The science inside…

Research bloggingA 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.

So what of the balance between objectivity and subjectivity in the lab? The thing about research science is that, as I’m now very fond of mentioning, it is a toxic gas that expands to consume all available space. Research is heartfelt, driven by passion, and the desire for answers. It robs you of time with your friends, your family, your dinner and your sleep. Of course we feel possessive about our results. Late at night, when we ask ourselves what the hell we’re doing, we want our data to matter. Sometimes we’re happy that our data support the prevailing scientific consensus, other times they don’t. Tough.

If we see hints that we may have a paradigm shift (a change in the fundamental model of events) on our hands, then a sensible first approach is to assume that you’ve done something wrong, and repeat the experiments again, with more controls and more objectivity; doubt is ever the great driver. Objectivity requires that results and interpretations of experiments are not flavoured by the personality of the person performing the experiment, but one way to ensure that we have been successful in this endeavour is via the testability and repeatability of our work, by researchers with no common ‘subjective cultural’ background.

If you’re going to throw your life into the research, you may as well do it right and do it properly, otherwise it is a waste of life. So when people (and by people I mean readers of bunkum, or bad-science journalists) wonder why scientists get so uppity when their data are challenged, when presumably we should be robotic and unemotional about it, it’s because it is personal (remember, it cost time with friends, family, dinner and sleep). Any researcher worth their salt will have done the rounds with their data, tested an observation using sometimes three or more independent techniques and verified their findings with colleagues, the boss and finally conference delegates and peer-review. To do any less is to leave your research open to just the kind of criticism, and open doubt, that Pickering concludes.

There is an example of a social ‘lab study’ in the nanotech field, the focal discipline in this thesis paper, where external observation of clean-room behaviour identified bad practises that might lead to dust contamination. There is nothing wrong with seeking the ‘objective’ opinion of an external observer, in fact doing so might be said to be in-keeping with a rigorous scientific approach.

That scientists themselves might not realise that they’re not utilising best practise is a tricky question, because invariably they will have used a piece of equipment in a standardised manner, using appropriate controls, and thus any potential contamination becomes an experimental factor, a variable, that is addressed as part of the study. Simply modifying the procedure to circumvent one ‘objectively’ observed issue will simply change the methodology, which will likely throw up a whole new range of variables that will then have to be identified an addressed.

This is often the response I might expect when I point out one particular flaw in the design of a colleague’s methodology; yet if their results are viable, repeatable and make testable predictions that are also independently verifiable, then so be it. I’d only ask that they concede to my ‘objective’ opinion if they’ve been banging their head against a wall for 6 months.

So,

Does a person need to be entirely machine-like to be a good scientist? Can good science accommodate personalities that combine some objectivity, some creativity and some other virtues?

For my part, I say NO and YES, respectively, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone has another position.


Toumey, C. (2009). Science from the inside Nature Nanotechnology, 4 (9), 537-538 DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2009.245

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One thought on “The science inside…

  1. I think we need to go about dispelling the myth that we’re machine-like in the lab. I’ve worked with a good many machines, and useful as they are they’d be nothing without me – in scientific terms. Science simply isn’t possible without creativity.

    The individuals in the process don’t need to adhere to some idealised, pure objectivity – the physical world does that bit. Granted a degree of objectivity is helpful but ultimately there’s a limit to how long scientists will hold on to an idea which simply doesn’t work, and if an idea or data is useful multiple scientists will be trying it out or replicating it.

    The motto of the Royal Society: “Take nobody’s word for it”

    (Sorry – I’m vigorously agreeing with you there)

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