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Must Scientific Knowledge Be Considered Relative?

 
 
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 01:56 pm
In the philosophy and sociology of science, there is a school of thought that scientific research is driven by cultural, social, political, and even financial profit frameworks. Thus, the view that scientific facts are objective is being attacked.

This is a complex issue that involves philosophy, anthropology, sociology and the scientific method itself.

Any thoughts?
 
tsarstepan
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 02:27 pm
@wandeljw,
Any level of knowledge is relative. Take two civil war history buffs. Each one thinks he knows a great deal of knowledge on the controversial subject.

One person's level of education: watched Glory (1989), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Ken Burn's Civil War series documentary; Read a couple of Shelby Foote books; and maybe had a single 300 level history course while in college.

While another: read all Shelby Foote's works on the subject. Spends weeks at university libraries and historical societies to research primary documents (diaries, memoirs, letters, newspapers, government documents and paperwork, etc....). Subscribes to an academic level journal as well as submits and publishes to said peer review journal.

Presently working on his doctoral thesis on how the North's horse-shoe forging machine from the 1850's effected the winter campaigns of the war.
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 02:37 pm
@tsarstepan,
I meant relative to a certain bias (political, social, cultural, financial) and therefore not objective.
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 03:28 pm
@wandeljw,
The real issue, in my opinion, is what social function is served by the usage of the word "objective", and the answer to that is that it is a claim for the acceptability or authoritative nature of certain statements. Given that "objectivity" is philosophically elusive, the concept ultimately boils down to an appeal to consensus.
edgarblythe
 
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Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 04:05 pm
I assume you refer to pure science and not the bastardized science of the big Pharma and the food and farm corporations.
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 04:23 pm
@edgarblythe,
I guess I am referring to both. One factor in the questioning of scientific objectivity is that scientific research driven by financial interests is resulting in conclusions that are biased toward whoever is putting up the money.
JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 04:44 pm
@wandeljw,
Of course all science, like all institutionalized activity is motivated by social and cultural considerations--behavior never occurs in a vacuum. But this is not the same as (although it can be at times) prejudicial bias. Most sociologists and social anthropologists understand that research into one's own society and that of other cultures is influenced, if only unconsciously, by one's own worldview and they try--ideally--to be reflexive in their analyses, to uncover and account for their biases.
What they are trying to do is be as fair as possible. Objectivity and bias are not the same. The former is an epistemological issue. The latter has more to do with interests and values.
farmerman
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 04:52 pm
@JLNobody,
I come from the APPLIED SCIENCE world where the relativistic connections are obvious to us. I consider the sciences as lying on the tread of a big wheel, the center of shich lies PHYSICS, arrayed out from physics comes applied mathematics and all other sciences(including biology) are outgrowths on the rays of this wheel.
ALL measures in biology depend upon physics chemistry and a few unique proposals which are pure biologic in nature.
Physics represents the ascending discipline from which weve developed quantitation, data, and evidence. Then we apply these things to , eg , the chemical structure of matter.
Lustig Andrei
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 04:55 pm
@wandeljw,
wandeljw wrote:

In the philosophy and sociology of science, there is a school of thought that scientific research is driven by cultural, social, political, and even financial profit frameworks. Thus, the view that scientific facts are objective is being attacked.

This is a complex issue that involves philosophy, anthropology, sociology and the scientific method itself.

Any thoughts?


Virtually any human endeavor that I know of is driven, to some extent, by cultural, social, political and exspecially financial profit frameworks. This is true of corporate enterprise, the institution of marriage, choice of residential venue and even theological formulations. It certainly holds true in the halls of academe. Why on earth would we expect any so-called 'scientific' endeavor to be free of this all-too-human condition?
0 Replies
 
farmerman
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 04:55 pm
@farmerman,
s FAR AS SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS, CONSIDER aLFRED nOBEL. hIS ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY WAS, HE THOUGHT, A COMPOUND THAT WOULD ENABLE humans to produce more STUFF at a grand acale. Instead, he got the foundations of a huge military-industrial complex.

Consequences of discoveries are often unknowable
0 Replies
 
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 05:19 pm
My use of "objective" and "relative" might be confusing. By objective, I mean "free from bias." By relative, I mean "influenced by cultural, political, or financial interests."
JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 09:34 pm
@wandeljw,
Yes, I understood to mean, by objective, impartial.
BTW, I assume that all science (that deals with the physical universe) is epistemologically relativistic since it deals with an integrated Nature in which everything is connected to everything else.
0 Replies
 
JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 09:34 pm
@wandeljw,
Yes, I understood to mean, by objective, impartial.
BTW, I assume that all science (that deals with the physical universe) is epistemologically relativistic since it deals with an integrated Nature in which everything is connected to everything else.
0 Replies
 
JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Oct, 2011 09:38 pm
@farmerman,
I think of Applied Science as a discipline that USES knowledge rather than the pursuit of it. This applies to all forms of engineering, medicine and even the applied forms of social science where clients pay for information that will justify their actions, and often ignore that which does not. Pardon my cynacism.
InfraBlue
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 12:26 am
@wandeljw,
I think that the only "facts" that can be called "objective" are mathematical facts, and it is mathematics upon which science bases its investigations. Mathematics are the measuring tape of science. But there is a disconnect between mathematics and the physical objects and phenomenon to which science attempts to apply the measuring tape of science. The speed of light is not a number. Numbers are representations, applied by science, of the phenomenon of the speed of light. Clever manipulations of mathematics and a few decimal places to the right is sufficient enough for the purposes of science, and anything else is quite often derisively dismissed by many scientists as "mathturbation." There is a bias in science against the very measuring tool which it purports to base itself on. The bottom line for science is the usefulness of the measurement. This regard for usefulness is itself a cultural (pan-cultural) bias.
Lustig Andrei
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 12:35 am
@JLNobody,
JLNobody wrote:

I think of Applied Science as a discipline that USES knowledge rather than the pursuit of it. This applies to all forms of engineering, medicine and even the applied forms of social science where clients pay for information that will justify their actions, and often ignore that which does not. Pardon my cynacism.


yes, ok, but isn't the point really that any research, no matter how unbiased it may seem to everyone (and especially to the researcher), is actually and inevitably informed by cultural bias, considerations of remuneration for a job well done, personal (and inevitable) preconceptions etcetera etcetera etcetera? This is true no less in medical research than in astrophysics. We bring our cultural prejudices and personal values with us into the laboratory as in any other work place.
0 Replies
 
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 01:07 am
@InfraBlue,
Note that some (Lakoff anf Nunez) have argued that even "mathematics" is not objective. It may be relatively culture free, but its coherence may be founded in "bodily metaphors".
Chumly
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 01:29 am
@JLNobody,
Science is not necessarily motivated by social and cultural considerations. It can take place by the equivalent of a happy accident and thus be the motivator of social and cultural considerations.
Chumly
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 01:31 am
@InfraBlue,
Even math cannot be wholly objective due to the requirements of axioms.
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 05:20 am
I prefer the traditional view that scientists are careful to eliminate bias from both experimental design and the conclusions that follow.

This essay gives examples on how culture may influence the practice of science:
Quote:
Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science
(Frans de Waal, Emory University)

Most people now accept that fields like politics and journalism reflect and perpetuate cultural bias. Yet we imagine science as free of unexamined cultural assumptions. This is more or less true for some fields - say, chemistry or physics. My own corner of science, ethology, or the study of animal behavior, is certainly not pristine.

How we look at animals reflects how we view ourselves. The founder of Japanese primatology, Kinji Imanishi, could attest to this. Imanishi argued that nature is inherently harmonious rather than competitive, with species forming an ecological whole. This rather un-Darwinian perspective so upset a British paleontologist, the late Beverly Halstead, that in 1984 he traveled to Kyoto to confront Imanishi. Unconstrained by first-hand knowledge of Imanishi's works, which were never translated, Halstead told him that his theory was "Japanese in its unreality."

What compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why did he later write an article criticizing not just Imanishi's views, but his country? Why did " Nature, " one of the most prestigious journals in science, publish it, in 1985, beneath the patronizing assertion that the "popularity of Kinji Imanishi's writings in Japan gives an interesting insight into Japanese society"? Could not the same be said of Darwin's theory of unremitting competition, which grew out of a society giving birth to free-market capitalism?

Even if Imanishi's ecological and evolutionary ideas were problematic, he and his followers were right about quite a lot. In fact, well before Halstead's contemptuous pilgrimage, Western ethologists began adopting Eastern concepts and approaches--although without being aware of their sources. To understand how this could occur is to appreciate the role of different cultural assumptions about the relations between humans and animals and how linguistic hegemony affects science.

Eastern philosophy has no counterpart to Plato's "great chain of being," which places humans above all other animals. In most Eastern belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and forms. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. There are no grounds in Eastern thought for resisting the central idea of evolutionary theory: that all animals are historically linked.

Unlike in the West, this acceptance of evolution was never tainted by hubris or an aversion to acknowledging human-like characteristics in animals. Japanese primate researchers assumed that each individual animal had a distinct personality, and they did not hesitate to give their subjects names. They plotted kinship relationships over multiple generations, believing that primates must have a complex family life, just like us.

They did all of this well before any Western scientist thought of it. In 1958, when Imanishi and his students toured the US to report their findings, they were ridiculed for humanizing their subjects and for believing that they could distinguish between all those monkeys. The Western view of apes regarded them as akin to Rousseau's "noble savage" - autonomous individuals, devoid of social ties and obligations, driven by instinct to swing haphazardly from one fruit tree to the next.

But while Jane Goodall was describing female chimpanzees and their dependent offspring as the only socially bonded units in the primate world, a Japanese team, working only 130 kilometers away, eventually proved that chimpanzees live in large communities with stable memberships. We now know that chimpanzee society is male-bonded, and there is ample evidence of territorial warfare between communities. The initial discovery arose from the assumption that chimpanzees, so close in evolution to humans, could not be as "individualistic" as Western science supposed.

The same initial assumption led Imanishi in 1952 to suggest that animals might have culture, which he reduced to its lowest common denominator: the social rather than genetic transmission of behavior. If individuals learn from one another, over time their behavior may diverge from that of other groups, thus constituting a distinct culture.

We now know that cultural learning among animals is widespread, including birdsong, the use of tools by chimpanzees, and the hunting techniques of whales. Yet only a few decades ago, some Western professors forbade their students even to make reference to papers by Japanese colleagues! How could a cultural outlook that the West treated with such raw condescension - even in 1985 - simultaneously shape Western science so profoundly?

The answer lies in language. A single language for scientific papers and conferences is clearly desirable, and the language of international science is English. Good scientific ideas formulated in bad English either die or get repackaged. Like a Hollywood interpretation of a French novel, their origins become erased. Eastern thinking could creep into ethology unnoticed partly because it filtered into the literature through awkward formulations and translations that native English speakers found it easy to improve on.

The problem is not the English language per se , but the attitude and behavior of many native speakers. Naturally, you speak and write your own language faster and more eloquently than any other, and this can place scientists whose English is poor at a severe disadvantage. Imanishi's influence is now pervasive - all primate scientists have adopted the technique of following individuals over time, and animal culture is the hottest topic in our field. But Imanishi's writings are rarely, if ever, cited. We should not wonder at the difficulties that other cultural and linguistic groups must experience in gaining a voice and proper acknowledgment in science.
 

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