Objectivity

Objectivity

I’m sure you would say that you are impartial and that you are “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. Indeed you would say that objectivity is a feature of your everydayness.

At least this is what our parents and teachers taught us to say.

What these good folks often forgot to mention was that being objective takes effort and a lot of it. In order to be objective a person must know or have access to real kernels of truth, irrefutable information, that is things that are known or proved to be true.

In short, objectivity requires evidence.

This means that becoming and remaining an objective person takes constant effort to assemble and evaluate evidence. It means knowing a fact when you see one and also where to look for those that you do not have to hand. It takes rigour.

This should be easy enough in this world of internet searches and virtual assistants but just because an important or famous persons says something or it is reported on commercial media, does not make it a fact. There is learning, skill and experience in making sure that information is factual, reliable and accurate, not to mention relevant.

Just yesterday there was typical vision on the news of a windswept reporter wearing logo embossed gore tex standing in front of a collapsed shed. There had been a supercell storm. An event so powerful “the town was all but destroyed”. Only wait a minute. The ‘town’ was home to 20 people, it was a hamlet at best where most of the houses were still standing. Pan out from the close crop of the flimsy shed and the destruction was hard to see.

Access to information is only the first part of objectivity.

There is information in profusion and some of it is irrefutable. The shed was in a mess. The problem is there was no town and no information beyond the close up of the shed to indicate destruction. What we actually have is a visual fact and a host of loose interpretation and opinion. We must also trust the reputation of the news channel and believe that the reporter was indeed in central Queensland. She could have been in a studio with a wind machine and a green screen.

One irrefutable fact – an image of an upside down shed – is not enough.

Objectivity requires numerous validated facts that must override a host of deep, ingrained and often long standing feelings that are part nature, part nurture and part sheer bloody mindedness. Objectivity means not just accumulation but the ability to sift through facts and put them into context, a process of evaluation to generate relevance.

Now we are lurching rapidly toward some serious effort.

Not only must we have asked Alexa or said hey Google for the relevant facts, we must not just take what the virtual assistants on the smartphone says as gospel. There is another step to objectivity that requires we evaluate the facts for their individual efficacy – are they true – as well as what that piece of information brings to the challenge or conundrum we are trying to be objective about.

Knowledge is not just about committing facts to memory, it requires an additional step, relevance.

A koala example

Let’s consider an example and try to be objective about the following statement:

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it.

Australians understand what this means but it doesn’t have to be the koala, it could be the lion, tiger, African elephant or the ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, known only from a handful of tiny sites in Oxfordshire.

Feel free to insert into the clause whatever species you are told is in danger of extinction. The challenge is how to be objective when presented with such an edict of irreversible loss.

Begin with getting yourself across the suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts.

And here is the initial challenge. What facts are these?

Well given the edict, it would have to be facts about how many koalas are currently alive, what has happened to their numbers in historical and recent times, and evidence for the presence and veracity of threats to their continued existence.

In other words you need to be cognisant of and able to evaluate the population dynamics of koalas as well as the key drivers of those dynamics before you can be objective about the clause regarding extinction.

Curiously, the Australian government factsheet on Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and national environment law does not say how many koalas there are in Australia. What is does say is there are koalas living wild across a range that stretches the entire eastern seaboard of the continent.

Similarly the NSW government’s $44.7 million NSW Koala Strategy does not mention how many koalas there are in the state of NSW.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild, possibly as few as 43,000. However, the link that sends you to a page on how this estimate came about was broken.

You need to go to the science literature to get a more robust estimate.

Phillips (2000) reports koala population trends in the reputable journal Conservation Biology as declining from a population size somewhere <100,000 to “an order of magnitude larger”. That’s a discrepancy estimate of around 900,000 that, even for an error estimate, is quite a few more than the 43,000 the conservationists would have us believe are currently extant.

More recently McAlpine et al (2015) looked at ‘Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges’ in the equally reputable journal Biological Conservation and presented some density data but no actual numbers for total population.

I could go on but I suspect you are getting the message.

The suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts are not easy to find or may not exist at all. In the case of koala numbers, it would seem that nobody knows how many there are in Australia right now, let alone historically. The key facts are actually a known unknown (although nobody close to the problem would admit to this).

In the absence of accessible facts we might choose to rely on the Commonwealth Scientific Committee that gathers information to match the status of species and habitats believed to be at risk of extinction and evaluates this information against agreed IUCN criteria, the global standard. This is the independent body of scientists tasked with deciding if a species or habitat type is at risk of extinction across Australia.

What they said about the koala in the koala population factsheet was nothing about the populations of koala, that is, how many there are now or were around in the past. There’s a nice map of where they are known to occur and if you are a species with a distribution that covers a third of a continent you are probably not too worried. But even in the absence of evidence and a truth that the koala is unlikely to go extinct soon, if at all, the federal environment minister listed Australia’s most at risk koala populations in April 2012 as vulnerable under national environment law

This means that the system set up to evaluate the evidence for decision making on whether a species is at risk of extinction in the wild did not find enough evidence, but it made a decision anyway. Perhaps the scientific committee invoked the precautionary principle or, dare I say, they temporarily put objectivity aside in favour of political expediency or public opinion.

How dare you!

What to do?

This example is typical. It means that it is very hard to obtain and evaluate enough relevant facts to be truly objective. There will usually be holes in your own or the collective knowledge, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It is rare that we are across all the relevant facts.

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it

Most of us don’t have the time, inclination or access to the facts to evaluate this statement with objectivity. Somewhat ironically you can find reference to the science on Google Scholar but not all of it has free access. You also need to know where to look for not all sources are credible.

Reality is that it takes too much time to hunt down and assemble the facts (oops, poor choice of words), that’s before you put in the intellectual effort to evaluate them and find the truth.

We would also have to work hard emotionally to suspend our feelings enough for healthy skepticism. There is a reason koalas, pandas, polar bears and other creatures with fur are used in these extinction statements: to humans they look cute.

So we resort to our default source of objectivity; what we feel. Our instinct, the gut response we have somewhere deep down that is part guide and part conscience.

Should we be brave enough to discuss our objectivity with others, this gut feel will be exposed to serious peer pressure, and must pass some collective logic that comes from group gut feel, known round these parts as the ‘pub test’.

How to be be objective without the effort

And this is just one of the many opinionated statements we have to filter every day.

Koalas are cute because humans beings have a genetic predisposition to find expressive forward pointing eyes either side of a nose clustered together rather low in a much larger “face” impossibly attractive… Think about it.

We are going to need an inordinate amount of seriously powerful facts to overturn such innate prejudice. Most people would not even see the need to try.

Koalas are cute after all, what’s your problem dude?

Any objectivity has a precipitous, ice-covered cuteness cliff to climb.

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