The Braille Monitor                                                                                               March, 2002

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Research and the Blind

by Geerat J. Vermeij


Geerat Vermeij
Geerat Vermeij

From the Editor: Dr. Vermeij is a professor in the Department of Geology at the University of California at Davis. Several months ago he submitted this thoughtful article to the Braille Monitor. He had been disturbed at what he took to be an attack on the scientific method by Dr. Fredric Schroeder in a speech at the 2001 NFB convention. I agreed to publish Dr. Vermeij's comments and asked Dr. Schroeder to respond. Here are both documents:

What is science, and what good is research? These are legitimate questions that deserve a carefully considered answer, not least because much of the scientific research being conducted today is supported by public funds. Despite their importance science and research are widely misunderstood. I have therefore always taken it as one of my chief responsibilities in the courses I teach to enlighten students about what science is, how the science system works, and how scientific work must be evaluated. It was therefore with considerable dismay and alarm that I read Frederic K. Schroeder's article, "Research and the Organized Blind Movement," published in the August-September, 2001, Braille Monitor, (Vol. 44, no. 8, Braille pages 177-188). I shall let Dr. Schroeder argue his case in his own words:

"The application of the scientific method with its assertion of objectivity has been used to lend credibility to research into various aspects of blindness by ascribing objectivity where none truly existed. In other words, the assumption that science is independent of attitudes and emotions is the very thing that makes modern-day positivism so dangerous. . . . In my view rather than denying the presence of bias, we should acknowledge it, that is to say, disclose our biases and thereby create a context in which to understand the assumptions and thought processes guiding our research. . . . My complaint, however, is not simply that the positivist model is untenable but rather that positivism itself is self-perpetuating. We construct measurements and satisfy ourselves that they are proxies of truth, when indeed to one extent or another they are images of our own preconceptions."

Schroeder's outburst came as a response to some truly awful research that, as Schroeder rightly points out, was either irrelevant or belaboring the obvious. But bad science--and there is lots of it in every discipline--is no excuse for questioning the scientific method or doubting legitimate attempts to acknowledge, understand, and evaluate biases and assumptions. As authors and editors of scientific research, we have a collective responsibility to identify and to reject poor science. We do not, however, have the right to accept only the science that happens to agree with our world view and to reject anything that happens to conflict with it. Inconvenient truth is better than convenient lies, for in the end it will teach us things that will enable us to respond effectively.

Politically charged science is dangerous stuff that calls into question the credibility of those who engage in it and harms the dispassionate gathering of evidence through observation, experiment, and the building of theory. The Soviets embraced Lysenko and his erroneous views on plant genetics and paid a high price for their arrogance. We rightly question the objectivity of environmental studies conducted by power companies or oil giants, and we are at a loss to evaluate studies emphasizing the virtues of chocolate by the manufacturers of confections. We should be equally wary of a research agenda that assumes either that the blind are abnormal or that the blind are in every way like the sighted. Objectivity may be difficult to achieve, and biases may be difficult to eliminate, but that does not mean we should give up and give in.

Schroeder writes, "I do presume that we (the blind) can learn and work and engage in the same range of activities as the sighted. I do not want our research to strive to separate itself from these beliefs." I share Schroeder's first sentiment but not the second. By disallowing inquiry into possible differences between the blind and the sighted, we are not assuming that one group is inferior to another; instead we are trying to discover whether and how differences exist. With that knowledge in hand we can then confront the problem of how to reduce or eliminate any differences that do exist. To put it another way, there is a world of difference between objective research and what is done with research. The latter is the province of policy, of ideology, and on a practical level of developing technology.

In its broadest sense my science is the study of evolution. Now there are many people in the world who despise evolution and everything it implies. Religious zealots would prohibit the teaching of evolution because it conflicts with their literal interpretation of texts they consider holy. Yet few ideas in science are as powerfully explanatory and as unifying as is evolution. The theory of evolution--not speculation, not a hunch, but a unified body of knowledge--has critically important implications for the overuse of antibiotics, the origins and ends of arms races, the control of pests, the consequences of extinction, and a hundred other phenomena from astronomy to medicine that matter to people's everyday lives. Should we hide such truth in the name of political or religious belief, no matter how fervently we cherish those beliefs? No. In the end we would lose.

Schroeder's misapprehension and distrust of science are unfortunately widespread. For some years there has been a steady trickle of articles in the Braille Monitor with similar antiscientific sentiments, in effect, that science is fine as long as it reaffirms our point of view. This is a dangerous, counterproductive attitude that could seriously detract from messages about blindness that are in every other way laudatory and helpful. We must take care neither to taint science nor to compromise the political principle that the blind should be treated as equals to the sighted.

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