In Israel, the starting date of daylight savings time is a matter of fierce political controversy between its religious Jewish and its secular Jewish citizens. Religious Jews and their political representatives want daylight savings time to end early in the year before Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur fast ends with sundown, and without daylight savings time it ends an hour earlier. It also enables observant Jews to have sunrise morning prayers before the start of the workday. Secular Jews, by contrast, resent the loss of an extra hour of light and the energy waste it causes.
Daylight savings time used to change according to the political views of the minister of interior affairs, but a few years ago, secular and religious members of the Israeli parliament reached a compromise and enacted a statute that sets a fixed mechanism for determining the length of the daylight savings period. This year, daylight savings happened to end particularly early in the year, and the public controversy heated up again.
Professor Ariel Cohen, chair of the Science, Computers and Software Committee at the Association of Engineers, Architects and Graduates in Technological Sciences in Israel (AEAI) recently called for the Chair of the Science Committee at the Israeli Parliament – the Knesset – to hold an urgent discussion on daylight savings. Cohen also maintains that the public expects an objective and independent scientific body that’s uninfluenced by political concerns to address the issue. Consequently, he established an ad hoc committee at the AEAI consisting of electrical engineers, urban planners, astronomers, meteorologists, and economists that has been tasked to examine the scientific- and engineering-related aspects of daylight savings. In October, the committee will hold a special conference at which it will report its findings to the public.
The notion that the issue of daylight savings can be studied objectively by science, namely untainted by the influence of social values, presupposes a view of science as a value-free enterprise. This view enjoyed popularity in early twentieth-century philosophy of science, when a school called logical empiricism was dominant. With the demise of logical empiricism, the view of science as value-free lost ground, but it’s still popular in some scientific and especially policy circles.
The arguments against this conception of science are compelling. As philosopher Richard Rudner argued in the 1950s1 — against the prevailing orthodoxy of the time: when scientists accept and reject hypotheses and theories, they cannot avoid making social value judgments about inductive risks, which are the risks that are associated with wrongly accepting a false hypothesis or wrongly rejecting a true hypothesis. In a recent book2 (which is recommended for anybody interested in the role of science and values in public policy), philosopher Heather Douglas persuasively shows that scientists must make value judgements about acceptable inductive risks not only in the final stage of accepting or rejecting a hypothesis, but in all stages of scientific work, from choosing a methodology to designing studies and characterizing evidence.
But even if we put aside the mistaken view of science as value free on which Professor Cohen’s recommendation is based, the notion that science can objectively weigh the costs and benefits of daylight savings policy is simply misguided. People in Israel have different views about when daylight savings should start precisely because they have different interests, preferences, and conceptions of the good life. The only place to discuss these views and to work towards compromise is in the political arena.
There is, of course, merit in conducting empirical research, say, by investigating how much energy daylight savings actually saves, but that’s about where it ends. Since we’re dealing with people’s conceptions of the good life, the only science that could possibly help us out would be an objective science of morality. Neither engineering nor climatology can offer us any answers about the right or supposedly objective balance of costs and benefits that is good for society. Despite recent optimism about the possibility of having an objective moral science in the future, for now, the political arena is the only place to make such decisions.