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Values, Ideology, and Scientific Inquiry

Virtually all environmental perturbations are extraordinarily complex and difficult to understand. Environmental science and related disciplines such as toxicology are the primary means by which society seeks such knowledge. In turn, many environmental discussions and conflicts would be simplified if participants could agree on a basic set of factual assumptions.

Frequently, however, this proves difficult. In some cases, it’s because science, usually somewhat uncertain, is up against the certitude of ideology –- and, in such cases, faith tends to trump reason. In other cases, it’s because the results of scientific inquiry are not universally accepted because they are perceived as normative and biased. This seems to be particularly acute with environmental science. Why?

To answer this, we must look at the scientific process itself. This is not uncontroversial. To some, all scientific discourse is of no more value than any other human practice, like magic. In contrast, to some logical positivists and scientists the scientific discourse is the only Truth. Both extremes, of course, are simplistic.

Science, as something that some people in a society do with their lives, is a cultural phenomenon: it is thus in a broad sense normative, contingent, and reflective of the values and beliefs of its culture and historical period. Moreover, the choice of method, problem, and hypothesis are also normative, reflecting broad social trends, the state and structure of the scientific discipline (Kuhn’s famous paradigm), and the particular beliefs and training of the individual scientist. Thus, for example, an environmental scientist concerned about species loss may pick a region to study, and a particular hypothesis, that reflect her belief. But we can begin to see the objective element of the scientific process, for regardless of the personal beliefs or ideology of the scientist, a hypothesis must be testable, and falsifiable, to be legitimate. Thus, the statement, “Hundreds of angels can dance on a head of a pin” is not a scientific hypothesis – but “Hundreds of species have gone extinct in this salt marsh” is.

The testing of the hypothesis through experiment and research, governed by strong practices and a robust scientific culture, is the most objective stage of the scientific process. Making up data, fudging results, reporting incomplete or skewed results – all are unacceptable. Similarly, there are standards for the reporting of research; while disagreement over procedures is common (“Was the proper statistical test used?”), misrepresentation of research results is considered scientific fraud. Many environmental scientists thus hold strong views about the state of the environment, but conduct their research and report their results objectively and dispassionately.

But “the environment” is a contentious area, and scientific results are often extended by scientist themselves, by NGOs and firms, and by partisan politicians. It is not uncommon, for example, for an environmental scientist to segue from specific findings regarding changes in land use or historical climate records, to general conclusions regarding significant loss of biodiversity or potentially disastrous climate change, and then to policy recommendations. This confuses two very different functions of the scientist: an expert in a specific area, and a citizen expressing an opinion on public policy. Sophisticated observers may note the difference, but often the media, and those groups with an interest in fuzzing the line between the two, may not. Equally troublesome, when the scientist as citizen cloaks her opinions in presumptive scientific validity in contexts where significant resource allocation questions and prioritization across different value systems are at issue, they preempt debate and silence dissent.

The result, particularly in areas addressed by environmental science, tends to be a blurring between science as an objective process that produces reliable information, and normative positions dressed up with the patina of scientific objectivity. This is problematic because it results in a feedback effect, whereby even valid results of scientific inquiry are viewed as normative by those who disagree with the advocates – and thus all environmental debate becomes ideological.

The result, ironically, can be that the value and benefit of environmental science in informing society are undercut by those who think they are doing the most to protect the environment.

Brad Allenby is Environment, Health, and Safety VP for AT&T, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia’s Engineering School and Princeton Theological Seminary, and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. The views expressed herein are those of the author, and not any institution with which he is associated.

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