The science of subjectivity
School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JW, UK
While the evidence-based approach of science is lauded for introducing objectivity to processes of investigation, the role of subjectivity in science is less often highlighted in scientific literature. Nevertheless, the scientific method comprises at least two components: forming hypotheses, and collecting data to substantiate or refute each hypothesis (Descartes’ 1637 discourse [Olscamp, 1965]). A hypothesis is a conjecture of a new theory that derives from, but by definition is unproven by, known laws, rules, or existing observations. Hypotheses are always made by one individual or by a limited group of scientists, and are therefore subjective—based on the prior experience and processes of reason employed by those individuals, rather than solely on objective external process. Such subjectivity and concomitant uncertainty lead to competing theories that are subsequently pared down as some are proved to be incompatible with new observations.
Allowing subjectivity is a positive aspect of the scientific method: it allows for leaps of faith which occasionally lead to spell-binding proposals that prove to be valid. Some scientific studies have analyzed how subjectivity contributes to the progression of ideas, and some of those studies are in the geological sciences (Aspinall, 2010). Bond et al. (2012, p. 75 in this issue of Geology) showed a computer-generated seismic cross section, created from an underlying (invented) geological model, to several hundred individual geologists. The model included structural deformation and inversion of faults, with pre-, syn- and post-deformational stratigraphic development. Each geologist interpreted the cross section to hypothesize a geological model; they also provided information about their academic and professional background. Concepts employed by each geologist were categorized (e.g., as dominantly diapirism, thrusting, extension, inversion, etc.) and analyzed statistically. Importantly, the geologists’ background and experience correlated significantly with their likelihood of having invoked the correct concepts. Those with Master's or doctoral (Ph.D.) degrees were most likely to make a successful interpretation. Analyzing the techniques employed (e.g., feature identification, horizon picking, annotation, evolutionary sketches), successful interpretations were most often obtained from using multiple techniques, particularly if they included evolutionary sketches; academic staff were notably successful because they tended to use multiple techniques. Thus, variations in prior experience are shown to bias the formation of evidence-based geological hypotheses.
Such biases in geologists are quite expected as the processes through which they develop in experts in any field are well known to cognitive psychologists. Biases include over-confidence, anchoring and adjustment, availability, and motivational bias, and the definitions of these can be found in Kahneman et al. (1982) or O'Hagan et al. (2006). All such biases occur in situations of uncertainty (such as when forming hypotheses), when various heuristics (rules of thumb) are employed subconsciously.
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