Epistemologies: ‘Objectivity’ and perspective

Journalists often pursue the goal of “objectivity.” Of course, language isn’t neutral, and any human writer or reader inevitably has our own personal perspective. Even deciding which facts to mention requires personal judgment.


There are many facts, but not all facts are equal,” Brian Klaas wrote recently in the Washington Post.

“There was a tornado in Kentucky last week. There wasn’t a tornado in Minnesota. Only one is worth reporting. Reporters and editors make decisions about which facts to cover — and then it’s up to them to provide the reader with an appropriate sense of scale.”


Ezra Klein wrote in Why We’re Polarized (2020):

“The news is supposed to be a mirror held up to the world, but the world is far too vast to fit in our mirror. The fundamental thing the media does all day, every day, is decide what to cover—decide, that is, what is newsworthy.”

Someone holds a small triangular mirror in their thumb and forefinger. Their face is reflected in it, but their eyes are closed.
Image by Simedblack on Pixabay

“Neutral,” by the way, may be “boring and visionless, and that just loses them [media professionals] an audience,” Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in The Left Hand of God (2006).


So, for example, as Peter Levine pointed out in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (2013), journalists may cover elections differently. “Who is going to win?” is a common guiding question. It reflects “one definition of news. It encourages not only regular polling, but also close coverage of the mechanics and strategies of political campaigns.” But a journalist might instead choose to “depict the public’s ‘struggle to find a middle ground’ by giving prominent attention to civil discussions among nonaligned citizens.”


In Nicole Hemmer’s 2016 book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, she discusses “objectivity” as a kind of epistemology.

“Some have argued that ‘objectivity’ describes a set of professional practices rather than a coherent worldview, but this understates the power of objectivity as a concept. Objectivity was more than a set of professional values—it was a claim about the best way to understand the world. In midcentury, American journalists who were invested in the ideal of objectivity claimed the trueness of their stories could best be evaluated by how well they adhered to standards of disinterestedness, accuracy, factuality, fairness, and, less overtly but no less importantly, their deference to official information and institutional authority.”

Here, then, Hemmer says, is “a different way of weighing evidence”; you observe that you and someone else are on different ideological sides. You acknowledge that this other person has “a different network of authorities, a different conception of fact and accuracy, and a different way of evaluating truth-claims.”

(I wrote more about Hemmer’s book for Medium.)


“Everyone has a frame through which we think, interpret, and speak,” wrote Lewis Raven Wallace in The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. “Once we are conscious of these frames, we can choose our stories and the values they reflect.”

Here’s where Wallace goes with that. Journalists who have marginalized identities should indeed feel permitted to write about issues affecting their own communities. “Oppressed people’s voices can no longer be excluded,” he says, “on the false pretense that we are biased in favor of our own humanity, that we are too close to the story.”

Today, more easily than ever before, “people can just skip stories they don’t want to hear, go only to website that reflect their own worldview.” The challenge implicitly posed to journalists, as Wallace sees it, is to help determine “how journalists can become people who don’t just impart facts, but who interact, engage, and ultimately bring meaning and shape to information.”

“While journalists are never neutral purveyors of ‘just the facts,’” he points out, “some will focus more on organizing facts while others will focus more on interpreting them or extrapolating solutions from them, and others will focus on building communities surrounding them.”

Moll Flanders and the Gettier problem

Moll Flanders is an early 18th-century novel written by Daniel Defoe. Moll is a fictional character whose famous conundrum is her discovery that she has accidentally married her own biological brother.

The “Gettier problem” is an epistemological question raised by Edmund Gettier in a 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, in which he questioned a traditional definition of knowledge—a justified true belief—as insufficient. Gettier died earlier this year in 2021. I have described the philosophical problem in a separate article. To present it generally: Gettier pointed out that, when we have reason to believe a certain proposition, sometimes we formulate a vague statement about it, and the vague statement may well turn out to be true, but for a different reason than we originally assumed. For example, if I say, “Don’t worry about the utility bill on the table; it’ll be affordable, and it isn’t due until the end of the month,” and I say this because I am thinking about the electric bill, whereas the utility bill on the table is actually the phone bill, then arguably my statement about the utility bill on the table is not an example of my own “knowledge.” My statement, which was justified for the electric bill, might also be true for the phone bill: that bill, too, is affordable and isn’t due until the end of the month, and therefore we don’t need to worry about the bill. But I was “correct” only due to a happy coincidence. Although I presented a justified true belief, something went awry in my justification, and therefore I didn’t know what I was talking about. This distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge feels intuitive. But why? By what definition of knowledge can I be described as not having known? This is the Gettier problem. It is a problem for the definition of knowledge.

In this blog post, I propose that Moll Flanders suffers the Gettier problem.

Moll’s problem

In Defoe’s 1722 novel, the narrator, Moll, is born to an inmate of London’s Newgate Prison. Moll grows up not knowing her biological mother. Raised by someone else, she is poor and becomes a household servant. Eventually, Moll begins to enjoy a fairly happy life with her third husband. She is pregnant with her third child by him when she realizes that her husband’s mother is her own long-lost biological mother. Moll has, therefore, married her own brother.

This is how Moll tells her story. For emphasis, I have put the family terms mother-in-law, mother, daughter, husband, brother in bold type. At the end, I have also emphasized Moll’s insistence that this is a new discovery for her: she had “known nothing” of her husband’s preexisting family relationship to her.

“We lived here all together, my mother-in-law, at my entreaty, continuing in the house, for she was too kind a mother to be parted with; my husband likewise continued the same as at first, and I thought myself the happiest creature alive, when an odd and surprising event put an end to all that felicity in a moment, and rendered my condition the most uncomfortable, if not the most miserable, in the world.

My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman—I may call her old woman, for her son was above thirty…

…with a great deal of good-humoured confidence she told me she was one of the second sort of inhabitants [of Newgate] herself.

my mother, smiling, said, ‘You need not think a thing strange, daughter…’

Here she went on with her own story so long, and in so particular a manner, that I began to be very uneasy; but coming to one particular that required telling her name, I thought I should have sunk down in the place.

…this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.

I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it.

—Daniel Defoe, ‘Moll Flanders’

It seems that Moll frets that her marriage may be invalid. Her marriage is, she says, a “crime.” She acknowledges that she is committing “open avowed incest and whoredom” despite maintaining “the appearance of an honest wife.” In Moll’s estimation, it isn’t possible for the same woman to have biologically mothered both Moll and Moll’s husband; the same woman can’t be her “mother” and “mother-in-law.” She means this at least legally, as she eventually tells her husband that she is “not your lawful wife” and their children are “not legal children.” If this woman indeed gave birth to a girl and a boy, a subsequent “marriage” between those two siblings would be invalid and no marriage at all. She may mean it religiously and in a broader ontological way, too.

Here is the situation, quite simply:

Before the big revelation, Moll and her mother-in-law sometimes call each other “mother” and “daughter.” These are terms of endearment, and they are also, in a sense, true, since to be a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law is to be a specific type of mother or daughter. Thus, for Moll to say “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman” is a justified true belief.

After the revelation that her mother-in-law is the same person who gave birth to her, Moll reflects that “this was certainly no more or less than my own mother.” This relationship of “mother” takes on new meaning. Though it did not bother her before, it bothers her now. She insists: “I had known nothing of it.”

In other words, when Moll says, “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman,” implying but crucially omitting the detail of “mother-in-law,” she did not know what she was talking about. The woman is not Moll’s mother-in-law, because Moll’s marriage is invalid. The woman is only Moll’s mother. Moll’s original statement remains true only if we shift the meaning of the phrase “my mother” and alter the reasoning behind its use.

Moll’s justified true belief wasn’t knowledge. This is the Gettier problem.

How much effort should you expend debunking a conspiracy theory?

When someone gives you obvious misinformation, you are in a no-win situation.

You need to reject the information as false and possibly harmful. You need to tell the person you aren’t interested in joining their cult. You may feel ethically obligated to try to persuade that person, too, to abandon their idea, just as they believe it is important to persuade you to adopt it.

The problem is that, if it is even possible for you to demonstrate the nonsense and persuade the person to take another path, you’ll be working on that a very long time. Your day (and possibly your week or month) will be significantly disrupted. If the claim is something like “Aliens killed Julius Caesar,” how would you begin to explain why you don’t believe that? And why would you pause your important business to do so? On the other hand, if you blow it off and keep walking, the conspiracy theorist will believe they have “won.” It may not matter if they are pleased with themselves, but it does matter if they are emboldened to continue to misinform others. If their theory is harmful (racist, anti-science, etc.), this may be an undesirable outcome. if you have a real opportunity to educate them, you may want to seize it, difficult and annoying though this task may be.

Lily Simpson compares this interaction with misinformation to a farmer’s confrontation with a plague of locusts. You want to combat the locusts, but stomping one at a time is a losing strategy. The misinformer can pump out strings of nonsense words much faster than you can search and grab onto reality anchors.

Understanding the opponent

When Menachem Kaiser traveled to Poland to investigate the property that his grandfather had lost during World War II, he spoke to the treasure hunters of Nazi-era relics, and his initial inclination was to be quietly polite toward these people who were telling him about supposed Nazi time machines.

“Even to justify why I wan’t taking them seriously is in effect to take them seriously; I did believe and still do believe that it is a valid position not to engage the crazy. What would be the purpose? To methodically demonstrate the dubiousness of Nazi time travel? The conclusions we would eventually reach are the conclusions we have immediately reached.”

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder, Chapter 8

Not a single falsehood, but a structure of falsehoods

But here’s another level of the risk posed by nonsense ideas. A conspiracy theory is not a single, small piece of misinformation. When nurtured, it develops into a whole worldview.

Last year, I blogged for Episyllogism about this point, which a recent UCLA study had explored. Kaiser also mentions the general idea in Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.

It turns out, Kaiser says, that Project Riese, which he was investigating, “is the epicenter, the catalyst, the cauldron for all sorts of fantastic, absurd, lunatic beliefs about the Nazis. Pull on any thread and very quickly you get to ancient civilizations; aliens; ancient alien civilizations; UFOs; Roswell…” These are not “standalone delusions,” but rather “systems of beliefs.” For example, if you believe the Nazis developed antigravity, eventually you have to assert a supporting worldview; for example, you might say that, since that time, world powers have concealed the Nazis’ scientific breakthrough and have successfully taught everyone (including today’s scientists) a fake version of physics. A conspiracy theory framework usually features “a special blend of skepticism and unskepticism, of irrationality and hyperrationality.”

These are not ‘standalone delusions,’ but rather ‘systems of beliefs.’

Though Kaiser’s first inclination was to dismiss the conspiracy theories as nonsense, he decided to research them to understand them better. When he learned, for example, that the false belief in “Die Glocke, the Nazis’ bell-shaped device that could manipulate time and gravity” was promoted by Igor Witkowski, he decided to speak to Witkowski to learn more. The people who say they believe these things “aren’t trolling”; in Kaiser’s assessment, they really believe.

And yet. And yet. He circled back to his starting point.

“To indulge the theories, even via mockery, is to grant them a power,” he concludes. This is a problem with Nazi-related conspiracy theories especially because they tend to be antisemitic: at least by downplaying the moral weight of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, if not by going further and suggesting that the Jews were responsible for secret cabals and cover-ups. Sometimes what is most needed is not to explore the illogic of the conspiracy theory but rather to object to it on ethical grounds. It would be “much more fun,” Kaiser says, “to discuss Nazi flying saucers. But there is a cost to laughing at what should be condemned.”

Condemning misinformation implies that you are asking the misinformer to stop speaking that way.

Exploring the shadows in Plato’s Cave: ‘Tricks of Light’ by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Detail from the book cover of Tricks of Light. Hands cast shadow rabbits over the face of a real fox.

How do we know what we know? When will we be sure? Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Tricks of Light (2020) explores these questions in poetry.

There are a number of themes in this book, which contains over 80 poems. One theme is human connection. Rutkowski admits to not having many social needs, though he finds it important to keep friendships alive so they don’t dissolve into memories (“Drifting Apart”). He describes becoming an empty nester and having no need to fill the space with a pet (“Empty Nest”) and of sometimes wanting to get away from even himself (“Being Alone”). He leans into the subtle distinction of accepting a hug or reciprocating it (“Personal Space”). An animal, too, he notes, reacts to the way it is held (“Holding the Chicken”).

Some poems describe a sense of otherness, as when he is asked if his dental work was done in another country (“Foreign Fillings”), or no one has heard of his small hometown (“Where I’m From”), or other people of color don’t seem to accept him (“Nothing in Common”), or he’s asked to perform a domestic task on the Jewish Sabbath (“God Will See”). In our lives, more generally, we encounter so many situations in which the conflicting expectations of two people are juxtaposed, and this type of situation, too, is brought up. Who’s encroached on whose lane: the motorist or the bicyclist (“Close Call”)? Who’s suffering culture shock: the tourists or the locals (“In the Valley”)? For that matter, how do we even know when we are inhabiting our own words and not merely someone else’s interpretation of them (“Owning My Speech”), especially when a word like “afraid” cannot encompass everything we feel (“Compulsion”)?

Loss is a common theme in literature. Words, after all, are shortcuts to recall what we’ve once known. But loss is even more primal than language, as even a turtle wordlessly remembers her eggs that were taken (“Brief Life”). Almost anything can remind us of a loss, big or small. When we break a glass, we are upset not so much about the glass but about being reminded of something else that has broken (“Glass and Tears”); similarly, the name “mourning dove” is assigned because the bird’s call is a sad sound to our ears, though the bird itself is not sad (“Farmers and Dove”). Such illusory losses can be confusing, and we may have to wait for an answer. Like fishermen, often we don’t know whether we have caught something or nothing at the end of our lines (“Man Fishing”).

Tricks of Light includes musings on money. Rutkowski keeps track of his own pennies and spends them on candy, yet he won’t bend to pick up a penny, an act that somehow feels different to him (“Pennies”). He is willing to give away money, but he recognizes that someone must first give him money before he can pass it on to someone else, as money flows in a circuit (“When Will I Get Something to Give?”).

And, yes, there are mysteries and tricks: of sound (“Seal Sounds,” “Noise to My Ears,” “Beef Brisket”), of light (“The Speck,” “Lights in Darkness,” “Moon and Airplane”), and of velocity (“View from a Bridge”). Sometimes we simply do not know whether we are looking at a snail or a wad of gum until we lean in closer (“Mimicry”). This kind of sensory illusion gives the book its title. But the idea of “tricks of light” is also, I think, a more general commentary on knowledge. A great deal of what we think we know, whether from direct experience or otherwise, is illusion—shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

On Certainty

From the Santa Barbara Free Press
Lex.jpg
(1922-2015)
Rev. Dr. John Alexie “Lex” Crane died on August 7, 2015 at the age of 93. Lex was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 14, 1922 to John A. and Minnie E. Crane. He graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1939, and served in the U.S. army in the South Pacific and Europe from 1942 to 1945. He was severely wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1949 and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 1950 from Johns Hopkins University; a Master of Divinity from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1951; and a Master of Arts in Social Psychology from the University of California in 1971. . . .

Lex was a good friend. Below is a link to one of his papers.

Certainty as Demonic in Religion, Science, and Society

by Lex Crane

Certainty is easily accessible

and is

impossible to achieve.

This paradoxical circumstance has nurtured demonic forces in human life, which, in turn, have found expression in violence, destruction, and death on a massive scale. The forces are within us and in our institutions. They must be transcended if we are to ensure the survival of our own species, as well as that of countless others.

Easily accessible certainty is rooted in need; the unreachable is based on knowledge of reallity. Thus there is subjective certainty on one hand; and objective cer-tainty on the other. Since subjective certainty emerges in response to need, it is always available in the amount required. (Wheelis 81) The deeper the need, the more intense the certainty that develops. All humans have a need for some degree of certainty in order to feel secure in a contingent existence.

 Read the paper here: Certainty

The Blessings of Doubt?

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so” – Will Rogers

seed
Anecdote a)
In my first year at VIU I was a psychology student taking the required statistics class taught by Kim Iles. Kim was an engaging teacher, that much I knew, but the subject, like most things mathematical in nature, never clicked. Unfortunately for me, Kim was the type to pick people in class whether their hands were raised or not, just to check if they were listening. When they got it right, he might toss them a little chocolate bar. When they were bullshitting or guessing, they suffered an acute public shaming. It was always one or the other. I knew I was not even close to sweet chocolaty understanding, so each time he scanned the room I sunk in my seat and looked away. Bless the guy, he usually spared me. But one day my time came and indeed I couldn’t make an educated enough guess to show an even faint grasp. I gave the only answer I knew: “I don’t know”. He threw me a full-sized Snickers bar and said “Good answer.” I rejoiced.

I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic until he gave us a brief aside on how IDK is always a good answer to any question you genuinely don’t know, how so many problems in the world are attributed to people pretending they know something they don’t. This is the lesson that stuck with me most in that class, which I ended up technically failing (but given the minimally passing grade anyway on account of being smart in “other ways”). The next year I found philosophy, the only place not knowing seemed to work.

Anecdote b) I later had a boyfriend who was a devout Christian. I was so in love but couldn’t reconcile his faith. “If you don’t believe in anything then you’ll never move forward” he’d say. “I’d rather be suspended in doubt than deluded” I’d say back. Our fundamental issue was not so much whether God exists, but the irreconcilable difference of me believing the assumption of doubt is healthy and that beliefs should be true, and him believing that doubt is paralyzing and beliefs should make you feel good.

Anecdote c) My latest ex, a politically opinionated atheist, accused me of being too dogmatic with my belief in doubt. He wanted me to take a side on issues. I’d rather not pretend I know something about which I only have or can only have partial knowledge. He’d rather fill in the gaps with whatever logical fallacies he can get away with. I’d rather not, and I’d rather he not.

I know that doubt is a virtue. When we doubt our mind is open to other possibilities which are more likely to be correct. I know that when I am feeling insecure or not comfortable about being unsure, I’ll make more assumptions and thus an ass out of myself. I know that being caught in false claims of knowledge makes us less credible to our peers over time and that being around know-it-alls is fucking exhausting. I am pretty sure I’d rather be in doubt than be wrong and find out later, or even be living a blissfully ignorant but less optimal timeline.

But only one out of these three examples led to a happy ending. So, to what extent is doubt a virtue? About what sorts of things?  Am I denying myself happiness or progress by trapping myself in suspended disbelief about things that I can never know anyway? Are there certain situations where faking it until you make it, or believing for the sake of it, is the way to go?

I just don’t know.


Descartes