I was recently reading the book “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris. The book has some interesting stuff although I did carry on wishing the author would provide more support for his positions instead of just asserting them.
But what interested me was that the author repeatedly said that Scientists are “objective” in their research, and are not biased in their findings.
This surprised the crap out of me because one of the main themes of social science research is that objectivity is impossible for human beings to achieve, and that the progression of Science has been dominated by massive egos, brutal deathmatches and tons and tons of bullshit.
I must of course say that I am not one of those loonies who thinks that Science is hokum and that “informal knowledge” or “common sense” are where it’s at.
It saddens me but there really are people who believe that you can learn more about how the world works by looking around your own community, than from looking at studies that span both geography and time.
Science works. The simple fact that you can see this message means that Science works pretty darn well.
I am likewise not one of those people who believes that if you stare at something and then write an article about what you think you see that this counts as ‘Science’. Science only works when it is done properly, and then it works really well.
But anyone who says that Science (or Scientists) is perfect is badly deluded, and possibly dangerous.
Now, it’s story time.
The accepted story of Scientific progress goes like this:
1. There will be some sort of common theory about the world that works pretty well in explaining things but has some flaws.
2. Some person will come up with a new version of the old theory, or a completely new theory, that fixes the flaws without losing any of the advantages.
3. The new theory will rise to prominence and will remain there until supplanted by a yet newer and still better theory.
In this idyllic Scientific wet dream Scientists have no difficulty identifying the better theory, at least after some debate and investigation, and they also have no trouble at all discarding the old theory in favour of the new.
Now let me tell you how I, as a psychologist, understand scientific progress:
I. There will be some sort of common theory about the world that works pretty well in explaining things but has some flaws.
II. If the theory has practical applications, like the ability to garner media attention, then scientists involved with the theory will get book deals, talk show appointments and jobs at good universities. They will be invited to write opinion pieces for prestigious newspapers, appear in documentaries or even get their own TV show (nerdgasm!).
III. These successful scientists will head up academic departments where everyone will be taught the theory that they espouse and most will, naturally, come to accept it as fact.
IV. But the theory has flaws that cannot be explained away and eventually some snot-nosed so-called “Scientist” will arrive with some completely stupid theory that makes no sense and they will dare to criticise the LIFE’S WORK of the prestigious older scientists even though they haven’t got one tenth of the publications to their name or so much as a pilot for a TV show!
V. In the face of this attack the old Scientists will dig in their heels and counter attack with all the ferocity of a caged rat. They will heap scorn, insults and even baseless accusations against the new scientists. They take care to pick out every possible flaw in their work and they will remorselessly purge their academic faculties of anyone who dares to support the new theory.
VI. But unfortunately for the old scientists the new theory has an advantage: it’s actually right. Slowly, over time, evidence will accumulate that supports the new theory and weakens the old. Because of this slowly, over time, more and more Scientists (who do not have such large personal and financial stakes in the old theory) will come to accept the new theory.
VII. One by one these people will accumulate within academic departments until they outnumber those who support the old theory and eventually, usually when the old scientists start to retire or die of old age, the new theory will come to prominence.
VIII. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I am of course blowing this out of proportion, but only slightly. If you look at how Alfred Wegener was treated when he first suggested the theory of plate tectonics you will realise the obvious truth of what I’m talking about.
Financial incentive, prestige and, more than anything else, ego all play their role in scientific progress.
To drive it home let’s remember that during the Enlightenment it was taken as a point of pride that people could disagree with each other and battle each other’s ideas for their entire lives and still consider each other trusted friends and confidants.
Those were some goddamn Scientists. Can you imagine that happening today?
Witness the heated online debates between physicists who disagree on the structure of the Universe. And Physics is a pretty hard science. Also remember that Pluto’s status as a planet was determined by a vote, so I guess Astronomy isn’t an “objective” science either.
There are deeper problems as well, but it’s a hard thing to explain, although the punchline is worth it: objectivity is impossible for human beings to achieve.
Every word in the English language is ambiguous.
So exactly how the hell can anyone either understand or express anything in an objective way? If every word we use is open to interpretation then objectivity is non-starter.
The truth of this can be seen in the fact that one of the crucial parts of any research is to define the key terms one is using. Not to remove ambiguity, which is impossible, but to at least cut it down to as little as possible.
The meaning of words is not only ambiguous but it also constantly changes. So even if you could express something objectively it would only take a few years for the meaning to become foggy, and a while after that it would change completely.
Moreover, we can only think by using words (almost) all the time and can only express complex ideas using words.
So how can we be objective if the very means we use to comprehend the world is not objective?
This is a practical problem but there are historical problems as well.
It’s very easy to look back to centuries past at the way bad Scientists defended their positions with bad Science and invective but it’s also easy to find examples of that all the way up to the 80s.
Oh, and right fucking now.
(and just so there is no confusion let me spell this out: the website “junkscience.com” is a bought-and-paid-for mouthpiece for right-wing pro-corporate political organisations and is so aptly named that it hurts. Because everything it says is true is actually junk science!)
One can of course fall back on the No True Scotsman fallacy whereby you claim that none of these are real scientists but in the case of Fred Singer that will have to be a DAMN fine claim. The problem is that when one starts to sort “good” science from “bad” the decisions one makes often boil down to personal opinion.
(And in Fred Singer and Steven Milloy’s cases it boils down to their opinion on how much money they should be paid to support a certain “scientific” position.)
So there goes Objectivity, again.
But there are still Scientists who insist that these problems are manageable, and that the ambiguities contained in language are small enough that they can be dealt with.
Which is awesome, because it means that they are acknowledging that Scientists are not objective, which is all I was trying to say.
Some Scientific research will be good and some will be bad, but none of it will be 100% objective and the realisation of this truth puts us in a space where we need to debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of scientific research, and let weight of evidence guide us.
Because pretending that Science is objective imposes a sheep-like blindness to its flaws.
And rejection of Science leads to The Republican Party.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]