Thursday, June 21, 2007

Objectivity and a Neutral Point of View

I have mentioned that I am working on a project to create a text that would explain the problems with Intelligent Design in terms that a 12-year-old could understand. However, I have no particular talent or expertise to give to this project, so I have asked for advice on how to make the project open so that others can contribute.

One reader, borofkin suggested “Wikibooks”, but argued that my intended project would run up against Wikibooks’ “neutral point of view policy”.

Wikibooks has a strict neutral point of view (NPOV) policy, which basically states that its mission as a book collection is best served not by advancing or detracting particular points of view on any given subject, but by trying to present a fair, neutral description of the facts -- among which are the facts that various interpretations and points of view exist. (Of course, there are limits to what POVs are considered worth mentioning, which can be an area of conflict.)

I found the question of whether my intended project would or could meet this standard for a “neutral point of view” an interesting puzzle.

I have grown up under a standard that says that there are at least two sides to every story, and anybody who honestly reports on a particular conflict is under an obligation to present both sides. This means that if I intend to discuss intelligent design, I need to present the opposing viewpoint fairly and honestly. However, I hold that an honest presentation of the theory of intelligent design holds that it is a worthless waste of time. Indeed, that is one of the conclusions that I would want to demonstrate in this book. Are arguments that a particular ‘point of view’ count as worthless wastes of time consistent with, or in violation of, this neutral point of view policy?

It seems to be true by definition that a text that advances a particular point of view is not neutral. A paper that argues that Tyrannosaurus Rex was primarily a scavenger or that the Earth is 4.55 billion years old (against competing theories) is not in any sense of the imagination neutral with respect to the claims that T-Rex was a scavenger or the age of the earth.

Because these are not neutral propositions, they would be prohibited under any ‘neutral point of view’ policy. The best that a person could do is argue, “There are people who believe X and who offer these reasons for doing so.” However, this must be accompanied by text that says, “There are people who deny X and these are their reasons for doing so.” However, the “neutral point of view” cannot take sides. It is not permitted to show the coup de gras that destroys one of these two systems.

However, by making certain options impermissible, this ‘neutral point of view’ itself proves that it is not neutral. The ‘neutral point of view’ itself must take sides. It counts certain representations of reality ‘permissible’ (those that conform to the neutral point of view policy) and categorizes others as ‘prohibited’ (those that violate the neutral point of view policy).

In other words, a ‘neutral point of view’ policy is incoherent. Whenever people encounter an incoherent set of instructions, they are encouraged to adopt one interpretation that pleases them most as the right interpretation. In this case, it means, “You have written something contrary to what I believe; thus, your project violates the ‘neutral point of view’ policy. On the other hand, administrators are also free to argue, “Your project makes sense to me; therefore, it must be in compliance with our neutral point of view policy.”

In fact, a strict adherence to a neutral point of view requires that authors lie, giving alternative views more credit than the author thinks is justified. This is as much a lie as recommending that a particular plumber does a good job, when one honestly thinks that his work is substandard.

An Alternative View of Neutrality

There is another version of ‘neutrality’ that is exercised in, for example, academic peer-reviewed papers and submissions. Academic papers inevitably defend a particular conclusion. Their purpose is to argue, ‘this view is correct, and all other views are mistaken’. As such, they are not ‘neutral’.

However, academic papers are still obligated to observe a standard of objectivity. This standard does not say, “Consider all opposing theories to be as plausible as your own.” It says, “Take their objections seriously and, if you wish to claim that they give no reason to reject your conclusion, explain why this is the case.”

So, for example, I write that the generic term ‘good’ can be expressed in terms of ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.’ Because I take this position, I am not at all neutral with regard to either David Hume’s ‘is/ought’ distinction, or G.E. Moore’s ‘naturalistic fallacy’. I think that neither of these provide good reason to reject my thesis. However, I cannot simply ignore them in an academic paper. I must explain what these objections are in their strongest terms, and explain why they do not give us any good reason to reject the proposition that ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.”


These two methods, the ‘neutral point of view’ and ‘academic defense’ positions stand in contrast to a third option, which is the position of the pundit. The pundit says, “This is my microphone and I will use it to say whatever I please. If you disagree with me, then get your own microphone.” The pundit does not even pretend towards neutrality, nor does he pretend to have any regard for academic integrity. He is a propagandist, whose sole job is to convince others that a particular proposition is true, without regard to the truth or an honest consideration of objections to his thesis.

The Pundit, like the academic, presents a particular point of view. The Pundit, unlike, the academic, has no interest in taking seriously arguments and evidence that might be brought up against his position. He feels completely comfortable ignoring conflicting claims, leaving those who would express them to ‘find their own microphone’.

Morally, the pundit is on the same level as the liar and the sophist when it comes to his devotion to the truth. His interest is in ‘winning’ a political battle – which, for all practical purposes, means a willingness to inflict harm on others in order to obtain benefits for those he represents.


My interest is in creating a product that would fit the ‘academic’ standards. That is, I create articles that defend a particular point of view – but does so with the intention of taking objections and counter-evidence seriously, and needing to show why they are rejected. In fact, I would argue that this is the only view that has merit. The alternatives all require some measure of deception or dishonesty. The ‘neutral point of view’ gives conflicting positions more authority than they deserve; the ‘pundit’ point of view does not give them enough authority.

However, the academic standard is not ‘neutral’. It does not even pretend to neutrality. It takes sides. However, it does so with a sincere interest in honesty, fairness, and truth. This is, I hold, the best that one can ask for from others, and to deliver oneself.


Richard Y Chappell said...

"It is not permitted to show the coup de gras that destroys one of these two systems.... a strict adherence to a neutral point of view requires that authors lie, giving alternative views more credit than the author thinks is justified."

That seems false. NPOV allows one to show the arguments or reasoning that demolish the other side; it simply doesn't allow you to present them under that description. That is, you must refrain from including your judgment that "this argument successfully refutes the opposition." You simply present the arguments, and leave the reader to use their own judgment. None of this implies giving the shoddy view any "credit" -- the whole point of NPOV is that the author's personal judgments ("credit") are withheld.

Anonymous said...

Dear AE--

Forgive me, an off-topic question. I wonder if you'd be interested in posting your thoughts on this:

"What is torture, and is it necessarily immoral?"

I'm asking this of all the bloggers I read and respect, and hope to link to all their responses.