November 7, 2011

Objectivity of Science Undermined

Science has no boast if not objective. It is objectivity that supposedly sets science apart from all other modes of inquiry: following a “scientific method” that guarantees objective truth about the natural world. Results are reported in peer-reviewed journals that weed out mistaken ideas. After publication, other scientists can replicate any published results, making science a self-correcting process that refines its objectivity over time. Most insiders and philosophers know that the picture is highly flawed, but the vision persists that science is objective. Recent articles raise awareness of some of the problems with the portrayal of scientific objectivity.

Fiery Feyerabend: Paul Feyerabend was a fiery philosopher of science who fiercely attacked the concept of scientific objectivity. He died in 1994, but a new anthology of his writings has come out, The Tyranny of Science, Oberheim E, editor (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011). Two reviews were published in PLoS Biology earlier this month (Ian Kidd, Axel Meyer). Although both reviewers think his reputation for the “worst enemy of science” is overblown, there is no question Feyerabend warned of treating science as an objective process. He worried that it could be a threat to democracy – an elitist society unanswerable to the people. Meyer quoted him saying, “The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.” Many regard his views as extreme, but Feyerabend did raise a number of issues that are still taken seriously. Kidd, commenting on the 1990s debates about objectivity vs constructivism (the idea that science “constructs” reality rather than “discovering” it), remarked that “There is some truth to such charges” as Feyerabend raised.

Consensus bashing: In Nature earlier this month (published online 5 October 2011 Nature 478, 7 (2011) doi:10.1038/478007a), a headline read, “The voice of science: let’s agree to disagree.” Subtitle: “Consensus reports are the bedrock of science-based policy-making. But disagreement and arguments are more useful, says Daniel Sarewitz.” That represents severe erosion of the bedrock. His first line: “When scientists wish to speak with one voice, they typically do so in a most unscientific way: the consensus report.” Sharing recent examples of the politics that stifle minority opinions, Sarewitz advised more debate and less consensus. For example, “much of what is most interesting about a subject gets left out of the final report.” Take-home paragraph:

"The very idea that science best expresses its authority through consensus statements is at odds with a vibrant scientific enterprise. Consensus is for textbooks; real science depends for its progress on continual challenges to the current state of always-imperfect knowledge. Science would provide better value to politics if it articulated the broadest set of plausible interpretations, options and perspectives, imagined by the best experts, rather than forcing convergence to an allegedly unified voice."

Conflict of interest: The field of bioengineering is a good place to look for demons undercutting objectivity. The lure of fame or money clouds the objectivity of some researchers, while products of bioengineering – including human cloning – overlap with ethics, philosophy, and theology in big ways. In a Nature book review about Jonathan Moreno’s new book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011), reviewer Kevin Finneran used the eye-catching headline, “Bioethics: Brave new politics” (Nature 478, 13 October 2011, pp. 184–185, doi:10.1038/478184a). Emphasizing the fact that today’s science cannot remove itself from society, Finneran said, “The age of bioscience has become the age of biopolitics.” Apparently Moreno wrote his book with a political bias of his own: “Moreno devotes much of the book to a critique of what he sees as a neoconservative hostility to science, and explains how science can be a key ingredient of a progressive political agenda.” That doesn’t sound objective; in fact, Finneran felt that “Moreno’s analysis focuses too heavily on the neoconservatives,” while he himself showed he had some heart for conservative concerns: “The challenge is to maintain this human side of science when the research, to many people, seems to be a threat to what is essentially human.”

Smear review: Many have questioned the value of peer review in recent years (a relatively recent convention in science, dating largely from after World War II). Virginia Gewen, writing in Nature this month (478, 13 October 2011, pp. 275–277, doi:10.1038/nj7368-275a) joked a little about the naivete of rookie reviewers. In “Rookie review,” she revealed a bit of the good-old-boys’ club mentality among seasoned reviewers. Rookies (who incidentally never receive much training on how to review a paper) think they are supposed to tell the truth: one Nature editor explained why she sought out rookies as reviewers: “they are politically naive enough to tell the truth,” implying that is the exception to the rule for more seasoned reviewers. Yet even with that saintly attribute, rookies tend to give inconsistent grades, or overestimate their objectivity. Gewen also touched on the issues of disclosure of bias, conflict of interest and politics that cloud the objectivity of peer review in general.

Anthropology: Can science answer big questions like “What is man’s place in nature?” Sites like New Scientist don’t hesitate to ask. What, though, gives a scientist more power of place to discuss such things than a theologian or philosopher? All have access to the same basic scientific facts. Botanist Sandra Knapp gave her opinions on this key question with hat tips to Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin. Proceeding on to the opinions of Melanie Challenger, author of On Extinctions, Knapp discussed other questions far beyond the data of any scientific method: are humans natural? What is naturalness? Knapp concluded that Challenger’s book “doesn't offer answers to any of the complex questions it raises, but it will make you pause to consider your own relationship with the natural world that surrounds you.” If science can only ask questions, and not provide answers, then it would seem to be one among many valid modes of inquiry.

Aesthetics: Can art free itself from anthropo-centrism? What would a universal art look like? It might be pretty bland. Imagine a Bach concerto with a quarter of its notes mutated back to randomness by the law of entropy. Think of a painting with nothing but a uniform shade of tan. Those are some of the things Jonathan Keats (no relation, as far as we know, to the English romantic poet John Keats) tried to visualize by taking the Copernican principle to the extreme in his new San Francisco exhibit, “The First Copernican Art Manifesto.” Keats didn’t even intend his art for humans. Science Magazine entertained the radical idea (“Random Samples,” 21 October 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6054 pp. 295-297, DOI:0.1126/science.334.6054.295-a), but didn’t explain how the Bach composition arose in the first place without intelligent design, or how astronomers determined the average color of starlight was tan without intention and purpose. Indeed, the color of the universe is highly localized to stars and galaxies. A question of definitions also arises. If there is no intelligent viewer, is there art?

What you are not told: Dr. Jennifer Rohn, an insider in the world of academic research, writes a blog called LabLit. Guest blogger Matthew Hall, in the October 21 entry, revealed “The untold story: what doesn’t make the cut in scientific papers.” Hall argues that reproducibility is rare in science. Few read a paper’s protocol and try to reproduce the experiment. Besides, most research papers are so boring! “Given that protocols aren’t as useful as one is taught in History and Philosophy of Science courses, why can’t they be more personal?” He recommends writing scientific papers like stories. Perhaps many already do. How would anybody know without trying to reproduce the experiment?

Analyze the analyzers: An article on Medical Xpress claims that a new field is emerging: the Psychology of Science. The bumper states:

"You've heard of the history of science, the philosophy of science, maybe even the sociology of science. But how about the psychology of science? In a new article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, San Jose State University psychologist Gregory J. Feist argues that a field has been quietly taking shape over the past decade, and it holds great promise for both psychology and science."

While an interesting trend, it raises the question of the objectivity of the psychologist. Who will analyze the analyzer, and so on ad infinitum?

We hope these short forays into questioning the objectivity of science provide some snack food for thought. There are much richer meals in books and lectures. Don’t be a dupe and merely assume that someone who calls himself or herself a scientist has a corner on objectivity. Scientists can be very adept at math, jargon and specialized fields of inquiry, but at the conclusion of any paper, every citizen has a responsibility to weigh evidence, evaluate reasoning, and consider influences that led to the conclusion.