Better scientific policy decisions start with knowing facts from values

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MSU’s Thomas Dietz addresses the issue of facts versus values in scientific research in a recent paper.  (view larger image)

When gathering public input on policy questions, scientists can speak with authority about facts, but must remember that everyone is an expert when it comes to values.

MSU AgBioResearch’s Thomas Dietz addresses that issue in a paper in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saying “everyone is qualified to speak about values.”

“Using climate change as an example, a scientist could say, ‘The climate is changing.’ That’s a fact that can be checked,” said Dietz, a member of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and professor of sociology, environmental science and policy, and animal studies. “But if a scientist says, ‘We need to take these actions to halt climate change because it’s affecting what people care about,’ that’s a value. And scientists have no more authority to speak about values than anyone else.”

Because they are conducting the science, scientists are qualified to speak about facts. But when offering solutions to scientific problems, scientists must be careful not to present values as facts because they may lose their credibility, according to Dietz, who also serves as MSU assistant vice president for environmental research.

“Most federal and state agencies are required to get public input to inform decision-making on a number of scientific issues, ranging from global warming to wild horse management,” Dietz said. “The process of making decisions always involves both facts and values, and the differences between the two need to be made very clear in science communications.”

What science can do, Dietz says, is help figure out what people’s values are and then work to come to agreement or disagreement on them.

“It’s much safer to have a debate about facts than about values,” he said. “Facts can be proven. When you’re debating values, it’s almost like calling someone a bad person if you speak negatively about their values. We need to learn how to talk about values in a constructive way.”

Dietz recommends agencies diagnose the situation and then make a plan that allows for all viewpoints to be heard and considered. It’s also important to begin public participation early, when a study is being designed, not just when it’s being concluded.

Dietz’s work is supported by MSU AgBioResearch, CSIS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments.

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