The 6th Food Packaging Forum (FPF) workshop on “Predicting the safety of food contact articles: New science and digital opportunities” took place on October 4th, 2018, in Zurich, Switzerland. Karim Bschir from the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zurich, Switzerland, discussed whether ‘good predictions’ guarantee that there will be no ‘bad decisions’ taken.

Predictions that scientists seek to make have both an epistemic value and a practical value. The former refers to the fact that predictions help scientists to increase knowledge or understanding of something (for example, by constructing models of progressive complexity) and thus reduce the epistemic uncertainty. The practical value of predictions is that they improve decision-making that in turn can help improve human life. With this, predictions reduce the practical uncertainty.

However, even the very good predictions do not guarantee that there will be no bad decisions made on the basis of these predictions. This is because “science is not value-free” (FPF reported). Even with the ‘ideal science’ and substantially increased understanding at hand, the burden of having to make a choice of committing to one of the alternative routes remains solely on the shoulders of the person making that decision. And this decision will always be influenced by what this person values most.

Therefore, Bschir argued that improved predictability will only lead to better decisions if “the decisions are not value-laden” or “the value preferences are sufficiently clear.” He brought up an example of prenatal genetic diagnostics where, even with very clear predictions given, certain decisions can be made “only if you have sorted out your value preferences.” Bschir asked the audience to consider the implications for the environmental and food toxicology sciences, raising the questions of whether scientists should engage in a discussion about values, but also about who should be responsible for defining the value preferences that should be adhered to by practitioners.

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Karim Bschir (October 4, 2018). “Good predictions and bad decisions? Philosophical thoughts on science-based decision-making.” (YouTube; pdf)