A THESIS in the current edition of Nature Nanotechnology addresses the tricky minefield of scientists’ objectivity; the premise being that, on the basis of several lab studies carried out by social scientists, science is more subjective than many scientists realise.
Such lab studies stem from the desire to understand the creation of scientific knowledge from within the scientific community, which is certainly a worthwhile subject of study, but then again, if you were to walk into an operating theatre halfway through a bowel resection, you might think they were actively butchering the poor patient. I would thus err on the side of caution before leaping to conclusions about the validity of science on the basis of such sociological discourses.
There is this rational scientific ideal where, in order to be as objective as possible, we withdraw from our personal identities (nationality, gender, religion), thus diminishing our individuality and, consequently, our subjectivity. This of course sounds like a lab full of robots, and frankly the idea of working in a lab with a bunch of emotionless, predictable automatons makes me shudder. Then again, some of us do, and I’d love to hear how that works out for those people.
The thesis cites two influential pieces of ‘lab studies’ literature, both within high-energy physics: on one side (in Beamtimes and Lifetimes, by Sharon Traweek), it was revealed that scientific culture was replete with subjective cultural values and practices, yet Traweek concluded that,
“good science can come from a lab even when various kinds of subjectivity are at work.“
On the other side (in Constructing Quarks, by Andrew Pickering), this is contrasted by the conclusion that the scientific culture was so far removed from the ‘ideal of pure objectivity’ that,
“the understanding of quarks developed by physicists was not to be believed because the science had been corrupted too much by non-scientific influences.“
Fortunately, the thesis continues, most lab studies are closer to Traweek’s than Pickering’s, yet despite the differences in their conclusions, both studies address a mild concern of subjective values and practises.
Read the rest of this entry »