Credit: Glenn Strong (Flickr).Credit: Glenn Strong (Flickr).

On Science and Values

by • March 7, 2017 • Rebecca Delker, Science News, Science PolicyComments (0)576


By Rebecca Delker, PhD


In 1972 nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg defined ‘trans-science’ as distinct from science (references here, here). Trans-science – a phenomenon that arises most frequently at the interface of science and society – includes questions that, as the name suggests, transcend science. They are questions, he says, “which can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” While most of what concerned Weinberg were questions of scientific fact that could not (yet) be answerable by available methodologies, he also understood the limits of science when addressing questions of “moral and aesthetic judgments.” It is this latter category – the differentiation of scientific fact and value – that deserves attention in the highly political climate in which we now live.

Consider this example. In 2015 – 2016, action to increase the use of risk assessment algorithms in criminal sentencing received a lot of heat (and rightly so) from critics (references here, here). In an attempt to eliminate human bias from criminal justice decisions, many states rely on science in the form of risk assessment algorithms to guide decisions. Put simply, these algorithms build statistical models from population-level data covering a number of factors (e.g. gender, age, employment, etc.) to provide a probability of repeat offense for the individual in question. Until recently, the use of these algorithms has been restricted, but now states are considering expanding their utility for sentencing. What this fundamentally means is that a criminal’s sentence depends not only on the past and present, but also on a statistically derived prediction of future. While the intent may have been to reduce human bias, many argue that risk assessment algorithms achieve the opposite; and because the assessment is founded in data, it actually serves to generate a scientific rationalization of discrimination. This is because, while the data underpinning the statistical models does not include race, it requires factors (e.g. education level, socioeconomic background, neighborhood) that are, themselves, revealing of centuries of institutionalized bias. To use Weinberg’s terminology, this would fall into the first category of trans-science: the capabilities of the model fall short of capturing the complexity of race relations in this country.

But this is not the whole story. Even if we could build a model without the above-mentioned failings, there are still more fundamental ethical questions that need addressing. Is it morally correct to sentence a person for crimes not yet committed? And, perhaps even more crucial, does committing a crime warrant one to lose their right to be viewed (and treated) as an individual – a value US society holds with high regard – and instead be reduced to a trend line derived from the actions of others? It is these questions that fall into the second category of trans-science: questions of morality that science has no place in answering. When we turn to science to resolve such questions, however, we blind ourselves from the underlying, more complex terrain of values that make up the debate at hand. By default, and perhaps inadvertently, we grant science the authority to declare our values for us.

Many would argue that this is not a problem. In fact, in a 2010 TED talk neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed that “the separation between science and human values is an illusion.” Values, he says, “are a certain kind of fact,” and thus fit into the same domain as, and are demonstrable by, science. Science and morality become one in the same because values are facts specifically “about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and our moral duty is to maximize this well being.

The flaw in the argument (which many others have pointed out as well) is that rather than allowing science to empirically determine a value and moral code – as he argued it could – he presupposed it. That the well being of conscious creatures should be valued, and that our moral code should maximize this, cannot actually be demonstrated by science. I will also add that science can provide no definition for ‘well-being,’ nor has it yet – if it ever can – been able to provide answers to the questions of what consciousness is, and what creatures have it. Unless human intuition steps in, this shortcoming of science can lead to dangerous and immoral acts.

What science can do, however, is help us stay true to our values. This, I imagine, is what Harris intended. Scientific studies play an indispensable role in informing us if and when we have fallen short of our values, and in generating the tools (technology/therapeutics) that help us achieve these goals. To say that science has no role in the process of ethical decision-making is as foolish as relying entirely on science: we need both facts and values.

While Harris’ claims of the equivalency of fact and value may be more extreme than most would overtly state, they are telling of a growing trend in our society to turn to science to serve as the final arbiter of even the most challenging ethical questions. This is because in addition to the tangible effects science has had on our lives, it has also shaped the way we think about truth: instead of belief, we require evidenced-based proof. While this is a noble objective in the realm of science, it is a pathology in the realm of trans-science. This pathology stems from an increasing presence in our society of Scientism – the idea that science serves as the sole provider of knowledge.

But we live in the post-fact era. There is a war against science. Fact denial runs rampant through politics and media. There is not enough respect for facts and data. I agree with each of these points; but it is Scientism, ironically, that spawned this culture. Hear me out.

The ‘anti-science’ arguments – from anti-evolution to anti-vaccine to anti-GMO to climate change denial – never actually deny the authority of science. Rather, they attack scientific conclusions by either creating a pseudoscience (think: creationism), pointing to flawed and/or biased scientific reporting (think: hacked Climate data emails), clinging to scientific reports that demonstrate their arguments (think: the now debunked link between vaccines and autism), and by honing in on concerns answerable by science as opposed to others (think: the safety of GMOs). These approaches are not justifiable; nor are they rigorously scientific. What they are, though, is a demonstration that even the people fighting against science recognize that the only way to do so is by appealing to its authority. As ironic as it may be, fundamental to the anti-science argument is the acceptance that the only way to ‘win’ a debate is to either provide scientific evidence or to poke holes in the scientific evidence at play. Their science may be bad, but they are working from a foundation of Scientism.


Scientific truth has a role in each of the above debates, and in some cases – vaccine safety, for example – it is the primary concern; but too often scientific fact is treated as the only argument worth consideration. An example from conservative writer Yuval Levin illustrates this point. While I do not agree with Levin’s values regarding abortion, the topic at hand, his points are worth considering. Levin recounts that during a hearing in the House of Representatives regarding the use of the abortion drug RU-486, a DC delegate argued that because the FDA decided the drug was safe for women, the debate should be over. As Levin summarized, “once science has spoken … there is no longer any room for ‘personal beliefs’ drawing on non-scientific sources like philosophy, history, religion, or morality to guide policy.”

When we break down the abortion debate – as well as most other political debates – we realize that it is composed of matters of both fact and value. The safety of the drug (or procedure) is of utmost importance and can, as discussed above, be determined by science; this is a fact. But, at the heart of the debate is a question of when human life begins – something that science can provide no clarity on. To use scientific fact as a façade for a value system that accepts abortion is as unfair as denying the scientific fact of human-caused climate change: both attempts focus on the science (by either using or attacking) in an effort to thwart a discussion that encompasses both the facts of the debate and the underlying terrain of values. We so crave absolute certainty that we reduce complex, nuanced issues to questions of scientific fact – a tendency that is ultimately damaging to both social progress and society’s respect for science.

By assuming that science is the sole provider of truth, our culture has so thoroughly blurred the line between science and trans-science that scientific fact and value are nearly interchangeable. Science is misused to assert a value system; and a value system is misused to selectively accept or deny scientific fact. To get ourselves out of this hole requires that we heed the advice of Weinberg: part of our duty as scientists is to “establish what the limits of scientific fact really are, where science ends and trans-science begins.” Greater respect for facts may paradoxically come from a greater respect for values – or at the very least, allowing space in the conversation for them.


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