccines may be a mistaken value because it costs their freedom from death or illness in the longer-run; so they may lose more of what they profess to value, freedom.
People who happily take vaccines have a more accurate view of how freedom works and how best to safeguard others; if people have differing views then that view is a misevaluation testable by those who disregard vaccines and then go on to get ill and or die—or cause others’ illnesses and deaths. So, the justification for getting vaccinated rests on values and facts, whereas the justification for not getting vaccinated rests on values and mis or under represented facts. None the less, academics like Sheila Jasanoff continue to perform intellectual somersaults whereby her’s and others’ justifications or reasons are justified and reasonable, whereas others’ justifications or reasons cannot be so if they claim to speak from science or truth, but fine if from a social group perspective, termed a ‘knowledge-way’ or ‘civic epistemology’ in her jargon.
The values behind the Land of The Free, the USA, imprisoning more people (2 million) than either oligarchic Russia or communist-party China are deeply held value-phenomena, for example, but are misvalued, stemming from misjustification. Likewise we can wax lyrical about the values and complexities behind gun ownership, which is a deeply held value for many, but a lax gun culture is less justified than a tight one. Likewise we can debate the diverse value systems between states and between people but the biology of human development has warranted bearing on how children and adolescents should be treated. To enable science to work for the people, it is not the seconding of science to society, but citizens embracing a positive—meaning reliable knowledge —science-of-society, a society run by people with sensible reasons for their basis, as the first sociologist Auguste Comte implored for society as far back as 1822. The philosophy of science and political philosophy are not really separate domains—think of Karl Popper and his falsificationist politics—but when operating well are two sides of the same social coin—warranted justifications—some of which include science (facts) informing cultural (values) justifications. Many of them are better justified by taking material causes into account than leaving them out.
By science studies taking only social choice seriously it ignores how social choices involve biology, psychology, and geography too. To solve problems like how to make a fairer society, though, something as seemingly removed as biology is intimately socially relevant. Consider a serious example: the prefrontal cortex develops in the mid 20s whereas criminal responsibility is imposed from age 12. It may be a choice to choose whether brain science is relevant in court. But brain science is relevant to everyone with a brain regardless. Leaving out facts about brain development and development psychology is itself a choice, and a choice that is less justified than including them. For example, such evidence is ignored in US states which imprison kids for witnessing a fight and not intervening, and imprison people counter-productively and counter-proportionaly for questionable crimes. As Oreskes and Barker put it, science studies analyses “de-facto take sides” when considering social issues such as court and public reasoning. In 2001 for example, a Canadian man was acquitted of murdering his mother-in-law because he was sleepwalking. The prosecutors thought that outcome ridiculous, but the Canadian supreme court disagreed; disagreed from the evidence that he did indeed have a sleepwalking disorder. Leaving out that fact would not have been conducive to value or justice, but to their opposites, misvalue and injustice. Similarly, a value-judgement on whether DNA should be included or excluded should at least include how reliable the DNA test is; the DNA is more reliable than eyewitnesses’ accounts for instance. Eyewitnesses are if anything over-trusted in court. Valuing some facts over others when some facts are more reliable than others is hardly justified.
Thus DNA is taken seriously in court already, and more reliable evidence is given credence and trust above STS debates about “the work of demarcation” between facts and values and who-says. Another example where correspondence between values and facts is helpful is schooling: childrens’ brains require more sleep, so demanding children wake early and go to school is counter-productive. Again, this brain fact implies a choice whether to include in the equation—but better outcomes come from including such facts than excluding them as utterances from eccentric actors in the social drama, that is, society. As an anonymous blogger named Bernard, seemingly at York University in Canada observed upon hearing a Jasanoff lecture in 2013, “here we find the reasons for many STS scholars’ reluctance to have normative discussions: it might turn out that we should believe certain scientific knowledge claims for essentially the reasons scientists say we should”.
The boundary work of who decides what counts in a community from an emigre professor “from a highly educated family”, unrevealed caste and class status is dubious. From standard scientific standards, such as Mertonian norms, the roles of tacit class or auxiliary wealth are impertinent and even deemed ad hominem (irrelevantly attacking the person’s standing rather than claims), but by the lights of social constructed reflexivity such as those espoused by Jasanoff herself, these characteristics are essential to explain what people value or disvalue, and why. When she says “most STSs scholars don’t have much to stay about neoliberalism or justice or equality” this normalises an acquiescence that looks much like pure science neglect of social ramifications, about “losers” and “winners” in Jasanoff’s words. The convenient choice of value rather than fact seeking inquiry actually detracts from the value of facts for values.
Interdisciplinary scientists like Robert Sapolsky, Lisa Feltman Barrett, and Jason Satterfield arguably do a better job of explaining social phenomena and policy practices—and co-production across university floor plans—because they genuinely meet the gauntlet raised by STS and expounded early in this essay: to answer social problems through building bridges across disciplines: the bio-psycho-social model has outcomes that depend on biology, psychology, and sociology—and their imbrication.
For example, social values can be informed by physical causes being taken into account. Social deprivation, contributed to by chemical pollutants, deprives opiate secretion for which heroin or morphine afford physical relief. A drug like heroin—the chemical—therefore addicts its victims whilst users —the social—also addict themselves. Drawing dots between cause and outcome commonly fails to intertwine these physical-social threads between chemical actants and actors working in concert. Indeed, while Actor Network Theory is supposed to discount the division between thing and person it ignores entirely how persons are composed of things, blood, bone, mucus, and so on that have no agency. In dismissing material causes as social causes—such as a key designed to impart a message or a doorstop designed to replace a doorman—the metaphor of human agency actually prevails in objects that have material scientific causes, rather than social reasons, behind them.
STS scholars in Actor Network Theory contend that lines between person-agency and techno-agency are conventionally drawn, with human actors negotiating with technological actants, such as when crossing roads when green-men permit crossing. But why to draw the lines in favour of persons and minds rather than objects and brains is never explained nor readily justified. My pet examples are pollutants and drugs: they dissolve distinctions drawn between things and people—exposing contingencies between human agency (actor, choice) and technologies (actant, effect). But this never enters the science studies picture as a material cause; indeed questions about whether chemicals harm citizens is deemed less interesting than whether citizens find chemicals agreeable, regardless of whether they cause more harm than good.
Science studies, with laughable irony, thereby burns bridges to biological and psychological explanations for their supposed reductionism. Good justifications, answers, and explanations come from integrating many different facts and values from convergent disciplines including more than ‘social’ explanations. Justifications that draw from, say, biology alone are inadequate. But so too are justifications that draw from social studies alone; and most social studies research does unfortunately just that; see for instance the sources in this footnote.
Conclusions for Reliable Knowledge
Philip Mirwoski writes of zombie ideas—coined by John Quigann—that just refuse to die despite contrary evidence, because of the concerted efforts and closed minds of thought-collectives like that of the neoliberals’, namely the Mont Pelerin Society and its funded offshoots which put corporatist ideas into practice. In some ways science studies’ thought collective has similarly gone astray for rejecting the idea of reliable knowledge, instead seeing everything in terms of social exchange, power, game-play or contrived performance. As Barker and Oreskes conclude, however, there are problems with viewing debates as a performance with blurry lines between knowledge and ignorance. As they elaborate:
Far from rendering science studies Whiggish or simply otiose, we believe that a willingness to discriminate, outside of scare quotes, between knowledge and ignorance or truth and falsity is vital for a scholarly agenda that respects one of the insights that scholars like Jasanoff have repeatedly and compellingly championed: in contemporary democratic politics, science matters. In a world where physicists state that genetic inferiority is the cause of poverty among black Americans, where lead paint manufacturers insist that their product does no harm to infants and children, and actresses encourage parents not to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases, an inability to discriminate between information and disinformation—between sense and nonsense (as the logical positivists so memorably put it)—is not simply an intellectual failure. It is a political and moral failure as well.
This game-view of science leads to dead ideas being raised again for enjoyment, such as the myth of ‘value neutral’ science no longer taken seriously by thoughtful scientists themselves, such as Kathryn Paige Harden at Texas University or Stuart Ritchie at King’s College, London or the resurrection of corrective ideas that have long outlived their utility. It also leads to science studies’ thought collective to propound ideas for the sake of ideas rather than further the cause of warranted reasons.
To conclude, then, I have argued here that science studies’ meta-impartiality is guilty of a pure ‘science’ thinking style; that its thought collective boundary work about what counts actually discounts and actually burns bridges to epistemic fields; that its ideals about opened-up expertise are contradictory; that co-production is an empty promise for useful explanations and disguises a reified status quo with more powerful producers having the leading say; that facts are valuable because of values; and that material causes have a bearing on what matters, and should matter, for evidence based policy and intellectual debate within academia, science studies included.
◈ Part I: “Constructive Critique: Social Value in Science Fact”
Edward Sudall, firstname.lastname@example.org, Independent Scholar. I am an MSc graduate in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at University College London and currently a temporary executive officer at the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in Westminister.
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