Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On Not Idolizing Theories in the Human Sciences

I have long been convinced that many people misinterpret the frequent convergence between scientific theory and "politically correct" social movements. For instance, many would have you believe that our culture's increasing toleration for militant homosexualism is a reasoned response to scientific data showing that homosexual orientation is generally a product of nature, not nurture or morally culpable choice. Similarly, many argue that there is no scientific reason to believe that a child placed in a household headed by a homosexual couple will be at any developmental disadvantage compared to a child placed in a traditional family.

I'm inclined to suspect, on the contrary, that social pressure within academia strongly discourages the testing of hypotheses contrary to those politically correct ones so often cited as "scientific backing" for social change. This intrusion of political bias into science that I envision occurs in the "context of discovery" (the selection of which hypotheses to put to the test), rather than in the "context of justification" (the actual test of the hypothesis against data). A new report, however, shows just how far scientists themselves are willing to admit irregularities even in the latter context.

Today the Associated Press is reporting on a study just published in the journal Nature, showing that "mundane misbehavior by scientists" (such as knowingly overlooking the use of flawed data, and changing the design, methods or results of a study in response to pressure from those funding it) is common enough to pose a risk to the integrity of science. Have a look here (this link will only work for a few days; the original article in Nature is available online only by means of a paid subscription).