Every Scientist’s Burden: Objectivity

But the truth already gleamed through the uncertainty. The filthy truth.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Two days ago I was told, by a brash and unwelcome guest, “science is a cult.” The young man who barged into the house I occupy claimed to have a college degree in engineering. I don’t doubt it. He seemed to believe what he was saying. I don’t doubt that, either.

Definition of cult

1 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious (see spurious 2); also : its body of adherents . the voodoo cult . a satanic cult
2 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book) . criticizing how the media promotes the cult of celebrity; especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b : the object of such devotion
c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion . the singer’s cult of fans . The film has a cult following.
3 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents . the cult of Apollo
4 : formal religious veneration : worship
5 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator . health cults

If you can’t detect a problem with calling science a cult, you won’t be pleased with the remainder of this essay. You might even end up confused.

Every legitimate scientist shoulders a huge burden: objectivity. How do we keep our own values out of the process of creating reliable knowledge? How do we maintain creativity while focusing on evidence? How do we avoid infringing upon values when conducting scholarship?

Fortunately, the process of science encapsulates a series of steps that prevents or minimizes the intrusion of bias and personal values. This is one feature that distinguishes science from other “ways of knowing.” I wrote about this process using simple language in a peer-reviewed journal many years ago. I taught relevant concepts for two decades, and wrote about it as introductory material in several books. My presentation of this information largely missed the proverbial mark, which comes as no surprise in retrospect. After all, most people within this culture are unfamiliar with science and how it works. As such, many people routinely refer to science as a belief system on par with religion. Some even incorrectly call it a cult. Ergo, this short essay.

For the most part, in other words, science is misunderstood. It’s small wonder rational behavior is vanishingly rare in a culture of greed, material pursuits, and celebrity worship.

As humans, scientists are not immune from bias. Nor are scientists free of values. When they are conducting science, scientists follow a process intended to negate their biases and their values. Hence are some scientists able to pursue paranormal beliefs at home while also conducting legitimate science in the laboratory. In other words, a scientist can be a follower of an Abrahamic religion without invoking gawd or a miracle to explain extraordinary observations.

In similar manner, a scientist can be an activist. My own activism is inspired by my scientific activities, and my life as a rationalist is influenced by my activism.

As with any legitimate scientist, I am open to being incorrect. Openness to the public correction of errors is among the greatest characteristics of science. Try correcting a religious leader in public for a quick lesson on ego in the absence of evidence.

Non-attachment to a particular outcome is a primary tenet of science, as with the philosophy of Buddhism. And separating a scientist, or anybody else, from his or her work goes a long way toward accumulating meaningful information.

In other words, a scientist acting within the realm of science is under no burden at all. Perhaps the title of this essay is misleading.

I’ve endured seemingly endless bleating about gawd, aliens, The Powers That Be, and others who, “wouldn’t let humans go extinct.” This, of course, is irrational. It assumes somebody or something is controlling Earth’s thermostat. It presumes knowledge without evidentiary support.

Despite the obviously irrational underpinnings that lead to the conclusion that Earth’s thermostat is under control, I’ve no doubt my email inbox will soon be filled with irrational messages about my narrow perspective. None of the messages will take issue with rationalism because people who write such messages can’t be bothered to understand and identify rational behavior. They might even confuse science with a cult.

Science is not religion. Science is not technology. Science is not what it produces. Science is a way of knowing far superior to other known processes of acquiring information with respect to production of reliable knowledge. Most readers have no idea what these words mean.

It’s obviously too late for rationalism to positively influence this culture. Is it too late to influence you? I suspect the answer depends upon at least two features: (1) the depth and breadth of cultural programming, and (2) your willingness to learn.