Scientific impartiality

There is a view which is expounded, predominantly by Atheists, that science is objective and impartial. I was told by a member of a skeptics association that peer review guaranteed that science was impartial.

Apparently Richard Feynman said that Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. Of course the difference is that birds know when they are flying. They are either flying or they are not.

Imagine two kids playing a game of scientists. They wear white coats and have clipboards and they do things that to all outer appearances appear to be scientific experiments. At certain points they write down results. When they have finished we find that what they wrote down appear to be true results of experiments. It seems that they were actually doing scientific experiments. So were they?

In order to find out whether they were doing science or not we have to do some analysis. We have to see if what they did had a relationship with what they wrote down and so on. Whatever methods we use to satisfy ourselves that this was science or not we have to study the results according to certain rules. These are the ‘Rules of Science’. And the study of rules of science is the philosophy of science. We can’t use science to study the rules of science.

So what are the rules of science? And are they objective?

In the first place there can be no such thing as objective rules. All rules require interpretation and therefore there has to a subjective quality to them. When people make such statements as ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, or that we should use Occam’s Razor to reject certain explanations then it is obvious that they are subjectively applying rules (what determines whether something is extraordinary, for instance?).

Interestingly, although science is given substantial authority by the ignorant, there are no fundamental rules that define science. There are certain precepts for instance:

  • Introducing a hypotheses
  • Testing the hypotheses using controlled repeatable experiments
  • Forming the hypothesis into a theory
  • Attempt to falsify the theory
  • Subject the testing to peer review

Actually, science is rarely done this rigorously, and even if it were these rules are so vague that they leave much open to subjective interpretation. For instance, what constitutes repeatability? How do we know if we have controlled all relevant factors? Who are my peers and why should they accept something that goes against accepted wisdom?

On top of all this we have to look at the basic assumptions science makes about the world, for instance that there is an objective reality that can be observed and that we live solely in a three (plus time) dimensional world. None of these assumptions can be proved of course because as stated earlier:

We can’t use science to study the rules of science.

We have to study Philosophy of science.

It’s worth noting that if an objective theory of science was objective then it could be written down in a logical way as an algorithm and then programmed into a computer. Common sense tells us that this would not be possible and so common sense should also tell us that science is not objective and therefore is subject to the whims of what is fashionable thinking, and fashions in thinking have changed. What would have been rejected even 30 years ago by most scientists (Atheism, equality for men and woman, gay rights etc) is accepted as normal now. This is not because objective research has led to these ideas (science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God for instance) but because fashions in thinking have changed and science has followed these fashions because scientists are people who have been educated in the context of current thinking.

By Philip Braham on .



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