Normative science — a hidden environmental issue

Normative science is science based on a preference. This means that it is not true science at all but an opinion or bias towards a particular outcome held by the scientist on her own behalf or by the people who support her.

This is science developed, presented, or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy or class of policy choices. 

There are several ways to do this.

Sin of omission 

Only part of the available evidence is presented. Scientists are quite good at sifting and evaluating evidence and so they can easily cherry pick the numbers to reinforce the view or outcome they want. 

Surprisingly this is often subconscious, they don’t even know that they are doing it. 

We all do this of course. Our core beliefs are strongly held and we default to them without thinking. If a scientist favours environmental protection and sustainability then the work they do is more likely to reflect this worldview. It is a short step to bias the outcomes of this work to favour environmental outcomes.

Sin of commission

Here the scientist latches on to one result or outcome from research that favours their view and over promotes it, even when they know there are other results. They can do this by inflating the statistical importance of the result or by repetition such as putting the result in a graph and a table and in the text of their communication.

Sin of poor science

This is where the design of the process to gather the evidence — the application of the scientific method — is poorly done.

Now this one is a bit tricky because the wearing of a white coat and the ability to use a dispensing pipette does not a scientist make. The practical skills of science are different to the ability to design good scientific work. 

Science practice is easy enough to acquire. It just takes some time and a little instruction to learn how to use a flame photometer. Knowing the difference between inductive and deductive science and how and when to design a fully randomised experiment with controls requires a different cognitive pathway. 

Again surprisingly not all those in white coats have the ability to design good science. So the sin of poor science can come about more often than we realise.

Poor science becomes normative when the results that provide only weak inference are used as though they were definitive evidence.

How to spot normative science

There are ways to quite quickly decide if science presented is normative.

1 – Look out for ‘is’ and ‘ought’

In the English language the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is critical. The use of the word ‘is’ determines a fact whilst ‘ought’ refers to an opinion. 

Science should be all abut the world of  ‘is’, the facts about the past, present, or future. So if the language that a scientist uses has too many ‘oughts’ then there is a good chance she is being normative.

The use of ‘should’ is a giveaway too.

2 – How was the evidence generated

True scientific evidence comes from deduction. This is a process of setting forth an idea as a hypothesis and testing it with an experiment where treatments are assigned to observational units at random.

Some evidence comes from observation alone. As the plane flies low over the savannah the elephants browsing below are counted. This tells us how many elephants there are viewable from the aircraft — an observation.

It is only an estimate of how many elephants there might be altogether and tells us nothing about what elephants do or if their numbers are decreasing or on the rise.

The quality of evidence to explain how things work is really what science is about. Observation alone is rarely enough. 

3 – Who provided the evidence? 

If you are paid $100,000 a week to play soccer for a premier league team you would not want to score goals for the opposition. You are paid to score goals for your team.

Scientists are prone to this employer bias as much as anyone. If your boss wants to see great yield response in trails of the companies new fertilizer it will be hard to present evidence to the contrary. He might say you had a poor design and get you to repeat the experiment or worse.

Ask yourself who generated the evidence as well as how they did it. Academics are less likely to be based than scientists working for commercial companies and those who work for government agencies might be somewhere in between.

Beware though, for none is immune.

Normative science at the policy interface

If science is to be policy neutral it should be an accurate reflection of the world and be easily understood, reproducible and independent.

These are tough asks for policy that by definition must hold a worldview of sorts. 

For example, in conservation policy many of the conservation biologists, ecologists and wildlife professionals tend to have a policy preference that unaltered ecosystems are inherently good — better at least than those where humans have interfered.

But this is just an opinion. 

Science has no preferred state, nor can it determine any condition as being better than another.  Scientific evidence merely documents and can determine the reasons for difference in condition. 

Science cannot provide a preference for any policy option. It can only provide evidence evaluate against the criteria that humans choose to make their value laden choices.

As Robert Lackey from Oregon State University has written... 

What separates normative science from “regular” science is that normative science is developed, presented, or interpreted based on a tacit, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy or class of policy choices. Normative science often is not perceptibly normative to policy makers or even to many scientists.

Scientists have to be especially careful not to let their personal policy preference and worldview leak into their science.

This is harder than it seems.


The fact that normative science exists at all is interesting. 

Right from day one of a science degree students are bombarded with the objectivity of science. The hypothesis setting and testing process that helps us unpack the cause and effects in nature. This is what scientists are supposed to do. They are the people in society who develop skills to interpret the world for what it really is, opinion free.

And there is the key word — people. 

All humans are opinionated beings. We are all a product if our genes and our nurture that has a narrow view of the world. Even in the modern age of accessible travel and the Google gods no one has the mental bandwidth to be across all possible worldviews. Whether we admit or not, we all hold opinions. 

Why else would we end up in so many arguments.

The human condition means that we will always have normative science — science that is not as objective as it should be.

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