Science as a process of discovering knowledge is about 450 years old (Wootton, 2015) and is one of the best ways we can understand how the world works. It also allows scientists to challenge assumptions that are widely held and that may be incorrect, and for those who are particularly interested in its application, it can be used to improve the human condition (Trafimow & Osman, 2022).
Attempts to limit subjectivity
One of the problems with science is that it is human (Skinner, 1965). As much as it introduces systems to reduce all the aspects that make us human – such as our emotions, desires and values, they are still present to varying degrees. They influence the choice of what research question to address, how to address it, how to analyze and report the findings, and what conclusions are drawn from the findings. Sometimes these human elements are critical to the persistent pursuit of discoveries that the world has benefited from. But sometimes they get in the way. So as a community, scientists try to adhere to conventions that limit the impact of subjectivity. For example, they use peer review of the methods used, the analyzes performed and whether they are consistent with the conventions to be followed and whether the conclusions are valid.
These processes don’t always work either. The scientific community knows that there are problems that come to light when we find that the reproduction of standard effects fails on a monumental scale. For example, the replication crisis in psychology (Shrout & Rodgers, 2018), economics (Page, Noussair, & Slonim, 2021), and medical sciences (Coiera et al., 2018) brought this to the fore. But science is nevertheless a self-correcting system, and although it may be slow, research communities usually try to improve on past failures. Without being honest about the problems, science wouldn’t be able to try to fix them, and that’s a valuable asset.
Scientists pursuing a specific agenda
The focus here is to highlight another problem that has always existed but is growing in scale, and that is scientists as advocates – those who pursue a particular agenda (e.g. Eagly, 2016; Pielke, 2004). Why might more things like this happen? The speculation here is that if you want to be relevant and recognized by your university for what you do, you need to get funding, and that funding is often dependent on doing research that is relevant to society. None of this is a problem in itself, but it becomes a problem for the following reason: when a researcher mixes his own political views, values, and emotional investment into the way he conducts research, and then uses that as a way to strongly advocate one position over another, then they are not doing science.
As messy and noisy as it is, it tries to be objective, with the ideal being the priority of understanding how things are or ruling out what isn’t. And whatever the implications of this discovery, others in society must make value judgments. Of course, this is also naive, as no scientific study is devoid of value judgments for the reasons mentioned earlier (Kincaid, Dupré, & Wylie, 2007; Trafimow & Osman, 2022). But some safeguards are in place to at least show how values dilute objectivity. Acknowledging the role of values is not a major problem as long as scientists explicitly state their intentions as advocates because of their self-interest in promoting a politically motivated claim.
The deeper problem lies when scientists acting as advocates use science as a shield to hide behind so they can conveniently say that the claims they are making are objective. Perhaps they do this inadvertently, or perhaps they knowingly do this; in both cases it is unethical. But even that wouldn’t be such a serious problem if it weren’t for one other factor: the sleight of hand used to stifle challenges to the claims made by scientists acting as advocates.
The illusion of objectivity
Sleight of hand is the illusion of objectivity (Robinson et al., 1995) and looks something like this:
- I believe that I am objective, and therefore when I make a claim and cite evidence to support it, the claim and the evidence are in turn objective.
- If someone disagrees with my statement, as long as they are open-minded and rational, I can persuade them to accept my statement.
- If someone still disagrees, then they are unreasonable and possibly irrational because their reasoning is flawed by errors and biases in their thinking (Ross, 2018).
There is no easy way to speak on equal terms with anyone who is under this illusion, because what we have is a dead end. The problem is that science depends on challenge and criticism to self-correct and improve, which cannot be done if disagreement is treated as a flaw.
The points I make here are not new (e.g., Armstrong, 1979; Richardson & Polyakova, 2012; Treves, 2019), but I hope they are still worth repeating. This is because the problems highlighted here have not gone away, which also means that any processes in place to deal with them are not working and may instead be encouraging them to happen more.
Finally, there is a message for all of us: no one is immune to the illusion of objectivity, and for scientists it is particularly damaging.