September 28, 2016

Scientific Method, Truth, Reality, and Objectivity

Are they really what we think they are?

Presentation made on April 22, 2003
Yeditepe University Graduate Colloquium
Istanbul, Turkey

A. Cemal Ekin

We are all social scientists studying social phenomena that affect the business world in one way or another. I would like to explore a few critical and related terms we use both in our scientific endeavors as well as in our daily lives. After the presentation, I do not expect you to know more than you already do but I do hope that you will have more nagging questions that seek answers in your mind. After all, science is all about finding answers to questions.

Science, in a very general sense, is the sum total of our efforts to understand the world around us. Since the humankind looked at the sky and saw things that inspired awe, our curiosity to know more about our world, our universe and our selves never stopped. As a result, we have accumulated an enormous amount of knowledge yet what we yearn to know is even greater than what we already know.

Science uses reasoning, both deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning typically starts with a statement about the general nature of things and proceeds to arrive at a conclusion about something specific. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, starts with many observations and attempts to arrive at a generalization. Deductive reasoning is a more robust method of reasoning but not always applicable to social sciences. In deductive reasoning, if the premise and the following statements are true, then the conclusion must be true. In social sciences, however, we typically do not know how things generally are and resort to using inductive reasoning. If I see many drivers on the streets of Istanbul who drive recklessly, then I may conclude that drivers in Istanbul do not obey the traffic rules. Clearly, this will not be true for all drivers who take to the streets in Istanbul. This approach to reasoning is inductive reasoning and is not as robust as the deductive method since our inductive conclusions are “probably true.”

As humankind showed interest in diverse things as the stars, numbers, making fire, eating herbs to get well, and so on, certain logical thinking patterns evolved into different branches of science that we take for granted today as astronomy, physics, and medicine. Together with these so called “hard sciences” we have also sought to know more about societies, about people, about how they create and acquire value, and these gave us sociology, psychology, and economics that we call “soft sciences.” Regardless of whether it is hard or soft, easy or difficult, all branches of science share some common traits mainly on their philosophy of studying what they study. They share a common methodological foundation called the “Scientific Method.”

Scientific Method

Scientific method is not a tool chest that contains a bunch of tools that we grab to do our work. Rather, it is a philosophy of studying things and its tenets are shared by all branches of science, it is a method of thinking. We use the term to distinguish what we do in scientific research from the coffeehouse discussions which are largely nonscientific. What makes an approach scientific is not the people who use it but whether the people adhere to some rigorous standards in their pursuit of knowledge and truth, concepts that we will shortly visit. We seek five fundamental principles in our research if we want them to be considered scientific:

  • Objectivity (another term we will visit): Science seeks truth (another term that needs to be explored) rather than to prove a particular conclusion.
  • Systematicity: Scientific studies approach their subjects systematically so that logical conclusions can be drawn and other phenomena, like relations, can be studied.
  • Reliability: The methods used must yield similar results (not necessarily identical) under similar conditions when studies are repeated. Replicability is essential in scientific inquiries.
  • Comprehensiveness: The necessary elements, variables must be included and unrelated ones must be excluded.
  • Precision: The statements, hypothetical or otherwise, must be precise so that logic can be applied to them.

In other words,

  • we see certain things happening,
  • we ask why they may be happening,
  • we offer answers,
  • we ask if our answer is true what else must also be true,
  • we conduct tests to prove or disprove our statements.

In all this, we must understand and accept the fact that we are merely proving that our statements “seem to be true” for truth is an elusive concept and what we prove to be “true” today may very well be absurd in the future. As we seek the truth we must accept this as a matter of fact since knowledge, based upon which we make our assertions, is not a static concept, and “truth” is not as well defined as we think. Trying to understand the meaning of “truth” and “reality,” which are two fundamental concepts in science, is like trying to grab a handful of Jell-O. The tighter we hold the more it oozes out.

Truth

In English the word “truth” can be spelled with a lower-case “t” or a capital-letter “T” with different meanings. The capital-letter spelling, “Truth,” refers to the supreme reality and the ultimate meaning of existence. In this form, the word and its meaning is based primarily on belief and often dogma, like the belief in a supreme creator, God. Some consider themselves to have found the “Truth” and others may argue that their “Truth” is a better one. It is not possible to reconcile this sort of differences using reasoning since their foundations are rooted outside logic and reason. Our concern is not with this supreme truth since with our meager minds we cannot pretend to understand such supreme things. Rather, we are concerned with the truth with a lower-case t that deals with something with which we can work.

The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language defines truth as: (Atomica, April 21, 2003)

truth (truth)
n., pl. truths (truTHz, truths).

  1. Conformity to fact or actuality.
  2. A statement proven to be or accepted as true.
  3. Sincerity; integrity.
  4. Fidelity to an original or standard.
    1. Reality; actuality.
    2. often Truth. That which is considered to be the supreme reality and to have the ultimate meaning and value of existence.

The definition is laden with other slippery words like “actuality,” “fact,” and “reality” which are accomplices in this conspiracy to hide the meaning of “truth.” For the sake of brevity, I will follow one of the definitions given above, “reality” which is implicit in the other definitions as well. But, what is “reality?”

Reality

Reality is a state of things which we may or may not perceive correctly. The same dictionary defines the word as: (Atomica, April 21, 2003)

re•al•i•ty (rē-ăl’ĭ-tē)

n., pl. -ties.

  1. The quality or state of being actual or true.
  2. One, such as a person, an entity, or an event, that is actual: “the weight of history and political realities” (Benno C. Schmidt, Jr.).
  3. The totality of all things possessing actuality, existence, or essence.
  4. That which exists objectively and in fact: Your observations do not seem to be about reality.

Now, there is something troubling here. “Truth” refers to “reality” which refers back to “truth.” In the mean time, they also introduce other elusive concepts as “objective” and “existence.” In short, the recursive references to and from these words do not help us understand the actual meaning although we can think about statements that refer to reality. As we make statements about reality, some of these statements will conform to reality and we will call them true. Although the logic in the previous sentence is correct, it only refers to the relationship between “truth” and “reality” rather than what they really are. Another critical concept is objectivity which we use as a mantra in scientific studies.

Objectivity

As I presented as part of scientific method, implied, and stated by the definitions of truth and reality, objectivity is also a difficult concept to deal with. If we think of “subjective” as “proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world” then “objective” becomes that which is external to the mind. What makes this particularly disconcerting is that we rely on it as one of the cornerstones of our inquiry. If we look up the definition, we find:

ob•jec•tive (əb-jĕk’tĭv)

adj.

  1. Of or having to do with a material object.
  2. Having actual existence or reality.
  1. Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic. See synonyms at fair1.
  2. Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

The circularity of the references shows its presence one more time to complicate the matters even more. If I am to talk about the external world, I must perceive it in my mind, which makes it internal to my mind and thus “subjective.” Now, this is not a mere play with words. This is the nature of science, and thus how we accumulate knowledge. For example, Ptolemy looked at the stars and the planets and presented a view of the Solar system in which everything revolved around the Earth. We now know that that paradigm is utterly incorrect. But we also know that in his day it was considered to be an “objective” and “true” view of “reality.” Copernicus and Keppler changed that paradigm with one where the Sun is at the center of the Solar system and all the planets revolve around it which became the new objective truth about reality. Who knows what else we will learn in the future that will affect the way we view the same phenomena with a totally new paradigm.

So, what makes “objective” objective? If we all look at the real world around us to find the truth using the knowledge at our disposal, with the current paradigms, we realize that as soon as the real world enters our minds it becomes subjective. This being the case, how can we ever objectively deal with anything? The answer is not as difficult as it appears as the scientists over the centuries have discovered. If we all see the same real world, we all agree in the way we see reality and truth even if it does not correspond with the way things really are. We call this objective, which is nothing more than “collective subjectivity.” Therefore, we find truth in our agreement, which is how science works in general.

Personal values, biases, and scientific open mindedness

I have attempted to create a scientific world where there is no room for prejudice, bias, and personal values. This view is generally correct and desirable, but is it really possible? We try to maintain a scientific “open mindedness” in our inquiries to such extent that we may become rather close-minded without realizing. Take for instance “faith-healing.” Medical scientists may not “believe” in such hocus-pocus in making people feel better. However, refusing to study the phenomenon is a result of close-mindedness. I am not suggesting that we must pursue every idea and every whim, rather I propose that scientifically studying “faith healing” is possible whether we believe in it or not.

We must also recognize that we practice science as humans and thus, we are subject to all the human qualities that we bring with us. As long as we use the notion of collective subjectivity as the basis of objectivity, which we must, we will be influenced by our liberal or conservative, religious or secular, feminist or humanist, capitalist or communist beliefs, views, and paradigms. As long as we are humans, we will carry our own biases and values into our research. Knowing and accepting this is the best way to deal with our biases. Denying that we may have biases will likely prevent us from seeing the very biases we try to avoid where acceptance of the possibility of personal biases will make us more diligent in our research and in our thinking.

I would like us to remember that knowledge is dynamic and ever changing not only over time in societies but also in ourselves. Therefore, it should only be natural that we change as we learn. In fact, learning itself is defined in terms of overt or covert changes that occur in people as a result of acquiring new knowledge. That being the case, the only thing we may be certain of is the change itself and our never-ending quest for more knowledge.

Descartes, who is considered to be the father of modern science, said Cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am” as evidence of one’s own existence as a thinking thing. We can also seek comfort in the same thought that thinking is the only thing we can be sure of and practicing this trait is utterly important for us humans and a responsibility for scientists of all disciplines.

May most of your statements about reality conform to reality.

Notes

Definition of other words that participate in the circular relationships between the words mentioned in the presentation.

ac•tu•al (ăk’chū-əl)

adj.

  1. Existing and not merely potential or possible. See synonyms at real1.
  2. Being, existing, or acting at the present moment; current.
  3. Based on fact: an actual account of the accident.

fact (făkt)

n.

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences: an account based on fact; a blur of fact and fancy.
    1. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: Genetic engineering is now a fact. That Chaucer was a real person is an undisputed fact.
    2. A real occurrence; an event: had to prove the facts of the case.
    3. Something believed to be true or real: a document laced with mistaken facts.
  2. A thing that has been done, especially a crime: an accessory before the fact

This presentation has been inspired and influenced by a series of essays by Earl Babbie as he presented in his 1986 book “Observing Ourselves: Essays in Social Research.”