Friday, October 11, 2013

What do you see? (Part II) @OxideChem

The empiricists (think Locke, Berkeley and Hume) and the rationalists (think Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza) have debated forever about whether science is something to be observed or constructed. As I'm a theorist, you might think that I would land entirely on the side of the rationalists. However, I believe that no matter how well constructed, a theory must still be tested by experiment. It invariably also rests on experiment and may even be guided by experiment. Indeed, roughly half of my group's work involves simulations because it provides us with observations to guide our theory development. This does not detract from the fact that the theory can and must predict phenomenon that have yet to be observed. All to say that I, like most working chemists, believe that there is a significant place for observation, and our training as chemists has involved a sharpening of our observational skills. As such, most chemists (and likely also most physical scientists) pride themselves in their ability to accurately observe, analyze and synthesize all the data around them.

How can we reconcile this with the social science data that routinely shows that we all have implicit biases shaping our decisions? To make this question more concrete, it is helpful to consider Amy Herman's work on the Art of Perception that I discussed in my last post. Clearly, she has found that the average person has difficulty in accurately observing signals and discerning them from spurious information. Providing training for specific settings, she is able to help individuals improve their ability to see. I would claim that most chemists, through their training and experience, are already very good (if not exceptional) at seeing the signal in the data of their experiments. The problem is that we have seldom been trained to see or judge candidates (for positions all the way through the academic ladder) without employing implicit biases. But we're so good at rating the quality of a given science that it's hard to accept that we aren't equally good at rating the quality of a given scientist. The latter, though, is perhaps much more complex and a lot harder to see. As observers, we must also recognize that our current practices have led to faculties whose demographics are far from being representative of our nation. And this suggests that we need to change the way we see scientists....


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