Talk: “When Virtues are Vices: The Weaponization of Scientific Norms”


Dan Hicks


May 18, 2020

Back in March, I was supposed to present at a colloquium at the University of Dayton on “Doing Science in a Pluralistic Society.” Due to the pandemic, the colloquium was turned into a virtual conference over two Fridays in April. The recording of my talk is now on Youtube and at the bottom of this post.

When Virtues are Vices: The Weaponization of Scientific Norms

Conservative critics of mainstream climate science and environmental health science often “weaponize” traditional scientific virtues to manufacture doubt and slow the regulatory process. For example, climate skeptics appeal to Popperian falsifiability and Mertonian norms such as organized skepticism, arguing that mainstream climate science is unfalsifiable and propped up through closed scientific communities. The “Secret Science Reform Act,” which was passed by the US House of Representatives in both 2014 and 2015, would have prohibited US EPA from using “scientific technical information” unless it was “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

These rhetorical appeal to traditional scientific virtues make it difficult to dismiss these anti-environmentalists as “anti-science.” Indeed, the effect of these appeals is to represent anti-environmentalists as defenders of science from the threats of politicization.

I first argue that this kind of appeal to scientific virtues depends on a “narrowly epistemic” conception of the aims of scientific research. On this conception, the sole constitutive aim of science is to produce impartial knowledge. Other aims — such as protecting human health and the environment — are less important. The traditional scientific virtues reflect this strict separation of constitutive epistemic aims and practical uses of science.

I go on to propose an alternative conception of the aims of scientific research, according to which epistemic and pragmatic aims of science can be equally important and mutually influencing. This view of the aims of science supports an alternative understanding of scientific virtues. On this understanding, when traditional scientific “virtues” are weaponized by conservative anti-environmentalists — when they are used to delay protective regulation, frustrating the constitutive pragmatic aims of a scientific field — they are actually vices rather than virtues.