One of my positivist revivalist opinions is that while the ideal of scientific objectivity is deeply problematic, it is also quite valuable, and that those who dismiss the ideals of science as being just another tool of the privileged are making a serious mistake. Actual scientific research is as likely, if not more likely, to challenge the interests of the currently powerful as to justify them, and I wish there were more moderns with radical political views who shared with the old Logical Positivists the idea that science can be a critical weapon in pursuit of radical politics.
Of course, science is infected with bias, like everything else. If a scientist claims to be immune to bias in his pure, objective work, he's either lying, or probably more likely deluded. He's also being unscientific; science has investigated bias, and found it to be pervasive and hard to detect (careful research reveals people to have biases of which they appear sincerely unaware). Since the ideal of scientific objectivity says that bias is a bad thing, a scientist who follows the ideal should think that this indicates problems which need to be corrected; further studies are needed to find methods of overcoming bias, and then of course those methods need to be put into practice in the interests of better science. It is a problem that not enough scientists seem to see the need for that, but that is a problem with the scientists, not the scientific ideal.
A couple of interesting studies have come to my attention recently. This study is interesting in a couple of respects. It reports how childhood abuse, including verbal abuse, causes lasting harm in brain development.
The first noteworthy feature of the study for my purposes is that it discusses how environmental effects change the brain. Modern scientists working on human biology are not infrequently accused of some form or other of "biological determinism," strong doctrines about how our genes determine everything about what we're like. It is indeed depressing how quickly some study which reveals, say, differences between the brains of some men and some women (brain studies tend not to have huge sample sizes) is turned in the media into a report of how men and women are different by nature and how this produces their stereotypical behaviors. Naturally, this is taken to undermine patriarchy blaming in general; these natures are used as alternative explanations for phenomena feminists wish to attribute to an oppressive system. However, as usual, the media does a horrible job of reporting the studies, which generally have much more modest conclusions than those which are reported. Still, even the original studies of sex differences in the brain often pay too little attention to a point made forcefully in the study described in my link; environmental factors can change the brain. Otherwise, how could a materialist explain how environmental factors manage to change how we think? Thus, brain studies provide much less support for any kind of biological determinism than they are often presented as doing. They do, however, help us better understand the mind and the brain, something of great value both for medical purposes and for the political purpose of figuring out how people arrive at the views that they do and how to counter-act their mistaken views (such as the inevitability of patriarchy).
Our culture, and particularly our ideals of masculinity, also display an obsession with violence, revenge, and punishment. Sometimes biological determinism is used to excuse this, on the basis that men are just like that; as usual for biological determinist explanations, this requires ignoring breathtaking amounts of evidence. However, conservatives argue even more often that this is a good thing; that there's lots of evil in the world, and the only way to discourage it is to stand up to it with the harshest measures possible.
In Plato's writings, Socrates claims that it is never good to harm anyone. He argues that to harm someone is to make them worse, and surely the solution to having bad people around is not to make them worse. Few have been convinced by his argument, but psychological studies suggest that he was on to something. One of the best established results in psychology is that rewarding people for desired behavior is a more effective motivator than punishing them for undesired behavior. Punishment produces resentment and hostility, and while it can extinguish one undesired behavior, it nearly always produces other undesired behaviors, often even worse ones. Psychologists have also noted that many of those who have participated in these studies as the providers of rewards and punishments refused to believe the results.
Some more science, this time using the probability and statistics at which people are so terrible, but which seem to produce such great benefits to those who understand them, explains the mechanism which fools us into thinking punishment works better than reward. Punishments or rewards are generally given for exceptional behavior; rewards for exceptionally good behavior, punishments for exceptionally bad behavior. Exceptional behavior is by definition outside of the range of usual behavior. Thus, by the phenomenon known technically as "regression to the mean", exceptional behavior is usually followed by unexceptional behavior (otherwise the exceptional becomes the new normal, of course). So exceptionally bad behavior is generally followed by better behavior even in the absence of any intervention, and conversely with exceptionally good behavior. This phenomenon of regression to the mean can completely swamp the short-term effects of a particular reward or punishment, so that the person applying rewards and punishments will tend to see a consistent pattern of rewards being followed by worse performance and punishments being followed by better performance, regardless of which is actually more effective in modifying performance.
The abuse study provides further evidence that the conservative enthusiasm for punishment is misguided, by showing more clearly how inflicting suffering on people really does make them worse, just as Socrates taught.
Of course, sometimes the goal is precisely to make people worse, in order to justify our bad treatment of them. Another study mentioned by Ann at Feministing suggests that sexual harassment is more often a weapon for punishing women who fail to conform to gender norms than an expression of desire. This seems quite plausible; despite how the conservatives claim PC police have turned all male-female interactions into a minefield, quite a lot of flirting continues to go on, and it hardly ever leads to sexual harassment challenges. Women can apparently usually tell the difference between harassment and flirting when they experience it. Studies like this help show what's really going on with issues like harassment, and thus help provide a defense against those who claim that harmless activities are being criminalized. Yet another example where conducting scientific studies helps progressive causes.