Congratulations to the winners of the third Yale Scientific Synapse High School Essay Contest!
This year’s essay prompt was: “How does bias affect the course of scientific research? Discuss how public and personal bias has hindered and facilitated scientific progress.”
The Duality of Bias
By Rocel Beatriz Balmes
1st Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2014
Haines City High School
Lake Alfred, Florida
Traditionally defined as a partiality towards particular people, objects, or beliefs, bias has developed a rather negative connotation—particularly in science—of resulting in unfair advantages and, thus, inaccurate results. Though this has, in effect, rendered it equivalent to a social pariah to the scientific community, throughout the years, it has persisted as a definitive barrier to scientific and social progress.
Take, for example, the emergence of “Social Darwinism” in the late 1800s. Despite the fact that Darwin focused only on biological evidence in animals and seldom mentioned ramifications for humans, public bias took the words of famed eugenicist Francis Galton and perpetuated the idea of a biologically superior race. Observing and dissecting the differences between their own fair features and the large lips and dark skin of their slaves, Americans came to the conclusion that they were the de facto superior race in all aspects of humanity, despite the lack of scientific empiricism. Instead of obtaining impartial evidence for their superiority—of which, they would actually find none—they focused their efforts on finding justification for their enslavement and systematic dehumanization of African Americans for centuries to come. Though this pseudoscience was nothing but a gross perversion of Darwin’s widely supported Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection, the concept of a harsher eugenics outlined by Vacher de Lapouge based on this very theory and the idea of white supremacy became the underpinnings of Nazi Germany’s eugenics agenda. This form of scientific racism, verified only by the bias of a racist, ethnocentric society led to the creation of global selective breeding programs that eliminated—and, in fact, continue to eliminate—millions of innocent people leaving only masses of unrealized potential for scientific and social progress.
Unfortunately, such bias is not unique to eras of the past. From the very dawn of its conception in the mid-to-late 1900s, stem cell research has been influenced by bias. Though the utilization of the cells as transformative tissues has been revolutionary, this was only possible with the extraction of the inner cell mass in a human embryo. Such procedures, when first introduced, shocked the public as a process strikingly similar to the very destruction of human life, regardless of the undeveloped status of said human. Researchers were swayed by some of the strongest proponents of the ban of such procedures. Rather than specific religious denominations or political parties, the conflict attracted masses of people from differing backgrounds to forge a formidable opposition to the progression of health science. Consequently, some research institutions succumbed to the period’s public and private moral bias and halted experimentation. That is not to say, of course, that this bias was in any way intended with malice or aimed to deprive severely ill people of life-saving stem cells. Bias—public bias in particular—is oftentimes muddled with the fear of the unorthodox and the unconventional. In this case, though the bias did prevent scientific progression, it is important to note that it was influenced by a people that was, perhaps, not quite ready for such progression.
Alternatively, bias can provide the push that some societies need in order to develop and revolutionize. Just as most words in the English language, the word bias is double-faceted by nature. Far from the unscrupulous reputation it usually holds in science, it can also be defined as a predilection or a fondness for something—an emotion that all scientists must have in order to undertake the challenges of their satisfying yet simultaneously grating careers. Thus, through the years, bias has had the dual role of barrier and catalyst to major scientific breakthroughs.
Take, for example, the conflict with stem cell research. Stem-cell pioneer James Thomson was a researcher in one of only two laboratories in 1998 to successfully extract stem cells and, at the same time, destroy the human embryo from which they were plucked. In a New York Times Article titled “Man Who Helped Start Stem Cell War May End It”, Thomson says that he knew of the social stigma that surrounded his research and that he himself was, at first, very skeptical of the moral implications and had even worked with ethicists before he unknowingly detonated a moral bomb with his ground-breaking scientific research. When public opinion proved to be a seemingly significant barrier biased against his progress, however, instead of backing down and raising the metaphorical white flag of surrender, Thomson’s determination was only fueled by this bias against him. Working with researchers from Kyoto University, Thomson helped developed a new technique of adding a few genes to ordinary skin cells to make them function like stem cells. The scientific ramifications of this ethically sound method are infinite. Aside from the obvious benefits in research, the medical world is now bombarded with revolutionary new methods and treatments as vital tissue generation without the need to wait for donors becomes a possibility. Though the road ahead may still be paved with challenges in production for Thomson, without the public and his own personal bias of morality pressuring him, his systematic search for and discovery of an ethical method would not have become a reality.
Though one might be tempted to label the above example as the exemption to the rule of bias’ role in science, it is important to note that some of the greatest innovations and fundamental truths of our world were conceived under researchers’ personal bias of belief in their ideas. From Galileo Galilei and Louis Pasteur, to Marie Curie and Jane Goodall, these scientists lived during eras during which they were ridiculed by a public inexorably biased against them for daring to have an alternative model of the world and, in the latter individuals’ cases, a gender unorthodox for a scientist. Yet, personal conviction, determination and, yes, bias led these three scientists to international acclaim. Indeed, bias possesses a dual dynamism that allows it to stand as an obstruction to and creator of scientific progress. Suspended between these two polarities is where revolution, innovation, and true science emerge.
Everything is Awesome
By Marina Tinone
2nd Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2014
William H. Hall High School
West Hartford, Connecticut
My brother and I were blessed to have our own Lego collections. Our rooms were lined with shelves and shelves of our own creations, some of them built using the instructions from the Lego sets, most of them made by ourselves. We ditched the boring booklets in the box and just made what we needed.
For my brother, his bricks were used to build complex helicopters and submarines, usually creating machines significantly more complicated than the ones designed by Lego. When I asked him about his submarine, and why all the pieces he used weren’t the same color, he told me that the submarine was supposed to be invisible, so the colors didn’t need to match. Besides, the hinges, the pulleys, the contraptions he made by himself– those were the important parts.
In my world, my Lego creations weren’t invisible. My stuffed animals needed sleds to play in the snow, houses to sleep in, school buses to go to school in the morning and come back in the evening. My machines were not as complex as my brother’s, but they worked, and my colors matched. The stuffed animals needed their yellow school buses, and I thought a sled would look nice in blue.
My brother’s Legos always impressed our parents. He definitely had the eyes of an engineer, a scientist. Now, when Mom and Dad looked into my room and watched their daughter raise a blue sled loaded with stuffed rabbits into the air, well… the kids were different, that’s for sure.
Watching my brother receive praise for his creations from our chemist and engineer parents, I thought that science was restricted to those interests. Science was for the ones who made Legos for the sake of the machine, not for the ones whose stuffed rabbits wore scarves.
I wonder– did the world think the same way I did when Rosalind Picard introduced affective computing in 1997? Upon learning more about the limbic system and its role in shaping perception, Picard realized that it was not enough to simply create new microprocessors and develop energy-efficient chips if they didn’t interact with the user’s emotions and social cues. Technology needed a more human touch to develop. When she created this novel field and opened it to the world, did her peers find such emotion-based studies unworthy? Did they believe that such “science” was an aberration to the disciplines that touted rational, sentiment-free thinking?
As Picard explained to Adam Higginbotham of Wired magazine, “I realized we’re not going to build intelligent machines until we build, if not something we call emotion, then something that functions like our emotion systems.”
Today, there is an international conference and a journal dedicated to affective computing, and labs around the world continue to further the field by finding applications for their “intelligent machines” to shape how we interact with technology every day.
What about those who supported computer science in the 1970s, back when computer science looked like a pile of hole-punched papers? Computer scientists once had to suade others of the viability of a field that would later become one of the most relevant and lucrative areas of study.
What about Gregor Mendel’s investigation with pea plants in 1866? Mendel’s contemporaries criticizing his work surely did not know that he would be credited for fathering the ever-evolving field of genetics.
What about Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine in 1798? No one believed that the ungodly idea of infecting someone to treat someone would save millions of lives.
Did those biased against the potential, the validity of these new fields and scientific pursuits, really understand their purposes and merits? With their closed interpretations of science, did they really understand what science is and can be?
Over time, scientists have attempted to define science. Astronomer Carl Sagan asserted that “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” Physicist Stephen Hawking describes science as “not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.”
Although both eloquently stated their thoughts, I am convinced by the words of chemist Marie Curie –
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician; he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanism, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its own beauty.”
I remember comparing my blue sled to my brother’s invisible submarine, and I hold onto my creation a little tighter. Maybe there is something more to science than my brother’s sophisticated machines. When my younger self stood in her room, surrounded by her Lego bricks, she shouldn’t have diminished the progress she had made in her Lego laboratory, just because she didn’t use pulleys or interlocking gears.
I shouldn’t have been so close-minded against my own science, just because the world around me was biased against my ideas. From my studies, I hypothesized, I tested, I built upon my past results. My world needed science, but it didn’t need what had already been done, or was already deemed acceptable. It needed my own input. Call my ideas biased, call them faulted. But without the individuals interpreting and solving their world’s struggles using their own definitions, science would cease to develop.
Scientists continue to stand in their laboratories in child-like wonder, enraptured by the phenomena that enchant them, in all shapes and forms. Science is about discovering what you find beautiful in your world, and working, playing, in order to fulfill your personal curiosity and the needs of your imagination.
Let’s sit down. Let’s open up those boxes filled with possibilities. Throw away the instructions.
The Good and Bad of Bias and Prejudice in Science
By Jonathan Chan
3rd Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2014
Scientists take pride in using the scientific method that dictates testing a hypothesis dispassionately with objective experiments, scrutinizing that the results are replicable, presenting all the data for independent peer review, and addressing any dissenting views vigorously. Over the years, scientists have been very successful in creating the public myth that they love second guessing their own hypotheses to safeguard themselves from unintentional bias and prejudice. This rigorous process has enabled science to become exalted as an arbiter of truth by most people. In reality, however, scientists behave very differently and bias in scientific research is in fact quite common; a steadily growing number of published papers have been found to be not replicable, calling into question the validity of many widely accepted hypotheses.
Scientists are humans, with personal beliefs and values. It is human nature to look for evidence to support one’s beliefs. A fundamental flaw of human nature is its love for being proven right and hate for being proven wrong. This flaw causes scientists to unconsciously find data to confirm their preferred hypotheses or preconceptions, and they overlook – even disregard – evidence that is contrary. This phenomenon is known to psychologists as “confirmation bias”. A study of the efficacy of Chinese acupuncture is an interesting example of how cultural beliefs of scientists affect their research. Clinical experiments on acupuncture performed in Asia overwhelmingly support its therapeutic effectiveness, while trials implemented in the West show inconclusive results.
“Confirmation bias” can influence every step of any scientific experiment set up to test a hypothesis, from how the experiment is designed, to how the results are measured, to how the data are interpreted. Scientific research today is highly competitive and involves significant financial resources; a culture of publish or perish is pervasive. There is constant pressure on scientists to generate groundbreaking discoveries in drugs, materials, and technologies. The experimental methods are highly complex, and as a result, “positive results” are extremely difficult to produce, measure, and assess. No wonder many researchers become overly excited over the first piece of positive data, giving it biased prominence over the mundane, negative results and subsequently “shoe- horning” the flawed data that eventuate a faulty conclusion.
In theory, peer review by independent professionals and publications should provide an effective defense against these subtle biases. In practice, however, this process is just as prone to the same kind of confirmation biases which favors positive results over null data and negative hypotheses. A recent study on the selection process of scientific publications concludes that papers are less likely to be published and to be cited if they report “negative” results. A prominent example of this institutional bias involves a high-profile study which linked child MMR vaccination with increased incidences of autism. This study caused widespread panic and resulted in a detrimental decade-long decrease in child immunization. Although numerous studies were conducted at the same time supporting a contrary conclusion, these “negative-result” papers failed to gain the level of attention of the “positive-result” paper the retraction of which took ten years.
History is replete with incidences where biases and prejudices have not only steered scientific research, but also fostered malicious prejudice of the research on an unsuspecting public. The prejudicial practice of eugenics in the early 1900’s caused thousands of innocent people to be labeled as inferior and unjustly persecuted for no scientific reason. Lysenkoism in the 1930’s in the Soviet Union advocated bias and useless “scientific” methods to increase crop yields for political purpose, resulting in the deaths of millions of starving peasants. On the other hand, bias has not always hindered scientific progress. Scientists in the past could not have known whether their brilliant ideas were right or wrong. Many of the problems they were trying to solve were not only difficult but also inductive due to a lack of evidence. These ideas necessarily originated as wild guesses encompassing the scientists’ individual biases and prevailing societal values.
Astrophysicist Mario Livio in his book “Brilliant Blunders” provides a litany of bias- induced scientific blunders which in time transformed into breakthrough scientific discoveries. Linus Pauling was a protein specialist and was likely to be biased in favor of proteins, which fueled his erroneous prediction of the DNA structure. Charles Darwin came out with the flawed theory of inheritance because he was likely influenced by the biases of the plant and animal breeders prevalent during his career. Lord Kelvin’s inordinate devotion to tidy mathematics and his bias against messiness resulted in his inaccurate calculation of earth’s age.
However, as these unconscious personal biases and societal prejudices are “uncovered” and properly understood, this development can actually facilitate the pursuit of true scientific knowledge. Bias and prejudice in science have caused unfortunate setbacks but at the same time have generated clarity for decisive shifts in thinking and accelerated advances. The scientific process is complex, messy, and at times even boring, full of starts and stops. Yet, this system of inquiry encompasses a self-correcting tendency which has withstood the test of time and remains a stunning success in understanding nature and improving lives. As influential German philosopher Hans-Gerog Gadamer writes: a researcher “cannot separate in advance the productive prejudices that enable understanding from the prejudices that hinder it”. Preconceptions can spur as well as blind in scientific research.
Unfortunately, scientific research today may have become overly zealous in guarding itself against biases and prejudices, succumbing to politically correct social forces and avoiding tackling sensitive problems and issues which may offend the prevailing public morality. Scientific research is increasingly constrained by these forces dictating what topics can be studied, how we study them, why we need to study them, and who gets to do the studying. A bigger crisis looms should science lose its relevance and importance due to excessive fear of unavoidable bias and prejudice in scientific research. As the Wright brothers said: “If a man is in too big a hurry to give up an error he is liable to give up some truth with it.”