Friday, October 24, 2008

Objectivity: The Impossible Goal

This is the second part of a series on Objectivity and Truth in Political Science

While individual scientists may strive for objectivity in order to remove as much bias from the experimental process as possible, the social and subjective system of academia through which this information is supported, filtered, and disseminated is a way that it uses yesterday’s mistakes, injects today’s prejudices, and generates tomorrow’s “facts”(Feyerabend, Against Method, 1979). For the hard sciences, there are a set of facts that remain constant and are considered knowledge by the science community because they are testable and replicable in any high school science classroom: sodium and chloride will bond to make salt, a dropped object will move downwards at a predictable rate. There is a strong understanding of certain phenomenon and the natural world through the current paradigm (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 1996). The more concrete the subject matter, the more ‘objective’ individual experimenters can be and the more reliable and replicable their findings are. For these concrete types of problems and experiments, objectivity is believed to be obtainable by individual scientists.

When culture becomes the subject onto which the scientist applies his analytic eye, the ability to take an objective position becomes more difficult for the researcher. Kuhn argues that “no natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief” (Kuhn, 16-17). These beliefs Kuhn is talking about stem from cultures and society both within and without of the scientific realm. “Our place in society causes us to believe certain things, and even convinces us that those things are objectively true“ (Ricci, The Tragedy of Political Science, 1984). We cannot explain phenomenon without previous knowledge and beliefs which can often be implicit or impossible to address from the prospective of someone inside the culture. This inability of separate ingrained beliefs about society leaves individuals in the soft sciences particularly impotent to make claims objectively.

Not only is the individual less able to view a subject matter objectively, due to a blindness of many of his own preconceptions and assumptions, but the system and society within which he operates is unable to perform the check it is expected and required to do.
When political scholars work together, the facts they discover and the knowledge they transmit will almost inevitably, given the orthodoxies encouraged by organized endeavor, constitute a very special and perhaps dangerously incomplete version of the real world they are responsible for studying. (Ricci,10)

Given the grave responsibility of providing a “scientific” construction and understanding of reality which is then used as a way to justify certain policies, programs, and behaviors, scientists who study cultural phenomenon must be humble in what they can or cannot claim, lest their claims be used to justify and perpetuate common social transgressions of the time.

One of the most blatant examples of this failure to censor bad science and scholarship in the history of modern social science is Dr. Samuel George Morton who studied human skulls as a way to prove the superiority of Caucasians over blacks. Using a variety of measurements and methods, Morton "factually" proved that Caucasians were capable of a superior level of intelligence than blacks. His findings were peer reviewed and accepted by both the scientific community and society in general as truth. “Today, we recognize that Morton’s conclusions were totally false. Because of the influence of cultural bias, however, neither Morton, his fellow scientists, nor the general public at the time recognized that Morton’s work was badly flawed” (Brush, The Limitations of Scientific Truth, 2005). While one may argue that time is the great teacher that will illuminate these more difficult paths researchers attempt to traverse, John Stuart Mill argues that a commonly agreed upon mandate that is wrong “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (Mill, On Liberty, 1869). To preserve not only the integrity of science as well as how these findings are used, the scientist must always ask how and why certain research is popular and accepted. Care must be taken not to repeat history extreme caution used as science progresses forward in the pursuit and distribution of knowledge.

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