Thursday 27th April 2017

Theories

by Enza Ferreri

It is very easy for a journalist to express an opinion without doing it openly and directly. For example, in an interview, if the interviewee does not say what the interviewer would like him/her to say, the journalist can ask what in law is called a "leading question", i.e. a question containing the answer, to which the respondent only has to say 'yes' or 'no'.

In that way, presuming that the interviewee is in agreement with him, the writer can say whatever he wanted to say in a covert way.

"As philosopher of science Karl Popper realized, theories are a necessity but can also be a cage that limits what we can think, a frame which narrows the perspective from which to look at things."

There are many other methods to achieve this, of which the above is only an example.

The question is that it is not posssible to write anything meaningful and interesting in an "objective" or "impartial" way any more than it is possible to take a photo without a place where to put the camera and a specific angle. A viewpoint is always necessary for both.

What has this got to do with science?

The relationship is that in science as well we always need theories, which are also viewpoints, opinions, hypotheses, assumptions, in short choices we make about what to believe.

Science is made of theories.

As philosopher of science Karl Popper realized, theories are a necessity but can also be a cage that limits what we can think, a frame which narrows the perspective from which to look at things.

As in all choices, we obtain something but we are forced to renounce something else.

Like medicines and laws, theories have many advantages but also have side effects, unpredicted and unwanted consequences.

To limit the damage of the undesired effects, in science theories are openly espoused but at the same time they are (or they should be) constantly subjected to test.

We make a theoretical choice that restricts our possibilities, yes, but we are constantly on the lookout for reasons to reject it if the case may be.

Scientists declare a theoretical interest, so to speak, but they also bear in mind the evidential arguments supporting it or contradicting it.

I think that journalism should follow the example of science on this.

Rather than proclaiming as its target an unrealistic and undesirable "objectivity", which is not only impossible to attain (not even eye witnesses in legal cases, as repeatedly shown in myriad studies, can be objective, since the way both mental faculties of perception and memory work renders it utopistic) but would be an obstacle to creativity and insight, the goal of intellectually honest journalism should be twofold.

First, the writer should declare his allegiances, explaining his point of view. This would help his readers to form an opinion on the way his ideas may have an effect on his reporting and writing, and take this into account when they judge what he says.

Second, to be able to write subjectively but not arbitrarily, the journalist should regularly offer support for what he writes and take into consideration opposing evidence.

If we want to see what happens to this utopian ideal of objectivity in writing and where it leads, a good case is that of Wikipedia, the well-known online encyclopedia.

By insisting on eliminating every subjective "contamination" and viewpoint with the declared intention of getting rid of bias, it has ended up increasing bias in its entries.

Due to its faith in the "wisdom of the crowds" and hoping that the various contributors to every entry would balance each other's views, Wikipedia has resulted in a monopoly on its different subjects by a leader who in the end decides what can be allowed to stay in the article on the basis of his own opinions.

 

Enza FerreriEnza Ferreri is an Italian web author with a degree in Philosophy of Science living in London, and former journalist.

Email: enza at human-health-and-animal-ethics.com

 

 

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