Facts are one thing – values another

"In the climate debate you can often hear the argument that ‘science requires us to cut emissions’. But that argument is problematic,” says Christian Azar, Professor of Energy and Environment at Chalmers University of Technology. In a filmed keynote presentation at the Act Sustainable Research Conference he questions the "science-demands" rhetoric in a discussion about the relationship between science and politics. 
Christian Azar, why is it problematic or even wrong to claim that “the science requires” various actions. 
– Science is essentially a method of finding out what the world is like. But what we should do about the various problems humanity faces is a different matter. Science alone cannot give you the answers to that. To find out what we should do about, for example, environmental degradation, we don’t just need knowledge about the problem but also values, and science cannot tell us what those values should be. In essence we can’t say that science requires us to do this or that. 

 This difference between facts and values, between what is and what we ought to do, is something we humans have been aware of for centuries. The philosopher David Hume stated already back in the 18th century that we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Time after time many people fall back on the idea that science can tell us what we ought to do. It’s a wrong and unfortunate idea. 

But politicians are not experts on the climate, energy technologies, human behaviour, policy instruments and so on, nor can we expect them to be. Shouldn’t the experts decide when the issues are so complex? That’s why we have experts. 
 Yes, but it’s matter of exercising care. What’s needed is some sort of balance. Experts have to determine how to operate an electrical power grid or a nuclear power plant, and I would obviously rather be operated on by a surgeon than a politician. But when it comes to how much money should be invested in healthcare, the environment or schools, we can’t let experts decide that since these are interests that compete with one another, and it’s a matter of what we value most. These issues are quite central to both the climate issue and the pandemic (where a similar discussion about pitting experts and politicians against one another has emerged). How different goals should be valued against one another is ultimately a political question. We can’t get away from that. 

Why is this important?
 I think there are two reasons for that. Firstly, it’s a matter of trust. If researchers say that “the science requires” something when that’s not correct, then there’s a risk that we undermine people's trust in science. I believe that that is something we should be careful about because many powerful actors are already trying to feed that mistrust – for instance politicians like Donald Trump – but for completely different reasons. We should simply be careful not to give them legitimate cause for complaint.
 
 Secondly, it’s a matter of democracy. If some experts were to decide what we should do in key issues for our society, then we’d be giving up democracy to some extent. This is particularly important in matters such as the climate issue since this is an issue we’ll need to wrestle with for decades to come – and where some actors – scientists, policy makers and environmental movements alike – argue that people have to change large parts or their entire way of life to solve the climate challenge. However, in order to be able to implement major changes over an extended period, it’s necessary for them to have democratic legitimacy. 

What does this mean for the discussion on planetary boundaries​ – a key concept in the sustainability debate? They are often presented as boundaries set by science for how much impact we can have on the planet. Researchers such as Johan Rockström, who has been a driving force in the development of these boundaries, say that they are “non-negotiable”. 
 I think that such formulations are very unfortunate. The goals formulated in their articles may be produced by researchers, but they are also subjective and something reasonable people may disagree about. The more of various pollutants we emit the greater the damage to nature, but the precise level of damage we should accept is a matter of values and not something that science can determine as being correct or not. 

 The same applies to risks. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in the climate system, for example. Let’s assume that we believe that extremely serious damage would arise if the temperature were to rise by two degrees, but we are not certain. The damage could also arise below or above two degrees. What level should we then aim for? We’d like to have a certain safety margin against really dire consequences. But how great should that margin be? It depends on how much risk we want to take and that has to do with our values. It’s not something science can determine for us. 

 Finally, I’d also like to stress that I don’t think that there is anything wrong with researchers taking part in the public debate. We researchers are also citizens. I also think it’s reasonable for researchers to be involved and suggest targets for various environmental problems – the issues are so complex that experts are needed in the process and it can’t just be left to politics. So there needs to be an interaction between experts in specific areas and politicians – it’s entirely unavoidable. 

 The problem comes when researchers (and others) try to make it appear that their proposals are pure science when they are not. Instead, they should acknowledge that the proposed goals are also based on their values and ethical aspects – and that these values can, of course, also be discussed and questioned. 

In addition to the filmed presentation, you can also read Azar’s article about the boundary between politics and science in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter (only available in Swedish though).

Page manager Published: Mon 22 Mar 2021.