Home > Uncategorized > On the impossibility of objectivity in science

On the impossibility of objectivity in science

from Lars Syll

objOperations Research does not incorporate the arts and humanities largely because of its distorted belief that doing so would reduce its objectivity, a misconception it shares with much of science. The meaning of objectivity is less clear than that of optimality. Nevertheless, most scientists believe it is a good thing. They also believe that objectivity in research requires the exclusion of any ethical-moral values held by the researchers. We need not argue the desirability of objectivity so conceived; it is not possible.

Most, if not all, scientific inquiries involve either testing hypotheses or estimating the values of variables. Both of these procedures necessarily involve balancing two types of error. Hypotheses-testing procedures require use of a significance level, the significance of which appears to escape most scientists. Their choice of such a level is usually made unconsciously, dictated by convention. This level, as many of you know, is a probability of rejecting a hypothesis when it is true. Naturally, we would like to make this probability as small as possible. Unfortunately, however, the lower we set this probability, the higher is the probability of accepting a hypothesis when it is false. Therefore, choice of a significance level involves a value judgment by the scientist about the relative seriousness of these two types of error. The fact that he usually makes this value judgment unconsciously does not attest to his objectivity, but to his ignorance.

There is a significance level at which any hypothesis is acceptable, and a level at which it is not. Therefore, statistical significance is not a property of data or a hypothesis but is a consequence of an implicit or explicit value judgment applied to them.

The choice of an estimating procedure can also be shown to require the evaluation of the relative importance of negative and positive errors of estimation. The most commonly used procedures are “unbiased”; therefore, they provide best estimates only when errors of equal magnitude but of opposite sign are equally serious — a condition I have never found in the real world.

Russell L. Ackoff

  1. Rhonfa Kovac
    April 27, 2019 at 4:39 am

    Scientific objectivity refers to seeing things as they are, in an unbiased, undistorted way.

    The choice Ackoff describes balancing errors of significance has nothing to do with objectivity. It is about a tradeoff of one measurement error for another. (The tradeoff is similar to that in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle between the position and momentum of a particle.)

    The “values” in the judgment referred to are physical and mathematical, not moral, ethical, prescriptive. This represents not a distortion of reality, but rather a claimed inherent limitation of reality that is present however that reality is viewed, objectively or otherwise.

  2. Ron Goldring
    April 27, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    I view the general issue of objectivity in science less problematic than the issue in encountered in Economics (which IMHO should not be deemed science).
    The insistence on accounting only for ‘objective’, measurable values (typically: monetary values) and excluding non-objective, non-measurable values (e.g: The value of life) leads to what amounts to “one-handed equations”: In forming economic policy – on one hand there is money, on the other hand… there is no other hand.
    For example: If part of the budget is financed by a loan, and is used for paying another loan – it’s easy. It’s all about money. If a yearly sum of, say, $100M could save 4000 people per year (by mitigating deaths due to hospital contamination) – how are we to determine if we should invest the money? What’s the worth of 4000 lives? There is no objective way to determine it. So, it is left out to power politics.
    What if we let a trusted committee to set a value to life (subjectively, of course, but the committee is entrusted to make that call)?
    Suppose the value assigned is $0.5M for individual life – then the sum of $100M is on the balance, with $2000M on the other scale. The “dilemma” is no-brainer – of course, the $100M must be invested without further ado!
    So, between “objectivity” and “subjectivity” there should also be “entrusted valuation” as a societal tool to account for non-objective, non-measurable values.
    Politics, of course, is involved. But without doing it, insisting on ‘objectivity’, we are left with a crippled system that resorts to power struggles alone.

  3. Robert Locke
    April 28, 2019 at 6:32 am

    Ackoff wrote that successful OR required not only “science with a capital S but all the arts and humanities we can command,” in “The Future of Operational Research is Past” JORS in 1979. I quote him in my 1989 book, Management and Higher Education Since 1940, in the chapter “The new paradigm reconsideredd.” Why are we still talking about it decades later. I thought the point of this blog was to make some progress.

    • Robert Locke
      April 28, 2019 at 6:43 am

      I woke up this morning after a terrible dream, that the yellow vests in their protests had brought down the 5th republic and in the chaos that ensued on the streets of Europe the poor in their agony ended the possibility of civilized life in European cities. That should haunt you as much as concerns about the maldistribution of wealth. Stop worrying about Ackoff, so I can sleep better.

      • Helen Sakho
        April 28, 2019 at 10:16 pm

        Unfortunately no amount of sleeping pills can help anyone with even a moderate conscience sleep through the nightmares that now surround the whole of humanity.
        The long-standing derailment of the discourse on real economic issues must really stop at once, otherwise whatever is left of this blog will also go into a dark coma!

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    May 4, 2019 at 11:45 am

    Objectivity is a notion some physical scientists invented to justify the elevation of their judgments over those of any other group. That way even when they screw up and get their conclusions wrong, they can at least claim their work is objective. That apart, I side with Ackoff. Science is an effort to understand phenomena that people observe (e.g. stars, gas rising from a swamp, the make-up of physical things, marriage, riots, social stratification). People say these things exist. Not the universe. Scientists try to figure out the process through which they come to exist and impact our lives. All practical concerns with useful applications for scientists’ research about them. As to objectivity its cultural roots show it as a way to focus human exploration and assemble human judgments. In a short definition for modern western culture, objectivity is simply examining a thing from as many perspectives as feasible using the largest number of examination tools practicable. Obviously, objectivity considered this way has no stopping point. Objectivity is never “achieved.”

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