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The ideal of objectivity.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In trying to figure out what ethics ought to guide scientists in their activities, we’re really asking a question about what values scientists are committed to. Arguably, something that a scientist values may not be valued as much (if at all) by the average person in that scientist’s society.

Objectivity is a value – perhaps one of the values that scientists and non-scientists most strongly associate with science. So, it’s worth thinking about how scientists understand that value, some of the challenges in meeting the ideal it sets, and some of the historical journey that was involved in objectivity becoming a central scientific value in the first place. I’ll be splitting this discussion into three posts. This post sets the stage and considers how modern scientific practitioners describe objectivity. The next post will look at objectivity (and its challenges) in the context of work being done by Renaissance anatomists. The third post will examine how the notion of objectivity was connected to the efforts of Seventeenth Century “natural philosophers” to establish a method for building reliable knowledge about the world.

First, what do we mean by objectivity?

In everyday discussions of ethics, being objective usually means applying the rules fairly and treating everyone the same rather than showing favoritism to one party or another. Is this what scientists have in mind when they voice their commitment to objectivity? Perhaps in part. It could be connected to applying “the rules” of science (i.e., the scientific method) fairly and not letting bias creep into the production of scientific knowledge.

This seems close to the characterization of good scientific practice that we see in the National Academy of Science and National Research Council document, “The Nature of Science.” [1] This document describes science as an activity in which hypotheses undergo rigorous tests, whereby researchers compare the predictions of the hypotheses to verifiable facts determined by observation and experiment, and findings and corrections are announced in refereed scientific publications. It states, “Although [science’s] goal is to approach true explanations as closely as possible, its investigators claim no final or permanent explanatory truths.” (38)

Note that rigorous facts, verification of those facts (or the information necessary to verify them), correction of mistakes, and reliable reports of findings all depend on honesty – you can’t perform these activities by making up your results, or presenting them in a deceptive way, for example. So being objective in the sense of following good scientific methodology requires a commitment not to mislead.

But here, in “The Nature of Science,” we see hints that there are two closely related, yet distinct, meanings of “objective”. One is what anyone applying the appropriate methodology could see. The other is a picture of what the world is really like. Getting a true picture of the world (or aiming for such a picture) means seeking objectivity in the second sense -– finding the true facts. Seeking out the observational data that other scientists could verify -– the first sense of objectivity -– is closely tied to the experimental method scientists use and their strategies for reporting their results. Presumably, applying objective methodology would be a good strategy for generating an accurate (and thus objective) picture of the world.

But we should note a tension here that’s at least as old as the tension between Plato and his student Aristotle. What exactly are the facts about the world that anyone could see? Are sense organs like eyes all we need to see them? If such facts really exist, are they enough to help us build a true picture of the world?

In the chapter “Making Observations” from his book The Scientific Attitude [2], Fred Grinnell discusses some of the challenges of seeing what there is to see. He argues that, especially in the realms science tries to probe, seeing what’s out there is not automatic. Rather, we have to learn to see the facts that are there for anyone to observe.

Grinnell describes the difficulty students have seeing cells under a light microscope, a difficulty that persists even after students work out how to use the microscope to adjust the focus. He writes:

The students’ inability to see the cells was not a technical problem. There can be technical problems, of course -– as when one takes an unstained tissue section and places it under a microscope. Under these conditions it is possible to tell that something is “there,” but not precisely what. As discussed in any histology textbook, the reason is that there are few visual features of unstained tissue sections that our eyes can discriminate. As the students were studying stained specimens, however, sufficient details of the field were observable that could have permitted them to distinguish among different cells and between cells and the noncellular elements of the tissue. Thus, for these students, the cells were visible but unseen. (10-11)

Grinnell’s example suggests that seeing cells, for example, requires more than putting your eye to the eyepiece of a microscope focused on a stained sample of cells. Rather, you need to be able to recognize those bits of your visual field as belonging to a particular kind of object -– and, you may even need to have something like the concept of a cell to be able to identify what you are seeing as cells. At the very least, this suggests that we should amend our gloss of objective as “what anyone could see” to something more like “what anyone could see given a particular conceptual background and some training with the necessary scientific measuring devices.”

But Grinnell makes even this seem too optimistic. He notes that “seeing things one way means not seeing them another way,” which implies that there are multiple ways to interpret any given piece of the world toward which we point our sense organs. Moreover, he argues,

Each person’s previous experiences will have led to the development of particular concepts of things, which will influence what objects can be seen and what they will appear to be. As a consequence, it is not unusual for two investigators to disagree about their observations if the investigators are looking at the data according to different conceptual frameworks. Resolution of such conflicts requires that the investigators clarify for each other the concepts that they have in mind. (15)

In other words, scientists may need to share a bundle of background assumptions about the world to look at a particular piece of that world and agree on what they see. Much more is involved in seeing “what anyone can see” than meets the eye.

We’ll say more about this challenge in the next post, when we look at how Renaissance anatomists tried to build (and communicate) objective knowledge about the human body.

[1] “The Nature of Science,” in Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. Responsible Science, Volume I: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1992.

[2] Frederick Grinnell, The Scientific Attitude. Guilford Press, 1992.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mythusmage 8:29 pm 02/26/2013

    Most important thing for objectivity?

    The courage to be wrong.

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  2. 2. Adam_Smith 11:49 pm 02/26/2013

    This reminds me of a snippet of conversation between Einstein and Heisenberg. In English it goes:

    Heisenberg: “We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom…Now, since a good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes, I thought it more fitting to restrict myself to these, treating them, as it were, as representatives of the electron orbits.”

    “But you don’t seriously believe,” Einstein protested, “that none but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?”

    “Isn’t that precisely what you have done with relativity?” I asked in some surprise…

    “Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning,” Einstein admitted, “but it is nonsense all the same….In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”

    To this day I feel Einstein was being ambiguous in his meaning. Was he referring to the physical limits of observation, (factual implications of the theory), or the psychological limits, (the theory as necessary background for interpretation)?

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  3. 3. CliffClark 8:12 pm 02/27/2013

    Perhaps another decent definition of objectivity is freedom from conceptual or cognitive biases that would skew the interpretation of the data, eg. confirmation bias.

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