For science to become more value-neutral and less biased, it needs to question existing social norms and transcend the status quo, writes Pratik Patil, a researcher in the Advancing Systems Analysis Program and a member of the Transformations within Reach initiative coordination team.

As we approach multiple ecological tipping points and the world is faced with increasing social upheavals, the role of science and scientists is increasingly being scrutinized. Science has been indispensable for ushering in our modern era for better or for worse. In particular, the advent of the reductionist scientific method – the isolation of cause and effect under experimental conditions – has been extremely effective. This is why scientific objectivity is so profoundly and so seductively influential. It is quite convenient if we are able to avoid any value judgments – just “shut up and calculate” and still gain great insights that can be applied to maximize utility. We can innovate our way out of everything, without making any value judgments. This view is sometimes referred to as scientism. I am afraid it is time to acknowledge this story is not true.

Here’s why: Science is an epistemology, which means it is a framework for acquiring knowledge. Every epistemology is underpinned by an ontology – which in its simplest form can be seen as the study of existence – comprising underlying explicit or implicit assumptions.

I think we need to make a distinction between value neutrality and objectivity. If we are not explicit about values, that does not mean they vanish. While we must strive to remain objective in our experimentation and methods, it is impossible to maintain value neutrality when it comes to framing the research question, research agenda, scope, and what we choose to ignore. This is especially relevant in the social sciences, but I would argue also in natural sciences and geosciences. For example, deep-sea mining, geoengineering, and fracking. Are these value-neutral?

Furthermore, objectivity and reductionism have been over-extended in domains such as political economy and even our worldviews where the scientific enterprise is often co-opted and misused by power structures as a profit machine at the expense of ecosystems and against majority interests. The proverbial pie is not justly distributed, and life support systems are being degraded. I would argue that some of the backlashes we see against experts stem from this.

With a strange combination of utility maximization for the few and misuse of scientific objectivity, we have grown to view nature as something separate from humans. We need to instead re-animate the world and recognize the intrinsic agency and rights of ecosystems and different life forms. While drafting this blog post, I was reminded of the opening scene from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, where they demolish the Earth to make way for a cosmic superhighway. To avoid absurdities, we should stop trying to objectify and quantify everything.

Our most pressing global challenges demand a different form of science. Once again, I acknowledge the effectiveness of the reductionist scientific method – we have unbelievable material abundance. The problem is less about production and more about sustainability and just distribution. In fact, it relates to the unintended consequences of previous applications of scientific discoveries such as fossil fuel engines. We have to be sceptical about further unintended consequences and reliance on ever more powerful technologies such as geoengineering, negative emission technologies or artificial intelligence.

Sander van der Leeuw notes in his book Social Sustainability, Past and Future that “emissions are only one aspect of a much more fundamental threat to the continuity of our current ways of living on Earth.” He calls it “the crisis of unintended consequences” and writes that focussing on emissions alone is a form of escapism. This is why we need to be more activist in questioning the current norms that are responsible for exacerbating ecological crises and social inequalities. We can be more value-neutral by assessing a full range of options that conform to biophysical realities rather than just the ones that fit dominant ideologies.

Let me also refer you to Jürgen Renn, a philosopher of science and his remarkable book, The evolution of knowledge: rethinking science for the Anthropocene. He says:

“Production of scientific knowledge has become an existential condition for our survival”. But he goes on to write that, “just producing new scientific and engineering knowledge within the current knowledge economies will not suffice to cope with the Anthropocene. It would be counterproductive. Much of the necessary knowledge does not fall within these categories. It may rather be described as a combination of system knowledge that is the understanding of the earth system and its human components transformation knowledge, that primarily concerns the role of human societies and raises the question of how our collective action can ensure sustainable development, and orientation knowledge about ethics, politics, and belief systems for individuals and collectives”.

We need a combination of all three, because on its own transformation knowledge, may encourage blind activism while systems knowledge can lead to overtly technocratic solutions. In other words, while we need an activist science, much of this activism relates to the scientific enterprise itself rather than projecting scientific authority and it fits within scientific tradition. I think this implies that:

  • Reductionism has to be complemented by complexity science and systems thinking.
  • We also need epistemic humility with respect to our abilities to predict the evolution of complex systems.
  • Especially when it comes to social sciences, in addition to induction and deduction, we need to present counter-factual scenarios with back casting rather than just projecting the current trends to the future.
  • Furthermore, science has to make space for other knowledge systems including indigenous knowledge and participatory co-creation of knowledge with relevant stakeholders.
  • We have to resist, to the extent possible, competition-oriented structural aims and increasing commercialisation.
  • To those who worry that if we collaborate with activists we risk endangering credibility, what about funding and collaboration with private corporations and special interest groups?
  • Species shape the environment, which in turn shapes their evolution. Science has recently become such a niche, shaping our evolution. I think that implies a lot of responsibility. We can’t hide behind illusions of neutrality.

Thankfully, we already have solid international agreements to guide our normativity. I recently saw the following quote in Time Magazine from UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, writing to his great-granddaughter in the year 2100:

“I will stand for climate action, climate justice, and the better, more peaceful, and sustainable world you and all generations deserve.”

Let me conclude by saying that passion, curiosity, and the goal of improving the human condition were always the key drivers of scientific enquiry (or at least it has the claim). Just as it did at the onset of modernity, science may again play a role in re-shaping our worldviews. Although this time, rather than letting power structures misuse science, we have a responsibility to ally ourselves with the less privileged and future generations. This need not conflict with objectivity, instead, we should remain curious and keep updating our prior assumptions based on evidence, while considering a full spectrum of future possibilities. 

This blog post is adapted from Pratik Patil’s remarks during a panel discussion at the European Geosciences Union’s 2023 conference in Vienna, Austria.

Key references

Chabay, I., Renn, O., van der Leeuw, S., & Droy, S. (2021). Transforming scholarship to co-create sustainable futures. Global Sustainability, 4, e19.

Three Decades of Climate Mitigation: Why Haven’t We Bent the Global Emissions Curve? | Annual Review of Environment and Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved 19 February 2022, from

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the IIASA blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.