Political Intelligence

The traits that make or break leaders

The Myth of Objectivity

Is it ever possible to be impartial?

We all like to know that we are living in an objective world where there are facts and certainties that are irrefutable. This is especially the case with science, but it applies to many other areas of life as well. The problem is that the deeper science delves into reality, the less real everything seems. We have known for a long time that all of the matter we see around us is composed of atoms and that these atoms are, in fact, mostly empty space. The screen you see in front of you is actually mostly empty space. Indeed, quantum mechanics, taking it a step deeper, suggests that each particle within the atom is in fact, also just a wave of energy – not material at all – and it only materializes into a solid particle when it is observed. This has, of course, disturbed a lot of people, but it is the main interpretation (known as the Copenhagen Interpretation) of a branch of science that now makes up a full one third of the economy. So even science is telling us the objective world “out there” is not as objective as it seems.

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At the end of the day, of course, the only window we have onto the world “out there” is actually from the world inside our heads, so everything we see and do is still an inner subjective experience. Being aware of all this does not mean that we have to, as a result, abandon all hope of ever knowing anything, but what it does mean is that we should always approach what we believe to be “facts” with a degree of humility. If we say we are making a decision “based on facts alone” then, more often than not, we are actually fooling ourselves. Our tendency to slip in some of our own subjective notions, assumptions and biases is huge and, as a result, the more we are able to admit this, the less trouble our decisions will get us into.

This becomes a particular problem at an institutional level. Organizations that are established in order to issue declarations on “the truth” – whether spiritual or secular – will repeatedly run into the mud whenever the general public starts to notice subjective biases in their reasoning. The Supreme Court at the moment is going through such a crisis. The judges of the highest institution in the land are imagined to make decisions based on “the facts”, or “the rule of law”. On paper this sounds like there should be no debate involved – every issue can be boiled down to a true or false, correct or incorrect, guilty or innocent, upheld or denied. But in truth, this is anything but the case. Key decisions have been split down the middle for over a decade now. And these splits have been along party lines. Whether that was Bush V Gore or the Citizens United ruling, the decision making process tends to be defined in terms of the judges on the right, the judges on the left and the one swing voter. This is no different from Congress. And that is where we are again with the forthcoming ruling on Obama’s healthcare law. A recent CBS/New York Times poll found an overwhelming majority of Americans, 76%, believed that the personal and political views of the Supreme Court justices influenced their decisions, and 55% believed that this will be the case in the forthcoming ruling on healthcare law. So the public have already given up on the idea of an “objective” decision. As Juan Williams put it recently in The Hill, “public confidence in the Supreme Court… is the most fragile it has been in a generation.”

Perhaps it’s time we stopped pretending Supreme Court judges were impartial arbiters of the law and saw them for what they really are; human beings with biases and political leanings just like anyone else – just like any politician, in fact. Once we admit this, then the abolition of lifetime appointments can never be far away. When the very notion of objectivity is open to question, no one should have the lifetime authority to interpret it for the rest of us.

Russell Razzaque, M.D. is a British psychiatrist and author of Obama Karma: Lessons on Living Inspired by the 44th President.

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