Scientists Aren’t in a Bubble, and Their Work Isn’t in a Vacuum

Written by Emily Michelle Bruff Simpson, Geology PhD student at the University of Cincinnati and the Center’s new Outreach and Social Media Coordinator 

No one lives in a bubble. We are influenced by the world around us, and we influence our world. Scientists are no exception; although we might try to be neutral in our work, we are humans too, each with our own pasts, hopes, and ideas. Recent current events have led many researchers to re-examine our own biases with a desire to do better.

To a point, this happens every time we experience a hate-related tragedy.  But personally, as a young woman in science pursuing a doctorate and a career in academia who has watched these conversations over the years, I saw something new this past June. I saw the academic societies that I am a member of put out statements such as this: 

I have never seen systematic racism and sexism addressed in scientific communities the way that it has been this year. It gave me hope. However, it also felt empty; many groups issued statements of support with little guidance of how we can do better in academia. But the widespread recognition of our own biases is a new beginning. 

Dr. Potochnik, the Director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Public Engagement in Science, recently published an op-ed in Scientific American addressing the need for this recognition, titled “Awareness of Our Biases is Essential to Good Science.” She wrote it in response to a piece by Lawrence Krauss, which suggested that science has become ‘ideologically corrupted’ by current concerns for racism and sexism. In her reply, rather than encouraging scientists to strive to work in a vacuum, Potochnik advocates for “ideological awareness,” or acknowledging our own biases so that blind spots can be brought to light and gaps can be better accounted for. 

We had the opportunity after her article came out to discuss her thoughts behind writing it. Here is our discussion: 

Question: What inspired you to write an opinion piece now? 

Dr. Potochnik: The roles social and political values play in science is a research interest of mine, and it’s something that I think is an interesting topic to have in the public’s eye. In brief, I think a lot of the confusing features of science, like how there can sometimes seem to be conflicting findings over time, and disagreement among researchers, can be better understood if we appreciate how our interests and concerns and assumptions shape what questions are asked. I also think that greater awareness of how values shape scientific investigations could lead to scientists and the public audience for science to push for science that accomplishes the sort of goals we have, rather than just thinking any legitimate research is equally good.  

This op-ed by Lawrence Krauss was a good opportunity for me to wade into these topics, since he seemed to presume that traditional research is entirely objective, and the problem only starts when the humanities caused scientists to start worrying about values. In my opinion, that is exactly backwards.  

Question: This is more of a nuts and bolts question. People are hearing a little bit about how peer-review works in the midst of COVID-19. What we publish has to be approved based on our data, our methods, and the basis of our ideas. What process did your article go through as an op-ed before being published? What place do these hold in the scientific community?  

Dr. Potochnik:  Well, keep in mind that this isn’t an academic article; it is an opinion piece in a popular venue. So there’s no peer review. The editor reads the pitch or draft piece, then makes a call on whether to accept. Then it goes into editing, and often the author doesn’t even see what changes they make in editing. The editors choose the title usually. When it comes to academic research, though, philosophy has peer review just like scientific disciplines.  

Opinion pieces for a popular audience, like this, can sometimes raise the profile of one’s academic research. But they don’t usually “count” as research, rather, universities tend to see them as outreach or professional service.  

 
Question: You summarize a point made by Dr. Richard Levins in 2006, saying thathis scientific work begins with the question of what science “will do for the children.” Is there a question that everything you do “begins with?” 

Dr. Potochnik: Good question. I don’t think so. But, the ideas I like to think about revolve around how science is shaped by its human audience, and how complex the world is.  

Question: In terms intended for the non-philosopher/scientist, how would you explain the line between “science being led astray by values” and “ideological awareness”? 

As I described in that opinion piece, I think there are two ways the influence of values on science can go wrong.  

One is if the values play illegitimate roles in scientific methods. A simple example: a widely shared value like “all people should have access to clean water” is problematic if it is used as a reason to ignore data. If researchers see that there is elevated lead in some drinking water, but say “everyone should have clean water, so we will ignore that!” then this is an illegitimate influence due to the role the value is playing.  

The second is if the wrong values influence our science, even if the role those values play in scientific methods is unproblematic. Historically, there’s been much less medical research on women than men, which has led to practical implications like medicine dosage being less appropriate for those with the average body mass of women. There’s not necessarily anything scientifically wrong with the research that was conducted, but it prioritized men in a way that is problematic given that presumably we believe women and men are equally deserving of good health care.  

Question: As I’ve watched the response to social injustice within the scientific community spearheaded by bold museums, societies, and even amateur groups… I’ve also pondered where to start. We want to encourage more diversity in the sciences and recognize our biases. How do we do this as scientists in fields not directly dealing with these issues? For example, a medical study should be including women so that we know how medicine impacts us. But what about those who aren’t actively studying people?  Of course, you mention involving those in the humanities in these conversations. Are there other practical suggestions being discussed, both at the individual and institutional level?  

Dr. Potochnik: Even your question hints at a lot of different answers to this! We can all work to promote diversity of scientists, students, and viewpoints in our own disciplines, in a variety of ways. We can think about the exact focus of our research and whether there’s a way to focus it or conduct it slightly differently that would improve the endpoint or the process, including who’s involved in the process and how. And yes, I think talking across disciplines is potentially hugely helpful! For example, I know a number of philosophers who have temporarily or permanently been embedded in a scientific lab, and I think it’s been helpful for all involved.  

We can also push back when scientists write op-eds complaining that science has gone awry because of attention to racism and sexism!  More generally, my hope is that cultivating a closer relationship between science and the broader public will contribute to redefining the kinds of people who contribute to science and the kinds of people who deserve to influence what science is accomplishing.  

This is just gesturing in some of the directions I saw in your question. This is a very important question, and I am no expert on how to answer it.  

Question:  What is your reaction to the discussions happening now regarding diversity in STEM fields?  

Like you, I’m impressed by the attention that the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo Movement have received in science, and especially ‘grassroots’ actions that have been taken. I think that’s the direction change is really made in. More generally, over decades, philosophers of science and scientists alike have more broadly appreciated that science is part of society, and that we need to consider that relationship and work to make it what it should be. There’s lots of work to do, but like you, I am optimistic.  

University of Dayton Colloquium Moved Online

The Doing Science in a Pluralistic Society Colloquium at the University of Dayton will now take place online. The new dates for the colloquium are April 17 and 24. This should be a really interesting event which tackles the question: If science is to serve humanity, how can that be done given the vast diversity that exists among people and cultures? On April 24 Center Director Angela Potochnik and Center Post-Doc Melissa Jacquart will give a presentation on “Divergence of Values and Goals in Participatory Research.” For more information about the colloquium and how to access the online sessions please visit this website.