Science has no boast if not objective. It is objectivity that supposedly sets science apart from all other modes of inquiry: following a “scientific method” that guarantees objective truth about the natural world. Results are reported in peer-reviewed journals that weed out mistaken ideas. After publication, other scientists can replicate any published results, making science a self-correcting process that refines its objectivity over time. Most insiders and philosophers know that the picture is highly flawed, but the vision persists that science is objective. Recent articles raise awareness of some of the problems with the portrayal of scientific objectivity.
Fiery Feyerabend: Paul Feyerabend was a fiery philosopher of science who fiercely attacked the concept of scientific objectivity. He died in 1994, but a new anthology of his writings has come out, The Tyranny of Science, Oberheim E, editor (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011). Two reviews were published in PLoS Biology earlier this month (Ian Kidd, Axel Meyer). Although both reviewers think his reputation for the “worst enemy of science” is overblown, there is no question Feyerabend warned of treating science as an objective process. He worried that it could be a threat to democracy – an elitist society unanswerable to the people. Meyer quoted him saying, “The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.” Many regard his views as extreme, but Feyerabend did raise a number of issues that are still taken seriously. Kidd, commenting on the 1990s debates about objectivity vs constructivism (the idea that science “constructs” reality rather than “discovering” it), remarked that “There is some truth to such charges” as Feyerabend raised.
Consensus bashing: In Nature earlier this month (published online 5 October 2011 | Nature 478, 7 (2011) | doi:10.1038/478007a), a headline read, “The voice of science: let’s agree to disagree.” Subtitle: “Consensus reports are the bedrock of science-based policy-making. But disagreement and arguments are more useful, says Daniel Sarewitz.” That represents severe erosion of the bedrock. His first line: “When scientists wish to speak with one voice, they typically do so in a most unscientific way: the consensus report.” Sharing recent examples of the politics that stifle minority opinions, Sarewitz advised more debate and less consensus. For example, “much of what is most interesting about a subject gets left out of the final report.” Take-home paragraph:….
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