Swat Scientist: The Objectivity Bias

Would you think twice about getting vaccinated against HPV because Michelle Bachmann doesn’t think you should? Probably not. However, in 1988, scientific research was published connecting autism with vaccination. By virtue of its purported objectivity, the scientific research, unlike Ms. Bachmann, caused many to question the efficacy and safety of vaccinations. Dr. Andrew Wakefield published research in one of medicine’s most prominent journals, The Lancet, associating the vaccination of children with the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine with the development of autism. It caused a global drop in vaccinations, (one Bachmann could only dream of for the HPV vaccine) leading to a rise in the occurrence of measles in epidemic proportions. It took thirteen years to disprove the claims Wakefield made – the debate continued until 2011, when the British Medical Journal published an article debunking Wakefield’s results, concluding that the research was unethically financed and fraudulent.

Instances such as this highlight that scientific research doesn’t take place in a vacuum, as it would like to. Science exists in a context of societal expectations and prejudice, and so we should question the objectivity of scientific conclusions.

A company involved in biomedical research, where I was an intern last summer, announced that they were publishing 29 research papers, written in the time of two quarters. Impressive, for a team of 15 people; almost 2 papers are being published per person in just a couple of months. With such a turnover rate, not to mention rising expectations in terms of results that attract funding, scientists have their hands full. It certainly does not help that scientific inquiry is a painstaking process, in need of a lot of time and attention.

Even barring unethical aims and methods, there are basic ideas in science that reinforce closed-mindedness, particularly through research in support of these. One of the easiest, yet obviously wrong, ways to do so is to make those new to them the other, which is most obvious in historical science. In the 19th century and onwards, one of the main causes of prejudice in science originated from doctors and scientists having to come to terms with the unfamiliar, and science and medicine provided them with all the tools to do so successfully.

At the time framed as the studies of phrenology and physiognomy, today this period of scientific inquiry is known as the predecessor to the eugenics movement. Phrenology is now ‘bumpology,’ or the study of the shape of skulls, searching for abnormalities that are telling of an individual’s defects. Physiognomy, on the other hand, is the study of facial features. The face was thought to hold legible markings of inherent character. Soon after came pathognomy, an offshoot of physiognomy, or the study of excitable facial features that reveal one’s true emotions.

Unfortunately, phrenology and physiognomy’s claim to link social markers, like character , with science can still be found in neurology and neuroscience. A recently-published paper titled “A Combination of Dopamine Genes Predicts Success by Professional Wall Street Traders” claims to have found genetic predispositions that indicate whether one would be a successful Wall Street stock broker. Stock brokers today are more or less associated with upper class standing, and the authors of the article are indirectly making the claim that genes may predispose individuals to a better (and for others worse) social standing.

Just as phrenology and physiognomy pathologized socially-undesirable emotion and character by finding their cause in abnormal head or face shape, the classifications adopted by contemporary bodies like the WHO threaten to do the same.

The WHO International Classification of Diseases includes not only malaria and cancer, but  gender-identity disorders (disliking one’s assigned gender as a child, or cross-dressing), sexuality disorders (sadomasochism, fetishes, and even phone sex), and eccentric personalities. It is possible  that many Swarthmore students, fanatic and obsessive in their working habits, and anxious about their results, would be deemed incredibly ill on many counts. In fact, the majority of individuals would be seen as diseased by the WHO, as the ICD seems to pathologize peoples’ quirks, preferences, choices or simply personalities.

Such research may once again lead to the once-historic understanding that our genes or our biology predispose us to certain behaviors, certain values, and social classes. Sooner or later the scientific community itself may propose to eradicate such research. Until then, though, I aim to keep asking questions that may not yet have a clear answer, and hope that others will be inspired to do the same.


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5 comments

  1. 0
    Charlie O says:

    I like the article alot, I hope there are more to come!

    1 question. I’m confused with your comparison of the wall-street paper with phrenology. How does that paper “link social markers with science?” The paper examines the correlation between certain genes and risk-taking behavior, a real biological phenomenon that can be seen in fMRI studies. Previous research has shown that 25% of variation in individual portfolio risk can be attributed to genetic variation.

    http://econ-www.mit.edu/files/4293

    All I’m saying is that I think it’s a bit of leap to compare phrenology’s statements about a person’s character ( a social construct) to a paper comparing gene frequency and risk-reward behavior.

  2. 0
    Careful says:

    While I agree that one should exercise caution in making scientific claims about human behavior, it’s still important not to turn into someone like Stephen J Gould, who tried to manipulate data because he found it upsetting to his personal convictions ()

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