The Myth of Objectivity

[Reprinted with permission from Navigating By Faith]

Thoughtful and thought-provoking articles are a source for many articles I write. Those two characteristics are not always exemplified in the same single article, but an article by Trent Horn, Neil DeGrasse Tyson Shows Why Science Can’t Build a Utopia[1], is an exception.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, of course, is the outspoken agnostic ambassador of science. The article was precipitated by Tyson’s tweet: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”[2] And Horn counter-tweeted: “@neiltyson ‘Rationalia’ is as useless as ‘Correctistan,’ or a country whose constitution says, ‘Always make the correct decisions.’”

To illustrate what he means by his counter-tweet, the author used the example of a driverless car. Fatalities have already happened with them and will undoubtedly happen again. That isn’t the point, though. The point is this: how should they be programmed when confronted with two options – to run over pedestrians or run into an object that may kill the passengers?

How does Rationalia weigh the evidence to determine which is the best course?

It so happens that the journal, Science, recently published an article based on polls to determine how people think about that dilemma[3]. The results are extremely interesting, and telling. Participates in six studies favored the utilitarian approach: when faced with two evils, such as running over pedestrians or sacrificing the vehicle and its passengers to save the pedestrians, the people overwhelmingly chose sacrificing the vehicle and its passengers for the greater good.

But this is the interesting (and telling) part: in the same study, participants did not approve of enforcing those utilitarian requirements on the driverless automobile industry, and the overwhelming majority would not buy such a vehicle programmed to protect the greater good.

How would Rationalia weigh the evidence to determine how driverless vehicles should be programmed? Is the utilitarian ideal more rational than another? And, if so, why? According to Horn, “Rationalia’s anemic constitution cannot resolve societal disputes any more than your GPS unit can resolve a fight your family has over a summer vacation.”

And, from there, the author gets into the “myth of objectivity”, prompted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s statement that “it is unsafe to build a government on a belief system”[4]. The reasoning is that people who have belief systems (meaning, presumably, religious people), disagree with one another. Therefore, Tyson says, government should be built on “objectively verifiable truths”.

From here, I am going to branch off from Horn a bit. Horn says that “the materialistic, utilitarian thinking that motivates scientists like Dr. Tyson is not exempt from this critique”, and then he moves on to other things. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into that statement.[5]

First of all, what critique? For Dr. Tyson, governments should not be built on belief systems because people with belief systems disagree with each other… as if people without belief systems never disagree. Do all scientists agree with each other on all things? We don’t have to look very far for the answers.

Do scientists not have belief systems? Isn’t a materialistic, naturalistic worldview that discounts or rejects anything nonmaterial a belief system?

The myth of objectivity is that people (like Dr. Tyson presumably) aren’t tainted by biases and are, therefore, objective. They only need facts, and then they can spit out objectively verifiable determinations. This is a myth for a number of reasons.

For one thing, no one is free of bias. That includes scientists, and it’s dangerous for anyone to believe that he is unbiased. Someone who thinks he is right because he is unbiased is appealing to his own authority to support the claim.  We call that a God complex.

I am not saying that Dr. Tyson has a God complex, but I think he is naïve if he is suggesting that people who claim not to have a belief system are unbiased and objectively neutral.

Further, Dr. Tyson seems to assume that people like him don’t have a belief system. Isn’t utilitarianism a belief system? I think John Stuart Mill would admit that it is. He wrote a book about it after all.

Dr. Tyson is trying to promote a system built on “objectively verifiable truths”. This is a belief system itself. He is coming from a particular bent. He believes that the only truths are ones which can be objectively verified by measurement, quantification, classification, experiment, etc. His worldview doesn’t acknowledge or account for anything else. This is a belief system.

Horn questions, as do I, whether such a system can possibly provide standards for governance, using the driverless car as an example. What objectively verifiable truth helps us determine whether a government should mandate that driverless cars be programmed to veer into pedestrians to avoid damage to the car and its passengers or should veer into objects to save pedestrians at the expense of the car and its passengers?

When people are asked the questions, their answers depend on the perspective – passenger or pedestrian. The same people who said they would favor saving the pedestrians at the expense of the passengers as a general proposition also said they would never buy such a car themselves, and they wouldn’t mandate that cars be programmed that way. The polls revealed a predominant belief system which is based on the participant’s own perspective, a perspective that values self-preservation. But, I digress.

Any determination like the example given ultimately depends on a value system, and value systems are not objectively verifiable. Is it better to save a mother with a small child or a scientist with no children if the only choice is to save one? The answer isn’t objectively verifiable… without a value system.

Objectively verifiable facts don’t create value systems. The fact that one person is a mother with a child and another person is a scientist does not determine which life to save if only one life can be saved. Objectively verifiable facts may inform value systems, but they don’t create them. The value system ultimately determines a course of action, not the facts.

Utilitarianism is a value system that might inform a decision based on objectively verifiable facts, but the facts do not, themselves, require a particular decision. Facts don’t determine the value system either. Without a value system, any determination, even a determination based on objectively verifiable facts, would be arbitrary.

Call it a belief system or a value system, it doesn’t matter. The system by which we make moral determinations, which includes how we govern ourselves, must be based on some value (or belief) system or it’s arbitrary.

If I can be indulged to read between the lines, I think what Dr. Tyson is saying is that religious belief systems, or value systems informed by religious beliefs, should not be used to govern societies. That is one thing. People can agree to disagree about the propriety of his proposition. But, he goes too far when he suggests that his Rationalia wouldn’t be governed by a belief system at all. He is also naive to suggest that some people, even people who value objectively verifiable facts, are not influenced by bias.

Dr. Tyson seems to believe in the “objective person” (and presumably counts himself in that category). As intelligent (and objective) as he may be, he is not without bias. Our biases are formed by our value systems. We all have value (belief) systems, whether they are consciously formed or unconsciously assumed. Objectivity is a myth.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Published at Strange Notions: http://www.strangenotions.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-shows-why-science-cant-build-a-utopia/

[2] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/748157273789300736

[3] The Social Dilemma of Autonomous Vehicles, Science 24, Jun 2016: Vol. 352, Issue 6293, pp. 1573-1576http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6293/1573

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KszJuhBcVjE&feature=youtu.be&t=8m13s

[5] For example, the theory of evolution, which we are led to believe is accepted universally in the scientific community, is still subject to question and debate in that same scientific community. As proof, we can look at the recent advertisement of a meeting of the Royal Society in London, England that describes the subject matter as follows:

Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested.

See  Meeting: New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives

 

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