Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Objectivity revisited

Back in July of last year I wrote a post about objectivity.  In that post, I complained about the general misunderstanding of the term, and also about how that general misunderstanding plays into the hands of people who want to bash science.  I was particularly hard on cultural anthropologists Emily Schultz and Robert Lavenda:
...let me call your attention to Schultz and Lavenda's textbook, Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (Oxford 2012).  This book is written largely from the perspective of non-scientific, postmodern, and interpretivist anthropology.  On page 44, they define objective knowledge as: Knowledge about reality that is absolute and true.
I went on to explain how this is a bad definition of scientific (or, really, any other) objectivity, and I offered a more appropriate one:
[Knowledge] is objective in the scientific sense of the term if it is both publicly verifiable and testable.
Well, now they've gone and done it again.  In their new edition of Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human? (Oxford University Press 2012), they offer this in their glossary (p. 474):
Objectivity: The separation of observation and reporting from the researcher's wishes.
This is not really better.  The reason it's not better is that it makes objectivity an individual trait, rather than a feature of the collective attempt to understand the world. Now, they do discuss this distinction between the individual researcher and the research community in their text (pp. 25-26), and it's not a bad treatment of the problem.  But why, then, do they keep the wrong (i.e. non-scientific) definition of objectivity in their glossary, which presumably some students might consult as an aid to understanding?

To the extent that they do this, Lavenda and Schultz contribute to the problem of the public perception of science in general, and social science in particular.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.