The fact-value dichotomy

The old conventional wisdom is that you cannot infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The latter is a factual matter while the former is normative. One tells us how things are while the other tells us how things should or shouldn’t, ought or oughtn’t, be and there is no path from one to the other. It would be a naturalistic fallacy, for instance, to say that because something has always been a certain way that it ought to be that way. Decisions concerning what ought to be and what we should do are determined by what we value, not by what is factually the case. Wealth inequality is a historical fact, for example, but whether we ought to continue it or end it is a decision taken according to what we value. No fact can dictate which way we go. Even the facts that equality produces greater happiness and human flourishing matters only if we value those things.

I quite like this conventional wisdom, even though I now reject it. The difficulty I’ve always found has been to reject it in a way that explains its attraction and perhaps even retains a small part of it. Thinking about the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, and dipping into the work of Angela Saini, I’ve come to accept that facts, to one degree or another, are themselves value-laden. One might challenge this by saying that they can be established beyond doubt by scientific evidence but such a reply overlooks the point that science is a social, human practice and is itself norm governed. There are norms of objectivity and replicability that are held dear in science, for instance. Science is already a norm-governed enterprise and the facts it generates are products of those norms.

Worse than that, science is a historically situated social activity that reflects the dominant values of its setting. What gets researched, and thus what facts are generated scientifically, is a product of wealth, power and its values. Consequently, the science we know reflects all the flaws of Western society. We have to face the uncomfortable prospect that science is sexist, racist and capitalist. Consider the example I saw in a tweet this week: an illustration of a Black foetus. Shockingly, it’s likely to be the first such representation most of us have seen. Has medical science effectively denied that foetuses can be Black? Further, our model of knowledge production is one that requires funding. Money decides what is researched and how it is researched. Consider randomised controlled trials (RCTs): the gold standard in medical research. RCT is a method that structurally favours certain types of interventions such as commercially exploitable pharmaceutical products. Love might be the best thing for us but an RCT could never show that (what would be placebo love?). A drug company might be able to sell you a pill to feel good instead (after funding a series of trials and publishing only the one that suggests a favourable effect; discarding the rest).

Feyerabend suggested that science could be, and was initially, liberating. And, yes, I cannot deny that it has allowed us to do much of value, especially medically, if we choose to value life and health (and this turns out to be a bigger IF than you’d think). But he also points out that science can be oppressive, used as a stick with which to beat people, especially the disempowered.

If science becomes our master, something has gone wrong. If science tells us that a group of people’s rights should be over-ridden, something has gone wrong. And this is where a scintilla of the old fact-value dichotomy still has force. The oppressive use of science occurs when facts are invoked that supposedly dictate a course of action: almost always an unjust one; e.g., women are inferior according to some criterion, therefore … (gap to be completed by some unjust treatment). This is still a naturalistic fallacy and should still be resisted even if we believe there are no value-free facts in the first place. It follows that we should be suspicious of any declaration that we should just ‘follow the science’ if that is not supplemented by a discussion of what we value and what we are aiming to achieve. Without that, there have to be questions of whose science we are being asked to follow, what interests it serves, and what choices are being marginalised by this discourse.

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