Keyword Forum 1

Please refer to the readings assigned for 12 September.


Contextual values

Providing an analytical alternative to logical positivism, Longino suggests that through contextual analysis it is more easily seen that we all have shifting values that vary from individual to individual. These values help shape how we “describe the evidence and which hypotheses we judge to be confirmed by that evidence (213).” While these values, as Longino describes them, vary for each individual, she claims that what makes science more or less objective is to what extent there is social agreement over what these values are, consensus that can only be made through transformative criticism (214).

Transformative criticism (i.e. peer review) allows for public vetting of the scientific process in order to weave together more coherent and congruent theories to best form dominant ‘paradigms’ of science at any one time. These kinds of checks and balances allow for not only coherent scientific narratives but it aides and is aided by the establishing of the characteristics that Longino argues should be present in an objective science. These characteristics include 1) avenues for criticism, 2) shared standards for how to critic work, 3) a responsive environment to criticism, and 4) ideally an egalitarian context where all are given equal intellectual authority. These attributes provide a framework for how she thinks contextual values can be molded to be homogeneous enough to have productive scientific inquiry. Longino expects (and hopes) scientists’ values will be structured within this idyllic process but be free to be amended as long as they remain compatible with the attributes she describes.

As an observer or analyst of science, contextualists do not ask how scientists are observing truth, but rather why is “this” truth thought to have been confirmed by the evidence at hand. This line of questioning, that removes analysis from the mechanics of the process itself, both protects academics that are questioning a firm logical positivist’s perspective while still allows researchers to prioritize remaining knowledgeable and informed of the evidence that the scientists are considering. The researcher is able to both observe science and prescribe normative standards as Longino suggests, while also believing that history and sociology have something to offer this conversation. The data of past values inform how and why what was considered valid previously may not so easily be validated today.


Peer review

v. To conduct a critical examination of a scientific finding by a group of scientific equals to the researcher or research team. n. An inspection or examination of a scientific finding by a group of scientific equals in the field under consideration. (American Heritage College Dictionary, 2004)

“Peer review” is a key term in the understanding of the progression of scientific thought. In academia it is a key part of the progression of one’s career because it is the filter through which academic papers must pass to achieve the status of publication in a peer reviewed journal. This process is critical for an academic scholar to be admitted to the ranks of recognized thinkers in a discipline. In non-academic scientific endeavors peer review is very important to the sharing of information in recognized journals and giving that information credibility.

The method of basic scientific research in the United States put a special premium on peer review in the mid-20th century. Peer review as a formal exercise became well established post WWII with the establishment of the Office of Naval Research and then the National Science Foundation. Both organizations were chartered to ensure the scientific dominance of the United States and both began the process of providing grant funding to universities for the execution of basic scientific research. Peer review was an important mechanism for ensuring value was being achieved for the expenditure of public funds. The integrity of this process is important and any hint of breakdown would be a terrible compromise to bias-free advancement of scientific knowledge.(Longino, 149)

Peer review is an important factor in ensuring that scientific progress is free from individual bias. It is impossible for an individual to be free of biases, therefore the construct of peer review provides that a set of individual biases should find a central point of truth. As Longino states: “the objectivity of scientific inquiry is a consequence of the inquiry’s being a social, and not an individual enterprise”.(148)

Longino cautions against a major peer review pitfall. Because specialized disciplines can become so narrow, those who review new ideas in it form a gatekeeper function.(149) This can become a vehicle for the entrenchment of established views.(155) It is incumbent on scientists involved in such undertakings to invite critical views from other reviewers and to respect those views. Hubris is difficult to overcome, however.

Peer review exists in an informal sense in any successful major scientific undertaking. Major research projects that are conducted under proprietary or classified conditions are typically not presented in journals, however to be successful such research is under continuous review by the peers involved. The principles as outlined by Longino will ensure knowledge is produced in an objective fashion. It can be seen that the term “peer review” defines a current formal process but also an important principle that must be followed in the advancement of scientific knowledge.


Objective/Objectivity

adj;

1) (Of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. Contrasted with subjective.
2) Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.
~OED

According to Longino, objectivity "…is generally thought to include the willingness to let our beliefs be determined by "the facts" or by some impartial and nonarbitrary criteria rather than our wishes as to how things ought to be." (Longino, pg. 170), and that with respect to science, it "…is bound up with questions about the truth and referential character of scientific theories, that is, with scientific realism." (pg. 170) At its core, objectivity is the idea that there is a real world that exists and that we (as people or as scientists) can describe in a way that is true and not determined by a specific perspective.

Later on, Longino specifically separates the concept of objectivity from the concept of truth, stating that "To say that a theory or hypothesis was accepted on the basis of objective methods does not entitle us to say that it is true, but rather that it reflects the critically achieved consensus of the scientific community." (pg. 183) This allows methods to be objective without the necessity that they be correct, an adjustment required by scientific change, but also ties objectivity to scientific consensus.


Subjective/Subjectivity

adj;

1) Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. Contrasted with objective.
2) Dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.
~OED

Subjectivity is defined by its (contrary) relationship to objectivity. Whereas objectivity is related directly in its definition to truth and fact, subjectivity is only related to objectivity, basically as its opposite, which intimates that it is contrary to fact or truth. Longino, similarly, does not offer a working definition of subjectivity, assuming a (correct) definition opposed to objectivity as understood by her audience.

Other conceptions of subjectivity, instead of separating it from truth or fact, allow us to realize that an ultimate objectivity, a view from everywhere and nowhere that reveals reality without bias, is impossible, and thus we should not try to remove subjectivity, but rather include as many situated perspectives as possible. (Haraway, 1991) This view, in some ways included here by Longino, though less explicitly, puts a check on a singular subjectivity overwhelming others in such a way as to silence potentially relevant subjectivities. Longino, however, relegates the important perspectives to those in the scientific community and, even more specifically, to those with similar scientific expertise. (Longino, 181)


Positivism

n. A doctrine contending that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and precise thought.(American Heritage College Dictionary, 2004)

The above dictionary definition of positivism makes it sound like a nonsensical notion. “Sense perceptions” are notoriously unreliable. Among examples are the inability to even determine the vertical under stressful conditions, the variance in color perception among individuals as well as the well documented differences in sense acuity among individuals. In addition to unreliable sense perceptions, the decisions regarding what should be measured to define a given scientific discovery and how it should be measured enter into the subjective domain of “sense perceptions”.

If the objectivity of data is to be always challenged, theories derived from observed data must also always be challenged. These premises have led to the growth of scientific knowledge. To the extent that human intellect can grapple with uncertainty humanity is building knowledge in a self-correcting fashion.

Longino describes the social nature of scientific inquiry which requires the humility to consider all factors and to accept the fact that one might have an incorrect perception or that additional data might render a theory incorrect. Subjective preference has no place in such a model of scientific inquiry. (Longino 144-145) Objective science builds knowledge; a dogmatic positivist attitude can get in the way of such objective science.

Another view of positivism is that certain scientific theories have faced the test of time and have become accepted as absolutes by humanity. A simple example is the ability to state in a positive fashion the time of sunrise in each place on the earth. As humanity progressed in knowledge and ability to measure time and record sun position with certainty this ability transitioned from a mystical undertaking to the precision we see today. An irony is that ability to be positive in such cases lies on the backs of much scientific labor done in the objective fashion Longino describes.

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