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  • Writer's pictureJude

Knowledge: Can scientific knowledge be objective in the sense of being free from bias?

The intention of Scientific knowledge aims at achieving some compatible truth, in a sense what we know about the workings of phenomenon is pieced together – hence it is claimed to make sense and also as truth by Science. However there is also intention of what the researchers wanted to prove; for example endeavouring to understand the effects of continuous intake of a type of food, the combinations, causes and eventual price of being unaware of what is occurring within our bodies. The researcher maybe swayed by personal bias overlooking actual results or tampering with the study in order to prove their point, those behind the research could indicate what they are looking for with these studies – and as a result we tend to claim scientific truth by what is reported. A question which rises in these studies is how bias works, and in this presentation I shall entertain the question; can this knowledge we find through science be claimed as unbiased even if there is an objective effort within the approach? I shall be referring to a few Philosophers who are interested on this subject in order to shape the presentation, concluding with my own reasoning of why it entirely cannot.

The first view I shall entertain is different from the main topic but relates as it discusses values and inquiry. Ernest Nagel discusses such in his article The Value-Orientated Bias of Social Inquiry, in which he discusses if social inquiry is always value orientated, how far does value free inquiry go and the bias behind any social inquiry. In brief summary, Nagel claims that what a scientist selects for study implies this research is important inherently for them. For instance: understanding a culture, which they may want to understand for Social purposes or surveying an occurrence within Society. He claims when a scientist determines his inquiry matters are paid attention to when they have a relation to his cultural values, or in general view. Hence it could still be claimed as objective. The morality of the findings also comes into question for the Scientist, yet Nagel states it is influenced by the Scientists own notion of it – and this judgement is advocated as social reform. E.g. Jamie Oliver’s School dinners. For Nagel the addition to such logic by criticism and competition to find out alternative studies can drive in the initial to become less bias whilst remaining objective. The general consensus after an understanding of it decides Society’s stance. He goes onto add that the distinction between the facts found and personal values when analysing Human behaviour can mix when the scientist is under influence of values. It seems Nagel is pointing out possible experimenter bias. In conclusion, Nagel believes value free social science is not possible as their values always enter the study. He dismisses that complete objectivity can be established in social science, as the weight of bias by value effects the outcome too much.

I found this idea relevant to Longino’s views in her paper Values and Objectivity as both highlight the influence upon objectivity. Longino differentiates between Positivists and Traditional Empiricists approach to objectivity within Science. Positivists maintain a biased approach to scientific discovery by context of discovery and logical context of justification. They cater to bias, as seeing biased beginnings in the original attempt at the hypothesis shows a problem has risen for someone who may be classed in some community – and others within that community may benefit from the endeavour. E.g. Those in an area battling drug addiction wanting to understand the science behind drugs to further their stance against it, or the science behind a drug to show the non-existent health risks to advocate their legalisation. As for the logical context of justification, that encourages the subjective questioning as empiricism is still needed to be objective. The Traditional Empiricists, Longino points out Kuhn, feel such an approach to objectivity is proven unsatisfactory historically. Kuhn sees science as adapting, in a sense that the concept is based around paradigms, regular occurrences of something, and is held for a period of time until irregularities occur. Progress is made understanding that new paradigm, and objectivity shifts with the science communities obsessions with these new occurrences. Longino utilises both approaches to provide her own, claiming both to be unsatisfactory.

Longino highlights the fact that we define science as a practice of inquiry, although it is not practiced by an unknowing individual who does not have scientific method – but social groups who make the inquiries. Scientists do not give birth to all ideas they end up researching, people in general education and give ideas to these Scientists to expand on in their inquiries. Hence Longino advocates the idea of “Big Science” – where an experiment is broken into parts, each of which are tackled by different individuals or groups of individuals. This ensures emendation and modification by those involved in Society, altering the findings to its cause guaranteeing the science remains objective. This is somewhat similar to Nagel’s idea of the morality bias in the scientist’s findings, as we all hold some form of morality that relates to each other. This sense of community by common ground would sway us to certain objective knowledge and how we interpret them. Repetitive examinations from different individuals who carry different values to confirm the same results, thoroughly researching in order to find this objectivity. Scrutiny also helps shape these findings, even when incorrect Science remains a field that encourages intense self-correcting. Longino claims the greater the number of different points of view included in a community, the more likely its scientific practices can be described as objective. She sees some standards must be met to achieve objectivity, for instance: recognising space for criticism. As Nagel suggested, bias toward a certain result or outcome would allow the scientist to seek an answer for such. Without criticism they would be free to make such judgements. Although if put in example, maybe a Communist criticising a Capitalists approach to setting up a Society could see them point out inconsistencies with an individual’s capacity to start out on a level playing field. In the same light, two polar opposites in ideology could criticise each other to shape a less biased view. She also highlights the science community as necessarily having to adapt around these new criticisms, as these critical discussions which take place must be sources of knowledge within textbooks etc. The spread of intellectual authority would not be lopsided in such a setup, there would be no dominance from communities that have their mind set on confirming one idea.

In her paper Gender and the Biological Sciences Kathleen Okruhlik expands on Longino’s ideas. She highlights a gender bias within scientific inquiry, which in turn effects the context of justification. The already established theories are utilised to further and create new ones in which she argues if the preceding are already sexist the theories that follow from its logic will be too. Hence the scientific method cannot entirely remove the gender bias by itself, even if approached rationally the way we approach discovery has already been impacted by the social factors of the bias. Similarly to Longino, she sees a change in approach within the Science community necessary for criticism from various viewpoints. By applying feminist concerns to Science this approach acknowledges gender doesn’t stifle the seriousness of criticism and the contribution to science by women. She also encourages women to work in Science and be credited for their works. Another point she makes is that a male dominated Science community could achieve equality by gender through research and structure without influencing sexism. Lastly she sees the contextual values influence the process of science and the social arrangements of the field should be addressed to assess this influence.

In conclusion I somewhat agree with Longino, the approach she advocates of utilising many to criticise and maximise the unbiased information gathered through scientific inquiry makes sense. Perspectivism in such a scenario would allow us to assess a lot more options. Nevertheless there are criticisms to be made here, which for me mostly arise when you put what is claimed in a realistic framework of Society. Okruhlik pointed out the role gender plays in scientific inquiry criticising its influence toward it. When putting Longino’s approach in a real World, the Science community would not be able to cooperate. We would over criticise and it will fall into fallacy of the elite passing judgement on information that affects us all. On the question of whether is knowledge can be objective whilst being free of bias, I disagree as I do not believe it can be evaded. For instance: the initial inquiry may have risen subjectively. Depending on what is researched you could claim the initial thought implies a bias. The example of differentiating Human beings into categories, like we see within Nazi Eugenics, Eugenics surrounding Black people in the past and so on. Thinking others of lesser Humans, the need to inquire to see if there really is difference as in contrast the researcher believed themselves or rather their people more intelligent or entitled than those they question. The acceptance or rather understanding of such knowledge spreads to those who, like Longino described, cannot conduct scientific inquiry to truly know and spot the differences science claims. Nevertheless, their value bias may encourage them to maintain what they want to. Many of the Nazi’s chose to believe themselves greater than the Jews, and whilst this includes the concepts of morality, injustice and so on – scientific knowledge is more often spread by the media. So the media also carry a bias that the science is propagated through. It does not make sense to me attempting to find something objective if it cannot pass through others without subjectivity and in turn bias playing some part. It makes more sense to appropriate some near objectivity, where constantly we are altering it with new findings in order to achieve the best result. E.g. we have cures for diseases, but they are gradual with medicine. Medicine improves and the old findings are less effective, there’s new objectivity in the science behind medicine now. To take it a step further we constantly look to progress it.

Whilst those in science communities communicate and understand these scientific languages and abided by its knowledge those who it effects do not entirely understand. Although, I do see some scientific endeavours as objective in the sense that most people want us to find answers to these occurrences without necessarily knowing the ideas within Science. E.g. A cure for cancer. However, I have witnessed debates where people claim that there is a cure for cancer but those who understand this utilise a cost benefit analysis approach to life it costs more to release such cures and save Human life than it does stringing them along with prescription drugs and treatments. It is profitable for us to suffer, cures may be hidden as the bias from those who receive pay for creation of alternative solutions of cures prevails in this instance.

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