The myth of objectivity

Apr 27th, 2017 | By | Category: 2016-2017, Opinions

By Dorian Grayson
Staff Writer

The March for Science was on Saturday, April 22, and over 300,000 people participated. Some of the more representative signs were “Just the Facts, Ma’am” and “What Do We Want? Evidence-Based Science! When Do We Want It? After Peer Review.” One of the things most beloved about science is its objectivity, leading to facts that are, demonstrably, facts.

I’m not here to dispute scientific facts. This isn’t a piece advocating climate change skepticism, evolutionary skepticism or any other kind of anti-science rhetoric.

I am here, however, to talk about objectivity. Objectivity is the concept of removing personal feelings, emotions, experiences and judgements from proceedings, ideally leaving just truth. People inclined to think like this end up in fields such as science or maths, but the thinking also ends up dividing politically. Right-wing pundits’ go-to attack on liberals – when it’s not bigoted — is that they’re too ‘feely’ or ‘sensitive.’ Their real concern is subjectivity.

There’s only one problem: objectivity doesn’t exist.

Everyone knows the René Descartes quote, “I think, therefore I am.” This came from his experiment where he tried to justify and explain every belief he had from the ground up. It is his first and only truth he could really justify with his framework. Everything further is based in subjective reality and experiences.

Again, this isn’t to confuse substantiated claims with unsubstantiated claims. I’ll believe something with a load of statistical data behind it, just like anyone else. Those statistics, however, aren’t objective.

This problem creeps into other ‘objective’ things, too, like computer code. Jacky Alciné, who is Black, went to a concert with some friends. When Alciné uploaded the pictures to Google Photos, Google’s algorithm analyzed the photos and marked the faces it recognized and, surprisingly, an animal it recognized. The alleged animal was one of Alciné’s friends, who is also Black.

“One could say, ‘Oh, it’s a computer,’ I’m like, OK … a computer built by whom? A computer designed by whom? A computer trained by whom?” Alciné said.

Subjective people can code subjective values — such as bigotry — into algorithms, which are then subjective. Everything is colored by the humans that made it.

People don’t live their lives like this is true, of course. You’d never cross the street if you were obsessed with if you could truly know whether or not you’d be able to see a car before it hits you. I certainly don’t live my life that way either. The problem, though, is that people take this idealized and unrealistic ideal of objectivity too far.

Part of this is expressed through journalistic expectations. People have an expectation that journalists are neutral and only report the facts, with the expectation that if they do not, values will slip in. However, every writing imparts values, but when something is “value-free” it is typically advocating the dominant values of the society. All media is political.

All of this is to say that, when dismissing someone’s emotions or subjective opinion, consider that the basis of nearly everything is the same subjectivity.

 

dgrayson@willamette.edu

Comments are closed.