As far as I can tell, the basic argument seems to be that scientists should be value-free. In other words, you shouldn’t let your beliefs influence your science. Fair enough, that seems fundamentally reasonable, but also just seems rather obvious. To a certain extent, I’m not quite sure what’s motivating this theme of value-free science. Reiner isn’t the only one who seems to be discussing this. This also seems related to what Tamsin Edwards was suggesting in her Guardian article. One possible motivation is that if scientists were seen to be value-free (objective) then they’d find it easier to convince the public of the strength of their scientific evidence. They would seem un-biased. An alternative is that science itself requires that researchers be value-free.
I largely have issues with both of these possibilities, or at least with the importance of these two interpretations. As far as convincing the public goes, I’m not even sure it’s true. Whenever I’m involved in public engagement, what the public seem to really appreciate is the enthusiasm. Research often requires some passion and drive. How do you turn that off? Researchers aren’t simply machines that follow a set of rules so as to carry out some research. They typically do something that they’ve found fascinating and have some kind of connection with. Expecting scientists to be dis-passionate would be disastrous, in my opinion.
You could argue that there’s a difference between being passionate about your research, and publicly advocating for certain policies. This may be true, but where do you draw the line and who decides? Also, would this really be of benefit to the public? If we’re funding research and that research indicates a problem, wouldn’t we expect the researchers to at least make this very clear? How would it be a good spend of public money if we expected researchers to remain completely dispassionate, even when their research clearly indicates something serious and indicates that we should probably act to do something about it. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that simply because scientists advocate something, that we should immediately do as they say. Policy decisions must come from our policy makers. I’m just unconvinced that we should be discouraging scientists from publicly expressing views about their interpretation of the implications of their research. The implication, I think, is that if they’re advocating for policies, then this could be driving their research. We should, however, at least consider the alternative; that their advocacy is driven by their research and not the other way around.
The issue of whether or not science requires that scientists be value-free is maybe subtler. It’s patently obvious that your belief system shouldn’t influence your research. However, the suggestion that scientists should be dis-passionate is just a little absurd. That’s kind of why most of us do what we do. We’re passionate about doing interesting research. It’s not a belief system, it’s just a passion for discovery. Consequently, it is difficult for scientists to remain dis-passionate about their results. There are clearly many examples of scientists who have stuck to pet theories even when the evidence is against them. However, this doesn’t really matter because the beauty of science is that you collect evidence. Eventually, the evidence will indicate which theories/ideas have merit and which don’t. That some individuals might be blinded by some “belief” in their pet ideas, doesn’t really matter. It would be a problem if everyone was blinded by a belief system, but that would be tending towards conspiracy ideation and would, in my opinion at least, be the least likely of all possibilities.
To finish on a slightly more controversial point though, is that one issue I have is that most who seem to be pushing this kind of value-free science idea seem to have their own biases. Of course, I can’t read their minds, but it does seem to be coming from those who seem to have concluded that there is some basic problem with climate science. For example, why does Reiner title his post can philosophy enlighten climate science? Why not just science, or even just research? It would seem to me that this may be more relevant to the social sciences than to the physical sciences. In the physical sciences you typically collect evidence to test theories/hypotheses. It seems that personal interpretation is a much bigger part of the social sciences, than the physical sciences. I know this isn’t always true, but it would seem that personal biases are much more likely to be important in the social sciences than in the physical sciences.
If some are suggesting that science should be value-free, shouldn’t they be at least trying to appear to be value-free themselves? Also, if you wanted to consider the implications of how prior beliefs might influence one’s research, an obvious place to start might be to consider those scientists who’ve signed the Cornwall Alliance’s evangelical declaration on global warming. If this isn’t an example of scientists who have rejected value-free science, I don’t know what is. Why imply a problem with mainstream climate science, when a number of leading dissenters have signed a declaration stating that God will ensure that our climate is self-correcting?