Monday, March 28, 2011

Fighting the Myth of Objectivity

Driving around the other day, I was flipping back and forth on the radio and heard Rush Limbaugh complain about the lack of objectivity on the “other side” of the media. Limbaugh complained that the mainstream media was liberal and protecting Obama in a way that they wouldn’t protect a Republican president. Of course, this is nothing new: MSNBC complains that Fox News is not objective in their reporting, and Fox News complains that they are the only ones who are objective.

We are a culture which places tremendous value on objectivity. We seek objectivity in science and in reporting and in business. A great deal of effort is expended in proving that our motives are pure, and not unduly influenced. Cops are expected to be objective in applying the law. Judges and jury members are expected to recuse themselves if they cannot be objective when applying their judgments. Engineering ethics require that we work in an impartial manner when making decisions. We expect our journalists to be “fair and balanced”, and our teachers to teach “all sides” of any controversial issue. We demand our politicians and scientists to be free from any conflict of interest.

To which I say: stop kidding yourself.

You are not objective. I am not objective. And we never will be. Every single decision you make is colored by overwhelming layers of subjectivity. Our reality is such that impartiality is an impossibility, due to several key barriers, which you cannot resolve.

1. You never have the full picture/evidence. No matter how hard you try, you do not have the capacity to see everything in an issue. Want to arbitrate between the NFLPA and the NFL? No matter how hard you try, you cannot truly know everything that is thought, said, felt, and has happened historically between the sides. Want to decide which side you support on climate change? No matter how hard you try, you can never digest every study written on the topic, watch every experiment take place, and experience every experience that changes our views. Want to be an impartial member of a jury pool for a murder case? Impossible – you weren’t there, and even if you have strong evidence, you can never actually know the state of mind for the people involved. Want to report on the troubles in the Middle East? Those troubles are related to millions of personal interactions over centuries, and even the best historian cannot possibly truly understand the entire scope of the issue.

2. Even if you had all the evidence, you do not process it appropriately. I have written extensively on the subject of cognitive biases, and the impact that has on Christians. I highly suggest reviewing the series. Your brain is a muddled mixture of biases of which you are usually unaware. As that series shows, your tendency is to seek out information that confirms your already-existing opinion; to rate yourself as better than average in most categories; to see your memory as unchangeable when it is not; to hold often contradictory opinions at the same time; to ‘blame the victim’ for suffering; and to see things as more different than they actually are in reality. In short, as one of my favorite blogs claims: “you are not so smart”. It is very, very difficult – I believe impossible – for us to remove all of our biases from our decision making.

3. Even if you processed all the evidence appropriately, your partiality is unavoidable. Even if, somehow, you had all possible information, you could not be completely impartial. You are a product of genetics and environment and experience – and that always, always, changes your perception of reality. For example: say you take an African-American who grew up in violent poverty in south central LA and is an evangelical Christian, and completely and thoroughly give him all evidence in a trial. Then take a white, atheist, Yale-educated professor from Connecticut and give him the same evidence. Would you be surprised if the two reach different conclusions? Your viewpoint on the world is greatly different – and in fact, it changes over time. Before I had kids, I viewed parenting differently than I do now. Heck, I view parenting differently than I did six months ago, because my kids and I and my wife are all changing all the time. I view church differently than I did a year ago. I view politics differently. Our viewpoint on the world constantly and consistently evolves over time.

4. Even if you were impartial, sometimes there isn’t a ‘right answer’ to find. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a good example of this – you can know a particle’s position or its velocity, but never both at the same time. It is impossible to know both. This is not a matter of better technology or better understanding, but a fact of the universe. Likewise, at the quantum level, some things are simply unknowable – not just unknown, but impossible to know. We see the same thing in personal interactions. Sometimes there simply isn’t a “right” answer – there is a tradeoff between two bad situations, a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Let’s look at this like a risk management question for a second. Let’s say that you are on a jury. You are presented with the evidence. Perhaps they have done a very good job, and you know a very high percentage of what happened—state of mind, video evidence of events, etc. All told, maybe that adds up to 40% of “total possible knowledge” of a situation. Then let’s say that you are really focused on cognitive biases, so that perhaps 80% of your decision making is with a clear mind. And then let’s say that you try really, really hard to be impartial, and perhaps 90% of your decisions are from a subjective standpoint. Then, let’s say that there is a truly right answer in this case—guilty or not, so there is a 100% chance that there is a right answer to find. So, in this case, what is the risk of you making a mistake? Well, it is 40%x80%x90%x100%, or a 28.8% chance that you will actually make an objective decision. And let’s say that the other 11 people are in the same situation – that lowers the chance of a unanimously objective decision to .288^12, or 0.000033% chance that the entire group will be completely objective in the decision.

In other words, it is virtually impossible to avoid the subjectivity of the above situations. You will never know all of the evidence in even the simplest situation. Even if you did, your brain wouldn’t process it fairly. Even if it did, your background would bias you in some way towards partiality. Even if you avoided it, there still may not even be a ‘right’ or ‘best’ answer to find.

That is not to say, as some philosophers do, that there is no objective reality—there truly is. But there is only One—the Most High God—who can avoid the above impartialities. Only He sees everything—our hearts, our minds, our entire timeline, the interactions of a trillion events. Only His mind is unbiased by cognitive failures. Only He is completely just and impartial. Only He is objective in His judgment.

So what does this all mean to us as Christians?

It means that we have to stop focusing on being “right” and “objective”. We have to stop focusing on narrowly-defined theologies which we defend vigorously and separate us from fellow believers. We need to stop trying to be objective, and embrace our subjectivity.

I am not objective. I am instead a realist about human limitations, and I embrace my own and act accordingly. Rather than try to hide my inherent subjectivity, I embrace it as a true part of who I am.

By embracing my subjectivity, I gain compassion. Because now when I see someone living in a way with which I disagree, that I have not walked in their shoes and cannot ever truly understand exactly where they are. When I see someone living a tough life, I know to avoid my brain’s tendency to “blame the victim” and instead provide what help I am able to provide.

By embracing my subjectivity, I am a much better engineer and manager. I know that my decisions are not always right, and I consistently hear from the floor that I am the most open-minded engineer to new ideas that they have ever worked with. I know that what I think I know is not always right – and because I embrace that fact, I am able to leverage new ideas much more effectively than my peers.

By embracing my subjectivity, I can stop pretending that everything I believe about theology or science is completely black-and-white, packaged in perfectly logical arguments and completely provable to anyone with an open mind. It isn’t. And you know what—neither are most sciences or other philosophies. I am past the point where that fact bothers me, and I can gain peace and embrace that which I believe.

By embracing my subjectivity, I can avoid the temptation to say that there must be some objectively “right” answer in every situation. I don’t have to have a systematic theology developed, and know exactly how many points of Calvinism are exactly right, or exactly what eschatological theology I think it perfect. I am able to embrace the beautiful mysteries that God gives us in our faith.

By embracing my subjectivity, I can get past the prideful stance of looking down on others’ decisions. I no longer can look down on them and say, “What a terrible way to parent,” or “I can’t believe that they go to church on Sunday and say that on Monday.” Because I am not in their shoes, and only God has the true objectivity to judge.

And by embracing my subjectivity, I am more honestly and openly dealing with the issues in my life. God knows that you are subjective, and He knows that I am, too. In fact, He knows it in much more detail than we ever will. The more you understand your own failures to be objective, the more you see the need for His objective standard, and the more easily He can guide your heart to see the flaws in your own decisions.

Give up on the myth of objectivity. Stop trying to be impartial. You aren’t. Instead, embrace who you are—impartiality and all. Admit it to yourself and to God, and you will find that your decisions are both wiser and more in tune with His desires.

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