A call for more thought in science
Is the level of philosophical discussion in academia sufficient? In the last year of my BSc degree in Biochemistry, I attended a Philosophy of Science course with Prof. João Maria André, which shed light on the the existence of bias in natural sciences’ research. Before this moment, I had not encountered much debate on this topic. Even today, as a PhD student, I still don’t find this discussion happening in our labs or corridors.
If you are a biologist, chemist or physicist, you probably think this article is not relevant to you because you are within the natural sciences field and therefore, you are studying and observing nature and cannot, in theory, interfere subjectively with your results. You probably even think less of researchers in social sciences because of the subjective nature of their work. However, by thinking like this you may be ignoring or underestimating what late philosopher Reichenbach called context of discovery: the scientific context associated with the formulation of theories. This context of discovery, shared by all of us, is permeable to values. From scientists to science managers or funding agencies, all of our decisions are taken with the unique and subjective lens in which we see life. This naturally affects the context of the scientific activity which consequently cannot be called objective, even for the natural sciences.
Examples of scientific actions that are biased, i.e. influenced by the context in which we carry out our research are described below.
When certain research areas are funded over others – creating long-term influxes and directionalities that can affect the knowledge we build.
When the decision regarding a certain hypothesis is influenced by the consequences it has - for example, when deciding safe levels of human exposure to certain chemicals.
When choosing statistical methodologies to evaluate the acceptance or rejection of a certain hypothesis.
When doing non-blind analysis of experiments.
We cannot see the world as if we were wearing a blank lens. Our lenses are tinted with our perception of life. Accepting and embracing the fact that for some aspects we are biased can account for a better scientific conduct if we control for them during research. Nonetheless, have you ever thought that perhaps it’s the impossibility of being truly objective what makes science so rich, plural and diverse? With the publish or perish mindset that surrounds us, the pressure to produce knowledge fast, and with the poor mentorship that most receive, I think we may have forgotten about the true nature of being a scientist and I believe that the philosophical aspects of our work are not discussed enough.
We should pause more to discuss the context that surrounds us and that entails our professional activity, which is for many, and for me, more of a passion than a job. Science is often a label of credibility in everyday societal issues. Its power must not be taken in vain by its actors, and therefore the philosophical debate is essential. We carry our values to the bench we work on and we should be aware of it from day one. How ironic is it that many doctors of philosophy (PhDs) ignore these questions, oblivious to what PhD stands for?
I’m calling for more philosophical thought in academia. For scientists who do not try to impersonate a blank slate and are aware that they are part of this complex society, which they are trying to better. After all, science is for the benefit of mankind.
About the author: Mariana Alves
Mariana is a PhD student at EMBL, one of Europe's flagship laboratory for basic research in molecular biology. She is trying to understand how a single cell develops into a complex embryo and organism.
Mariana devotes a lot of her free time to science outreach including radio broadcasting. She has lived previously in Denmark and the UK. Mariana loves traveling, photography and performing arts shows. Mariana dreams of a career where she combines her passion for outreach and her curiosity for scientific mechanisms.
- Hans Reichenbach (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Publish or Perish (Journal of Research in Medical Sciences)
- How to grow a healthy lab (Nature)
- Scientific credibility (Scientific American)
- Context of discovery and context of justification (Springer)
- Scientific Discovery, Logic and Rationality (Springer)
- Naturalistic Fallacy (Evolutionary Psychology)
- Scientific Honesty (EMBO)
- Inductive Risk and Values in Science (University of Chicago Press)
- Pure Science and the Problem of Progress (Elsevier)
- Politics and Science (SAGE Journals)