Objectivity as a social accomplishment

Here is an excellent characterization of scientific objectivity as a social practice, from Naomi Oreskes in her book Why Trust Science:

Sociologists of scientific knowledge stressed that science is a social activity, and this has been taken by many (for both better and worse) as undermining its claims to objectivity. The “social,” particularly to many scientists but also many philosophers, was synonymous with the personal, the subjective, the irrational, the arbitrary, and even the coerced. If the conclusions of scientists–who for the most part were European or North American men–were social constructions, then they had no more or less purchase on truth [than] the conclusions of other social groups. At least, a good deal of work in science studies seemed to imply that. But feminist philosophers of science, most notably Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, turned that argument on its head, suggesting that objectivity could be reenvisaged as a social accomplishment, something that is collectively achieved…

The greater the diversity and openness of a community and the stronger its protocols for supporting free and open debate, the greater the degree of objectivity it may be able to ahieve as individual biases and background assumptions are “outed,” as it were, by the community. Put another way: objectivity is likely to be maximized when there are recognized and robust avenues for criticism, such as peer review, when the community is open, non-defensive, and responsive to criticism, and when the community is sufficiently diverse that a broad range of views can be developed, heard, and appropriately considered…

To recapitulate: There is now broad agreement among historians, philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists of science that there is no (singular) scientific method, and that scientific practice consists of communities of people, making decisions for reasons that are both empirical and social, using diverse methods. But this leaves us with the question: If scientists are just people doing work, like plumbers or nurses or electricians, and if our scientific theories are fallible and subject to change, then what is the basis for trust in science?

I suggest that our answer should be two-fold: 1) its sustained engagement with the world and 2) its social character….

This [first] consideration–that scientists are in our society the experts who study the world–is a reminder to scientists of the importance of foregrounding the empirical character of their work–their engagement with nature and society and the empirical basis for their conclusions…

However, reliance on empirical evidence alone is insufficient for understanding the basis of scientific conclusions and therefore insufficient for establishing trust in science. We must also take to heart–and explain–the social character of science and the role it plays in vetting claims.

Why Trust Science? Naomi Oreskes, p. 50-57

The book’s initial essay, from which this is drawn, is not only interesting in its own right but is a really concise overview of the philosophy of science and its twists and turns over time.

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