Something I’ve done on this blog quite a lot is push back against the narrative that science is social. This doesn’t mean that I think individual scientists can’t be biased, or that we won’t sometimes go down the wrong path when the evidence is weak, but that ultimately we’ll converge towards some kind of reasonable understanding of the system being studied. However, I’ve just finished reading Angela Saini’s book, Superior: the return of race science. Angela Saini also gave a talk yesterday evening as part the Edinburgh Race Lectures. Angela Saini makes a very strong case that there are scientific disciplines where our biases have not only strongly influenced how evidence is interpreted, but have also influenced the assumptions that underpin that discipline.
Reading Superior made me appreciate better why some seem to regard science as being more social than I would normally regard as reasonable. I’ve always been aware that many aspects of science are social, but have been less comfortable with the suggestion that our biases can strongly influence how we interpret evidence. Why would our biases influence our understanding of the origin of the universe, our understanding of orbital dynamics, or how the Earth’s climate will respond to rising atmospheric CO2 levels? One concern I’ve had with the “science is social” argument is that it can potentially undermine the significance of some research if the implications are seen as inconvenient. On the other hand, reading Superior and listening to Angela Saini’s talk yesterday has made me better appreciate that we should be careful of under-estimating how much our biases can influence how we see the world.
I’m not actually sure where I’m going with this. I found Angela Saini’s book very enlightening and it made me more aware of why some might regard science as social. I do still, though, have trouble seeing how this can have a significant influence in the physical sciences. Well-founded conservation laws provide quite strong constraints on how we interpret evidence in the physical sciences. However, everyone probably thinks that their discipline has some way of overcoming these biases, so maybe I’m missing something about how they could influence our understanding of physical systems.
I should also be clear that I’m not suggesting that physical scientists are somehow less biased than other scientists; they clearly are not. I’m also not suggesting that there aren’t reasons for addressing existing biases within the physical sciences; these clearly do exist and we should do much more to address this. I’m also not suggesting that these don’t play a role in how we interpret the significance of some scientific evidence. For example, our views about how we might solve climate change, or the significance of the impacts of climate, are probably quite strongly influenced by these biases. I’m just not sure how these biases influence our understanding of physical systems, especially in the presence of conservation laws.
Of course, I’m probably missing something and I’m certainly uncomfortable with suggesting that our understanding of physical systems can’t be influenced by societal biases. I’m just not sure how, or why, they would do so, at least in a substantive sense. Maybe someone can present some kind of argument in the comments.