Friday, October 30, 2009

On stepping back

We have often commented on what we call 'tribalism', or ideology as it applies to human affairs, science included. Some commenters on those posts, and generally, seem to infer that we are saying that science is not reality-grounded but is just an emotional club that defends its interests.

We sometimes get asked whether we 'believe' in evolution, or genes, or global warming, or religion -- and in fact belief is often the framework in which these issues are discussed. The implication is that because we try to step back and see how humans social structures work generally, and how that applies to science, we must not accept the findings of science.

Nothing could be further from the truth! Yet even an attempt to step back and try to be objective not about the facts or theories themselves, but about how we hold our views and why, seems to be a kind of heresy. That is exactly the point.

In any area about which we write (or about which you may read or in which you may work), we depend on others' ideas, statements, assertions, and work. No one of us knows very much about the actual data in genetics first hand; we learn most of what we know by reading of someone else's work (or from what we find in data bases on the web, but that we did not generate ourselves). Even our own data were produced by a group of technicians, students, and collaborators.

This means that much of science, no matter how it may have objective aspects, is a subjective decision on each of our parts as to what work we accept and why. Who do we trust?

This is a serious question when it's clear that scientists, like others, defend points of view (not to mention vested interests such as their grant base, their tenure, their reputations, &c). It doesn't mean that the DNA sequence I publish is false or made-up. But there may be mistakes: DNA sequencers do make errors. Or I may make assertions about them that go beyond the data and I may know enough about the data to color my analysis in ways that you would have a hard time disentangling, unless you're also an expert.

The struggle in science to be objective, which most of us are engaged in, does not mean that we are fully objective. But it can mean that we tend to believe our own kind of evidence rather than someone else's.

So, yes, we may be predisposed to believe that evolution is a history of life on earth, with genes as important central causal elements. We may believe that the wisest thing is to accept the evidence that major global climate changes are due in large part to human activities that for our future's sake should be changed. And we may not accept the evidence advanced for many kinds of religious claims.

But these are personal judgments. They'll be smiled upon by others with the same beliefs, but not by those with other beliefs. Thus, our circumspection about some kinds of genetics such as the heavy investment in biobanks or GWAS studies, is approved by a minority of people who agree with us, and denigrated (or, mainly, ignored) by others who either are vested in those approaches or who, for whatever reason, think they are good things to be doing.

Understanding a particular science, like genetics, evolution, or developmental biology, is to understand a subset of knowledge gained largely through methods for collecting and analyzing it. But it doesn't remove that activity from the elements that are part of human social behavior. And from time to time in these posts, that is what we are trying to understand.

Stepping back to attempt to do this doesn't imply (or not imply) a particular position that we may personally take on the subject matter at hand.


Fixed Carbon said...

Ken: Apropos, have you had a chance to read "Objectivity" by Daston and Galison?

Ken Weiss said...

No. Do you recommend it?

Fixed Carbon said...

Ken: Superb. You can read some good reviews of it at

Daston's Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective, will get you started with this line of thought, which seems to me what you are aiming at with your posts.

Daston L Social Studies of Science, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 1992), 597-618.

You also might like Nagel's The View from Nowhere, another classic in this literature.

Arjun said...

Another thoughtful (though subversive) meditation on our investigations into and interpretations of the nature of the observable universe can be found in Stanislaw Lem's _Solaris,_ which documents a fictional scenario in which humanity has encountered what appears to be a planet consisting of a sentient Ocean (the titular Solaris) and which remains incomprehensible despite all valiant attempts at scientific analysis.

This of course hasn't stopped us from inventing a new field, 'Solaristics,' devoted to this very task.

In Lem's own words he seeks to accomplish the following with his novel:

"Summing up, as Solaris' author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space."

I'd include a direct quote from the book if not for this comment-box's inability to accommodate pasted items.

Beware, however, that the ONLY available English translation is a translation from a French translation from the original Polish. That said, I've learned that the English edition IS mostly faithful to the original's content.

Arjun said...

Reading _Solaris_ has also reminded me strongly of our forays into characterizing and understanding 'complexity.'

Anne Buchanan said...

Fixed Carbon, thanks for the suggestions. And Arjun, Solaris is now on my reading list. It sounds exactly pertinent. Yes, hard to stop seeing these issues everywhere once you get started.

(And in a housekeeping note, it seems to be possible to select and drag from Word or equivalent -- saved as rtf -- into these comment boxes, which I learned after having to rewrite one too many comments upon discovering I wasn't signed in after composing.)