06 April 2010

Objective reality and science

No one would deny the utility of science in creating more effective medicines, more nutritious food, less polluting fuels and faster, more efficient communication systems. But to achieve such utility, it requires researchers, designers, engineers and manufacturers to recognise the objective laws of nature (in physics, chemistry, biology etc) and work within their limits. Would you fly in a plane designed and built by folks who reject the physical laws of aerodynamics? Or take medication prescribed by someone who is totally ignorant of human physiology or pharmaceutical chemistry? Yet when scientists declare that an objective reality – independent of our subjective selves and our culture – exists, and that the scientific method is to date the most accurate way to discover the facts – truths – of this objective reality, they are accused by non-scientists (and amazingly, even some scientists, as we shall see below) of being needlessly provocative and egotistic.

Paul Grobstein, a biology professor, is one of those in the science community who is actually skeptical of science’s claims to objective truth. In his criticism of physicist Steven Weinberg’s article ‘Sokal’s Hoax’ (1996), which was both a defense of objective science and an attack on relativist and postmodernist conceptions of 'objectivity', 'reality', 'truth' and 'science', Grobstein writes:

Science and humanity can both be perfectly healthy without Weinberg's "objective reality of science". Indeed, both can probably be healthier without it, since the phrase triggers an appropriate but unnecessary deep suspicion of and hostility toward science from non-scientists, who quite legitimately challenge the claim that scientists have privileged access to understanding and reality.

Is Grobstein really suggesting that we should avoid promoting the ‘objective reality of science’ because it might offend some people? And scientifically ignorant people at that! It is obscene to argue that science, an impartial tool for discovering knowledge, should be muzzled in the interest of political correctness. While the basic human right to disagree allows the scientifically illiterate, the pretentious, the insecure and the politically motivated person to ‘legitimately challenge’ scientists’ claims to objective knowledge, it doesn’t make their position any less ridiculous. The so-called ‘privileged’ access to understanding and reality that Grobstein objects to is not some undeserved perk or self-awarded prerogative. There is no conspiracy among scientists to shut out the dumb masses from the hallowed halls of enlightenment. Science is a demanding field that requires years of intensive study, rigorous research and constant vigilance against preconceived biases and human error. Scientists count among their number many brilliant, hardworking, dedicated men and women who have earned their access to knowledge of nature’s laws. To paint their hard-won achievements as some sort of elitist injustice inflicted upon the common people is shamelessly cynical. The fact that it is a fellow scientist showing such cynicism smacks of betrayal.

Grobstein believes that “neither neutrality nor external reality are concepts essential to… legitimize scientific understanding” and that “the validation of [science] derives instead from the increasing breadth of observations effectively summarized as time goes on.” As a method to validate science, this is a half-measure at best, for it doesn’t address the nature or quality of those observations. If, as Grobstein argues, neither neutrality nor external reality are essential to the observation and interpretation process, does this mean that scientists are free to allow their unconscious prejudices, political agendas and personal preferences to influence their results? I doubt Grobstein would say ‘yes’.

Grobstein comes across as a postmodernist apologist who holds the contradictory view that science can remain rigorous even after discarding the basic concepts that support its rigour in the first place. To him, both neutrality and external reality are “concepts which arose from science itself, concepts which may or may not prove of continuing usefulness as the ongoing process of summarizing observations and testing those summaries continues.” I don’t think there are many scientists who have as low a regard for impartial, objective reality as Professor Grobstein clearly has.

Of course, the objectivity of science is affected by the subjectivity of culture. Any honest scientist will acknowledge that the practice of science isn’t divorced from the culture it takes place in. An obvious example is the language of communication and the ambiguity that can sometimes come with it. Terms like 'theory', 'hypothesis', 'energy', 'entropy', 'force' and so forth, while common in scientific discourse, can be misinterpreted by non-scientists who use these words in different ways. To avoid confusion and misunderstanding – along with the hostility that can arise from such – there needs to be a greater awareness among laypeople of the specific meanings of such terms when used in a scientific context. When the average Jane realizes that the word ‘theory’, when applied to ideas like Einstein’s theory of relativity or the theory of evolution, implies far more rigour and evidence than when she talks about, say, her theory that all governments are corrupt, we would have made some progress towards clarity. At the very least, we would have fewer creationists dismissing the theory of evolution as being ‘only’ a theory.

With clearly defined language, it becomes harder for relativists and postmodernists to subvert scientific terms by deliberately misinterpreting such words in their critiques of science. Linguistic abuse and conceptual obfuscation are the weapons that many non-scientists use in their fight to dethrone the ‘pompous’, ‘arrogant’, ‘self-satisfied’ scientists, who dare to claim that there is an external, objective world that pre-exists us, a reality that we can come to know through performing empirical studies and deploying clear, precise language. I will close, perhaps appropriately, with a passage from Steven Wienberg’s essay, which Paul Grobstein criticized:

Our civilization has been powerfully affected by the discovery that nature is strictly governed by impersonal laws. As an example I like to quote the remark of Hugh Trevor-Roper, that one of the early effects of this discovery was to reduce the enthusiasm for burning witches. We will need to confirm and strengthen the vision of a rationally understandable world to guard us from the irrationalities that still beset humanity.


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