Saturday, January 18, 2014

Objectivity, Subjectivity and the Gospel Truth

Truth, justice and the American way.” Superman’s Creed

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator…” 
Thomas Jefferson

"I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels."  
Rene' Descartes

… For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.”  Ludwig Wittgenstein

 “You can fool some of the people some of the time -- and that's enough to make a decent living.” W.C. Fields

What is it to be objective? How is this in contrast to the subjective?  People want their science to be objective and to carry the authority of truth and not a matter of opinion, optional and changeable the way opinions change. Objectivity carries authority. You can take it to the bank. But is the objective all that different from the subjective? Is it a matter of degree or logical type? 

What does any of this have to do with truth? Is truth objective? 

Is it enough to say that the objective involves facts, free of bias, the subjective, a matter of opinion, and truth, what I honesty believe to be the case? What confounds this are the varied roles these concepts have in the communities where they are employed and the belief systems where they are embedded. 

In what sense can any of this be universal, the Gospel Truth so to speak? Does science have its Gospel Truths?

Notice I wrote, "people want their science...." A reminder:  every idea is someone’s idea and this holds for all facts and claims even if what one person believes is what every person believes.  Objective, subjective, and truth are concepts that people use and not something they discover empirically in nature.  Concepts are tools used for various purposes.  Concepts guide the social practices of a community.

Concepts are the tools we use to identify and sort out the facts. The facts are claims of what is both true and empirically the case. The role bias plays in shaping how the facts are discovered and used has consequences.  I may be more interested in some facts than others. My bias might distort what I take to be the case and it might shape what I allow in the discussion.

Facts, even if somehow free of bias, are still developed and employed within a community of interest. There is no science without a scientific community. There is no religion without a community of faith. How could it be otherwise?

I grew up in a community of chemists and chemical engineers and did a short stint teaching laboratory physiology.  As a psychologist I have performed and supervised experiments, so I know something about how workaday scientists talk regarding their sense of being objective unbiased observers and reporters. I also grew up in the Bible Belt South and am acquainted with enforced truth. 

A fundamentalist's revealed truth and a scientist's faith in determinism, reductionism and causality have common features. Both may inhibit discovery and comprehension. (And both involve an acceptance of "how it is and how it must be").

Some considerations:
Speaking for myself in contrast to speaking as a representative of a community is one way to get oriented. When I am objective, I am speaking as an representative of “us”, maybe as expert, using the agreed upon standards of our community. Objectivity, practically speaking, requires acting on agreed upon standards and having the competence and sensitivity to act on those standards. Competence and sensitivity are fundamental to what it takes to make an “objective” judgment, assessment or measurement. When I am being subjective, I am only making the claim that I speak for myself.  But even speaking just for myself, I may reasonably claim to be objective. It depends on the sort of claim. Measurability and other appraisals deemed objective are a stand in for "anyone in the appropriate position can see that...." or "anyone who cannot see that X is the case has gone wrong in the following way:..." But what happens when there is a built in limit to what is allowed as the framework for reporting and organizing the observed? 

A paradigm of an objective scientific act: It is very easy to get an agreement that her temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, since that requires very little skill. I look where the mercury ends and
read off a number. If you are standing nearby, you can see it the way I do, too.  If you think my eyesight is poor or that it hasn’t been in her mouth long enough you can double-check. This is easy. Now contrast reading a thermometer to something that requires more refined sensitivity and judgment. I recall in chemistry lab the messiness of doing titrations and thin-film chromatography and how desperately I hoped my results would resemble those of my bench partner. That’s why we have inter-judge reliability statistics. This requires community. This also relegates the objective to the consensual and the consensual can mask shared bias.

Objectivity is a matter of what a community agrees they can reliably assess, measure, appraise or judge and teach others to similarly accomplish. Not everyone in a community will have the required competence and sensitivity.  Not everyone in a community will be in a position to properly observe. There may be disagreements about how much variation is tolerated.  Different judges can disagree about acceptable variations and how judgment is enforced.  This involves the distribution of power and is inherently political and potentially coercive.

Objectivity has a "more or less" quality in the manner that sensitivity and competence are also matters of more or less. What will be considered objective is uncertain when standards and competencies are in flux, are under development or review, or subject to within community disagreement. This is amplified when judgment is hard to achieve because technically difficult to accomplish. This is especially problematic if what is treated as appropriate for objective standards involves practices that by their very nature are developing, in flux or inseparable from vested interests. Vested interests, whether philosophical, professional, sexual, religious, political, tribal or national are the stuff of bias, conflict and control. Standards involve controls. Standards set agendas for action. What is treated as objective when set in stone has consequence.

The more or less quality of the objective overlaps with the subjective. The overlap increases hazard when what is considered objective is equated with universal Truth; when only in a position to speak for myself, I speak for others. Personal bias is especially problematic when it creates distortion
or constrains what is acceptable to acknowledge.  I may not be aware of my bias. It might not be in my interest to examine it or to disclose it to you. If I have sufficient power, I might keep such examination off the agenda. The unexamined is hard to confront when the powers to set the agenda control what can be examined. Community is both the problem and the solution made all the more significant when the objective is equated with the universal.

Can an entire community share an overarching and distorting bias? Is there a consensual bias at the heart of conventional science? Does the spectre of determinism and reductionism still haunt social and behavioral science? This, I believe, is a mind closing dilemma made dangerous when there is coercive authority to enforce standards, competencies, and what is acceptable for framing discussion. 

It is obviously problematic if we treat the appraisal of virtue like the measurement of temperature. But it also problematic if we claim a person is only an extraordinarily complex machine or that action and meaning are reducible to performance and brain. It is mind closing if we require that science accepts this stance as a given. 

Taking our community's standards as a measure of universal truth is mind closing when we confuse our map with the possible terrain. It occurs when we foreclose on the possibilities a priori. It occurs when we confuse complexity with logical type. 

Objectively, I might show that 37% of all Oompa Loompas prefer Neapolitan above other flavors of ice cream. I can also say objectively that I don’t like Neapolitan, since I am in the best position to make that call. I believe unadulterated strawberry tastes best. I don't mix flavors, and believe such mixing of flavors is plain wrong. (I feel queasy at the thought). I have come to think my good taste is a virtue. In fact, I think it is the way it should be for everyone which is why my children will not be exposed to Neapolitan or the other inferior flavors. 

Here, speaking for myself in contrast to speaking for others matters, especially if I have the power to enforce the standards of flavor, mix and taste. I buy the groceries.  

Judgment imagined as objective has consequence. Judgment constrained by an unquestioned or under-examined world view has consequence. Judgment deemed objective may serve many a master. 

Motto: You buy your ticket and you take your chances. Read the fine print. 

Upon reading the above my friend and colleague, Joe Jeffrey Ph.D,  sent me this corrective reminder that I have slightly edited.  I need community to help think things through.

"It looks to me like "objective" is critic language for "This description has not gone wrong by asserting an opinion as fact, by asserting that an individual-value-based appraisal is a community-value-based one, or that in general what is visible from a certain perspective is what is visible from all perspectives."

Here's an example of objective truth in social science:  consider an experiment in which a person goes to a therapist for a time and comes out ostensibly different in certain ways.  Let's make it a bit more specific: a woman goes to a therapist to deal with conflicts over her traditionalist religious upbringing and her desires and feeling of conflict. After treatment, the simple question would be to ask, "Is she different, and is it a positive difference?"  A much better question is to ask, "To whom (i.e. to persons in which postions) does this person appear different in a positive way?" The experimental procedure you'd use to investigate that is  a blue-ribbon panel methodology: you gather a blue-ribbon panel of people representing all the relevant perspectives, say feminist, standard-normal-upper-middle-class American woman, standard-normal-lower-middle-class man, traditional religious, etc. Then you gather answers to your questions, and record the perspective from which the questions are answered.  Then (and here's the key point) your answer to, "Is she different and is it a positive difference?" is NOT, "Y+Y," "Y+N," etc.; it is: "From perspective P1, Yes and Yes; from perspective P2, Yes and No," etc.  In short, you don't commit the intellectual sin of having what CJ Peek refers to as "the imperial perspective," i.e., presenting the results as though the "real" answer were the answers given from a particular perspective.

This formulation, and methodology, are taken directly from Tony Putman's Ph.D. dissertation. I claim no credit. But I take all the blame if I've made errors in presenting it."

A further response from Tony Putman who refers directly to Peter Ossorio's  Meaning and Symbolism:

"Meaning and Symbolism" entitled Objectivity and Agreement -- pp. 67-73. Here's a most cogent excerpt:

"What would it have been for H’s description to have been objective? The description would have been objective if H had in fact not gone wrong in any of the ways in which he might possibly have gone wrong. Thus, the contrast between “objective” and “biased” or “subjective” depends on there being the possibility of going wrong and on there being ways of judging whether one had gone wrong or not. Procedures of checking and negotiating are highly developed social practices. That is the substance of “there being ways of judging whether one had gone wrong or not.” Which is to say that there was nothing about H’s description that made it objective, any more than there was something about S’s behavior that made it hostile. We do not arrive at correct conclusions because we have procedures and perspectives which are ‘objective’. Rather, our ability to criticize a judgment as “not objective” reflects our competence to decide what conclusion was the correct conclusion to draw." M&S p.69

And another, longer one:

"The objective nature of the situation is categorically unlike any person’s view of it. Because of this, it would be categorically impossible to ascertain or even approximate the objective nature of the situation by adopting some one view of it, e.g., a view which is shared by a set of “trained observers”, or by a set of observers which includes that important special case of “me”. Far from being a way of achieving objectivity, our standard requirement of observer agreement is a way of evading the problem by restricting our efforts in such a way that objectivity is not an issue between us. Methodologically, this shares most of the characteristics of a hypothetical procedure in which H and M would agree to decide the question of S’s hostility conclusively by flipping a coin. A question which is decidable in this way is no longer the question about S’s hostility. And in general, the importation of a decision procedure for deciding a question for which no decision procedure exists only succeeds in changing the subject.

"There are two heuristic analogies which may be exploited in connection with the notion of objectivity. The first is the contrast between the visual appearance of an object and the shape of an object. We know that an object like a beer mug or an automobile will have a different appearance, depending on the point of view. The object has only one shape, but an infinite set of appearances, not all of which need be unlike. Most importantly, none of its appearances approximates the shape, for there is a categorical difference between the shape it has and the way it appears. Yet we can only see the object from some viewpoint and when we do, we do see the object directly. There is no special viewpoint from which the real shape is identical with its appearance. Nor is the shape a transcendental kind of appearance that would be visible to a hypothetical, transcendental, ‘objective observer’.

Nevertheless, the shapes of objects have a comfortingly concrete character, and our competence with matters of visual perspective is such that we perceive shaped objects and do not calculate shapes from their appearances. We have standard terminology for shapes and objects, not their appearances. Thus, the second heuristic analogy is more pointed, for here we lose this feature. This analogy is the case of relative motion. We cannot characterize the motion of an object except by reference to some other object or set of objects. The motion will be differently characterized depending on which set of objects we use as a frame of reference. What is the ‘objective motion’ of the object? That must be given by a set of correspondences among motion descriptions within particular frames of reference. This can be done, of course, but again, there is a categorical difference. The rule of correspondence is not itself a motion and the set of corresponding motions is neither a motion nor in motion. (Note the resemblance here to “reality is not a set of objects, processes, events, and states of affairs.”)"

One of the anticipated themes for the 36th Annual Meeting of the Society for Descriptive Psychology, October 23-26, 2014, in Golden, Colorado is the place of community in science. 

And this, in the 1/21/14 New York Times, on reproducible results in science, "New Truths that Only One Can See".

This posting is a continuation of themes developed in On Indoctrination and Freedom (An Outline). Thanks to Joe Jeffrey, Anthony Putman and Pat Aucoin for useful suggestions and critique and for bearing with my struggle to try to get something clear.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Mindful Uncertainty: What is Psychotherapy?

Mindful Uncertainty:  I, Thou, and Empathy 

… in terms of technique: He should simply listen, and not bother about whether he is keeping anything in mind.

Anyone who hopes to learn the noble game of chess from books will soon discover that only the openings and end-games admit of an exhaustive systematic presentation and that the infinite variety of moves which develop after the opening defy any such description.…The rules which can be laid down for the practice of psycho-analytic treatment are subject to similar limitations.   
Sigmund Freud

A person always acts under conditions of uncertainty.
A person always has enough information to act on.   

The essential thing about human beings is that they make the decisions that resolve the uncertainties, and that's why we have all this business of choices and options and reasons. You need a player to do that. Were there such a thing as guaranteed knowledge, certainty, from which your behavior followed automatically, there'd be no place for people. You could be replaced by a computer immediately. The essential feature of people is that uncertainty, that people can and do easily operate under uncertainty, and that’s essential to being a person, in the same way that the uncertainty left by the rules of chess is essential to being a chess-player.     Peter Ossorio

The thing I am trying to say is that for the cook the two experiences are different: the slavish one who complies gets nothing from the experience except an increase in the feeling of dependence on authority, while the original one feels more real, and surprises herself (or himself) by what turns up in the mind in the course of the act of cooking. When we are surprised at ourselves, we are being creative, and we find we can trust our own unexpected originality. We shall not mind if those who consume the sausages fail to notice the surprising thing that was in the cooking of them, or if they do not show gustatory appreciation. 
D.W. Winnicott

Professional education involves cultivating skill and knowledge.  Psychologists are trained to recognize behavior patterns and to develop serviceable formulations in their attempts to be helpful.  Clinical students want to both “know” and to “know how” but are often uncomfortable with their uncertainty.  In time, most learn not to be. A good deal of clinical supervision involves supporting trainees while they manage their discomfort with clinical work's guaranteed uncertainty and ambiguity. It is understandable that many therapists-in-training yearn for technology, some precise set of tools that might give them the exactness and expertise they associate with professionalism. If only it were that simple. But people aren't that simple.

Although people make sense, we can't expect them to be less complex than they are. Our defining quality is that we engage in deliberate action. We make choices based on our changing sense of what we find personally significant, implemented all sorts of ways.  Since people's pathologies create restrictions in their ability to engage in deliberate action, as they become less ill, they become even more unpredictable.  

People are understandable rather than predictable.  This may be unsettling to the clinical observer. It shouldn't be. We diagnose illness, not health. Illness is simpler than health and can be categorized because it is more restricted. But even within the restrictions of pathology there is deliberate action and choice. The arena of play is only smaller. 

My job is to help students become experts in managing their uncertainty, in navigating ambiguity, in recognizing what is in flux, with no necessary outcome. They should become experts of uncertainty, able to precisely indicate what is in fact ambiguous and uncertain.  

The problem is not only that students are anxious about feeling uncertain, but that circumstances do not have a determined outcome. "What will be, will be" is not a belief I encourage. I do not accept the fatalism of destiny. I don't want my students too, either.

If therapy is to facilitate health, and if health involves an enhanced freedom to choose and create, then absolute prediction is antithetical to the practice. That's a tough lesson when security is tied to certainty. 

Empathic action and the I-Thou relationship, vital to psychotherapy, require embracing the incomplete understanding we actually have of one another. Starting with uncertainty, good psychotherapists discover who they sit with and act on what they discover in an ongoing improvisation.  Like it or not, each act is new. Mindfully ignorant, tolerant of uncertainty, good therapists know how to play their part in a unique and unscripted play.  Seasoned, they know they do not already know, and accept they are uncertain when and if they will acquire the needed knowing. The empathic therapist is an expert at playing this uncertainty game. It requires faith and skill. It requires patience and courage. 

My job is to be open to surprise, and to celebrate when surprise happens. People will surprise me.

I am certain my clients will show me something I don’t already know, something new to me. I expect it and am rarely disappointed. 

So how do we go about this?

Being open to surprise is central to psychoanalytic practice.  Freud required it of the analyst, and it has been essential to real psychotherapy ever since. Transference, pre-judgment, and stereotyping restricts surprise, coming as it does from a preformed schema or understanding.  Having a treatment plan can be problematic if it also carries an insistent demand for compliance. (I want my guides to know their way about, but not try to tell me where I must go). 

Reductionism and deterministic theory are rarely helpful with the intimacy of psychotherapy.  At best, they provide a security blanket, soothing when they don’t cover up or obscure.

Freud’s "free association" was developed as a method of liberation from the neurotic and culturally unexamined. He insisted that our developing bodies must be considered, that “anatomy is destiny” and that “the child is the father of the man”.  His theories unraveled the wefts and warps of development and sexuality. Freud wanted us mindful of our primate body, insisting that our animal nature is a condition essential to treatment and understanding.

But our nature is a reminder, not a predictor. 

Good clinical teaching takes us beyond the limited scope of theory, even good theory, and brings us back again and again to observation and description.  Good description invites freedom, especially as it invites re-description and the negotiation of the description's accuracy and use.  

Not already having the answers, skilled clinicians know they must go out and look, and then look again. They know they will have to share and negotiate what they think they see for it to be helpful.

So where to look? And how can we explore effectively and successfully?

The Parameters of Intentional Action help identify what one might need to know to understand what someone is doing.  These parameters also serve as a reminder of what we don’t know. Knowing that we don’t know is an essential aspect of empathy. It is good to remember to be careful of what we presume.  Wrongly presuming may lead to empathic rupture and the hurtful recognition of being misunderstood. 

Part of the therapist's job is to look carefully and share what is found with kindness and toleration. The improvisation of sharing facilitates accuracy and collaboration. To negotiate understanding is an act of respect.

My friend and colleague Ray Bergner has pointed out that psychotherapy should be governed by policies rather than hard and fast rules. Policies guide rather than restrict and are applied as a default position unless there is reason enough not to. 

As a psychoanalyst, I try to be guided by an attitude, the Analytic Attitude, a set of policies that Roy Schafer distilled from Freud’s papers on technique.  Below, I have modified Schafer's policies given my concerns (and with some reminders from Ray Bergner, 2013).

1. Regard and treat the client as an agent.

2. Regard and treat the client as a person who is to be given the benefit of the doubt.

3. Engage the client as an ally and collaborator.  Be on the client’s side.

4. Act with respect and appreciation of the client’s ordeal and possibilities.

5. Be non-insistent.

6. Attempt to be helpful without zeal.

7. Avoid making promises.

8. Cultivate non-directive “free association” by inviting non-coerced honesty.

9. Attempt empathic neutrality, confrontation, and interpretation over direct suggestion.

10. Avoid rigid "black/white, either/or" thinking; and when appropriate, confront it.  Invite the acceptance of a multiplicity of useful meanings along with inherent ambiguity and uncertainty. 

11. Maintain focus on the subjective state of the client and of the client’s understanding of their circumstances. Go only as fast as the client can manage. 

12. When appropriate, interpret transference and resistance, mindful of ambiguity and uncertainty. 

13. Maintain a zone of safety and toleration.

14. Practice kindness.  

Policies are to be followed until there is sufficient reason to do something else. This is a matter of clinical judgment. This requires experience in navigating uncertainty. 

---unlike in math---there isn't a difference between an ambiguous conclusion and an unambiguous one. All conclusions, in behavior, are ambiguous.  Peter Ossorio