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Subjectivity in science

...there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what 20th century science has to say.1

Few scientists lose sleep over the question of whether the world exists or whether their knowledge of it is objective. With only rare exceptions, scientists pursue their task with a naive realism: the world exists, it works according to immutable laws and the scientist’s job is to deduce those laws by defining relationships among observed phenomena. In practice, this approach works well. Observations, carefully documented, can generally be confirmed by any number of observers equipped with appropriate instruments and following specified methods. And it is axiomatic that only those observations that can be confirmed constitute additions to the body of scientific knowledge. A theory that accounts for relationships among observations is speculative and accepted only as long as it remains consistent with observation or until a more elegant or comprehensive theory is formulated. Theories that have proved their mettle are sometimes honored as laws. But despite what many were taught in high school, scientists do not take laws to be necessary truths. Newton’s Law is no more reliable as an account of gravity than Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and considerably less so under particular circumstances. It is precisely because Einstein's theory overturned classical ideas about time and space that its author was so celebrated.

Thus science advances by accumulating observational data and increasingly powerful predictive theories. Progress is real and is not seriously impeded by disagreement, because reproducibility of observation provides the basis for adjudicating disputes. Arguments that persist usually concern questions about which relevant observations are either hard or impossible to make. In the latter case, they are not truly scientific questions at all. Is there life on Mars? is, at present, a question of the first kind. Are their racial differences in intelligence? is a question of second kind, for, as Alfred Binet put it, “intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”2

Because the scope and consequences of scientific discovery have been so vast, the notion that scientific knowledge is merely a social construct reflecting the subjective interests of those who command the scientific enterprise will seem to most scientists simply silly, if not perverse. To many scientists, therefore, it is deeply disturbing to discover that within the humanities the objectivity of science is not only widely questioned but is even, by some, entirely dismissed.3 To such skepticism, many scientists will respond with the impatience that Samuel Johnson expressed in response to Bishop Berkeley’s thesis that nothing exists except in the mind. Violently kicking a stone, he said “I refute it thus.”4 Adopting an argument of comparable sophistication, physicist Alan Sokal invites those who believe the laws of physics to be mere social conventions to try transgressing those conventions from the window of his twenty-first floor apartment.5 Others seem less inclined to make trial by gravity a matter of choice. “I attack them at every possible opportunity,” says Lewis Wolpert, a biologist at University College, London, “I hate them. They are the true enemies of science... the kiss of death. They have a political agenda, to control science themselves and to diminish it at every possible step. Nothing they have contributed has not been trivial, false or wrong.”6

The controversy might generate less emotion, however, if scientists would learn a little epistemology. As a result they might then feel less impelled to push sociologists of science and deconstructionist graduates in Eng. Lit. from high windows. The view that the world exists is useful. It helps make sense of experience. But there is actually no conclusive evidence that there exists an external world of which we are each a self-conscious part--a world that would exist whether we were aware of it or not. Logically, it is quite possible that there is nothing but our consciousness (the writer’s anyway), albeit of things that seem to imply an external world.

To take the latter view is provocative to many scientists because it seems to deny meaning to the scientific enterprise. This conclusion, however, arises from a misunderstanding. If there is no way of telling whether there is an external world, it can make no practical difference whether there is one or not. Assuming that there is not, scientists still have their observations and can still formulate theories about the relationships among observations, theories that may have predictive power about future observations. That is all science is about. If scientific theories prove reliable in predicting the future, then science is useful. If one day all scientific theories break-down, science will cease to be useful. But that will be the case whether scientific observations are consequences of events in an external world, or the products of mind alone.

For the last four centuries and more, science has proved extremely effective as a method for predicting the future, particularly the future of the kind of well-defined systems that have formed the focus of scientific study. Science can, for example, yield remarkably accurate predictions about comet trajectories, chemical reactions and biological processes, all of which can have profound economic and social implications. So, if the sociologists of science and the deconstructionists think they have a better idea than the scientists about how to come to grips with such realities as AIDS, famine and environmental pollution, let's hear it.


(1) Pickering, A. 1984. Constructing quarks: a sociological history of particle physics, University of Chicago Press. Cited in Kurt Gottfried and Kenneth G. Wilson. 1997. Science as a cultural construct. Nature 386:545-547.

(2) Binet, Alfred (On his intelligence scale) Quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton and Co., Ltd., NY, 1996, p 181.

(3) Gottfried, Kurt and Kenneth G. Wilson. 1997. Science as a cultural construct. Nature 386:545-547.

(4) Boswell, James. 1968. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 3rd Edn., Malone, London, 1799 (Abridged Edn.), The New American Library, NY.

(5) Sokal, Alan D. A physicist experiments with cultural studies. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html

(6) Vancouver Sun. 1997. (Quoted in) Science confronts its tormenters from an original article in the Daily Telegraph, London.


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