Value Free; Value Added

Preparing for my Technology and Society class unveiled an interesting paradox. Looking back from an historical perspective, I was struck by how the term value free science has become a very value ladened word.

looking back from an historical perspective, I was struck by how the term value free science has become a very value ladened word.  

Indeed, this is a curious unintended consequence! For, as John M. Jordan documented in Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering & American Liberalism (1998), social scientists have, for more than a half century, diligently sought to rid their disciplines of all interpretations and ideological perspectives. As Jordan pointed out, the ultimate goal of these social scientists–which included such luminaries as Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Walter Lippman, Edwin Gay, and Herbert Croly, among others–was not only to generate new knowledge, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to enhance democratic politics by replacing ideologically oriented politicians with value free experts.

Backfire  (courtesy of Tohoscope)

Backfire (courtesy of Tohoscope)

Assessing the political situation today, one can only say that the efforts of these social scientists clearly backfired. For, while most academics remain standoffish, isolated in their ivory towers creating value free science, politicians–such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–have clearly gone over the top in contending that personal values and personalities trump policy analysis. Equally problematic , in terms of differentiating between facts and ideology, are the growing efforts by today’s political leaders to employ the work of scientists to cloak private interests in what is ostensibly value free analysis

politicians–such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–have clearly gone over the top in contending that personal values and personalities trump policy analysis. 

We seem to have come full circle in this regard. For, not without some irony, today’s opponents of the Administration’s performance disdainfully equate the present government’s science with political science. (Statement of Liz Godfrey, policy director for the Endangered Species Coalition. )

The Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans have been especially pernicious in characterizing scientific studies whose conclusions it opposes as junk science, while labeling those with which it agrees as good science. The Department of Interior’s analyses of scientific data calling for protection of endangered species provides one interesting case in point. For example, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which conducted a survey of Fish and Wildlife Scientists in 2005, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee in the Department of Interior, consistently demanded that the Agency’s scientists alter their findings so as to justify not listing imperiled species such as the Gunnison sage grouse, the California tiger salamander, the roundtail chub, Gunnison’s and White-tailed prairie dogs, and the Mexican garter snake. According to one survey respondent:

I have never before seen the boldness of intimidation demonstrated by a single political appointee. She has modified the behavior of the entire agency. I believe that there should be a thorough investigation of her abuse of discretionary authority and modification of science information provided in the FWS documents. (Noah Greenwald, Seattle-Post Intelligencer December 20, 2006)

Such shenanigans are not limited to one Federal Agency. EPA’s former administrator, Stephen Johnson, was also forced to resign, after the union representing the vast majority of EPA scientists accused him of chronic mendacity, information suppression, and overriding his science advisors in setting new ozone standards (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Newsletter, Spring 2008). One symptom of this behavior was the Agency’s decision to close half of its libraries, which housed a good portion of EPA’s earlier scientific studies ( PEER Review Winter 2007, p.9). Equally telling was Vice President Chaney’s role–uncovered by the Washington Post–in overriding scientists’ efforts to restore endangered Salmon in the Klamath Basin by redirecting water from the Klamath River, and the fish, to agribusiness. Only after 90,000 fish had died was this decision reversed by the courts.

When it comes to the realm of politics, value free science may not be the goal to strive for. Perhaps what is needed instead is value added science.

Where do we go from here? When it comes to the realm of politics, value free science may not be the goal to strive for. Perhaps what is needed instead is value added science. Building on Habermas’ model of the public sphere, value added science might be conceived of as the product of a dialogue among diverse actors–hard scientists, social scientists, and value based interests alike. However, instead of taking place in local coffee houses, the discussion might be organized and orchestrated within the government itself. A dialogue that links interests and scientific analyses in an open, transparent fashion, adds tremendous value to the political debate while identifying and enhancing the array of subject matter ripe for scientific investigation. This idea is hardly far-fetched. One need only consider the successes of the National Academy of Science and the former Office of Technology Assessment.

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