October 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 5 // Commentary // 5COM2

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Value-Free Extension Education?

We address the current Extension concern with the issue of education versus advocacy, using a framework derived from the philosophy of science. Questioning the appropriateness of Extension's persistent use of terms like "research based," "science," and "unbiased" to defend programming in controversial areas, we argue that because all knowledge inherently contains values, or bias, this is an inappropriate position to adopt. It would be more intellectually defensible for Extension educators to recognize the inevitable impact of their values and beliefs on their programming efforts. Instead of appealing to "scientific objectivity," educators should be judging the appropriateness of their work in relation to Extension's mission and the values of the communities in which they operate.

Thomas W. Blaine
Extension District Specialist, Community Development
Ohio State University Extension, Northeast District
Wooster, Ohio
Internet Address: blaine.17@osu.edu

David B. Patton
Program Leader, Public Issues Education
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address: patton.4@osu.edu

In recent years, Extension agents and specialists have become increasingly involved in programming in topical areas that address controversial public issues. This often puts these professionals in uncomfortable situations.

Many clientele look to Extension to provide information on topics that are important in their lives, but often Extension professionals fear that, in addressing controversial issues, they will be seen as promoting one side of an issue or as crossing the line from education to advocacy (Barrows, 1993).

Within Extension, agents and specialists have developed numerous key words in response to this dilemma. Often we hear that a program is based on "technically correct" information or that it is "research based." Another term that has been employed is that the programs are "unbiased" (Massey, 1994). These terms are all clearly defensive, designed to protect Extension educators from charges that they are, in fact, "biased" or advocating a particular policy.

It is our opinion that Extension educators who employ this type of stance, whether proactively or in response to criticisms from clientele or peers, are missing an opportunity to accomplish further educational objectives. They also are probably jeopardizing their own credibility.

We believe that the attainment of purely "unbiased"--or, to use a less pejorative, more contemporary term, "value free"--education is impossible. All education--no matter the topic, no matter the form of presentation-- carries values (or bias).

Philosophers of Science & Values

The current Extension dialogue can perhaps be informed by a brief examination of what philosophers of science have had to say about the nature of knowledge. The common Extension rhetoric of unbiased education-- the presentation of scientific facts only--hearkens back to the early part of the 20th century.

That was when the well-known statistician-turned philosopher of science, Karl Pearson, argued that the essence of science is the accumulation and classification of "facts." Pearson was attempting, just as current Extension professionals are prone to do, to lay down a separation between scientific knowledge and opinion, or values.

The logical positivist movement of the 1930's was even more explicit. It attempted to demarcate all statements into two broad categories: positive and normative. Positive statements are statements of fact, while normative statements are statements of opinion.

Thus, the statement "Large-scale agricultural operations offer economies of scale in production" is positive in that it may be supported or refuted by an appeal to evidence. The statement "Farmers should expand the scale of their operations" is a normative statement because it advocates a position. It reflects an opinion, or value judgment.

One of the key philosophers to shatter logical positivism as well as the positive/normative distinction was Karl Popper. Popper argued that there are no pure statements of value-free or "positive" facts, that all facts are actually value laden.

After all, how many potential facts are there to report? An infinite number. We could report on farm-by-farm weight of cattle, the percentages of fat calories in various foods, the number of youths involved in various 4H programs, the number of new businesses in various regions, and so on. But who in Extension presents any series of random facts?

When anyone reports a finding, that person is generally trying to make a point. When we choose to cite a particular fact or the conclusion of a particular study, we are expressing a preference (a bias, if you will) that this fact is worth reporting.

It's the same for programming. When we choose to undertake a program, we are in fact declaring that this program is worth our while, consistent with our goals, and appropriate for Extension education. We are implicitly stating that the specific information contained in the program is important for our clientele to know. In other words, we are guided by our values from the beginning of our endeavor.

In expanding on Popper's work, Carl Hempel attempted to classify value judgments themselves. According to Hempel, characterizing value judgments are the type that we are faced with when we choose what problems to investigate--what particular facts to report or what programs to undertake. In these decisions, we seldom explicitly state that these efforts are "good" or appropriate, etc. But as we saw above, and as Hempel emphasized, they are value judgments nonetheless.

Appraising value judgments, on the other hand, are explicit statements of values or opinions. They include the types of statements we typically try to avoid in Extension, that a particular policy is "good" or "bad," should or should not be adopted, and so on.

The recent proliferation in the number of controversial items published by various individuals and groups on the Internet helps to illustrate the distinction in these two types of value judgments. One of the most stark examples involves the publication of instructions for making various types of explosive devices, including pipe-bombs.

Apologists for those responsible for publishing these instructions argued that they were not advocating that anyone engage in violence. Critics, however, insisted that this material was inappropriate. So, in this case, the perpetrators had made the characterizing value judgment that this material was worthy of being made public, but had abstained from the appraising value judgment that someone should engage in violence or indeed even make explosives.

Examples of issues where scientists and the public confront the interface between characterizing and appraising value judgments include recent debates over cloning, genetically modified foods, and research using fetal tissue.

Implications for Extension

So what is the implication of all of this for Extension educators?

First, we should all recognize that it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish clearly between education and advocacy. Philosophers of science have demonstrated that the line is too blurred to allow for such a clear demarcation.

Extension examples include the following scenarios:

  • A family and consumer sciences educator teaching smoking cessation techniques may be labeled as anti-smoking.
  • An agricultural agent teaching about economies of scale in large livestock operations may be seen as promoting these operations to the detriment of small "family farms."
  • A community development agent who teaches principles of zoning may be viewed by some as opposing the free market in land use.
  • A 4H/Youth agent teaching about principles of character education in school and community could be deemed to be encroaching on material best kept within the family and thus to have an anti-family bias.

Each of the above examples includes the characterizing value judgment that these topics are important but avoids making an appraising value judgment--as long as the educators involved do not openly advocate a position (anti-smoking, pro large livestock operation, etc). However, an awareness that our choices do reflect values that may be exaggerated by some members of the public will probably help us be more effective.

In other words, by acknowledging that our programs reflect our values, rather than by simply retreating behind the verbiage of "scientific objectivity," we will be in a position to defend our approaches in a credible manner, should critics seek to question them.

Second, we need a framework to make explicit all the potential roles Extension educators might adopt in dealing with controversial public issues.

Because these issues are often so complex and the public is often divided, a standard formula for delivering programs based on "value-free," "scientific," or "technically correct" information will be insufficient to ensure effective programming/education. If we understand these various approaches, we may find that numerous unique challenges will present themselves as specific issues come and go.

Third, it seems obvious that Extension's involvement in controversial public issues will increase in the future. The expectations of clientele and university administrators alike will ensure that.

We believe that as agents and specialists grapple with what issues they wish to address and how they wish to address them, they need to be aware of the "values" that they are carrying into the fray. We have a hunch that experienced Extension professionals already are aware of this, at least implicitly.

But perhaps it would be better if a more explicit recognition of this idea were in evidence in Extension discussions. Less emphasis on "value-free," "scientific," or "unbiased" information and more discussion of how Extension's programs are consistent with the values expressed in its mission statement as well as those of the community would be a good place to start.


Barrows, R. (Reprinted 1993). Public policy education. North Central Regional Extension Publication No. 203.

Hempel, C.G. (1965). Aspects of scientific explanation. New York: Free Press.

Massey, R.E. (1994). Extension education and unbiased research. Journal of Extension [On-line]. 32(3). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1994october/comm1.html

Pearson, K. (1900). The grammar of science. London: Black.

Popper, K. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Hutchinson.