Posted by: salamandercandy | January 23, 2006

Objectivity

My cousin recently asked me how scientists can report unbiased results when they are often funded by sources that want to see a particular outcome from the research. The question of objectivity is an important one, perhaps especially in a political climate that is increasingly hostile towards unfavorable science, and with scientific fraud on people’s minds.

For the most part, scientists are decent, honest people who love discovering and figuring stuff out, and are in a scientific field to do just that. They aren’t deliberately misleading about their findings, because that would undermine the main reason why they do what they do. However, scientists sometimes have other motives: to be respected in intellectual circles for their intelligence, to have a fun job with lots of freedom to play with things that interest them, or even to save the world (“fame” and “fortune,” as they are conventionally understood, are rarely realistic goals for scientists). Being human, scientists are fallible, so it’s possible that they sometimes yield to temptation.


In my experience, one of the greatest challenges is setting aside one’s own wish to be a hero for a cause. For example, most biologists, including myself, are concerned about the damage humans are doing to the environment. Many of us are doing research with consequences for environmental management. Certain results might lead to increased protection for a species, or tighter restrictions on a pollutant, or larger areas of land set aside as reserves. Often, we desperately want these things to happen, and it’s hard for scientists not to not skew their results in that direction. Sometimes, they probably do. But reporting misleading results is ultimately damaging, even if it has short-term benefits, and it is imperative that we try to be as objective as possible.

I once asked entomologist/human population control activist Paul Ehrlich how someone can be an advocate and remain an objective scientist. He replied that there’s no such thing as an objective scientist; science works because it’s antagonistic. In other words, researchers with opposing claims compete, and the most well-supported hypothesis wins.

Ehrlich’s response a good one, although it’s a bit oversimplified in my opinion. Scientific results are supposedly verified multiple times by independent researchers, but in practice that doesn’t always happen. Often, no one will ever bother to repeat your experiment, at least not for many years, and your word will be taken as scientific fact. Besides, multiple researchers with the same biases could produce the same inaccurate results. What Ehrlich didn’t stress enough, at least in my conversation with him, was the importance of trust. Science works because scientists usually tell the truth and other scientists usually believe them. It is simply false that only religion, not science, is rooted in faith. Science is based on a great deal of faith. Faith in one’s senses, in one’s measuring tools and equipment, and, most importantly for the discussion at hand, faith that most other scientists are honest.

In this way, science is not that different from government or business or other ventures. There are systems of checks and balances, but they aren’t perfect. Things will fall apart if the participants lose their integrity.

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Responses

  1. Your post is so timely to me, because I am just about to finish reading “State of Fear” by Michael Chrichton. It’s a truly awful book, and as soon as I finish the last few pages and the appendices, I am going to write all about it on my own site. But aside from literary misteps, I think you would be interested to know that this popular fiction writer is portraying scientists, particular those who study the environment, as corrupt and used/funded by environmental groups. It’s good to question, of course, but I think a lot of what he is saying is simply inflammatory and insulting through poor debating techniques like “poisoning the well” and creating straw men everywhere. Anyway, you may want to read the book, but I definitely don’t suggest buying it!


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