Sometimes I question full objectivity
March 20, 2019
We who work in literary forms, even journalism, often become enamored with scientific principles that we systematically misapply to our own work.
Two of these are the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and entropy, the tendency of atoms and electrons toward chaos and heat to dissipate into cold.
The Heisenberg theory says you can change an atom you are watching just by observing it. The photons, or subatomic units of light, you’re using to see the atom might muck up its structure.
Literary folks have jumped all over entropy and applied it to relationships, society and individual lives. The tendency toward chaos generates tension and drama.
Heisenberg’s idea that you can change something just by watching it is also a trigger for literary imaginations. Creatives apply it to relationships, society and individual lives to create misunderstandings that fuel tension and drama.
Well, I’m going to add a third, this one from the weird science of quantum physics. A Nobel prize-winning quantum physicist named Wigner dreamed it up in a thought experiment, maybe while watching “Breaking Bad” about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord who calls himself Heisenberg.
Wigner concluded that if one scientist works with a polarized light ray (quantum physics shows light to be strange), and another scientist works with the same data but without knowledge of the light ray’s polarization, they could derive drastically different, but completely accurate versions of the same situation.
Wigner’s conclusion: There’s no such thing as objective reality.
Writers exult. Different perceptions of reality bring tension and drama to relationships, society and individual lives.
In journalism, which rarely aspires to art, the idea of objectivity generates lots of thunder and lightning.
Objectivity is an ideal that journalists have aspired to since the days of William Randolph Hearst. He insisted that reporters stick to facts and fairly represent all sides.
Then, along came Edward R. Murrow, who talked NBC into letting him drop the pretense of objectivity and fairness in the face of overwhelming evidence that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was not a crusader, but a dangerous, self-aggrandizing charlatan.
The debate rages on. Is objectivity in news coverage achievable or even desirable?
How much effort do we put into balance when the facts seem to favor one side far more than the other?
Like scientists pondering light, we have to question constantly how much our perceptions and predispositions affect our judgment on what is factual and who is reliable.
Donald Trump’s presidency has tested both sides of this dispute. One side points out he is a chronic liar. The other says that if his supporters say he’s not lying, we have to report that as prominently as the proofs of his disregard for facts.
In reportage, I hold with the try-to-be-objective crowd. We don’t know enough to trust our own instincts. That’s why we consult expert sources.
When I see how far we sometimes have to stretch credibility to accommodate the perception of fairness, however, I do question our need for full objectivity.
Steve Hansen writes about our life and times from his perspective of a semi-retired Tucumcari journalist. Contact him at: