Saturday, 7 May 2016

Yes, There Is Politicisation In Science- But We Still Need To Be Careful When We Discuss Objectivity

*I am aware that this joke to the left fails recognise the difference between science and technology.

Should the sociology of science be studied? Absolutely, if there are biases on the part of individual researchers these should be addressed, it is important to clarify this from the outset that under no circumstances am I saying that we shouldn’t be critical of how objective certain fields of science are or even the extent to which we believe something to be ontologically true as opposed to a truth that may just be culturally determined.  In fact, part of what has invigorated my recent interest in the origins of bias is in analysing the nature of biases so that they can be overcome. Although in this context the use of language is important if one is to refer to science as not being objective. Any discussion on the politicised aspects of science needs to take place within the context of a greater epistemological discussion about how evidence can be ranked accordingly and the extent to which it’s reliability can be determined, failure to do so could lead to increase politicisation or a devaluing of the scientific method amongst the general public or even in the academic community.

For years the philosophy of science has contained a lot of discussion about the extent to which scientific truths could be considered to be ontologically truth. Thomas Kuhn in the structure of scientific revolutions stated that science was not an objective account of the world, but instead that it was a series of paradigm shifts that attempt to provide an explanatory account of the world. Admittedly I would be more favourably disposed to a Kuhnian approach, as opposed to a scientific realist view, which would assert that scientific explanations should be understood as being ontologically true. Feyeraband argued that non-scientific spiritual explanations should be considered to be on par with scientific ones, due to a lack of scientific objectivity.

There is nothing wrong with the debate listed above in fact it is necessary, if we’re to make progress in the area of science. But it is easy for these views to be misrepresented or to be used by some people in order to undermine science.

Some may be confused by the suggestion that we should be careful when discussing the objectivity of science, however, one must take into account that religious leaders, postmodernists and others with political agendas have sought to undermine the validity of science in order to promote unsubstantiated propositions. Feyeraband’s has been quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in order to defend the position of the Catholic Church. Also while Postmodernism may be seen as the bogeyman, it is a bogeyman with considerable influence. The idea of all truths being relative is one that is embraced by more people than we may think.

Perhaps it should have been stated from the outset, that I am coming at this from a slightly different perspective. Originally I pursued a degree in English and Philosophy. Regarding the English component of my degree the influence of postmodernist thought and critical theory was very apparent. I don’t regret my experiences in anyway, but it may surprise some to know the extent to which this line of thought has affected the perception of science within certain academic circles. Studying literature and science in the nineteenth century has helped to give me a context by which could I could evaluate the Daston & Galison paper.

In the piece by Daston & Galison, it is stated that the idea of science as an objective account of reality only happened during the later stages of the nineteenth century. While there have been negative consequences from viewing science as an objective there have also been negative consequences to taking the alternate view. In the 19th century, many pseudoscientific treatments were common place in part because there was no regulation, but also because the idea of science as being objective did not exist. Some common medical remedies of the age included: mercury and electrical therapy. Pherenology became popular around this time in absence more scientific accounts of the brain. So while Daston & Galison is correct about the dangers of embracing certain methodologies as if they are objectively true, the lack of a definition of what may constitute an objective truth or an objective, lead to some pretty dubious activities particularly within medical practice.

In literary theory, postmodernism has had a considerable influence, unfalsifiable theories from Freud and Lacan are favoured above competing accounts from other areas of behavioural science. But the influence of postmodernism in it’s most extreme form can be seen within French academia and intellectual culture, prestigious postmodernist academics write accounts of science that are almost comical. The danger of disbanding with the idea of objectivity is that it can lead to a lack of an epistemological framework or alternatively no way of evaluating information according to a framework. Undermining the credibility of scientific accounts can be dangerous if it means that research funding can be put into pseudoscience at the expense of important research or even into postmodernist accounts that demonstrate a scientific illiteracy.

Many opponents of science be they postmodernists or religious figures, often attempt to undermine scientific discoveries by relegating them to category of ‘belief’ as opposed to objective fact.

To religious fundamentalists arguing that science is a belief on par with their own is often a point of reference for dismissing scientific accounts. Years ago I read works by creationists in the US who argued that believing in evolution was also a faith based assumption much like their own religion, granted, this is a very poor form of reasoning, but arguments such as this could help to explain why 42% of the American population does not believe in evolution. Similarly, climate change deniers attempt to state that global warming is a “myth”.  The idea of science being publically perceived, not as an objective account, but as one with politicised elements could lead to empirically substantiated assumptions being undermined.

Some may think this fear is ill founded, but there are many people who wish to undermine the credibility of science to push an agenda. A more meaningful approach to address problems with objectivity in science would be to discuss, the extent to which these accounts could be considered to be objective.

The danger in embracing the idea that science is not objective publicly is that funding for important research could be directed elsewhere. Ideas that aren’t substantiated could be favoured over scientific accounts.

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