Testing the Limits of Universalism in Science

Science traditionally aspires to be universal in two respects. First, it seeks fundamental knowledge—facts which are universally true. Second, it aims to be impersonal in practice; identity should be irrelevant to the process by which a scientific claim is judged.

Since the era following the Second World War, a great deal has come to rest on these aspirations. For not only does universalism make science a reliable means of understanding the world; it also makes scientific institutions an obvious basis for cooperation in response to various grim and complex challenges facing humanity. Today, these challenges include environmental damage, infectious diseases, biotechnology and food and energy insecurity. Surely, if anyone can rise above conflicts of culture and interest—and maybe even help governments do the same—it is the people in the proverbial white coats.

And yet, lately we find the very principle of universalism being called into doubt. Armed with the tools of critical theory, scholars in the social sciences and humanities assert that science is just one knowledge system among many, relative to the western context in which it evolved. In this view, the universalism that enables science to inform other peoples and cultures is really a form of unjust hegemony.

So far, this trend has mostly been discussed in an educational setting, where there have been calls to decolonize scientific curricula and to address demographic imbalances among students. But how will it affect those institutions seeking to foster scientific collaboration on critical policy issues?

An argument erupted this year in the field of ecology, centered on a body called the IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). I suspect few readers have heard of this organization, but then, such is the unglamorous business of saving the world. The IPBES is one of the few vehicles for drawing governments’ attention to the rapid global decline of biodiversity, and of animal and plant populations generally.

In January, leading members of the panel published an article in the journal Science, announcing a “paradigm shift” in how it would approach its mission. They claim the scientific model on which the IPBES was founded is “dominated by knowledge from the natural sciences and economics,” and prone to adopt the “generalizing perspective” of “western science.” Consequently, they argue, it does not provide space for the humanities and social sciences, nor does it recognize the knowledge and values of local and indigenous peoples.

The article, which sparked an acrimonious row within the research community, came after several years in which IPBES papers and reports had developed “a pluralistic approach to recognizing the diversity of values.” The panel has now officially adopted a new paradigm that “resist[s] the scientific goal of attaining a universally applicable schema,” while seeking to “overcome existing power asymmetries between western science and local and indigenous knowledge, and among different disciplines within western science.”

Science, Policy, Politics

 It is easy to dismiss such terminology as mere jargon, and that is what some critics have done. They claim the “paradigm shift” amounts to “a political compromise, and not a new scientific concept.” In other words, labeling a universal outlook western science is a diplomatic gesture to placate skeptics. Recognizing “a diversity of values” does not alter the pertinent data, because, however you frame them, the data are the data.

But here is the problem. When it comes to organizations whose role is to inform policy, this neat separation between science and politics is misleading; they often have their own political goals that guide their scientific activity. For the IPBES, that goal is persuading policymakers to conserve the natural world. Consequently, the panel does not merely gather data about the health of ecosystems. It gathers data showing how humans benefit from healthy ecosystems, so as to emphasize the costs of not conserving them.

This strategy, however, forces the IPBES to make value judgments which are not straightforwardly amenable to scientific methods. To assess the benefits of nature, one must consider not just clean air and soil nutrients, but also nonmaterial factors such as religious inspiration and cultural identity that vary widely around the world. Can all of this really be incorporated into a universal, objective system of measurements?

The IPBES’ original paradigm tried to do so, but, inevitably, the result was a crude framework of utilitarian metrics. It sought to categorize and quantify all of nature’s benefits (including the religious and cultural) and convert them into monetary values—this being, after all, the language policy makers understand best. As the Science article states, drawing on a substantial literature, this reductive approach alienated a great many scientists, as well as local people, whose participation is crucial for conservation.

All of this illustrates some general problems with universalism as a basis for cooperation. Firstly, when a scientific institution directs its work towards certain policy outcomes, its claims to objectivity become more questionable. It might still produce knowledge that is universally true; but which knowledge it actually seeks, and how it translates that knowledge into policy tools are more contentious questions.

This problem arises even in cases of solid scientific consensus, such as climate change. Rising temperatures are one thing, but which consequences should scientists investigate to grab the attention of policymakers or even voters? Which economic policies should they endorse? Such judgments will inevitably be political and ideological in nature.

Moreover, some subjects are simply more politically and culturally contentious than others. There are many areas where, even if a universalist approach can be devised, it will nonetheless be regarded as an unwelcome and foreign way of thinking. As we have seen, nature is one of these areas. Another obvious example is gene editing, which Japan has recently allowed in human embryos. Any attempts to regulate this technology will likely require a debate about religious and cultural mores as much as hard science.

The Limits of Pluralism

The question is, however, does the pluralism now advocated by IPBES offer a viable solution to these problems? It is highly doubtful. The influence of critical theory, as seen in a fixation with knowledge as a proxy for power, is itself antithetical to productive cooperation. Rather than merely identifying the practical limitations of the scientific worldview, it pits science in zero-sum competition with other perspectives.

The problem begins with a slide from cultural pluralism into epistemological relativism. In the literature that laid the groundwork for the IPBES “paradigm shift,” knowledge systems are treated as “context specific,” each containing “its own processes of validity.” As a result, the prospect of compromise recedes into the distance, the priority being to “equitably bridge different value systems, eventually allowing processes of social learning.”

As critics have warned, there is a danger here of losing clarity and focus, leading to less effective advocacy. IPBES papers and reports now bulge with extensive discussions of cultural particularism and equity, threatening at times to become an altogether parallel mission. Yet in 2016, when the panel delivered its most comprehensive assessment to date, the summary for policymakers included barely any information about the economic costs of ecological damage.

Indeed, despite its supposed skepticism, there is an air of fantasy surrounding this discourse. Even if there are areas where it is inappropriate to impose a purely scientific outlook, it is disingenuous to pretend that, with a particular goal in view, all perspectives are equally useful. Likewise, no amount of consultation and mediation can negate the reality that, with limited resources, different values and interests must be traded off against one another. If scientists absolve themselves of this responsibility, they simply pass it on to policymakers.

Universalism has practical limits of its own: it cannot dissolve cultural differences, or remove the need to make political decisions. But, provided such limitations are understood, it surely remains the most useful default principle for collaborative work. Even diverse institutions need common goals: to treat values as fully incommensurable is to invite paralysis. And to politicize knowledge itself is to risk unraveling the scientific enterprise altogether.

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6 comments

  1. Values, morality and policy decisions are outside th domain of science. What science pprovides is an effective mechanism for establishing of knowledge about the world which is mostlly effetcive, and is generally self correecting . There are going to be areas where the current state of knowledge is poort, or disputed but in the long run it is the best basis we have for extablishing a reasonably accurate model of the world.

    The problem that has arisen is where this reasonably accurate model of the world has conflicted with powerful ideologies. Instea dof changing ideology to suit reality a a reaction has been to undermine and replace science with the goal of concealing or obscuring the conflict between reality and ideology. An example is the socially constructed theory of gender which claims no biological origin for differences in the distribution of characteristics between the sexes. This theory is contradicted by a masss of evidence from many different disciplines yet is a dominant theory in public discourse.. .This is the purpose of critical theory to allow an ideology in conflict with strong scientific evidence to create its own contra-factual ‘knowledge’ to strengthen an dpromote that ideology. It results in absurdities like the idea of indigineous knowledge. There well be valid knowledge outside of established science but the only way we can know with a reasonable degree of confidence is to investigate it scientifically. The idea that there are different types of scientific knowing and knowledge all equally as valid and worthy of respect is deeply damaging and not just a threat to science as a whole but ultimately liberal democratic societies. Contra-factual ideologies which argue they have special means of obtaining knowledge tend to totalitarianism in order to maintain their contra-factual world view. They often sound more convincing that genuine knowledge because genuine knowledge comes with an appreciation of uncertainties and limitations whereas true believers have none.

  2. Where universal means ‘applying to all similarly situated beings’ the limits of universality are the borders of what’s meant by “similarly situated”. Our best empirical theories are, unlike what the IPBS has succumb to, particularly good at mapping those borders and keeping track of them as they shift.

  3. To add a little more, the opposite to my previous point is that often science is used to substitute for human values. For example, it is simply assumed that biodiversity is “good” instead of admitting that it competes with other human values like food and shelter and rock music. Or it is assumed without examination that the ultimate and only goal in life is to live as long as possible. Maybe in fact smoking is worth losing some of your lifespan to some people (not to me)–but this can’t even be allowed to enter the conversation. and so on

    1. The eternal flourishing of the human species is assumed as a value, as though everyone actually cares about distant future humans. Why? It’s never seemed obvious that possible distant future people have any moral worth, or ought to be the reason we make sacrifices in the present.

    2. Both your comments make very good points, which also occurred to me while researching this piece. There’s often something disingenuous (and frankly patronising) about the promotion of indigenous knowledge (IK). For instance, the IPBES claims that IK should be seen as valid in its own right. But in the panel’s 2016 report on pollinators, it cherry-picks examples of IK that are useful precisely because they align with the panel’s own “western” scientific goals. (See chapter 5 here: https://www.ipbes.net/system/tdf/downloads/pdf/pollination_chapters_final_0.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=15247).

      More fundamentally, the proposed binary between a universal “western science” and “other knowledge systems” obviously cannot exist unless you have a universal, scientific outlook to begin with.

      As for your second point – that biodiversity is not an unquestionable good, but must compete against other values – this was integral to the IPBES’ original paradigm, which was called Ecosystem Services (ES). This was one of the reasons it insisted on rendering the value of nature in monetary terms, since that allows a proper comparison when, inevitably, nature has to be traded-off against other goods (resource extraction, houses and infrastructure, etc). The architects of ES explain this point here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212041617304060?via%3Dihub

  4. As a scientist, this “other ways of knowing” claim raises my hackles. There is no sense in which indigenous peoples agree on anything in particular. Which native way of knowing are we to believe? How do we evaluate competing knowledge claims? Are we to accept that photographing someone “steals their soul”? Are we to preserve the homes of elves and sprites like they do in Iceland? Should shifting agriculture and shooting and eating anything that moves be considered valid conservation measures? Interestingly, when the Inuit claim that their “way of knowing” leads them to assess polar bear numbers as higher than what conservationists claim, their view is discounted. I guess some “ways of knowing” are more special than others.
    It is of course true that human values are subjective and should be considered. How much is a rain forest worth? There are lots of answers. But values should not affect the polar bear count. The number is what it is.
    Cultural relativism and deconstructionism also can create the danger that feelings trump reality. Some people are sure they can feel themselves being poisoned by chemicals or they claim they can “feel” the climate change, but their feelings are not data and are not shared by everyone. Calling down up does not allow you to fly.

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