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The Myth of the Objective Scientist

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Though rare, it's gratifying to see someone in the media pulling back the covers that normally hide the fact that passions and prejudices can drive scientists just like everyone else. Writing about a recent book by Alice Dreger, Toby Young in the London Spectator considers the career of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon who was long vilified by his colleagues (though more recently rehabilitated). His offense? He cast doubt on what Young calls the "myth of the noble savage," a bedrock notion of progressivism:

How much longer can the liberal left survive in the face of growing scientific evidence that many of its core beliefs are false? I'm thinking in particular of the conviction that all human beings are born with the same capacities, particularly the capacity for good, and that all mankind's sins can be laid at the door of the capitalist societies of the West. ...This romanticism underpins all progressive movements, from the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn to the environmentalism of Caroline Lucas, and nearly every scientist who challenges it provokes an irrational hostility, often accompanied by a trashing of their professional reputations.

Liberals were too committed to their liberalism to allow the results of his research to stand, and so denounced and demonized him:

He has devoted his life to studying the Yanomam�, indigenous people of the Amazonian rain forest on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, and his conclusions directly challenge the myth of the noble savage. 'Real Indians sweat, they smell bad, they take hallucinogenic drugs, they belch after they eat, they covet and at times steal their neighbour's wife, they fornicate, and they make war,' Chagnon told a Brazilian journalist. His view of the Yanomam� people is summed up by the title he gave to his masterwork on the subject: The Fierce People.


In 2000, in a book called Darkness in El Dorado, the journalist Patrick Tierney accused Chagnon and his collaborator James Neel of fomenting wars among rival tribes, aiding and abetting illegal gold miners, deliberately infecting the Yanomam� with measles and paying subjects to kill each other. Shockingly, these charges were taken at face value and widely reported in liberal publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times. (A headline in the Guardian read: -- 'Scientist "killed Amazon Indians to test race theory".') Many of Chagnon's colleagues turned on him, including the American Anthropological Association, which set up an task force to investigate. Chagnon was not allowed to defend himself and this task force published a report 'confirming' several allegations. As a result, Chagnon was forced into early retirement.

This should all sound familiar. Whether the field is anthropology or evolutionary biology, whether the context is science or journalism, human beings are subject to worldview-driven bias. Elites in particular react furiously when their bias is challenged, likely because holding the right prejudices is so vital in cementing status.

A related problem is that just as liberals are devoted to their noble savage, they are perhaps even more devoted to the myth of the objective scientist. In this perspective, scientists are special, uniquely clear-sighted, distinctively noble, not unlike the precious, peace-loving, environment-friendly indigenous peoples of the world but with a lab coat instead of a loincloth.

The truth is that a vision of how the universe ought to look can blind us. In the current prestige view, physical existence ought to be driven, in the final analysis, by unguided forces to the exclusion of purpose, wisdom, or intelligence. All evidence must, therefore, be interpreted in that light, confirming the vision in a tight little circle.

Misled by the myth of objectivity, many in the media and in education are themselves blinded. And so you have a dynamic that goes beyond a vague confirmation bias to an absolute insistence that when it comes to certainties like Darwinian evolution, no challenge is permitted and anyone willing to consider counterevidence is demonized as a "creationist."

Image: Yanomam� woman and child, by Cmacauley [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.