Sunday, January 03, 2010

Objectivity, Truth, and Spin

The World's Fair, which is part of the ScienceBlogs stable, has an interesting series on objectivity. Hmm. Well, maybe it's not about objectivity, or just about objectivity. It's also about art, truth, history, and historicizing. Other ideas and issues pop up along the way, but I think you can see why I find the series interesting.

Benjamin Cohen, the blogger, introduces the series by reflecting on his encounter with a 1992 article on the history of objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, "The Image of Objectivity," Representations 40: 81-128. Cohen tells us that he was shocked, and rightly so, by the idea that objectivity had (or could have) a history:
The mere fact that objectivity *has* a history is revealing. It's more typical that the timeless, ahuman connotation of "objectivity" renders it the precise sort of thing that does not change throughout history. Subjectivity certainly does, since people change. But objectivity would seem to be ahistorical.

It is not.
I find it encouraging to have a series like Cohen's on ScienceBlogs because I might think that this subject would send up red flags to those outside the humanities. The topic, the history of objectivity, might be regarded and prejudiced at the outset as "postmodern nonsense." After all, if objectivity has a history, then perhaps it is not itself objective. Perhaps objectivity is not real but is instead a mental construct subject to placement and use in any number of cultural discourses and institutions. Discourses on science, scientific method, journalism, and so on employ objectivity. Institutions such as government agencies, colleges and universities, various companies and more have particular applications of objectivity as part of their in-house processes.

But I'm throwing out a bit of a red herring in what I have just said. I am not actually asserting, and I do not read Cohen as asserting, that "objectivity is not real but is instead a mental construct." Yet without denying the existence of a real objective world, I would also like to posit the existence of a mental construct of objectivity, a concept that can and does get put to rhetorical use. I think that both Cohen and I are interested by the rhetorical uses to which concepts such as objectivity are put. The idea of objectivity becomes part of the spin, as in "we report, you decide."

Here's Cohen again, in his concluding remarks on the series:
One can produce an image and one can say what that image represents. But what it represents is no simple claim.

It is one thing to recognize the reality of nature, another thing to make claims about that reality. That's a shift. There is a space between the two. In that space lies all the work of science.

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