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Objectivity is Overrated

A response to the common accusation of bias and the mythical virtue of objectivity and journalistic “balance”

Paul Ingraham • 3m read

The science of pain treatment and injury rehab is surprisingly controversial and rife with extraordinary claims and passionate beliefs about what works for pain, and so 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, thanks to the great power of confirmation bias.

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 mostly a pretentious journalistic delusion, and you should actually beware of those who claim to have them (see Jay Rosen on “the view from nowhere”). Laurie Penny: “The most dangerous thing any journalist … can do is buy into the myth of their own objectivity.” And Dan Rather said it well too: “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).

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 their biases. 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 to 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.

So what’s my bias here on ?

Anti-quackery activism. Science-based medicine. I believe we fool ourselves about all kinds of things all too easily, especially about health and medicine. Those are my filters. Occasionally they probably lead me to be excessively skeptical, but I’m wise to that risk — I’ve been doing this a for a very long time now.

Related Reading

What’s new in this article?

2016 — A couple additions and some revision.

2013 — Publication.


linking guide

650 words