Science, Values, and Democracy

In the next few posts I would like to examine the role of science in determining public policy.  Though I will be using current events as examples, the purpose is not to evaluate policies but to highlight the issues at play when thinking about the use of scientific evidence in democratic decision making.

Part 1: Governed by Facts?

Over the past year there have been many high-profile political debates in which groups opposing certain governmental policies have used appeals to scientific evidence to support their political position.  A prime example is the debate that surrounded Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver.  Supporters of Insite, in response to the Harper government’s threat to close down the facility, publicized research that demonstrated Insite’s effectiveness at reducing overdoses and crime while also increasing participation in drug treatment programs.  This strong scientific evidence was presented as reason for keeping Insite open despite the fact that its operation violated Canadian drug laws and facilitated illicit drug use.  Insite supporters used the evidence to claim that science supported the continued operation of the facility.  Regardless of where you sit in the debate, arguments like these raise the question of exactly where scientific evidence fits in the policy-making process.

Philosophers like to point out than “an ought cannot be derived from an is”, which means that facts alone are insufficient for determining a desirable course of action.  For instance, the fact that the safe injection site reduces overdoses and crime does not alone tell us that we ought to continue its use.  This conclusion requires as premises that (1) that these two conseque

nces are desirable and that (2) the undesirability of facilitating illicit drug use (if it is undesirable as all) is less important than the desirable outcomes.

Appeals to science cannot provide us with these kinds of premises.  Someone could simply disagree that drug addicts suffering overdoses is a problem, or that the reduction in crime merits enabling drug use.  Someone who places less value on harm reduction and more on punishment might find the touted benefits of Insite irrelevant.  These value questions cannot be answered fully by appeal to facts alone.  Science has the power to help us foresee the consequences of our policies but cannot tell us how to value them.  For example, knowledge of horticulture might tell us how to grow apples and how to grow oranges, but this knowledge alone cannot tell us what we should grow.  To answer this question we need some kind of value statement that tells us on which basis to prefer one possibility over the other.  Likewise, we might be able to figure out what Vancouver would be like with and without Insite, but these descriptions alone do not tell us what we should prefer.

It seems then that a society governed by science alone is not possible because decisions require valuations of outcomes, and values are not the kind of thing that can be read off of scientific facts.  But at the same time, without figuring out how to achieve the desired outcome policies are no more effective than shots in the dark.  Science therefore clearly has some role to play in helping us effectively achieve the outcomes we value by giving us tools to help predict the consequences of policy.  Good policy requires interaction with science.

In the following posts I will lay out some of the problems that lie at the intersection of science and politics, and will hopefully point out some places where philosophy can give some insight.  My next post will look at the role of science in the fight for public opinion.