Universities Should Help Break the Wall Between Facts and Values

Managing climate change and pandemics alike requires ‘values-first’ approaches to public policy development, not ‘science-first’ rhetoric. Read this new essay in the Times Higher Education. If you cannot access the pay-wall, the article is reproduced in full below.

In a recent article in Times Higher Education, Nicholas Dirks called on universities to take a lead in creating “a larger, shared culture of intellectual enquiry and moral evaluation”. This would be a shared culture which is no longer split between the sciences, social sciences and the arts: between facts, values and the imagination.

I agree. Universities need to model such integrated thinking, for two reasons. First, they, of all places, should recognise the unity of all knowledge. And, second, none of today’s global challenges will be met if they don’t do so.

Take climate change. Last month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first section of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). But it is confined to the science of climate change; the more policy-oriented parts of the report will not follow for another six months, leaving the public with no sense until then of the range of mitigation and adaptation measures that are feasible.

This sequence in public reasoning raises the age-old question – applicable to many other issues, such as pandemics, AI, human enhancement technologies and gene-editing — about the relationship between science and policy, between facts and values. In what way, if at all, do “the facts” revealed by science guide public policies to be pursued?

For the past 30 years, the IPCC has pursued a science-first approach to assessing climate change. But this puts the cart before the horse. It foregrounds arguments about, for example, the veracity of models or the accuracy of weather attribution science. Systematic evaluation of the range of feasible policy measures trails far behind, and any value-based deliberation about the ethical desirability of different policies is almost completely out of sight.

Similar science-first tendencies have dominated the framing of public health policy during the pandemic. UK politicians have defensively been “listening to the scientists” and much of the debate about Covid-19 policy has been about which model to believe or which scientific expert has the ear of the minister this week.

But at the heart of managing a pandemic, too, are value-laden judgements about how risks should be managed ethically. As a group of public health experts have recently written with respect to Covid-19, “Public health policies…revolve around a compass of moral values, which are implicitly given different weights by policy-makers and scientific advisors”. For example, the stand-off between the Great Barrington Declaration and John Snow Memorandum about the appropriateness of lockdowns, signed by different groups of scientists last year, was rooted in different moral values not in different scientific facts.

Just as epidemiological models have been leading Covid-19 policy, so-called integrated assessment models (IAMs) have been central to the development of the IPCC’s “policy scenarios”. Neither family of models are value-neutral, but you would not know this from the way their results are communicated. It is imperative for scientific modellers in both domains to be explicit about their moral and political values and the ethical choices embedded in their assumptions.

There are some obvious reasons why foregrounding explicit moral reasoning is resisted. By “following the science”, politicians can hide decision-making behind ostensibly value-neutral science. And it suits scientists too, in that it gives them the high seat at the policy table – and a ready-made argument for greater public funding for their models.

But science-first approaches place science in a false relationship with policy development and offer a dis-service to society at large. With climate change, pandemics and many other pressing issues, science needs to be interpreted within a framework of the moral and political values of the cultures within which it is practised – which means scientific evidence may be interpreted differently between different political cultures.

The obstacles to the development and implementation of climate policies are not epistemic. They are fully political, cultural, ethical and psychological. They do not result from a deficiency in scientific knowledge or public understanding of climate science. It is not the case that more and better science will pave the way (eventually) for better and easier policies.

Facts uninterpreted by values are sterile; values without facts are blind. If transnational advisory bodies such as the IPCC, or national advisory bodies such as Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, cannot recognise this then, as Dirks says, “universities must lead the way” in breaking-down two cultures thinking and the artificial walls that separate science from value judgements.  

Mike Hulme is professor of human geography at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Pembroke College. His latest book, Climate Change (Routledge, 2021) explores these questions in greater depth.