The Coronavirus: Whom and What Can We Trust to Be Objective?

                                 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.

The term “objective truth” that you’ve chosen can be provocative it itself, @ian . The challenge is interaction “collective knowledge” that might be shared within a group, alongside the “individual knowledge” that is personal.

From The Unbounded Mind, I can appreciate than an inquiring system that we should be more critical about what is the guarantor.

Figure 2.2. An inquiry System

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First, every IS has or accepts distinctive inputs from the “outside world” (see Figure 2.2). Those inputs are not only the basic entities that come into a system in the first place, but are much more fundamental. Inputs into an IS are the entities that a particular IS recognizes as the"basic, legitimate building blocks or starting points for knowledge." The inputs that a particular IS recognizes as legitimate are not necessarily recognizable by other IS’s. […]

Second, different IS’s employ different kinds of operators. The operator in an IS is the mechanism that operates or works on the basic inputs to transform them into the final output of the system, or knowledge. […]

Third, the output of an IS is what the system regards as a valid knowledge for action on an issue of importance. […] [p. 30]

Fourth, the most critical component is known as the guarantor. The guarantor of an IS is the component guaranteeing the operation of the entire IS itself. Thus, the guarantor specifies (argues) why in order to obtain valid knowledge (1) one should start with a particular kind of input, (2) use a particular operator to transform it into, (3) a particular form of output that is regarded as knowledge. [p. 30-31]

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So the challenge may come from others who argue that there is no such thing as “objective truth”, and are unwilling to discuss that belief critically. If a group can’t converge on at least one type of guarantor, there won’t be any constructive knowledge beyond the experiences of each individual.


Mitroff, Ian I., and Harold A. Linstone. 1993. The Unbounded Mind: Breaking the Chains of Traditional Business Thinking . New York: Oxford University Press.

I had to take the bait. I’m still in the process of reading up on Inquiring Systems and Ian Mitroff’s work esp as it pertains to type II and III errors etc.

What is the guarantor of any Inquiring System? Specifically for David Ing: what is the guarantor for your own knowledge regarding the systems thinking approach?

I’m assuming we will conclude it is the reasoning faculty of our intellect? Since this is what almost all Western philosophers agree upon as the one universal guarantor of all human knowledge?

In West Churchman’s The Design of Inquiring Systems, and Ian Mitroff’s The Unbounded Mind, there are five inquiring system, each with a different guarantor. There are different labels across the authors – Ian Mitroff studied directly under West Churchman at U.C. Berkeley – but the ideas are aligned.

Depending on the circumstances, I recognize and apply one or more of the five inquiring systems, as described by Churchman and Mitroff.

When I have the opportunity to design an inquiring system – you can take the Systems Changes Learning Circle as one – I aspire to encourage a Singerian inquiring system. The guarantor is progress. We continue to create knowledge until there’s no more progress. We also need to ensure that we continually sweep in new knowledge.

This is knowledge creation with a social group as the system of interest. West Churchman said only people know. And this is tougher when there are multiple people. Our collective progress may be measured by the pace of the slowest person, so we need to make the effort to keep people informed. Individuals learn at different rates.

No. In the progression towards the third way of knowing (multiple realities), the inquiring system is Kantian. And Immanual Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason. I freely admit that I have not read that work. I’ve relied on Churchman and Mitroff to do the summarization for me.

No. And with that, you’re going to have to read West Churchman’s The Systems Approach and its Enemies. Since that book is hard to find, I took the time to write an extract as a blog post.

To add to the complexity, I’m now trying to move beyond Western philosophy to sweep in Contextual Dyadic Thinking, as described by Keekok Lee. I’m not doing philosophy for philosophy’s sake. Like Churchman and Ackoff, when they were together at Wayne State University, I’m working on applied philosophy, in the interest of better science (of which western science is only one part).

With regards to a “System of Inquiry” I too want to be completely disinterested, and not have any cognitive bias or any ulterior object (since that would instantly put my whole pleading out of court; for it means a deliberate distortion in order to serve some material or cognitive interest).

So, how would I make sure that I’m not making a Dunning-Kruger sort of cognitive bias in choosing to stick to “Systems Thinking” and its proponents like Churchman or Ian Mitroff?

Dunning-Kruger effect is a pretty good summary of our cognitive biases and reinforcement of confirmation bias. I think it may be pertinent to our “system of interest” therein.

If you can be disinterested, then you’re a superhuman beyond me. I have lots of cognitive biases. My ulterior motive is actually unknown to myself, a lot of the time. I’ve come to accept that I do what I do, as part of my nature. I used to be more rational, until I started collaborating with David Hawk!

The way that we get over these cognitive biases and ulterior objectives is through social interactions with others. As a group, there’s some hope that we might deliberate. If we’re wrong, we could become a destructive mob. We have to be careful who we choose as friends.

To ensure that we’re on the same page, let’s make sure that we know about Dunning-Kruger.

In this chapter, I provide argument and evidence that the scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them. This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because lack of expertise and knowledge often hides in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or is disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer. As empirical evidence of meta-ignorance, I describe the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.

  • Dunning, David. 2011. “The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology , edited by James M. Olson and Mark P. Zanna, 44:247–96. Academic Press.

With the extended research team, we have looked at ignorance before (and you can find me lecturing on about it).

  • Ing, David, Minna Takala, and Ian Simmonds. 2003. “Anticipating Organizational Competences for Development through the Disclosing of Ignorance.” In Proceedings of the 47th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the System Sciences . Hersonissos, Crete.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, as I read it, speaks to individuals, in psychology. The way to get beyond the personal view is to work together in social (organizational) groups. Sure, it’s possible that the whole group has a blind spot. But, working together, we have some hope at making progress.

There are schools of thought. I like this school. However, I respect others who prefer other schools. There’s no perfect answer to seeing the world.

There’s a key. We should decide on OUR systems of interest (or inquiry), over a personal MY system of interest (or inquiry).

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