Science is not Normative

by Mike Dilger, 8 April 2020

I can't count the number of times I've read a news article that seems to pit some politically motivated opinion against the science, claiming someone is not on the side of science, or otherwise presuming that science tells us what we should do.

But science only tells you statements like "If you do action A you'll likely result R within some bound". It says nothing about whether result R is desirable or undesirable (concepts outside the realm of science).

The way this is normally described is to say that science is non-normative. Normative outcomes are what society designates as good or desirable or permissiable. Non-normative realms like science cannot tell you if an outcome is good or bad, they can only tell you if it is likely.

When you have to weigh economic consequences against human lives, science doesn't care one way or the other. That's for us humans to decide, based on personal preferences, feelings, desires, etc.

We allow people to drive in cars, even though the science tells us we can expect a number of people to lose their lives as a result. We do it anyways after weighing all the factors: economic, freedom, etc. It is normative to allow some people to die in car accidents as the price we pay for being able to drive places. The "road toll".

So when someone claims that the science says we should all self-isloate, they've taken a logical misstep. If they instead back up one step and say that if we don't self-isolate then the medical systems will be overwhelmed and more people in total will die... then that's a fine statement. If it is indeed based upon science. And it doesn't tell us what we should do.

This concept is simple, but foreign to many people, especially young idealists. I remember in economics class in high school students frequently confused the teachers non-normative statements of science for normative politically-biased preaching. He had to keep reminding them that he holds no position whatsoever on what should be, that economics is non-normative and equally valid irrespective of your political views.

Of course some political opinions can be based on incorrect science or no science at all and be in conflict with the science. That's a different thing, and those views should certainly be challenged.