The 8th Food Packaging Forum (FPF) workshop “Improving the chemical safety of food contact articles: Linking policy-making with scientific research” took place online on October 21-23, 2020.
Kevin Elliott from Department of Philosophy, Michigan State University, presented his perspectives on values and transparency in science. He explored how values can relate to science, illustrated by three examples focusing on study design and interpretation, standards of evidence, and problem framing. He further discussed the role of transparency in addressing values, particularly, “why it’s important” and “why it’s more complicated than it seems.”
In relation to science, the word “values” can mean a variety of things, including worldviews, ethical principles, social values, personal priorities or inclinations, scientific paradigms, and disciplinary orientations. Elliott explained that values often act as causes of scientific judgements but can also themselves be affected by scientific judgements. For example, values can influence both the design and the interpretation of a particular study, as Fern Wickson and Brian Wynne discussed in their article “The anglerfish deception,” published in 2012 in the peer-reviewed journal EMBO Reports.
Further, Elliott observed that “differing views about the reliability of regulatory guideline studies versus peer-reviewed academic studies drive many controversies in toxicology.” A prominent example in this regard is a lack of consensus of what constitutes an ‘adverse’ effect. As Laura Vandenberg and Gail Prins summarized in a 2016 paper discussing bisphenol A (BPA, CAS 80-09-5) research, some scientists require demonstration of “overt signs of toxicity,” while others focus on more subtle “predictors of disease,” such as disruption of development or homeostasis. In this regard, as Heather Douglas has pointed out in her 2009 book, “many scientific disputes boil down to disagreements about how much evidence to demand before drawing conclusions.” This could concern, for example, the number or types of studies needed to draw a conclusion, or accepted levels of statistical significance. Elliott illustrated these points on the example of different assessments of glyphosate carcinogenicity issued by the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Lastly, as highlighted by Hugh Lacey in his book published in 1999, different approaches to framing a problem could also represent a significant form of judgment, and “this overarching judgment can in turn affect many other judgments.” For example, different framing approaches could “encourage different study designs, different standards of evidence, and different interpretations of ambiguous evidence.”
How can scientists acknowledge and deal with such “value-laden judgements” responsibly? In his 2017 book, Elliott outlines three different ways to respond to these challenges, including “making responsible choices that reflect ethical and social priorities,” promoting “engagement among interested and affected parties,” and “striving for transparency about the choices made.” In particular, being transparent about value-laden judgements “helps preserve the credibility of science because others can decide how to respond,” e.g., choose to use or not use a particular scientific work, or use it for specific purposes only, or even reinterpret the conclusions “based on one’s own values and preferred judgements.” With this, Elliott does not want to say that everyone should be free to interpret science based on their own values, but rather refers specifically to cases of ambiguous evidence.
Elliott also pointed out that “transparency is more complicated than it might initially appear,” in particular with regard to how to communicate the transparency. In a paper published in 2020, Elliott defined seven dimensions of transparency. A scientist has to make a decision about what he wants to communicate about, and this in turn would define the audience he/she is trying to reach. Different audiences (e.g., scientists, policy makers, public, or specific communities) actually care about somewhat different content, and different actors or different venues could be more appropriate for communicating different kinds of information. Based on this, one can also define certain dangers of being transparent.
In a commentary published in 2019, Elliott and Resnik suggested that the open science movement so far tends to be focused on avenues for openness which are relevant only to other scientists. Therefore, they encouraged seeking ways to reach a range of other stakeholders, including members of the general public. Thinking about the stakeholders, one should decide what kinds of content these audiences need. While some might be interested in detailed data and technical discussions, others may just want “basic clarifications of key judgements” along with “indicators of potential values.” In another paper, Elliott suggested that science journalism, when done well, could be a valuable resource for the general public as a way of advancing the open science movement by clarifying some of the key messages in a basic way.
Organizations in the best position to provide this sort of transparency would be those which can contribute to building the “networks of different actors and organizations.” As an example of such an organization, he brought up the Food Packaging Forum and suggested, as a way forward, to concentrate on “what level of clarifications do particular stakeholders need” and “what are the best avenues for clarifying these issues for different stakeholder communities.”
Wickson, F., and Wynne, B. (2012). “The anglerfish deception.” EMBO Reports 13: 100-105.
Vandenberg, L, and Prins, G.S. (2016). “Clarity in the face of confusion: new studies tip the scales on bisphenol A (BPA).” Andrology 4: 561-564.
Heather Douglas (2009). “Science, policy, and the value-free ideal.” University of Pittsburgh Press DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrc78
Portier, C.J., et al. (2016). “Differences in the carcinogenic evaluation of glyphosate between the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 70: 741-745.
Hugh Lacey (1999). “Is science value free? Values and scientific understanding.” DOI 10.1093/mind/110.438.495
Kevin Elliott (2017). “A tapestry of values: An introduction to values in science.” Oxford Scholarship Online DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190260804.001.0001
Kevin Elliott (2020). “A taxonomy of transparency in science.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy DOI: 10.1017/can.2020.21
Elliott, K.C., and Resnik, D.B. (2019). “Making open science work for science and society.” Environmental Health Perspectives 127: 4808.
Kevin Elliott (2019). “Science journalism, value judgements, and the open science movement.” Frontiers in Communication DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2019.00071