Science and cultures/values
Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010
Sessions 1,2: Science and Culture/Values
- Is biology/science "objective", value-free, culture-independent, universal?
- Should it be?
- Is there a distinctive biology/science culture? set of values?
- Should there be?
"There is no position of Olympian neutrality" in medicine. Is there in science?
From forum discussion on session 1
I admitted in class that I am quick to judge and form opinions, and that is exactly what happened when the following question was posed: Is biology/science "objective", value-free, culture-independent, universal? Should it be? I immediately answered that “yes” it is and “yes” it should be. However, as the discussion evolved, I realized just how unclear the answer to this question really is.
I don't know what a doctor has to go through to remain neutral, but I think that going to a doctor means that you are putting your health in the hands of someone else.
it is important to clarify in exactly what content we are discussing the definition of a “fact”. A well-trained, professional, competent doctor in North America is taught by the American Medical Association to repeat the facts (that have been previously PROVEN) to a patient without bias.
when a doctor is advising a cancer patient as to alternative types of treatments, he will subconsciously emphasize those he thinks are best suitable. In this situation, he is clearly stating facts about the different types of treatment; however, his opinion is affecting his presentation of the types of treatment a patient may receive and how emphasis is imparted may make his opinion seem to be a fact.
it is impractical for a doctor to list every remedy ever theorized in an attempt to achieve neutrality (which may very well be unobtainable). While it is risky to accept something as fact, it is a risk we must take in order to function. Ultimately the goal is to treat the patient and in order to do that, we must accept certain things as fact and assume that the doctor is acting in the interest of the patient. As patients, it is our responsibility to realize that we are asking the doctor for a professional opinion, not neutrality.
facts are objectively true or false, depending on empirical evidence. Opinions are subjectively true or false, depending on personal experience. I think one of the places where we became confused yesterday is how to draw the line between subjectivity and objectivity. And I'm sure this will continue to confuse us. Realistically speaking, objectivity is not attainable and never will be, as is truth. Having said this, I realize I must now change my definitions of "facts" and "opinions", so I suppose that facts are less subjective than opinions. Perhaps facts are the most agreed upon subjective opinions?
While, in a perfect world, science should be an objective, value-free, and culture-independent method of investigation, in reality this is not possible. Whenever humans are involved, it is close to impossible for facts to be presented impartially, and once even a hint of personal opinion enters the equation, there is no longer any hope that a doctor or scientist can remain impartial.
Since there is no way to prove truth, anything that a scientist states as "fact" must be understood to be a belief that is accepted by the majority of scientists in that field based on their own values and biases. No matter how hard we, as scientists, try to objectively investigate the world around us, there will always be a subtle subjectivity.
Every individual has a unique set of experiences, outlook, or culture that shapes the way he/she thinks and perceives the world. As a result, I think it is impossible to totally remove aspects of "self" from science. However, I don't think this is a problem. I think differences between people can actually contribute to science. Because each individual has a unique perspective and a unique way of thinking we can have different methods of solving the same problem. This in turn allows for co-constructive inquiry between scientists and most likely a deeper understanding of the topic in question.
"We longed for a richer analysis embracing competing philosophies, political and economic pressures, and personal attitudes and prejudices, a history that suggested how scientific knowledge was created and accepted.
"Acceptance of religious truth involves surrender to authority or a leap into the arms of faith, while a scientific truth (or as Shapin would say, “whatever it is that counts as Truth in a range of historical settings”) is supposedly provable to reason, its results confirmed by experiment or calculation. But how have we learned, or been persuaded, to accept the “facts” presented to us as “true,” to regard science as a secular enlightenment, in contrast to the obscurantism of religion?
"Establishing credibility in any claim involves understanding the unspoken subtleties of social forms: what kind of person is a good witness, what language persuades and what affronts. With regard to a scientific claim, we have to accept not only the accuracy of a particular experiment, but the implied process of inference by which one experiment—whether it be on air pressure or drug efficacy—”stands for” a general phenomenon, becoming “a shorthand for the natural world.” We may be persuaded by the proven accuracy of earlier work or by the approval of peer review or known authorities, but we have also become increasingly aware that political or commercial considerations may slant one presentation above another.
"we accept “facts” as true when they are vouched for by people we trust in a given role, “teachers, professors, physicians, nurses, plumbers, mechanics, colleagues.” This openness to familiar voices also affects the exchange of information between scientific and technical groups, and between experts themselves, lowering the threshold of skepticism.
"all scientific work, in its many diverse aspects, is not only historically situated but also spatially located. This seems so obvious that one wonders why it should be worth discussing, yet the resistance to such historicism is astonishing. Scientific knowledge is commonly held to stand “outside of history.”
"Both Descartes and Robert Boyle insisted, if unconvincingly, that they were free of adherence to earlier authorities or to dogmatic positions. In addition, Boyle and his followers claimed that within the experimental community, which was “open to all,” it was possible to set aside partisan politics, class, and nationalism; in the search for truth all could be equal and united.
"an illusion as much in the Royal Society as in the nation. Once more, the quest for credibility involves manipulation of circumstance. The need for “trustworthy” members of the society to witness experimental findings immediately limited membership according to then-current dictates of social hierarchy
"we no longer believe scientists because we know them or have direct experience of their work. Instead “we believe them because of their visible display of the emblems of recognized expertise and because their claims are vouched for by other experts we do not know.”
"With the rise of professionals it became increasingly difficult to consider science as disinterested. The assumption of virtue faded with the secularization of the nineteenth century: if nature was no longer divine, a scientist could not claim a divine calling. The institutionalization of science in universities bolstered its scholarly credentials, but the incorporation of science into industry and government departments fostered suspicions that far from being “pure,” science was the lackey of Mammon."
A recent relevant article: Does your language shape how you think?
"The two researchers whose claims of injury led to a judge’s decision Monday to issue a preliminary injunction banning federal funding for the research using human embryonic stem cells, have a history of disputes with colleagues as well as ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research."
- the value of collective stories and of problem-solving - knowledge as context-dependent
- don't restrict observations?
- allow observations to influence values
Summary of session 2 (Dakota)
We actually started off our discussion this session with a point that we ended with two hours later. In recapping the previous blog posts, Professor Grobstein recounted one student’s definition of fact as the most agreed upon subjective opinion and another student’s belief that there is no such thing as an objective fact. From there, we briefly re-evaluated our opinions of doctors at which point someone noted that they now had more appreciation for doctors since they had to try and filter out all of their beliefs. In response to this comment, we reemphasized that it is impossible for a doctor to practice medicine without letting their beliefs shine through. While doctors can attempt to separate their religious and moral beliefs from the way they practice medicine, by practicing medicine, they are inherently letting their belief system impact the way they practice. Practicing western medicine means that the doctor’s belief in western medicine influences the way she/he practices medicine.
This prefaced our conversation on why we believe in the superiority of western medicine. The class agreed that we are biased as we have grown up with western medicine and have repeatedly seen it help heal those close to us. It takes a risk to believe in a fact and thus we are more inclined to take a risk on something, such as western medicine, which other people around us believe in. For us, western medicine seems to deliver the most consistent results and thus appears to be the safest bet. However, very few studies have been conducted to prove the superiority of western medicine as our society is reluctant to fund such studies that could dismantle one aspect of western supremacy. Even if the studies were conducted, there is no guarantee that they would be published. In defense of alternative medicine practices, it was noted that numerous western medicines are derived from herbs. At this point, one student wondered whether we were attacking America by questioning western medicine.
From here, our discussion transitioned to science and objectivity. The first question posed was why it is believed that science has a particular claim to fact. One student suggested this was so because science is repeatable. However, Professor Grobstein refuted this assessment by referencing monks’ claim that if you meditate at a high enough level, you will consistently see and feel the same thing. In contrasting the subjectivity of feelings to science, the concept of normal was mentioned. When asked to define normal, the class made it seem like this term’s definition depended on the context. In the context of science, we defined normal as healthy. When we were subsequently asked to define healthy, we could only come up with normal as our definition. It should be noted that this cyclical relationship between our understanding of these two words frustrated several members of the class.
In order to preserve the sanity of the class, we abandoned our attempt at defining normal and moved on to discussing the “seriously loopy scientific method.” In making sense of an original set of observations, we must make a prediction. If the new observation matches the prediction, it does not mean that our way of understanding things is the definitive answer as it only makes sense of all observations to date. This is where we discussed the contextual usefulness of past methods of understanding things, such as gravity. Gravity did not exist before Newton and it no longer exists today as Einstein disproved it. However, gravity is still a useful theory in certain contexts. We then discussed “the crack” which refers to what happens when the prediction made does not match the new observation. In this case, we need to come up with a new way of making sense of the original set of observations. Since there are an infinite number of ways to make sense of the observations, understanding is always going to be subjective as we must choose which option we will utilize in order to understand. We then connected our discussion to what was discussed the beginning of class by noting that objectivity isn’t the opposite of subjectivity, it’s what you aspire to when looking for the commonalities among subjectivity. Science is a commitment to finding these commonalities in subjectivity. Professor Grobstein ended the class by asking us to consider whether or not there are any distinctive values associated with science.