Friday, September 16, 2011

Scientific Objectivity versus Fear: An Opinion

Science is objective.  But scientists are people, and as such they can bend to their own politics and prejudices.  I bring this up because increasingly I read articles and see news stories where I question the objectivity of the scientists' results.  It's cynical, but I wonder how much their own beliefs affect their approach to a problem, and the way in which they present their findings.

Anytime you read something, you should approach it with a healthy dose of critical thinking.  Especially if it's something you read on the Internet.  But I've gone beyond skepticism to downright cynicism because I see so much of science has become politicized -- in other words, where you stand on the political spectrum determines your belief in a particular theory.

I worry that people bring such strong feelings about particular topics to work with them, that they've created an environment of fear where others are afraid to speak up.  An example of this is global warming. 

Now global warming (or climate change) really addresses two questions:  is it getting hotter? and is it getting hotter because of human activity?

These are worthwhile questions, well deserved of intense study.  But try having a friendly conversation about global warming with, well, anyone.  If you agree, the conversation ends immediately.  If you don't, it erupts into an argument.  And the argument is often more political than scientific.

I shudder when I read or hear the phrase, "The science is settled."  Really? I didn't think the science of anything was ever truly settled.  We can always learn more.  We used to think the smallest object was a molecule, then an atom, then the electrons and protons and neutrons inside the atom.  Now we have quarks and neutrinos and all sorts of particles that we didn't learn in school when I was a kid because we didn't know they existed.

Now I'm using global warming because it's a current example.  My own thoughts on the matter are not important.  My concern is that when a group says "the science is settled" and shouts down anyone who doesn't agree with them, free debate and critical inquiry are lost.

A friend of mine (who is a scientist) explained to me that there is often pressure for scientists to go along with the majority or risk losing funding on their projects.  Basically, if your boss sees something one way, and you see it the other way, why would they give you money to pursue your theory when they can spend it to reinforce theirs?

The problem is the possibility that the majority is wrong.  And even worse, that the freedom of inquiry in the minority is suppressed by the political views of their peers.  Whether I agree with a particular theory or not, I want the most accurate results scientists can provide.

With so much scientific funding tied to highly politicized universities and the profit-centered military/industrial complex, I don't see an easy solution.  One possibility is the patronage of the wealthy.  If a wealthy person gives money to a scientist without trying to control their results, we might have situations where science can be freely pursued.  And there will always be free-thinkers who work on their own in their garages and basements and on hillsides with their personal telescopes.

But for now, I find it hard to believe much of what I read on certain issues.  This is, of course, my opinion.  I support your right to think differently.

(The picture is of Sir Isaac Newton.  Sorry, I don't know who created it.  I found it on the Internet.)

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