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smkaplan's picture

More on 'objectivity'

Maybe it's not that science isn't 'objective'—it's that the very idea of objectivity is problematic.

Last semester I read Donna Haraway's 'Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective' in a gender studies class. It's a really great essay, there's a lot of stuff in there, but one of the main arguments is that historically, the idea of 'objectivity' has essentially served as an excuse for scientists—generally wealthy, white men—to decide what information counts as 'truth' and what doesn't.

I agree with Liz that we need to remember that scientific 'facts' are always 'created' by humans—at the very least simply because all information requires some human interpreter to make sense of it. In that sense, it seems reasonable to talk about the natural world as a construction of the brain, because even if all that stuff might still 'exist' without us, it becomes meaningful only after we invest it with meaning.

Back to the Haraway essay for a second—her primary concern is how to reconcile these two things I just mentioned: the seeming existence of a natural world about which we can make observations; and the fact that those observations may be only tangentially linked to that natural world itself, given that they must be interpreted and reinterpreted by other human beings in order for us to derive meaning from them.

There's no simple solution, of course, but Haraway seems to suggest that one thing we can do to help is to carefully consider where information is coming from—an idea she calls 'situated knowledge.' All knowledge comes from somewhere, of course, and by paying attention to the context of that knowledge—does it come from a discourse that is traditionally excluded from the category of 'objective truth?' Is the source of knowledge marginalized in some way or in a position of power? etc.—we can temper our desire to explain the world with some healthy skepticism, and perhaps even keep our heads in situations like the one Emma talked about, where various institutions use wealth or influence to attempt to control what kinds of knowledge are supported or, contrarily, suppressed.

It seems like the goal of this class is kind of similar, that we're trying to give voices to a bunch of different ways of understanding science, some of which aren't really tolerated by traditional science courses or scientists. I like this approach, because I feel like at the end of the day, we're the ones who'll have a richer and more dynamic understanding of science, while the traditional scientists will still be stuck on their restrictive definitions of 'objectivity' and 'truth.'

If anyone wants to read that Donna Haraway essay, I uploaded it here:


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