Thursday, May 16, 2013

Normative Science. Is it wrong?

People place values and judgments on different parts of the world around them and on how they interact with it. In large groups of people – think “society” – patterns in valuation and judgment emerge based upon similar beliefs about what is important and how much weight those beliefs carry. People, as inherently social animals, tend to congregate around others that share similar values and judgments, sometimes leading to divergent ways in which people (within the same society or among other societies) come to view the world. Within these groups, repeated patterns of valuation and judgment become the modus operandi, the established norms, under which people operate – the normative way of doing things (e.g., this is how people ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to act; the ideal).

Science can be defined a number of different ways but within each are common descriptors. People tend to think of (and accept) science as the systematic study of objects or things, the results of which – through repetition and testing – bring about some understanding, knowledge or truth about those things. Indeed, under the principles of scientific inquiry, science itself is free from valuation or judgments associated with societal norms, thus leading to scientific inquiry that is purportedly unbiased (e.g., this thing ‘is’, ‘was’ or ‘will be’…). But scientists (and the science they conduct) have sometimes strayed from these principles and 1) waded into the grey area where scientific inquiry is unduly influenced by valuation and preconceived judgment or 2) masqueraded behind science and the notion of being unbiased to advocate for particulars policies or stances – otherwise known as normative science. Here, I a) examine the long-held debate on the appropriateness of normative science as viewed through the lens of peer-reviewed articles, b) discuss problems with the existing arguments for and against and c) argue that normative science, under certain conditions, has a place in society.

Dr. Robert Lackey

The academic debate surrounding the appropriateness of normative science has been particularly prominent in recent years. Dr. Robert Lackey, retired professor of fisheries science and political science at Oregon State University and retired EPA senior research scientist, is one of the more outspoken voices in the recent discussions and argues that much of the science currently being communicated to the public and policymakers is normative in nature, often presented with value-laden terminology (e.g., “degradation”, “improvement”, “good”, “poor”, etc.) and masquerades behind the cloak of unbiased science. As he puts it, society should be making the judgment calls, not scientists - “there is no scientific imperative for adopting any particular policy option”. Lackey posits that stealth policy advocacy is wrong and urges 1) scientists to be cognizant of their language but get involved in the policy-making process and 2) policymakers to be alert and recognize normative science and the biases presented (see his 2013 Terra Magazine piece and an earlier talk of his from 2004).

Philosophical Explorations journal

Wim de Muijnck (2011), on the other hand, argues in the journal Philosophical Explorations that under certain societal conditions and in certain scientific fields such as psychology, neuroscience and economics – fields that deal specifically with human behaviors and norms – normative conclusions are warranted. He argues for normative conclusions because “claims about human beings tend to be more than claims about mere matters of fact, because they will often be claims about human needs, interests and concerns”. Wyatt Galusky (2000) also argues that in certain situations, normative science provides societal value. To illustrate his point, Galusky discusses the field of conservation biology, an explicitly normative science that suggests that 1) biodiversity has intrinsic value and 2) conservation of that biodiversity provides benefits for humans.

But the debate on the virtues of normative science is not new. Indeed it has been the topic of philosophical debates for generations. In the 1970’s, Knut Tranöy (1978) argued that normative science is necessary when 1) social costs are included as part of the discussions and 2) “scientific enterprise becomes increasingly oppressive” (he also uses the field of psychology as an example). In the 1940’s, Iredell Jenkins (1948) attempts to define normative science, something he says has rarely been done up to that point, noting that it is usually cast in a negative light next to descriptive science and the distinctions between both types (descriptive and normative) is “sharp and significant, though not absolute” (e.g., philosophy as a science). Some thirty years previous to Jenkins’ work, in 1912, George Sabine (1912) discussed the distinctions between descriptive and normative sciences, using the examples of physics (descriptive) and ethics (normative) to draw distinctions and point out the need for both types of science. Similarly, in his seminal 1907 speech before the American Philosophical Association (also one of the earliest papers drawing attention to descriptive and normative sciences), Ernest Albee (1907), described the distinction between descriptive and normative science as the difference between what is real (what is) and what is ideal (what ought to be). In his eloquent essay, he outlines the benefits of both “types” of science, suggesting that any science built upon and examining logic is, in fact, normative.

The Three Wise Men and the Three Monkeys by Raul de la Nuez
Within the literature, the dividing line between support of or opposition to normative science tends to fall along the lines of appropriateness of making value statements/recommendations. Supporters of normative sciences (e.g., ethics, psychology, conservation biology) often point to the need to maintain certain norms of society (e.g., killing people outside of war is not tolerated) and that recommendations originating from these disciplines simply speak to those norms. Opponents of normative science (note the distinction between previous reference to normative sciences plural and normative science singular, here; I refer to this earlier) most often point to the need for the scientific process to remain free of value and judgment. That is to say, for scientific integrity to be maintained, scientists must seek to keep the range of possible questions being asked (and potential outcomes) open and free from bias. Opponents of normative science worry that scientific inquiry under the umbrella of pre-conceived notions narrows the range of potential questions/outcomes. Another oft-mentioned argument from normative science opponents is the need for scientists to keep their conclusions and recommendations free of opinion (stick to the facts). But do not scientists, as humans, inherently have their own opinions about things, just like non-scientists? If the science they conduct is rigorous and based upon established scientific principles/integrity, why then are scientists not supposed to voice their opinions? In many situations, because they are most familiar with the data, are scientists not the most qualified to offer advice?

(politicians) Mis-Information (science)
While these discussions add to a better understanding of the need to maintain scientific credibility, I see the main distinction between opponents and proponents of normative science as 1) something a bit more nuanced and 2) an apples-to-oranges comparison. I argue that the overwhelming majority of scientific undertakings adhere to the basic tenets of science. That is to say, people conducting scientific investigations (scientists), by and large adhere to basic scientific principles (e.g., deductive/inductive reasoning, hypothesis formulation/testing, results leading to addition hypotheses/testing/retesting, replication). If/when they DO deviate, the peer review process (scrutiny from their peers) frequently catches biases and “reigns them back in”, a process that is inherently normative. Issues arise when pre-conceived notions are, at the early stages, allowed to creep (purposefully or unintentionally) into the scientific process. Nonetheless, there is widespread acceptance among academics that allowing values/judgments to cloud the scientific process is unacceptable. Additionally, there appears to be an implicit accept among academics for the underlying premise of various scientific disciplines (normative science vs. normative sciences). Thus, the arguments in the literature in opposition to or in favor of normative science appear mostly to be semantic in nature – the underlying science and how scientists arrive at conclusions is, I argue, operating largely as it should (i.e., under scientific rigor). Additionally, I contend that normative sciences (e.g., ethics, psychology, conservation biology) play a critical role in understanding and shaping our society. Without unbiased assessments of human norms (descriptive science), we will not be able to adopt policies and practices that help society at large (the normative angle).

The Honest Broker

However, being aware of the potential to introduce biases, valuation and judgments into the recommendation/discussion process – crossing the line from simply laying out (and interpreting) the facts (descriptive science) to advocating for a particular outcome based up on your own judgments of what ‘should’ be (normative science) is a valuable mental exercise that should be constantly undertaken by scientists. Roger Pielke Jr.’s (2007) four idealized roles of science in policy and politics (see his book The Honest Broker) help bring clarity to how science can be utilized in the policy process. Additionally, Pielke’s four idealized roles reaffirm the need for adhering to the scientific process while being transparent about interpretation and advocacy. Because regardless of whether the science is good, advocating for a particular position leads others to question your ability to conduct unbiased research.

And as we all are painfully aware in the public policy process, perception is reality.


Albee, Ernest. 1907. “Descriptive and Normative Sciences.” Philosophical Review 16:40. Available on JSTOR Archives.

Galusky, Wyatt James. 2000. “The Promise of Conservation Biology: The Professional and Political Challenges of an Explicitly Normative Science.” Organization and Environment 13(2):226–32.

Jenkins, Iredell. 1948. “What is a Normative Science?” The Journal of Philosophy 45(12):309–32. See PhilPapers' listing.

Lackey, R. T. 2004. “Normative science.” Fisheries 29(7):38–39.

Muijnck, Wim de. 2011. “Normative authority for empirical science.” Philosophical Explorations 14(3):263.

Pielke, Roger A. 2007. The honest broker. Cambridge University Press.

Sabine, George H. 1912. “Descriptive and Normative Sciences.” The Philosophical Review 21(4):433–50. Available on JSTOR Archives.

Tranöy, Knut Erik. 1978. “Normative foundations of science.” Synthese 37(3):471–77.

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