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The Emergence of Forensic Objectivity (WP-15-10)

Jeremy Freese and David Peterson

A central goal of modern science, objectivity, is a concept with a documented history. Its meaning in any specific setting reflects historically situated understandings of both science and self. Recently, various scientific fields have confronted growing mistrust about the replicability of findings. Statistical techniques familiar to forensic investigations have been deployed to articulate a “crisis of false positives.” In response, epistemic activists have invoked a decidedly economic understanding of scientists’ selves. This has prompted a set of proposed reforms including regulating disclosure of “backstage” research details and enhancing incentives for replication. Freese and Peterson argue that, together, these events represent the emergence of a new formulation of objectivity. Forensic objectivity assesses the integrity of research literatures in the results observed in collections of studies rather than in the methodological details of individual studies and, thus, positions meta-analysis as the ultimate arbiter of scientific objectivity. Forensic objectivity not only presents a challenge to scientific communities but also raises new questions for the sociology of science. 

Jeremy Freese, Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

David Peterson, Graduate Student, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University

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