Objectivity and Ethics in Environmental Health Science

Article excerpt

During the past several decades, philosophers of science and scientists themselves have become increasingly aware of the complex ways in which scientific knowledge is shaped by its social context. This awareness has called into question traditional notions of objectivity. Working scientists need an understanding of their own practice that avoids the naive myth that science can become objective by avoiding social influences as well as the reductionist view that its content is determined simply by economic interests. A nuanced perspective on this process can improve research ethics and increase the capacity of science to contribute to equitable public policy, especially in areas such as environmental and occupational health, which have direct implications for profits, regulation, legal responsibility, and social justice. I discuss research into health effects of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, as an example of how scientific explanations are shaped by social concepts, norms, and preconceptions. I describe how a scientific practice that developed under the influence of medical and nuclear physics interacted with observations made by exposed community members to affect research questions, the interpretation of evidence, inferences about biological mechanisms in disease causation, and the use of evidence in litigation. By considering the history and philosophy of their disciplines, practicing researchers can increase the rigor, objectivity, and social responsibility of environmental health science. Key words: cancer, chance, dose reconstruction, environmental justice, epidemiology, ionizing radiation, research ethics, significance testing, Three Mile Island. Environ Health Perspect 111:1809-1818 (2003). doi:10.1289/ehp.6200 available via http://dx.doi.org/[Online 19 June 2003]


In politics, policy, and law, science has emerged as an alternative to folk traditions, religion, and superstition as a way to understand and manipulate the material world. The value and prestige of the sciences derive not only from their erudition, explanatory power, and applied technology but from their perceived objectivity. A common view among scientists and lay persons alike is that scientific objectivity is a consequence of standardized methods of quantitative observation and experimentation. The scientific method, by removing subjectivity and social influence, yields knowledge that is ostensibly trustworthy and objective.

Despite the persistence of this view, historians, philosophers, and scientists themselves have shown that it does not provide an adequate account of the production of scientific knowledge (Harding 1991; Holtzman 1981; Hubbard 1990; Kuhn 1970). There are several reasons why method cannot remove social influences from science. First, the content and methods of science are formed in relation to answering questions or testing hypotheses that are socially embedded. Second, scientific explanation requires language, concepts, and models that are cultural products. Although all sciences expend considerable effort to rationalize concepts and terminology, these tools of inquiry are inevitably shaped and transformed by historical forces. Therefore, scientists cannot even see the world, much less provide explanations of its workings, without a socially formed perspective. Ironically, the belief that science could attain objectivity through independence from social forces places science in the role of a religion's omniscient God (Harding 1991). The illogic of the naive view of scientific objectivity has been described in physics, genetics, and epidemiology, as well as in mathematics and statistics (Armstrong 1999; Hubbard 1990; Keller 1992, 1995; Kuhn 1970; Levins 1979; Levins and Lewontin 1985).

The reluctance of scientists to acknowledge the shaping of their work by social forces and their ongoing avowal of science as value-flee can be viewed as a self-serving argument against public oversight (Keller 1995). …