August 22, 2011

"How science works": A jaded pursuit of knowledge?

As I get back into the swing of graduate school classes, I'll likely be blogging less frequently. But if you all keep sending me interesting articles, the more fodder I have for new posts!

A staple of STS theory, and other post-modern theories, is that "science" (defined roughly as an organized pursuit of/production of knowledge) is less objective than we'd hope. After all, scientists are human, and all human artefacts are shaped by our own experiences, biases, and institutional environments. So although not all STS scholars adhere to the full-blown post-modern relativism that there is no objective truth, I see the STS perspective as simply more critical of taken-for-granted assumptions about science.

There are plenty of examples from the History of Science about how science, at the time, was taken as the paragon of truth, only to later be totally de-bunked. The regime change from one scientific theory to another is what's known as  "paradigm shift." But perhaps science isn't just about finding out what's right and wrong in the universe. What matters is even what we decide to study. For example, STS scholar Scott Frickel writes about science and activism. In his 2004 book, Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology, he describes how a group of scientists, influenced by the 1970s environmental movement, started a new, interdisciplinary field of "genetic toxicology." While building the scientific legitimacy of their field (which Frickel points out, is an act of advocacy itself), the scientists also strategically distanced themselves from the more "activist" arm of their academic society. I have a more detailed analysis on science and activism linked at the end of this previous post.

The recent controversy of science and activism centers around, of course, climate change scientists. The question is whether scientists can be pro-climate policy activists while still maintaining scientific integrity? However, the scientists themselves don't see themselves as activists. Here's a recent excerpt from an NPR article:
Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process.... (AAAS, 2011
Climate research works precisely in the same way. To politicize it, to persecute and scrutinize individual scientists as if they were corrupt politicians, is not only misguided but useless. Not all scientists are virtuous (and not all doctors, lawyers, bankers, or teachers either), but the whole point of the scientific process is to free itself from such personal flaws: sooner or later, fraudulent or wrong data is uncovered and the path toward certitude is restored. Errors may persist for a while, but not for a very long while.
The author is speaking of traditional paradigm shifts, and the self-correcting view of science described by Michael Polanyi. The problem is that this view of science ignores what we know about scientists: they too, are human. A "free market" pursuit of science is not necessarily best for society as a whole. This might be partly because scientists have long been a homogenous social group, although this is changing.

A round-up of recent news articles adds some interesting perspectives to the mix:

"Biased by Brilliant" (bonus points for referencing philosopher of science Heather Douglas)
Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
"It’s Science, but Not Necessarily Right"
Scientists can certainly point with pride to many self-corrections, but science is not like an iPhone; it does not instantly auto-correct. As a series of controversies over the past few months have demonstrated, science fixes its mistakes more slowly, more fitfully and with more difficulty than Sagan’s words would suggest. Science runs forward better than it does backward.
"The objectivity thing (or, why science is a team sport)."
In both the ideal of reproducibility and the practice of peer review, we can see that the scientist’s commitment to producing knowledge that is as objective as possible is closely tied to an awareness that we can be wrong and a desire not to be deceived — even by ourselves.

Science is a team sport because we need other people in order to build something approaching objective knowledge.
However, teamwork is hard.
"Toni Scarpa: Reviewing peer review"
The goal was to ask people to focus more on impact and significance. Peer review is simple — I think it should ask only two questions. First: Is it worth doing? That is impact and significance. If the answer is yes, then you ask the second question: Can they do it? In the past we were asking those questions in reverse.
So I'm not sure if I'm ready to come to any conclusions about what this means for climate science, but it certainly highlights science as a human pursuit, subject to the same biases and ethical dilemmas as any other.


  1. Regarding science and activism, I tend towards the bright line school of thought. I may get myself into trouble here, since this is not in the area that I do much work, but why should ignorance stop comments on the internet?

    I tend to see the distinction between science and activism (having been involved in both) coming from the is-ought problem. Simply knowing what *is* true in the world does not mean that we, as scientists, have special insight into what *should be* in the world. Thus scientists can provide only the factual background on policy questions, rather than a complete view which would be informed by science and values.

    There are two other concerns which, I think, drive the distinction between the scientist and the activist. First is the concern about the goals of policy in a democracy. Second is largely a point of perception, but there is a broad recognition (including what you write above) that previously believing something to be true tends to influence how subsequent evidence is perceived. This last concern is perhaps the most interesting.

    However, starting with the other concern, the goal of public participation is not necessarily the best possible policy, as determined by technocrats, but a policy of mutual and common assent. While this should not stop scientists from vigorously arguing their position amongst peers in public decisionmaking, it does stop them from presuming to have any additional power due to their expertise. Democracy picks popular and scientifically unsound policies over unpopular but sound ones. And indeed, it probably should, since the alternative is even worse.

    The last concern, which is most closely related to what you have above, is perhaps the most interesting. Everyone is aware of the influence preconceived ideas have on the interpretation of evidence (in fact, as a Bayesian myself, I embrace it in a limited sense, but that's a tangent). Thus to appear to be free of those influences, scientists act as if they have drawn no conclusions. Mind you, this is not unique to science--judges who pronounce their conclusions before a trial takes place would be immediately disqualified, even if the same defendant has appeared before the same judge a hundred times.

    Not disclosing the beliefs on entering an experiment allows the appearance of neutrality and the ability to speak ex cathedra, at least of a sort. Were scientists to openly declare their viewpoints on policy, their conclusions on matters of fact would be discounted, at least in a public policy realm.

    So is this last concern unethical or deceptive? I suggest not, both since there are other reasons to separate activism from doing science, and there is every reason to encourage being as open to new outcomes as possible, which starts with accepting that there may be other outcomes which contradict previously held beliefs.

    And from here I start to ramble (start?)... Interesting post!

  2. First, I love love love that image. Especially being an STS person -- it makes me giggle.

    I'm sitting here in this cute little NYC bookstore/cafe thinking about this topic and I don't know if I have an answer. Maybe there's no answer at all. I worry that one of the biggest problems confronting climate science is the belief that doing things that are good for the climate means hurting the economy. I feel like that is always the elephant in the room when most American talk about climate change, and I wonder how much that filters into journalism about the topic. It may be time for me to revisit a paper I wrote on the topic last year.


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