The BBC’s commitment to impartiality sets an example for social science

As Max Weber taught, scholars must respect the distinction between facts and values, says Martyn Hammersley

October 18, 2023
Collage including Islamist militants, defence secretary Grant Shapps and the BBC's Mishal Husain
Source: Getty images/Alamy montage

The recent public dispute about whether the BBC should refer to Hamas as a terrorist organisation raises the question of what conditions must be met for news agencies to fulfil their task of presenting current affairs impartially. It prompted me to think about the same issue in the context of social science.

The dispute about the BBC parallels the long-running argument over whether social science can, or should, be “‘value-neutral”. Today, many social scientists believe that this is impossible or undesirable, and that they must take sides.

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The term “value neutrality” is potentially misleading. There can be no doubt that some values are necessarily involved in scientific activity: knowledge must be valued, and there should be honesty in reporting results. Max Weber, the social scientist who is famous for advocating that social science be “value-free”, was well aware of this. He inherited a distinction between theoretical values – those that inform science – and practical values, such as justice, equality and freedom.

Furthermore, Weber recognised that even practical values play an important role in social science: they set the framework for what counts as worthwhile knowledge. He emphasised that what social science produces must be “value-relevant”: it must relate to issues that are of public concern. Nevertheless, Weber insisted that it is not the task of social science to evaluate the people and institutions it studies, and this means avoiding the use of evaluative terms, such as “terrorist”.

An influential critic of Weber, the political philosopher Leo Strauss, claimed that one of the implications of value neutrality would be that social scientists could not describe the behaviour of concentration camp guards as cruel: they would be restricted to describing what the guards did, and seeking to explain this in terms of their intentions and motives – all the while avoiding any implication that what was done was evil. Strauss insisted that this is misdescription, just as Grant Shapps, the UK secretary of state for defence, has claimed that the BBC is misdescribing the behaviour of Hamas by failing to call it terrorism.

But it is a mistake to treat evaluations as if they referred to facts, or could be true or false in the same way as factual statements. Whereas we can reasonably assume that there is a single correct answer to a factual question, even if we can never be absolutely sure what it is, this is not the case with value questions. In cooler and calmer moments, we can recognise that there is often considerable room for reasonable disagreement about how people and situations should be evaluated: in terms of what values, and taking which facts into consideration?

Interestingly, “terrorist”, like some key terms social scientists use, such as “inequality” and “discrimination”, can be interpreted as having a factual sense as well as an evaluative one. It seems incontrovertible that what Hamas did in Israel was intended to spread terror among the population, so in that factual sense it would count as terrorism. But the same would be at least partly true of the Israeli bombing of Gaza – and, for that matter, of the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan and of the British bombing of Dresden.

When Shapps insists that the BBC should apply the word “terrorist” to Hamas, he is going beyond this factual sense of the term. He sees the word “terrorist” as condemning what Hamas did as evil, just as Strauss believed that the behaviour of concentration camp guards should be condemned by social scientists.

What this demonstrates is that it is possible to distinguish factual from value meanings, and to use relatively value-neutral terms: “attacker” or “insurgent” rather than “terrorist”, for instance. And there are good reasons for doing so. Weber recognised that moving straight to evaluations risks misunderstanding and/or neglecting relevant facts. Also, it tends to obscure how specific value judgements have been derived from value principles and the inconsistencies that may be involved in their application.

Weber saw it as the task of the social scientist to try to ensure that the factual conclusions produced by research and taught in classrooms are true, and he insisted that this is greatly facilitated by a “value-neutral” approach. Equally, he emphasised the importance of value clarification; indeed, he believed that encouraging students to engage in this was an essential academic task.

In fact, Weber went beyond this, arguing that social scientists presenting value conclusions as if these had arisen from their research misrepresents the capacities of social science. And we might add that such scientism represents a threat to democracy since it claims false expertise for social scientists, as against ordinary citizens.

So, like the BBC, social scientists have an obligation to be impartial or “value neutral”, and thereby to try to ensure that they avoid biased factual conclusions. They also have a responsibility to encourage committed and impassioned participants in public debates to respect the facts, and to form their value judgements rationally.

This is particularly important in the public sphere today, where discussion is frequently reduced to a shouting match. Each side takes the truth of their own views to be obvious, vilifying anyone who disagrees with them.

The BBC, then, is living up to its responsibilities – but is social science?

Martyn Hammersley is emeritus professor of educational and social research at the Open University.

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Reader's comments (2)

It's actually very simple. Did BBC call any other group "terrorists" or not?
Those were my thoughts. I initially agreed with the BBC's explanation until it was pointed out that it has previously described other people/goups as "terrorists. I do thoughh astill agree with the decision. "Terrorist" is not a precise term.