August 18, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Are Not Experts on Values

The “fact-value split” is a dubious distinction, illustrated by several recent articles.  Scientists cannot act as if their findings are values-free.

Values-free facts?  Thomas Deitz tried to isolate facts from values in a piece posted on Science Daily.  According to the headline (“Better scientific policy decisions start with knowing facts from values“), he argued that scientists need to distinguish the two.  “When gathering public input on policy questions, scientists can speak with authority about facts, but must remember that everyone is an expert when it comes to values.”  As an example, though, he calls climate change a fact.  Apparently he didn’t read the piece by David Shukman on the BBC News.  No “global warming denialist,” Shukman is so concerned about findings that the climate has stalled for 15 years, despite predictions, that he calls on the climate experts need to explain why, or admit their models are wrong.  Deitz implies, though, that scientists are in control of unquestionable facts:

“It’s much safer to have a debate about facts than about values,” he said. “Facts can be proven. When you’re debating values, it’s almost like calling someone a bad person if you speak negatively about their values. We need to learn how to talk about values in a constructive way. As a society, we have to have these discussions so we can decide how to move forward and address scientific issues. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

As appeasing as that sounds, he later implies that scientists are the only ones to adjudicate facts.  “Sometimes people are concerned about an issue that research can easily resolve,” he says.  “This makes people believe in science more and gives the research more credibility.”  What about cases where the research is wrong?  Would he allow for situations where the public has more common sense  than the scientists?

Faith works:  Scientists can research a “fact” like the effectiveness of faith-based prison ministries, but values are woven throughout such studies.  On Science Daily, it was reported that a “Faith-based re-entry program for prisoners saves money, reduces recidivism” according to a study in Minnesota.  The savings and reduced recidivism are measurable quantities, but they don’t occur in a moral vacuum.  One can imagine the outcry from certain academic quarters from this conclusion of the study: “In a time of economic hardship, it would seem prudent for secular and sacred groups to consider working together in order to develop evidence-based approaches to confront social problems like offender rehabilitation and prisoner re-entry….”  This pits scientists’ professed love for “evidence-based approaches” against their frequent dislike for “sacred groups.”  But that word “prudent” is an inescapable “values” implication of the story.

Hippo crit:  Evolutionary biologists are up in arms in Turkey over a government that is not eager to fund research on evolution.  According to Science Magazine, they are protesting and crying out for “academic freedom.”  Yet in America, cries for academic freedom to question evolution are often met with deaf ears, if not outrage or punishment.  Maybe they should consider the criteria of Hippocrates—do no harm—lest they look like hypocrites: that is, if they “value” honesty as well as “facts”.

Foul mouth too far:  In Nature on August 8, Glenn Branch reviewed a new book by creationist-hater P.Z. Myers (manager of anti-creationist blog Pharyngula), entitled, The Happy Atheist.  Although Branch liked much of the book, and seems a kindred spirit with Myers, he felt much of the sarcastic rhetoric taken from the “arsenal of ridicule” was beyond the pale:

Whether infuriating or invigorating, ridicule is no substitute for a considered critique, and Myers often fails to do justice to his targets. For example, his analysis of the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level, if amusing, is a popular rather than a scholarly treatment, and incorporates value judgements that are unsupportable by science. Myers might respond that his targets are too ridiculous to warrant anything more serious, but such a response presupposes, rather than compels, agreement.

There’s facts mixed with values again.  Branch would have hoped for a more thought-provoking treatise.  “These conceits are often amusing and occasionally instructive [factive], but the tactic is cheap [a value].”

Evolved values?  Scientists frequently try to portray values as evolved phenomena, such as this story on PhysOrg, “Study suggests humans, apes and monkeys all expect something in return for generosity.”  The paper on which the story is based tries to explain generosity in terms of game theory and kin selection.  This implies, however, that generosity is really just disguised selfishness.  Do Darwinists support selfishness as the root of all their values?  Is that why Peter Foukal in Nature called on fellow scientists to “Follow Obama’s example and take a pay cut” in the wake of the US sequester?

Brain tampering:  Alarmed that researchers recently were able to implant “false memories” in a mouse (see Live Science or Science Daily), Nature wrote that the project “puts [the] focus on ethics.”  Helen Shen wrote,

The false mouse memories made the ethicists uneasy. By stimulating certain neurons in the hippocampus, Susumu Tonegawa and his colleagues caused mice to recall receiving foot shocks in a setting in which none had occurred. Tonegawa, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says that he has no plans to ever implant false memories into humans — the study, published last month, was designed just to offer insight into memory formation.

But the experiment has nonetheless alarmed some neuroethicists. “That was a bell-ringer, the idea that you can manipulate the brain to control the mind,” says James Giordano, chief of neuroethics studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He says that the study is one of many raising ethical concerns, and more are sure to come as an ambitious, multi-year US effort to parse the human brain gets under way.

Visions of 1984 come to mind.  Such a tool in the hand of a totalitarian dictator could have dissidents confessing to crimes they did not commit (although external mind control produced such reactions in Stalin’s regime).  Having mentioned the latest worry is “one of many,” Shen positioned the worries of ethicists against scientists who are excited at the prospects of “deep brain stimulation” and other manipulations “affecting thought, emotion, behaviour — what people hold valuable as the essence of the self”.

Scientist as public teacher:  Occasionally, the journals promote outreach by scientists to the public.  In PNAS, for instance, Hans Peter Peters suggested ways for improving public outreach, though he was not worried about erosion of public trust in science.  In another PNAS paper, Dominique Brossard advocated ways for scientists to get ahead of internet search engines in providing reliable scientific information to the public.  “Particular emphasis is given to the bias introduced by search engines, the nature of scientific content encountered online, and the potential impact of the Internet on audiences’ knowledge and attitudes toward science.”  A paper in Science asks, “Who will pay for public access to research data?” stating that some of it “valued data for the public good.”  These papers all presuppose that scientists are trustworthy and value honesty, but they ignore the possibility of abuse (see article on Evolution News & Views, “Science Media Center to Craft Talking Points for Controversial Scientific Issues“).

Two books deal with these issues far better than any commentary here: Darwin Day in America by John West, and The Magician’s Twin, a compendium of articles about C. S. Lewis’s views on science, scientism and society.  Just remember that scientists are only human.  While everyone should strive for empirical accuracy, one’s values color all the “facts” they put forward for trust.  It’s imperative to consider both, and neither in isolation.  You can’t offer a fact without honesty.



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