Is Science Objective?

Thomas Kuhn (2012), a historian of science, argued that science, as an activity conducted by humans, is a social activity. As such, it is—according to Kuhn—subject to the same psychological influences of all human activities. Specifically, Kuhn suggested that there is no such thing as objective theory or data; all of science is informed by values. Scientists cannot help but let personal/cultural values, experiences, and opinions influence the types of questions they ask and how they make sense of what they find in their research. Kuhn’s argument highlights a distinction between facts (information about the world), and values (beliefs about the way the world is or ought to be). This distinction is an important one, even if it is not always clear.

To illustrate the relationship between facts and values, consider the problem of global warming. A vast accumulation of evidence (facts) substantiates the adverse impact that human activity has on the levels of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere leading to changing weather patterns. There is also a set of beliefs (values), shared by many people, that influences their choices and behaviors in an attempt to address that impact (e.g., purchasing electric vehicles, recycling, bicycle commuting). Our values—in this case, that Earth as we know it is in danger and should be protected—influence how we engage with facts. People (including scientists) who strongly endorse this value, for example, might be more attentive to research on renewable energy.


The primary point of this illustration is that (contrary to the image of scientists as outside observers to the facts, gathering them neutrally and without bias from the natural world) all science—especially social sciences like psychology—involves values and interpretation. As a result, science functions best when people with diverse values and backgrounds work collectively to understand complex natural phenomena.

Indeed, science can benefit from multiple perspectives. One approach to achieving this is through levels of analysis. Levels of analysis is the idea that a single phenomenon may be explained at different levels simultaneously. Remember the question concerning cramming for a test versus studying over time? It can be answered at a number of different levels of analysis. At a low level, we might use brain scanning technologies to investigate whether biochemical processes differ between the two study strategies. At a higher level—the level of thinking—we might investigate processes of decision making (what to study) and ability to focus, as they relate to cramming versus spaced practice. At even higher levels, we might be interested in real world behaviors, such as how long people study using each of the strategies. Similarly, we might be interested in how the presence of others influences learning across these two strategies. Levels of analysis suggests that one level is not more correct—or truer—than another; their appropriateness depends on the specifics of the question asked. Ultimately, levels of analysis would suggest that we cannot understand the world around us, including human psychology, by reducing the phenomenon to only the biochemistry of genes and dynamics of neural networks. But, neither can we understand humanity without considering the functions of the human nervous system.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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