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.


  1. I would love to engage you in a discussion about these issues. I would like to know why you wrote the piece though. It may seem like a silly question, but would you humor me and answer it anyway?

  2. Not a silly question but one that for the moment I'll give a short answer. People in the Descriptive Psychology community are engaged in examining the role communities play in what counts as science. Science is, I think, properly conceptualized as involving methodologies and stances in the service of minimizing bias and accordingly attempts to achieve an objective understanding of people and their worlds. Whether it comes from postmodern programs overplaying the relativity of knowledge, or theological and metaphysical claims regarding objective truth, the concept of "objectivity" is evoked and presents problems. Claims of objectivity may have enforced consequences from what counts as science to who counts as an "expert witness" in a trail. Claims of objectivity involves culturally significant social practices. I want to think publicly about those practices and their implications, and provide a record for my colleagues and students. And I want to engage you. Clearly a work in progress.

  3. Great! Let me state my current position on the issue, as I understand it.

    A little background first though, so you can see where I am coming from.

    I am currently an English teacher in South Korea. I run my own little academy along with a Korean business partner. I am intensely interested in human behavior, so having my own little 'thing' going here gives me ample opportunity to observe and try stuff. Nothing inhumane!

    I studied Psychology in University, but became completely disillusioned with the whole field. I also majored in Philosophy and English literature and found a wealth of knowledge regarding the human condition in both these subjects. The only reason I mention the above, is to give you an idea of where I am looking from.

    On to business though. Please keep in mind that I am not any kind of expert about anything really, and I am very much aware of it. I dabble in these kinds of issues because that is where my interests lead me.

    Firstly, I have a massive issue with Psychology trying to be a science. When I was studying, I constantly had this feeling that Psychology was trying to prove to the other sciences, that it could also play with the big boys. I felt that as far as group psychology was concerned, and where you could apply math and averages, the scientific approach was fine, but it all fell apart once you tried to apply it on an individual level. This is something that seriously bothered me. It kind of reminds me of physics where you can apply Newtonian physics to the macro level of existence, but it completely falls apart when you drill down to the subatomic level.

    As for objectivity and subjectivity. I came to the tentative conclusion that there is no such thing as objectivity. Not in the true sense of the word anyway. I guess one can say that there is something such as 'functional objectivity' but if you really focus on the concept, it disappears the closer you look. To me it seems that objectivity and subjectivity have exaxtly the same basis, but they are different expressions of the same 'thing'.

    Another issue I have is with 'concepts' and I have a feeling that a better understanding of concepts will lead to a better understanding of subjectivity and objectivity as well.

    OK, there you have it. I know that my position may appear a little on the 'loony' side, but these are issues I have been thinking about for a while, so I am more than willing to engage in an open minded discussion about all or any. I don't exactly know where to start though, since this is your backyard, so feel free to start where ever you feel comfortable.


  4. The dynamics of jury selection and behavior is a good example of what is
    being discussed. If it is determined that a community has a bias against a
    defendant, then a change of venue may be carried out.
    During jury selection, lawyers question potential jurors to assess bias and
    This is an example from a trial in Golden, CO. The defendant was a man with
    a homeless aspect who had been drinking and who had slowed down to five mph
    during a snowstorm to avoid hitting anything.
    Defense attorney: Is it OK to drink and drive?
    Potential juror #1: Oh hell no, my aunt was a drunk and she got killed
    Potential juror #2: It depends; the Colorado Driver's Manual states how much
    alcohol a person can imbibe and still be OK to drive.
    Defense attorney: Do you have any prejudice against the defendant? Contrast
    with: do you have any prejudice against this unfortunate disheveled

    During a trial, the jury forms a community with jurors producing public
    versions of themselves. They are presented with evidence (facts or an
    approximation thereof) and asked to decide within a reasonable doubt. They
    can use a combination of criteria (mens rea): what was going on in the
    defendant's mind (subjective) and what about his/her actual behavior
    (objective). They engage in a dialogue, with a basis of what they share (
    components of individual reality) and what they exchange (including Dawkin's
    memes, if you are so inclined). From 'BoP', any one of them can think:'I
    have to vote for acquittal, but my critic is saying he's guilty.'.

    The scientific method resulting in science applied to the development of new
    technology in turn applied to the production of media/artifacts (guns,
    aircraft, etc.) is a good example of objectivity. Nature ends up deciding
    whether or not an artifact will work.

    In a community, regarding dress, a custom is an unremarkable social practice
    and a value is an endorsed and appreciated state of affairs. As an example,
    take a certain Middle Eastern country where it is customary to cover hair
    and a value is modesty of dress. This country has religious police
    monitoring the dress of persons; they carry cans of red paint and brushes to
    paint the bare skin of women whom they deem are dressed inappropriately.
    A policeperson sees a Western woman with uncovered hair and bare shoulders
    except for straps. Given that she is a foreigner, she is not expected to
    conform to local standards. What about values? The police have a set of
    guidelines regarding what is acceptable, these correspond to desired
    standards. Their demonstration of judgment and lack of bias will attest to
    their competence and objectivity.

  5. Canis, you might like to start with Descriptive Psychology, One Bite at a Time (OBaaT), perhaps at the concept of "concept".

    You are right about psychology trying to play with the big boys. They couldn't because they didn't have the right pre-empirical conceptual structure. You can read my essay on that here.


    1. Thank you for the reply, Clark, but could you do me a favor? Could you supply me with your own background and point of view?

      I am wondering what you are trying to accomplish with your reply, and your blog. Which was an interesting read, by the way. Thank you for the link.

      I am aware of what a concept is, thank you. In the link you provided, it is described from a philosophical point of view. I am more interested in the formation of a concept. Meaning, how it 'happens' in your mind. From the philosophical point of view, you treat a concept (X) as a 'thing'. I don't think you can do that. Not even in the case of concrete concepts, such as 'table' or 'tree'. One has to recognize that the actual tree, is not the same as the concept 'tree'. An actual tree is one expression of a general concept, 'tree'. My question regarding concepts is, how are they formed? And I am hoping that understanding the process, will help me understand concepts better.

      As for your definition of the concept 'Person'. I don't mean to put you down, but your definition and explanation is very sloppy. If your aim is to clarify, you missed it. If your aim was to define, then you stepped in the same hole anyone trying to write a definition, does.

      I read an article on Wynn's blog (no disrespect intended, it is simply easier to use first names. Mine is Andre') about how people are not the only persons. The reason he could even write an article like that, is because 'person' as a concept, is NOT linked to humans only. The concept 'person' is separate from the actual individual you can describe as a person. And behavior is probably the worst category you can choose to define person-hood by.

      You also allude to Free Will and Determinism in your explanation. That is a completely different topic that needs to be properly discussed before adding it to any kind of recipe.

      It is great that you are thinking about these things though, and I would enjoy a continuing conversation very much.

      Andre' Jacobs

  6. I have been reading up about Descriptive Psychology and the terms/concepts it uses. I will start with the concept Person.

    The descriptions, or definitions, that I found on the site Clarke posted ( causes a problem. Most of these definitions already assumes an understanding of what a 'person' is. In the same way that Clarke does in his blog on the topic.It is a circular explanation because you start with an inherent understanding of what a 'person' is, in order to explain person-hood.

    Let me see if I can clarify. Imagine you have to explain what a 'person' is to an alien life form. To be able to do that, you will draw on your your own understanding of the concept. In your mind the concept was developed through a process of elimination, meaning, by excluding qualities that does not 'fit' in with the general understanding of what a 'person' is. One of those excluded concepts, is that of 'animal'. In our general understanding 'animal' and 'person' are mutually exclusive concepts. And I know one can call a person an animal, but what you are doing is assigning animal qualities to a person. When you describe what a 'person' is, you have an image of a human being in your mind as a basis for person-hood. Meaning, that your base assumption, is that a human being is a person. If you purely look at the concept 'person' you will find that that is an erroneous assumption.

    Say you were to make a list of qualities that constitutes a 'person'. Let's use the definition I found on the DP site Clarke posted.

    "A Person is an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical pattern."

    You can see in the above definition the assumption of a human as central to the definition. Yet, if you look closely at the definition, you will also see that this basic assumption is unnecessary.

    The first word used is 'individual'. This word is used to describe humans. You can talk of individual animals as well, but when you do that you usually need to create the context first, to clarify that you are not talking of a human. If someone references an individual in the way it is done above, the immediate assumption is, that you are talking of a human.

    Now look at the use of 'Paradigmatically'. In the definition of this word you state "Regarded as representative or typical.
    For example, a Person typically engages in Deliberate Action. Deliberate Action is representative of what persons do; thus, periods without deliberate actions must be explained or accounted for.

    For example, persons who are unconscious are not engaged in deliberate action because they are unconscious."

    This word is again used to draw a distinction between humans and animals, which we assume do no engage in deliberate actions. If you dig deeper into what Deliberate Action signifies, you come to "A case of behavior in which we know what we're doing and are doing it on purpose.
    A form of behavior in which the individual behaving not merely knows that that is what he is doing, but also chooses to do it."

    Here you find 'knowing' and 'choosing'. Both concepts that are not clear either. One could ask, 'What does it mean to know something?' or 'What does it mean to 'choose' something?' Very problematic concepts on their own, because their own meanings are riddled with assumptions and is very confusing. Again though, they are both concepts we like to associate exclusively with humans.

    We generally don't think of animals, or bacteria, as 'knowing' or 'choosing'.

    You may be thinking round about now 'What is this silly person going on about? Of course we are talking about humans.' Yes, we are talking about humans, but Person was chosen as central concept in this theory, NOT human. What I am trying to show, is that Person and Human are not interchangeable concepts.

  7. Let me get to it then. Let's go back to the original definition of Person.

    "A Person is an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical pattern."

    I am going to ignore Paradigmatically at first, because its definition already assumes person-hood.

    Let's look at Deliberate Action: (

    "A case of behavior in which we know what we're doing and are doing it on purpose.
    A form of behavior in which the individual behaving not merely knows that that is what he is doing, but also chooses to do it.
    The central concept of behavior—if there were no cases of this kind, there would be no cases of any kind.
    A form of behavior in which the person
    engages in an Intentional Action,
    knows that that is what he is doing, and
    has chosen to do that."

    The above description works just as well for describing behavior in animals, or any kind of life form, as a matter of fact. One would think that 'knowing' and 'choosing' excludes the behavior of an amoeba, for instance, but it doesn't. If you keep in mind that 'knowing' and 'choosing' is usually associated with humans, but that it doesn't have to be, the picture changes somewhat. For that to make sense you need to go and look at what it means to 'know' something, or 'choose' something. An amoeba 'knows' and 'chooses' as well. 'Knowing' is a state you get to by processing information. An amoeba processes information as well. And on the basis of that process, it 'chooses' what it will do.

    You may be thinking that this is trivial, but it isn't. It also doesn't reduce humans to simple deterministic decisions. What it does is create a basis of understanding that moves beyond a human centered one. If you agree that an amoeba can both know and choose, then you have to ask yourself what exactly makes us, as humans so special. And once you find the answer, maybe then you could include that in a more comprehensive definition, that doesn't need to employ cheap tricks.

    The reason I am focusing on the above, is because I read in an explanation of Descriptive Psychology in Wikipedia. It stated:

    "The original impulse for the creation of DP was dissatisfaction with mainstream approaches to the science of psychology.[1] Of particular importance was the perception that psychology had paid insufficient attention to the pre-empirical matters essential to good science, and especially to the creation of a foundational conceptual framework such as other sciences possessed. Later authors noted that this lack of a conceptual scaffolding was responsible for the fragmentation of psychology; i.e. for its lack of any unifying, broadly accepted "standard model."

    If you are at all serious about creating a 'foundational conceptual framework' then you have to pay attention to the assumptions inherent in the terms you use.

    I have been reading a lot by Daniel Dennett ( and he looks like the kind of guy you should be talking to.


  8. I imagine I have not replied to this in two years because you are doing philosophy, and we are doing psychology. I am not interested in doing philosophy, but if you are still out there and want to hear some psychological replies to you questions, I will set some out.