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 widely held assumptions that may be false and, for those particularly interested in its application, to improve the human condition (Trafimow & Osman, 2022).
Attempts to limit subjectivity
One problem with science is that it is human (Skinner, 1965). As much as it creates systems to reduce all the aspects that make us human, such as emotions, desires and values, they are still present to varying degrees. They influence the choice of what research question to address, how to answer it, how to analyze and report findings, and what conclusions to draw. Sometimes these human elements are critical to the persistent pursuit of discoveries that benefit the world. 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 and the analyzes performed, whether they conform to the conventions that must be followed, and whether the conclusions are valid.
These processes don’t always work. 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. Replication crises in psychology (Shrout & Rodgers, 2018), economics (Page, Noussair, & Slonim, 2021), and the medical sciences (Coiera et al., 2018) have 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 its problems, science would not be able to try to correct them, and that is 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 pursuing a particular agenda (e.g. Eagly, 2016; Pielke, 2004). Why could there be more going on than this? 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 in itself is a problem, but it starts to become one when a researcher mixes their own political views, values and emotional investment into the way they conduct research, and then uses that to strongly defend a position in front of another. They are not doing science at this point.
As messy and noisy as it is, science tries to be objective, with the ideal being the priority of understanding how things are or ruling out what is not. Whatever the implications of this discovery, others in society must overlay it with 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 is when scientists acting as advocates use science as a shield to hide behind so they can safely say that the claims they are making are objective. Perhaps they do this inadvertently or perhaps knowingly; 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 labors under this illusion. What we have is an impasse. The problem is that science depends on challenge and criticism to self-correct and improve, and this 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 worth repeating. The problems highlighted here have not gone away, which means that whatever processes are in place to deal with them are not working and may instead be encouraging them to happen more.
There is a message for all of us: no one is immune to the illusion of objectivity, and for scientists it is especially harmful.