Worldviews and the Edge of Science

I happened to glance at an Economics forum where advocates from two different sides of a policy debate continued to launch “scientific” salvos at the opponents.  The debate was about the Fed and real versus nominal interest rates effects on the market, but nevermind.  It could have been International Relations scholars debating Realist vs. Liberal policies, policy wonks from the Cato Institute arguing against policy wonks from the ACLU, and so on ad nauseum.  In my mind, this specific debate sparked a couple intertwined thoughts.

The first goes back to my academic mentor, Elinor Ostrom.  I always found it interesting, humorous, and bizarre to see various groups take her work and twist it to support their (policy) agendas.  Whether it was some of her public choice work being seized upon by right-wingers, her small-scale, development work in developing countries by left-wing idealogues, or some other mix, it amazed me to see her work cited and utilized across the political spectrum.  Each group seemed to think that she was in their camp.  This seems quite unusual with many scientists, particularly social scientists, identifying and identified with certain ideological groups.  Think about the role of several other Nobel Laureates – Milton Friedman on the one hand (right hand, as it were), Paul Krugman or Joe Stiglitz on the other (left) hand.  This lead me back to a long-running discussion with a colleague of mine as to whether these scientists would/could ever come to the same conclusions scientifically.  My colleague insists that “science is science” and the data will provide the answer.  I take the position that this may hold for a small treatment conducted in isolation, but my gut tells me that the science generally supports the scientists’ worldview more generally.

Clearly this varies across the disciplinary spectrum, but it seems likely that once we leave the natural sciences this problem becomes pervasive – compare astrophysics (perhaps less of a problem?) with sociology or political science, for instance.  To further complicate matters, scientists are increasingly taking normative positions up front.  The Society for Conservation Biology, for instance, has a mission to “advance the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity”.  Many climate scientists have similar belief systems regarding earth system science.  ASU’s School of Sustainability mission is likewise normative calling to “develop practical solutions to some of the most pressing environmental, economic, and social challenges of sustainability.”  Similarly, the Planetary Boundaries literature takes scientific research and seeks to “mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policy-makers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20 [emphasis added]”.

With these, and countless other examples, how do we reconcile our science and our worldviews?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by roger on July 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Chamberlain, T.C. (1965) “The method of multiple working hypotheses.” Science 148, pp. 754-9 — people seek evidence to support their preconceptions, look with scorn on evidence that they are wrong — just as true among ‘scientists’ as among those who make no such pretentious claims to objectivity

    Reply

  2. Agreed. Any scientist that does not admit to at least a little bit of bias inherent in their research is fooling themselves. But perhaps this is not a bad thing – having a diversity of viewpoints and research orientations – an ecology of beliefs, if you will – can be an asset and allow us as a scientific community to multiple possible explanations.

    Reply

  3. Agreed. Any scientists that does not admit to at least a little bias in their research is fooling themselves. But perhaps this is not a bad thing – having a diversity of viewpoints and research agendas – and ecology of beliefs, if you will – can be an asset, and allow us as a scientific community to explore multiple possible explanations and adapt to changing conditions.

    Reply

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