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Value Judgements in Science’s Garb

March 12, 2012

“You don’t use science to show that you’re right, you use science to become right.”
Randall Munroe

Science is the most powerful cultural tool humanity has to advance itself. Science requires a hypothesis, which is then subjected to empirical tests designed to refute the hypothesis. If the tests refute the hypothesis, the hypothesis is rejected. If the tests do not refute the hypothesis, the testing continues. It is very tempting to take on the mantle of a paradigm so powerful, and so respected.

“The rules of _______ may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of _______, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it.”
Adam Smith, Chapter 4 of the Theory of Moral Sentiments

Smith filled in the blanks with “justice” and “the other virtues”, but they could just as easily be filled with “science” and “value judgements”. Science presupposes an objective reality shared by all people, which is governed by knowable, fixed rules. But value judgements are not fixed, nor are they shared uniformly by all people. Even if everyone agreed on all observable facts, there would still be disagreement on what constituted a praiseworthy act.

Confusing a Measurement for a Maximand
What is the purpose of life? Each person strives to bring meaning into their lives in diverse ways. When designing public policy, economists often come up with ways to measure how well various policies are working to improve people’s lives. We do this because we cannot observe directly if people are satisfying the multitude of goals and desires they have.

A measurement is not the same thing as an objective. If you try to control one variable by adjusting another variable that is correlated with it, you will likely just destroy the correlation. For example, unemployment is generally considered bad by most people, but if the government said, “anyone who is unemployed in the next 6 months will be executed”, unemployment would drop to 0, but no one would be made better off. The ultimate goal should be improving lives, not forcing some particular measurement of the good life to be higher. They are very different things.

Cost Benefit Calculations
All costs and all benefits only exist within the minds of human beings. If something is a benefit/cost, all that means is that a human being likes/does not like it. We can talk about objective financial costs of things and objective financial benefits, but they are only the seen. What is unseen is the motivations and desires that lead people to choose particular actions. So, for example, when someone eats a donut, we can observe the price of the donut, count the number of calories, and time how long it took the person to go to the store to get it. What we cannot observe is how hungry someone is, how much they like donuts, or the alternative courses of action they would have taken had they not gotten the donut. Explicit cost benefit calculations do not and cannot include these other factors, which is why they are so unreliable.

In particular, subjective benefits accruing to the individual acting are almost never explicitly considered in these calculations, however, they are the primary reason why people do what they do. If you do not count the enjoyment people get from their actions, you are ignoring the primary benefit of action!

Example: Psychiatry
What makes a pattern of action a mental illness? Whether the person with the disorder likes or dislikes their own actions? Is it the presence of a precise pathology? Neither are required. For example, for a long time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Currently, ADHD, autism, OCD and even sociopathy do not necessarily meet the above criteria. In many cases, it is because the “mentally ill” person bothers other people that they get diagnosed with a problem. A depressed or manic person’s brain looks identical to a “normal” sad or happy person’s brain. The brain is highly complicated and complex, and we are only beginning to understand it.

Much of what psychiatrists do is make value judgements of what they like and dislike and put those value judgements in fancy sounding language. That is not to say those value judgments are wrong, but they are not objective in the same sense that the natural sciences are objective. As a society, we should not be tricked into accepting a policy based on a value judgement, just because of the way the issue is framed.

Plea for Tolerance
Quantifying the exact number of heebie-jeebies someone gives you is not sufficient to justify harming them. Nazis *are bothered* by Jews. But writing a report that says “Jews cost society $100 million a year, because that’s how much I don’t like them” does not and should not justify policy actions against them. I don’t think tolerance comes naturally to humans. We instinctively form tribes and hate the outsider, and anyone who is different from ourselves. But in order to live in a free society, tolerance is required. It allows us to cooperate with others who we normally would not to achieve great things. I believe that it is worth the effort.

Further Reading
Scientism in economics
Policy based on outside value judgement
Eric Crampton on Smoking calculations
Deirdre McCloskey on Happyism

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