Friday, October 24, 2008

Identity and Science

This is the third part on a series about Objectivity and Truth in Political Science.

The issue of identity and power permeates science today: there is a questioning of who is doing science, what is deemed appropriate method for conducting science, and what topics are opening up to be studied. Political scientists must keep these issues in their minds at every step of the research process, from question forming to interviewing to the writing of findings as a way of buffering past legacies of injustice and prejudice to infiltrate today’s questions. Gender, class, and race have all recently been questioned not only in how they relate to the way in which science is conducted, but also at the very core of how we understand the world and each other.

One issue in science today is how to de-centralize traditional white male dominated scientific tradition with one that not only incorporates individuals of all races and genders into the field of science, but also shifts the institutional values to validate knowledge generated by critical processes of exploration and experimentation. Feminist scientists, like Ruth Hubbard and Evelyn Fox Keller, make the point that what is considered knowledge is determined by people in positions of power, historically, by men. They push for the incorporation of more feminine perspectives on and within science because not only can women do science as well as men, but also as outsiders they are able to cast a critical eye upon the institution of science in a way that men cannot. This incorporation of the outsider perspective cast upon the dominate group of power is echoed by hooks. bell hooks points out in her essay "Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination" that people in positions of power have the ability to change shift their paradigm to one that includes a more critical perspective of one’s self. She explains that once a white male in a position of power “shifts locations” he is able to “see the way in which whiteness acts to terrorize without seeing himself as bad”. Change is possible if people in positions of power are able to take a critical view of themselves through criticism cast from the outside.

Navigating these issues of identity within and without science requires more than trying to be politically correct by using the racial descriptor du jour or “she/he” –which is both grammatically incorrect and awkward to type/pronounce/read/write. These critical scientists place a higher value in localized information analyzed with passionate rationality rather than the cold gaze of attempted objectivity as a way of generating knowledge that is not only more equitable, but possibly the only honest form of fact-finding. This shift places emphasis upon qualitative research rather than quantitative research; it also places emphasis on local, small-scale theory rather than the broader generalizations so attractive for scientists to come up with. One attempt to move the political science field in this direction was the Perestroika movement that successfully shifted the focus of the American Political Science Association more towards qualitative research in some fashion. It is unclear whether this was the start or a ‘crisis’ or simply a fad incorporated into the predominant scientific culture as a way of pacifying dissidents.

Scientists must review their positions of power and how they view the world around them, as well as work to change how the world understands. Researchers cannot continue to propagate notions and practices that subjugate anyone not in an academic position of expertise as a second-class thinker. Hubbard recommends that scientists must insist on a change in the way science is taught and communicated to the public. This means a fundamental change in the textbooks, lectures, and laboratory exercises through which the public learns about science through which scientists learn their trade as a way of expanding the process of science and who is invited to participate in the process of knowledge generation.

By educating people about the process of how science is done and the fallacy of objectivity, people would then see the ‘facts’ generated by science not as hard truth to be adhered to at all costs but with the healthy skepticism and curiosity that defines the scientists themselves. Currently experts have the “decisive word, or at least a great deal of say, with regard to asserting what people should eat, what sort of housing they inhabit, how their children should be educated, how the country should be defended, what Washington should do about waste and pollution,” etc. (Ricci, 5). This is a great deal of power held in the hands and minds of scientists. This leads to the disempowerment of the individuals with every decision they no longer feel qualified to make. While division of labor is an important method to achieve progress through specialization, thinking and decision-making are two skills individuals should not depend upon others to do for them and which science needs to work to give back to the public.

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