November 25, 2017

Value judgements – can they be scientific?

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 6 No. 2, February 1976. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


Dr. M.W. Holdgate, formerly chief scientist at the Department of the Environ­ment, stated at a workshop on ‘Ecology and Planning’ that planners

“commonly confused ecology as a basic science concerned with describing and explaining patterns of distribution of species and communities in space and time, with the particular application of ecology to wildlife conservation, which defined areas of outstanding conservation interest and made value judgements about land-use priorities.”

What is wrong with this statement? The answer is that simply to describe ‘patterns of distribution of species and communities in space and time’ is not ecology, nor a real science for that matter. For it to be so, it is also necessary to explain why species and communities are distributed in this way, and what is achieved by this type of distribution, what in fact is the goal or purpose of such a distribution – though for all but the most enlightened scientists all mention of purpose is, astonishingly enough, taboo.

Now, an explanation cannot be provided simply by accumulating data. Even the most elaborate data explain nothing until they have been interpreted in the light of an appropriate model, paradigm or world view and scientific method does not provide by itself a single means for doing this.

Any data can be interpreted in as many ways as there are different people each equipped with his or her own implicit subjective model, or world view. The interpretation which Dr. Holdgate would regard as ‘scientific’ is simply that which is consistent with the prevailing worldview of our industrial society.

Thus Dr. Holdgate would presumably regard as ‘scientific’ a land-use policy accommodating present trends towards urbanisation (more motorways, more reservoirs, more airports, etc.) though he would probably concede that certain nature reserves are desirable to preserve rare species and forms of life of ‘particular scientific interest’. On the other hand, a land use policy that did not accommodate these trends he would regard as merely based upon a value judgement!

What is a value judgement? Presumably it is a statement of how things ought to be. If this is so, then both policies depend upon value judgements, for both are based upon an implicit notion of how things ought to be. What is more, Dr. Holdgate’s notion is no more ‘scientific’ than ours. What is the use of accumulating data in the first place? or of building up knowledge of any kind? The answer is clearly so as to serve as a guide for adaptive behaviour; to enable a natural system to build up and update its model of its relationship with its environment.

It is on the basis of this model, that responses are mediated and monitored – an essential part of the process of control – but this process is impossible unless it is already known what the relationship between the system and the environment ought to be. Only then can the divergencies from the optimum relationship be noted and corrected.

Thus a doctor measures a patient’s blood pressure and temperature so that they can be compared with what they ought to be. But ‘ought to be’ for what purpose? The answer is, in order to decide what if anything needs to be done to ensure that the patient remains in good health. If a natural system is to remain stable, then it must remain on the course along which it must move if it is to preserve its basic structure in the face of change, or, seen slightly differently, if discontinuities of all kinds are to be reduced to a minimum.

On this basis it is easy to explain why species diversity must be maintained, why it is unwise to cut down the world’s tropical forests or to pave over what, in this country, still remains unpaved. All these activities, for reasons which Dr. Holdgate must know, must reduce the health and thereby the stability of ecosystems and hence of the biosphere as a whole.

On this basis, it can be shown that the values underlying the world view of industrial man, which permit the development of a sick and unstable world made up of sick people living in sick communities and sick ecosystems, are ecologically and indeed scientifically unsound, while those that underlie the world view of primitive primal societies, which enabled them to preserve their natural environment, are ecologically and indeed scientifically sound.

Value judgements, contrary to what many of today’s scientists believe, fall very much within the scope of science and ecology, or at least what science and ecology ought to be.

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