Fact, value, and science

The modern distinction between fact and value goes back to David Hume who argued that “is” does not imply “ought” — there is no way to get from facts to values. This contrasts with the Aristotelian philosophy in which everything has a nature so that what something is and what it ought to be is defined by its nature. For example, the nature of an acorn is to become an oak tree; if allowed to, that is what will happen — and that is what ought to happen because that is its nature.

It is commonly said today that science discovers facts whereas values come from ethics, politics or religion. This is the basis for Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magesteria dividing science and religion. But do scientists and leading scientific organizations actually respect this divide?

It is often forgotten (or purposely suppressed) that leading scientists and scientific organizations promoted euthanasia before World War II. During the Cold War the Union of Concerned Scientists, founded in 1969, advocated for disarmament and other policies while promoting its scientific status. Climate scientists have been openly political, shrouding their policy advocacy with the mantle of science. The social sciences and psychology have openly thrown their lot in with the political Left.

Scientists are entitled to their personal views but the fact is that scientists and scientific organizations do not respect a fact-value distinction and avoid policy matters in their science.