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Transparency: the new objectivity

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Objectivity serves its purpose, but in some of the most important realms, its time has passed. In those realms, transparency is the new objectivity.

Objectivity still is required for much of science. In fact, the scientific method is designed to remove the subjective elements from research. In the classic case, an experiment isolates a single variable to see what effect altering it has. The scientist’s preferences and expectations are carefully made irrelevant. Objectivity works.

But we have taken objectivity into realms where it really should not go. For example, for a long time, journalists aimed to be objective. That’s not an achievable aim, and the claim that reporting is objective is not just wrong but seriously misleading. From the selection of the news to cover to the way in which the story is told, news reporting—like all story telling and all history—is from a particular point of view with particular expectations and values. For example, watch how different newspapers report on the same political speech. Even when they all have the same text in front of them, they vary widely in what they think is important and what they think the importance is. And I’m not talking about how columnists analyze the speech; the most basic reporting of it is clearly non-objective.

Now, there’s obviously worse and better reporting. Some reporting is wildly partisan; the reporters approach the story with an agenda. Other reporters try to be more fair, accurate and balanced. But none of those adjectives add up to objectivity. In fact, journalists rarely talk about objectivity any more. Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty shady. Nevertheless, objectivity—even as an unattainable goal—served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early pushback against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, most bloggers don’t try to remove their subjective biases, while most journalists do. But, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then presenting information as objective means hiding the biases that inevitably are there. It’d be more accurate and truthful to acknowledge those biases, so that readers can account for them in what they read.

That’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to accept ideas as credible the way the claim of objectivity used to.

This change is epochal.

Objectivity used to be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your belief can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your inquiry once you come to a credentialed authority who says, "You can believe me." End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work only for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge—in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value—we want, need, can have and expect transparency. Transparency—the embedded ability to see through the published draft—often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report. Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person—with the best of intentions—insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas and argument?

This changes not just how we come to trust what we read, but the entire ecology of belief. Just as objectivity mirrors the essential nature of print—one person publishes, the report is done and the rest of us read—transparency mirrors the nature of the Web: Content is linked, public, discussed and always subject to dispute and revision.

It’s going to take a long time to get this right. We have not yet fully evolved the new mechanisms of belief, and we are far more likely to go wrong than ever before. But the possibilities for going right—and for going further with our inquiries—have never been better.

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