Killing Squid, a Giraffe, and the Common Sense of Science
Scientific inquiry is not and cannot be objective because scientists are humans.
Posted Feb 25, 2014
I'm always looking for connections among the wide-ranging topics in which I'm interested. My recent essay called "Marius the Giraffe: Zoo Should Have Covered Up Killing Him" generated some very interesting comments (many writers hiding behind the veil of anonymity) that ranged from extreme professional and personal criticism to total support for what I wrote. I (and others) were said to be "too subjective" about the nature of Marius's emotional life and also "too anthropomorphic" when we claimed that Marius and other animals are sentient beings. Just as I was rereading these comments I received the latest issue of New Scientist magazine in which there is an essay titled "Alien Pain" (the online version is called "Do invertebrates feel pain?") in which some of the same questions about the nature of scientific evidence and the enterprise of science are raised.
The common sense of science
One anonymous comment on the above essay on Marius the giraffe who was killed at the Copenhagen zoo (see also and this piece on "zoothanasia") questioned my objectivity. It began, "I thought scientists were supposed to look at things objectively, gather evidence, and draw conclusions. This article was nothing but an emotional rant." Mr. or Ms. Anonymous goes on to make some false accusations and then present hhis or her point of view with few data. Am I more emotional or less objective than they? I don't think so. We simply have different points of view and look at available information—stories and data—differently.
There's common sense and science sense
The essay called "Alien Pain", in which the discussion of whether or not invertebrates actually feel pain forced me to revisit renowned and prolific Colorado State University's Bernard Rollin's idea called "the common sense of science" (see also). I take what he wrote to mean that science is not and cannot be objective, and that personal points of view and common sense sneak into how people view and use scientific evidence. So, while it is not certain that invertebrates actually feel pain, available data have led some researchers to change the ways in which they conduct research on these animals just in case they do. The scientists are also encouraging others to do the same thing, namely, to err on the side of the animals. Are they being objective as scientists supposedly should be? No. They are advocating a position they choose to support based on their assessment of available data, whereas others do not make the same choice. A blend of common sense and what I call "science sense" informs their decisions.
Advocacy (like anthropomorphism) is a double-edged sword
I'd written about Professor Rollin's ideas before (see, for example, "Common Sense, Cognitive Ethology and Evolution" and also) because I've never thought that science really is or could be an objective enterprise. Scientists are human beings and we all come to the table with our own ideas about what available data (and stories) mean. Indeed, very often it is because researchers disagree on what extant data mean that new and exciting research is motivated.
I've previously argued that anthropomorphism is a double-edged sword (for example, for some people, arguing that an animal is happy isn't anthropomorphic but arguing they are unhappy is) and I also see advocacy in the same light. Others and I choose to view killing Marius differently from those with different points of view, just as different researchers view the possibility for invertebrate pain differently. So, to criticize one train of thought and the actions that result as being too subjective really doesn't hold much water.
Scientists are humans and we all come to the table with a point of view. Being on the side of animals isn't being more of an advocate than being on the other side. Both are forms of advocacy. I'm often criticized for being an advocate for using what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals on their behalf, but in reality, I'm just an advocate on the other side of the coin. At a lecture I gave in Sydney, Australia a few years ago, someone in the audience kept saying that I was an advocate—and that scientists shouldn't be advocates—because I was on the side of kangaroos, whereas he favored killing them because he viewed them as pests. He went on (and on) saying that scientists shouldn't be advocates but when we chatted later it turned out he also was a researcher but he was working for the kangaroo meat industry. I told him that he was indeed an advocate and at first he said, "No, I'm not". After a few minutes he came to see that he was indeed an advocate but not in my camp. Advocacy is a double-edged sword and if you're for something or against it you are an advocate.
As Professor Rollin notes, science is neither value-free nor ethics-free. And, he is right on the mark when he writes, “'the common sense of science,'”…is to science what ordinary common sense is to daily life." Science will benefit when scientists incorporate this view into their work.