Objectivity
by Chetan Parikh
  
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In a great book, “The Truth Of Science”, the author, Roger G. Newton, writes on objectives.

 

“The concept of objectivity is a signpost on the way to the truth. As I have argued earlier, the overriding characteristic of modem science is its reliance on openly ascertainable knowledge; its truth is, above all, public. Plato thought that the way to seek the truth is to consult a wise man, but the validity of scientific statements does not rest on the pronouncements of any guru or expert, though it may sometimes appear that way to outsiders. It rests on evidence that could, in principle, be checked by anyone with the needed fundamental knowledge and apparatus (which admittedly presents a hurdle difficult to overcome). For this reason, the Royal Society chose as its motto Nullius in Verba, an abridgment of Horace's Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri-“not bound to swear by the word of a master.”

 

A clinical psychologist once recounted her personal experience of seeing Elvis Presley in her office, alone, long after his death. “And by the time it was over,” her account ends, “I understood that there is much more to the mind and the human spirit than I had previously allowed, and that if I was going to be a full human being and be helpful to others, I had to realize this and let it affect me fully. I instinctively bowed my head and put my hands together, as in prayer. When I looked up again, he was gone." This is not how a scientist arrives at truth; private illumination is not its touchstone. Charles Sanders Peirce had it right:

 

Unless truth be recognized as public,-as that of which any person would come to be convinced, if he carried his inquiry, his sincere search for immovable belief, far enough-then there will be nothing to prevent each one of us from adopting an utterly futile belief of his own which all the rest will disbelieve. Each one will set himself up as a little prophet; that is, a little ‘crank,’ a half-witted victim of his own narrowness.

 

This open quality of the scientific approach to the truth is indispensable for objectivity, and vice versa-science must be open to general inspection, not held in secret ritual or private vision. Without public access, it would be impossible to assure objectivity or the absence of distortion produced by personal preferences and individual perspective. The unrestricted character of objectivity is quite the reverse of Bloor's definition of the word, as “institutionalised belief.” This definition surrounds the meaning of objective with the walls of a cloister, where a scientist might indeed become" a half-witted victim of his own narrowness," or the narrowness of the institution. To argue that social and institutional barriers cannot be overcome "simply exaggerates a difficulty into an impossibility"; we are not literally prisoners in a keyless dungeon. On the other hand, public access hardly means that everyone without the required background knowledge should be regarded as equally competent to judge the truth of scientific propositions; in that sense, and in that sense only, science is inevitably “elitist.”

 

The ethos of objectivity that every proper scientist subscribes to requires that the search for truth about Nature be disinterested. If an experimenter is looking for observational facts, she has to accept what Nature offers, irrespective of whether it conveniently fulfills her expectations or awkwardly obstructs her pet hypothesis. If a theorist is constructing a conjecture and throws it open for testing in the laboratory, he finally has to assent to the verdict of those tests even if it destroys the theory he has spent years developing. He may resist the experimenters' results for a time, he may blame them on observational errors or other flaws so that he can continue to believe in the beauty and truth of his theory, but in the end he is obliged to submit to the judgment of Nature. Such demands on personal integrity are often hard to follow-Alan Chalmers is right in saying “Objectivity is a practical achievement”-but these demands are ultimately the foundation on which science rests. The open nature of scientific truth cannot be maintained if there are systematic attempts by its practitioners to subvert it through the suppression of inconvenient evidence or the propagation of theories contradicted by the facts.

 

The very mode of expression used by scientists in their communications is influenced by their attempt to be, and to appear to be, objective. It is a mode of expression that often seems dry and colorless to outsiders. You are much more likely to find the bald statement "Matter is made up of particles" in a scientist's writings than “I strongly believe matter is made up of particles,” but this has little to do with the author's strength of conviction. Any straight assertion of “X” opens X up for discussion and debate, whereas “I believe X” can only be countered by “I don't believe x.” Unless  Violence ensues, saying “I don't believe X” would either be the end of the discussion  or the beginning of an analysis to discover why someone like her would believe “X,” and this in turn would be the beginning of the sociology of science. I do not mean to imply that there never is passion behind the statement of “X” by a scientist, or that the person stating “X” will not do his best to convince readers of its truth. Most scientists, in fact, feel strongly about the truth of at least parts of science, and discussions among them often become quite heated. In scientific discourse, however, the statement of “X” is never meant to be ex cathedra-even when the arrogance of some individuals may make it sound that way. It is simply intended to be divorced from the person making the statement. Keeping a distance between the statement and the individual making the statement also explains why scientists are notorious for writing up their results in the passive mode rather than in the more personal active voice: “X was found by Smith” distances the discoverer from the discovery more than “Smith found X” does.

 

The ideal of objectivity is today under heavy attack. Cynics point out that, contrary to the myths propagated to glamorize famous scientists, the ideal is violated in many concrete instances. They are right, of course-scientists are human, and since recognition of their achievements is their primary reward, they may “cut corners” to get credit for their work. Like others, they sometimes succumb to weaknesses such as jealousy, vanity, and, on very rare instances, even dishonesty. Scientists are also famously competitive, and some feminists have connected this characteristic with the dominance of men rather than women in science. Competitiveness can, of course, sometimes undermine objectivity, but whether successful science is possible without it is an open question. It remains to be demonstrated that cooperative social models for science in place of competitive, individualistic practice would work as effectively. That parts of science have grown to involve large expenditures and others have rubbed against areas of application in which political passions run high has exacerbated such problems. Not all scientists have been able to remain aloof and objective, and many observers who habitually regarded them as superhuman have become disillusioned. But the failings of a few should have no bearing on the validity of the ideal and the need to maintain its pursuit as an instrument of enormous value to humanity.

 

To a large extent, however, science is notably stable with respect to the infusion of biases by its practitioners; that is the great virtue of its widely accessible character. “What is to be condemned,” Jonathan Rauch rightly emphasizes,” is not bias but unchecked bias. The point of liberal science is not to be unprejudiced (which is impossible); the point is to recognize that your own bias might be wrong and to submit it to public checking by people who believe differently.” As he points out,

 

the genius of liberal science lies not in doing away with dogma and prejudice; it lies in channeling dogma and prejudice-making them socially productive by pitting dogma against dogma and prejudice against prejudice.

 

Science, in this respect, resembles capitalism, which also rests on steering destructive and undesirable human traits, like greed and avarice, into socially productive directions; both systems are remarkably fruitful. The pitting of “dogma against dogma and prejudice against prejudice” does not, however, diminish the importance of the ideal of objectivity for the enterprise as a whole. Nor would it justify rampant and egregious violations of disinterestedness by scientists on the grounds that the system is self-correcting. It is indispensable that objectivity remain as an aspiration for all contributors to the system.

 

If the cynics attack objectivity on the grounds of disillusionment, others do so on a political basis. “The scientific method rests on a particular definition of objectivity that we feminists must call into question,” declares Ruth Hubbard, adding that “the pretense that science is objective, apolitical and value-neutral is profoundly political" In fact, some critics of science go so far as to deny the very value and desirability of objectivity. According to these commentators, the ideal should not be to remain disinterested and objective but rather to be committed to general social betterment, justice, and whatever other purposes they deem worthy. To them, shouting “I believe in X” is much more important than “X.” As Hubbard contends,

         

Science and technology always operate in somebody's interest and serve someone or some group of people. To the extent that scientists are ‘neutral’ that merely means that they support the existing distribution of interests and power.

 

Science is objective to the extent it avoids bias or external agendas, either because individual scientists are free of them or because the public character of science produces a balance with that effect. Those who question the objectivity of science, like Ruth Hubbard and others with political goals, claim that all assertions, including those of scientists, are necessarily colored by class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual preference, or any other suitable pigeonhole of the asserter. The goal of objectivity, in their view, is therefore unattainable and perhaps even undesirable, because knowledge is power, and this power will be used, if not for one purpose, then another. The great force of scientific knowledge is now applied to many objectionable and destructive ends; if scientists were guided by the right political consciousness, they would avoid seeking the kind of knowledge that could be used harmfully and would channel whatever knowledge they do obtain into socially desirable directions. Objectivity, which prevents scientists from following these paths, is therefore to be shunned, as these critics would have it.

 

That knowledge is power is indisputable, and so is the assertion that the fruits of science have been used for destructive purposes, as well as for many eminently constructive and beneficial ones. But there is no knowledge that is inherently sinful, and ignorance too can be exploited for evil political ends. To shut off and forbid certain questions for fear that the answers will be misused is to subvert the open character of science and to arrogate to social and political institutions a decision power based on ignorance. Such attempts have always failed in the past, and history has shown no good to have come of them, whether they were made by religious institutions or governments. When we censure scientists for producing potentially destructive developments that seem to them “technically sweet” or too interesting to set aside, no matter the consequences of their exploitation, we blame the messenger for the message and lock the door to all further deliveries. Remaining ignorant protects only the consciences, not the bodies, of those kept in the dark.”