Scientific analysis – 200 words.
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Scientific analysis is not just a straightforward process of observation and reporting but, rather, a complex series of personal decisions, value judgments, and guesses, influenced by the scientist’s unique combination of personal experiences, fears, hopes, desires, and values. Like the rest of us, scientists worry about their careers, their families, and their finances. Ultimately, these human qualities influence the ways that individuals see and interpret scientific information. For this reason, it is not uncommon for 2 scientists to examine the same data set but reach very different conclusions.
Beth Savan, in her book Science Under Siege, cites the example of Stephen Jay Gould, a professor of geology at Harvard University. Gould reanalyzed data compiled by Samuel Morton, a 19th-century physician, on the physical and intellectual differences among human races. Gould’s analysis showed that Morton had consciously or unconsciously manipulated his data to arrive at the conclusion—widely held when Morton was alive—that white people are a superior race. Yet in his own analysis, Gould misread one of Morton’s figures, leading him to underestimate racial differences in the data and thus to arrive at a conclusion more in keeping with his own preconceptions—that the differences among races are small.
This example demonstrates another feature of scientific analysis—that we tend to favor familiar, widely accepted views, while demanding a higher standard of proof for new ideas. Sometimes these biases can create obstacles to sound decision making. For example, a group of Western scientists planned to conserve Peary caribou in the High Arctic by protecting females and juveniles but allowing some hunting of adult males. Inuit hunters, knowledgeable about the social structure of caribou herds, warned that this practice would instead speed the decline of the population. Subsequent monitoring has confirmed the validity of the Inuit position. Human emotions and values underlie most of the environmental disputes of this century. Divergent scientific analyses are often seen in the development of environmental standards. Environmental managers can reveal these subjective influences and make them explicit in decision making by including a wide range of viewpoints in their analysis and by recognizing and, where possible, compensating for their own unique values and biases.
Are you surprised to read that different scientists, studying the same data, could come up with different results based on their own biases? Describe one personal bias that a scientist may bring to the analysis of an environmental issue. You might consider places lived, jobs held, cultural and religious backgrounds, etc. Try to be specific when coming up with the issue (either a factual issue or make one up) and describe the effect of the bias.