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January 11, 2010 by Katie.

Dear amateur (and not-so-amateur) scientists: please stop discrediting my profession.

Once you get over yourselves and your “unbiased experimentation” please read Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”  Or, maybe read it *now* so that you will get over yourselves.

Sorry for the snark but here’s why it’s out, with claws: In the last month I’ve had three conversations – and been informed of a fourth – with scientists who either completely ignore the social and cultural aspects of our reality in their argumentation or – worse – dismiss social and cultural theory as “opinion” when the issue is raised by the humanities major in the conversation (me! or…that other person).

Example 1:  A scientist from an unnamed Ivy League school told me that absolute free-marketism will necessarily eradicate all social and cultural bias.  From what I can figure, this is mainly because it’s all about the money and personal gain and if, for example, one refused to hire anyone other than a white person it would detrimentally effect their hiring pool – i.e. they wouldn’t hire the best person for the job – and their profits would go down (over time, of course, presumably with many more ill-advised-liminted-pool-hirings) so the company would discontinue those hiring practices.  The other argument was that people would find out about said hiring practices, stop consumer-ing at that location because of said hiring practices, therefore the company would discontinue those hiring practices.  This seems like it would work in a perfect would where all human interaction isn’t already based on, and inseparable from, centuries-old cultural and social biases so ingrained in most practitioners that the latter aren’t even aware they’re participating in something not entirely natural.  But, we don’t live in that universe.  There are more arguments I could give in refutation of this hideously naive idea, but I shall move on.

Example 2:  A beloved friend and a beloved relative both told me that social theory (my relative specifically mentioned gender studies) is just peoples’ opinions, implying that said theories have no real weight and can easily be refuted merely by holding a different opinion.  First off, thanks?  Yes, I do take personal offense to your ignorance in this case.  Second, I’m glad you have such faith in education that you presume hundreds of thousands of books have been published and decades of social practices and ideas have infiltrated popular culture and academia merely on the whims and opinions of people who found the time to write them down.  If it’s so easy and unfounded, please: go write a social theory yourself!  I’ll be happy to read it.

Third, and maybe most importantly, I feel these arguments were ultimately made because popular culture has leveed scientific experimentation as the only way to truly obtain facts.  Thusly, if it can’t be proven with “concrete evidence” then it’s not true, or, it’s only true if you agree with it.  This is a humorous stance for many reasons, not the least of which is that people, ironically, use this same argument to “disprove” scientific things like the Big Bang theory and evolution.

Humor aside, this manner of thinking – as Kuhn so rightly points out – excludes the “human” component of scientific experimentation.  Scientific experimentation may be rigorous, but it is conducted by human beings whose minds are, ultimately, ruled by the social and cultural constructs and beliefs of their time.  Therefore, though the evidence and experiment results *may* be foolproof, the human interpretation of the evidence and experiment results is not.  Human beings, even the god-like scientist, cannot fully escape their constructed mental environments.

Suggested Reading:
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas S. Kuhn
The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Though – Thomas S. Kuhn 

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