And What is Objectivity Anyway?
The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson
TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Aug. 3 — Imagine Alabama as a cave and the people as prisoners who have been chained since their childhood deep inside in the darkness, where good information is almost impossible to come by.
Their lives are stuck in an unmovable chain of events limited by discrimination in education, a narrow range of job opportunities and a press with only the profit motive to guide its deliberations. The people are thus chained with their heads aimed in one direction, their gaze fixed on a single wall.
Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, which puts out lots of light.
And between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which various animals, plants and other people, seen as puppets, move along and form the rest of the world outside the cave called Alabama. The puppets cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows, sometimes on a screen that resembles a TV.
Behind this cave there is a well-used road, and upon this road people are walking and talking and making noises. The prisoners believe that these noises are coming directly from the shadows they are watching pass by on the cave wall.
The prisoners engage in a game, naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of objects.
Inside the cave there is an island, where radio talk show hosts parrot the unreality gleaned from the shadows on the wall. Anyone who objects to the Zeitgeist of the cave and tries to tell people they are jumping to conclusions based on shadows on a wall is banished from the island and paraded in public as an “idiot” or, Dog forbid, a “liberal.”
This story is adapted from the Greek philosopher Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which symbolizes the trek from ignorance to reality, where truth is gained from looking at universals in order to gain understanding of experience. The things which people perceive as real are actually just shadows on a wall.
Just as the escaped prisoner ascends into the light of the sun in Plato’s story, the people of Alabama must use the Web to amass knowledge and ascend into the light of true reality. Otherwise, they are doomed to a life of ignorance and damnation.
A Missionary Blogger
This is the story of one missionary who descended into the cave and tried to unchain the people by starting a blog, doing his best to tell the people they were jumping to wrong conclusions about the world by depending on just the information displayed on the shadow on the wall. But like any mob, they objected to the missionary’s message and started throwing stones his way.
One of the main sermons of this missionary has to do with the search for an attainment of objective knowledge. The mob was not interested in hearing about it. But like the Bourbon Street preacher who carries the cross every Saturday night in the New Orleans French Quarter trying to save the lost souls of the sinners, the missionary went right on blogging.
One of the main conclusions drawn by the mob is that the term “objectivity” is an unchallengeable principle of journalistic “professionalism,” defined as “fairness and balance.”
Some also included the properties of “disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship,” although after more than 100 years of debating the subject, the mob could never quite agree on what it really meant. But they developed an online encyclopedia to define it.
Interestingly, over in another section of the same encyclopedia, unbeknownst to the people stuck in the cave called Alabama, another group of people were discussing something called objectivity in science.
Here, an objective account of something is one which attempts to capture the nature of the object studied in a way that does not depend on any features of the particular subject who studies it. An objective account is, in this sense, impartial, one which could ideally be accepted by any subject, because it does not draw on any assumptions, prejudices or values of particular subjects.
Science is mostly regarded objective in this sense. This objectivity in science is often attributed with the property of scientific measurement that can be tested independently. It is thus intimately related to the aim of testability and replication.
To be properly considered objective, the results of measurement must be communicated from person-to-person, and then demonstrated for third parties, as an advance in understanding of the objective world. This is referred to in academic circles as “peer review.”
Scientists first started using the Internet to exchange these ideas – before the prisoners of ignorance in the cave got their hands on it.
In the modern political era, sometimes the “facts” were tested in courts of law, Congress and the “court of public opinion.”
The idea was to come to a consensus as a society on what constitutes “demonstrable knowledge,” which would then confer powers of prediction on the possessors of this knowledge, sometimes passed on through a technological construction.
While in the Alabama cave none of this mattered, the missionary went right on preaching his daily sermon anyway.
Sometimes the missionary would point out to the people trapped in the Alabama cave that there was another cave far away in a place called New York. And there was a blogger in New York called Jay Rosen, a college professor who spent most of his time trying to reason out the role blogs will play in the new millennium as the century of the mass circulation daily newspaper comes to a close.
And there the discussion often turned to this question of objectivity, even though the people in the New York cave have not yet figured out that there is a connection between objectivity in journalism and objectivity in science either.
One very well respected Washington Post reporter, Walter Pincus, who moves the debate forward but has still not quite figured out the connection, says the important thing is for journalists to have the courage to admit they they’re participants in the political system.
He wrote an essay for a new magazine called Frank: Academics for the Real World, which is published by the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas, although it is not free online. In a piece called “Power of the Pen: A Call for Journalistic Courage,” Pincus does something rare for any mainstream journalist, according to Rosen. “He openly argues for a more political press. He even uses the word ‘activist,’ which is forbidden in the mainstream newsroom code.”
According to Rosen’s interpretation of the article, Pincus says that courage in political reporting sometimes means the courage to admit you’re a participant — a player, a power in your own right — within the struggle for self-government, the battle for public opinion and the politics of the day.
Rosen also cites Josh Michah Marshall of the Talking Points Memo blog, who says the important thing is to show integrity — “not to be a neuter, politically. Having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well.”
This mix used at the TPM combines political argument, dogged investigative work, news aggregation, a filtered community forum, some media criticism, and user-assisted reporting to try and get at the truth for the people in the cave with access to the Internet.
But according to the people in the cave called Alabama, and especially those who hold a place on the talk radio island, this is all just laughable non-sense from “liberals” who just oppose George W. Bush’s actions as president because they are “lackeys of the Democratic Party,” a party which everybody in the Alabama cave knows is no better than Soviet Communism, the “evil empire” itself.
Nevermind that even many Republicans in other caves realize Bush is the worst president in American history, or the fact that their favorite political party, the Republican Party, acts a lot like the Nazis in Fascist Germany – who our parents went to a lot of trouble of defeating in a great war many years ago.
But for a missionary or a blogger to point that out amounts to a form of treason to the mob in the cave. They and their representative bloggers just love to throw stones marked with the word “liberal” at anyone who disagrees with them – even if their conclusions are based on nothing more than shadows on the wall of a cave.
© 2008 – 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved. The Locust Fork News-Journal, LocustFork.Net