Alex’s Heresies – embracing a physical reality

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Science and the Objectivity Myth Part 1

Atheist Presentation December 2011


Without doubt, the sciences are held as the epitome of rational knowledge-seeking in today’s industrialised and information world. Many sociologists argue that science has effectively replaced the pre-Reformation universal church as the central object of the public’s trust, respect, and awe, with some diminishing in recent times only. So, like the devoted of some 500 years ago, today’s public with little or no knowledge of the inner workings of science laboratories and organisations, effectively relies on blind faith in the ‘goodness’ of scientific progress. Fortunately, we feel vindicated with the regular flow of new technologies from smart mobile phones to 3D televisions. Sociologist Steve Fuller goes further to suggest “that our continuing faith in science in the face of its actual history is best understood as the secular residue of a religiously inspired belief in Divine Providence.”[1]

However despite its pre-eminence, science has and always has had its critics who seek to undermine claims of privileged access to universal knowledge about reality. Although traceable back to even ancient times, such as disputes between Plato, arguing for universal knowledge, and the Sophists, arguing for the particularities and contingencies of experience, my interest are in more recent times from the latter half of the twentieth century. Let us have a look at some interesting events.

Short History of Science and Its Critics

Thomas Kuhn

In 1962 Thomas Kuhn, scientist turned historian and philosopher of science, published his now-seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he compared scientific practices over time with the general perceptions of scientific history. Controversially, he rejected popular historical narratives of science as a progression of rationally-based knowledge, conducted by science heroes. Kuhn described scientific history as, in fact, long periods of normal or routine science, punctuated by major revolutions or shifts in our understandings. The existing mindset or paradigm, to use Kuhn’s term, would then be fully replaced, with the older one being seen as a quaint fiction. By paradigm, Kuhn included such things as generalisations e.g. laws of motion; metaphysical assumptions e.g. light as waves; values e.g. seeking simplicity; and exemplars e.g. paradigmatic textbook or laboratory examples and practices.

His work showed that popular writings of science history are so often just fictional reconstructions to explain today’s views and that past participants are re-interpreted with today’s motivations. We rarely speak of Newton’s alchemical research in the same breath as his work on physical motion, even though he spent more time on the former than the later and, we have every reason to believe Newton was similarly motivated for both types of research areas. Discarding previous paradigms as non-science and re-interpreting past people and events are often referred to the so-called ‘Whig’[2] history of science.

Kuhn saw normal science as periods of steady progress or ‘puzzle-solving’ contained within well-defined and relatively unchallenged limits of the prevailing paradigm. Research directions, experimental designs, theory proposals, corporate and government funding, and research observations are influenced by or, perhaps controlled by, the views of the time. Education and socialisation of incoming scientists guaranteed the on-going support for the prevailing views. Normal science is probably the stage we envisage when thinking of its activities.

However, as experimental anomalies mount (no longer able to be ignored or adjusted), some scientists, perhaps the less indoctrinated younger ones, conceive of different paradigms. I should note that this may not be a rational process as the underdetermination[3] principle often comes into play.   For some time, both paradigms co-exist until the newer one becomes the new orthodoxy. Scientists continuing to support the previous paradigm then become marginalised and separated from future funding. Even though Kuhn’s specific arguments have less force today, his overall observations are still seen as highly influential.

Another serious implication of Kuhn’s description of scientific history is that paradigms are incommensurable. Like philosopher Paul Feyerabend[4] some ten years before,[5] Kuhn claimed that the problems, concepts, and methods of one paradigm would seem incomprehensible when viewed from another. Einstein’s universe would seem incomprehensible in Newtonian terms. One outcome of this, mentioned previously, is to write fictitious scientific histories and to ascribe modern motives from the perspective of the current paradigm. As sociology lecturer, Sergio Sismondo says:  “Isaac Newton’s physics looks striking modern when rewritten for today’s textbooks, but looks much less so in its originally published form, even less so when the connections between it and Newton’s religious and alchemical research are drawn.[6]

A more serious attack from incommensurability is our inability to have any neutral language that can compare the effectiveness of different paradigms. If this is true, then we have no rational means, no reasoned way, of justifying the replacement of one paradigm with another. If it can be a matter of faith only, this is a serious indictment of the claim that science is a rational process. A useful insight from Ludwig Wittgenstein, later post-modernists, and language-games, is participants within a paradigm will “…create their own vocabularies by giving special meanings to ordinary terms and phrases.”[7]

Even though the most extreme implications of incommensurability have received little general support and even from Kuhn’s own later writings, the implications continue to be debated amongst philosophers, sociologists, and scientists. It may be that incommensurability is better characterised as incomplete communication or problems with translation between paradigms. In fact, given that a paradigm will usually share the resources – measuring equipment, experimental results, and the like – with the previous one at least during transition, does suggest the some capacity to relate, even if a common observations and measurements are recast into very different interpretations.

Finally, incommensurability may operate at a deeper, non-rational psychological level, similar to the so-called tacit knowledge acquisition of exemplars mention previously as a part of a paradigm. Philosopher Alexander Bird argues this perspective in his paper ‘Incommensurability Naturalized[8]. He develops a psychological view:

The key idea in what follows is that we all use in thinking various cognitive capacities and structures that have the following features: (i) they cannot be reduced to general, formal rules of reasoning (e.g. formal logic); (ii) their existence and the mechanism of their employment are typically unconscious, so that they are deployed in a manner that is akin to intuition—what I call a semi-intuitive manner; (iii) they are often acquired as a matter of practice and repeated exposure and practice, so that they have the character of skills. The sorts of skill or capacity I am referring to here include: mental schemata, analogical thinking, pattern recognition, quasi-intuitive inference.

Social History of the Pap Smear

In 1998 Monica Casper and Adele Clarke published a paper of the social history of the Pap Smear. Finally, another interesting example of the interdependency of social and empirical aspects of science is the history of the Pap smear, as described by a research paper by Monica Casper and Adele Clarke[9]. Over the twentieth century the Pap smear moved from general rejection by scientists as expensive and unreliable to almost a mandatory part of women’s health and that had more to do with social changes than with science. The changes came from an increase of women’s health priorities; use of cheaper female technicians to reduce processing costs; automation of record-keeping enabling large scale testing and analysis; and greater localisation and targeting of benchmarks rather using against strictly universal measures. Until very recently the science has not changed since its early rejections as unreliable.[10]


Biomedical Research Today – An Insider View

In June 2011, John Ioannidis, professor of medicine at Stanford University, wrote an opinion piece in Scientific American[11]provocatively titled An Epidemic of False Claims, on the endemic problems with today’s biomedical research. Ioannidis identified serious flaws in research practices, which he traces to meeting the public’s ever-increasing expectations; fragmentation of exponentially increasing research programs; and researcher conflicts of interest with meeting the demands of lucrative corporate funding and achieving personal successes through highly-visible publishing. This is all under the control of “the oligopoly of high-impact journals [that] also  …[have]…  a distorting effect on funding, academic careers and market shares”.

John Ioannidis’s observations belie simple claims of scientific objectivity. Contrary to the objectivist view of science, he identifies the following problems: (1) claims based on single studies, with replication being done only “sparingly and haphazardly”; (2) withholding research data for competitive financial reasons and so preventing replication studies; (3) selectively reporting research results for maximum impact; and (4) deliberately designing and reporting studies to produce most favourable outcomes for research and, by implication, for the financial backers.

Late 20th century – Three Separate Attacks

(1)    from conservative Christians who sought to challenge evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. Intelligent Design, a repackaged version of Creationism, was promoted as an alternate scientific explanation that should be taught in the public school biology classes. The Kitzmiller vs Dover trial was a famous rejection of that attempt by Judge Jones.

(2)    From the socialist left who claimed that science and scientists have become pawns of large industrial and military organisations, the so-called industrial-military complexes. Comment of book of science changes?

(3)    From a broad, disparate group of academics and intellectuals – sociologists, literary theorists, and some philosophers – who challenged even the possibility of universal knowledge.  They suggested that the sciences or historical research or capitalism (through globalisation) or religions for that matter are telling their stories or narratives, which Lyotard famously called ‘Grand Narratives’.  And, most importantly, there are alternative narratives, equally valid. Though having differing agendas, these critics saw these stories as essentially political or ideological. Science was portrayed as a Western ideological tool to colonise other cultures. This is the famous or perhaps infamous Post Modernism. It reached its academic Zenith in the late 20th century. Although waned now, our society has absorbed many of its ideas with the Internet science deniers and sceptics.

[1] Steve Fuller, Science, Acumen Publishing Limited, Durham, 2010, p. 1.

[2]The British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term “Whig history” in his small but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the King. The term has been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any teleological or goal-directed, hero-based, and trans-historical narrative.’ Quoted from Wikipedia

[3] Scientists often seek to explain empirical data with competing hypotheses. Quite commonly, many are equally capable of doing so and therefore are said to be underdetermined by the evidence. And, as a result, scientists have no logical way of conclusively selecting one over another.  Scientists must resort to other criteria.

[4] Feyerabend was a critic of the single scientific method claim.

[5]Although Feyerabend first used the term ‘incommensurable’ to describe successive fundamental scientific theories in 1962, he had developed his notion of the incommensurability of scientific theories more than ten years prior to the appearance of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).” Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene , “The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[6] Sergio Sismondo, An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies 2nd Edn., Blackwell Publishing Ltd, West Sussex,  2101, p.17

[8] “Incommensurability Naturalized” in Rethinking Scientific Change and Theory Comparison (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 255, eds LÃna Soler, Howard Sankey, and Paul Hoyningen-Huene) Dordrecht: Spinger (2007) 21–39.

[9] Monica J. Casper and Adele E. Clarke, Making the pap smear into the ‘right tool’ for the job: Cervical cancer screening in the USA, circa 1940-95, Social Studies of Science 28: 255-90, 1998

[10] Recent technical improvements to improve the pap smear do not affect the overall argument that the acceptance of the pap smear are from social changes rather than technical ones. Dorothy L. Rosenthal discusses recent technical improvements in: Dorothy L. Rosenthal, Automation and the Endangered Future of the Pap Test,

JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (1998) 90(10): 738-749 doi:10.1093/jnci/90.10.738

[11] John P. A. Ioannidis, An Epidemic of False Claims, Scientific American, June 2011, p. 8

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