As a follow-up to my last post, it looks like I should offer a more detailed explanation of why exactly scientific activity is a group activity — not simply as a matter of convenience, but as a matter of necessity. Helen E. Longino has already made this case very persuasively in her book Science as Social Knowledge (specifically the chapter called “Values and Objectivity”), so I’m going to use this post to give a sketch of her argument.
The upshot of the argument is that objective knowledge requires the involvement of other people in the building. All by yourself, there is no way to move beyond subjective knowledge.
First, what do we mean by “objective”?
Subjective has to do with how things seem to me. Objective, in contrast, has to do with how things actually are – what the world is really like regardless of how it might seem to me.
There’s another sense of objective that we think is linked to this first sense: what is objective is what anyone could see. In particular, it’s what anyone could see using the appropriate method for getting rid of the subjective stuff. The appropriate method for seeing the world objectively, we might imagine, is simply the scientific method.
We already have a general sense of this methodology: you design an experiment, calibrate the instruments, make accurate measurements that your labmates check, then use these to build or assess your hypotheses and theories. While some of the pictures of science (like Karl Popper’s) allow as how certain moments in science might be more subjective – say, in the imaginative task of coming up with new hypotheses or theories – they assure us that the end product, scientific knowledge, will be objective because of the objectivity of the testing. You determine what the theory predicts, you set up an experiment, and you determine whether or not the predicted outcome actually occurs. By applying the rules of science to the data, the scientist is supposed to be able to get an accurate picture of what’s really going on.
Kuhn, among others, has argued that the real workings of science are not this straightforward. Different scientists, applying the same rules to the same data, can get different pictures of what’s going on. Plus, it’s hard to completely dispel Kuhn’s worry that observations are theory-laden. This means that my experiments don’t give me facts anyone could observe. Rather, they yield facts that reflect how the world seems to me through the lens of my theory.
Is objectivity out of the question, then? Longino doesn’t think so. She says objectivity is where the community structure of science becomes very important.
All by myself, all I can get is how the world seems to me.
In a group, I can find out what others see when they look at the same parts of the world. I can tell them what I see. Not only can we compare the features we agree and disagree on, but we can also go back and look again at the same parts of the world to see if they look any different now that we know what others see there. Peer review is a mechanism within science where this kind of communication takes place.
What’s the point of the peer review process? The goal is to figure out what we agree upon and to filter out the influence of subjective preference as much as possible. Which parts of how the world seems to me are due to the world, and which are due to my subjective preferences? The parts we tend to agree on might be the best candidates for the features of our experience that correspond to real features of the world.