Science & Policy: Time for an Old Idea to Enter the Modern Conversation

By: David Côté

Questions of science have penetrated the daily political discourse: What is the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in children? Is social media dangerous to mental health? What proportion of greenhouse gas emissions are produced through factory farming? The list goes on. People increasingly rely on their perception of science as objective and categorical solutions to how we should draft policies. We frequently hear arguments to justify specific policies of the following structure: “stick to the science!” or “the facts are on my side!” However, an analysis that deduces a policy from a scientific fact is incomplete; there remains an additional step that policymakers must face. Every policy question is ultimately motivated by an expression of values and cannot be resolved by an appeal to facts alone. To legitimate their claims, policymakers must reckon with values, ethics, and morals.

Science and policy address two fundamentally different questions. Science is about the pursuit of truth; the scientific method was designed to understand how the world is, or to generate statements of fact. Policy, on the other hand, is about creating the best possible society; the policy process aims to answer questions about how the world ought to be, or to produce claims of value. Therefore, to derive policy exclusively from science is to derive values from facts. However, this is not a straightforward task. The logical connection between facts and values was first questioned about 300 years ago by 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume in his “is-ought problem.” Hume proposed that one cannot make statements about what ought to be based on what is. He argued that what is true does not necessarily provide what is right. Philosophers have debated this idea ever since.

Let’s break this down with a couple of examples. First, consider vaccine mandates. It is known that vaccine mandates increase vaccination and reduce COVID-related mortality. Does this fact alone necessarily imply that a vaccine mandate is moral and should be implemented? Hume would argue no, and his answer is exemplified by the approaches taken by different governments across the world. Compare Austria, where everyone over the age of 14 must be vaccinated at a penalty of a substantial fine, to Florida, where vaccine mandates have been specifically banned. Austria has made it clear that their priority in imposing a mandate is health – they hope to reduce caseloads, the development of variants, and the burden on the healthcare system. While it is unlikely that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis doubts the efficacy of a vaccine mandate, he has focused on an entirely different question: how to maximally preserve liberty and individual freedom. Underlying this debate is a difference in values (liberty vs. health), not a difference in facts. The fact, alone, that vaccine mandates reduce death does not necessarily provide insight into this fundamental value question: should we, as a society, prioritize one health over liberty, or vice versa?

Next, take the example of climate change. The frightening reality of climate change is scientifically indisputable. Yet, Hume would argue that acting on this fact involves a different inquiry than the one underlying fact itself. For a young person that is concerned about their future, the answer may be clear; we must stop climate change immediately and should take immediate action such as regulating fossil fuels, banning plastics, etc. However, an elderly individual may prioritize the present and be less willing to accept changes to their life which will only have effects after they are gone. No number of additional facts about climate change would change either individual’s mind because they are focused on different outcomes: longevity of the planet vs. personal satisfaction. The choice of these outcomes is, once again, rooted in values. One may scoff at these perspectives and think they are selfish, reprehensible, or repugnant. However, to change minds on these big questions, people must argue at a moral level, not only a scientific one.

One may ask: why should policymakers care about some philosophy from centuries ago? Well, public distrust of science is rampant. In 2019, 32% of Canadian adults reported feeling skeptical about science and 44% thought that scientists were elitists. There is no greater example than the current vaccine hesitancy movement. Despite near scientific consensus on the efficacy of vaccines, there are approximately 4.09 million people above the age of 12 that are not vaccinated in Canada. The politicization of science is in part due to a public dialogue that steps over the fact-value distinction. Science is a critical component of public policy, but it is only one part of the puzzle. We ought to reserve more space in public debate to engage with contending values. By centering policy on values, it gets to the core of people’s disagreements. By centering policy on science and facts, it pushes factions with different values further apart from one another. People can appreciate differences in values. People cannot appreciate differences in facts.  

The above discussion does not mean that policymaking is a solution-less exercise of moral relativism. There can be objectively moral and immoral values, rights, and wrongs. However, it does imply that the way to reach these solutions is not through facts alone. Paradoxically, the discussion should not end with what is true. It must end with what is good.

David Côté is a Master of Public Policy and Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs of Public Policy and Faculty of Law. His interests include justice, the intersection of law and policy, and more broadly, policy efficacy and how evidence informs policy decisions. David is also a legal researcher at the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights and a Senior Associate Editor for the University of Toronto Faculty of Law Review. David holds a Bachelor of Sciences (Honours) in Life Sciences from Queen’s University.

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