Scientific Objectivity

Paragraph 1

A recent generation of historians of science, far from portraying accepted scientific views as objectively accurate reflections of a natural world, explain the acceptance of such views in terms of the ideological biases of certain influential scientists or the institutional and rhetorical power such scientists wield. As an example of ideological bias, it has been argued that Pasteur rejected the theory of spontaneous generation not because of experimental evidence but because he rejected the materialist ideology implicit in that doctrine. These historians seem to find allies in certain philosophers of science who argue that scientific views are not imposed by reality but are free inventions of creative minds, and that scientific claims are never more than brave conjectures, always subject to inevitable future falsification. While these philosophers of science themselves would not be likely to have much truck with the recent historians, it is an easy step from their views to the extremism of the historians.

Paragraph 2

While this rejection of the traditional belief that scientific views are objective reflections of the world may be fashionable, it is deeply implausible. We now know, for example, that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen and that parents each contribute one-half of their children’s complement of genes. I do not believe any serious-minded and informed person can claim that these statements are not factual descriptions of the world or that they will inevitably be falsified.

Paragraph 3

However, science’s accumulation of lasting truths about the world is not by any means a straightforward matter. We certainly need to get beyond the naive view that the truth will automatically reveal itself to any scientist who looks in the right direction; most often, in fact, a whole series of prior discoveries is needed to tease reality’s truths from experiment and observation. And the philosophers of science mentioned above are quite right to argue that new scientific ideas often correct old ones by indicating errors and imprecision (as, say, Newton’s ideas did to Kepler’s). Nor would I deny that there are interesting questions to be answered about the social processes in which scientific activity is embedded. The persuasive processes by which particular scientific groups establish their experimental results as authoritative are themselves social activities and can be rewardingly studied as such. Indeed, much of the new work in the history of science has been extremely revealing about the institutional interactions and rhetorical devices that help determine whose results achieve prominence.

Paragraph 4

But one can accept all this without accepting the thesis that natural reality never plays any part at all in determining what scientists believe. What the new historians ought to be showing us is how those doctrines that do in fact fit reality work their way through the complex social processes of scientific activity to eventually receive general scientific acceptance.

Topic and Scope:

Scientific objectivity; specifically, whether accepted scientific observations reflect an objective or subjective view of the world.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to assess the view of historians of science who assert that accepted scientific observations are based on ideological predispositions rather than objective reality; his specific main idea is that these historians have adopted an extreme and untenable position.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 describes the view of these historians, and notes that they have attempted to strengthen this view by taking a philosophy of science argument to an extreme (that currently accepted scientific observations may ultimately be proven wrong through future research). The last sentence of this Paragraph is particularly important because the author’s voice enters the picture: He labels these historians as “extremist.” Given this attitude, it’s predictable that the rest of the passage is going to be a critique of their view.

Paragraph 2 bears out this prediction. The author demonstrates that their view is “deeply implausible” by citing a couple of scientific observations that have proven to be accurate reflections of the real world. In paragraph 3, the author qualifies his position somewhat by noting that, while scientific observations can certainly be accurate reflections of the real world, such is not always the case; often, these scientific observations occur only after a long process of discovery in which previously accepted observations are shown to be false.

Finally, in paragraph 4, the author summarizes his view: Many scientific observations reflect objective reality, contrary to what the “recent generation of historians of science” say.

The Big Picture:

  • A rather abstract passage. But, like the first passage, it’s not too difficult. The author’s take on the objective vs. subjective debate is made clear by the end of the first paragraph, and the rest of the passage simply fleshes out his view in more detail.
  • Most CAT science passages deal with “concrete” subject matter—a theory, an experiment, a scenario, etc. Occasionally, however, they are more philosophical in nature, like the present one. On test day, don’t be thrown if you run into this type of science passage. Fundamentally, it’s no more difficult than the more traditional type of science passage.

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