Short Series about Science: #3 Personal Opinion vs. ‘Facts’

In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Stephen J. Gould

Given that theory (and arguments and empirical findings) is paramount in science — what about interest and personal opinion? I think the best quote in this regard is by Michael Specter:

“[…] everyone’s entitled to their opinion; […]
But you know what you’re not entitled to?
You’re not entitled to your own facts.
Sorry, you’re not.”
Michael Specter: The danger of science denial (2010)

I have already written about epistemological beliefs, but here’s a short recap: Science deals from an evaluativist position with ‘facts’ about the physical and social world. Assertions in science are judgments, which are evaluated and compared according to the strength of their arguments, counter-arguments, and rebuttals (cf. Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002).

This is completely different from saying that there is one absolute truth (absolutist, think religious fundamentalist) or that all positions are of equal worth (multiplist, take your below-average “whatever” adolescent). We do not know what reality is and knowledge is generated by human minds and uncertain, but we can come to better or worse conclusions based on theories, arguments, and empirical findings.

As a side-note, I don’t like the word fact — problem is, there are no facts (see quote at the beginning of this posting). With facts I associate something that speaks for itself and in science, nothing does, not even the data you gather. Sounds strange, but consider that the data you gather depends on the methods you use, which in turn (hopefully) depend on the question(s) you ask. Or to quote Sir Arthur Eddington:

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematise what it reveals. He arrives at two generalisations: (1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long. (2) All sea-creatures have gills. These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it.
Sir Arthur Eddington

The questions you ask and methods you use influence what you get. Thus there are no completely neutral positions, even when one tries to be as objective as possible. Being self-reflective is very helpful here to detect biases in the questions asked and methods used.

To make matters worse, one has to differentiate between one’s personal opinion (which can be anything) and the picture research shows (which should be as clear and undistorted as possible). Being a scientist does not mean that one must not have a personal opinion or check one’s feelings at the door. But when speaking from the position of a scientist, one must adhere to the supported theories and observed data.

Take again psychology — being a scientist (here psychologist) does not mean that you cannot be, e.g., for the death penalty. But you cannot argue for it from the position of a scientist/psychologist, if the research shows that it is not effective. In this case you have a responsibility to the ‘truth’ — or to put it less dangerously, the best supported position.

So you can believe what you want to, esp. when it comes to personal taste, aesthetics, and values, but when you make an assertion about the physical or social world from the position of a scientist, you have to adhere to the principles of scientific reasoning.

If you let your personal opinion influence your position and override theory and empirical findings, you take a key strength of science — and you as scientist — away. Or to quote Huxley:

Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.
Thomas Henry Huxley

You have a responsibility as a scientist, people trust your expertise, no matter in which discipline you work in science.


Short Series about Science

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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