As scientists, we often fall prey to our own prowess and sensibilities; the most stark example being our treatment of our own discipline. In an attempt to get to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we are extremely tempted to remove the blurry, fuzzy, problematic, erratic and extremely chaotic cloak it wears, and reduce the issue to only the components we see.
We then sometimes turn science into something clinical, irrefutable, and undeniable, we don't commit, we spread the sources, and we wait until the last possible moment to make a claim that is too bold for the watercooler. We need science to be objective, to be amoral, a social, a[insert-human-value-here], because science has to be true despite our humanity, not because of it.
The (obvious) case for objectivity
There is much appeal in the idea of an "ahuman" discipline. Mankind has always had a fascination with the truth; our religions, our systems of justice, and our relationships all gravitate around this elusive concept.
We care about objectivity because we care about the world we live in. We are tasked to safeguard and validate information and by correctly doing so, we are the architects for the intellectual framework upon which future generations will expand.
The case for objectivity is simple: if we are responsible for the knowledge archive upon which the entire world is based, we want it to be rooted in the cold, hard facts. We want it free from the biases that we tend to carry, but most of all, we want it to be fairly indisuputable.
But can we ever be truly objective?
Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space famously said:
"It is important for scientists to be aware of what our discoveries mean, socially and politically. It’s a noble goal that science should be apolitical, acultural, and asocial, but it can’t be, because it’s done by people who are all those things"
This is an argument I both agree and disagree with. Yes, people can't be apolitical, acultural and asocial. It is impossible, we are seeped in a cocktail of culture every singe day. We can't escape it and just by existing in it we contribute to it. So looks like Mae is onto something: you and I can't flip a switch and turn off our disposition.
But that doesn't mean that we can't create something that can.
Research shows that while we may not be extremely rational individually, we can create systems and coalitions of multiple people that can increase the group's collective rationality and objectivity. It's how committees, groups, and assemblies can make more holistic decisions compared to an individual. Now, there are other factors that can inhibit rational thought in groups, but for the most part, groups are much more effective at seeing multiple angles of a situation compared to an individual. Especially if we create a collective system with the goal to increase objectivity, such as think tanks or search teams, we are more likely to reach the objectivity goal, as opposed to if we just left the responsibility to an individual.
Therefore, there are ways to bring subjective human beings closer and closer to an objective outcome if we bring them together into a targeted group and put in the right checks and balances.
We also have the capacity to have another kind of system, a non-human system, that can help us get closer to objective outcomes. This is the machine system. Computing is rapidly accelerating toward an incredible level of sophistication, especially in the fields of optimization and decision-making. If we put in the right parameters of objectivity into our code, we can restrict the outcomes of our process to strictly objective results. You can write code that can check for errors, detect repetition or large logic jumps. Code doesn't have emotions. A computer knows only what you give it, it is not governed by the instinct that makes humans subjective. It doesn't have any predisposition, prejudice, or pride. A computer wil work only through its instructions. If we instruct it to produce results consequenced only by parameters of objectivity (likely decided by and agreed upon by a group system like the one we just talked about), it cannot forgo those instructions in favor of its mood, ideals, or morals.
Thus, even though we are very subjective creatures, we have the capacity to create collective and mechanistic systems that can help us reach objectivity, despite our sensibilities.
What does objectivity do?
Now that we know that it is possible to be objective through systems. We need to ask, what does that objectivity do? Since we have codified and systemized objectivity, what do those results look like? The fundamental question is this: once we have objective results, are they good enough?
For example, one way we have codified objectivity is through the scientific method. Let us look at the agreed upon criteria in order for an inquiry to be objective and scientifically sound; it must meet the following criteria:
- The question must be known (i.e. we must know what we are looking for before we go finding the answer)
- You must engage this question by utilizing resources and time and make observations in the domain you are seeking information about
- You must form some sort of exploratory hypothesis about the phenomenon
- You must design an experiment that can appropriately test this hypothesis. This experiment must be repeatable by other scientists so they can reproduce your work.
- You must analyze and interpret the data to form a conclusion
- You must publish these insights in a peer-reviewed fashion, so through a leading journal.
- You must repeat your experiment or re-test it, or have others reproduce it.
Upon concluding these steps, and only upon concluding these steps, are you considered a credible scientist with an effectively objective and rational body of scientific work.
However, there is a bit of a problem with the scientific method, and it is that it shows you only the fraction of knowledge that is consistent with the scientific method. It filters out any body of information that does not comply with its parameters, and while a lot of times that means tossing away non-objective data, it also means not considering data that is factual and true but is inconsistent with the scientific method or is unable to be produced under its conditions.
This is one important problem with our view of objectivity. Much of science does not fall into the neat container of objective thought. When we attempt to filter the fuzzy from the facts, we also reject fuzzy facts. And almost all science is fuzzy.
For example, much of science is "stumbled upon", what that means is you observe a phenomenon and go: "Hmm, that's weird why is that happening?". We also often do not know exactly what we are looking for, but we want to see what we can find. We want to say "I want to observe the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa and see what interesting behavioral patterns emerge". But this isn't consistent with the scientific method. You need to know what you are looking for, but honestly, too much of the time, we don't. And this isn't a bad thing. But by the standards of the scientific method, it could be considered "un-objective".
On a similar note, in order for science to be repeatable one must be able to re-create the conditions in which you developed the experiment. It becomes difficult to replicate an experiment if you were operating under rare conditions.
Science is also not just about observable facts, it is just as much motivated by the search for knowledge, truth, and creatively thinking about phenomenon that we haven't been able to observe yet. It is about musing, contemplating, searching and aggresively pursuing what we have not yet been able to pursue.
The creativity of scientific thought is as important to the profession as the indulging of the scientific method. But when we think about the hardened objectivity of science, we forget its brother.
When talking about objectivity and science, we applaud our relentless rigor in the pursuit of facts, but we never talk about the pursuit of potential facts.
The pursuit of potential facts
"Science is the pursuit of facts; the pursuit of potential facts falls to the humanities". This is what I always assumed about the scientific discipline. The little room science has for conjecture and theorizing is reserved for those people that earned the right to do so by spending their lives and careers proving that they knew how to detect and study the facts. Beginning at the peak of their career, every scientist becomes a philosopher, and every philosopher a futurist.
In the uber-rationalization of society, we have reduced our love for the potential facts. Every scientific inquiry begins with this process of contemplation, imagination and bewilderment. We need to have a sense of innate curiosity and drive to even begin to try and understand the complexity of the world around us.
The quest for truth requires a decent bit of philosophy. Newton had to muse about the binding force of the universe before he decided upon the framework for gravity. He was fascinated always about the glue and bonds that tied the structure of our world together. He was constantly enamored by the forces around us. He was always in search of the potential facts that could explain how the world worked. Only through this pursuit for truth and knowledge, and only through the examination of many potential ideas that could be the truth, did he finally come upon a framework that worked: gravity. Before the scientific method, before experimentation, before even a hypothesis, he was visualizing the many different forms the bonds of the world could take.
This process is fundamental to good science. Our ability to detect and test phenomenon has historically always been far behind our ability to theorize and discover it. We have ideas about how black holes work yet we have never been to a black hole. We have entire volumes about the quantum nature of the world but we have not been able to create a simulation good enought to test it.
It is only through the pursuit of potential facts do the objective facts emerge.
How subjectivity helps science
Subjectivity is not only important to science, it is fundamental to it. Before the testing, the publishing, the replication, every scientist starts with his pursuit of potential facts. Before they have the ability to test their theory, they must first visualize it.
And how does one visualize anything?
One uses their imagination. And our imagination is an aggregate of our experiences, our sociality, our tendencies, our personality, our culture, our morals...Every piece of our imagination is carefully seeped in every shade of humanity. And it is through these connections that we devise our best ideas. In order to come up with novel and insightful trains of thought that could change the face of science, we need to desperately rely on our subjective humanity. It is the aggregate of our subjectivity that makes us better scientists.
Objectivity is a stereotype
We have shown two major faults of the glorification of objectivity:
- It is dismissive of perfectly good science that does not fall neatly into the scientific method or our measures of objective thought
- It is dismissive of the very subjective, very human inspiration that allows it to expand the field of scientific inquiry.
Our glorification of objectivity is also temperamental in another way: it assumes that two things cannot be true at once.
Objectivity kind of operates like a stereotype (in the psychological and social sense, not in the negative colloquial sense), it exists to make sense of the world it sees and refers to the attributes that people believe categorize a group. A stereotype is just a schema that we develop to describe something. Sometimes these stereotypes can be very very wrong (hence the colloquial aversion to stereotypes). And in general, we have an aversion to any singular descriptor of us, especially by race and ethnicity.
But the problem, the main problem, with stereotypes and schemas is best put by Chimamanda Adichie:
"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story"
Our world is more complicated than absolute fact. Science often is murky, fuzzy, and contradicts itself. It is extremely contextual, limited if not by our testing apparatus but also by the fact that we live on a planet with specfic properties. Science is not just one story, but in order to make science "objective", we think there must be one story.
In order for Einstein to make his theory of relativity work, he had to dismiss gravity, one of the most important concepts in physics. Some things have to be tossed out the window for new concepts to form. Other things have to be created in the right context. And more than one story can exist, can be correct, and can be the truth, at a time.
Science as a series of ammendments to human potential
There is nothing wrong with objectivity, and I am a huge fan. However, objectivity does not have to be at war with subjectivity. Science can be objective, but it also very important for it to honor the subjective and human potential that allows us to get to a valuable body of knowledge. The truth is out there, and it will be found through the co-creative process of both objective, and subjective science.
Science is also not as hardened as we assume it is. Science is a rough draft. Through new contexts, new minds, new instruments, and new ideas, we re-create and edit and evolve the body of scientific knowledge that we have amassed. We keep taking steps forward, but there will also always be a few steps back. We do not call the facts "Science", we call the process "Science". The critical and innovative thought processes and experimental proofs combine to create the emblem of Science. As scientists, we are constantly ammending, re-writting, drafting and revising the body of knowledge that demonstrates the potential of us and the world around us. We are correctors of the constitution that holds us together.
Our source of pride as scientists is not that we developed objective, unforgiving research that remains unchanged in the future, it is that we were scribes of the encyclopedia of mankind and the universe.