Science isn’t objective, but that’s okay

It’s more than just experimentation and observation – social negotiation is involved in the production of scientific knowledge, too.

Author: Jacqueline Hsing
Editor: B. Fisher
Artist: Laura Horga

Scientific Objectivity. These two words express the idea that science, or rather good science, is impartial and free from values, biases, and interests. The perceived objectiveness of science is why we use it to argue truth and establish authority when it comes to debates, ranging from climate change to the efficacy of medical drugs.

But how attainable is objectivity in science, really? Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch argue in their book The Golem: What Everyone Should Know about Science that science is not the straightforward result of experimentation and observation. Instead, they argue that science comes from the interpretation of ambiguous results and that “in science, facts do not speak for themselves, at least not exactly”. This is because experimental results, and their acceptance, are “co-determined by the facts as well as social and psychological factors”. Scientific activity is a cultural pursuit that is transformed, interpreted, and utilised by people in a specific way. There is no normative framework to rationality – our justification is based on knowledge relative to our specific culture or society. 

That isn’t to say that the integration of values in science is bad – science ultimately relies on epistemic values. This is how we choose which theories are valid and which are not. Take gravitational waves, for instance. How do we know that they exist? To know that our experimental results are valid, we must break what Harry Collins calls the ‘experimenter’s regress’: the loop of dependence between theory and evidence. The experimenter’s regress goes like this: when an experiment is executed for the first time, the result is always uncertain. Scientists either have to know the right answers in order to know that their experimental results are valid, or explicitly know that the experiment is working in order to get the right answers. 

So, we cannot truly be sure that the gravitational wave detector is correctly measuring gravitational waves, unless we already know that they exist. We might say that replication of the same experiment might reinforce valid claims, but why do those count as ‘good’ experiments? What about the other experiments that failed to detect gravitational waves? After all, N-rays, a hypothetical form of radiation, were confirmed by separate scientists before being declared illusionary. Since there are no cognitive or objective criteria to determine whether a claim is valid, the only way to break the experimenter’s regress is through the social negotiation that occurs between scientists.

It is important to examine this social negotiation in order to acknowledge that science is more complicated than a linear transition from evidence collection to rational theory. Science is used to legitimize a perceived truth as much as it is used to illuminate. So, if we just believe that science is objective and truth revealing, we leave no room to debate the values which have played an integral part in the creation of scientific evidence and fall into the trap of debating the science itself. 

Therefore, in order for science to keep its epistemic integrity, the myth of scientific objectivity must be deconstructed. By actively recognising the values ingrained in the production of scientific knowledge, we can promote science that is transparent and trustworthy. Ultimately, the interplay of values in science isn’t inherently bad. Just when we mistake science as value-free do we make the mistake of creating an elitist and unrealistic view of science.

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