The Science and Politics of Daylight Savings Time in Israel

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.

  1. Richard Rudner (1953). “The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments,” Philosophy of Science 20 (1): 1-6.
  2. He ather Douglas (2009). Science, Policy, and Value Free Ideal. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press).

by

Boaz Miller
Boaz Miller is a postdoctoral fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Tel Aviv University. He has a PhD and MA from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. His areas of specialization are philosophy of science and social epistemology. He works in the intersection of philosophy of science, analytic epistemology and science and technology studies. He studies scientific expertise, the relations between knowledge and consensus, and the relations between social values and evidence. He has a BSc in computer science and "Amirim" Interdisciplinary Honors Program from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

7 Comments

  • moti Reply

    Thank you for introducing us to the daylight savings time debate in Israel.

    I wonder if talking about science as value-free or not is helpful in this context.

    You argue that, in calling for a scientific study of the issue of daylight savings time, Prof. Cohen unwarrantedly assumes that science is a value-free enterprise. But what does “value-free” means? You seem to think that Prof. Cohen has called for a scientific inquiry to answer questions such as:

    1. Should we set daylight savings time to begin on date X?
    2. Is it good to have daylight savings time begin earlier this year?
    3. Is it better to postpone daylight savings time this year?

    And so on.

    Based on the reports I have read, however, there is nothing in Prof. Cohen’s letter to suggest that his committee is going to try to answer, or even address, such questions. After all, the committee will be composed of astronomers, meteorologists, economists, urban planners, and engineers. As you point out, these may not be the experts we want to consult when issues of the good life are in question.

    But perhaps the committee will not be addressing the above questions at all. So what kind of questions can it address? What kind of questions will it try to answer? Perhaps questions such as the following:

    1. If we change daylight savings time from date X to date Y, how much energy will we save?
    2. If we change daylight savings time from date X to date Y, how much money will we save?
    3. If we change daylight savings time from date X to date Y, how much water will we save?
    4. If we change daylight savings time from date X to date Y, will the number of car accidents drop? If so, by how much?

    And so on.

    These are the kind of questions that a scientific inquiry can address and possibly answer. It seems to me that these are the kind of questions the committee Prof. Cohen formed is going to address. Then, based on its findings, policy makers can make decisions about daylight savings time. Those policy makers will undoubtedly take other reasons into consideration, such as religious reasons, having to do with Jewish conceptions of the good life, and so on.

    My point, then, is that talking about whether science is value-free or not is needlessly confusing in this case. Instead, we should simply talk about the sort of questions a scientific inquiry can answer, given the kind of goals and preferences we have. By the way, it seems to me that the same general point applies to Sam Harris’ argument as well.

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      Hi Moti,
      In principle I agree with your analysis. Maybe I am reading too much into his words, but it looks to me that Prof. Cohen thinks that answers to the questions of the second type determine in some way the answers to the questions of the first type, or that concerns about energy saving are in some sense “scientific” – hence objective, while other concerns are merely “religious”, hence merely a matter of values (see here).
      One caveat, though. Douglas’ point is that there are no value-free answers to questions of the second type, because when you set the evidential thresholds for accepting a theory, you must determine the inductive risks you are willing to take. I agree that in the daylight-saving issue, the inductive risks are negligible, but in general, her point stands.
      Boaz

  • moti Reply

    I read him as saying that other considerations (i.e., other than religious considerations) should inform decisions about daylight savings time. I don’t know if he is right about this, but he says that the current time frame for daylight savings in Israel was based on religious considerations alone.

    But I think there’s a case to be made for the stronger view you pointed to in your reply (i.e., that “answers to the questions of the second type determine in some way the answers to the questions of the first type”). It may be argued that there is a difference between “scientific” considerations and “religious” considerations. The former concern most of us, even all of us, whereas the latter do not. In other words, while “religious” considerations are idiosyncratic (e.g., daylight savings time might suit the needs of one religious group in Israel, say, the orthodox Jews, but not another, say, followers of the Baha’i faith), “scientific” considerations affect all groups (e.g., if the number of car accidents per year drops as a result of daylight savings time, all religious groups will benefit from that). If this is so, then one might think that “scientific” considerations should weight more heavily against “religious” considerations when matters of public policy are in question.

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      I agree that these are important considerations, more general and less sectoral, but I don’t see what qualifies them as “scientific”. The word “scientific” in this context seems only to be used as a rhetorical device that aims at terminating further discussion. In general, every policy decision has the kind of implications you mention. A decision to build a new mikveh, for example, comes at the expense of building safer roads that may prevent traffic accidents, buying a new fighter jets comes at the expense of building new hospitals, etc. This is how the political system works. There is nothing for science to contribute other than empirical data.

  • moti Reply

    It seems to me that we are in agreement more than we think.

    Please note that I put the word ‘scientific’ in quotation marks to indicate that I was trying to remain neutral about what counts as “scientific.” As you know, it’s not easy to say what counts as science.

    My point was simply that one might use some sort of consequentialist reasoning to argue that “empirical data” from science should weigh more heavily against other considerations when public policy decisions are made. This is not a rhetorical device aimed at terminating further discussion becasue one could point to a reason why this should be so. The reason is that decisions informed by statistics about car accidents and energy consumption are more likely to lead to policies that will have an effect on a larger number of people, whereas decisions informed by considerations having to do with prayer times are not.

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