Values and sustainability science

by Ine Dorresteijn and Jacqueline Loos

The idea of value-free science was already considered in the 18th century by David Hume (1711-1776) who distinguished between descriptive and prescriptive/ moral statements. The debates around the idea of value-free science grew more substantial in the early 20th century with the postulate of “Wertfreiheit”. The postulate states that value-judgements should be eliminated from science. The main proponent was the German sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920) who described “Wertfreiheit” with the case that value-judgements are irrelevant to describe facts and therefore, values should be kept out of science. His main motivation for formulating this postulate was to avoid political interference in science.

Weber’s postulate has been and still is heavily debated, as most scientists acknowledge that is not possible to adhere to his postulate. It is now internationally accepted that the use of value judgement cannot be kept out of scientific research, because every activity and every perception is based on experiences and (often unconsciously) judged by the human mind. Especially epistemic values, which are methodological values that structure the set-up of experiments and the analyses and interpretation of the data, are considered to play a necessary role in the rational and cognitive development of scientific knowledge (Rooney 1992). Epistemic values are presumed to promote the truth-like character of science with its character being the most secure knowledge available to us (McMullin 1982). In contrast, the use of non-epistemic values in science, such as moral, social and political values, is still very much debated and there are scientists in favour and against having them play a role in science (e.g. Staddon 2001; Lacey 2003). Nevertheless, most scientists agree that when non-epistemic value-judgements are made, one should state clearly which statements are facts and which statements are value judgements.

The dichotomy between facts and values is exceptionally blurry in sustainability science. The word sustainability per se is value-loaded and has the overarching goal to enable the continuing human and natural well-being on earth. One problem is that this “well-being” vastly varies among individuals, cultures and communities, so it is difficult to measure this with objective indices. Furthermore, the continuing existence of nature and the pristine world is judged as inherently good (Lele and Norgaard 1996).

Scientists working in sustainability and conservation biology often perform research on a purely scientific basis that is important to society (Lovejoy 1989). Their research often deals with the rapid change in the environment and shows an urgency to act. In many cases, scientists function as middlemen between society and scientific insight. Therefore, their work also includes the communication of their results and they need to find suitable ways of presenting their findings to the public. Most scientists are aware of this public role, however, the tension between scientific objectivity and public responsibility (through advocacy) has stirred endless debates among both practitioners and observers of these disciplines. Is it the responsibility of a scientist to make the society aware of the situation and promote actions on the basis of his findings and advocate for values (e.g. biodiversity)? Or should scientists merely contribute with scientific information and stay outside of political discussions?

Several arguments against advocacy presume a conflict between the fundamental nature of science and advocacy (Nelson and Vucetich 2009). For example, advocacy could conflict with science since it includes the assessments of value judgements and policies manifest a bias of one kind or another whereas the purpose of science is to assess objective phenomena and to remain neutral (Nelson and Vucetich 2009). Acknowledging this conflict, Lackey (2007) believes that scientists should participate in public debates, however, they should remain neutral – showing their policy preferences is inappropriate. The job of scientists should be to provide and explain the underlying science to help resolve important policy questions even though it is very challenging to provide accurate, relevant and policy-neutral information. In contrast, Noss (2007) argues that a conservation biologist can be an objective scientist and advocate for the diversity of life and other normative values at the same time with no contradiction. Being an honest and credible advocate already requires an ethical commitment to the norms of science including truth; even though the goal of conservation project might be heavily value-laden, the scientists will be as objective as possible while designing experiments, gathering and analysing data, and interpreting the results to determine which policies would be the most effective (Noss 2007).

What we try to show with this entry is (i) that values are an integral part of science and especially play a role in sustainability science, whose aim is a value in itself; (ii) that in good scientific practice, it is important to distinguish between value judgements and scientific statements to adhere to the objectivity and credibility of science; and (ii) that within the discipline of sustainability the opinions on what the role of the scientist is towards society is still very much divided. We would like to encourage you to think about your role as a scientist. Do you think it is important to actively advocate for your findings and values, or should scientists always remain neutral and only provide information? Can a scientist be objective and at the same time be an advocate as well? What do you think are the best ways to present your results to the public and what are the best ways for a scientist to advocate?

Lacey, H. (2003). “The behavioral scientist Qua scientist makes value judgments.” Behavior and Philosophy 31: 209-223.
Lackey, R. T. (2007). “Science, scientists, and policy advocacy.” Conservation Biology 21(1): 12-17.
Lele, S. and R. B. Norgaard (1996). “Sustainability and the scientist’s burden.” Conservation Biology 10(2): 354-365.
Lovejoy, T. (1989). “THE OBLIGATIONS OF A BIOLOGIST.” Conservation Biology 3(4): 329-330.
McMullin, E. (1982). “Values in Science.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2: 3-28.
Nelson, M. P. and J. A. Vucetich (2009). “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How.” Conservation Biology 23(5): 1090-1101.
Noss, R. F. (2007). “Values are a good thing in conservation biology.” Conservation Biology 21(1): 18-20.
Rooney, P. (1992). “On Values in Science: Is the Epistemic/Non-Epistemic Distinction Useful?” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1: 13-22.
Staddon, J. (2001). “Science as politics by other means: Fact and analysis in an ethical world.” Behavior and Philosophy 29(1): I-III.


3 thoughts on “Values and sustainability science

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for this entry. In order to decide which role a scientist want to or should take, I propose to read one book written by Roger A. Pielke, Jr. “The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics”. He describes very clearly four stages/roles from scientists in decision making processes, starting with the “pure scientist”, over the “science arbiter”,”issue advocate” to the “honest broker”.

    So, I don’t think that the responsibility in choosing a role lies solely on the scientists side. It is also a question about which role is appreciated by decision makers and the society?

  2. “Is it the responsibility of a scientist to make the society aware of the situation and promote actions on the basis of his findings and advocate for values (e.g. biodiversity)? Or should scientists merely contribute with scientific information and stay outside of political discussions?”

    I think the job of scientist is to make good science. Moreover, it is her / his duty to check if his / her findings are well interpreted and adopted. Not more. Greetings, Tibi

    • I definitely think scientists have a greater obligation than that–as Nelson and Vucetich pointed out, scientists are also citizens, and thus have the reasonable rights AND responsibilities of citizens to be informed of, and advocate for or against, policies that they believe are wise or just. Further, having special knowledge and training, for the scientist to try and distinguish the roles of citizen/advocate from that of scientist means that they will either a) be trying to ignore their own knowledge and analysis when making their choices as a citizen, or b) be applying their training, knowledge, and analysis, but insist that disclosing their analysis to fellow citizens (the analysis of a trained expert!) is inappropriate, or c) to not participate as a citizen because they’ve judged the role of scientist to be more important.

      I think everyone in society has a duty to pay attention to the impacts and nature of their work, and to advocate for its best use and application to the wider context to the extent they can, no matter what their job. Scientists, to me, arguably have more of this responsibility than average.

      I second the recommendation of Pielke, by the by…

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