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Social values & the IPCC AR6

Unless you have been living under a substantially sized rock for the past week, you may have noticed that the IPCC's sixth assessment report came out last Monday. While there there is much to discuss regarding its content, here I’m going to take two minutes to marvel one of its not-so-urgent features – namely, how physical sciences assessment report included a section on social values. Such an angle might be less surprising in the reports of the other IPCC working groups, but for a report on physical sciences, an acknowledgement of the role of social values is noteworthy.

So, what did the report say on social values? The authors acknowledged that “the role of values in how scientific knowledge is created, verified, and communicated” and that social values are “implicit in many choices made during the construction, assessment, and communication of climate science information” (1-33). There a discussion on inductive risk (or type I and type II errors), and a brief treatment on evaluative metrics and stakeholder engagement. The philosophical research cited included Popper and Kuhn, but also Heather Douglas, Kristen Intemann, Elisabeth Lloyd, Wendy Parker and Eric Winsberg.

I think this addition to the report is welcomed news for at least the following reasons. The obvious point to make is that it implies that the literature regarding values in science is gaining more attention among scientists. The less obvious point is that it demonstrates the usefulness of relating philosophical arguments/frameworks familiar to philosophers to areas where they haven't been featured all that much. I call this a not-so-obvious point, because I have heard people state that finding instances of inductive risk in some STEM subfield is (philosophically speaking) opting for a low-hanging fruit. But the new IPCC report gives reasons to be skeptical of such statements. Identifying instances of inductive risk in say, palaeontology, might be useful for palaeontologists even if inductive risk is familiar stuff for philosophers.

Finally, most of the philosophers cited in the report are those that have collaborations with researchers in the physical sciences. This, I believe, sends the right message: there is much to be gained in collaborations with scientists in making philosophy of science helpful for STEM researchers. Here “much to be gained” does not mean one-directional dissemination of philosophical views, but rather that both science can shape philosophy, and philosophers can influence science.

A good example of where the philosophical takes on values should be react to observations made by those in the science community comes from the previous IPCC report, which brings attention to climate science research gaps regarding Africa. One reason for the persistence of such gaps is funding, and the priorities that guide its allocation. The role of social values in science funding, I think, is something that the philosophical community should take more seriously when considering future areas for investigation regarding values in science.

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