The responses to my recent article reveal that some in the conservation community, including scientists, policy-makers and managers, are having difficulty understanding the difference between facts and values.
They appear also to be having trouble understanding how the distinction is an important guide to scientists when they advocate publicly for one side of an environmental conflict, like that currently being had over 1080 toxin-use, genetic engineering and RoundUp.
Gareth Morgan doesn’t get it either.
Perhaps the examples I used challenged readers values too much for them to read and think dispassionately about the issues I raised?
I wondered, therefore, if a simpler, non-environmental example might help?
Aren’t you cold?
I woke up yesterday feeling cold. It wasn’t a windy or rainy day. The sun was out, but I was feeling cold, bone-deep cold. You might identify with me when I say that there are just some days when, for no apparent reason, I feel colder than others.
I dressed accordingly – trousers, jersey and beanie – and set out for work. I met Robin, my neighbour, also leaving home for work, as she crashed through her falling-down front gate. She was in a short skirt and light shirt, but smiling like the day was hers for the taking. “Hieeeeee” she sang.
“Aren’t you cold”, I asked, involuntarily shivering just at the sound of the word.
“No” said Robin. “I’m comfortable thanks. It’s going to be a lovely day”.
“But you’ve bare legs and, forgive me for being personal but, they’re white and turning blue!”.
Robin recoiled. “Bastard”, she said and gave me a neighbourly wink. “Oh, I’ll be fine. This walk will get my blood moving.”
Then, pulling my phone to show her the temperature – “Robin!, it’s 13 degrees!”.
“Yes, it is. That’s a warmer than average day in Wellington”. Robin was resolute.
I pulled my beanie lower, crossed my arms to fortify myself against the cold and walked with her. The conversation moved on from the weather.
“When are you going to fix that gate?”
Facts, beliefs and values
That the temperature was 13 degrees is a measured, scientific fact. That it is cold or warm is not a fact. It is a subjective interpretation of temperature. Robin cannot be wrong, just as I cannot be right.
How each person interprets temperature is a consequence of complex interactions between brain and body, physiological and neurological processes, culture and values, and experience. Everybody interprets feelings of temperature differently and those interpretations will also vary over time. The differences of interpretation are not wrong or right. They’re just the reality – the real world is a place of variable realities (values and beliefs).
A professional error
Thus, if I was to use my position of authority as a scientist to advocate that the day is cold based on the fact that it is 13 degrees centigrade I would be committing a professional error. To do it and not acknowledge my values-based prejudice (bias) that it is cold is to mislead and misrepresent reality.
And, that people vary in their interpretations of temperature is also a measurable (scientific) fact. Thus, for me to impose my belief that it is cold on others would be to contradict the scientific fact that my belief cannot be true for everyone. I would be pretending to know a universal the “truth” when no such thing exists. I would also then be using my authority to subjugate other people and their different beliefs.
Then, if I was to use my authority (individually or collectively with other scientists) to legitimise the use of power by a third party (e.g., police) to enforce my belief that it is cold, I am being a bully (actually, the technical term is fascist because I would be legitimising the use of government authority to subjugate dissent from minority or less powerful communities).
1080 facts and scientists’ values – ETHICS
And so it is with conflicts over 1080’s use. Science can tell us what and how many are killed by a poison. It can tell us what happens if we do and don’t poison. It can tell us how poisoning might be done. Those can be measured, like temperature. But it cannot tell us that 1080 is good or bad, right or wrong. It cannot tell us whether it is safe or humane.
Scientists need to be absolutely clear about the difference between a fact and their values when advocating for a particular environmental action. In the 1080 debate they have not been.
And, it is unethical for scientists to use their authority to lend support to the subjugation of others’ values and beliefs just because they are different from theirs.
The solution must come from communities, not scientists
Whether 1080 is used is a decision which our nations’ communities and communities of stakeholders must decide – together. Different decisions will be arrived at in different places at different times that reflect different communities’ values. Sometimes 1080 will be used, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will be used more, sometimes less. That is for them to decide.
Scientists’ expertise, experience and authority can be used to inform those community-based decisions, but it cannot and should not be used to dictate to those communities what is right and wrong.