The Coronavirus: Whom and What Can We Trust to Be Objective? by Ian I. Mitroff
The history of Western Philosophy recognizes several distinct ways of producing knowledge and thus ideally for ultimately arriving at The Truth. They generally follow one another according to the time period in which they were initially developed. Most important, each embodies a different underlying notion of Objectivity. Given the literally life and death issue of how best to treat the Coronavirus, the issue of what is “Objective Truth” is anything but academic.
First and foremost is Expert Consensus. According to this way of thinking, something is Objective if and only if it’s based on “Hard Data” as produced by a group of independent experts using the best available methods and procedures in their respective fields. Indeed, the tighter the agreement between a group of reputable experts, the greater the reasons for believing that the Data they’ve produced represents The Truth of a situation. Thus, based on their independent studies and observations, the “fact” that over 97% of reputable climate scientists are in strong agreement is taken as “definitive evidence” that humans are primarily responsible for Global Warming.
Expert Consensus plays a major role in the Coronavirus. The fact that virtually all Epidemiologists worldwide are in basic agreement on the need to shelter in place and practice social distancing is considered absolutely crucial in helping to keep the Virus contained. Expert Consensus is even more crucial if and when there is widespread agreement that we have finally produced an effective vaccine for treating and hopefully defeating the Virus.
Unfortunately, like all of the various ways of producing and especially validating knowledge, this way is easily abused. Except for exposing them, one cannot prevent bogus groups of “self-proclaimed experts” from asserting that they know more than recognized experts. Not only does one have to produce the best available facts to counter false claims, but one has to do it in easily understood language that a broad public can grasp. Dr. Anthony Fauci is exemplary in this regard. While they are not scientists, the Governors of California, Michigan and New York also excel in this way as well. The key point is that by itself Hard Data are never enough.
The second historic way of producing knowledge is Analytic Modeling. Something is Objective if and only if it is the product of the single best scientific theory available. Thus, instead of Hard Data, this way is based on a Hard Theory that has been validated repeatedly.
Unfortunately, this way is easily abused as well by groups with quack and conspiracy theories. Once again, it requires scientists who not only know their stuff, but can speak in easily understood language to counteract them.
The third way is known as Multiple Realities. In this case, something is Objective if and only if it’s the product of multiple ways of looking at a complex situation. Thus, with regard to the Coronavirus, it’s a multiple series of crises all embedded within one another. While it’s principally a Global Pandemic, it’s unleashed a series of equally major crises as well: Economic; Education; Threats to Vulnerable Populations; Mental Health Issues; Increases in Domestic Violence, and so on. As a result, it calls for the cooperation of experts across a multiplicity of fields. Even more, it raises the important issue regarding what kind of central body needs to be established to look at the Whole System. And of course, it can be easily abused by phony experts from bogus fields. Thus, Antivaxxers have already proclaimed that they won’t take a vaccine for the Virus if and when it’s produced.
The fourth way is Dialectical Reasoning. Something is Objective if and only if it’s the product of the strongest possible debate between two or more of the leading contenders regarding what one needs to do to deal best with an important, if not life-threating, situation. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus has produced some of the worst arguments imaginable. Thus, some have argued for reopening the country because the Virus mainly affects old people who “have already lived long lives.” In effect, old people are “expendable!” In sharp contrast, the other side rightly points out that young people are just as prone in their own ways.
Ideally, the fourth way works best when both sides of the Dialectic are equaling plausible and thus tug equally at one’s mind and soul. If this is not the case, then it fails to do its intended job. Indeed, it’s all-too-easily manipulated to make it appear that there is an honest debate where it’s really designed to put down a position with which one sees no validity whatsoever.
Discounting positions that wrongly assert that “it’s my Constitutional Right to do what I feel is my God-given right!,” there are reasonable arguments as to how and when one should “reopen the country.” Nonetheless, where in the Constitution does it say that “I have a right to infect another person?”
The fifth way is known as Systems Thinking. It’s based on the philosophical school known as Pragmatism. Something is Objective if and only if it’s the result of Interdisciplinary Inquiry. That is, Systems Thinking requires us to look at any complex issue from the broadest possible perspectives. For one, the physical and social sciences are on an equal footing. Indeed, since the physical sciences are the creation of and operate by means of humans, they presuppose the social sciences even though they are reluctant in acknowledging it. Both the physical and social sciences in fact presuppose one another.
For this reason, the fifth way is especially concerned with the emotional well-being of frontline Medical personnel. Indeed, it’s rightly concerned with the emotional states of all those connected with each of the previous ways of producing knowledge. It worries about the anxiety and depression experienced by those individuals and groups working under extreme pressure to find a cure. It worries that those who are part of a community of Experts share collective anxiety in their quest to find “Hard Data” that will lead to a cure. It has the same worry with regard to those who hunker after the One Best Theory that will lead to a proven vaccine.
Fundamental to the fifth way is the recognition that all of the previous ways of producing knowledge are part of a total system. As a result, the fifth way not only embraces all of the previous notions of Objectivity, but regards them as essential. It therefore has an expanded sense of Objectivity.
If this brief review has accomplished anything, I hope it is the clear recognition that by itself the admonition to be Objective is meaningless. The supreme question is, “What kind of Objectivity is appropriate for which problem?”
Ian I. Mitroff is credited as being one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management.
He has a BS, MS, and a PhD in Engineering and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.
He Is Professor Emeritus from the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School of Communication at USC.
Currently, he is a Senior Research Affiliate in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley.
He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Management.
He has published 38 books, his most recent is:
Techlash: The Future of the Socially Responsible Tech Organization, Springer, New York, 2020.