(An 11 minute read)
Boyd Stace-Walters here. Worldly epistemologist, savvy logician, and adept philosopher of the sciences parachuting in from an undisclosed location and secret hideaway in academia to answer Mr. Bottomless Coffee’s excellent compound question, “How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?”
As it happens Mr. Bottomless Coffee, that question was the single most frequently asked question at the most recent party I was invited to back in ’96.
Admittedly, the reason it was the most asked question is because I got deliriously drunk on two two many glasses of the old bubbly and started asking it of all the guests. I was hallucinating they were graduate students, you see. But I’ve learned my lesson, and never again will I drink at my own wedding.
I should warn you before we begin, Mr. Bottomless Coffee, that you should secure yourself with a belt or rope to your chair, bed, or perhaps a handy pet, before we start because we are about to embark on a thrilling ride through the terrific House of Logic and Philosophy of the Sciences that even worldly epistemologists such as myself find as electrifying as standing bare-chested to the elements in a lightening storm.
Are the Sciences Biased?
With that said, I should first mention that the subject of bias in the sciences and among scientists is quite poorly understood among the general public these days. It appears some of that is due to Hollywood. Hollywood tends to portray the sciences as always reaching the best conclusions from the very start — and that’s simply not true.
In reality, the sciences are more like back and forth dialogs in which the best conclusion on any given issue is typically arrived at gradually — often over the course of generations — thus creating a palatable atmosphere of anticipation, Mr. Bottomless Coffee. A veritable palatable air. “What will Mr. Smirksons come up with next?” The suspense can damage a weaker man’s heart.
For instance, Mr. Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, but the “modern synthesis” of natural selection, population genetics, and Mendelian inheritance that forged our current understanding of evolution was not fully arrived at until the 1930s — over 70 years later.
In turn, some biologists and other scientists are now calling for a new synthesis based on relatively recently discovered facts. In short, the sciences are an on-going dialog, much like the two ducks currently quacking at each other in my university’s pond.
The tendency of those dialogs is to reach ever more substantiated truths, but by the very nature of humanity, we will never know whether we have reached the whole truth of any matter — for we humans will never know there is nothing more to learn about something. Even poets must recognize the truth of that, Mr. Bottomless Coffee. Even poets.
You ask how unbiased are the sciences? I take that, as you did, to be a separate question from how unbiased are the scientists themselves. When we speak of the sciences as being biased, we must look at the thrilling, most basic assumptions that all the sciences rest on.
The most fundamental assumptions are three in number. The first dates back 2,600 years to an ancient Greek named, Mr. Thales. Mr. Thales was the first person recorded to have proposed that all natural events have natural causes.
Currently, scientists are able to describe the effects of gravity in great detail, but exactly what gravity is remains elusive. Still, physics assumes there is an explanation for gravity that relies on natural causes, just as it assumes the same for everything else in nature.
This has a startling implication, Mr. Bottomless Coffee. Time to cinch the old belt. Make sure you’re firmly lashed to your chair, bed, couch, or dog. The notion that natural events have natural causes means it is not necessary (so far as science is concerned) to resort to supernatural explanations to explain natural things.
Perhaps you can imagine the outrage that assumption creates in some theistic corners! “Why you are doing away with God.”, they say. But to be precise, the sciences are not doing away with God, the sciences are merely asserting that they have not the epistemic power to investigate God. You see, therefore the sciences must remain agnostic on the matter of deity.
The second fundamental assumption of the sciences dates back 500 years to Mr. Galileo and is that the natural causes of things can be discovered using empirical evidence — that is, evidence from the natural world. This is where experimentation and observation are invited to the party. That is, empirical evidence is discovered through one, the other, or both of those methods.
Now a straight-forward implication of the second assumption is — once again — that the natural causes of things do not require supernatural explanations. Thus, the notion is reinforced.
The third and last fundamental assumption of the sciences is that there is consistency in the causes that operate in the natural world. That means two things here. First, that natural causes are predictable. For instance, natural selection doesn’t unpredictably operate one way ten thousand years ago and another way today, nor does it operated differently in Africa than it does in Asia, and nor does it unpredictably operate one way on lemurs and another way on cockroaches.
Second, the consistency principle means that the sciences assume what works here on our planet is or would work anywhere in the universe.
A strong implication here is that there are no miracles — there is no suspension of natural causes.
So the three fundamental assumptions of the sciences are (to recap):
- All natural events have natural causes.
- The natural causes of things can be discovered using empirical evidence.
- Natural causes are both predictable and universal.
In turn, these three assumptions most notably exclude two things near and dear to many of us:
- The notion there are supernatural causes that must be factored in to any comprehensive or complete explanation of natural events.
- The notion there are miracles.
I trust you are not yet emotionally exhausted by the thrills you have just experienced, and that we may safely proceed without worry the old ticker will give out on us.
Are Scientists Themselves Biased?
With that settled, let’s turn now to the question of whether scientists themselves are biased. Here again we must tackle Hollywood, for according to innumerable movies, scientists are less biased than normal people.
“Hooey! Hooey!” I say.
Please forgive me for becoming aroused. It is just that I am a man of nearly uncontrollable passions! Towering passions! The mere thought of such hooey often leads to spontaneous outbursts of impassioned speech such as you just witnessed. Excuse me for a moment while I reach for my smelling salts.
There! Much better now. The fact is, Mr. Bottomless Coffee, scientists are just as biased as any other humans. This has been proven in one case study after the next. Not only do they share many, if not all, of their culture’s biases, but they are also fully subject to the cognitive biases that all of us are subject to.
Many of these biases have been demonstrated to be innate — that is, rooted in our genes. We can perhaps train ourselves to ameliorate their ill effects on our thinking, but we can never guarantee that we are wholly free of them.
Now, if that were all there was to it, the sciences would be no more effective than any other means of inquiry. But the fact is, they exceed all other means that humans have ever devised. So why and how can they manage this if scientists themselves are no more nor no less biased than everyone else.
The secret is for each scientist in any given field to be pitted against all his or her fellow scientists in a battle to see who can produce more reliable results than the other fellow. Scientists as a group are intellectual fierce predators who know they can make a name for themselves by tearing down and replacing other scientist’s ideas. But what pits them against each other so ferociously?
Inter-subjective verification. The requirement for inter-subjective verification of all facts and conclusions. This is sometimes called “peer review”.
I have dealt with this topic recently in a guest post on this blog that can be found here. Inter-subjective verification is a dashingly handsome term for “verification by two or more people.” That’s all it means. But it has a huge influence on the sciences.
To be sure, it is not a strictly logical requirement of any scientific method. Rather it is a practical requirement. You would not get very far without it. Your findings and conclusions would easily slip into depraved delusions, due to your biases.
Ultimately, your findings and conclusions might even slip into poetry. You dare not risk that, hence the practical advisability of inter-subjective verification.
An implication of inter-subjective verification is that the sciences stick strictly to what can be empirically observed. Many people do not understand why the sciences cannot simply change their fundamental assumptions to include supernatural causes in explaining natural events.
Well, the reason is that supernatural causes cannot be inter-subjectively verified with any great degree of reliability.
To be sure, you might get two or three or more scientists to verify they observed a ghost creating the wailing sound that was heard in the old haunted house, but how likely are you to get a dozen or more from different labs and on different occasions verifying the same thing? Can you make a ghost — or any supernatural entity — appear at will?
The impossibility of reliably verifying supernatural causes means the sciences are required to stick with empirically verifiable causes. Does that mean supernatural entities such as gods do not exist? Of course not. But it does mean that investigating them is outside the scope of the sciences.
Inter-subjective verification basically amounts one scientist checking another’s work. The significance of this is clear to anyone who has noticed that we humans tend to be much better at finding errors in other people’s reasoning than in finding them in our own.
All of this ties into the sciences being dialogs, you see. Generally speaking, they begin with common cultural assumptions about the world. For instance, Darwin began with an assumption of his age: That women had weaker intellects than men. But over time, largely due to inter-subjective verification, the sciences tend to weed out one bias after another. The result is they approach closer and closer to wholly reliable facts and conclusions.
So there you have it in a nutshell. An answer to both your questions. I hope this has been helpful.
Yours in the Philosophy of the sciences,
Note from Paul: Mr. Bottomless Coffee’s thought-provoking blog can be found here.