Posted by: Jill | August 17, 2009

On values and science

One of the most fundamental tenets of science is objectivity: scientists analyze information based on facts alone, not on their personal opinions.  Over and over, I reminded my students at The Island School not to say that they “wanted to see” an increase in Nassau grouper density or that they “were disappointed” that species diversity decreased over time,” because scientsts aren’t supposed to care what the results are.  We perform unbiased experiments and then explain what we learn.

And then, at a 2008 lecture at the University of Washington, Dee Boersma (penguin biologist extraordinaire) opened her talk by saying that she is a conservation biologist because conservation biology is ecology that is based on values.

WHAT?? My mind was blown.

You mean, I can be an ecologist and have feelings?  There is a field that let’s me do rigorous scientific research and actually care about my results?  I’m sold.

We talked about this last week during a 3-day crash course in environmental ethics.  There was some initial resistance, because many scientists are trained so well in thinking that if we introduce subjectivity into our research, then we will lose all credibility as scientists.  But my colleague Ben pointed out that there is an important difference between value-driven goals and an objective analytical process: maybe my reason for doing a particular research project is driven by my desire to conserve coral reefs, but I can still be objective in my methodology.

Our visiting professor from Lewis and Clark, Jay Odenbaugh, used the analogy of a medical doctor to explain how some conservation biologists incorporate values into their work.  We want a doctor who wants her patients to get healthy, but we also want a doctor who can perform medical tests with objective scientific scrutiny.  In conservation biology lingo, this translates to: I can care about whether or not a coral reef ecosystem is in good shape, but I need to measure ecological parameters objectively.

Aldo Leopold, famed ecologist, uses a similar analogy:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

So this is what I do.  I am a scientist.  I study coral reefs, and I care a lot about them, too.

Sea turtle, resting on a lovely, health bed of corals (note the values in this statement)

Sea turtle, resting on a lovely, health bed of corals at Apo Island (note the values in this statement)



  1. While incorporating your values into your work may not necessarily compromise the validity of your results, don’t you think it influences which work is actually conducted? And since conservation ecologists’ work generally leads to increased preservation of the animals studied, you not only get to study what you love, but also propagate it’s existence. Indubitably a rewarding career field, though the earth’s ecosystems may ultimately be steered to the wonts of the hippie-scientist community. In the very long term, appeal to the values of crunchy academics may be a survival tactic / evolutionary advantage for animal and plant species. An endangered bird species that ‘recycles’ bottlecaps may garner more public attention and last longer than an insect species that eats its own young. For better or for worse.

    • All true. I’ve been known to refer haughtily to “charismatic megafauna,” the flagship conservation species like polar bears and killer whales, and to have empathy for microbiologists who study things that no one finds endearing.

      Also, nice use of the word indubitably.

  2. Ha, speaking of “charismatic megafauna”:

    I was just discussing with my roommate how the WWF has made the perfect choice for a logo mascot in the Great Panda. This animal is physically awkward, sexually inadequate, and subsists solely on bamboo – which has nearly zero nutritional value. WWF will never have to redesign their logo… because the Great Panda will never become un-endangered!

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