Friday, January 11, 2013

No, you’re not objective.

In recent arguments about evo psych, I’ve seen a lot of smug dismissals that take the form “How can you deny it? It’s Science - objective data!” As though the simple invocation of the word science or a scientific title magically granted a proposition or individual the power of objectivity. The casual refrain “Science has shown…” has to be the most preposterous substitute for real objectivity ever, all the more pathetic when followed - in true hyperskepticredulous fashion - by citations of anecdotes or appeals to common sense.

A sure route away from objectivity and toward biased thinking is believing that objectivity is a property you possess – that you’re inherently an “objective person” (Science has shown!* ;)). Few attitudes are more contrary to developing objectivity than the arrogant presumption that you already “have” it. As Fromm eloquently argued, objectivity is a practice, built on a foundation of humility. We accept that our prejudices and cognitive tendencies are going to affect our perspectives and perceptions, and do our best to mitigate it.

This is an individual and a collective effort. As individuals, we recognize that we tend to view things in ways that suit our biases, and we develop habits of looking critically at our beliefs – especially when these could be regarded as self-serving or seem to fit most comfortably with the prejudices of our age and culture. We work to practice epistemic justice in all areas of our lives. We cultivate an attitude of respect. Collectively, we confront the systems of domination and exploitation that breed and require biased thinking and impede respectful engagement, encourage and teach habits of critical thinking,** and challenge faith in all of its forms.

Objectivity isn’t something we have. It’s something we do.

* The link to the full PDF can be found on that page. The paper I’m referring to is:

Uhlmann, E.L., & Cohen, G.L. (2007). “I think it, therefore it’s true”: Effects of self perceived objectivity on hiring discrimination. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 104, 207-223.

** Critical thinking involves taking a critical eye to our own preconceptions and epistemic practices. It’s not about rebellion for rebellion’s sake, or the persona (much less self-image) of the brave, scientific pioneer or iconoclast bucking the alleged dogma. Critical thinking involves skeptically analyzing our own framing of and approaches to questions, the sources of our information and how these are differently evaluated, the reasons we reject information as valid or relevant, the bases on which we extrapolate and draw general conclusions from research findings, and so on. Critical thinking begins at home.

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