in category Natural Sciences

Is science neutral and impartial?

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I wish it were the case but it is not. Let's imagine we wanted to scientifically investigate whether Asians were smarter than whites and blacks to illustrate the point.

Values, politics and culture will appear in five areas of the "scientific method" adopted - hypotheses, variables, conditions, testing and conclusion. Let's consider them one by one.

The hypotheses contains the terms "blacks," "whites," and "Asians" which are just constructs themselves, categories without any reality. For example, is an Indian man an "Asian" in the same way a Chinese is? Or a Nigerian "black" and an African-American is? What about someone who is half of either? Is "sharing" DNA the bar for belonging to a "group," when in fact the group itself is something we have constructed? If "sharing DNA" is the bar, then of course humans share more DNA with primates so our categories do mean much if anything. Assigning people to groups we are judging is a political and cultural act.

The second place values will intervene is in our choice of variables. How are we to operationalize "intelligence"? We could take the easy way out and reach for IQ as most researchers do. However IQ is not a value-free measure. It is loaded with assumptions. It measures one kind of analytical intelligence not creative, ethical or synthetic in a deterministic and rigid way: with "questions" for which there are right "answers." In life, most questions have no fixed sets of answers. Most obviously, IQ will test for "intelligence" in a socially-predetermined way - the kind of skills a society prizes and thus its most privileged will already tend to have.

How do we establish a ceterus paribus condition - to make all conditions equal if we wish to measure intellect. Can we find a black or asian child who has been brought up just the same as a white one? Can we subtract human life itself from our "experiment" where we find a population of children who have never suffered racism, trauma, bigotry, or mistreatment? But if we cannot find one, then we cannot really establish a ceteris paribus condition. The best we can assume is children who live in similar neighborhoods have had similar lives and set up proxy variables. Political and cultureal values have entered our assumption .

Now we come to the thorny question of hypothesis testing. We will take our IQ scores and use various kinds of statistical tests to see whether the differences among the groups are significant enough to count as meaningful. But all this is bound by values, politics and culture, too. Is a difference of "five percent" to count as "smarter"? Ten percent? Perhaps twenty five percent will count as very smart. Again, we are making cultural judgments. But there is a deeper problem still. These tests assume our samples represent their "populations." But those populations are social constructs in the purest sense: societies that human beings have built. There is no correspondence between sample and population - unless we say, white people build this kind of society and Asians that kind. But if we do that we have assumed our very own conclusion. So there is no truth to be inferred from our experiment.

Never mind. We write up our conclusion. The "science" we have done has invalid hypotheses, variables, conditions and tests confirming our own biases. Asians are smarter than whites who are smarter than blacks. Our categories, variables, conditions and now our tests, are all loaded with values, politics, assumptions. We cannot escape culture. Culture is woven into every aspect of the scientific endeavour, from thought to inference to conclusion. Our experiment simply repeats our values.

Given the extreme example, it does however show categories, variables, conditions and tests contain cultural assumptions, values and judgments - regardless of what we are investigating, our biases will intrude. The experiment proves nothing, as it was designed to. And that in itself proves that scientific "proof" is not what is often thought to be. It is not confirmation or even falsifiability. It is temporary disconfirmation of a possibility - but never absolutely and only with a given margin of error. But every step of that process is culturally bound - from what is tested, to how, to under what conditions it is disconfirmed, to what counts as a margin and what counts as an error. All that is ultimately defined as "proof." But proof of this sort is not a hard thing at best a temporary, uncertain thing otherwise further scientific progress itself would fail to be possible.

Science is a human creation riddled with uncertainties, values and assumptions.

So. Whenever anyone tells you that science is above culture or it doesn't have values they probably do not even know how wrong they are.

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