Inductive risk and the contexts of communication


In recent years, the argument from inductive risk against value free science has enjoyed a revival. This paper investigates and clarifies this argument through means of a case-study: neonicitinoid research. Sect. 1 argues that the argument from inductive risk is best conceptualised as a claim about scientists’ communicative obligations. Sect. 2 then shows why this argument is inapplicable to “public communication”. Sect. 3 outlines non-epistemic reasons why non-epistemic values should not play a role in public communicative contexts. Sect. 4 analyses the implications of these arguments both for the specific case of neonicitinoid research and for understanding the limits of the argument from inductive risk. Sect. 5 sketches the broader implications of my claims for understanding the “Value Free Ideal” for science.

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  1. 1.

    See John (2011, p. 502) for a slightly different account of “epistemic standards”, which this account builds on.

  2. 2.

    Elliott (2011a), raises a similar concern although the specific formulation below draws on unpublished work by Anthony Woodman. (See Steel and Whyte 2012 and Elliott and McKaughan 2014, for other concerns about Douglas’s work).

  3. 3.

    This reworked communicative obligation might be justified by a more general account of moral responsibility (as Douglas justifies her original proposal) or in some other way—such as by appeal to Grice’s “cooperative principle” to “make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice 1975, p. 45). In this paper, I will not discuss the broader issue of how to justify communicative obligations more generally.

  4. 4.

    See Ziliak and McCloskey (2007) for extremely thorough discussion of how significance tests are routinised.

  5. 5.

    See Howard-Snyder (1997) for a useful overview of the history and content of this principle.

  6. 6.

    Interestingly, Douglas herself suggests that Kevin Elliott’s ethics of expertise, according to which experts are obliged to communicate that information which allows others to make informed choices, is problematic because it is unclear who experts’ audiences are (Douglas 2012).

  7. 7.

    I am grateful to Rune Nyrup for this point.

  8. 8.

    The final section of John (forthcoming) develops these points in greater detail.

  9. 9.

    These remarks relate to Edward Craig’s claim (1999) that the social role of the concept of “knowledge” is to identify “reliable informants”. I suggest that the institutions of scientific research ensure that scientists are a super-“reliable informant”: whatever a hearer’s practical interests, she has reason to defer to what they say.

  10. 10.

    Note here the interesting relationship to the “precautionary principle” in environmental and public health policy-making, which some authors (e.g. Sunstein 2005) read as a reminder to policy-makers that a threat may be sufficiently well-warranted to justify action even if it is not sufficiently well-warranted to be “scientifically certain” of its existence. The proposals above suggest that as well as reminding policy-makers to beware of scientific reticence, maybe scientists should sometimes be less reticent. See John (2010), for further comments on how the problem of inductive risk relates to interpreting the precautionary principle.

  11. 11.

    Furthermore, the proposed distinction between different forms of communication is preferable to Elliott’s similarly pluralistic suggestion that the propriety of scientists’ appeal to values depends on the particular “goals” prioritized in their context (see, for example, Elliott 2013, p. 381; Elliott and McKaughan 2014). Elliott’s approach might seem to justify not appealing to non-epistemic values in, for example, journal articles if the “goals” of that activity are promoting truth, rather than aiding regulation. However, it is unclear why the fact that a scientist has a particular epistemic goal should grant her exemption from other moral considerations. What my argument does, then, is to “fill in” a non-epistemic justification for pursuing what might seem to be epistemic goals.

  12. 12.

    Note then that there may be an interesting analogy here between scientific and legal contexts. In a recent paper, Enoch et al. (2012) have argued that courts’ refusal to use statistical evidence might be understood in terms of the epistemic good of “sensitivity”. However, as they also note, that we can redescribe courts’ practices in this way leaves open a further justificatory question: why should courts care about this epistemic good, given that the exclusion of statistical evidence often seems to conflict with important aims of the legal system. They suggest, then, that “policy” considerations must be used to justify this practice. I suggest that a similar dual-level structure applies in the case of science.

  13. 13.

    I am very grateful to the following people for discussion of the ideas raised in this paper: Anna Alexandrova, Shahar Avin, Marion Boulicault, Hasok Chang, Charlotte Goodburn, Tim Lewens, Emily McTernan, Onora O’Neill and Anthony Woodman. A previous version of this paper was presented at the Departmental Seminar, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, April 2013, and I benefitted from the discussion there. The comments by two anonymous referees for Synthese were unusually constructive and helpful. I am most grateful, however, to the several cohorts of undergraduate students who patiently sat through my lectures on the topic of inductive risk where I tried to articulate the concerns above.


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John, S. Inductive risk and the contexts of communication. Synthese 192, 79–96 (2015).

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  • Inductive risk
  • Values in science
  • Social epistemology
  • Neonicitinoid research
  • Public/private distinction
  • Communicative obligations