An evolutionary biologist’s take on objectivity

Objectivity is the cobblestone road of the sciences. Allied with positivism, objectivity is tradition, held dear, worn but worthwhile, and for good reason. It is the pursuit of truths of the natural world, allowing them to become known. Like the paleontologist unearthing calcified life, or the archeologist deciphering shards of teeth and earth, objectivity allows for the uncovering of facts, truths of being that exist in reality, a solid reality, separate from constructions of philosophies, ideologies, social world-makings. Psychologists, economists, and quantitative sociologists—not to mention the biological anthropologists—follow in the same footsteps. To believe in objectivity is to believe we can truly observe and deduce something real about the world. However, if one looks at cobblestone as artifact, as the literary theorists and cultural anthropologists do, then the tools of post-modernism would seem well equipped to demonstrate, as Ian Hacking has titled an essay, “the social construction of what.” Sometimes the deconstruction/illustration of social construction takes place over issues of method, while others—and the majority of which—affirm that any claim of truth must be situated in its social, political context. And so the scientific method is reduced to embeddedness within its cultural system of knowledge acquisition, with scientists, data, and conclusions subject to be actors vying for power and place within the overall logic. Claims to what is objective, what is the correct way to deduce a fact, the stance argues, are always larger battles over ways of seeing.

The wider intellectual battle over this polarization took place most prominently in the 1990s in the U.S., with the post-modern agenda championed by critics such as Bruno Latour. In essence, the dialogue circulated over the issue of if we can ever know anything, to what extent, and how, if at all. Some took middle ground, such as the feminist/anthropologist/science theorist Donna Haraway, who called for an objectivity of sorts, what she has labeled “situated knowledges.” All forms of expertise, Haraway writes, are grounded in their positioning and relationship to the subject of study, in their own particular way of seeing reality. The purely positivist stance on objectivity, she argues,

is an illusion, a god trick […] So, not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspectives promise objectivity. (1988:583)

Those knowledge claims of science that are unlocatable in space and time are therefore “irresponsible”—the larger tension between the universal and the particular is at stake. To the scientific realist/objectivist, a study of  population X behavior in Y location could imply Z universally. To the semi-objectivist, a claim to objectivity in the study should be granted, given that the conclusions remain rooted to population X and location Y. To the absolute relativist, the said study is simply operating within a specific system of knowledge production, and thus is only isolating a small part of reality due to the restrictions of its method. And of course, these debates over the three main perspectives split and weave, cross paths with one another in more subtle or more amplified themes, or hasten in tempo when fields of science, specifically the study of human behavior, cross paths with seemingly deterministic elements such as genes.

These tensions, and thus the point of this writing, all seem to miss one key point, one delivered by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In a field that crosses paths with Richard Dawkins, memes, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the like, it is easy to miss that a fair few individuals have managed to find a Haraway-like stance and momentarily induce peace of mind. Against the idea of the objective scientist (or human for that matter), in The Mismeasure of Man—and elsewhereGould writes:

Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence—so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools.

Simple and accurate, Gould’s assertion, distinguishing between analysis and influence, produces a reaction akin to finishing a good novel: it enables you to exhale, reflect momentarily, and close the opened binding.


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