Decision Making, Science and Moral Values

In the late 1990s, I was an adult leader for a Boy Scout unit (technically a Varsity Scout team) that was sponsored by my ward (the title given to congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka Mormons, coming from the fact that congregations are organized geographically) in Tucson, Arizona.  One weekend in September, as part of Operation On Target, we were hiking up Picacho Peak and I found myself in a conversation with a friend on the topic of evolution.

My friend was trying to downplay evolution, saying that it was "just a theory" and using arguments similar to if not exactly the analogy of the watch formed without a watchmaker.  He was wanting to argue that schools really should be teaching alternatives to evolution.  (I can't remember if we were talking about creationism or intelligent design.) At the time, I was working on my PhD in applied mathematics at The University of Arizona, with an emphasis particularly on the intersection of physics and biology.  I had been grappling with reconciling my religious belief that God is the great Creator and giver of life with the scientific theory of evolution.

As we hiked around the base of that desert peak, I emphasized the point that there is a difference between scientific and religious knowledge.  The responsibility of schools is to teach science, the types of questions science can answer, and the nature of evidence that science works with.  I explained that I had come to think of evolution as the scientific approach to understanding the toolbox which the Creator used.  Science is not an enemy to religion.

In the Old Testament, Job explained, "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this?" (Job 12:7-9).  In the Book of Mormon, Alma taught, "The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator" (Alma 30:44).

I have thought about the conflicts that arise between science, religion, and politics.  Some of the more controversial issues seem to be about teaching evolution in school classrooms (and the constant pressure to give equal time to non-scientific philosophies), the conflicts between environmental protectionism and economic progress, the role of fossil-fuel consumption in climate change, and the great ethical challenges associated with the scientific study of life, such as stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.  It is my opinion that the conversation on these controversial issues would be much more constructive if only the public were better aware of the proper role of science in decision making.

The Nature of Science

The proper role of science is in the inductive formation and testing of hypotheses.  We want to understand relationships between objects in our universe, the nature of what causes different effects, the order behind the diversity of the world --- whether of living organisms or of physical elements.  Facilitated by an amazing arsenal of modern instruments, measurements allow us to quantify many of the variables that characterize these objects and the actions between them.  Patterns emerge, allowing us to form predictions.  Through the creative process of science, we form hypotheses that predict how the pattern will continue in as-yet unseen situations.  Experiments extend the limits of observations into new situations where we can test whether our hypotheses have been contradicted or remain consistent with the pattern.

One of the remarkable tools available to science is the mathematical model.  From Isaac Newton's model of gravity to explain the orbit of the moon to NASA's use of models to be able to navigate to and then successfully land the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, mathematical models allow scientists to formulate basic assumptions about the relationships between variables and explore the predictive consequences of those relationships.  Modern computers amplify the utility of these models by allowing an unprecedented level of complexity and speed.  For example, our national laboratories use these tools to model America's stockpile of nuclear weapons in order to minimize the need for dangerous tests while also developing simulations of disease spread taking into account travel patterns of individuals in a city or region.  These models and simulations allow us to explore conditions that would not be possible or responsible to explore physically.

However, a model is only as good as its assumptions.  The most elegant model built upon faulty assumptions is worthless.  And yet no model can actually capture all necessary assumptions to describe reality.  In fact, this is essential for a model.  When I was growing up, I enjoyed building model cars and airplanes.  These models were not complete miniaturized replicas of the real thing; they were miniaturized visual representations of the external (and sometimes internal) parts of those vehicles.  Similarly, a mathematical model must be designed for a specific objective, and the assumptions of the model are typically the minimal set of assumptions that will allow the objective to be accomplished.  A responsible scientist using a model clearly identifies the basic assumptions and recognizes that consequences of the model may not apply if those assumptions are not really applicable.

One of the most important uses of mathematical models is to make predictions of future outcomes subject to different choices of conditions placed on a system.  This might be trying to model the stock market in order to know how best to spread your risk on inherently risky investments.  Or it might be an attempt to model an entire economy to see if various national policies will have an impact on unemployment.  Or it could be to attempt to model the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate.  By adjusting the assumptions in a careful way, scientists can gauge how changing basic assumptions lead to different outcomes.

Predictions versus Policy

Science is about identifying questions, establishing hypotheses, and performing tests of those hypotheses based on available, measurable evidence.  Science can tackle the tangible questions of "Who?", "What?", and "How?".  In its proper place, science does not answer metaphysical questions like "Why?".  Science does not establish a value system.  Science does not determine morality.  Values and morality are necessarily imposed by society, and religion plays a fundamental role in shaping these.  Consequently, science can not make decisions independently, for decisions are necessarily always made in the context of assigning values to various outcomes.

Now in spite of the premise that science is dispassionate, scientists themselves are not dispassionate observers.  Their values are often framed in light of their research interests.  For example, an herpetologist studying the emerging fungal disease chytridiomycosis threatening many world frog populations may very likely be motivated by her personal love of animals and conviction that her research might help protect the diversity of life.  As such, she may play a double role.  First, she is the scientist, reporting the predictions and observations of scientific study.  Second, she is the advocate, trying to present a case that the value in protecting the amphibians from further losses should be seen as great.  Who could be better at trying to argue for their value than someone who studies them in depth and appreciates the subtleties of their role in nature?

But though scientists have the right, by virtue of belonging to humanity, to be advocates for causes related to their research, I believe that everyone needs to do a better job of making a distinction between science which informs and advocacy which persuades.  The science community should clearly distinguish scientific conclusions from direct advocacy.  At the same time, the public needs to recognize these distinctions and insist that policy takes into account both the scientific knowledge and the values of society.

This leads to an interesting possibility—using mathematical models to account for both the scientific models as well as the values society places on different outcomes.  This coupling of scientific and economic models allows modelers to explore the expected value resulting from various policy decisions.  The challenge, of course, is to assign numerical values to what are likely to be qualitative societal values.  What outcomes are considered unacceptable?  Does this mean policies should avoid this in all cases?

Politicizing the Scientific Process

In the context of elections, I find myself extremely disheartened by comments that are made by Republicans in relation to science.  Jon Huntsman, Jr., made a statement with which I strongly agree:
The minute that the Republican Party becomes the…anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people that would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. (ABC News' "This Week," Aug. 21, 2011 as quoted by NPR)
For example, Republican state lawmakers in Kentucky are fighting the ACT for testing high school students on the theory of evolution.  From the linked Huffington Post story, we can read the following quote:
"The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science -- Darwin made it up," state Sen. Ben Waide (R) said. "My objection is they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method. Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny."
Meanwhile, most of the Republican primary candidates expressed their belief that intelligent design or creationism should be taught in schools as valid alternatives to evolution.  (The critical issue in my mind is that the candidates were calling for these as scientific alternatives, whereas these philosophies are not science.  I would agree with them if they would state that our society has room for non-scientific ways of viewing our world.)  These statements, along with statements that appear to be blanket repudiation of global warming or Senator Akin's ridiculous comment about innate protection from rape-induced pregnancy, make me seriously pause considering any member of the party that seems to encourage and support such attacks on science.

Gratefully, Mitt Romney appears to have publicly stated a personal philosophy similar to my own.  Although I had a hard time finding quotes from the current campaign, old quotes seemed to clearly indicate that Romney believes evolution should be taught in the classroom but that he believes God is the creator.  Similarly, in a response to survey from Scientific American, Romney made what I feel is a very rational approach to the issue of climate change:

I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.  

Wow!  Thanks for essentially making my point on this comment.  I'm impressed.  The big question mark for me still here is getting a better sense of how non-economic outcomes are valued by Romney.  I'm hoping he will verbalize these more.

In the other camp,  my personal impression is that the Democratic party is more susceptible to the trap of believing that science is king, and other voices in society regarding how we should value different outcomes must defer to whatever science says.  Consequently, it is more likely that I will policy discussions that center on scientific principles from the Democratic side of the aisle.  For example, the environment is important to me and is also a high priority in the Democratic party.  It is a rare day when I find myself hearing a Republican try to defend the importance of the environment.  Nevertheless, I do worry that we can over-regulate in an attempt to forestall the predictions of science without looking at how those regulations actually impact the overall picture.

At present, I do not have a collection of quotes supporting my concerns on this side.  I'm not even sure of what I would search for.  Favorite targets that I have seen on Facebook tend to be about President Obama's expenditures of money on expensive and financially risky green energy initiatives, such as the solar energy company Solyndra.  Another favorite target is President Obama's forceful denial of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, believing that over-zealous environmentalism was responsible for this decision.  But I'm not convinced that efforts to incentivize green energy technology in America is a bad thing; nor do I think there was clear long-term benefit from the Keystone pipeline to justify the associated hazards that would result from a massive north–south pipeline.


Science is important to me.  Science with its applications of mathematical models provides a powerful rational tools for attempting to understand nature and to predict future outcomes of policies that we make.  [*Edited: See comment below.] However, societal values, including the values and morals of religion, are also fundamentally important to me.  I am hoping for a political climate that finds a balance, using science that is enlightened by our society's values to guide policy makers in their decisions.  Such a future requires that scientists better distinguish between scientific predictions and policy advocacy and that the public and policy makers understand the role of scientific inquiry, theory and predictions so that they can balance our values with rationality.

* This sentence originally said, "Science with its applications of mathematical models provides the only rational tools for attempting to understand nature and to predict future outcomes of policies that we make."  One of my good friends pointed out to me that history should be considered a rational tool.  I must agree with him, for I was thinking of science as our tool for understanding nature.  People are inherently hard to model because they defy simple assumptions.  History may be the best rational tool to understand human nature.

Further Reading:

"The Role of Science in Regulation and Decision Making" by Steven Sundlof in AgBioForum.  (Somewhat similar discussion to the theme I chose.)

"Who matters (or should) when scientists engage in ethical decision-making?" by Janet Stemwedel at Scientific American. (Asking a bit of the reverse question:  Should a scientist concern themself with public opinion in relation to how they proceed with their research?)

"Trust, Honesty, and the Authority of Science" by Steven Shapin in Society's Choices:  Social and Ethical Decision Making in Biomedicine (National Academies Press, 1995).


  1. I'm an entrepreneur with an engineering degree and an accounting degree. I also share your faith.

    I'm a 100% believer in the theory of evolution. I'm a 100% believer in the creation by God.

    Here's a question to challenge you just for good measure and not to offend.

    Do the different races of people here on earth reflect the theory of evolution?

    If so, who should I vote for based on the theory?

    Why do hardcore evolutionist take offense to such questions?

    Why do we continue to procreate and have children? There's nothing rational about having children. The doctor would say its too risky for the mother. The accountant would say its too costly. The finance expert would say it has a low return on investment. The attorney would say there's too much liability?

    So, in an age where we literally have the power to choose to have children, why do we continue to make such an irrational decision?

    Some things are difficult to quantify. ;)

    1. Human races do not really present a challenge to evolution. Not hard to find some discussion of this online.

      As for who to vote for based on the theory of evolution? That was not the point of my post. We could get into a discussion about trying to use evolution as a social theory. I do not like "survival of the fittest" as a principle of moral action. Social Darwinism ( is an example of what I would call an immoral (not just amoral) application of scientific principles. Curiously, Republican calls for letting the market self-regulate is, at the least, reminiscent of social Darwinism.

      Biologists would be happy to explain that evolution explains our desire to have children. And who said people are rational in their behavior anyway? Of course, I'm personally happy to have my own quiver of five loving children to bring me my own share of irrational joy. :-)

  2. One more thing. I've found that there are economic laws of gravity. We are doing all that we can to defy those laws.

    It's not a matter of whether or not we teach evolution in our schools, its a matter of teaching our foundation of our republic. Inaliable rights come from God, not from Govt.

    Have you studied the history of money? The science of money? It's our economic measuring stick and affects our daily life more than anything and yet we have zero education on it. Fractional reserve lending mean anything to you?

    Money is what causes it all and yet so few of us are aware. Were little rats in a maze controlled by a few.

    The fight that we face today is not over science, its about money and religion. And science has a difficult time quantifying the emotions of both.

    Look up the Secret of Oz on YouTube.

    The love of money is the root of all evil. Doesn't mean I can't study it and understand it. If you want to talk about tools, money is one of the most powerful tools on planet earth.


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