Science Shouldn’t Be Objective

So why does flying my SSK Freak Flag™ and denying the objectivity of science get me hate mail? What is it that we really prize when we say something is objective, and why is attacking that Bad?

For starters, I’m not even going to really go into intelligent design, climate change denying, anti-vax, or paleo diet hooha. If you’re looking for support in your quest to unmask the Vast Scientific Conspiracy, look elsewhere, and if you’re supporting any of these things (or any other pseudoscience), I’d suggest revising the background assumptions that govern the foundational rules behind the discursive field of your form of life.*

So, my objection to objectivity is this: not only is it not true that science is objective, but the term “objective” is really masking a whole bushel of values that we ought to embrace, but, because we value our form of empirical inquiry acting as if it’s value-neutral or even value-free, we claim that it’s objective, and seek to behave in a way that we believe people engaged in an objective form of empirical, inductive reasoning based on observation ought to behave.

In other words: we call it “objective” because there are certain values we associate with objectivity, and we want science and scientists to embrace those values. To have some jerk philosopher attacking these values is shocking precisely because we believe these values are important, and that there’s a potential for those who do not follow these values to corrupt the truth.

Think about that for a moment. If scientific activity is supposed to find something that at least resembles the truth about the world as our society understands it—and yes, there are other ways of representing the truth, other ways of understanding it, but these ways might not be recognized by our society as it is currently organized—then if someone who did not embrace the values of the scientific community (someone who did not accept the background rules of language-game of the scientific form of life) started practicing something called “science” that did not actually conform with the values imposed by the rules of the scientific language-game, then something false, something using the name “science” but not actually being it, would be part of our discursive field, something our culture would not merely accept as true, but, given the prominence of science in our society, would be used to determine truth from falsity.

That’s a bit convoluted and theory-laden, so let me restate it more emphatically: the reason why we value what we think of as scientific objectivity is because it is what protects us not only from falsehood posing as truth, but also from falsehoods that beget more falsehoods and hide the truth. In a culture like ours that places a high value on empirical models and findings, our whole ability to distinguish what we hold as truth from falsity is based on being able to trust the vast apparatus we think of as Science—and, if ever something is admitted to the body of Science that was developed with alien values (personal gain, selfishness, petty agendas, basic human error, sloppiness), then our ability to trust not merely science, but truth itself, is undermined.

If we can’t trust the truth, what can we trust?

I’m a believer in the coherence theory of certainty—to put it shortly, that we judge things as true or false because they cohere with our other beliefs and experiences. If something fits with the whole of what we’ve previously accepted as true, we will likely accept it as well; if it doesn’t fit, we’ll reject it as false.** Note well that what we’re comparing something to is not some Objective Standard of Truth, but rather to a socially and culturally conditioned paradigm of experience and understanding, one with its own biases, prejudices, and assumptions, and one that can (and has!) be changed. To borrow from Dworkin, our coherent set of beliefs functions like a filter by which we trap things we consider truth; with enough of one sort of beliefs or values included or privileged over others, some people or groups wind up with different filters than others, and thus start including new beliefs that cohere with their old ones. Coherence leads to a snowballing effect; if something is a core belief of yours, you’re going to accumulate things that confirm this core belief, while rejecting things that contradict it—and the more things you accumulate that confirm it, the stronger this belief will grow. Some people and groups have picked up beliefs that do not conform to those held by other people and groups, and thus don’t have the same criteria for judging truth as others.

So I don’t think we can attribute insanity like climate change denial or the anti-vaccine movement to mere scientific illiteracy. No, these are people who have different criteria for truth and falsehood than broader society, who are playing by one language-game with one set of rules while everyone else is playing another with another set. It’s like both groups claim to be playing chess, but one side came with a go mat, the other with a checkerboard and some chess pieces (albet from three different sets), and both sides are claiming that they’re the ones playing the game correctly—because, from their own perspective, they are.

A Wittgensteinian Digression

Yes, I cite Wittgenstein a lot. Yes, the terms “form of life” and “language-game” get tossed around gratuitously, and sometimes in contexts (like law or anthropology) where they sometimes seem a bit strange. Sorry about that, those of you who don’t obsess over strange, gnomic epigrams on the nature of language, knowledge, and certainty. Wiggy explains a lot about everything in our society that involves rules…and that’s not a small number of things.

Here’s the thing. Science, like chess, is one of those things that follows certain rules, and, if you’re not following the rules, you can still be doing something, but it’ll be something completely different. Now, those rules will evolve over time and in a variety of circumstances; the modern game of chess we know is nothing like the version of the game played in India 1500 years ago, just as contemporary post-Karl Popper science is very different from Victorian natural history or contemporary physics is nothing like the philosophy of nature called φυσική. Sometimes house rules and spontaneous judgements have to be made for when something unexpected happens, something the rules didn’t quite foresee. And it’s true enough that, in chess, you can use fancifully carved pieces, or a guitar slide for a missing rook, or a checkerboard, or any other number of improvisations, yet still be following the rules. As soon as you take your regulation pieces and try to make as tall a pile of them as you can on the board, though, you’ve stopped playing chess.

This is an example of what Wittgenstein describes as not merely rule-following behavior, but a sort of behavior created by following the rules. In some activities, like speaking Latin, the act of speaking Latin came first, and the formulations of the rules came later. Sure, the Latin language followed certain rules of syntax, grammar, semiotics, and vocabulary—”respondeo dicendem quod” couldn’t have meant “bring me a slab” just because nobody’d gotten around to writing a dictionary and grammar book as they were busy founding Rome—but the activity and its rules came first, the formulation of the rules later. Chess, on the other hand, cannot exist before any formulation of its rules; even with the pieces in hand, the game cannot be played without knowing the rules. The rules of the game are something constructed and agreed upon by anyone who plays the game, a set of conventions that guide a certain activity within a certain group.

Which doesn’t mean chess doesn’t exist, just because it’s socially constructed and exists only by convention. Far from it, in fact. John Searle would point out that I have a $10 bill, legal currency in the United States of America, with a picture of the founder of the Federalist Party on it, who was also the first Secretary of the Treasury and influential interpreter of the Constitution. Now, what are the things in that last sentence that exist or have their power only through social convention? Basically, every single noun—the US, the Treasury Department, and the office of Secretary of the Treasury exist only by common agreement, while the $10 bill and Constitution may exist on paper in my pocket and the National Archives, but their very real power is derived by social convention.

If somebody took my $10 bill, claiming that both it and the idea of “theft” were socially constructed and therefore not real (and thus not wrong), I’d expect a rather sarcastic judge to give ’em a life sentence, claiming that limits on punishments for socially constructed crimes were also not real by the same logic. And, let it be noted, people do lots of crazy and determined things for socially constructed entities—nations, religions, marriage, family and clan, political ideals, and even money. In fact, I’m tempted to say that most of the things worth doing anything meaningful for are probably socially constructed to some degree or other.***

So when I claim our body of scientific knowledge, our scientific method, and all the manifold apparatus that goes with it is socially constructed, that’s not an attack against it. If anything, it’s placing it in the ranks of things so important one should fight for and should never allow to be compromised. On the list of “good things,” being able to determine and know the truth, or even its kissing cousin, is pretty high up there.

All this is basically to say, if you’re messing with the rules of something this important, it might be wise to Tread Carefully—but the rules can be changed.

Not changing the rules, just rewriting them

To cite Montaigne,*† it’s sometimes not a bad idea to just turn the tablet of the laws over when you’re not allowed to change them. Do I think science is objective? No. I don’t think it ever can be. Do I think there’s something valuable we’re trying to protect in claiming it is? Yes, and I think we should acknowledge what it is we really value.

What I think we value when we think of “objectivity” is not any epistemological claim—subjective truths, being truths, are just as true as objective ones, after all—but rather the idea that objectivity gives a certain sort of intentional removal from personal interests and desires, from outside influences, and from any sort of willful monkeying with something so many of us rely on to form our beliefs about the world. Those who investigate the world should not be penalized simply because their findings and models challenge an existing order, and the opinion of those who have some measure of fame and prestige should not be unfairly privileged over those who do not simply because of this fame and prestige. We sincerely desire that the prejudices and socio-political issues of our times should not color important work people will be using to judge truth; this would lead to supporting these inequalities and power structures, and thus perpetuating them. It would seem that what we value in objectivity is that it keeps the activity of scientific investigation fair—but “fairness” is such a wishy-washy and weak term. Let’s use a better one that includes it:

Science, like all things, should be just.

It ought to owe deference to what its methods find to be true, not to any political, personal, or monetary interests. Ethical norms ought to be observed, and review boards ought to have a clear and robust sense of what the principles they operate under really are. Reviewers ought not to discriminate against scholars whose results are valid simply because they don’t cite their papers or use a more powerful statistical methodology that gets the same results but was developed 30 years after the reviewer entered the field. Heck, reviewers ought to get their reviews done on time, give good comments, and generally give authors and the broader community what they’re owed. Journals ought to give the boot flawed studies or those carried out under suspicious circumstances, lest the truth be distorted and dangerous falsehoods spread.

You don’t get your own truth

Now, I’ll admit, the myth of objectivity is certainly a noble lie. It leads to people acting fairly and (hopefully) others accepting scientific results as true. Let’s face it, saying things are socially constructed sometimes seems to be one step away from the freshman in the philosophy class saying “it’s all relative” or “it’s all just words,” and, even if it should be pretty clear by now that’s pretty much the opposite of what I believe, there seems to be a risk that we’ll head down the “my truth/your truth” rabbit hole.

To some degree, that is a problem people have already been dealing with. The controversies over the recently issued DSM-V should illustrate that nicely; at what point do you decide that a certain collection of observed symptoms constitutes a certain disorder, or one disorder rather than another, or that something isn’t actually a disorder at all but rather a different, but valid, way of life (and it’s your own prejudices that might be the problem)? It’s also all to easy to confuse scientific and medical activity and debate over how to construct categories and draw the lines (how do we distinguish the distractive subtype of AD/HD from the hyperactive subtype? Is there really a difference? Should they be described as separate disorders, ADD and AD/HD, rather than subtypes of one disorder? Is saying that we draw the threshold for having the disorder here going to exclude too many people with the disease, while drawing it there might include and hospitalize too many people who don’t have it?) with denial that there is A Thing in the world that we think of as AD/HD. One group argues based on conformity to certain accepted norms (peer review, for instance), while the other side(s) argue against these norms in order to construct their own explanation that conforms to certain facts.

By introducing the concept of justice, we might be able to arbitrate between these competing claims and lifeworld-encompasing truth concepts.† Justice will allow us to explain why we ought to trust peer-reviewed sources, or certain types of publications, or certain methods of inquiry to which we owe credence, and why we ought to discount others, and on what grounds. There are certain concepts, ideals, and, above all, human beings, to which we owe deference and respect; if following the obligations of justice allows us to evaluate various conceptions and conditions for making truth-claims, then we must follow what is just.

Not that I expect that this’ll be easy, mind you. Justice is a pretty tricky concept, one with all kinds of nuances, and one that, after millennia of trying to suss out exactly what it is and how it is to be applied, we still have trouble with (especially with the whole “application” bit). There are also all kinds of instances where scientific divisions really and truly do seem to be morally value-neutral; this is why our concept of justice should also include epistemic values.

Is anyone actually harmed by Pluto being, or not being, considered a planet? Not really. Once upon a time, back when we really didn’t need hard and fast rules on what a planet was, basic social convention worked admirably. Once we started discovering a greater variety of objects orbiting our own local star, as well as others around other stars, a body recognized by our society to have the power to make certain definitions regarding common concepts employed in our broader language-game had to draw a sharp line artificially circumscribing our societal concept of “planet,” one that excluded Pluto (and a whole host of other bodies). Virtues compete and trade off, justice decides what each one is owed, and a decision is reached. Of course, “deference to societal opinion,” “love of perceived underdog celestial bodies,” and “fondness for mnemonics we learned in grade school” weren’t among the virtues considered by the IAU, resulting in…a rather unexpected clamor. Should those virtues have been considered? Probably not; they weren’t especially relevant to the form-of-life that needed a good, sharp definition of what a planet was, and so justice did not dictate that they were owed anything.

As for the actual figuring out of justice in all its nuances and perfection…you really expect me to do that here? Go read Plato, Kant, and Macintyre if you want that.

*Which is a polite way of saying “you’re wrong, you’re nuts, get lost.” Which is also still me being polite.
**See Dworkin, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein on about everything, Locke on revelation in general, and the Roman Catholic Church on private revelation for more examples of this.
***So what about ecology, protecting the environment, and safeguarding non-human or even nonliving beings? Since when have trees been socially constructed? This is a tricky one, certainly more than a footnote, but I would say that, even if the land and all that depends on it isn’t socially constructed, the fact that we give it importance, and the reasons why, are. It might be systems of ethics that dictate we not despoil our world and treat beings that aren’t human with respect, it might be aesthetic or cultural concerns that give certain places great significance, but I think that no rock ever became important to us simply because it was a rock, but because we gave it some significance. Knowing the human tendency to rapine, if we hadn’t given it significance by Imperial Human Fiat, we’d have probably already blown it up to put in a bypass shortly after clear-cutting the really big trees in the area.
*†Who was citing someone else, of course, in “On Custom.”
†”Yes,” I hear all the students of Macintyre ask, “but Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” If only there was a book to help us answer that question, or any number of scholars still working on it…

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3 thoughts on “Science Shouldn’t Be Objective

  1. Pingback: Science Isn’t Objective | Intentio Lectoris

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

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

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