Scientific Objectivity

My original reasons for writing The Mismeasure of Man mixed the personal with the professional. I confess, first of all, to strong feelings on this particular issue. I grew up in a family with a tradition of participation in campaigns for social justice, and I was active, as a student, in the civil rights movement at a time of great excitement and success in the early 1960s.

Scholars are often wary of citing such commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice-cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences—and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.

Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence—so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. (Phony psychics like Uri Geller have had particular success in bamboozling scientists with ordinary stage magic, because only scientists are arrogant enough to think that they always observe with rigorous and objective scrutiny, and therefore could never be so fooled—while ordinary mortals know perfectly well that good performers can always find a way to trick people.) The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded.

mismeasure-of-maned. Introduction

(There is perhaps no better vindictive feeling than to have one's own views reflected back to them in print, and here I have found just that, and so I have seen fit to collect them in this zettel for ego's and posterity's sake.)

This is very much the same case for recognising that as humans with their own experiences and biases, journalists can have no claim to objectivity. Nor can the institutions that they work in, whose coverage is shaped by these humans working together, and the humans outside the building that hold various forms of power over them.

Objectivity, as an ideal, can and should be worked towards: by making good-faith arguments alongside others coming from other positions and other backgrounds, by stating one's positions and assumptions clearly, by owning up to the circumstances that have shaped the formation of these bases that we work from. It is of course difficult to be able to articulate our own assumptions——the most insidious of which are those we consider so basic as to be considered "common sense". But it is only with such good-will and generosity of spirit that we can hope to get anywhere close, by relying on the perspectives of others to help point out our own inevitable blind spots.

When someone attempts to lay claim to objectivity, it's usually through some combination of ignorance, arrogance, and/or greed that they've come to don such a pretence of godliness in the first place. They don't call 'em con(fidence)-men for nothing.

In economics

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go so far as to claim that economic laws are as free from ‘metaphysics’ or ‘values’ as the law of gravitation.

small-is-beautifuled. 37


small-is-beautiful Schumacher, Ernst Friedrich. 2001. Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered. Random House. ↩︎ 1

mismeasure-of-man Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. ↩︎ 1