Science is subjective … but peer-reviewed

An interesting description of the scientific method, from a cognitive neuroscientist:

Our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.

As scientists, we learn to live with the fact that much of our work is highly subjective. There is actually very little that any two people who call themselves “cognitive neuroscientists” are guaranteed to agree on. Mostly we make progress by choosing the side of an argument that seems most plausible given our pre-theoretical commitments, and trying to provide data that would convince someone starting from the other side. [emphasis added]

We depend on the people who disagree with us to keep us honest when our imagination or our capacity for due diligence fail us. Any published work has to survive a process of peer review in which researchers working on similar topics evaluate whether our data mean what we say they mean. Empirical evidence is always reported along with a description of the methods used, which should, in principle, be enough to replicate the result. In other words, there is a system in place that is designed to rein in our impulses to put our thumbs on the scale when weighing the merits of our arguments and the data that support them.

But what if the peers to whom you turn for a supposedly objective review share many of your subjective “pre-theoretical commitments”?

It’s not easy to eliminate subjectivity from any human endeavor. The postmodernists are right on this point. (Go here and search for the reference to Kuhn.)


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