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Objectivity is Overrated

A response to the common accusation of bias and the mythical virtue of objectivity

updated (first published 2013)ARCHIVEDArchived pages are rarely or never updated. Most featured articles on PainScience.com are updated regularly over the years, but not archived pages.
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

Readers often prevail upon me to be “objective,” but it’s an over-rated virtue. And I am often accused of bias — always by somone who disagrees with me, and it’s usually just a more formal way of saying “I think you’re wrong & you suck.” Sometimes I am praised for my neutrality, but always by someone who agrees with me. But I am not impartial on any of the controversial questions in my field, I’ve never met anyone who is, and I don’t aspire to it.

Objectivity and balance are highly over-rated as journalistic virtues. They are mostly a pretentious delusion, and you should actually beware of those who claim to have them. See Jay Rosen on “the view from nowhere.” And Dan Rather said it well: “I don’t like the word ‘balance’ as applied to journalistic work, because to me, that carries with it at least a connotation that, if you run 15 words about the Republican Party, then you’ve got to run 15 words about the Democratic Party. That’s balance. But I think “fairness” is the word I prefer” (interviewed by Hedrick Smith on PBS, 1996).

The ideal is not be unbiased, but to be biased with integrity.

Never trust anyone who claims to be objective. Instead of expecting it, look for someone with a View from Somewhere — from someone who isn’t afraid to disclose and own a bias. That is my goal. Not only will I fail to achieve the ideal of “objectivity,” I assume that my biases are inevitable, constantly egregious, and utterly human. We are all bias machines. We can only keep a bemused eye on this frailty, do some damage control, and try to avoid being emphatic or overconfident about much of anything other than the rise of the sun, death, taxes, and the absurd fallibility of confidence itself. The ideal is not be unbiased, but to be biased with integrity.

Being biased without integrity is a familiar problem. We often see bias-acknowledgement used as a shield from criticism: “I’ve admitted my ignorant dumbass bias, so it’s okay!” Um, no: your bias must have some merit, and just confessing it does not elevate it above reproach.

What’s new in this article?

2016A couple additions and some revision.