“O” is for “Objective”


Illusions reveal the assumptions that we use to interpret and simplify the world, such as the “ghost” triangle above (objectively, there is no white triangle). 
The most intractable illusion is that reality and belief are the same.
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I. Multiple Realities

II. Even Objectivity is Relative

III. Objective Facts

IV. Personal Objectivity

V. Public Policy: Objective Objectives

VI. Citations

I. Multiple Realities

“If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

This scenario perfectly expresses the realization that there are at least two versions of reality:  the objective and the subjective.  Yes, the tree makes a great disturbance in the forest, which emanates outward as pressure waves in the air.  That is the objective definition of sound; it describes sound as an object in and of itself.  But sound as we know it is a phenomenon that we hear.  The process of hearing is incomplete until sound waves reach an eardrum, which converts the pressure wave into an electrical wave and transmits it to a brain, which renders it as, you know: 

That impression is the subjective effect of the falling tree on a nearby subject like you, me, the squirrel between us, or a microphone.

So then, “the” subjective sound is actually a multitude of sounds, one for each observer.  You, the squirrel, the recorder, and I each have subjective sounds locked away in our own memory banks.  Since subjective representations are all a little different, and especially since they cannot be directly compared, we idealize the objective source as the “most real” version of the event.

Social life has objective and subjective realities too.  No two people witness the exact same sequence of events.  We each have an individual mental profile of perceptions, beliefs, comprehension, values, emotions, assumptions, and more. 

We do our best to describe our inner worlds to each other with words and actions.  The objectivity of social facts is strongly associated with choice of language.  There might be an objective source fact, such as the words that Jesus actually spoke at the Sermon on the Mount.  Then there are the emotions, associations, and inferences that these words made in the minds of his disciples, which varied from one person to another.  As they went home and told their neighbors, the disciples summarized, and then those summaries got paraphrased to the next neighbor, and so on until somebody committed his or her version to paper.  Then the written words got translated into multiple languages, each time with various nuances, and reinterpreted through the ages.  The subjective impression of the Sermon on the Mount that you carry in your mind must be pretty far removed from Jesus’ actual intentions – but it’s the only version you can access. 

II. Even Objectivity is Relative

Philosophers like to argue about whether human subjective impressions are ever perfect representations of objective reality, or whether language could ever communicate a 100% objective fact, or whether there really is a fixed-target objective reality in the first place.  I agree that it’s futile to seek absolute objectivity.  If we accept objectivity as a relative term, we can reach a much easier agreement that some statements are more objective than others.  For instance, consider these interpretations of the same facts:

A:  “What? Gasoline prices went up again?!  Thanks a lot, Purple Party.  Those idiots only care about the oil industry.  They’ll do anything to keep gas prices high and stick it to ordinary people like me!”

B:  “Gasoline prices rose again for the fourth consecutive day.  This must be a result of the Purple Party’s new oil drilling policy.  These prices are way too high!” 

C:  “I only paid $5.95 for gas last month, and today I’m paying $6.10.  Prices are rising quickly!” 

D:  The mean nationwide price of gasoline increased from $6.02 to $6.04 this month.  Regional variability also increased, so that northwestern states are paying 10% more while southeastern states are paying 5% less than last month.

We might consider these on a spectrum, with A being the least objective version and D being the most objective.  Statement A is full of hyperbole and emotional coloring.  It leaps to conclusions about cause, effect, and other people’s subjective motives.  While statement B is less judgmental and more specific, it still uses an unproven scapegoat.  And by what standard are prices “too high”?  Statement C is backed up by some evidence, but not much, and it reaches a conclusion that is too vague to test.  (What does “quickly” mean?)  Statement D gives better context about gas price patterns and trends, revealing some subtleties that all the others left out.  It avoids unverified conclusions about the trend’s cause, significance, or consequences. 

III. Objective Facts

Objectivity, like other words in the AWESOME Manifesto, is difficult to define.  If you look up “objectivity” in a dictionary or article, you’ll find a related cluster of words like “factual, neutral, impersonal, unbiased, balanced, evidentiary, uninterpreted.”  I would like to propose a different angle on this concept, following an intersubjective approach:

The most objective expressions are those that offer the least disagreement and change when communicated from one person’s mind to another.

Telestrations is one of my favorite games.  The first person is tasked with drawing an illustration of a word or phrase.  The next person looks at the drawing and describes it in words.  The third person must draw the second person’s written description, and so on.  If you’ve played this game, you’ve seen how quickly a concept can get misinterpreted into something completely unrelated after it gets “telephoned” a few times.  Ordinary communication is a similar process, usually with spoken words and mental images.  If you can imagine a concept circulating around the internet without much change or disagreement about what it means, it’s probably a more objective concept than one that quickly transforms.    

This definition emphasizes the role of language.  It also separates the concepts of objectivity and truth, which don’t always go hand in hand.  There are true subjective facts (“I love you”) as well as false objective facts (“The sun orbits the earth”).

Judges, journalists, scientists, and other AWESOME people appreciate more objective facts as more likely to be:

  • Justifiable or falsifiable
  • Information-dense
  • Rich and complex
  • Unambiguous

The downside to objective facts is that they tend to be kind of boring!  To get further up the objectivity scale, we often have to sacrifice emotion and narrative.  You can bet that “Channel A” would get 100 times the viewership of “Channel D”.  It takes some practice, but we can learn to get excited about objective facts by recognizing the unique and subtle value that they offer.  They can reveal “real” patterns, not speculative ones.  Statement D shows that prices actually haven’t risen much overall, but inflation is hitting some regions more than others.  Very interesting!         

IV. Personal Objectivity

I illustrated this essay with an optical illusion.  Illusions point out that we don’t always perceive things as they objectively are.  The most intractable illusion is that reality and belief are the same. 2

Objective truth is discoverable through evidence, but it comes at us with complexity and uncertainty.  When each of us downloads the world to our own mental screen, we filter that messy barrage of incoming information through culture, emotions, and our capacity for observing and comprehending events.  The result is a unique subjective belief system for each of us.

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Nobody has a lock on objective reality.  The best approach to being an objective person, ironically, is to respect that fact:  “I’m just looking at reality on one screen.”  An objective person acknowledges his / her own mental filters and realizes that there are other legitimate ways to interpret the world.  The more aware we are of our subjective filters, the better equipped we are to recognize “unfiltered” reality.   

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The hardest subjective filters to recognize are those that are universally human.  If everyone is fooled by the same illusion, it doesn’t do much good to compare notes.  One of the most persistent filters is our anthropomorphic instinct.  It’s only natural, as the evolution of the modern human brain was strongly pressured by the need to relate to other people. 5 We see humanesque will everywhere, pervading the universe as gods and spirits.  We interpret geopolitical events as if nations, governments, and markets are people following one simple narrative, like characters in a play.  For example, consider this tidbit of gossip that I found online:

Question:  “Why is Amelia paranoid about Ching getting the promotion?”

Answer:  “Amelia can do her job well, but Ching performs even better.  Amelia doesn’t want to lose her position as team leader.  Ching has acquired more clients and built up a stronger sales team.  It’s only a matter of months before he gets the promotion that Amelia is hoping for.”  

It’s a completely reasonable story about a two-person interaction.  Amelia and Ching are competing for an identifiable asset, a promotion.  Ching seems to have some objectively superior achievements, and Amelia’s emotional responses are sensible.  But I will confess, that wasn’t the dialogue that I actually found online.  This was: 

Question:  “The American people are paranoid about the Chinese becoming a superpower.  Why?”

Answer:  “They are very paranoid.  This is because, whatever the USA can do, China can do better.  USA don’t want to lose their status as superpower of the world. China has much better infrastructure and better transport networks than the USA. China is also much safer than the USA. It’s only a couple of years before China overtakes the USA as world superpower.” 6

Never mind that this dialogue is too vague to be fact-checked.  The greater issue is that nations don’t have human emotions or mindsets. They don’t get “paranoid” because they “don’t want to lose their status.”  Even the whole basis of this conversation, the word “superpower”, assumes an objective title or prize where none exists (it’s a ghost triangle!)  Yet, as evidenced by the fact that this was a real discussion, people actually model the world in such overly simplistic terms. 

My “Worldly” essay discussed the three functions of the mind as “See, Think, Do.”  With mindfulness, we can learn to be more objective at all three stages.  We can recognize our own biases in the way we perceive others and think things through.  We can watch out for other people’s biases or ploys.  Then we can choose our words to be as clear and meaningful as possible.

V. Public Policy: Objective Objectives

Public policy is easily misguided by emotions and biases.  This can have profound consequences as we collectively decide how to spend our money, shape society, and coexist in the world.  What kinds of decisions should a rational public make?  Of course, this is up for debate, but we can consider some commonsense criteria: 

  • We should identify problems and strive to solve them. 
  • The most urgent problems are those that cause the greatest amount of preventable suffering, as measured by death, pain, illness, poverty, human rights violations, waste, etc. 
  • The ideal solutions are those with the highest cure-to-cost ratio.

Let’s limit this discussion to the biggie: preventable deaths.  I think we’d all agree that minimizing preventable deaths should be an important priority.  As a first step, we should be able to establish an objective understanding about the greatest causes of preventable death.  When I watch the news, I see a deluge of reports about death by war, terrorism, mass shootings and other murders, plane / train crashes, suicide, and failing infrastructure.  Do you suppose that these are the events that cause the most preventable deaths?  Or is that an illusion created by seeing them most often on TV? 

The most prolific killers, by a longshot, are factors related to unhealthy lifestyle.  The terrible trio of tobacco, obesity, and alcohol are involved in many more preventable deaths than all other causes combined. 7 Low-income countries also experience high rates of death due to childhood poverty and lack of access to medicine. 8 Nevertheless, these killers don’t get us emotionally riled up.  They happen gradually, are often self-inflicted, and provide no spectacular footage.  Mass shootings anger us and breached levees are easy to catch on film, so those are the things we talk about. 

Preventable causes of death in the United States, 2000
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How do we allocate our death prevention budget?  In 2022, national governments devoted about $2 trillion to military spending. 10  It’s hard to count the lives that militaries save, but we do know that they come at the cost of many lives taken.   Meanwhile, there is a $400 billion “funding gap” between actual and recommended spending on programs to reduce smoking, programs that probably wouldn’t hurt anyone. 11 Clearly, our solutions are misaligned with our problems.      

By the way, the number of aborted pregnancies is nine times higher still than the number of smoking deaths. 12 Though abortions are not as objectively classified as “preventable deaths”, this figure is large enough to give anyone pause for thought.  A successful policy of preventing unintended conceptions in the first place would directly reduce abortions and childhood poverty all in one swoop.  I can hardly think of a more positively impactful policy than ensuring that all children are successfully planned and prepared for. 

Major media outlets play an outsized role in forming people’s visions of the world.  The media owes us a proportional responsibility to be sincere and objective, and not to get caught up promoting political narratives. 13 What I find to be one of the most disingenuous tactics, whether by politicians, pundits, bloggers, or barstool philosophers, is recourse to the “Extreme Emotional Event”.  This is a carefully curated example to demonstrate a rare best- or worst-case scenario as if it were the norm.  In American abortion debates, the issues of late-term abortions and rape / incest sometimes seem to dominate the conversation, though each of these Extreme Emotional Events accounts for less than 1.5% of U.S. abortions. 14 While acknowledging that such cases are tragic and true, we can’t get sidetracked into making broad-based policy decisions in response to every Extreme Emotional Event.  We can’t let the 1% exceptions dictate 90% of our time, money, energy, and emotions.  We must especially resist the temptation to let the worst cases form our stereotypes of the world. 

The more people we try to unite under law, the more important it is to have “objective objectives.”  The people of a state or nation will have many subjective sets of priorities.  Global diversity is greater still.  The objective world is the one thing we all have in common.  Let’s try to find it together. 

VI. Citations

  1. Illusion image by OpenClipart, public domain, https://publicdomainvectors.org/en/free-clipart/Vector-clip-art-of-famous-optical-illusion-with-three-pacman-figures/33864.html 
  2. https://twitter.com/i/status/1509546130530799623
  3. Computer image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images,  https://creazilla.com/nodes/3156160-computer-clipart .  Image of people by Maky_Orel, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/avatars-people-group-team-working-5034341/ .  Both CC0 / public domain.
  4. Images of people computer-generated on demand.  Image of tree by OpenClipart, https://freesvg.org/half-storm-half-calm (public domain).
  5. For a good academic survey of evolutionary psychology, see Mark Schaller, Jeffry A. Simpson, and Douglas T. Kenrick (editors), Evolution and Social Psychology, Psychology Press (2006).
  6. https://www.quora.com/The-American-people-are-paranoid-about-the-Chinese-becoming-a-superpower-Why (accessed, saved, and archived 6/06/23).
  7. Ali H. Mokdad et al., “Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000”, JAMA 291(10):1238-1245 (3/10/2004), http://www.csdp.org/research/1238.pdf (accessed and saved 5/02/23).
  8. Alan D. Lopez et al., “Global and regional burden of disease and risk factors, 2001: systematic analysis of population health data”, Lancet 367(9524):1747-1757 (5/27/2006), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(06)68770-9/fulltext (accessed 5/02/23).
  9. Graphic by Mikael Haggstrom, a summary of the data from Mokdad, op. cit., public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Preventable_causes_of_death.svg (accessed 5/02/23).
  10. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “World military expenditure reaches new record high as European spending surges” (4/24/2023), https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2023/world-military-expenditure-reaches-new-record-high-european-spending-surges (accessed, saved, and archived 5/16/23).
  11. Sara Rose Taylor and Ryan Forrest, “Assessing the solutions to tobacco control’s funding gap problem”, Tobacco Control (BMJ Journals) 31(2):335-339 (March 2022), https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/31/2/335 (accessed and saved 6/06/23).
  12. Tobacco killed about 8 million people in 2019.  Marissa B. Reitsma et al., “Spatial, temporal, and demographic patterns in prevalence of smoking tobacco use and attributable disease burden in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019”, The Lancet vol. 397, pp. 2337-2360 (6/19/2021), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)01169-7/fulltext (accessed and saved 6/06/23).  There were roughly 73 million abortions per year in 2015 – 2019.  Jonathan Bearak et al., “Unintended pregnancy and abortion by income, region, and the legal status of abortion: estimates from a comprehensive model for 1990 – 2019”, The Lancet Global Health vol. 8, pp. e1152-1161 (7/22/2020), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(20)30315-6/fulltext (accessed and saved 6/06/23).
  13. Sharyl Attkisson, Slanted: How the News Media Taught us to Love Censorship and hate Journalism, Harper Collins (2020).  Although I feel that Attkisson has some slant of her own, she speaks from authoritative experience.  She makes important points in this book and demonstrates them with thought-provoking examples.
  14. Late term:  Tara C. Jatlaoui et al., “Abortion Surveillance – United States 2015”, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 67(13):1-45 (11/23/2018), https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6713a1.htm (accessed and saved 6/06/23).  Rape / incest:  Lawrence B. Finer et al., “Reasons U.S. Women have Abortions:  Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives”, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37(3):110-118 (Sep. 2005),  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1931-2393.2005.tb00045.x (accessed and saved 6/06/23).