Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Objectivity is a process, not a result

The NYT is reporting on a new report by the inspector general of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on the reign of former CPB chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. While chair, Tomlinson launched a campaign to rid public broadcasting of an alleged liberal political bias. Turns out to do so he violated every law that had been set up to shield public broadcasting from political bias. He personally pushed for funding of shows, including a show by Wall Street Journal writers, even though the board of directors isn't supposed to make content decisions. He imposed political tests on hiring and promotion. He singled out some programs for scrutiny, like “Now with Bill Moyers,” because he did not like their political content. Again, this was in the name of promoting "objectivity."

If Tomlinson is genuinely concerned about objectivity, he is grievously confused about what objectivity is. You do not call a process of gathering information (like reporting on a public broadcasting station) objective because it yields the results you like. Nor do you call a process of gathering information objective because it yields results equally favorable to you and your opponent. A process of information gathering is objective if it follows procedures which are known to have lead to truth in the past. A detective investigating a murder does not only gather evidence that will point to the guy he thinks did it. Nor does he gather evidence that implicates all suspects equally. He gathers the sort of evidence that has uncovered crimes in the past.

Of course, it could be that Tomlinson was not interesting in objectivity, but in power. His actions fit the pattern revealed in another report, this one on the way the FDA mishandled the rejection of over the counter Plan B. Each time, we see procedures designed to improve objective decision making trashed in order to achieve a conservative agenda.

I am finding myself quite the proceduralist in my old age. Perhaps it seems odd. In graduate school guys like me were all about the feminist and lefty criticisms of objectivity and science. But we never tried to do in objectivity altogether and replace it with a simple power struggle. The feminist epistemologists I respected—Helen Longino for instance—were all about creating a richer understanding of objectivity, and indeed of knowledge generating procedures. Essentially the camp that emerged in the 90s understood objectivity as intersubjectivity, and attempted to develop social epistemologies that exploited this fact to create better knowledge generating procedures.

(Ok, guys like Stanly Fish and Richard Rorty were all about replacing objectivity with a power struggle. But you know what? No one in philosophy liked them. They are really Ward Churchills of epistemology.)

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