The Limits of Objectivity

“Each of us…shares a general responsibility for all humanity—our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.”

~Marie Curie

Many of us are familiar with the broad contours of Marie Curie’s life—that she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and that she was the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in separate scientific fields (Physics, then Chemistry). Many of us know, too, that she died as a consequence of her long and repeated exposure to the radioactive materials she studied for, among other purposes, treating neoplasms (tissues manifesting abnormal cellular growth—for example, cancers).

All this to introduce Oxfam’s “Science and Global Citizenship” site, where I found a lengthy list of scientific investigations in support of proving, rather than wishfully thinking about, the efficacy of various global climate and health solutions. Exploring the Oxfam list will take some time--the linked document is a .pdf devoid of hyperlinks--but the compiled resources, including reliable and imaginative websites, is worth the effort.

"Science and Global Citizenship" is also where I found the Curie quote above, which I cherish for its implication that science is rarely as “objective” as its practitioners think it is.

Notice that the woman who may well be the 20th Century’s greatest scientist is speaking of her discipline in terms of its service to humanity, of serving “those to whom we can be most useful.” Her research into radioactive isotopes laid the foundations for nuclear physics—a science that has been used to treat and heal cancer, to diagnose trauma and disease, to provide energy for communication and comfort, and to destroy two Japanese cities. Scientists unleash powerful forces with their discoveries; it’s up to us citizens to point these powerful forces toward the support of “those whom we think we can be most useful”—which, in our case, is most often our students.

Oxfam’s “Science and Global Citizenship” site put me in mind of Paulo Freire’s declaration: “I am not impartial or objective; not a fixed observer of facts and happenings.” We science teachers, despite our illusions of scientific objectivity, are almost never “fixed observers” of our subject. We weigh, we predict, we assign value long before we enter our classrooms.