Is a Little Pollution Good for You? Incorporating Societal Values in Environmental Research

By Kevin C. Elliott | Go to book overview

3
An Argument for Societal Values in
Policy-Relevant Research

Is science value free? As one introduction to the relationship between science and values says, “The claim that values influence science is much like the claim that genes influence behavior. At this level of vagueness, almost no one will disagree, but there are underlying deep disagreements about how, how much, and with what ramifications they do so, once more specific theses are asserted.”1 Historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science have recently put a good deal of effort into uncovering the range of avenues through which values do in fact influence scientific practice. Nevertheless, these scholars continue to disagree about the normative question of which (if any) values ought to influence scientific reasoning, especially the evaluation of evidence for particular theories or hypotheses.

In this chapter I argue that, in cases of policy-relevant research such as hormesis, none of the four categories of methodological and interpretive decisions identified in chapter 2 should be entirely insulated from societal values. This argument is based on three major principles. First, the “ethics” principle is that scientists have ethical responsibilities to consider the major societal consequences of their work and to take reasonable steps to mitigate harmful effects that it might have. Second, the “uncertainty” principle is that those researching policy-relevant topics often face situations in which scientific information is uncertain and incomplete, and they have to decide what standard of proof to demand before drawing conclusions. Third, the “no-passing-the-buck” principle is that it is frequently socially harmful or impracticable for scientists to respond to uncertainty by withholding their judgment or providing uninterpreted data to decision makers. The upshot of this third principle is that scientists cannot always leave difficult choices about interpreting uncertain evidence up to policy makers. When these three principles apply to a case, there are ethical reasons for scientists to factor societal considerations into their responses to uncertainty.

1. Kincaid, Dupré, and Wylie, “Introduction,” 10.

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