On Scientific Objectivity

What makes us think that science is “objective”? Steve Heims, in a 1980 book, put it nicely:

“The ethos of science rests on two pillars, the politically useful myth of “value neutrality” and the article of faith most conducive to the growth of scientific bureaucracy, namely, that scientific innovations (“progress” ) and science-based technological innovations are a priori beneficial. While these two pillars clearly knock against each other, they continue to hold up the practice of science.”

This is not to say that we should ignore facts, as this administration is wont to do, but that we should recognize that our values inform how we select topics.

Author: Mike Maltz

Michael D. Maltz is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice and of Information and Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently an adjunct professor of sociology at the Ohio State University His formal training is in electrical engineering (BEE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1959; MS & PhD Stanford University, 1961, 1963), and he spent seven years in that field. He then joined the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now National Institute of Justice), where he became a criminologist of sorts. After three years with NIJ, he spent thirty years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time he was a part-time Visiting Fellow at the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Maltz is the author of Recidivism, coauthor of Mapping Crime in Its Community Setting, and coeditor of Envisioning Criminology.

13 thoughts on “On Scientific Objectivity”

  1. Stalin didn't understand that it's not even really about who counts the votes, it's about who picks the candidates.

  2. This post fails the ideological Turing test. No one who said science is "value neutral" thought topic choice is value neutral. Any argument that assumes Max Weber was dumber than the average undergrad probably has a flaw in it.

  3. There is no logical contradiction between thinking science tends to give a true, value-neutral picture of the world and that technology based on this picture tends to be effective at what it is designed to do. On the general realist-materialist world picture, that is because accurate representations tend to lead to accurate predictions. Effective technology will be "beneficial" to the extent that the purposes of the people designing and employing it are beneficial. Or course, accurate science also leads to more destructive weaponry, which of course implies that a dark age can be made more sinister and protracted by the lights of a perverted science.

    There is no contradiction here. Better postmodernists please!

    1. What is really offensive is the claim that it is an "article of faith" that technological innovations are "a priori" beneficial. I know techno-optimists. Some techno-optimists are friends of mine. I am willing to bet any amount of bitcoin that there is literally no one who knows what "a priori" means and thinks it applies to the proposition all technology is beneficial, and that was as true in 1980 as it is now.

  4. We think it tends more toward objectivity than other sources of opinion mainly because its web of ideas is pinned here and there by careful comparisons with observations, stiffened by some mathematical/logical connections, and repeatedly vetted by a competitive critical ethos. As to whether the results are on net good or bad, who the hell knows? Too early to tell.

  5. Who knew so many positivists hung out here? As a social "scientist," my view is this: There are things we can know objectively. There are things we can provide objective evidence about but can't support definitive conclusions. There are a lot of subjects about which very little can be objectively known and yet for which much research is out there in the world suggesting objective knowledge about the subject exists. All of these things are conflated under the label of "science" as the term is popularly understood. The last category is where "topic selection" becomes particularly problematic, although it can certainly affect all three.

    1. Throwing around "positivist" as a swearword doesn't mean you are making a sensible point. "Positivist" is a bit like "neoliberal": it means the person using it went to grad school, and doesn't understand what people who disagree with them actually think.

      All you said is that science doesn't know everything with perfect certainty. I happen to have zombie A J Ayer and Auguste Comte right here, and they both know that.

      You also fail the test of relevance. The Original Post claimed (a) that scientific facts are not "objective" in the sense of value neutral and (b) the conventional view that chemical reactions are either energy-producing or not and it doesn't depend on whether you like it that way is contradicted by the also-conventional view that technology is beneficial. It actually went further and claimed that there are people who think that technology is "a priori" beneficial, which zombie Ayer and Comte both tell me they never thought. But if we leave aside the stupid hyperbole, there is actually no contradiction because technical efficacy is perfectly compatible with value-neutral science. And of course topic selection isn't value neutral, but my zombie positivists never thought it was.

      All of this on a blog called "Same Facts" when there is a presidential administration committed to a populist war on scientific expertise. Sad!

      1. *Eyeroll*

        The point isn't that science doesn't know everything with perfect certainty. The point is that science thinks it knows a lot of things it doesn't know, and refuses to acknowledge that it can never possibly know many of the things it would like to know, and even some things that it currently claims to know.

        And I've been coming here a long time, and last I checked, posts that comment on themes closely related to the original post are kosher here even if they are not 100% on-topic.

        1. What can you possibly mean by "science thinks it knows a lot of things it doesn't know"? Science isn't a person. I am sure some scientists think they know things they don't know, although I am not sure they are any worse than anyone else on that score.

          Claims about what science can "never possibly know" come closer to at least having content. What kind of things? Kant obviously thought he could figure that out, but Hegel pointed out that requires somehow thinking both sides of the limit. That being said, I am sympathetic to the idea that there are important things science (in the modern, English-speaking sense) cannot know.

          What annoys me is the cheap 1980s post-modernism that Heims was selling, since it is a direct line from there to the Trump presidency.

  6. There is a moment in “My Dinner with Andre” in which Wallace Shawn, having listened to Andre Gregory go on and on about how reality has no limits, gets fed up and says, ”In the Middle Ages, before the arrival of scientific thinking as we know it today, well, people could believe anything. Anything could be true: the statue of the Virgin Mary could speak, or bleed, or whatever it was. But the wonderful thing that happened was that then in the development of science in the western world, well, certain things did come slowly to be known, and understood. I mean, you know, obviously all ideas in science are constantly being revised; I mean, that’s the whole point. But we do at least know that the universe has some shape, and order, and that, you know, trees do not turn into people, or goddesses. And they’re very good reasons why they don’t, and you can’t just believe absolutely anything! “

    It is indeed known that trees do not turn into people. Because they don't. Science can explain the reasons. It does not depend on how you look at it. Science actually knows some things and can explain why they are true.

  7. I've been coming here a long time, and last I checked, posts that comment on themes closely related to the original post are kosher here even if they are not 100% on-topic.

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