Dynamist Blog

The Nature of Objectivity

The always-interesting historian of science Peter Galison, author of Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps and Image and Logic, has a new book called Objectivity, co-authored with Lorraine Daston. Examining scientific atlases from widely diverse fields, they trace the overlapping histories of three different scientific ideals: "truth-to-nature" (representing the underlying type of, say, a particular species of plant), "mechanical objectivity," and "trained judgment" (finding patterns and "family resemblances" in many samples). Objectivity, they argue, only emerged as an ideal in the 19th century:

Like almost all forms of moral virtuosity, nineteenth-century objectivity preached asceticism, albeit of a highly trained and specialized sort. Its temptations and frailties had less to do with envy, lust, gluttony, and other familiar vices than with witting and unwitting tampering with the visual "facts." The relation of this particular form of disciplining the self and the kind of image desired was close: just insofar as one could restrain the impulse to intervene or perfect, one could allow objects--from crystals to chrysanthemums--to print themselves on the page. Put conversely: Seductive as it might be to "see as" this or that ideal, the premium for objective sight was on "seeing that," full stop. But in the view of late nineteenth-century scientists, these professional sins were almost as difficult to combat as the seven deadly ones, and they required a scientific self equipped with a stern and vigilant conscience, in need not just of external training but also of a fierce self-regulation.

Mechanized or highly proceduralized science initially seems incompatible with moralized science, but in fact the two were closely related. While much is and has been made of those distinctive traits--emotional, intellectual, and moral--that distinguish humans from machines, it was a nineteenth-century commonplace that machines were paragons of certain human virtues. Chief among these were those associated with work: patient, indefatigable, ever-alert machines would relieve human workers whose attention wandered, whose pace slackened, whose hand trembled. Where intervening genius once reigned, there, in the nineteenth-century scientists proclaimed ever more loudly, hard, self-disciplined and self-restrained work would carry the day.

In addition to the sheer industriousness of machines, there was more: levers and gears did not succumb to temptation. Of course, strictly speaking, no merit attached to these mechanical virtues, for their exercise involved neither free will nor self-command. But the fact that the machines had no choice but to be virtuous struck scientists distrustful of their own powers of self-discipline as a distinct advantage. Instead of freedom of will, machines offered freedom from will--from the willful interventions that had come to be seen as the dangerous aspects of subjectivity. Machines were ignorant of theory and incapable of speculation: so much the better. Such excursions were the first steps down the slippery slope toward intervention. Even in their failings, machines embodied the negative ideal of noninterventionist objectivity.

Eventually, this ideal became untenable and was succeeded by trained judgment. While we often equate objectivity with science or truth, Daston and Galison argue convincingly that it is only one of many, sometimes contradictory, scientific virtues.

Objectivity is one epistemic virtue among several, not the alpha and omega of all epistemology. Objectivity is not synonymous with truth or certainty, precision or accuracy. Sometimes, as we have seen in concrete instances, objectivity can even be at odds with these: an objective image is not always an accurate one, even in the view of its proponents. Objectivity is neither inevitable nor uncontested. Indeed, juxtaposed to alternatives, it can even seem bizarre. Who knowingly prefers a blurred image marred by artifacts to a crisp, clear, uncluttered one?

Why, then, is objectivity so powerful as both ideal and practice? How did it come to eclipse or swallow up other epistemic virtues, so that "objective" is often used as a synonym for "scientific"?...

All epistemology begins in fear--fear that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstartion; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others. The threat is not external--a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon. Nor is it the corrigible fear of senses that can be strengthened by a telescope or microscope or memory that can be buttressed by written aids. Individual steadfastness against prevailing opinion is no help against it, because it is the individual who is suspect.

Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self....[T]here is no getting rid of, no counterbalancing post-Kantian subjectivity. Subjectivity is the precondition for knowledge, the self who knows.

This is the reason for the ferociously reflexive character of objectivity, the will pitted against the will, the self against the self. This explains the power of objectivity, an epistemological therapy more radical than any other because the malady it treats is literally radical, the root of both knowledge and error. The paradoxical aspirations of objectivity explain both its strangeness and its stranglehold on the epistemological imagination. It is epistemology taken to the limit. Objectivity is to epistemology what extreme asceticism is to morality. Other epistemological therapies were rigorous: Plato's rejection of the senses, for example, or Descartes's radical doubt. But objectivity goes beyond rigor. The demands it makes on the knower outstrip even the most strenuous forms of self-cultivation, to the brink of self-destruction.

Reading the book, I began to understand why I've never embraced my own profession's celebration of objectivity. Real objectivity would turn the journalist into a C-Span camera, simply recording data without any sort of selection or pattern-making. With all due respect to C-Span, good journalism in fact requires trained judgment: about what's important, what's interesting, what's worth telling. Good journalism includes story telling and analysis, even in straight news stories and all the more in features or analytical pieces. Mistaking fairness or accuracy for "objectivity" only confuses journalists, their audiences, and their critics.

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