Science and Objectivity

I’ve recently had conversations, and read the following article regarding some misunderstandings about science and objectivity: The complaint I’ve frequently received about science articles that I reference in discussions that I participate in, is that they are not ‘objective’. Well, of COURSE they aren’t objective. In ALL journalism, much less science journalism, there are always choices to be made — what stories to cover, how skeptical to be about the story, and so on. And every writer and every scientist has a point of view. Even research is focused on a goal — to either support or rebut other research or theories or hypotheses. Certainly, when someone does research, there generally are expectations of what you will or will not find.

The problem isn’t when there is a lack of objectivity, but a lack of scientific ethics. If a journalist or website or news source has an agenda, that’s something else completely. A good, ethical scientist will publish their results and conclusions without regard to any hopes or assumptions that they may have made. It’s perfectly valid to criticise someone for having an agenda, but having a bias is not only ok, it’s expected.

The question is, how should you regard biased reporting, biased research, etc? Well, that’s where the scientific method comes in. Experiments need to be reproducible. They need to undergo peer review to closely examine both the methodology, and the analysis of the results. Unanswered questions regarding either of those, need to be highlighted, and responded to. There needs to be a conversation, and more research and attempts to improve upon the methodology and discussions regarding every questionable step in the process.

The scientific method exists primarily because people make mistakes — but also because people sometimes DO have agendas, even if they believe those agendas protect people. There’s something called cognitive dissonance, which can corrupt ones viewpoint. If your only goal is to protect people, and that overrides any sense of ethics, then you are going to be more apt to believe that any actual evidence that goes against those beliefs, that you ARE protecting people, will be rejected as either biased science, or a conspiracy whereby the science has been faked. You can see this happening all the time with the anti-Vaccination movement. People cannot accept that they are not saving children from autism by telling parents not to vaccinate their kids. They cannot accept that they are actually doing damage by spreading their belief. And it’s a kind of belief that only becomes stronger, the more one uses actual evidence to contradict it.

Another argument that also frequently ends up with accusations of conspiracy, is that regarding organic foods. Science does not actually support most of the claims of Organic Food advocates, that organic foods are healthier than non-organic foods, that they contain less pesticides than non-organic foods, that  they taste better than non-organic foods, and so on. I’ve been told that the National Academy of Sciences is biased, when I mentioned that their research says exactly that.  After all, they do receive contributions from companies involved in GMO research. It’s a fact of life that research requires money, and it makes sense that companies involved in the food industry would want that research to be done. But it’s a huge step to go from scientists receiving money, to scientists having an agenda. And I have yet to see any evidence that this is the case. In fact, the CDC itself has collected evidence that nearly all of the foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years have come from organic food sources, EVEN THOUGH, only 5% of the food supply comes from organic sources.

The fact is that yes, research with an agenda is unethical, and can be misleading. And it CAN give results that are contrary to fact. The problem is that money, while POTENTIALLY, a corrupting influence, is not the only one out there. Websites with obvious agendas are 100% certainly unethical and a corrupting influence. And many of them have their agendas written right into their URLs. Google Organic foods, or GMOs, and so on, and you’ll find them. I won’t link them here, to give them any more publicity than they are already getting.

There are a few ways one can identify the corrupting influence of cognitive dissonance:

  1. The belief that any contrary opinion can only come from someone in the ‘pocket’ of big whatever.
  2. Accusations of a conspiracy
  3. No specifics as to which X is dangerous, or what precisely the dangers are. Usually, it’s very generalized to “Artificial Sweeteners” or “GMO products”.
  4. Repeating old stories that have long ago been debunked, without citing any new evidence. Examples also include citing studies, on rats, without pointing out that studies on humans gave different results (this not only has happened in GMO studies, but is an actual tactic often used to convince people to eat more sugar instead of artificial sweeteners. Yeah, diabetes, a real illness, and one that can be quite devastating, isn’t trumped by imaginary illnesses caused by artificial sweeteners.
  5. Bad arguments that lead to bad conclusions — A) “This pesticide is in use, therefore B) the food is dangerous”. The problem is that there are some steps between A and B that have been skipped, like evidence that the pesticide is actually being ingested in dangerous amounts. Simply believing something is dangerous isn’t enough — you have to have evidence of people actually being harmed.
  6. Misdirection — “Roundup causes cancer, therefore GMOs are bad”. If that’s your argument, and if Roundup is found on foods in the grocery, and people are actually ingesting dangerous amounts of it, then shouldn’t the attacks be directed at Roundup specifically?

Anyway, I know I went off on a tangent. I’m not saying that there is not the possibility of GMO foods that are bad or dangerous. It’s always a possibility — with anything, not just GMO foods, But what you really have to do to make that argument is to show evidence of something explicitly harmful in ALL METHODOLOGIES that exist today that are used to create GMO foods and then attack that methodology. Or you have to show harm caused by a SPECIFIC GMO food and attack that food specifically. Just remember that it’s ok to have a bias, but don’t confuse that with an agenda. And always question everything, ESPECIALLY one’s own beliefs.

I recently made a mistake, because I was citing a questionable website in a recent argument. And I admit that I have a certain kind of pro-science bias — most skeptics do. I try to do my best, and I even admitted that I was unaware of the potential bias of the organization that I was quoting. But at the same time, the person I was arguing with not only didn’t come up with any contradictory scientific evidence, but quoted websites with ADMITTED agendas. So while I may have been too quick to accept my own sources, the opposing side was also too quick to accept their own sources. The difference was that after calling that to their attention, they would not admit it.

In science as in real life, never forget that you might be wrong. But also never forget that the arguments on both sides might be wrong. And when that happens, you cannot draw any kind of conclusion with regards to what actually is correct.