Objectivity is in many ways a myth — but this isn’t a novel thought. I think we all accept that no one can be truly objective in how they view a situation. But our lack of objectivity goes even deeper since worldview is continually influenced by environment.

Peer pressure is one of the most powerful of environmental pressures — so powerful, in fact, that it can literally change what we see. Solomon Asch famously put subjects in a room with a number of confederates who, as a group, were asked to compare the length of two different-sized lines. The confederates claimed that the two lines were of equal length despite being obviously different. In many cases, the subjects gave in and agreed that the two lines were of the same length. Peer pressure is not the only environmental factor which prevents objectivity but it is a potent example.

Historically, our belief in objectivity has been used to manipulate the public. Because the sciences drape themselves in objectivity, we place a lot of trust in scientists. These researchers can have a profit incentive that leads them to abuse this trust. One classic example of this is the implementation of the electric chair. The state of New York was trying to find the best way to execute criminals via the electric chair, and Thomas Edison famously advocated for inmates to be electrocuted by way of the alternating current. Why? Edison was trying to expand the reach of direct current technology and thought that an electric chair powered by the alternating current would scare the public away from his competitor (despite its not being any more dangerous than direct current electricity). Here, we see that our belief in objectivity can be turned against us and prevent us from realizing an objective truth.

This lack of objectivity goes further; it permeates deep into our very language. Scientific terms are often viewed as monolithic and all-encompassing. This is not the case. Consider the commonly given definition of the word “species”: an organism that can breed and whose offspring can have kids. But there are significant exceptions to this definition. That isn’t to throw this definition out the window, but to complicate it and recognize how even with science, a unified truth doesn’t exist.

This definitional diversity extends beyond the hard science to every aspect of our lives. If you were to ask 30 people about the definition of capitalism, you would get 30 different responses. Each one will emphasize different aspects of capitalism: its capacity to create growth or inequality; its focus on markets and deregulation, etc. While everyone has the same approximate definition, the specifics will always be muddled. To borrow from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I shall not attempt define capitalism, but “I know it when I see it.”

Each individual’s definition comes from their own political location. Even if we were to turn to a dictionary, capitalism’s meaning would still be elusive. Merriam-Webster has a distinct geopolitical location: it’s made in the United States, a liberal, western, democratic, capitalist country. If we were to compare that definition to one which originated from the U.S.S.R., Iran or Norway, there would be a bevy of differences. This isn’t to elevate one over the other, but to recognize the validity and multiplicity of perspectives; a singular objective truth is nearly impossible to find.

The lesson here is one of skepticism. We should recognize that nearly everything is bent by our human perceptions, society or outside interests, and thus not truly objective. Whenever we encounter a new idea, we should approach it with a modicum of disbelief: Who is making the claim and how did they come to their conclusion? By synthesizing this skepticism with the claims we face every day and our own beliefs, we can come closer to creating a comprehensive perspective.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu. 

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