The Blind and Biased Eye of Objectivity

Sara List

Originally published April 5, 2015

Scientists must take daily snapshots of our work, recording what we see one piece at a time. The full picture is too vast for the lens. The fisheye would distort the image if we included too much, too many variables with too few controls. We want to capture the world as it really is, and in order to do so with our limited frames of view, we use objectivity as our guide. Scientific objectivity refers to the idea of recording only those phenomena that are observable without prejudice or bias. The use for such an approach is vast in the world of science but also limited.

Science seeks to categorize, to filter, and to quantify observations. When we conduct science, we try to leave our social, political, and experiential backgrounds behind in favor of the ideal of pure logic. This practice does allow us to make compelling arguments when trying to convince others that our findings, not those of others, are reflections of the truth.  If someone is open-minded toward having one set of results or another for their experiment, then he or she does not have any reason outside of the merit of the experiment itself to have obtained those results.

Striving for scientific objectivity can seem noble, chivalrous even. The knights of research lay down their beliefs, their emotions, their political contentions, and their self-serving motives all in the name of science. However, there’s one practical problem with this ideal. People who are completely disinterested in an experiment or science in general are often also indifferent about it. These people cannot be paid to do research, given how much effort is required. Those who are paid to do science then, are a passionate and opinionated few.

There are multiple potential threats to scientific objectivity, which can include one or a combination of the following desires on the part of the scientist: desire for approval, desire for potential financial gain, and to avoid controversy. In addition, active advocacy for a certain public policy or vested interest in a particular theory can cloud the objective lens as well. These factors can and do interfere with the scientific approach if ignored by the research community. However, in addition to our scientific enthusiasm, many of us also depend on outside agencies to fuel our work, and the funding can be contingent upon those agencies’ approval of our research. The quest for scientific objectivity may be a noble one, but that quest adds more problems than solutions to the ever-morphing body of knowledge we call modern science.

Striving to be the omniscient, neutral observer can lead us into territory that only leaves us blind to our own biases. Neuroscience in particular is rife with examples of social bias motivating how we study the brain, even though, or perhaps because, objectivity is the goal.  The study of the brain, and by extension, the human mind, gives particular sensitivity to the findings. Scientific objectivity lends scientists a certain authority. That authority is never clearer than when examined within the world of brain science.  With that power comes the responsibility to be aware of our human subjectivity.

One canonical scientist in the field of neuroscience was anthropologist Paul Broca, known for the discovery of Broca’s area in the nineteenth century. Broca’s area is a brain region which when damaged, renders the patient unable to produce intelligible speech, although he or she retains the ability to understand language.  Broca found an excellent example of a brain area that is responsible for a specific function, which drove the modern study of human neuroscience.

Broca’s name also appears in Wikipedia’s Scientific racism entry. In addition to his studies on stroke patients, Broca was a fan of craniometry, the measurement of skull size or brain volume. While craniometry is not inherently a discriminatory method, practitioners, Broca included, used their measurements to justify social views about women and minorities at the time, claiming that biological difference was proof of inferiority.

Broca was not ill informed about scientific objectivity, and strove to meet the demands of this realm of thought, stating “there is no faith, however respectable, no interest, however legitimate, which must not accommodate itself to the progress of human knowledge and bend before truth.” While Broca was a prominent scientist who strove for leaving his personal opinions out in favor of the facts, he also had clear goals to use craniometry to “find some information relevant to the intellectual value of the various human races.” With this hypothesis in mind, he concluded that “In general, the brain is larger in the mature adult than in the elderly, in men than in women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in superior races than in inferior races.”

The case of Broca is a shocking example of scientific objectivity clouding the inner skeptic. He may have thought that by striving for scientific objectivity, he was immune to being subjective. Broca did not question the premise that craniometry could illustrate differences in intelligence. Instead, he designed experiments and interpreted the findings in ways that upheld the views of the time. His basic assumption, that measurements of the brain could rank humans on a linear scale of mental aptitude equivalent to their place in social hierarchy, was not only false, but also highly subjective, despite his support of scientific objectivity.

Broca’s time was over a century ago, and the optimist may suppose this incident was an isolated farce.  Unfortunately, Broca is hardly the first and will not be the last person studying the brain to use the mask of objectivity. John Money was a psychologist and sexologist most known for work in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1966, Money met David Reimer and his parents. The Reimers had turned to the expert after their child’s circumcision had been botched. David no longer had a penis, and Money advised the infant be given a sex reassignment surgery and raised as a girl alongside his twin brother, Brian. While Brian played with trucks, David, then known as Brenda, was given dolls.  David and Brian attended multiple therapy sessions with Money geared toward convincing David that he was a girl and his brother was a boy who would fulfill their respective gender roles.  

Money was known well for his part in supporting the theory of hormonal organization of the brain to produce sexually dimorphic behaviors in animals. Much to the relief of parents at the time, he also supported the theory that for humans, gender identity and sexual orientation were a result of environment and upbringing alone. The doctor wrote extensively about the twins, highlighting David’s successful reassignment to the heterosexual female identity. In one of his many books, Money described his rigorous system for interviewing subjects and cataloging their data that allowed "objectivity to reside in the scoring criteria". As a mature adult, David Reimer found out what happened to him as an infant and why he had been so firmly pressed by his parents and Dr. Money into fulfilling the traditionally defined woman's role. Brenda changed his name to David and began living as a man, but tragically committed suicide in 2004.

Even today, studies like that of Skoe, Krizman, and Kraus (2013) uphold objectivity while trying to find “the biological signatures of poverty”. The authors attempt to link socio-economic status (SES) and differences in the brain’s response to sound. They use a "neurophysiologic test used to quickly and objectively assess the processing of sound by the nervous system," which is interpreted by an audiologist. While the brain is quite malleable and the environment can and does affect neural circuitry, studies such as these can encourage the treatment of poverty as a disease. The language in the article suggests many possible methods of targeted “intervention” for low SES students. From this point, the leap is not large to consider these neural differences a factor in the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty. This type of approach can lead to interpretations not far from Broca’s if we suggest that these studies are purely objective.

All of the scientists above were, and are, respected, intelligent, and creative individuals. All of them have used scientific objectivity. These scientists were most likely working in good faith and not intentionally biased. However, they were sorely misguided in applying objective measures to such a degree as to find themselves impervious to partiality. In trying to act as the disinterested observer, these researchers stumbled into the realm of ignorance, focusing on the experiment but not the outside pressures. They aren't the only ones.

The ideal of objective thinking can render scientists blind to the ways that the question begets the answer. Perhaps scientific objectivity then has no place in scientific practice. Donna Haraway, scientific philosopher and feminist, argues that objectivity in science should be discarded in favor of acknowledging the individual, both researcher and participant.  She advocates for the idea of situated knowledges from multiple individuals, meaning that “rational knowledge does not pretend to disengagement” and is instead a collective of scientific voices that consider themselves rational but not invulnerable to their own background and bias.

Objective research as it stands has offered much improvement to the scientific community and the method of inquiry since the nineteenth century, but the time has come to allow the definition of objectivity to morph.  Let’s make an effort, in our reading and our own work, to acknowledge the subjective and take our biases into consideration.  Objectivity is an ideal, but in reality, an eye that observes is not blind and should not pretend to be.  The most beautiful photograph is crafted, not captured from the ether.  The exposure, the contrast, the angle.  The question, the hypothesis, the model.  Perhaps most important for both photography and research, the interpretation.  All of these aspects matter.  Paying attention to each detail, ensuring no one feature overtakes the others, is the quality that separates the novice from the pro.

Edited by: Marika Wieliczko