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On Objectivity in Journalism

blurred image of crowd and streetlights

Over the past few years, a number of left-leaning journalists have publicly questioned the notion of objectivity as an ideal for journalists and journalistic practice. The discussions that ensued have generated a lot of heat, but for the most part not too much light. That’s why I was delighted by the latest episode of Noah Feldman’s podcast, Deep Background, which featured a lengthy interview with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is perhaps best known as the creator of The New York Times’s The 1619 Project. In that interview, Hannah-Jones and Feldman develop a nuanced account of the place of objectivity in journalism. I will discuss this account in due course. Before I do, I would like to unpack the multiple meanings of “objectivity” as it is used to describe journalists and their art.

The word “objectivity” is normally applied to two things: persons and facts or truths. An objective person is one who has three attributes: neutrality, even-handedness, and disinterestedness. A neutral person has no prior or preconceived views about a particular subject; an even-handed person is disposed to give due weight to both sides in a factual dispute; and a disinterested person has no strong interests in one side or the other being the correct one. Thus, objectivity as an attribute of persons involves (the lack of) both beliefs and desires. It is in the name of promoting the appearance of this kind of objectivity that some journalists think it is improper for them to engage in political activity, or even to vote.

When applied to facts or truths, as in the oft-repeated phrase “objective truth,” the word is generally taken to mean something about either empirical verifiability or “mind-independence.” Take empirical verifiability first. In this sense, “objective” truths are truths that can be directly verified by the senses, and so are part of a public world which we share with other sentient creatures. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with both truths about our mental states, such as that I like the taste of chocolate ice cream, and “metaphysical” truths, such as that God is all-powerful. Mind-independence is a slippery concept, but the basic idea is that mind-independent truths are truths which don’t depend on anyone’s beliefs about what is true. That it is raining in Durham, North Carolina would be true even if everyone believed it false. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with conventional truths, such as truths about grammar rules, since such rules depend for their very existence on the attitudes, and in particular the beliefs, of writers and speakers. In this sense, however, “objective” truths include both metaphysical truths and truths about mental states. To see the latter point, consider that the fact that I like chocolate ice cream would be true even if no one, including I myself, believed it to be true. Thus, truths about personal taste can count as subjective in one sense, but objective in another.

With some exceptions I will discuss shortly, criticisms of objectivity rarely cast doubt on the existence of objective truths. Instead, they target the ideal of the journalist as a neutral, even-handed, and disinterested observer. The criticisms are two-fold: first, that adopting the objective stance is impossible, since all journalists use their prior beliefs and interests to inform their decisions about what facts to include or highlight in a story, and if they have the discretion, even what stories to write. Second, since a perfectly objective stance is impossible, trying to adopt the stance constitutes a form of deception that causes people to invest journalists with a kind of epistemic authority they don’t and couldn’t possess. Better to be honest about the subjective (basically, the psychological) factors that play a role in journalistic practice than to deceive one’s readers.

In the interview with Feldman, Hannah-Jones echoed these criticisms of objectivity. She then distinguished between two activities every journalist engages in: fact-finding and interpretation. In the fact-finding phase, she said, journalists can and must practice “objectivity of method.” What she apparently means to pick out with this phrase are methods by which journalists can hope to access objective truth. Such methods might include interviewing multiple witnesses to an event or searching for documentary evidence or some other reliable corroboration of testimony; they might also include the institutional arrangements that newsrooms adopt — for example, using independent fact checkers. However, she and Feldman seemed to agree that interpretation — variously glossed as working out what facts “mean” or which are “important” — is a subjective process, inevitably informed by the journalist’s prior beliefs and desires.

Here are two observations about Hannah-Jones’s account. First, the methods used to access objective truth in the fact-finding stage tend to force journalists to at least act as if they are objective persons. For example, interviewing multiple witnesses and weighing the plausibility of all the testimony is the kind of thing an even-handed observer would do. Looking for corroborating evidence even when one wants a witness’s testimony to be true emulates disinterestedness. This doesn’t mean that one has to be objective in order to practice journalism well, but it does suggest a role for objectivity as a regulative ideal: when we want to know how to proceed in fact-finding, we ask how an objective person would proceed. And to the extent that we can emulate the objective person, to that extent is the epistemic authority of the journalist earned.

Second, it seems to me that “interpretation” involves trying to access objective truth, or doing something much like it. Feldman and Hannah-Jones used two examples to illustrate the kinds of truths that the process of interpretation is aimed at accessing: truths about people’s motives, or why they acted (as opposed to truths about their actions themselves, which are within the domain of fact-finding), and causal truths, like that such-and-such an event or process was the key factor in bringing about some state of affairs. But such truths are objective in at least one sense. Moreover, even truths about motives, while subjective in not belonging to the public world of the senses, can be indirectly verified using empirical methods very similar to those used to access directly empirically verifiable truths. These are methods lawyers use every day to prove or disprove that a defendant satisfied the mens rea element of a crime. Since interpretation involves accessing objective truths or using empirical methods to access subjective ones, and since the methods of accessing objective truths involve emulating an objective person, interpretation at least partly involves striving to be objective.

This can’t be all it involves, however: what’s important is not equivalent to what’s causally efficacious. Here is where Feldman and Hannah-Jones are undoubtedly correct that a journalist’s attitudes, and in particular her values, will inevitably shape how she interprets the facts. For example, a commitment to moral equality may cause a journalist to train their focus on the experience of marginalized groups, that value informing what the journalist takes to be important. A merely objective person would have no idea of what facts are important in this moral sense.

Thus, a journalist must and should approach her practice with a complicated set of attitudes: striving to be objective (to be like an objective person) about the facts, while at the same time inevitably making choices about which facts are important based at least in part on her values. This is part of what makes journalism a difficult thing to do well.

Coronavirus Briefings: Virtue in Ignorance?

photograph of Trump answering questions at press briefing with Vice President Pence and Dr. Fauci one either side

Last week, KUOW, an NPR Member station in Seattle, said that it would no longer air the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings live. On Wednesday, CNN and MSNBC both cut away from the president’s briefing when Trump kicked off the report by talking about a new counter-narcotics operation and progress on the border wall. CNN’s John King called Trump’s manipulation of Americans’ fear-driven attention “shameless” and “political.” But these networks’ actions have also been criticized for political bias in refusing to relay the news of the day. The decision to cease coverage of the president’s special briefings represents another chapter in the ongoing debate about how the media should cover Trump, and, more generally, where news agencies’ obligation to the public lies.

As of the time of this writing, over 200,000 people have signed a petition asking media outlets to stop covering the president’s coronavirus briefings live. Many of those individuals are no doubt motivated by party identification, but there are a number of moral reasons that are being offered as justification. Chief among these are appeals to decency and presidential decorum. Many have objected to the way that Trump has transformed (or perhaps weaponized) these fireside chats into political rallies. National emergency briefings aren’t the time for partisan politics, and they certainly aren’t the time for campaigning. These daily television spots are not legitimate policy briefings genuinely attempting to inform the public, but spectacles put on for political purposes. Flanked by muzzled science experts and a carousel of business leaders, Trump projects power while lacking substance. He bad-mouths reporters, fields planted questions, and is self-congratulatory when his guests aren’t too busy singing his praises. Critics argue that such displays are beneath the dignity of the office.

Second, there is a very real fear concerning the amount of misinformation that Trump has been circulating when talking off the cuff. That kind of ad libbing is deadly. While we are confronted by a disease that threatens to kill as many as 240,000 of us (just in the US), our current leader can’t be bothered to get his facts straight or fall in line with the recommendations of experts. At the very least, news outlets have an obligation not to give a platform to epistemic trespassers or snake oil salesmen. All the after-the-fact commentary and correction in the world can’t undo the damage being done on live TV as Trump undermines and contradicts public health experts.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that everything the president does or says is, in a fundamental way, noteworthy. As Jack Shafer of Poltico writes,

“He speaks and economic markets move. He speaks and political markets shudder. Even when he holds his tongue—a rare occurrence for our current president, I’ll admit—the world shifts. Like it or not, his lies move markets, too.”

As such, we must consider whether these daily briefings represent important news items even if the content may be actively causing harm. Even the president’s most vocal critics can see the benefit of having a daily public record of the president’s words for the sake of transparency and accountability.

Further, these daily briefings also serve as a window into the brain and soul of our commander-and-chief. Rarely are our political leaders called upon day after day to give live updates on an ongoing emergency and to do so in a way that is suitable for consumption by the general public. What the president says, how he decides to frame it, and how he comports himself while doing it, all convey important information that transcends what fits on the page or can be communicated by an amended account. In these productions, believers hear hope and self-assurance; and critics hear braggadocio and incoherence. Even if it’s true that there is nothing more on offer than spin and self-promotion, aren’t even those performances worth relaying to the public?

The answer to that question may all come down to our pessimism regarding the public’s  competence. Those in favor of stopping coverage are inclined to play the role of guardian. As Shafer argues,

“[Their] greatest fear isn’t that Trump will lie or that Trump’s lies will somehow deceive them. What they worry about the most is that the average viewer will be sucked in by Trump’s lies. This paternalistic mindset holds that the same individual who can be trusted to vote in elections can’t be trusted on his own to listen to long, unbroken statements from the president. He must be guided and protected by volunteer censors.”

But we can’t have it both ways; a truly informed voter can’t be spoon-fed. It may be that those who are willing to tune in should decide for themselves the value of the information being shared.

Finding a middle ground in this disagreement on the media’s role in relaying the president’s message is not easy (nor is it a new problem). National Public Radio, for example, has made the decision to stop airing the briefings live. Instead it offers commentary and analysis, while including a link to the full briefing should its users care to see it. In defense of this move, Elizabeth Jensen, public editor for NPR, explains the newsroom’s mission to “serve the public and democracy,” writing,

“I take that to mean that it should provide facts to help listeners make decisions in their lives, not spin, particularly at a time when public health is at stake. That means having its reporters listen to the briefing and immediately share important updates in the newscasts and newsmagazines, without giving a platform for falsehoods, or speculative comments on as-yet-untested treatments or campaign rally-style rants.”

Perhaps this is a suitable compromise between the values of transparency and journalistic integrity. Or perhaps this again privileges opinion over facts and editorializing over reporting, or objectionably puts “knowers” in a position to protect the rest of us.

Other White House correspondents have proposed alternative solutions: “I don’t think trying to keep him from people because he lies is necessarily the right answer. Cover him aggressively, but let people see what he’s saying.” To that end, “networks could adapt, and carry them live, but fact-check in real time.” Whether such a strategy is feasible or effective remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, it may be that, regardless of the stance news outlets take, their consumers will always simply hear what they want to hear.

Iris Murdoch and the Moral Dimensions of Literature

gouache and ink painting of Iris Murdoch

“Literature” wrote Iris Murdoch, “is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.” This year marks 100 years since her birth; presenting an opportunity to reflect upon her unique philosophical perspective and the things it can still teach us. She published over 25 novels, but also made a significant contribution to moral philosophy, arguing for a kind of paradigm shift in the way the subject is understood and treated by philosophers.

One of the outcomes of her view on morality is that it bears a much closer relationship to art and literature than most philosophers would dream of affording it. But literature does not, for Murdoch, have a moral function in any straightforward sense which might be suggested by the notion of its bearing a kind of moral message – suggested, for instance, by the familiar phrase “the moral of the story.”

The moral dimension of literature is tied, rather, to Murdoch’s sharp critique of the commonly accepted view of the goals and methods of moral philosophy of her own day – tied, as they had become, to those of science – an orthodoxy which retains significant influence in contemporary moral philosophy.

Murdoch did not try to work out a system of ethics. Her critique questions the view of moral philosophy in which an absolute universal and objective ethical perspective is sought and in which the central concern of moral philosophy is the action of the individual moral agent in a moment of decision made against a background of facts. Murdoch thought that the sphere of the moral was broader and deeper than this traditional picture suggests.

She was particularly critical of the behaviorist model of the human being in which anything other than observable behavior is philosophically unintelligible. The behaviorist view is roughly that we cannot know anything about others except what we can see in their behaviors or actions, we therefore cannot attribute complex inner mental states to them, or at least we cannot talk about such states – rendering the “inner life” epistemically and philosophically off limits.

Murdoch thought this was a reductive and unrealistic picture of the human being and she advocated for a re-emergence of the “inner life” as a potent and central part of any adequate understanding of the moral dimension of life, and therefore of our understanding of ethics. This meant for Murdoch that many more concepts than just the usual suspects of moral evaluation, such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have important moral dimensions; concepts for instance with which we judge others or reflect upon our own experience, like grief, sentimentality, wonder, admiration, pity, love, or humor can also be understood as important ethical concepts.

Bernard Williams applied the descriptive designation ‘thin’ moral concepts for those which are empty or general – like “good” or “right” and “bad” or “wrong.” He applied the term ‘thick’ to moral concepts which are more descriptive, and which usually require moral evaluation that considers individuals and contexts that don’t operate at the same level of generality. Such concepts are important ‘secondary moral words,’ and yet more generalized formulations of moral philosophy will tend not to recognize them as moral concepts at all because of their relation to the particular characteristics of individuals and contexts.

Murdoch thought the moral work was done at precisely the level of these kinds of concepts; it was not to be found in isolated decisions in particular moments, but in the work of attention, sustained by one’s efforts to see things with clarity and justice. The aim was to shake off, as far as possible, what she called ‘the fat relentless ego’ which could cloud our vision and hamper the moral effort.

In an essay called The Idea of Perfection Murdoch gives a famous example of a mother-in-law (M) making an effort to change her view of her daughter-in-law (D) whom she does not like, and has a tendency to see in an uncharitable light. Of the kind of effort M must employ, Murdoch says: “Innumerable novels contain accounts of what such struggles are like.”

The concept of moral progress is of vital importance to Murdoch – her view is not that morality consists in arriving, in full possession of all the relevant facts and theories, at the right decision in a moment of choice, but that there is an ongoing process of engagement that one enters into, which is a process of coming to better understand things by the quality of one’s attention.

In the example of M and D, M makes an effort to see D in a better light, by getting beyond her own biases she tries to see D for who she is – and for Murdoch this kind of effort of attention is moral progress, because M is trying to see D in a just and loving way. Because of this, the nature of the moral task is endless. That is, morality does not begin nor end with a decision or action, but is a sustained effort in one’s life and one’s outlook. As Murdoch says: “Moral tasks are characteristically endless not only because ‘within’, as it were, a given concept our efforts are imperfect, but also because as we move and as we look our concepts themselves are changing.”

As such, Iris Murdoch’s work centralizes the notion of ‘attention’ as a moral concept, and argues for the importance of the ‘inner life’ to morality, suggesting that the locus of morality is not the moment of choice, but the reflective attitude one takes to the situations and people around us. The work of attention, she says “builds up structures of value round about us, [so that] at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”

Attention, here, is not a matter of what will be illuminated by finding out more accurate information. It involves ‘being present to’ what one sees in a way that implicates oneself in the activity of seeing and thereby implies an activity in oneself – where I am morally ‘at issue’ in the way I apprehend the world and in the spirit in which I see others and myself.

In her essay Vision and Choice in Morality Murdoch suggests that:

When we apprehend and assess other people we do not consider only their solutions to specifiable practical problems, we consider something more elusive which may be called their total vision of life as shown in their mode of speech or silence, their choice of words, their assessments of others, their conception of their own lives, what they think funny…”

Yet many of the things listed here would not usually come into the sphere of what most moral philosophers would count as moral at all. Murdoch is suggesting that many of the concepts with which we think of people and of various aspects of life, which are not usually considered as having to do with morality, are in fact related in various ways to the moral life.

If we take this seriously, and want to reflect on what Murdoch calls the ‘total vision of life’ as morally active, then literature is one tool we have to do that with – again a tool which is not ordinarily thought of as part of the moral philosopher’s toolkit.

A moral interest in literature can help the work of attention because it gives us access to a vast reservoir of learning, thinking, and evaluating human situations and human lives; because literature involves imaginative effort and because works of literature can provide a form and a context in which to navigate the moral possibilities of concepts like wonder, admiration, pity, love, and humor.

Faulty Forensics: Justice, Knowledge, and Bias

image of police tape with police lights in background

In June, Netflix began releasing a series called “Exhibit A,” which debunks one form of crime investigative science per episode. Dubious forensic techniques have been exposed for decades, yet still have been successful in incarcerating countless people. There are a number of reasons that this should be troubling to all of us and motivate real change. One issue that highlights the severity of continuing to rely on debunked forensic techniques is what psychologists call the “CSI effect” – jurors place an over-valued amount of credulity on evidence based on forensic methods. Thus, in a trial scenario, it is not just that some evidence is not as reliable as it seems, but it is just this sort of evidence that jurors seem to cling to in making their decisions.

It is well-documented that, even in some circumstances that we believe ourselves to be working with logical facts, we can be swayed by socialized prejudices and biases about historically disenfranchised, stigmatized, and marginalized groups. This is obviously unfortunate because it can lead to the continued unjust circumstances and treatment of such groups. A great deal of policies in a criminal justice system are put in place in order to create a more objective and just system than would be attained were the suspicions and individual reasoning of particular people with a great deal of power given full reign over crime and punishment. Practices in trials, standards for evidence, protections of citizen’s rights, and other features in the criminal justice system are in place to correct for the ways that injustices are socialized into individual reasoning, and improvements have been attempted to combat implicit biases in individual policing in many districts as well.

Because humans are socialized with these heuristics in our reasoning that are influenced by stigma and prejudices, people in the criminal justice system rely on the science of forensics to be more objective than hunches, suspicions, and our sometimes unreliable reasoning. These tools are one method of separating the functioning of our justice system from the injustice of our society. However, doubt has been cast on a number of common methods of forensics and the reliability of these tools.

Ten years ago, a report by the National Academy of Sciences stated, “[w]ith the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, . . . no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” Blood splatter analysis, bite mark analysis, fingerprint analysis, and, perhaps most well-known to be unreliable, lie detector tests, all have had scientists’ doubt cast on them. The continued use of these methods in the court of law stacks the deck against defendants. Practitioners of the forensic methods “often believed their methods were reliable and their conclusions were accurate with little or no scientific foundation for their beliefs. As a consequence, judges and jurors were misled about the efficacy of forensic evidence, which too often resulted in wrongful convictions.”

Years ago, a study found that drug-sniffing dogs reacted to clues from the beliefs of their handlers. In the last two years there have been some efforts to develop training to minimize this bias. This is crucial for the system, for the drug-sniffing dogs are meant to be an objective way of detecting substances for further investigation, and, in most states, an alert form such a dog warrants police forces to further investigate citizens. If the canines are influenced by their perception of what their handlers think, then they are not a distinct source of information regarding whether potential illegal activity is taking place. If this is the case, the dogs’ actions should not be providing legal permission to search citizens beyond the officer’s suspicion: if the suspicion alone does not warrant search, then the dog’s behavior does not warrant search.

The problem with these methods isn’t that they aren’t completely objective or reliable, it is that they are currently playing a role in our criminal justice system that outstrips how objective or reliable they, in fact, are. When they are playing such a role in a system that so significantly alters lives, and does so at a disproportionate rate for groups that are marginalized already, it is crucial to critically engage with them as tools for legitimate investigation and trail.

The Questionable Morality of Gonzo Journalism

photograph of dust cover of "Going Gonzo" book

Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of gonzo journalism, had his ashes shot out of a cannon under the supervision of Johnny Depp. He ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, campaigning on a platform that included replacing the paved roads with grass, outlawing buildings that obstructed the view of the nearby mountains, and renaming the town “Fat City” to detract greedy investors. He detailed his own copious illegal drug use and the demise of the American Dream in his magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson led, by almost any measure, a full and fascinating life. But while his lifestyle may be the envy of some, Thompson’s style of journalism ought not to be emulated.

Thompson defined gonzo journalism as “a style of ‘reporting’ based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism,” a statement that falls pleasantly on the ears but does not actually make much sense. A genre of writing that is by definition untrue is more true than a style that seeks to uncover the truth? He later expounded upon his views on journalism in an interview with The Atlantic:

I don’t get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist’s view — ‘I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view.’ Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon. How can you be objective about Clinton?”

Some events, some people are so incontrovertibly one way, that they ought not be reported on without a judgment attached. To fail to issue a judgment on whatever the news may be would be playing a role in obscuring the truth. Or so Thompson might argue. (The fallacy of his argument is the belief that objectivity necessitates balance; it does not.)

This sentiment of subjectivity was reflected in a scathing obituary Thompson wrote for President Nixon, in which he never missed an opportunity to display his contempt for the 37th President of the United States. At one point, Thompson suggested that Nixon’s “body should have been burned in a trash bin.” He went on to describe journalism’s role in the rise of President Nixon. “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point,” he wrote. “It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.”

It is doubtless that some journalists today hold similarly negative opinions of our current leaders. And while many may blame generous media attention and lax scrutiny early on for President Trump’s unexpected rise to political prominence, Thompson would likely blame the standard of objectivity. One could just imagine him lamenting the allergy of traditional journalists to take a stand, allowing for election of the 45th president. Perhaps, then, for some there is a compelling case to be made for why subjective journalism should be adopted when reporting on politics.

Major newspapers have begun to flirt with this style of journalism, sneakily editorializing coverage of major events and assigning political significance to them. Some journalists have successfully blurred the line between reporter and activist, becoming characters in the story they are covering. Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, who has a proclivity for entering property under false pretenses and secretly videotaping people, is an obvious example of this transformation. He is explicit in his desire to reveal the purported moral corruption of the American political left. But CNN Chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who recently published a personal narrative about covering President Trump, better exemplifies this blur.

In one passage of his book Enemy of the People, Acosta describes his exchange with President Trump following the Charleston protests of 2017. “I think we have reached the point where we can state definitively, that Nazis are bad people,” he wrote. “When it’s a matter of right versus wrong, there are not two sides to the story.” You would be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who does not agree that Nazis are bad people; Acosta is right in characterizing them as such. Yet modern journalists should resist the temptation to go gonzo, and not because their opinions are unwarranted.

There are many matters in which what is right and what is wrong is unclear, disputed, and not incontrovertible. There are other matters still in which the dichotomy of “right versus wrong” is not applicable. Adopting this subjective style of reporting transforms those who report the news into moral arbiters of the news, a role that ideally should be reserved by the public. If a journalist takes a stand on one matter, what principle is keeping them from taking a stand on every matter?

Additionally, Thompson and Acosta refer to this style of reporting as if there would be consistency among the subjective journalists on what is right and wrong, which is obviously absurd. Lacing reporting with subjective judgments would open the doors for a “matter of right versus wrong” to be reported as right by some and wrong by others. This phenomenon is reflected in the increasingly polarized and partisan media of the U.S. Subjectivity descends into people living within their own reality with no common base of information to which to appeal (see Kenneth Boyd’s “The Rise of Political Echo Chambers”).

Objective journalism avoids this undesirable fracturing and benefits the public in many ways. One of the greatest limitations that the average member of public faces is the inability to consistently gather reliable information. Journalists can do that for them. It is their profession; they are trained to seek out verifiable accounts of events. Fortunately, it is within the ability of the average member of the public to think for themselves, to make judgments, to form opinions. Journalists do not have to do that for them. Objective journalism provides the public with facts to base their opinions, rather than opinions to base their facts. Everyone is working with the same set of facts, the same story, the same events.

This relationship is especially important in civic engagement. It equips the public with the tools and information required to make political decisions and hold the powerful accountable when needed. But journalism also can help the public make a variety of other decisions about their safety, health, finances,  and life in general, which is precisely why it should strive to be free from bias.

Gonzo has its place. Thompson’s accounts are riveting, entertaining, and illuminating. They convey a certain relatable emotionality that detached observation cannot. But if this were to become the predominant form of journalism – and there is evidence it is trending towards that in everything but name – judgments and opinions of news would be ready-made for the reader.

Distinguishing between a verifiable account of what happened and one’s personal assessment of the significance of what happened is important. It is for this reason that this piece will fall under the “Opinion” section of this publication rather than sitting among the news articles. My opinion of gonzo journalism is not fact. And society is better off not getting that confused.

The Ethics of Scientific Advice: Lessons from “Chernobyl”

photograph of Fireman's Monument at Cherynobl

The recently-released HBO miniseries Chernobyl highlights several important moral issues that are worth discussing. For example, what should we think about nuclear power in the age of climate change? What can disasters tell us about government accountability and the dangers of keeping unwelcome news from the public? This article will focus on the ethical issues concerning scientists potential to influence government policy. How should scientists advise governments, and who holds them accountable for their advice? 

In the second episode, the Soviet Union begins dumping thousands of tons of sand and boron onto the burning nuclear plant at the suggestion of physicist Valery Legasov. After consulting fellow scientist Ulana Khomyuk (a fictional character who represents the many other scientists involved), Legasov tells Soviet-leader Gorbachev that in order to prevent a potential disaster, drainage pools will need to be emptied from within the plant in an almost certain suicide mission. “We’re asking for your permission to kill three men,” Legasov reports to the Soviet government. It’s hard to imagine a more direct example of a scientist advising a decision with moral implications. 

Policy makers often lack the expertise to make informed decisions, and this provides an opportunity for scientists to influence policy. But should scientists consider ethical or policy considerations when offering advice? 

On one side of this debate are those who argue that scientists primary responsibility is to ensure the integrity of science. This means that scientists should maintain objectivity and should not allow their personal moral or religious convictions to influence their conclusions. It also means that the public should see science as an objective and non-political affair. In essence, science must be value-free.

This value-free side of the debate is reflected in the mini-series’ first episode. It ends with physicist Legasov getting a phone call from Soviet minister Boris Shcherbina telling him that he will be on the commission investigating the accident. When Legasov begins to suggest an evacuation, Shcherbina tells him, “You’re on this committee to answer direct questions about the function of an RBMK reactor…nothing else. Certainly not policy.”

Those who argue for value-free science often argue that scientists have no business trying to influence policy. In democratic nations this is seen as particularly important since policy makers are accountable to voters while scientists are not. If scientists are using ethical judgments to suggest courses of action, then what mechanism will ensure that those value judgments reflect the public’s values?

In order to maintain the value-free status of science, philosophers such as Ronald N. Geire argue that there is an important distinction between judging the truth of scientific hypotheses and judging the practical uses of science. A scientist can evaluate the evidence for a theory or hypotheses, but they shouldn’t evaluate whether one should rely on that theory or hypothesis to make a policy decision. For example, a scientist might tell the government how much radiation is being released and how far it will spread, but they should not advise something like an evacuation. Once the government is informed of relevant details, the decision of how to respond should be left entirely to elected officials. 

Opponents of this view, however, argue that scientists do have a moral responsibility when offering advice to policy makers and believe that scientists shouldering this responsibility is desirable. Philosopher Heather Douglas argues that given that scientists can be wrong, and given that acting on incorrect information can lead to morally important consequences, scientists do have a moral duty concerning the advice they offer to policy makers. Scientists are the only ones who can fully appreciate the potential implications of their work. 

In the mini-series we see several examples where only the scientists fully appreciate the risks and dangers from radiation, and are the strongest advocates of evacuation. In reality, Legasov and a number of other scientists offered advice on how to proceed with cleaning up the disaster. According to Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, the politicians were ignorant of nuclear physics, and the scientists and technicians were too paralyzed by indecision to commit to a solution.

In the real-life disaster, the scientists involved were frequently unsure about what was actually happening. They had to estimate how fast various parts of the core might burn and whether different radioactive elements would be released into the air. Reactor specialist Konstantin Fedulenko was worried that the boron drops were having limited effect and that each drop was hurling radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Legasov disagreed and told him that it was too late to change course. Fedulenko believed it was best to let the graphite fire burn itself out, but Legasov retorted, “People won’t understand if we do nothing…We have to be seen to be doing something.” This suggests that the scientists were not simply offering technical advice but were making judgments based on additional value and policy considerations. 

Again, according to Douglas, given the possibility for error and the potential moral consequences at play, scientists should consider these consequences to determine how much evidence is enough to say that a hypothesis is true or to advise a particular course of action. 

In the mini-series, the government relies on monitors showing a low level of radiation to initially conclude that the situation is not bad enough to warrant an evacuation. However, it is pointed out the radiation monitors being used likely only had a limited maximum range, and so the radiation could be much higher than the monitor would tell them. Given that they may be wrong about the actual amount of radiation and the threat to public health, a morally-responsible scientist might conclude that evacuation be suggested to policy makers. 

While some claim that scientists shouldn’t include these considerations, others argue that they should. Certainly, the issue isn’t limited to nuclear disasters either. Cases ranging from climate change to food safety, chemical and drug trials, economic policies, and even the development of weapons, all present a wide array of potential moral consequences that might be considered when offering scientific advice. 

It’s difficult to say a scientist shouldn’t make morally relevant consequences plain to policy makers. It often appears beneficial, and it sometimes seems unavoidable. But this liberty requires scientists to practice judgment in determining what a morally relevant consequence is and is not. Further, if scientists rely on value judgments when advising government policy, how are scientists to be held accountable by the public? Given these benefits and concerns, whether we want scientists to make such judgments and to what extent their advice should reflect those judgments presents an important ethical dilemma for the public at large. Resolving this dilemma will at least require that we be more aware of how experts provide policy advice.

The Moral Dimensions of the Research Reproducibility Crisis

A close-up photo of a microscope slide.

The labor of scientists has benefited society tremendously. Advancements in medicine and technology have improved both the length and the quality of human lives. Scientific studies have been and continue to be a crucial part of that process. Science, when done well, is indispensable to a healthy, happy, curious human race. Unfortunately, science isn’t always done well. When done poorly, studies can have disastrous effects. People tend to trust claims made by scientists, and that trust turns out to be unwarranted if something has gone wrong with the research.

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Marching for Science

After the January 21 Women’s Marches that clocked in at between 3 and 4 million participants worldwide, other rallies and marches to protest the new Trump administration have been planned in their wake. Amongst these emerging marches is the March for Science, in which scientists will march on Washington and in 11 other cities to advocate for public funding for evidence based research. While the march has gained approval from politicians, scientific organizations, and prominent scientists alike, some wonder whether or not scientists should be marching in the first place.

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