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Book - Craftways CRAFTWAYS
On the Organization of Scholarly Work
by Aaron Wildavsky

Chapter 11
Has Modernity Killed Objectivity?

Reprinted by permission of Transaction Publishers.
"Has Modernity Killed Objectivity"
Craftways, Chapter 11, copyright © 1993 by Aaron Wildavsky. All Rights Reserved


Science does not require that observers exhibit the pristine purity of total detachment. No one, save perhaps a tyro, suggests that a scientist be so chaste, or that "scientific habits of mind" are incompatible with “passionate advocacy, strong faith, intuitive conjecture, and imaginative speculation.” All of us, scientists included, are subject to countless influences so well-hidden as to be uncoverable either by socio- or psychoanalysis. To transform a scientist into that fully aseptic and thoroughly neutral observer of legend is a virtual impossibility. There is no doubt that “there is more to seeing than meets the eyeball”; that what we see is “theory-laden” or “field-determined.” We can admit out of hand that there is no such process as “immaculate perception.” Arguments, therefore, which seek to sustain objectivity by predicating neutrality are doomed to fail. They are also irrelevant. Even if such neutral observers could be manufactured, Popper tells us, “they could not possibly attain to what we call scientific objectivity.”

For the crux of this concept rests on the fact that men, even scientific men, are not angels. Indeed, the entire system of science is based on a variation of Murphy’s Law—the prime assumption that any scientist, no matter how careful he may be, is a risky actor; that he is prone to error; that he is not perfectible; that there are no algorithms which he can apply so perfectly as to expunge any and all biasing effects. Accordingly, all his proposals must be subject to error-correcting procedures. The goals of the enterprise demand a network of highly redundant and visible public checks to protect against the inclusion of erroneous items in the corpus of knowledge. Such net-works are institutionalized control procedures which continually subject “all scientific statements to the test of independent and impartial criteria”: not men, but criteria, for science recognizes “no authority of persons in the realm of cognition.” This is the decision rule that is called objectivity.

–Martin Landau

The debate over multiculturalism is rooted in two major conflicts over values, the more obvious being the difference between equal opportunity and equality of result, and the less obvious, which I shall pursue here, between modernity and objectivity. The suggestion that education should be multicultural contains the scarcely veiled supposition that race, gender, and (sometimes) sexual orientation matter more than knowledge. Objections arise on the grounds that the use of ascriptive criteria in selection of teachers would lead to a decrease in knowledge. Of course, if universities merely privilege the appearance of knowledge by calling it “objective,” when there is no such thing, then it is no great loss or may even be a gain to de-privilege this false objectivity. Thus multiculturalism is linked to interpretivism and deconstruction in that they all require an end to claims of objective knowledge.

Has objectivity become passé? Has the increased sophistication brought by modem understandings revealed objectivity to be a “noble lie,” useful in driving mankind to its first scientific understandings but revealed by domination? Are the social sciences especially blameworthy in failing to acknowledge the biases revealed by the social study of the social sciences as struggles for power rather than for knowledge?

Subjectivity already has considerable standing in social science. It is widely acknowledged that individuals do not necessarily make decisions on the basis of the way the world is, but rather on the way they perceive it to be, a subjective state if there ever was one. It is further agreed that all perception is selective; no one sees it all or can get it all; the human mind is not a swivel operating at the speed of light that can see in all directions seemingly simultaneously. Rather, the opportunity cost, as an economist might say, of what is selected in is all the rest that is selected out of a particular vision. Indeed, it is said to be a singular virtue of scientific theories that they leave out so much in order to make what is included narrower in range but more powerful in prediction. All sorts of biases, moreover, whether material or ideological or based on class or gender or race or region—the list is as long as our considerable capacities for distortion—influence our perceptions. Given all this and more, where is the place for objectivity? Put this way, is not the amazing thing that anybody ever believed in objectivity?

It is one thing to say, following the religious, that we see through a glass darkly, of necessity, and quite another to say that there is no underlying truth or reality there to be perceived. A belief in the importance of subjectivity does not necessarily negate the existence of objectivity, that is, the effort to come to a closer, better, less subjective understanding. Subjectivity, in short, has its limits and these need to be understood.

It is important to demonstrate that different people in different social contexts who adhere to different ways of life often perceive the same or similar objects or behaviors or situations markedly differently. Nowadays, for instance, we witness estimates of danger from technology that vary thousands of times over, not merely by a few percent here or there. That is bedrock; we observe these differences as sure as anything. And they do call out for explanation. But differences in perception, however deep they run, are not the same as differences in manipulative ability. Stating your subjective opinion or even explaining the subjectivity of yourself and others is not equivalent to making the world and the people in it do what you want or turn out the way you wish. To claim that the human mind can transport itself and the body in which it is encased to distant planets is one thing; getting there is something else again. Only by being in touch with the way the world really is, at least in part, can such transport be made. Communists and their supporters praised the Soviet-style command economy for decades, to take another example, but they could not make it work.

The natural sciences proceed in significant part by way of “impossibility theories” devoted to stating what cannot happen according to known principles. Social science ought to do more of that. If we did, the feeling of theoretical déjà vu, nothing is ever refuted, every fool notion comes back, would not be ever present. In the 1920s and l930s Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, adherents of the subjectivist Austrian school of economics, which they helped create, argued negatively that no economy based on central command principles could succeed in growing over time and positively that only economies based on spontaneous interactions as found in markets could grow over time. For decades their ideas were largely rejected because command economies did grow. So far as we know now, Mises and Hayek have been proven correct, though, as is only proper, all theories are conditional in the sense that they may be overtaken by still better ones.

The integrity of science, as Michael Polanyi noted in his seminal essay, “The Republic of Science,” does not depend on the integrity of individual scientists but on a competitive system that separates the best from the worst independent of any single person’s will. By insisting that no one’s authority is final, and by demanding the replication of experiments, far-flung and dispersed communities of scientists are able to do better for science than anyone can do alone. Polanyi did not say, no doubt because he could not imagine anyone would contest the point, that science would do better if scientists sought truer conceptions of the way the world works rather than seeking falsehood. Were there no truth to be discovered, science might proceed on the basis of seeking untruths without harm. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how scientists would keep a straight face with one another or even bother to do their daily craft work if their assumption was that there was no truer reality to be discovered. Of course, even if they were on track as judged by their peers and by the use of their ideas in practical work, it is always possible, indeed likely, that there are deeper conceptions of the underlying reality that will one day take the place of existing theories. But the absence of a final truth does not mean there is none at all.

Conceiving of science as competition over ideas, science is also about conflict and therefore about power. Recall Robert K. Merton’s law to the effect that, in any biography or autobiography of a scientist, after it is first stated that he cared not for precedence, it would take no more than twenty pages to find him engaged in a battle royal over that very thing. Fame is a spur. Over time, however, we know of few scientific ideas accepted against increasingly negative evidence. For as long as there exist diverse groups of independent scientists, there is no way to control them all.

Against this view of the progressive improvement of scientific theories, there is the contention that science is inevitably politicized and that to contend otherwise is sheer rubbish. On the contrary, I claim, it is the view of inevitable politicization that reflects trashy thought. It is equivalent to the famous old joke about the child who kills his parents and then claims the mercy of the court because he has become an orphan. As Martin Landau teaches,

all classifications, no matter how natural they appear, are invented. They are constructs which permit us to take a first glance, to engage in a search to make observations. If we permit them to congeal, if we reify them, if we fail to make the necessary distinction between class and object, between category and assignment, then we rob ourselves of the opportunity to take a second glance (research). One needs to emphasize that category-informed observation takes the form of a search and that the concept of a research constitutes an error- correcting device.1

For nothing in and of itself or by itself is either politicized or unpoliticized. The quality of being political is not something natural in the world, as if it could be plucked like a fruit from a tree, but is rather something imposed, a social rather than a natural construction of knowledge. Every-thing that governments do, for instance, whether this be warfare or imprisonment, has been done sometimes, somewhere privately and what-ever has been done privately, including raising children, has been done publicly. In short, what should be private or public, political or nonpolitical, is what we contest about. When disagreements are large and deep among political activists, as is now true in the United States, then one side makes greater efforts to politicize and the other to resist politicization. Ground more finely, parties and factions may want to politicize this (say, decisions about hiring faculty) and depoliticize that (same-gender sex). Which is not to say that one cannot legitimately argue about the consequences (sic) of politicizing family life or sports or social science. The record does not speak kindly of such efforts, from Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union to experiments on live human beings claiming erroneously to prove racial superiority by the Nazis. But “the political,” as some loosely call it, is not a fixed quality or quantity, known independently of our will, but a product of social interaction to gain agreement.

The right question to ask is not “What is political?” but rather “What do we want to make political?” In the humanities, especially in literature, the urge to combine subjectivism with politicization has reached new heights under the name of “deconstruction.” At one level, deconstruction is a literary critical art that has been practiced for a long time. Virtually everyone, I think, agrees that rich and varied texts, like Bibles and Greek tragedies, are subject to more than one interpretation in that good arguments can be put forward (sic) in behalf of each perspective. On this basis, however, few would have been interested in pursuing deconstruction further. It is radical deconstruction, the denial that texts have meaning or that authors can control them, the straightforward avowal that the purpose of literary criticism is to be, as they put it, perennially subversive, that has converted deconstruction from a fad into a movement. Yet, if all there is to literary criticism is already in the critic, there is good reason to ask why the exercise for which he is paid is necessary.

Let us ask a simple question: Can you think of a single deconstructionist who is a political conservative? There may be a very few but the predonderant (sic) proportion must be liberal-cum-political radicals. What is the essence of this radicalism? It is a belief in greater equality of condition as a desirable norm for regulating social interacation (sic). From this norm of radical egalitarianism comes immense hostility to existing authority as redolent of oppressive hierarchies and inegalitarian (sic) markets. Applied to literature, radical egalitarianism requires radical deconstruction, that is, an unceasing attack on authority, in this case the authority of words, sentences, para-graphs, and entire texts, as incoherent, indeed, as meaning exactly the opposite of whatever it appears to mean. The advantage is that literary critics can pursue a radical egalitarian agenda without joining a party or overtly adhering to any ideology other than what appears to be nihilism but is actually radical egalitarianism. The disadvantage, as John Ellis demonstrates in Against Deconstruction, is incoherence.

The subject of subjectivity, as we have seen, is something of a sport for intellectuals. It is, however, a game with deadly purpose, namely, the delegitimization of authority in democracies on the grounds that these are mere covers for unconscionable inequalities, the worse in that the ideologues of democracy profess exactly the opposite. Combatting such constant criticism is not an easy task in a democracy that prides itself on being open to different viewpoints and which cannot, therefore, cut down on discourse without violating its fundamental principles. Democracy is based on a belief that its people are able to make reasoned judgments between opposing viewpoints. When scientific issues become impossible for the public to understand, because those who speak as scientists do not even agree on how to frame the questions, an important part of democracy in action is lost. Worse, when “noble lies” are told in the belief that the system is so bad any argument against it can only counteract a small part of its falsehoods, the task of the citizen is made much more difficult. As the German communists used to say, nach Hitler uns (after Hitler us), only something infinitely worse came after they had helped delegitimate the Weimar government.

“Multiculturalism,” as it is called today, is a misnomer. To the people who purvey it, variety means uniformity. Using a term, “multi,” which implies that ordinary social science and humanities teach only one way of life while the proponents of multiculturalism teach a number of different ways, when their purpose is to inculcate a single way, takes some doing.

It runs counter to knowledge to claim that race or gender or class represent forms of “culturalism” in that people of the same race, class, or gender live the same way of life. In my courses on political cultures I show that among American Indian and Black African peoples can be found hierarchical, individualist, and egalitarian cultures, as anthropologists have known for a very long time. When a single culture, egalitarianism, is imposed in the name of cultural pluralism, discourse has been debased.

Subjectivism is a necessary aspect of science, social science, and the humanities; it is also a snare if it becomes a substitute for seeking truth. Hypotheses may be proposed in all our subjectivity, but testing and tentative acceptance, followed by retesting, requires institutions that are plural, independent, and competitive but whose members share criteria requiring continuous resort to evidence. The proper use of subjectivity, in sum, depends on widespread commitment to objectivity.

1. Political Theory and Political Science (New York: Macmillan, 1972), p. 50.