Is Science a Special Interest?
Is science fatally biased? Does it actually constitute a partisan special interest? Should we rightly ignore scientific claims or dismiss them as pseudoscience or a hoax when they or their implications disagree with our political views or religious beliefs?
Not unless reality itself is a partisan special interest, not as I understand it, and I have over the years taken great pains to do just that — To understand science as best a layman can, if nothing else as an educational pursuit.
Science is far from solely the purview of academics, though like any learned skill, it takes training and experience to do well. But anytime you methodically try out an idea in the real world using some reliable observational method, employing these to reach a more accurate view of the outcome, then you’re doing science, even if you do it in a kitchen while microwaving different popcorn brands to compare their kernel popping rates rather than experimenting with test-tubes of exotic chemicals in a lab while wearing a respirator.
But because it’s done by people, and people are flawed, science is messy, imperfect, sometimes prone to error, and with regard to the context of discovery, culturally dependent. But it’s the process of justifying discoveries, not just making them, that best reflects the virtues of science, its universality in the process of testing our hypotheses to see if they really make the cut.
Discovery is all well and good, but a new idea, no matter how revolutionary, must be put to the test, or it is of no use. Science uses methods designed from the bottom up, confidently established by the repeated testing over centuries of accumulated experience to do what it does — to tell us how the natural world works — and it does this better than anything else to date.
It’s the process of justification more so than initial discovery that makes science progressive in its findings, ever closer getting us to a clearer picture of the world.
Science is not itself an ideology, or a belief system, or a philosophical position on the way things are, but is a set of methods, though far from pristine and perfect, the system of values, assumptions and techniques of which work very well when not hobbled by external ideological interference.
Most ideologies by their very nature do not lend themselves well to an objective search for truth, especially those whose doctrines favor, promote, nurture, and exploit the biases of their adherents, especially those whose doctrines involve some form of fact denial, or which fail to acknowledge established facts of human behavior — including the realities of human greed and selfishness…and altruism.
I’ve heard from people I know a view which I think is mistaken, that double-blinding an experiment or study is irrelevant when the researchers involved have a bias or vested interest in the outcome, such as the political or financial implications, of a study they are conducting.
The problem I have with this view, the reason I think it’s mistaken, is that it ignores the whole purpose of blinding studies in the first place, showing an unfortunate lack of understanding of what blinding is and why it’s done.
For those unfamiliar, double-blinding in a nutshell:
Double-blinding is a procedure that involves keeping certain key pieces of information out of the hands of both subjects and experimenters in a study. For instance, it would be used in a medical study testing the safety and effectiveness of a new drug on human patients, in which neither those in the test group nor the control group know which one they are in, and whether they’re taking the real drug or a placebo…
…and most importantly, neither do those directly conducting the study while it’s being carried out.
Because experimenter expectation and bias can unconsciously influence the results of such a study, through the interaction of patients and experimenters and subtle behavioral cues given out and not consciously noticed by either, double-blinding is an essential tool for sidestepping this problem by effectively taking it out of the picture.
Best of all, it works.
Merely criticizing a such a protocol as ineffective by cynically accusing those using it of a suspected vested interest or bias, when this is not only irrelevant to the method used but also not even established, sounds suspiciously like an ad hominem attack or a fallacious appeal to motive.
Sure, you could argue that a given study wasn’t properly blinded, but how would you know?
Without proper grounds from credible experts in that field who’ve looked at the study in question, you’d need the data and the expertise to understand it, full knowledge of scientific methodology, and of access to records of or even direct observation of the conduct of the study yourself before you can rightly make that argument.
In short, you need to have a basis for knowing what you’re talking about. Failing all else, you’d need to be an expert in the field yourself — not a likely prospect without training, knowledge background, and experience.
Any valid argument to that effect requires much more than suspicion of ideological interests, more than just allegations of academic misconduct supported only by, for example, hacked and stolen emails, possibly doctored and posted anonymously online without any real context.
If you don’t like the facts, however politically or theologically inconvenient, it does little good to attack the fact-finders…
…for doing so shows that you can’t tell science from politics or religion.
Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience & Reason, by Professor James Hall, via the Teaching Company, 2005
Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, by Steven Novella M.D. via the Teaching Company, 2012
Posted on Tuesday, 0:02, April 24, 2012, in Misunderstandings and tagged Blind experiment, Critical Thinking, Critical Thinking Skills, Ideology, Science in Society. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.