Friday, September 28, 2012

What’s in a question? The myth of objective science

There is this misconception that empirical research is by definition objective.  There are all these guidelines around sample selection and research design that are supposed to make the entire process purer than pure.  In the face of criticism you can hear the cries of “but I used a random sample, it CAN’T be biased” from miles away.

Coming, as I do,  from a background in psychology I see particular problems with the way so many psych researchers cling to the illusion of objectivity.  How on earth can we study the human mind objectively when we are using the mind to study itself.  There is a certain absurdity in the old behaviourist theory of the mind as “black box”.  Here we have highly intelligent human beings using their minds to declare that all human behaviour comes down to operational conditioning and the motivations and thoughts of the mind are irrelevant.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of me rolling my eyes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think there is real value in using quantitative, empirical methods as best we can in the study of psychology. I also believe that qualitative research is invaluable.  It’s kind of alarming that the notion of just asking someone about their experiences and motivations is considered by so many to be radical if not outright ludicrous.  I think that research in the health sciences could benefit a great deal from some qualitative, participatory action studies. How else do we get practitioners to see patients as whole human beings with agency and insight?

But this is not meant to be a post about the merits of quantitative and qualitative research.  There is a much deeper problem with the notion that empirical research is de facto objective. Even if you could assume impeccable methods and sampling you cannot remove the scientist from the cultural context in which they develop their research questions. There is nothing objective about how you choose what to research.

Questions, after all, are not simply questions. The do more than seek answers, the very nature of your questions reveals underlying biases and beliefs.  When you look at the macro level there are clear patterns in the kinds of questions that are getting asked.

The history of psychology is plagued by research on group differences. Specifically: racial differences in intelligence and sexual behaviours. What does it tell us about the psych community and society as a whole that people keep asking over and over again if white people are inherently smarter than black people?  We learn that our society is obsessed with race. We learn that we assume that there is some kind of fundamental biological difference between races. We learn that we view intelligence as a measure of worth.

This bias is not limited to social sciences. Just look at the medical research. It’s not just about what questions you ask, but what questions you don’t ask. How can we ever know about the impact of systemic oppression on the physical and mental health of trans people if no one is asking the question?

We can see that not only do research questions both reflect and reinforce existing cultural values, they also have very real outcomes on the lives of real people.  Not that long ago the Conservative government of Canada decided to make the long-form census optional. Up until then it had been mandatory, under threat of fine.  This may not sound that important at first but there are hundreds of organizations and even governmental departments that rely on that data to determine how to best assess the needs of their communities.  “When asked about its usefulness, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan linked the long form census to virtually every spending and tax decision the province makes. The long form census contributes to decisions on everything from optimal traffic light timing to the number and location of publicly funded hospitals.”(, see also )

Here’s another example. There has been a lot of research into the possibility of a “gay gene” or more broadly, are the queers born that way?  It’s easy to get mired down in this argument and it is assumed that all “the gays” are eager for scientific proof that their gayness was not a choice.  But many of us are suspicious of the question itself, and for more than one reason.

First, why is it so important for science to know why people are gay? What will be done with that information? If they knew what makes people gay would they try to find a way to prevent it? Would we be facing genocide by genetic manipulation?

Second, there is a subtle implication in all of this “born this way” posturing. It’s so often used as a defence against homophobia and discrimination that it begs the question: does that mean if it is a choice it’s okay to discriminate against us? Are we implicitly accepting that it would be better if everyone were straight when we cling to the notion of inherent gayness as our front line defence against hate? “Well I know that we seem contemptible but hey! We can’t do anything about it so you may as well accept us.” So in persistently asking what makes people gay or if it’s genetic we are also making some very clear statements about the desirability of gayness.

All of this is to say that the questions we ask, in life and in science are a fundamental barrier to real objectivity.  If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that these biases exist and stretch ourselves to ask the unasked questions we may at least be able to achieve something a little closer to fair, if not objective, scientific research.

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