Discovering only what we expect

We think that our science is nice and objective, but it’s not that simple.  Scientists are pretty willing to admit that there’s a strong bias in terms of what we choose to study and what questions we ask, but today someone was seriously arguing that the rest of it is (or at least can and should be) unbiased.  I had to disagree pretty strongly.

It’s not too hard to design a study that avoids most bias (randomize!) and to collect data accurately.  But data have to be interpreted to have any meaning.  There’s a reason we labor over working out figures and writing up our findings, rather than simply handing out copies of our datasets.  And the interpretations and conclusions are filtered through our biases, expectations, and assumptions.

I recounted one of the Cedar Creek intern presentations this summer.  They were watching red-headed woodpecker behavior, and they had a finding: “Both males and females feed the young.”  This was really startling because it’s absolutely impossible to sex a red-headed woodpecker without a DNA test.Even when you have a red-headed woodpecker captured in hand, unless it’s a female with an egg in her oviduct (which you can feel through her belly) you still have no way to tell its sex.  One of the grad students is banding birds and taking samples for DNA tests so we’ll have a population whose sex is known, but those results weren’t in yet.

When I pressed a bit, the interns explained that they were able to see two adult woodpeckers simultaneously foraging near the nest and taking turns feeding the young.  OK, but why are they so sure it’s a male and a female?  For example, it’s well documented in swans that sometimes two males will pair-bond and build a nest.  A female will come swim with them for a time, mate, lay her eggs, and leave them in the males’ care.  (The study I saw claims these cygnets with two dads have a 70% survival rate, up from the average of 30%, but that’s fodder for a different post…)

For all these interns knew, they could be seeing same-sex parenting among red-headed woodpeckers.  But they assumed a pair was male and female, so that’s what they saw.  They never thought to question that assumption.  It makes me wonder how many amazing and unexpected things we’ve simply not seen, because we just assumed it was something else. How much diversity have we missed?

What science can and should always be, though, is transparent.  Don’t just tell us what you think you saw, tell us the actual observable facts.  And then go ahead and interpret them — and hopefully along the way realize and question your assumptions.  That way someone with a different set of assumptions (like me having recently seen a review of ~450 species’ same-sex behaviors…) can look for different meanings in the same data and provoke new questions and dialogue.

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