dave ainsworth
san francisco, CA

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Science Is Not Completely Blind

Yesterday, I pointed to an article about fraudulent science and observed that science is not blind. (This is not an isolated case -- check out Retraction Watch, a blog dedicated to such cases). All this goes to show that science is not blind to the subjective influence of scientists. Even when the data is completely accurate, that data must be interpreted.

Data taken from poll of 1,000 adults in 2011 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Data taken from poll of 1,000 adults in 2011 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Now, does that mean we cannot trust science at all? If science is not completely blind to bias, does it follow then that science must be completely blind to truth? If we're not careful, we'll read stories of scientific fraud and grant ourselves permission to dismiss any scientific finding we find distasteful. We throw out objectivity altogether and collapse science into ideology. This would be foolish. Why?

We must remember that there's a tremendous difference between saying that "Bad science is bad," and claiming that "All science is bad."

Carl Trueman makes this point in his book on historical method, Histories and Fallacies. The first chapter is on postmodernism and Holocaust Denial. A postmodern view of history would say that all history is biased. And if it is all biased, then either none of it is trustworthy or, more likely, all of it is equally trustworthy. No history is better than another history. Truthfulness cannot be ascertained, so we must judge history based on aesthetics and ethics.

To test this philosophy, he looks at an extreme example. Is Holocaust Denial legitimate history, worthy to be set on alongside conventional views of the Holocaust? For the majority of us, Holocaust Denial is certainly distasteful and morally suspect, but that's besides the point. Can we say with confidence that it's untrue? How? It's a great chapter, especially given the increasing influence of conspiracy theories in American culture. 

It's a Conspiracy! Quick. Somebody make a YouTube Video about it.

It's a Conspiracy! Quick. Somebody make a YouTube Video about it.

To decide between good history and bad history, Trueman argues that we must discern  between historical ideology and historical method.

...good historians can appreciate and interact with others who operate from different theoretical positions. I can read feminist, Marxist, and structuralist works and find them helpful and, indeed, where necessary challenge their findings because, by and large, good historians in these fields are committed to the same kind of methods of verification that I use. While those with different ideological frameworks may well disagree over whether some artifacts constitute evidence, or over the relative importance to be ascribed to certain mutually agreed pieces of evidence, there is in practice, if not total agreement, then at least substantial agreement among historians over what is and is not relevant. (55)
In actual fact, there is a remarkable consensus among practicing historians over what constitutes good method: verification, correlation of evidence, awareness of the strengths and limitations of different types of evidence, etc. Historians may, and do frequently, disagree over the significance of historical actions and events, but there is usually general agreement over the actual reality of such events. The Battle of Waterloo did happen, as did the Holocaust; but Elvis did not fake his death in 1977 in order to take up a job as a shelf stacker in Grand Haven, Michigan. (66)

Said another way, Trueman distinguishes between neutrality and objectivity. "No historian writes neutral history... This does not, however, require me to accept that all histories are equally valid or engage in the kind of naive posturing that equates "unbiased" with "objective." Objectivity is not neutrality." (65)

What Trueman argues about history is also applicable to science. Theory must be distinguished from method. Interpretation must be distinguished from facts. Good science can be distinguished from bad science.

If You Were the President, What Would You Do?

Science is Not Blind