Joseph Nathan Cohen

Department of Sociology, CUNY Queens College, New York, NY

The Fact/Value Distinction

A discussion of the distinction between facts and values.

To see more about the “Teaching through YouTube” series.  For more, see this post.

Original Video Description

This video describes the fact/value distinction, an important concept in social science. This video was produced in January 2013 for my research methods seminar (SOC 334) at Queens College in the City University of New York. If you are enrolled in this class, you must also complete the assigned readings and exercises. Instructions will be posted on my web site and on Blackboard. This video is part of an experiment in teaching with technology. In the coming semester, I plan on releasing other videos and an overview of this experiment. If you are interested, please visit my web site ( and share your questions, corrections, thoughts or criticisms. I appreciate any feedback or advice on the video’s content (admittedly poor) production, or the format of moving my lectures to sets of short (5-10 minute) streaming videos.

Transcription (Auto-Generated)

When we have an important decision to everyday life is replete with theories. Science can help solve a lot of problems, but it can’t resolve all of them. Often, scientists themselves forget this fact. In this video, I’m going to introduce you to an important distinction between questions that can be answered by science and those that can’t. It’s known as the fact-value distinction. I’m going to describe the fact-value distinction and explain how science can deal with facts but it can’t answer questions about value. This distinction is important because we often confuse the two, and sometimes we turn to scientists for answers to questions whose answers ultimately hinge on value judgments. And they’re not trained to offer authoritative answers. We really might want to be talking to religious clergy, moral philosophers, or someone else who deals in the trade of morality or values with those types of questions. A fact is a statement about reality’s true nature. Facts try to describe what something is really like. We use the term factual statements to describe statements about facts. A value is a statement about how something ought to be. It expresses an ideal towards which we should strive. We describe statements about values as normative statements. Science can only assess facts, it cannot judge values. The fact-value distinction is often associated with Max Weber, one of the most important figures in sociology’s history. However, the idea has deeper roots. It’s often attributed to earlier work done by the 18th-century British philosopher David Hume. Both Hume and Weber pointed out how in many analyses people have a penchant to conflate their views of how the world is and how they feel it ought to be. My graduate school experience was something that I remember distinctly. I was pontificating about my political views on the day’s issues, and the professor asked me if I was explaining how the world really works or how the world should work. I said, “This is how I think the world should work.” And the professor asked me why he should care about the way that I think the world should work. This was a crucial moment for me. In our own minds, we think that our normative views about how things should work are of desperate importance, but usually, people want to hear information from us. And as important as their personal normative views might feel to us, they’re often less important to other people. They turn to professionals to get facts to make their own judgments. If the analysis came first, then I’m interested. Someone looked at the facts, made some conclusions, and then made some type of political judgment based on those conclusions. But if the morality came first, then why would I attach special value to my professor’s views? The problem is that in practice, all people see what they want to see. Our desire to validate our prior thoughts and feelings mobilizes what cognitive scientists call confirmatory bias. It means that we’re not really being dishonest, but when we look at the world around us, we perceive or attach importance to information that proves the conclusions that we want proven correct. We also tend to ignore information that might disprove our prior worldviews. The main issue in the fact-value distinction is that science can only comment on facts. Remember when we talked about what makes information more or less scientific? We said that the hallmarks of good science include skepticism, empiricism, objectivity, and control. It’s hard to think of ways that we could test values to see which ones are morally better. How do you measure morality objectively? Most of our moral views are premised on faith and tradition, not skepticism. Different societies have had different moralities over time. How can we objectively say which is better? The problem is that scientists often advance moral arguments, and we might pay special attention to them because we think that scientists are so knowledgeable. But value statements can’t be studied scientifically, so scientists have no special ability to judge moral questions. Some philosophers say that it’s impossible to be genuinely objective, that it’s impossible to separate facts and values, and that science is inescapably influenced by a scientist’s morality. In other words, there is no real distinction between facts and values because everything is driven by values on some level, and people can’t be objective. On some level, these critics are probably right. I think that scientists should at least try to separate facts and values to the best of their ability. Just because we can’t do something perfectly doesn’t mean that those aren’t ideals towards which we should strive. If someone is trying to convince you of an idea or a belief based on their scientific authority, you should try to figure out if that idea is more factual or more normative. We listen to scientists because they’re supposed to be able to test which ideas are better or worse scientifically. And without science, that scientific authority’s opinion is just any person’s opinion. You shouldn’t inflate the importance of value statements made by scientists because values can’t be tested scientifically. They’re just another person with another opinion. Take a moment to consider these statements: “The US economy needs to create more jobs.” This statement is normative. It talks about what the country ought to do. “Children of divorced parents are more likely to grow up in poverty.” This statement is factual. It talks about the objective conditions under which children of divorced parents live. “President Obama’s top priority should be resolving the illegal immigration issue.” This statement is normative. It talks about what President Obama ought to do. “America has over 200 times more gun fatalities than Canada but only 10 times larger a population.” This statement is factual. It compares gun fatality rates and population sizes. Two words of caution: Just because a statement is called factual doesn’t mean that it’s accurate. By factual, we mean that it comments on how the world really is, not that it accurately comments on how the world really is. Separating facts and values can be difficult in practice. In principle, your moral opinions are as valid as those of a scientist. But you should be careful that your moral judgments are not based on inaccurate facts. In conclusion, this video talked about the difference between factual and normative statements. It’s often described as the difference between facts and values. Facts are descriptions of how the world really is. Values describe how the world ought to be. They express our internal desires. Science can only comment on facts. And so, scientists should not be given special privilege when they talk about moral or value-related issues.