Bias in Science?

A couple of articles recently crossed my monitor, illustrating the wide gap between the profession of objectivity in science, and the reality of bias.

First, this article on dark energy in Parade Magazine by Dr. Meg Urry, incoming chair of the Physics Department at Yale University. The article provides a glimpse into the fascinating advances in our understanding of the role of dark energy in our universe. As an aside to the story itself, Dr. Urry notes that the changes in our understanding of this topic illustrate the nature of science itself.

Science is not a set of beliefs that one constructs. Instead, scientists observe nature, then develop theories that describe their observations. Science is driven by nature itself, and nature gives us no choice. It is what it is.

As new facts emerge, scientific theories can be proved wrong or in need of modification, but scientists cannot ignore them. Eventually the facts will lead to the right theory.

This is an excellent summary of how the scientific method is supposed to work. But there is a dark side to science that belies this “search for truth” label.

Consider this article by Ken Connor at bemoaning the fate of Guillermo Gonzalez. Dr. Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University, has been denied tenure, despite a distinguished and productive academic career. Why? Despite denials from the university, the only plausible reason is because he is an advocate of intelligent design, having co-authored a popular book on the subject, The Privileged Planet. As Connor laments,

What is the state of academic freedom when well qualified candidates are rejected simply because they see God’s fingerprints on the cosmos? Isn’t the Academy supposed to be a venue for diverse views? Aren’t universities supposed to foster an atmosphere that allows for robust discussion and freedom of thought? Dr. Gonzalez’s fate suggests that anyone who deigns to challenge conventional orthodoxy is not welcome in the club.

The reality is that, despite Dr Urry’s lofty description of how science works, scientists can and do ignore the facts of nature, for all the same reasons that religious zealots ignore them. For all their pompous protestations of objectivity, the evidence indicates that scientists—especially in academia—are just as susceptible to the ravages of prejudice as the rest of us.


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