Science for Change? Sustainability between positive science and normative agenda

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Simon Valentin (Author)


Science for Change? – Sustainability between positive science and normative agenda

1 Introduction

In the last three decades, the notion of sustainability became, although it is not a new idea, one of the most used concepts in scientific, political, and societal debates. Figure 1 shows the frequency of the use of the words sustainability, ecology, and renewable in English scientific and non-scientific literature from 1900 to 2009 using Google Ngram Viewer. It shows the generally increasing importance of the topic, the popularity of the word ecology starting in the mid-1960s, and especially the rise of the term sustainability since the 1990s,, and especially

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Figure 1: Frequencies of words sustainable, ecology, and renewable in Google corpus of English literature (1900–2008)

Today, sustainability is used very diversely and to describe very different things, diluting the concept to a synonym for everything that is good and is used as a quasi-objective alternative to a subjective value judgment about what someone perceives as good or right. The term has been misused and abused, when companies such as ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin or Philip Morris describe their oil, tobacco or weapons business as sustainable and McDonald’s Canada advertises sustainable beef (Károly, 2011). Nevertheless, it is used for the most ambitious human development ideas such as the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations. This ambiguity and vagueness is facilitated by the two-fold nature of the term, as a positive scientific concept and a normative vision for the future of humankind.

As a contribution to protecting the term from dilution, this paper will both, detangle the different meanings by looking at sustainability as part of the scientific and non-scientific world and bring the different ideas together by sketching a vision of a transformative sustainability science.

Therefore, I will work in three steps. First, I will contextualise sustainability in the world of science and discuss the possibilities and limits of sustainability as a science under the limiting ideal of value freedom. Second, I will describe the specific characteristics of sustainability research as an advocate for change. In a third step, I will put together the opportunities of a sustainability science for change and outline how such a transformative science can look like. Figure 2 shows a Mickey Mouse face resembling structure of the conceptual idea. While positive science is differentiated from the sustainable development agenda, transformative sustainability science overlaps with and goes beyond both concepts.

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Figure 2: Mickey Mouse model of the interface of science and sustainability

2 Sustainability and science

2.1 Science and value-freedom

The concept of positive science, or descriptive science, highlights, in contrast to normative science, the independence of its propositions from metaphysical and religious provisions and value judgments. It aims to describe what is and not what should be. The truth of a statement should be judged independently of its content. Statements must not only be considered correct because they correspond to one’s own value system, opinions, ideas, and ideals, or wrong because they do not correspond to one’s own value system (Caldwell, 2010). One of the best-known formulations stemming from Max Weber is that in order to the question “What is the case in the world?”, an answer to the question “What should be the case in the world?” is irrelevant (Weber, 1988).

Although the discussion about positive science can be traced back to the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, notably laid out by Plato, historically pivotal for the assumption for today’s understanding of science are the thoughts of British Empiricism and in particular, David Hume’s is-ought problem (Caldwell, 2010). Hume argued that it is not possible to infer value judgments from factual descriptions. This distinction also enables the reverse conclusion that one can never conclude from a value judgment to a fact judgment (Hume, 2017). This thesis is still frequently used to demonstrate the fundamental difference of factual and value judgments (Caldwell, 2010). A discussion of positivism it the sense of a philosophical theory that goes beyond this understanding, postulating that only factual knowledge gained through observation and measurement is trustworthy and theoretical speculation as a means of obtaining knowledge are declared false and senseless, would go beyond the scope of this paper. This epistemological approach first formulated by Auguste Comte was highly debated in the 19th and 20th century with major contribution from Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. Although the pure positivist philosophy is widely rejected today, it has influenced the thinking about the role of science in the public sphere and in social change (Caldwell, 2010).

Positivism and value-freedom have always been a bigger problem in the social sciences and humanities because their findings are dependent on humans in contrast to the natural sciences, where the findings are more often measurable and independent from humans. These differences lead to an enormous increase of societal importance of the natural and technological sciences because of their perceived power of being able to tell the exact truth and to the tendency in many social sciences, especially in economics, to transform the discipline to a quasi-natural science.1

The thesis of value freedom has been questioned within philosophy of science from various perspectives. With reference to the history of science and the sociology of knowledge, it is argued for example by Paul Feyerabend that the sciences are not only de facto pervaded by value judgments, but that sciences cannot be thought of in any other way than as loaded with values (Feyerabend, 1970). The standards of scientific evaluation and scientific methods are always shaped by a cultural context that itself contains value judgments. Other arguments against the value freedom thesis are essentially motivated by language philosophy. Hilary Putnam, for example, argued that many indispensable concepts of the sciences are inevitably equally descriptive and evaluative (Putnam, 2002).

While most social scientists today are not explicit about their epistemological commitments, Holmes (1997) showed that articles in top sociology and political science journals generally follow a positivist logic of argument and argues that “natural science and social science research can, therefore, be regarded with a good deal of confidence as members of the same genre” (Holmes, 1997).

A distinction between value freedom and value judgment freedom, which can be found in the work of Max Weber (1988), offers an opportunity for differentiation for applied scientific questions (Giersch & von Beckerath, 1963). For example, most research in agricultural sciences is directed either directly or indirectly towards better production of agricultural products. This research, thus, takes place in a value-charged space. The income interests of producers, questions of food safety and other consumer interests as well as the protection and of the environment play a role in the orientation of individual knowledge interests and research projects as well as in the definition of comprehensive research programmes. Nevertheless, it is a standard requirement of scientific theory for empirical research to separate the determination of facts in the natural or social sciences from their evaluation as far as possible. Such work cannot be described as value-free, but as value-judgment-free (Binder et al., 2010).

Independent from the philosophical discussions and the differences between the sciences, the value-freedom, positivist ideal is at least implicitly claimed in all sciences meaning that the research should be influenced as little as possible by the values of the scientists and so limits the purpose of science to discovering and gaining of knowledge.

2.2 Sustainability as positive science

Sustainability Science is a science that deals with the theory, research, and implementation of sustainable development. It is a very young academic discipline that emerged in the 21st century. The field is focused on examining the interactions between human, environmental, and engineered systems to understand and contribute to solutions for complex challenges that threaten the future of humanity and the integrity of the life support systems of the planet, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and land and water degradation. The emergence of sustainability research can be understood against the background that scientists from various disciplines (e.g. climate researchers, ecologists, geo-ecologists, biologists, geographers, social and political scientists, physicists, human ecologists, etc.) who are scientifically involved in global change and sustainability research are forced to make statements outside their traditional disciplines. A climate researcher, for example, already exceeds his scientifically secured field with a statement about reduction targets or climate protection policy. This is due to the fact that reduction targets cannot be derived solely from scientific-descriptive models. At any point in the analysis, a target value to be achieved or a boundary condition not to be violated must always be determined. This determination itself, however, is not possible by scientific means but is a normative determination outside the competence area of any empirical science. However, it is easily possible to hypothetically base the statement about reduction targets on corresponding target values and boundary conditions. The emergence of a dedicated sustainability research can be seen as an expression of the insight that such border crossings must and can be methodically secured. (Clark, 2007; van der Hel, 2018).

In an understanding of science as defined in section 2.1, sustainability science is a conglomeration and cooperation of existing sciences constituting a new way of understanding the world. Since the main components such as economics, ecology or sociology as positive sciences strive for freedom of value and cannot provide any statements about the desired state of our society and its natural environment today and in the future, this kind of sustainability research must ultimately leave these judgments to ethics or politics and society. Sustainability research as positive science is thus an interdisciplinary science with a holistic approach, which sees systems rather than processes, networks rather than individuals and multiple scales of analysis rather than reductionism in order to understand economic, social, and natural systems.


1 The term „physics envy“ is used to pointedly describe the successful strive of economics during the 20th century to become recognised as a exact science by introducing and relying largely on mathematical, mechanics-like, models (see for example Lo & Mueller (2010)).

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Science for Change? Sustainability between positive science and normative agenda
University of Toronto  (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy)
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Sustainable Development, Global International Order
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Simon Valentin (Author), 2018, Science for Change? Sustainability between positive science and normative agenda, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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