Science Isn’t Objective

The title’s clickbait, but I mean it: science, even physics, isn’t objective, and, more to the point, it can’t be.

There are a lot of assumptions to unpack there (for instance, why do people think physics is the most objective science?), but let’s start with the obvious one: the assumption science, whatever it is, is, in fact, objective, whatever that is.

Black Cat Analogy

I get into this fight a lot. I’ve told a roomfull of physicists at parties that physics isn’t objective (generally, that gets you an invitation to their next party—physicists are cool like that). I’ve told my best friend the ichthyologist that what he does isn’t objective science…and it’s most certainly science. His response? The Black Cat Analogy.

Is any of this controversial among educated folk these days? Not really. I mean, he knew it would be with me—I’m an ex-metaphysician who occasionally puts on my black robes and plays around with religious studies, he’s a scientist—but, for most people, science is real, philosophy is not, and TMBG is just generally awesome.

Now, I’m not going to dispute that last point, but let’s talk about how science is actually done, not how people who don’t do science (e.g., most philosophers who think philosophy is a branch of science) think it’s done.

Is science really like turning on a flashlight so much as it is taking some cobbled-together bits of spare equipment you had laying around that you duct taped together (seeing as your budget had been cut for the third year in a row) and turned into a narrow-focused light emitting device that turned up something furry that has a chance of being feline (it has fur! It’s smallish! The lit review says that’s what cats are like, at least in the majority of instances we surveyed!) before offering up an article for peer review that calls for more investigation, in the hopes your grant gets reviewed?

No, no it’s not. You can’t even afford duct tape half the time because science is done by grad students who can either afford to repair their equipment out of their own budget or buy ramen for the next two weeks. Contrary to what philosophers and the general public seem to think, science is not always done in whitewashed labs where everything turns out perfectly; it’s done in the field with shoestring budgets on good days, where the environment interferes. Roads get built over your sample site. Gels fail to gel. Your Western blot goes south. The GPS coordinates you were given turn out to be on private land, and the owner has a very big gun he’s pointing right at you.

Sometimes, investigating the world means you have to deal with the problems of the world. The method that would answer the question you wanted to answer just isn’t going to work. What do you do? Get creative, of course! Find a different question to answer that fits the techniques you have at hand, not the ones you wish you had!

And, truth be told, that’s often not a bad solution. It’s just not one that the “lab coat” view of science anticipates. We like to think of scientists as removed from this messy world we live in, well-fed and caffeinated in comfortable, air-conditioned offices, making discoveries that will change our world, when, in reality, they’re grad students a few dollars away from being homeless or starving, working in greenbriar and insane heat with outdated lab equipment that only works if a butterfly in South America sneezes three seconds after they turn it on.

There is no mystical Scienceland where things that work theoretically actually work. While I think this is where most of the myth of “objective physics” comes from (physicists, after all, work either with theoretical models or in air-conditioned labs tweaking atom smashers, right?), the fact is that even physicists have to work with nasty things like gravity and background radiation, to say nothing of hastily constructed instruments that should work so long as a bit of stray humidity didn’t get into the wiring…say, the mid-Atlantic during hurricane season’s pretty dry, right?

Of course, the philosophers would like you to believe that, as our instruments get better and our grad students get more funding (AS IF!), our science will become more accurate, since, after all, the only inaccuracy in science is because of instrument error, right?

HA!

Tell that to the fish who don’t perfectly follow the precise linear formulation of whatever independent variable you’re testing against vs. size. Some fish may have come from upstream, some fish may have had a bad week in their past and be a bit undersize, some may just be outliers in the genetic lottery and not fit within whatever perfect model you’d like. The fact is, nature doesn’t live in Scienceland either, and thus doesn’t follow precise and easily discovered rules. You may want a perfect curve, a simple equation along which all your data points will fall, but that’s not how reality works. You get a range into which things fall, not a perfect equation that explains everything and makes you “as master and possessor of nature.”

Speaking of perfect equations…

Right. This is where things get really nuts. So, let’s say we do get to perform our experiments in Scienceland; our grad students are well-funded, our equipment actually works, we don’t order the bad batch of electrophoresis gel, the electroshocker doesn’t come un-ducttaped, the stats software gives you meaningful results the first time you try to program it, the lichenologist doesn’t have to make do with chemical tests that remember Hitler, and, most importantly (and improbably!) everything actually works like it should.

Yeah, still no objective truth. It’s illustration time.

Let’s take the following data plot from an experiment—who cares what it supposedly is, let’s call it lichen colony size vs. substrate pH:
Data Plot
Now, we intuitively think that the best scientific model is the one that best fits the data—in other words, the equation we use to explain this data plot should account for every point we’ve plotted. So, given that assumption, the line that best fits the data might look something like this:

Precise 1
Not what we usually expect from a “line of best fit,” is it?* Normally, when you put data into Excel and have it plot a line of best fit,** you expect something more like this:

Best Fit 1
But, if you look at that line, it doesn’t actually go through any of the data points! It’s accounting for exactly none of the data we’ve collected, especially those two outliers, while the first curve perfectly accounts for all of them! Clearly, if fit to data is the sole (or even single most important) criterion for making models to explain data sets, we should stick with the first model, not the obviously flawed second one.

But wait; our other field crew just got back from sampling another set of lichens at a site near ours (turns out that landowners and their shotguns  aren’t so unfriendly if you bring a case of beer and ask nicely) and has some more data for us! Now, let’s keep our two lines, but this time add in the extra data:
Precise 2  Best Fit 2
Our first graph is in serious trouble; if we’re going to make it fit perfectly to the data, we’re going to have to completely redraw it. Quite frankly, it doesn’t look like it has any relation to our data plot at all at this point. Graph #2, however, has actually gotten more accurate, despite there being one or two more outliers; in fact, I’d be willing to bet that if we sent out a third field crew, it’d only fit the data more closely. While I’m pretty sure that the line only goes through one or two points (and none of those perfectly), that line is only going to become more and more accurate the more we keep sampling and plotting. On the whole, it seems that we should keep it, rather than the line that perfectly fits about half the data points.

This is a lesson one of my professors at Maryland used to introduce the Akaike Information Criterion in a class on, of all things, the philosophy of voting mechanisms.*** To make a long story short, fit to data is only one of many virtues we look for in a scientific model; we also want one to have predictive power (the straight line becomes more accurate over time), to be mathematically simple (y=mx+b, like the first degree equation on the right, is a lot easier to work with than the unweildy 26-odd degree equation of the plot on the left…especially if you’re doing preliminary plots out in the wilderness to make sure your fieldwork is even remotely correct), to be parsimonious (you shouldn’t have to be invoking quantum physics and string theory to explain why fish swim if you don’t have to), and, if at all possible, to be useful—though that’s usually the first one to be discarded.*†

So, how do you decide which value to prejudice over the others? Why do you give more weight to one variable than another? Why use Akaike rather than Bayes? Why is the critical p value p<0.05, rather than p≤0.05, or p<.045? How much weight should you give to simplicity verses parsimony verses fit, and at what point do you draw the line?

Simply put, it’s a judgment call—and the environment in which scientists make those judgments is one that is created through living in a certain form-of-life, through participation in a certain kind of language-game with rules, a discursive field that conditions scientists towards making certain decisions and judgments over others. This is a sleeping giant I’m trying to tiptoe past for the time being, but the fact that science involves certain judgment calls and prejudicing certain values over others in certain situations is inescapable and, what is more, these values are created and conditioned by living in a society with its own preferences and prejudices.

This creates problems for those who hope for an objective science. For starters, our society has some pretty nasty prejudices; is it just perhaps possible that some of them could influence our supposedly objective science and how it constructs models?

Wouldn’t you know it, but there’s a really good paper on exactly that topic (JSTOR, from Hypatia, if you’ve got access) with about the worst pun-bearing title ever. To summarize, it turns out that the “objective” science of anatomy has often encoded and responded to the social prejudices and (mis)conceptions of its day and broader culture. If a society assumes X as common sense, or doesn’t think there’s any reason to doubt X, then scientists are also going to assume X, and are going to gather data, formulate models, and otherwise do what they do best always assuming X.

So how do you escape from X? Remove scientists from any sort of society whatsoever? Claim that these are only problems inasmuch as it’s humans who are doing science? Point these things out at the beginning of the seminar, claim that empirical scientific models trump a priori truths midway through, and, by the end, claim that the proof is in the pudding of science’s triumph, as it has made airplanes fly and the Internet run?† Say that science is wrong, scientists are biased, there’s clearly a scientific conspiracy, and evolution and global warming are hoaxes?

I’m not too keen on any of these approaches, especially the last two. I’ve read enough of them in Leiter’s work on philosophy of law and growing up in Oklahoma. As for the first two…yeah, if you want to show me nonhuman scientists who don’t live in any sort of society at all (pro hint: sharing your results in peer-reviewed journals is both essential to the current model of scientific activity and a form of engagement in a socially constructed and regulated activity), I’d love to see it.†*

I think there’s another way forward—a better way, actually, one that might actually be beneficial for both scientists and science. It’d also get more to the heart of why we value “objective” science.

Next time: why science shouldn’t be objective.

*Yes, it’s the line that best fits the data. No, it’s not a “line of best fit.” That term’s a misnomer, especially given what you’ve probably already read if you’re down at the footnotes.
**Not that you should be using Excel’s default functions in science classes anyway, especially not to do anything that even looks remotely like statistics. That’s what R is for. And SAS. And sobbing, because SAS, while insanely powerful, is insanely evil.
***Short explanation: voting mechanisms are actually just ways of aggregating preferences in ways that each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Scientific models are ways of aggregating data points in ways that have their own advantages and disadvantages. Looking at one way of aggregating individual things in certain ways might have useful applications for other places we need to aggregate certain things in certain ways.
*†As Sherlock Holmes realized, there’s no value for someone living on Earth to know that we go around the Sun, and not vice-versa; in fact, if you’re trying to tell time by the sun or Big Dipper, navigate by the stars, or aim a telescope, it’s more helpful to assume geocentrism. We may know that it’s technically wrong to think of the Sun rising in the east when it’s actually relatively still and it’s the Earth that’s moving, but, from our Earthbound perspective, that’s what it looks like and what fits our Earthbound society and discourse best. Also, I’ve switched to quasi-Roman footnote markers. Aren’t they a nifty solution to losing count after six asterisks?
†I know more than a couple of engineers who would take issue with giving the scientists credit for their work. Note to everyone who thinks Our Modern World is solely due to science: yeah, it kinda is, but remember to thank the engineers who took those ideas and research articles and did something with ’em.
†*I’m pretty sure if you’ve found nonhumans doing science you should tell SETI before you tell me. While they might be stuck with these same problems as well—assuming, of course, that they have any concept of “science” remotely comparable to ours—discovering nonhuman life is much more important than settling issues relating to the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) on the Internet.

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42 thoughts on “Science Isn’t Objective

  1. This is one of the most philosophically astute articles I’ve read in a long time. As a psychologist in training, I laughed through the entire section of starving grad students using outdated equipment and bending their studies to fit whatever predetermined mold the guys on top in the peer-reviewed world want you to study (and want you to say about it). Thanks for a great read!

  2. Phill…Excellent and amusing piece, noted for its veracity. I would, however, refer you to Kurt Godel’s superb 1932 and 1938 papers which are directly relevant. Brief anecdote: Einstein and Godel were at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (in fact, there is a long amusing story of Einstein getting Godel to the Institute, and another of Einstein coaching Godel as to obtaining American citizenship- the difficulty was Godel had uncovered a logic error in the US Constitution which in fact allowed military dictatorship under certain conditions); at Einstein’s 70th birthday party, he was asked why he did not retire. His response” “Because then I would not be able to take long walks with Kurt Godel”.

  3. I totally agree – scientific “discoveries” are embedded in our social world, they’re only discoveries if society accepts the ideas. And you can’t remove people from the influences of their environment!

  4. God, yes! And I realize how ironic and inappropriate that ejaculation is under the current topical circumstances but eff circumstances. Circumstances are Schrodinger’s feline friend’s litter box.

    You’ve summed up very nicely and with much grammar what I’ve been saying for just YEARS to anyone who will listen. (The ones who will listen without turning red and stomping away from me with their cocktail are usually not the ones who can comprehend the depth and rightness of my frustration; the ones who NEED to listen have been deeply inoculated against any constructive open-mindeded by the very fields they inhabit. This is usually where I recline back into metaphysics like an old La-Z-Boy and feel sorry for myself. With alcohol. And cookies.)

    I typically declare “Science moves forward at the pace of egos and fear” and then step back to watch the data unfold. Scientists will often interpret the statement as being a crack about their employer, which works well for them, especially the ones currently editing their grant proposal. Non-scientists will understand that I mean science as a construct and may even go so far as to get the allusion to humans being the ones who invented the religion in the first place.

    Yeah, I said religion. That’s just what it be. Its congregation believes things they can’t conclusively prove but take comfort in, anyway, because the church is so large and socially approved. Economics and power (I repeat myself) factor into its survival in grotesquely unbalanced ways that favor the incumbents and thwart new ideas–which is a gigantic cosmic joke considering improvement and expansion into new territory are precisely the promises of the entire entity.

    Still, I look forward to every new issue of Discover Magazine and the Smithsonian like it’s porno. I have a problem, I know it.

    Every once in a while, I catch myself driving home a conversational point with current scientific research but there’s some major tongue-in-cheek action going on just behind my eyes. It’s the equivalent of cornering a Christian by purring “God works in mysterious ways.” I’m not proud of it, but it’s fun to win. I’d make a great scientist.

    PS: Everything is history was considered metaphysical hokum until somebody got published. Hysterical.

    PPS: The above is really, really sad.

  5. As a biochemist, thank you for this post. I believe that scientists should strive to be as objective as they can, but always keeping in mind that they will always miss the mark. Always. I look forward to reading more from you.

  6. Pingback: Is science truly objective? | I wonder while I wander

  7. This was a really interesting read! I’m no scientist, but I think it’s an incredibly valuable insight. Considering the role of objectivity and biases, etc., is applicable to so much more than science too! I hope you don’t mind I shared the link on my blog!

  8. Great article. I don’t mean to insult or discredit anyone in science because it has some of the most interesting theories out there, but I have always said it is in essence theoretical and can only be like any way of understanding the world – be that philosophy, theology or science – subjective. If, instead of discounting all theories or religions that cannot be proved, we accept that they are possible because they cannot be disproved, the world would be much more peaceful and much more interesting. I love the Black Cat Analogy by the way, I have not seen it before – I thought of another one – Writing is like being in a dark room and creating a black cat and giving him and therefore you a reason for being there.

  9. I’ve written extensively on this, but this is just another perspective. Well done, and nice job on the feature, which is quite refreshing among the way too numerous olympics and “Her”-related things.

  10. You’ve summed up very nicely and with much grammar what I’ve been saying for just YEARS to anyone who will listen. (The ones who will listen without turning red and stomping away from me with their cocktail are usually not the ones who can comprehend the depth and rightness of my frustration; the ones who NEED to listen have been deeply inoculated against any constructive open-mindedness by the very fields they inhabit. This is usually where I recline back into metaphysics like an old La-Z-Boy and feel sorry for myself. With alcohol. And cookies.)

    I typically declare “Science moves forward at the pace of egos and fear” and then step back to watch the data unfold. Scientists will often interpret the statement as being a crack about their employer, which works well for them, especially the ones currently editing their grant proposal. Non-scientists will understand that I mean science as a construct and may even go so far as to get the allusion to humans being the ones who invented the religion in the first place.

    Yeah, I said religion. That’s just what it be. Its congregation believes things they can’t conclusively prove but take comfort in, anyway, because the church is so large and socially approved. Economics and power (but I repeat myself) factor into its survival in grotesquely unbalanced ways that favor the incumbents and thwart new ideas–which is a gigantic cosmic joke considering improvement and expansion into new territory are precisely the promises of the entire entity.

    Still, I look forward to every new issue of Discover Magazine and the Smithsonian like it’s porno. I have a problem, I know it.

    Every once in a while, I catch myself driving home a conversational point with current scientific research but there’s some major tongue-in-cheek action going on just behind my eyes. It’s the equivalent of cornering a Christian by purring “God works in mysterious ways.” I’m not proud of it, but it’s fun to win. I’d make a great scientist.

    PS: Everything is history was considered metaphysical hokum until somebody got published. Hysterical.

    PPS: The above is really, really sad.

    • You ever read any of the German Idealists or phenomenologists—Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, early Sarte, etc? They have lots to say (albeit in very scary and poorly written prose) about this.

      • I have not, but I am familiar with the names and have probably subconsciously adopted tidbits from a few of them over the years. Any specific books you recommend?

  11. I debated fools on a Science fundamentalist site yesterday over this. Lots of them weren’t even listening to what I said, and dubbed me an irrational religious zealot which I am not.

    The point about any type of human knowing is that when we make deductions, we always do so on the basis on phenomena known to us. I will cite my example as I always do:

    A scientific one indeed – Rutherford performs his great experiment in which he make some conclusions. One has to ask, why does he make such conclusions. He makes conclusions that fit his observations. The conclusions he makes are not only a result of direct observations, but previous knowledge as well. This is the process how science operates or for that matter any theory operates. We have concepts in our brain, we make new observations and try to explain them by tweaking concepts in our brain. Apple falls and I note it, it always falls down, this becomes a concept of gravity in mind. When I later see planets moving in fixed orbits, I apply the same concept in my mind to new observation and fit it. What is the problem with this?

    Well there are two. Remember plum pudding model of Thomson, Is it valid anymore? No, because it was dealt a severe blow by Rutherford’s experiment. Thomson has an image of reality on the basis on what he knows, and has seen but we must remember that is not whole of reality. There are many things mysterious in the world that are not known. In comes Bohr, and he makes an equally bigger prediction, atom is just like solar system. You see here how Science deals with problems. It tries to give the best possible explanation for the phenomena that are noticed, but the truth, the Reality we were once sure of grasping is too far fetched. I indeed think its a leap of faith from scientists to believe in their quest. Back to Bohr, there were some observations even his theory doesn’t explain. So what does he do. He tweaks it. Science has always been tweaking theories. Not that I consider this a betraying exercise, but you can see through the process here. So what if I suggest some model for Science (which is indeed happening). Can we have multiple theories explaining same phenomenon. Indeed we can. We must remember that it is our imagination through which we solve problem. And imagination is an infinite reordering of concepts in our mind. We may always tweak them in special ways to produce new theories that fit our observation and help us predict results. At this point, I may ask – Are we deluded?

    We may quite be knowing that we don’t have a grasp of Kan’t neumenon. We only have 5 senses, Science has given us more. “Thought and Extension” Spinoza says are only two attribute of God available to us. What are the others? Is there a whole world beyond our senses that affects our world? If so, how tenable does it leave our theories.

    And thirdly comes the real blow to the quest of Science for Truth which comes from Science itself. Here is the real skepticism mentioned in this article. Science has revealed world as a game of atoms, but when scientists start studying the world they don’t assume that same probabilistic mechanics may well apply to the brain processes and senses itself. What surety is there that in the game of atoms, we are receiving data properly or even processing it properly. To quote Wildon Carr here

    “If intellect is a product of evolution the whole mechanistic concept of the nature and origin of life is absurd, and the principle which science has adopted must clearly be revised. We have only to state it to see the self-contradiction. How can the intellect, a mode of apprehending reality, be itself an evolution of something which only exists as an abstraction of that mode of apprehending, which is the intellect? If intellect is an evolution of life, then the concept of the life which can evolve intellect as a particular mode of apprehending reality must be the concept of a more concrete activity than that of any abstract mechanical movement which the intellect can present to itself by analyzing its apprehended content. And yet further, if the intellect be a product of the evolution of life, it is not absolute but relative to the activity of the life which has evolved it; how then, in such case, can science exclude the subjective aspect of the knowing and build on the objective presentation as an absolute? Clearly the biological sciences necessitate a reconsideration of the scientific principle”

    Nietzsche summaries this more eloquently. “There are no truths, just interpretations” His thought should scare any scientist just as much it scares moralists. I think he was most profound thinker ever.

    “But now science, spurred on by its powerful delusion, hurtles inexorably towards its limits where the optimism hidden in the essence of logic founders. For the periphery of the circle of science has an infinite number of points and while there is no telling yet how the circle could ever be fully surveyed, the noble and gifted man, before he has reached the middle of his life, still inevitably encounters such peripheral limit points and finds himself staring into an impenetrable darkness. If he at that moment sees to his horror how in these limits logic coils around itself and finally bites its own tail – then the new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which in order to be tolerated, needs art as a protection and remedy.”

    • So are you holding a sort of Augustinian (or Augustinian revival) illumination theory of knowledge, in which divine agency is what gives us certain knowledge of things in the world? While I’m not too keen on illumination myself, despite my supposedly Augustinian leanings, it is a valid option, if a bit neglected lately.

      • I don’t know if it is Augustinian or not, I just read the Bible and watch what is going on around me… I have some scientific knowledge due to the fact that I am a software engineer. And I prayed to God and He answered to me a lot in my life, so that proved me He exists 🙂

  12. Philosophy is the pursuit of truth using reason and evidence.

    If we define ‘real’ as being ‘that which is consistent with reason and evidence’ then philosophy is ONLY concerned with determining what is real, and distinguishing it from what is not real (or not provably real).

    A philosopher is someone who uses reason and evidence to determine (as far as reason and evidence allows) whether or not a black cat exists in the room, and whether or not the dark room itself exists as we have been told. We have been told we are in a dark room but maybe we are wearing blindfolds and we are actually in a brightly lit room (and so on).

    Science is really a branch of philosophy specifically concerned with the material world and the pursuit of technology, although science itself is now gradually moving beyond the limited inventory which we call the ‘material world’.

  13. I regret so much not being native in English… I feel I have missed a great deal of what you (and your “commenters”) have stated here. I hope I make sense… 😉

    I understand and even like the “subjectivity” of everything, and I try to play with it in many a conversation with friends of mine, but I find “objectivity” just as interesting, and I like to think too, that science is one of the few aspects of our existence that makes it coherent and “objective”.

    I know, as I have experienced it, that a part of science is done in poor labs by poor lads, with little or no success in their experiments, having to adequate their years of work to some “acceptable” theory to graduate at some point, but it’s not always like that. There are also research institutes with funds that can afford to pay the best equipment and repeat experiments as many times as needed to make sure their results are reproducible. And that is one big aspect of science, the necessary reproducibility of results, for something to be claimed as scientific knowledge. If some theory has something to do with the researcher’s way of understanding life, it waits (nowadays) until it’s proven by someone else.

    About one of the comments, I’ve never heard of Wildon Carr, but I don’t really understand or share his views on intellect vs evolution. I’ve studied evolution and I can’t find any contradiction between it and intellect, honestly. Our brain has developed over time as birds may have developed their beaks, or their wings. Our ability to question our reality is just a (side) effect of natural selection. (Hope I’m not completely lost here)

    I’m not a good phylosopher, I guess, and even worse in English, but I thought, as a scientist, that I should say something in favour of science. (Every comment was about diminishing it! xD) Science is not completely objective, I agree, nothing is. But science is almost the only thing that tries to be objective, and has successed partly. The mysteries of our reality won’t be discovered if not by science, and I believe they (we) won’t try to popularise anything that hasn’t been proven by scientific (objective) methods.

    Thanks for your article! I enjoyed reading it! 😉

    A “will-be” grad student in some ruinous lab. xD

    • Alright. Enough being swamped with work, I’ve been meaning to reply to you for a while.

      So, something that people seem to have missed (especially those who thought I was being anti-science!) is that this is part 1 of 2. My main problem is not with empirical, inductive, and oftentimes quantified methods of investigation that adhere to a certain epistemological framework, but rather with some of our stereotypes about that framework—especially the meaning of the word “objective.” “Objective,” in a philosophical sense, does not mean “unbiased,” nor does “subjective” mean “relative.” Now, they’ve certainly taken on those meanings over time in common discourse, which is why people take me saying something important isn’t objective makes them think I’m attacking it. As I tried to make clear in the following post, I think “objective” is a code word hiding something we really value—justice.

      I’ve never heard of Wildon Carr either, but I have heard quite a few arguments for why the brain—or, strictly speaking, consciousness—couldn’t have evolved, or come about by natural means. To make some very, very long arguments shorter (and vastly oversimplified), if you believe that 1) human beings have free will; and 2) that all things that are material obey deterministic laws and rules; then you are forced to believe that there must be something about the human intellect (of which the will is a power) that, as it is not bound to obey deterministic laws (being free), must not be material. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument myself, but that’s just me.

      • You’re right, I should have read part 2 before commenting. I thought I would leave it for some other day, but, wrongly, I didn’t do the same with the comment. Anyway, I didn’t think you were attacking science, or being anti-science, but I used the conventional meaning of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” due to not having read your second post about it and got the first one wrong. My bad.

        I’m curious about why the brain would not be able to evolve by natural means, but I’ll read everything I find this time, before saying anything else.

        Except: Good posts, both of them, congrats 😉

  14. “…they’re grad students a few dollars away from being homeless or starving, working in greenbriar and insane heat with outdated lab equipment that only works if a butterfly in South America sneezes three seconds after they turn it on.”

    Genetics grad student here…loved. this.

  15. Science does not seek to provide a vision of the universe but rather to provide refinement of our vision of the universe. This is a continuous and recursive process, always pointed toward an ideal, unattainable though it may be. This is what distinguishes science from religion , from the vitriol of shout-radio gas bags, from the folk-ways and provincialism of unexamined lives. My concern here is that to illuminate the subjectivity inherent in scientific practice might be done to elevate the latter rather than to further the refinement process. But that is my caution and skepticism and I shall not pursue the idea. I do solicit your response.

    • 1. So, as I’ve mentioned, this is part 1 of 2. There are a few other things I deal with in the second half that might be relevant here.

      2. However, I’m not sure that science is the only alternative to the “provincialism of unexamined lives,” nor even the best. I’m also not sure that religion, provocative speech, or folk wisdom can be lumped into the category of “things proper to the unexamined life.” I’m not sure how much of what else around here you might have seen—so if you’ve read me going on for pages about Augustine, Pascal, and existentialism, forgive me—but there are a lot of religious thinkers who very seriously examine life, the universe, and everything. I’m also unsure of why you think science a better way of examining one’s life than, say, philosophy, which includes examining ethics, language, the structure of knowledge, and, well, science. I mean, the presence of a priori deductive non-materialistic methods of investigation does not preclude on empirical inductive ones, but I don’t think the converse is untrue either.

  16. Pingback: Should Scientists Be Public Intellectuals? | The Erstwhile Philistine

  17. Obviously science isn’t objective, but that doesn’t imply we’re not trying to do objective science. The scientific community is always trying to obtain result more and more precise.That’s what humans have always been doing, manipulating the material world for its own good, a lot of times failing. Aren’t we doing it? Getting closer to actually being masters of nature ?
    It may not have answers to all questions, but we have more than we had 10 years ago, and we will have answers to a lot more questions quite soon. And good answers, with better precision each day. Everyone’s waiting, I think, for the next genius to elaborate a new theory to change the game for the better, or for computers good enough to help us compare larger amounts of data to aid us in drawing new explanations to how life works.
    And I don’t understand why science is talked about in your article like something different than human-bound. Of course it has flaws and it’s conditioned by our greedy needs, but great discoveries still happen. Science it’s just a collection of observations of the physical world.

    • I think at least some of your points are addressed in the second post—certainly the one about “trying to do objective science.” As I think I mentioned upthread, “objective” does not mean “fair;” it’s a philosophical term, usually meaning “the object that is apart from the subject.” That “subjective” has come to mean “biased, based on personal opinion, unreliable, varying from one person to another” is more than just a bit unfortunate.

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