Sunday, April 23, 2006

The objectivity trap: Bridge for sale!

If you've gotten this far, you've almost certainly either raised your own serious concerns about the whole objectivity thing or at least been introduced to them in class or some dope den in the bad part of town.* In short, whether you believe our "objectivity" is objective or not (and a long strain of thinking** contends that we're not really talking about the same thing as other folks who use the term), you've noticed that it functions much better in some domains than in others.

Here's objectivity misbehaving in a faith-n-values feature that should have stayed on the runway. The story's quoting its expert du jour on how Christianity is really drawn from ancient Egypt:

One telling piece of evidence, Bargeman says, is the Christian use of the word “Amen,” which is a derivative of Amon, the Egyptian god of reproduction and life.

Well, no. It's from Hebrew, reaching the classical languages through the Septuagint. Our expert has stumbled into the time-honored field of "making stuff up" -- in this case, links to ancient Egypt based on surface similarities. It's been going on forever, and lots of people still indulge, whether their arguments are tangential or relevant:

“The reason for such denial is that Christianity is always presented as the only true religion, the only way to salvation, and as such, it could not have borrowed anything from a religion they have dubbed heathen or pagan,” Harrison Ola Akingbade, an Anglican Christian himself, wrote in the foreword of Bargeman’s book.

Mildly true -- religions do tend to present themselves as the only true path -- but beside the point. The reason for denying made-up connections to Egypt is that they're, well, made-up. As another source in the story suggests:

“This is actually quite a tiresome aspect of being a scholar in my field, that books keep appearing with the author and uninformed readers breathlessly announcing its radicality and novelty, when time after time it is simply a re-tread of an idea or claim refuted long ago,” Hurtado said.

Guess what? He's the one in the story who has a point. But somehow, the difference between somebody who appears to know the field and a self-proclaimed Egyptologist with a bachelor's in literature has been reduced to he-said, she-said.

That's the problem with objectivity, especially when we turn it away from discussing political goods (where it has some serious merits; I'm not suggesting we abandon it). In fields like science, journalism has a long track record of playing up the work of uncredentialed outsiders -- or worse, shills for folks like tobacco companies -- because of its bias toward the new, its refusal to acknowledge the weight of evidence, and its uncritical worship of the maverick who, for whatever reason, appears to be taking on conventional wisdom. (If you think you've seen similar themes -- lone scientist scorned by establishment proves right in the end -- in countless disaster movies, you have.) Missourians might think back a decade and more to the New Madrid hoax: A 50% chance that an apocalyptic earthquake was going to hit within three days of New Year's. Didn't matter that the guy predicting it had a PhD in biology, rather than anything to do with earthquakes. Everybody fell for it anyway.

Well, the world didn't end just because another small-town newspaper ran another silly story compiling a bunch of unfounded claims about how the ancient Egyptians started everything. But it's worth noting that when one side of an empirical debate says the moon is made of green cheese and the other that the moon is a lifeless, airless rock, only one of them is right. And a newspaper that presents the Green Cheese or Aztecs Invented The Vacation theories as legitimate grounds for debate needs to check its line of credit, because somebody out there almost certainly has another bridge for sale.

*If not, go get those plastic cards from mommy and daddy's wallet and type the 16-digit numbers and the expiration dates into the "comments" field. Thanks!
** For starters: Tuchman, G. (1972). Objectivity as strategic ritual: An examination of newsmen’s notions of objectivity. American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-679.


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