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The Science Binary: Objective, Subjective, or somewhere in between?

Simona's picture
  • Science is based on facts and observations, and thus is objective.
  • There is science, and then there is faith. Science is testable while faith is not, thus, science is better.
  • There is no empathy allowed in science, never get too attached to any idea. Disprove everything until something is left.
  • Science is truth. Everything else is meaningless opinion.


“Expert opinion changed significantly during the process, even in the absence of new information” (Curtis 95). 

Growing up with a mathematician mother and an artist father, I’ve been heavily exposed to two seemingly opposite modes of perception. Objective science and math versus subjective art and history, a binary that has been drilled into me since before I can remember. Interestingly enough, I’ve never felt “good enough” to be on either side of this binary—climate science (my specialty) is too provocative and human for me to remain unbiased and unempathetic, thus compromising my “objective” scientific approach. But visual art, which was my major in high school, always felt too empathetic and unreal to have true meaning, too based in perception to adequately explain how the earth works. But by breaking down this binary, I’ve realized they both have one main goal and one main tool: explaining/interpreting/investigating the world, and our human perception. 

While explaining the world is a valiant goal, it seems to be dictated by our main tool, our very subjective and often intersectional human identities. As Gary Zukav (ironically, a spiritual teacher/author) explains, “According to quantum mechanics, there is no such thing as objectivity. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture. We are a part of nature, and when we study nature there is no way around the fact that nature is studying itself” (Campbell 129). While this makes logical sense, the implication that science is not actually objective contradicts the heart of what science strives for—unbiased objective interpretations of the world.

This tension between science and our humanity makes me wonder about perception. Can we even perceive certain earthly phenomena that science attempts to objectively explain? Pigeons, a bird we don’t give much credit to, have two more cones of vision than us. If they were the scientists, or if we had their perceptive tools, I’d expect us to interpret the world much differently. Can anything we accept as truth be “real” if we are interpreting it as humans? As Zukav also says, “Even “facts” are subjective—a fact is only a fact inside an interpretation, and interpretations are human…We not only influence our reality, but in some degree, we actually create it” (Campbell 129). A unique part of human life is that we cognitively try to explain phenomena and read into the world, in Zukav’s words, creating our reality. In this way, everything is subjective, from science to art to everything in between. Maybe there is no binary, no objectivity, maybe everything is subjective.

Yet, I want to be careful not to slide into the hopeless “nothing is real, the world is all fake, there is no point” mindset. As human beings, what we perceive to be real is real in our minds.  Just as this chair I sit in is real, and the sky is real, we experience and interpret the world from our human perspectives. Missing in science however, is perhaps acknowledging the fact that all of our data, hypotheses, and theories come from a human-centric mode of reading the world. Far too often, science declares something as “truth” (while using very vague non-committal language) without pausing to examine or acknowledge the subjectivity built into the research.

As a geology student, I never even questioned the objectivity of science—it was (is) assumed to be centered in objective observations, using logical tools like math, physics, and chemistry to form hypotheses directly based off those observations and data points. Data, I keep telling myself, is real. It isn’t an opinion, it is fact. But, as I step back and reflect on this, I feel caught in the binary. The article “The Science of Subjectivity” published in Geology examines how the scientific (specifically for geologists like myself) is much more subjective than we acknowledge or realize. By working with a group of geologists, Andrew Curtis found that their backgrounds and experiences influenced how they each explained the exact same data. The evidence-based hypotheses that these geologists each formed with the given data were biased by their individual human experiences. Subjectivity. And when these geologists were then brought together and asked to come to consensus on a working hypothesis, many viewpoints changed. “Expert opinion changed significantly during the process, even in the absence of new information” (Curtis 95). Subjectivity.

But as someone who is trained to think scientifically, I struggle with this idea of the subjectivity of my own research and the subjectivity of well-accepted scientific theories I’ve been taught. Evolution is truth. Anthropogenic climate change is truth. The theory of plate tectonics is truth. These concepts are so well documented and have so much evidence from so many different scientists that they almost can’t be logically disputed. Since subjectivity relies on individual’s perceptions and personal histories and biases, wouldn’t increasing the number of individuals who believe these theories remove some of the subjectivity? If I surveyed one person about their ideas, the conclusions would be biased and subjective. Yet if I surveyed 10,000 people about their ideas and they were all essentially the same, wouldn’t that be significantly more objective and less biased? Doesn’t the fact that more than 90% of all climatologists believe climate change is directly caused by humans make this concept more objective? 

I think within all this, there may be a difference between subjective science, and the subjective means of interpreting the world on a grand perceived level. Everything we do is subjective, because we are humans and we interpret the world differently from pigeons. But looking within this system itself, perhaps we can assume everything we perceive is real to us because it is true to our human-centric viewpoint. Yes, this chair is real, yes, the sky is real—our observations may be intrinsically subjective, but perhaps can still function as objective. So then is science really just as subjective as, say, art? Is there a difference between observation and creation? Or, is Zukav correct when he says, “it is not possible to observe reality without changing it” (Campbell 129)? Given specific data, it is very likely I would interpret it differently than another scientist of another background, as Curtis points out. There must be some fluid and dynamic interplay between objectivity and subjectivity—perhaps they aren’t actually mutually exclusive. Perhaps gathering the data is slightly more objective, while forming hypotheses based off this data is slightly more subjective. Perhaps we need both to understand this world. And if we do science to understand our world, why should it matter if our truths are not the same for a pigeon? Are we really just investigating ourselves?

“The existence of subjectivity in forming hypotheses does not necessarily imply a lack of scientific rigor. When recognized explicitly, subjectivity may properly influence scientific inferences, and also can lead to novel hypotheses. Scientists should therefore not be ashamed of subjectivity, but we should strive to develop methods to quantify and sometimes to reduce its effects” (Curtis 96). If subjectivity is such a huge part of our human nature, I wonder if it makes sense to fight it, to “strive to reduce its effects.” What would happen if we not only acknowledged subjectivity in science, but embraced it? Would our science-based knowledge go to madness and mayhem, or would we re/think re/create re/present our world in ways we cannot yet imagine? The future of science is wide open—what if we embraced our humanity instead of fighting it? this too much latitude to allow?



Anne Dalke's picture

educating into (and out of?) science

some (rather extensive!) notes from our talking today.

We first reviewed the papers you’ve already written: the first one about finding “home in self,” in the “psychological foundations of who you are, wherever you might be; the second one  relocating yourself in place—and/but also questioning our fear of connection, of melding with all else that is. The questions you began to ask here were resonant with those you began asking later, in Jody’s class, about the possibility of empathy: how much can we really understand others? How translatable is their experience? Aren’t we always dealing with our own translations of what has happened to them….?

You said that you can “see your progression in processing throughout the semester, from “being stuck on not being attached—‘nothing defines me!’”—to acknowledging that everything you are is a representation or “diffraction” of the places you’ve been, and experiences you’ve had…

The most exciting paper you’ve done, for both of us, so far, was the third one, about “embracing subjectivity in science.” This, you said, was “a big turning point! meant a lot, rethinking what you do, in a good way…though it was also very destabilizing.” You acknowledged that all your science teachers have emphasized the provisional nature of science--that any claim can not ever be definitely proved—and wondered why you have always nonetheless sought certainty in science (while seeking risk in other arenas of your life): why this oversimplication? Is it the result of popular notions of science as authoritative? Or of your own activist bent: wanting to claim the truth, in order to convince people to change their behavior? Whatever the reason, it may also be why you have shied away from doing scientific research…

You said that you think you’re “getting better in writing papers,” that you feel more comfortable expressing ideas and using texts, as your papers become “more porous,” trying less to prove an idea than going exploring with new question, being more willing to explore tensions….

We agreed that your last paper should celebrate the fact that you finished all of The Hungry Tide. We discussed the possibility of your writing a paper about the power and limits of language (how do Kanai, Piya, and Fokir see this differently?), but decided that we’d really covered that topic in class. We settled instead on a paper that will explore the character of Piya, and her education into (and out of?) the scientific process: to what degree is her work subjective? How does she exemplify or challenge the ideas you developed in the last paper? Why-and-how does she give up the pursuit of a “hypothesis of stunning elegance”? How might her trajectory help you think about your own—in the past and the future?