Scientific Subjectivity: Bias, Evolution, and Astrophysics


(system) #1

My father and I had an intriguing discussion this evening which began at the discussion of black holes, Hawking, astrophysics, etc. We'd talked about this several months ago, when he expressed his skepticism of cutting-edge, "theoretical physics" by saying "they end up manipulating the observations to fit the mathematical model we have." It's backwards from the classical scientific approach of observation-first.

A few weeks before that I'd written the following:

"My new Bible is physics. You want absolute truth, secrets about our universe which are mysterious and transcendent and affect our daily lives? That, my friend, is physics." -- 25 February, 2008

Irony. So of course I intuitively recoil at his blanket criticism of modern trends in science. Luckily he did not single out general relativity or microwave background radiation -- two models I have a semblance of comprehension for -- and stuck with the more presumptions and complex predictions of black holes and string theory. But still, I didn't know quite how to handle his direct accusation of the misdirected and biased nature of the scientific community at large. I was quite skeptical, and feeling a bit defensive.

Then he returned to his own domain. "The bulk of my experience with science is on the biological side," he said. That is were our discussion ended in March. This time, however, he continued. Back in his area of expertise, his arguments suddenly became more fully-featured, cogent, and arguable less reactionary. "There are 800,000 known species of insects in the world," he said. "That's more species than there are in the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom combined." He paused for effect. "We only know the life story of one tenth of one percent of them."

He proceeded to express frustration with the emphasis of current research being placed on re-classifying insects' evolutionary relationships by patterns in their mitochondrial DNA. Another example of seeking to fit data to a metanarrative which is taken for granted, no longer questioned. Too little focus on the present. "We're so interested in the history, and yet we haven't a clue what's going on in the world around us. It happened to me again last week: A researcher commented on a photo of an introduced species of moth I'd put up on Bug Guide which was far away from where it's supposed to live. He'd published a paper on it the week before on his three years of research -- three years in which he could only acquire 50 specimens. You know why? Because nobody cares about the menial task of documenting and recording. It's no longer novel, and interest has worn off. Science moved on before the task was done. There are no systems in place in our country today to detect changes or migrations in the distribution of insects -- despite all the worry about global warming."

I do not have the requisite perspective to know if this is all a straw man. I know my father is a creationist, which is heavily related to his distaste for the emphasis Biology texts place on the Darwinian metanarrative. After listening for a while, however, my hesitation subsided and I began to see value in what he was saying. Of course movements in the scientific community are trend based, self-propelling, etc. Yes, science is all about free thought and objectivity, but that doesn't mean things are obvious. The data can be very opaque at times.

"Science is like a religion," he said, "when a new religion begins... There was a time when Science was new, energetic, and everything was a novel exploration, as it is with everything until..." he paused to collect his thoughts. "Until it becomes dogmatic?" I offered, drawing analogies to Christian history in my mind. He hesitated at the "d" word, but responded affirmatively. "That's a good way of putting it.

Later I followed this up with the observation that "[naturally] it has to be a cultural thing. Of course you're influenced by what you are taught -- it's impossible to hold all the data in your mind at once. The flaws in the metanarrative are not obvious, especially when it comes to the big ideas like the big bang or evolution." "The limitations on the human mind put a damper on things," Dad added.

So, in summary, am I convinced that astrophysics or biology research has a fundamental misalignment in its value system or objectivity of agenda? Not hardly. But I did come to some sort of ineffable epiphany before our conversation tangented to the discussion of neural networks, telomeres, French summer school, and my new girlfriend. I may think twice next time I impose a metanarrical explanation upon a reality that I do not fully understand.

And yet this puts us at odds with the likes of David Sloan Wilson, who writes disappointedly in his popular book that

"Rejection of evolution extends to... the constant refrain that evolution is 'just a theory.' "To make matters worse, most people who do accept evolutionary theory don't use it to undrstand the world around them." -- Wilson, Evolution for Everyone (2007), p. 2.

My father's complaint is precisely the opposite: that evolution is too accepted and permeates too deep into scientific perspective. Wilson advocates it as a metanarrative, Dad fears it is already too dogmatic. I see value in both positions. I am perturbed enough as it is when we don't prove a theorem in math class -- if we did not examine evidence in physics before we were told to believe in relativity, I would complain to the chair (Okay... I would at least be miffed). If biology texts always presuppose evolution, rather than build up to it, then I can sympathize with his discomfort, even for my lack of doubt.

But one cannot dismiss Wilson off-hand. He makes a few very powerful statements in the next chapter:

"Our hidden agendas need not be conscious. It's not as if we see the world clearly and then willfully distort it to serve our purposes. The world we see clearly has already been distorted by unconscious mental processes." -- Wilson, p. 13

"Even the most talented and open-minded scientists in these fields are handicapped by events that took place before they were born and became the basis of their disciplinary training... A theory is merely a way of organizing ideas that seem to make sense of the world." -- Wilson, p. 15, 16.

One's perception of an idea -- of what is true, good, useful, or fashionable -- is inextricably linked to one's experiences, which in turn consists largely of others' opinions. If a friend says programming in Lisp is cool, I will tend to agree with him -- my independent opinion immediately eclipsed by their apparent confidence and the urge to conform. If I'm told a teacher is poor, or a student annoying, or that smoking is disgusting, I will tend to agree. My internal objectivity is highly subjective to my social reality.

The same principles extend to academia. It takes a lot of study to gain anything resembling expertise in a given field. If I am told, as a student, that neural networks are all the rage, that nanotechnology is where the money is, or that bioinformatics has great potential, I believe it. Just like if I'm told that a certain historical philosophy gave rise to another or was evident in contemporary art, I must be inclined to believe it at least mostly, because I haven't the experience or the resources to verify it from primary sources.

As such, the world being too vast for objectivity, most of our knowledge and picture of reality -- our metanarrative -- comes from secondary sources. An insoluble paradox?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/951