Value judgments: the limitations of experts' unique authority?

Value judgments: The limits of experts’ unique authority

Regardless of the side of the discussion you choose, you should be able to both “do your own research” (or DYOR) and trust the experts. One of the tricks is to define the boundaries between value judgments and empirical judgments. This article clarifies the unanswered details from the last post.

My latest post ended in a cliffhanger, claiming that we can simplify science- and society-related discussions by testing whether arguments are based on values or observations. In other words, if we can balance value judgments and empirical judgments correctly, we can continue to DYOR and trust experts. Understanding these two categories can ultimately reveal the devil’s true character and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.

Note 1: Many of the ideas in this post were inspired by Torsten Thurén’s book Vetenskapsteori för nybörjare, an introduction to the philosophy of science we read as part of the Biomedicine program at Lund University. I highly recommend the book for anyone wanting to understand basic concepts, ideas, and issues related to the philosophy of science, that is, if you know Swedish or find a translation.

Note 2: I’ve used the term “empirical judgment” to define the Swedish term “verklighetsomdöme” (direct translation reality judgment). Please let me know if there’s a better term in English.

We all make value judgments

Values are subjective evaluations of the worth, desirability, or usefulness of something. They’re often based on feelings, morals, motivations, or, sometimes, esthetics.

Whether our decisions are as mundane as choosing between walking or taking the bus to work or more globally implicating, such as starting a non-profit organization, we always make value judgments. They’re difficult to escape.

On the other side of the same coin, we find empirical judgments. Empirical judgments are built on observations, analyses, and measurements of our surroundings and reality. For example, a scientist may discover that drug X kills cancer cells more effectively than drug Y, creating the empirical judgment that X is more effective than Y at killing cancer cells.

Now, imagine political and societal debates. Which of the two judgment types (value or empirical) do they often rely upon? The answer is that debates and discussions often contain suppositions and differences based on value judgments.

For example, whether our democracy is superior to other democracies, whether democracy is even optimal, whether society should invest more in environmental-friendly options, whether vaccines should be mandatory, whether drug X should be subsidized, and so on. These are all value judgments. 

Differentiating between value and empirical judgments may be more complicated than we think. However, Thurén suggests we can quickly test whether an issue relates to a value judgment or empirical judgment. If, after a claim or question, you can add the phrases, “I don’t care about that” or “I don’t believe that,” without the answer seeming completely absurd, it’s probably a value judgment.

Why distinguish between value judgments and empirical judgment

In my last post, I posed several questions about the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve slightly modified two of these questions:

  • From where did the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 originate?
  • Should we make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory?

Let’s make two random conclusions out of these questions and assume they are correctly researched and honestly stated, that is, without any ill intentions (note that they only serve as examples and should not guide any opinion):

  • SARS-CoV-2 originated in nature.
  • COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory.

Assuming the case was researched and analyzed, the first claim falls under empirical judgment. The claim would be based on observable, empirical data and would not be affected by any motivations, emotions, or feelings. In the true positivistic spirit, the results are impartial. As non-experts, we can do little but trust the scientific consensus about this issue, regardless of our original opinions.

By contrast, the second statement falls under value judgment. Of course, you could set up a reasoning that sounds scientific: Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines save thousands of lives worldwide, demonstrating that COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory. Or:

Premise: Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines save thousands of lives worldwide.
Conclusion: COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory.

But that conclusion isn’t an empirical judgment at all. The vaccine’s efficacy or effectiveness didn’t scientifically demonstrate that it should be mandatory; the latter claim remains a value judgment.

The only way to make the reasoning logical is to add a so-called value premise that clarifies the value of the reasoning:

Premise (empirical judgment): Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines save thousands of lives worldwide.
Value premise: We must prioritize saving thousands of lives.
Conclusion: COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory.

Value premises are often implicit in debates and discussions. We often assume others agree with our values or pretend they do. Knowing this can help us deal with critical issues and choose whether to DYOR or trust the experts.

Focusing the conversation

We’ve seen public actors directly or indirectly arguing that opposing any vaccine-related suggestions or opinions connects with the promotion of anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) or anti-science. Likewise, we’ve experienced how their opponents on the other extreme claim that anyone taking or promoting vaccines is a harmful, gullible sheep (or something along those lines).

For example, let’s take Dr. Peter Hotez, one of the most vocal arbiters of science associated with the COVID-19 vaccine debate (you can read this and this post for more background). I take Hotez as an example since he claims to support science, a wide field I belong to. According to Hotez, we’re experiencing the Deadly rise of anti-science, a claim – and book – he partly based on his experience of the opposition to COVID-19-related issues, such as vaccine mandates, vaccine effectiveness, and mask-wearing.

However, Hotez oversteps when he groups all vaccine-related questions into one “science” or “scientific” category. As we’ve seen above, several of the pandemic-related questions people may be opposed to are, per definition, value judgments, including mandatory vaccines, lockdowns, and school closings.

Neglecting the distinction between value and empirical judgments blocks any constructive discussion. Value disagreements can present different goals, also called goal conflicts. For example, Camp A may prioritize individual freedom and personal choice, and Camp B prioritizes public health and community well-being. Both are valid value judgments to consider.

Unaware of the goal conflict, we will keep talking over each other’s heads and solve little – if anything at all.

As a side note, if we agree on a desired goal but disagree on the approach to reach it, we disagree on a matter of fact.

Experts aren’t unique in the realm of value judgments

The idea that the expertise of scientists includes decisions within the realm of value judgments is all too prominent. I often see scientists and their supporters confound scientific knowledge and their motivation- or value-driven opinions. Scientists’ unique expertise and authority end where empirical judgments end. Beyond that delineation, we’re all experts.

Whether you like it or not, Hotez, myself, or any other scientist are no more experts on questions within the value-judgment realm than any other citizen of a society. We may have opinions, but our scientific, empirical work must try to reflect the world as unbiased and neutral as possible.

Hotez and other scientists can inform us about the current scientific knowledge, including demonstrated erroneous information. Beyond this, we cannot claim authority about morality, behaviors, ethics, or esthetics.

The same is true for other questions originating from science. I’ve worked with gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9, but whether we should implement these tools clinically falls outside my unique scientific expertise. Similarly, the scientific consensus tells us that human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, significantly contribute to climate change. However, members of society should decide about related policy changes if they want to adhere to democratic principles.

Opposing specific scientific recommendations doesn’t make us anti-science by default. Our intricate world presents us with options we may prefer or prioritize over the particular scientists’ opinions. People might value open schools more than the reduced risk of closing them. They might emphasize the risks of CRISPR/Cas9’s gene mutations over their positive effects. And they may value the current lifestyle over the climate. We may disagree with these values and consider our opinions morally or ethically superior. Still, both sides of those arguments are value judgments, regardless.

Experts streamline, values change

Our values change with time. Values that might seem obvious today might repel future societies and vice versa. Think of how we changed during modern times regarding gender roles, child labor, racial segregation, slavery, LGBTQ+, mental health stigma, witches, medical practices, and much more.

While experts can inform discussions by providing factual information, analyzing data, and streamlining the discussion, decisions involving values, ethics, and priorities require input from a broader spectrum of perspectives. Value judgments include feelings, emotions, and motivations, and science can claim no unique expertise within these parameters. Sometimes, that’s good. Other times, less so. But that’s just a value judgment.  

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