On Objectivity

Listening to an “On The Media” podcast titled “In Which Brooke Explains OTM’s Secret Sauce to Jesse Thorn” (July 12, 2017), it occurred to me how similar OTM co-host Brooke Gladstone’s views on the objectivity of the media and journalists are to my own views about the objectivity of science and scientists.  In the interview, Brooke explains why the decision was made for the co-hosts to “lay their emotions on the table” as an additional “data point for listeners,” and to reveal their “own points of view” rather than acting as a “voice from on high” style that other media use.  “Being authentic,” and avoiding the “awkward locutions” of pretending to be “passionless priests of objectivity,” explains Brooke, is a way to build trust in their listeners, rather than diminish it.  What worked for Walter Cronkite would not work today because the “playing field has been leveled by the internet.”  Brooke sums it up with the statement used by many others in the field, “disclosure if the new objectivity.”

Perhaps it’s time for science and scientists to acknowledge that the playing field has been leveled by the internet, meaning ordinary citizens have access to all kinds of information that was not available to them in the past, and that information combined with the data that comes from personal experience is a powerful source of knowledge.  That is not to say that my Google search is equivalent to someone else’s PhD or other professional credentials, but even someone with a PhD must recognize the limits of their knowledge and understanding, and be open to input from people with a personal interest in an issue.  Someone directly impacted by something (especially something affecting his or her health) has the benefit of experience and a powerful incentive to gather as much information as he or she can about it.  In the age of the internet, it is far more valuable to know how to access data and learn new things rather than be satisfied with the quantity of what you have learned in the past.

One Response to On Objectivity

  • yanna says:

    Well, first of all, thanks for letting us know about this show. I am interested in listening to it myself (just found it online!).

    I agree about the importance of disclosure and I think that achieving such disclosure in science (i.e., that goes beyond financial conflicts of interest and includes disclosures of all sorts, including personal ambitions, professional relationships and commitments, and raw data) will take time and work. We are not there yet.

    However, I question whether we, ourselves, as professionals of all types are in the best position to *know* what to disclose at all times. How do we disclose our biases? Are we always aware of them? If we are, do we always find them problematic? How do we expect an engineer who claims the water is safe to drink because it meets LCR requirements to disclose that her/his assessment is value-laden and rooted in standards set by a highly problematic regulation? How do we expect a scientist who claims that her/his discovery was inspired by philanthropic motivations to disclose that she/he was driven more by competitiveness or desire for recognition?

    I agree fully that the internet is playing a significant role leveling the playing field, and that this must be acknowledged and dealt with constructively by the scientific establishment (and other professional groups). However, I’d like to point out that efforts were made to level the “scientific” playing field long before the internet, and some were quite successful. The patients’ rights movement, organic foods movement, alternative medicine movement, and the HIV/AIDS movement are a few examples. Why these movements (and the power and potential of the internet to democratize expert knowledge, especially in cases where non-experts have a vested interest in gaining expert knowledge) are not taught routinely in our professional schools is another question, one worth thinking about.

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