Heather Douglas on How Values Shape Science Advice

PERITIA Board Member Heather Douglas is the latest interviewee of the SAPEA Science for Policy Podcast. In this episode, she discusses the role of values in shaping science advice and touches upon some of the key questions of PERITIA’s research, starting by asking: “Can science be a value-free area of epistemic concerns?”

The philosopher, author of the influential book ‘Science, Policy and the Value-Free Ideal’, and Professor at Michigan State University, argues against the idea of “freeing” science from social and ethical values, a philosophical thesis that started to solidify in the 1950s and 1960s.

“If we could have somehow value-free science, that would be great. The problem is that we can’t”, she argues, adding two particular reasons.

First, the framing of problems, the questions being asked in research are driven by social interests and values. This context dependence shapes the directions in which science is developed and pursued.

Second, scientific inference relies on the evidence available at a particular moment and this evidence is always limited, incomplete. There is no certainty. Instead, “there is always a gap between the evidence you have and the claim you want to make.”

“You need social and ethical values to help judge whether or not remaining uncertainties (in evidence) are good”, defends Heather Douglas.

Why should we rely on science?

The episode continues with an enlightening discussion on who should bear the responsibility of normative judgements in science –the scientist or the politician?–, how scientists should deal with their values when disclosing their results or why we should rely on science.

“Science is so reliable because it is always under criticism, examination, further investigation… It is always worked over again by the scientists. That is why it is actually reliable, not because it is a fixed foundation of facts with answers on the back of a book”, she says.

Watch her talk discussing trustworthy science advice in our PERITIA lectures series [Un]Truths: Trust in an Age of Disinformation.