“Severe Weather Event Attribution”-A case study in values in science

Time: 12:00 to 1:30pm
Location: 150 Forsyth Building, Northeastern University
Sponsored By: Philosophy and Religion Department and the PPE Program
Contact: Branden Fitelson at

Guest Speaker: Eric Winsberg, Professor, University of South Florida

Abstract: We start by reviewing the complicated situation in methods of scientific attribution of climate change to extreme events. We emphasize the social values involved in using both storyline and ordinary probabilistic or “risk-based” methods, noting that one important virtue claimed by the storyline approach is that it features a reduction in false negative results, which has much social and ethical merit, according to its advocates. This merit is critiqued by the probabilistic, risk-based, opponents, who claim the high ground; the usual probabilistic approach is claimed to be more objective and more “scientific”, under the grounds that it reduces false positive error. We examine this mostly-implicit debate about error, which apparently mirrors the old Jeffrey-Rudner debate. We also argue that there is an overlooked component to the role of values in science: that of second-order inductive risk, and that it makes the relative role of values in the two methods different from what it first appears to be. In fact, neither method helps us to escape social values, and be more scientifically “objective” in the sense of being removed or detached from human values and interests. The probabilistic approach does not succeed in doing so, contrary to the claims of its proponents. This is important to understand, because neither method is, fundamental, a successful strategy for climate scientists to avoid making value judgments. 

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