Why Facts Without Values Can Be Dangerous
How following the facts without a preferred destination can lead us into hell.
The character of Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s rock-star mathematician in Jurassic Park, is remarkably Nietzschean. He’s accurate in his prescient pessimism; he’s ignored when his warnings should be taken seriously; he is a human vending-machine of aphorisms. He gave us:
“Life finds a way.”
And, “What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”
And, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
In this last line, however, he is less Nietzsche and more David Hume, the philosopher who described what is known as the “is-ought problem”. This is the claim that we can’t derive an “ought” (prescribed behaviour) from an “is” (the described universe). The scientists could clone dinosaurs, but that did not mean that they should.
I’m no philosopher, but it seems to me that you can get an “ought” from two statements of what is. Take a desired outcome, add to it a fact or facts of the physical universe, and hey presto – a guide to behaviour. The first “is”: I want to lose weight. The second “is”: a deficit of calories will cause weight loss. Therefore: I ought to put down that second slice of cake.
Malcolm is less concerned with the difficulty in getting an “ought” from an “is” than with the hubris of those who care only for the facts and forget about the values. His warning is that if we take only the facts (the question of whether a thing is possible) and neglect to bring in values, we end up with an island of rampaging dinosaurs eating our loved ones. Metaphorically speaking.
Such hubris could also be found in the dim-witted promise of politicians to “follow the science” with regards to their response to the COVID pandemic. The idea of simply following the facts as revealed by epidemiology is as vacuous as saying you will follow a route discovered in a forest only because it happens to be there. You might be fortunate enough to find your way home, or you might stumble over a cliff. The path cares not for your destination, and neither does science.
Let’s try a reductio ad absurdum. Based solely on the facts of viral spread, we could infer that the way to end the pandemic would be for everyone to die. A virus can’t spread without hosts, after all. If you are a sane human being, you will have instinctively scoffed at the example because it fails to factor in values that we prioritise above the mere facts. Values such as not dying. So the example is ridiculous, but it illustrates the point that when we attempt to follow facts without the compass of our values, we can go wildly astray.
Of course, those in the government and the media had not lost sight of their values when they repeated the mantra of following the science. Implicit in this fatuity was the completion of the sentiment as, “Follow the science to achieve what I think is best”. Many of them had laudable outcomes in mind. It would take the mental contortions of the kind of conspiracy theorist I am not to believe any of the world’s governments hoped for masses of their citizens to die off or their own economy to collapse. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and questionable slogans.
The hysterical degree of focus in the mainstream conversation on anti-vaxxers (into whose ranks many who are not remotely against vaccinations have been unwillingly conscripted) has resulted in endless non-debates about the well-founded and widely accepted science of inoculations. A far more productive conversation would have centred on which values we were bringing to the science we are all admonished to follow.
A warning from history:
There is nothing unscientific about the Nazi program of eugenics that resulted in the murder of millions of people. In fact, the deaths of so many depended on the successes of scientific discoveries, from the pesticide used in the gas chambers to the punched-card technology of IBM that facilitated the concentration camps. The science was sound and it led to the hell of the Holocaust. There is no purely scientific case against the uses of these inventions in these ways. To get to the conviction that what happened in Nazi Germany was evil, you need to bring in a set of values.
Was Malcolm right in his condemnation of scientists in their failure to consider questions of ethics? Perhaps we should leave the scientists to inform us on the science, and the economists to guide our economies, and instead demand that our leaders balance the values and facts in making policy. There’s certainly something to this delegating of specific tasks to those with the requisite expertise, especially on a well-delineated question like how to respond to a pandemic. We should want to be informed by the pooling of expert knowledge, data gathered by those with the ability and the time to focus on the details.
That said, beneath every title and within every practitioner of any discipline, there is a human being who cannot cleanly and indefinitely divorce the “is” from the “ought”. We are incapable of acting only on the impulse of what is; we are slaves to value impulses, to desires and preferences. It would be a terrifying kind of person who could honestly say they felt nothing about whether the technology they were developing went towards war or peace, unleashing a pandemic or preventing one, leading us to a heaven or to a hell. If such a human could be found, we might wish they would put down the beakers and step out of the lab.
To hide behind the excuse of disciplinary purism, to say that as a scientist I care only for the science, or that as a writer all that matters is literature, is to build the first premise of a justification for why the pain of real people whose stories I use in my fiction or the use of my inventions in genocide should not be my concern. This line of argument – “I was only following the demands of my field of study” – is disconcertingly close to saying, “I was only following orders.” Perhaps we ought to feel uncomfortable at the proximity of the Nuremberg defence to the simplistic claim that we are “following the science”.
There is a line in the original Jurassic Park screenplay that was cut from the finished film, which would have been delivered by Malcolm during his speech about the hubris of scientists. “Science can create pesticides,” he says, “but it can’t tell us not to use them. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it can’t tell us not to build it.” This is the limitation of facts without values. We can follow the science, but let’s not follow it into hell.
• Jurassic Park, dir. Steven Spielberg; written by David Koepp, from an adaptation by Michael Crichton & Malia Scotch Marmo (1993)
• Jurassic Park [screenplay], written by David Koepp, from an adaptation by Michael Crichton & Malia Scotch Marmo (1992)