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Pub-Style Science: dreams of objectivity in a game built around power.

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


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This is the third and final installment of my transcript of the Pub-Style Science discussion about how (if at all) philosophy can (or should) inform scientific knowledge-building. Leading up to this part of the conversation, we were considering the possibility that the idealization of the scientific method left out a lot of the details of how real humans actually interact to build scientific knowledge …

Dr. Isis: And that’s the tricky part, I think. That’s where this becomes a messy endeavor. You think about the parts of the scientific method, and you write the scientific method out, we teach it to our students, it’s on the little card, and I think it’s one of the most amazing constructs that there is. It’s certainly a philosophy.

I have devoted my career to the scientific method, and yet it’s that last step that is the messiest. We take our results and we interpret them, we either reject or fail to reject the hypothesis, and in a lot of cases, the way we interpret the very objective data that we’re getting is based on the social and cultural constructs of who we are. And the messier part is that the who we are — you say that science is done around the world, sure, but really, who is it done by? We all get the CV, “Dear honorable and most respected professor…” And what do you do with those emails? You spam them. But why? Why do we do that? There are people [doing science] around the world, and yet we reject their science-doing because of who they are and where they’re from and our understanding, our capacity to take [our doing] of that last step of the scientific method as superior because of some pedigree of our training, which is absolutely rooted in the narrowest sliver of our population.

And that’s the part that frightens me about science. Going from lab to lab and learning things, you’re not just learning objective skills, you’re learning a political process — who do you shake hands with at meetings, who do you have lunch with, who do you have drinks with, how do you phrase your grants in a particular way so they get funded because this is the very narrow sliver of people who are reading them? And I have no idea what to do about that.

Janet Stemwedel: I think this is a place where the acknowledgement that’s embodied in editorial policies of journals like PLOS ONE, that we can’t actually reliably predict what’s going to be important, is a good step forward. That’s saying, look, what we can do is talk about whether this is a result that seems to be robust: this is how I got it; I think if you try to get it in your lab, you’re likely to get it, too; this is why it looked interesting to me in light of what we knew already. Without saying: oh, and this is going to be the best thing since sliced bread. At least that’s acknowledging a certain level of epistemic humility that it’s useful for the scientific community to put out there, to no pretend that the scientific method lets you see into the future. Because last time I checked, it doesn’t.

(46:05)
Andrew Brandel: I just want to build on this point, that this question of objective truth also is a question that is debated hotly, obviously, in science, and I will get in much trouble for my vision of what is objective and what is not objective. This question of whether, to quote a famous philosopher of science, we’re all looking at the same world through different-colored glasses, or whether there’s something more to it, if we’re actually talking about nature in different ways, if we can really learn something not even from science being practiced wherever in the world, but from completely different systems of thinking about how the world works. Because the other part of this violence is not just the ways in which certain groups have not been included in the scientific community, the professional community, which was controlled by the church and wealthy estates and things, but also with the institutions like the scientific method, like certain kinds of philosophy. A lot of violence has been propagated in the name of those things. So I think it’s important to unpack not just this question of let’s get more voices to the table, but literally think about how the structures of what we’re doing themselves — the way the universities are set up, the way that we think about what science does, the way that we think about objective truth — also propagate certain kinds of violence, epistemic kinds of violence.

Michael Tomasson: Wait wait wait, this is fascinating. Epistemic violence? Expand on that.

Andrew Brandel: What I mean to say is, part of the problem, at least from the view of myself — I don’t want to actually represent anybody else — is that if we think that we’re getting to some better method of getting to objective truth, if we think that we have — even if it’s only in an ideal state — some sort of cornerstone, some sort of key to the reality of things as they are, then we can squash the other systems of thinking about the world. And that is also a kind of violence, in a way, that’s not just the violence of there’s no women at the table, there’s no different kinds of people at the table. But there’s actually another kind of power structure that’s embedded in the very way that we think about truths. So, for example, a famous anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, would always point out that the botanists would go to places in Latin America and they would identify 14 different kinds of XYZ plant, and the people living in that jungle who aren’t scientists or don’t have that kind of sophisticated knowledge could distinguish like 45 kinds of these plants. And they took them back to the lab, and they were completely right.

So what does that mean? How do we think about these different ways [of knowing]? I think unpacking that is a big thing that social science and philosophy of science can bring to this conversation, pointing out when there is a place to critique the ways in which science becomes like an ideology.

Michael Tomasson: That just sort of blew my mind. I have to process that for awhile. I want to pick up on something you’re saying and that I think Janet said before, which is really part of the spirit of what Pub-Style Science is all about, the idea that is we get more different kinds of voices into science, we’ll have a little bit better science at the other end of it.

Dr. Rubidium: Yeaaaah. We can all sit around like, I’ve got a ton of great ideas, and that’s fabulous, and new voices, and rah rah. But, where are the new voices? are the new voices, or what you would call new voices, or new opinions, or different opinions (maybe not even new, just different from the current power structure) — if those voices aren’t getting to positions of real power to affect change, it doesn’t matter how many foot soldiers you get on the ground. You have got to get people into the position of being generals. And is that happening? No. I would say no.

Janet Stemwedel: Having more different kinds of people at the table doesn’t matter if you don’t take them seriously.

Andrew Brandel: Exactly. That’s a key point.

Dr. Isis: This is the tricky thing that I sort of alluded to. And I’m not talking about diverse voices in terms of gender and racial and sexual orientation diversity and disability issues. I’m talking about just this idea of diverse voices. One of the things that is tricky, again, is that to get to play the game you have to know the rules, and trying to change the rules too early — one, I think it’s dangerous to try to change the rules before you understand what the rules even are, and two, that is the quickest way to get smacked in the nose when you’re very young. And now, to extend that to issues of actual diversity in science, at least my experience has been that some of the folks who are diverse in science are some of the biggest rule-obeyers. Because you have to be in order to survive. You can’t come in and be different as it is and decide you’re going to change the rules out from under everybody until you get into that — until you become a general, to use Dr. Rubidium’s analogy. The problem is, by the time you become the general, have you drunk enough of the Kool-Aid that you remember who you were? Do you still have enough of yourself to change the system? Some of my more senior colleagues, diverse colleagues, who came up the ranks, are some of the biggest believers in the rules. I don’t know if they felt that way when they were younger folks.

Janet Stemwedel: Part of it can be, if the rules work for you, there’s less incentive to think about changing them. But this is one of those places where those of us philosophers who think about where the knowledge-building bumps up against the ethics will say: look, the ethical responsibilities of the people in the community with more power are different that the ethical responsibilities of the people in the community who are just coming up, because they don’t have as much weight to throw around. They don’t have as much power. So I talk a lot to mid-career and late-career scientists and say, hey look, you want to help build a different community, a different environment for the people you’re training? You’ve got to put some skin in the game to make that happen. You’re in a relatively safe place to throw that weight around. You do that!

And you know, I try to make these prudential arguments about, if you shift around the incentive structures [in various ways], what’s likely to produce better knowledge on the other end? That’s presumably why scientists are doing science, ’cause otherwise there’d be some job that they’d be doing that takes up less time and less brain.

Andrew Brandel: This is a question also of where ethics and epistemic issues also come together, because I think that’s really part of what kind of radical politics — there’s a lot of different theories about what kind of revolution you can talk about, what a revolutionary politics might be to overthrow the system in science. But I think this issue that it’s also an epistemic thing, that it’s also a question of producing better knowledge, and that, to bring back this point about how it’s not just about putting people in positions, it’s not just hiring an assistant professor from XYZ country or more women or these kinds of things, but it’s also a question of putting oneself sufficiently at risk, and taking seriously the possibility that I’m wrong, from radically different positions. That would really move things, I think, in a more interesting direction. That’s maybe something we can bring to the table.

Janet Stemwedel: This is the piece of Karl Popper, by the way, that scientists like as an image of what kind of tough people they are. Scientists are not trying to prove their hypotheses, they’re trying to falsify them, they’re trying to show that they’re wrong, and they’re ready to kiss even their favorite hypothesis goodbye if that’s what the evidence shows.

Some of those hypotheses that scientists need to be willing to kiss goodbye have to do with narrow views of what kind of details count as fair game for building real reliable knowledge about the world and what kind of people and what kind of training could do that, too. Scientists really have to be more evidence-attentive around issues like their own implicit bias. And for some reason that’s really hard, because scientists think that individually they are way more objective than they average bear. The real challenge of science is recognizing that we are all average bears, and it is just the coordination of our efforts within this particular methodological structure that gets us something better than the individual average bear could get by him- or herself.

Michael Tomasson: I’m going to backpedal as furiously as I can, since we’re running out of time. So I’ll give my final spiel and then we’ll go around for closing comments.

I guess I will pare down my skeleton-key: I think there’s an idea of different ways of doing science, and there’s a lot of culture that comes with it that I think is very flexible. I think what I’m getting at is, is there some universal hub for whatever different ways people are looking at science? Is there some sort of universal skeleton or structure? And I guess, if I had to backpedal furiously, that I would say, what I would try to teach my folks, is number one, there is an objective world, it’s not just my opinion. When people come in and talk to me about their science and experiments, it’s not just about what I want, it’s not just about what I think, it’s that there is some objective world out there that we’re trying to describe. The second thing, the most stripped-down version of the scientific method I can think of, is that in order to understand that objective world, it helps to have a hypothesis, a preconceived notion, first to challenge.

What I get frustrated about, and this is just a very practical day-to-day thing, is I see people coming and doing experiments saying, “I have no preconceived notion of how this should go, I did this experiment, and here’s what I got.” It’s like, OK, that’s very hard to interpret unless you start from a certain place — here’s my prediction, here’s what I think was going on — and then test it.

Dr. Isis: I’ll say, Tomasson, actually this wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be. I was really worried about this one. I wasn’t really sure what we were supposed to be talking about — philosophy and science — but this one was OK. So, good on you.

But, I think that I will concur with you that science is about seeking objective truth. I think it’s a darned shame that humans are the ones doing the seeking.

Janet Stemwedel: You know, dolphin science would be completely different, though.

Dr. Rubidium: Yeah, dolphins are jerks! What are you talking about?

Janet Stemwedel: Exactly! All their journals would be behind paywalls.

Andrew Brandel: I’ll just say that I was saying to David, who I know is a regular member of your group, that I think it’s a good step in the right direction to have these conversations. I don’t think we get asked as social scientists, even those of us who work in science settings, to at least talk about these issues more, and talk about, what are the ethical and epistemic stakes involved in doing what we do? What can we bring to the table on similar kinds of questions? For me, this question of cultivating a kind of openness to being wrong is so central to thinking about the kind of science that I do. I think that these kinds of conversations are important, and we need to generate some kind of momentum. I jokingly said to Tomasson that we need a grant to pay for a workshop to get more people into these types of conversations, because I think it’s significant. It’s a step in the right direction.

Janet Stemwedel: I’m inclined to say one of the take-home messages here is that there’s a whole bunch of scientists and me, and none of you said, “Let’s not talk about philosophy at all, that’s not at all useful.” I would like some university administrators to pay attention to this. It’s possible that those of us in the philosophy department are actually contributing something that enhances not only the fortunes of philosophy majors but also the mindfulness of scientists about what they’re doing.

I’m pretty committed to the idea that there is some common core to what scientists across disciplines and across cultures are doing to build knowledge. I think the jury’s still out on what precisely the right thing to say about that common core of the scientific method is. But, I think there’s something useful in being able to step back and examine that question, rather than saying, “Science is whatever the hell we do in my lab. And as long as I keep doing all my future knowledge-building on the same pattern, nothing could go wrong.”

Dr. Rubidium: I think that for me, I’ll echo Isis’s comments: science is an endeavor done by people. And people are jerks — No! With people, then, if you have this endeavor, this job, whatever you want to call it — some people would call it a calling — once people are involved, I think it’s essential that we talk about philosophy, sociology, the behavior of people. They are doing the work. It doesn’t make sense to me, then — and I’m an analytical chemist and I have zero background in all of the social stuff — it doesn’t make sense to me that you would have this thing done by people and then actually say with a straight face, “But let’s not talk about people.” That part just doesn’t compute. So I think these conversations definitely need to continue, and I hope that we can talk more about the people behind the endeavor and more about the things attached to their thoughts and behaviors.

* * * * *

Part 1 of the transcript.

Part 2 of the transcript.

Archived video of this Pub-Style Science episode.

Storify’d version of the simultaneous Twitter conversation.

You should also check out Dr. Isis’s post on why the conversations that happen in Pub-Style Science are valuable to scientists-in-training.

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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