Beyond the Margin of Error: The Bias of Science

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Beyond the Margin of Error: The Bias of Science

by Ross Feldberg

Brian Martin, ISBS, Inc. $6.00

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 6, November-December 1980, p. 30–32

Ross Feldberg is on the faculty of the Biology Department at Tufts University. He has been a long-standing member of Science for the People. 

 Once, when I was in Heathrow Airport, the bus I was taking from one terminal to another came around a building, and I found myself suddenly no more than fifty feet away from the British/French supersonic transport (SST), the Concorde. That first moment was breathtaking, like coming face to face with a spaceship. The SST, like no other passenger aircraft, is sleek, tapered to a needle point at the nose, and with abbreviated, swept wings that hinted that this machine danced above the atmosphere. As we passed the craft, I felt a little guilty and reminded myself that this was one of those prime examples of a technology that was of marginal usefulness and of potentially vast destructiveness.

I was living in Scotland at the time the U.S. was deciding whether or not to construct a fleet of SST aircraft. From that vantage point, I could observe the contending parties, as arguments over national prestige and economic viability were being fought. The most telling arguments seemed to concern the environmental effect of these planes. Opponents argued that nitrogen oxide from the plane would react with and destroy stratospheric ozone, causing levels of harmful ultraviolet radiation to be increased at the surface of the earth. Proponents argued that such reactions would be insignificant and that the ozone layer would not be diminished. But who was “right” and what was the “truth”? 

As a radical and as a scientist concerned about the adoption of unnecessary and potentially harmful technologies, my instincts were to side with the opponents of the SST. After all, did we really need this machine? Was it worth taking a risk with this indispensible layer of ozone for this technology? Who would pay for its development? And who would end up benefiting from it? It was my answer to these questions that molded my negative response to the SST development and not the technical issue of ozone concentrations. Yet, the technical issue still stands and indeed raises important issues. 

As a scientist, and as a Marxist, I believe that there is a fundamental material reality to the world, independent of our beliefs and perceptions. The methods of scientific thought provide us with one (and, in general, I would argue the best) way of perceiving this reality and of interpreting it. However, science is not the same as the reality it attempts to measure. The myth of a neutral, unbiased science measuring and reporting on physical realities above and apart from the constraints of the broader belief system is a fiction that arises from the belief that science is reality. As a Marxist, I know that science is, above all, a human endeavor; science is no more separate from political, social, psychological and economic forces than is any other sphere of human activity.

Science carried out in a capitalist society reflects the goals, values, limitations, contradictions, etc. of that society. Yet people educated in our science-dominated society do not believe that science is political. Which view of science is correct? To many of us, this “little” argument is an incredible gulf that separates us from many of our fellow scientists.

Brian Martin’s The Bias of Science provides us with a unique tool for bridging that gulf. Through a detailed analysis of a single example of scientific work, he demonstrates by necessity how the belief of a scientist influences his or her perception of reality. This is the book that many progressive scientists have been wanting to write for years, but never quite found the time or energy to put down on paper. I hope that Martin’s book will provide a model for similar case studies. 

The Bias of Science begins with two papers reprinted in their entirety: “Reduction of Stratospheric Ozone by Nitrogen Oxide Catalysts from Supersonic Transport Exhaust” by H. Johnston, first published in Science and “Nitrogen Oxides, Nuclear Weapon Testing, Concorde and Stratospheric Ozone” by P. Goldsmith, et al., first published in Nature. Both papers are quite formidable, containing complex mathematical models, and simultaneous chemical reactions. Martin provides a glossary and a brief guide to help the reader. 

Johnston, basing his argument on the potential chemical reactivities, concentrations and altitude distributions of the various molecules, concludes that a fleet of SSTs would result in a significant decrease in stratospheric ozone. Goldsmith and his associates examine potential nitrogen oxides released from nuclear weapons explosions and ozone concentration measurements carried out during and following the years of maximal atmospheric weapons testing. They conclude that other unknown factors predominate in determing ozone levels and that SST-generated nitrogen oxides would have little or no effect on the ozone layer. Whose version of reality corresponds then to the true physical reality? Indeed, if science is an objective, value-free, neutral search for truth, how is it that different scientists can reach such opposite conclusions? 

The view that science is material reality is based on an idealistic view of science as neutral, disinterested examination of evidence followed by a balanced analysis and appraisal. In his book, Martin uses the two papers to illustrate the impossibility of doing science in this manner. He gathers a variety of threads of evidence to demonstrate that in each case the authors selectively “push” only one of the possible conclusions. In some detail Martin shows how the authors do this by: a) stressing or ignoring certain technical assumptions, b) selective use of evidence, c) selective use of results, and d) coloration of words. Martin demonstrates how the choice of words or phrases can color the tone of a paper and thus support its “scientific” conclusions. 

Thus, Johnston refers to a “threat to stratospheric (ozone)” while Goldsmith refers to the same phenomenon by the term “interact with and so attenuate”. Martin provides us with an invaluable service in his close analysis of how arguments are actually pushed in real scientific work. 

Martin next turns to the somewhat broader question of what presuppositions are held by scientists that might lead them to push arguments in one direction or another. This provides him with a bridge to move from the specifics of a single debate to the questions of the value content (politics) of scientific work. In an inspired move, Martin sent his manuscript off to each of the principal authors for their comments. Johnston, although he disagreed with Martin’s analysis of his work, does enter the debate and contribute some valuable insights into both sides of the debate on atmospheric chemistry. Goldsmith, in contrast, simply dismissed Martin’s detailed analysis as derogatory. 

In the last half of the book, Martin goes on to a more general analysis of the social and political values underlying scientific work. In these final five chapters he addresses questions such as, why is scientific research done?; who can use scientific research?; what is science used to justify?; what is scientific knowledge? and who does scientific research? These chapters contain some valuable insights as well as an extraordinarily useful set of detailed reference notes which make up a critical annotated bibliography to other writings in the field. However, I found this portion of the text least satisfying. This may be due to my impatience with more general analysis, but I felt the writing here was somewhat less focussed and the organization more idiosyncratic. 

Overall, Brian Martin’s book provides a valuable tool for demonstrating how scientific work is tied up in social and political forces. The book should be of particular value in academic courses which deal with the nature of the scientific process and I hope it will serve as a model for analyses of topics such as environmental science, energy, medical research and transportation. Martin has pointed a way and I hope others follow up on it. Do not miss this book.

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