Scientists as advocates … and humility around value judgments

By Matt Nolan 02/10/2014 2


I keep seeing tweets like this – like multiple times a day for several weeks now:

So I thought I should provide my thoughts.

I agree.  Scientists are people and should be able to say what they believe in … as long as they:

  1. Are transparent about the ethical assumptions embodied in what they are saying
  2. Accept that others can have different ethical assumptions – and they can’t trump with authority in this dimension.
  3. Accept that there may be accepted assumptions within their analytical framework which seem appropriate for investigation, but are fundamentally inappropriate when it comes to policy questions.

Science gives us some knowledge about “what is”.  Scientists can speak with authority here, and appeals to authority should be persuasive (hopefully) given their credibility.  However, policy conclusions require ethical choices – questions of “what ought to be” – which are not so easily answered (contrary to all types of common sense arguments that are whipped out).  Furthermore, there are some “what is” statements that are in fact unknowable/unmeasurable – and that we in turn have to make assumptions about which may seem appropriate in our “group” but may seem inappropriate outside the discipline.  Ought and debatable is statements need to be transparent.

This is precisely the same standard I hold economists to, where they create knowledge about trade-offs.

The issue that crops up is that scientists and economists, through their focus on problem solving, can have an inflated belief about the importance – and “truth” – of their own value judgments.  Such a tyranny of technocrats is not a good thing.

As a result, although I agree completely that scientists (and economists) should be able to push for policies they believe in – I ask for them to do it transparently, and to recognise that they aren’t doing it with the same “authority” they have when discussing well defined “what is” questions.  My experience with economists and scientists is that, when it comes to discussing policy, these important points get downplayed.

I am sorry if you find that offensive, as it certainly isn’t meant to be given how wicked cool I think scientists and the knowledge they provide are! Instead think of making your assumptions clear and your arguments able to be criticised by as wide an audience as possible as part of what being a good scientist/economist is.  Communication and accepting that even a well communicated policy argument can be disagreed with when values differ is key if you truly want to do what is “right”.

Leaning into a fantasy world where we know what is “objectively right” in terms of value judgments is frankly absurd, whether from an economist, scientist, or lay person.  We can’t let the habits we use (appropriately) when applying analytical methods filter into our views of what is right or wrong for others to do – this is part of the reason economics is designed how it is.  We can’t let the language of economists and scientists, which is used to describe precise and measurable things, turn into a rhetoric that obfuscates and hides value judgments.

Scientists, and economists, are better than that.  And as people we should respect our fellow citizens enough to accept that our democratic rights involve having a voice – not using that voice to silence others.  Inappropriate use of appeal to authority without transparency on ethical assumptions does just that!


2 Responses to “Scientists as advocates … and humility around value judgments”

  • Superb post Matt. All great points.
    wrt to 1. transparency – it is not easy for scientists (or anyone) to articulate the ethical assumptions in what they (we) say. But it is certainly a worthwhile exercise. It is often only in the course of debate that they become clear.

  • Accept the principle of what you say Matt, although it is a bit like lecturing to the already convinced. Here are some qualifying factors.

    1: Your chosen tweet is a bit ironic for 2 reasons.

    a: It quotes Peter Gluckman who makes exactly the same points you have made here.

    b: Your insistence “as long as they say” is not possible in a 140 character tweet. One could make similar rules for anyone using Twitter but of course they are impracticable or impossible in that part of the real world.

    2: It’s a judgment on your part to claim scientists/economists downplay these issues. In the real world it is sometimes possible to talk about the differences between science and ethics and how that effects policy. Sometimes that is appreciated by the audience and useful but sometimes it comes across as arrogantly teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. After all, what you say is not new and many people in policy areas already are well aware.

    Another thing to consider is that scientists and ecnomists need to learn about getting their message across when talking to the public. We are often criticised for being too careful, introducing qualifications, etc. In the end it is a compromise but a public audience often appreciates not being loaded down with diversions – especially when it is the science they want to know about.

    3: Gluckman made the point in his article on fluoridation that while the question is ethical opponents often turn to the science to avoid the ethics. Science becomes a proxy for ethics. Often the scientists role is to handle the problem of scientific misinformation – on which they are qualified to advise. In a good situation the scientist can make the point of ethics and science being seperate issues but often in the real world the discussion quickly becomes dominated by science and the misinformation around that. We should not back away from the role we can and should play in correcting misinformation.