Values in Science and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):  

A reflection from the IGC Seminar Course, by Caetano Franco

Science has allowed humanity to know and understand nature better. In addition, it has been the basis for the development of society, technological advances, innovation, and improvement in the quality of life of populations. Currently, science is a key piece to solving and improving problems and changes at various scales, from local to global, such as sustainability, pandemics, deforestation, climate change, and much more.

Despite its importance, science faces challenges, either through its denial, by governments and the population, or in its execution, by institutions and researchers. Specifically in relation to execution, values can influence science in both positive and negative ways. When conducting scientific processes such as modelling, experiments or data analysis, researchers and scientific institutions need to ensure that there are no biases or distortions, which historically influenced the mindset that science practitioners should operate in a value-free space. To explore this subject, I invited Dr. Wendy Parker, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Virginia Tech and affiliated with the Global Change Center (GCC), to share her reflections on values in science and their importance, and on how this subject has been treated in relation to climate change. Dr. Parker’s research is focused on the philosophy of science and philosophy of climate science/meteorology. In addition, Dr. Parker participated as a contributing author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2021.


What are values ​​in science and their importance?

“We can think of values, in general, as things to which some positive significance is attached. Values of various types shape scientific practice. Some apply to scientists (such as engages in critical scrutiny of ideas) while others apply to theories or models (such as gives accurate predictions). Philosophers sometimes call these epistemic or scientific values, either because they are part and parcel of the activity of science or because they promote the production of scientific knowledge. Today, philosophers are especially interested in how social, ethical and political values can appropriately influence science. Interestingly, an emerging consensus is that these values can sometimes appropriately influence even methodological choices deep in the heart of research – like whether to classify ambiguous data in one way or another, or whether to use one equation rather than another when there is uncertainty about how to represent some physical process. One argument is that scientists ought to consider the consequences of error when making such choices and ought to try to avoid errors with particularly bad practical consequences; determining which consequences count as particularly bad can require social and ethical value judgments. (Note that this argument in no way denies that social, political and personal values can also sometimes bias research in problematic ways, and that this should be avoided.)”


What are the main mechanisms that scientific institutions have or should have to ensure that these values ​​are met?

“Peer review is a mechanism for enacting the critical scrutiny of ideas. Replication of studies is another mechanism for promoting scientific/epistemic values. Philosopher Helen Longino argues that objectivity (another value) should be thought of as a feature of a scientific community, rather than an individual scientist, and that its achievement depends on how the community is structured – including how it responds to criticism of ideas. She argues that having diverse perspectives in the community is also important, insofar as it can help to uncover when research is being unduly shaped by political and personal values shared by some subset of the community.”


Caetano Franco
Caetano Franco is PhD Student at Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and a member of Global Change Center. His research interests include co-management and community-based management of natural resources.
Wendy Parker
Dr. Wendy Parker is professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech. Dr. Parker participated as a contributing author for the IPCC in 2021. Her research focuses on topics in general philosophy of science and philosophy of climate science / meteorology.

What are the main challenges and opportunities in ensuring that values ​​in science are respected/fulfilled?

“Challenges to the fulfillment of scientific/epistemic values include things like pressure to publish novel results (rather than replications) and the “file drawer effect” (where insignificant results don’t get reported). Challenges to the management of extra-scientific value influence include limited diversity in science and, in some cases, science funded by industry or interest groups with the aim of achieving only results that promote particular values. Opportunities can be identified in part by considering how to address or respond to such challenges.”

Considering your experience at the IPCC, how have values in science been incorporated into the actions, discussions and materials produced by this panel?

“My role in the IPCC process was as a contributing author, in a very small role. So, I do not have a lot of firsthand experience to draw on here. I think questions about how values do and should influence climate science are increasingly receiving attention, both within the IPCC and its reports and in the academic literature. In addition, if we think back to Longino’s account of objectivity, mentioned above, it’s interesting that some of the features of communities that she highlights as important for objectivity are embodied by the IPCC: there is real effort to include diverse perspectives; the assessment process considers a huge range of peer-reviewed literature; and thousands of reviewer comments are considered and individually addressed in the course of arriving at consensus conclusions.”


Several features of the IPCC process mentioned above by Dr. Parker were related to a philosophical view of objectivity. Diversity of perspective, as one of these characteristics, supposedly prevents social, political, and other values from unduly influencing the way of thinking and doing science. In this context, the diversity of perspectives drives the emergence of challenges for science, as they may be related to diversity in terms of scientific discipline, types of knowledge, political commitments, or cultural and historical perspectives. Diversity can drive challenges for science as well as powerful change. An example can be through the combination of different types of knowledge, such as local ecological knowledge and scientific knowledge, used in scientific and management strategies associated with nature conservation and social development. In this sense, it is interesting that a diversity of types of knowledge are increasingly incorporated into science, so that science can better address deal with the changes on a global scale that are underway.

Additional resources:

  1. Values and evidence: how models make a difference - Wendy S. Parker & Eric Winsberg
  2. Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry – Helen Longino
  3. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) - Values Assessment