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Love them, leave them or change them: Divergent values in sustainability assessments

Published on
October 23, 2019

Bas Arts participated in a workshop in Berlin recently. His interest is sparked by current debates on normativity, promising policy developments and, more generally, te phenomenon of the 'post-truth society'. He feels that this workshop could offer knowledge and insights to help us in the triangle of science, policy and practice.

The debate about facts and values ​​in science is as old as Methusalem. The classic solution is to assign the "domain of facts" to science and the "domain of values" to politics and society. This dichotomy is difficult to maintain for a variety of reasons:

1. Facts (usually) do not speak for themselves; they must be interpreted according to the nature and context of people, society and / or nature in order to become meaningful; but interpretations without (implicit) value judgments do not exist (very likely) (sorry for all brackets, but I have to write down this nuanced, of course).

2. Many will easily accept this argument for social sciences and humanities, but not for natural sciences. Yet the same applies here, at least according to a number of science philosophers (including De Regt of Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen).

3. Theories are also loaded with values, express human preferences, such as those explicit in theories of change for action research, and implicit in objective models.

4. And that loadedness certainly applies to the many concepts (so-called 'thick concepts') that we currently use: sustainability, transitions, circular economy, etc. These are indeed scientific, but also contain normative components (desired developments of the society).

5. Politics and policy are about facts and values, or perhaps vice versa, about values ​​rather than facts; because we are active in the triangle of science, policy and practice, we cannot ignore these different values, at least if we want to be relevant and legitimate; we may need to look at our research from time to time in the light of those different value systems (without losing our credibility and independence, of course).

6. But value judgments also play a role on a much more fundamental level: what is good science and how do you do science well? Empiricists, rationalists and constructivists - to name but a few "--isms" - have a very different opinion of this.

7. Finally, the 'post-truth society', in which science is just an opinion, or is seen as partisan knowledge, which serves only a small part of society - the elite - and thus can be put as 'fake news' to the side.

During the workshop, different strategies were used to deal with the value-ladenness of science and knowledge - and therefore also sustainability assessments -:

1. Denial: pretend the problem does not exist and insist that you produce hard facts.

2. Choice of awareness: a choice of theory, model, assumptions, etc. is often not merely a technical exercise, but one in which values ​​also play a role; Awareness of this can help to reduce the value sensitivity of your choices, or to expand it, in order to serve a wider range of value orientations.

3. Transparency: make clear to your colleagues and stakeholders how values ​​play a role in your research.

4. Deliberation: discuss your (value-laden) principles, assumptions and choices with colleagues - and possibly stakeholders - to choose or develop a theory, model and / or method that is as widely supported as possible by consensus formation.

5. Hire an ethicist: to help us make conscious and balanced value-laden choices

The 4th and 5th strategy were especially popular at the workshop itself. The MCC organizers are clearly supporters of deliberation - of a democratization of science - so that was no surprise. But that certainly also applies to the 5th strategy: given the large number of ethicists at the workshop, and that fact that there are not too many jobs available for them in the outside world, this could be seen as a recommendation with conflicting interests. However, for Wageningen UR the 4th and 5th strategy may go too far, although sufficiently interesting to discuss internally. But we are still thinking about the first three (less radical) proposals, and we are having intense debates about them. How much transparency can and do we want to offer? Doesn't (too much) transparency undermine our credibility and independence if we give politicians, policymakers and stakeholders (farmers!) an insight into our "value dependence"? Should we not simply deny the latter, or at least for the stage? I also have no ready-made answers to these questions, but I think it would be good if we as scientists have discussions about this and devise a strategy for how to deal with it. So that we are ready with a vision and with a set of possible answers, and that we allow ourselves to use our "fact values."