#critlib chat on Scientific Objectivity

Rory Litwin of Library Juice Press recently moderated a #critlib Twitter chat on neutrality and objectivity in scientific information. Referencing the “Scientific Objectivity” article by Julian Reiss and Jan Sprenger from the excellent, open-access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this chat dealt with the tension between respecting patron agency and providing information sources that most medical professionals recognize as sound. Using information around anti-vaccination as an example for discussion, we talked about ways to negotiate this tension.

Danielle Brena has made a nice and succinct Storify summary of the chat. I don’t normally rephrase what I tweet during the chats, but I will this time, as the topic helped me articulate some things that have been knocking about in my head for a while now. Effectively, I’m beginning to be able to put into sentences how cultural studies can inform information literacy instruction.

It seems to me that the use of binary language around what we call “objectivity” (as in “value free”) aids skeptics in too-eagerly dismissing valid studies. Overly simplifying the initial terms of information literacy in this way actually impairs debate rather than scaffolding learners towards reaching a subsequently more sophisticated understanding. Instead of asserting that “good” information sources are those that are somehow “truly objective,” it’s better to treat objectivity as a value in itself. Claims to objectivity become tenable when we understand “objectivity” not as an all-or-nothing attribute of the source being discussed, but rather as an aspiration: the source seeks to minimize the influence of biases below a particular threshold. Much as engineers and physicists know that the forces of gravity are never truly escapable, yet find utility in saying “zero gravity” as a shorthand term to distinguish spacecraft from “low gravity” high-orbit planes, “objective” sources are ones of which we might say “there is as of yet no discernible influence on the subjects at hand.”

This “as of yet” is the crucial element, and why we should avoid binary frames that close down critical thinking and subsequent reflective investigation. Owning up to the inescapable aspects of our subjectivity can help us come to understand when & why we fail to perceive influence: our cultural practices of language, culture, racialization, class, gender, sexuality, identity, corporeality, ideology, and all other aspects of identity or ways of interacting with the world can and will creep in even when we attempt to work outside of them.

This sort of Cultural Studies approach, which views humans as influenced by multiple and myriad values or impulses as much as by obdurate “truths” or sinister biases, seems to offer us some handy ways of respecting patrons’ agency while reinforcing the need to critically engage all sources. For instance, we might turn to genres and communities of practice to contextualize information sources: “Here’s a source of the sort that most medical professionals would recognize as valid. And here’s one supporting anti-vaccination.” This would neither tell a patron what to think nor steer them away from sources with anti-vaccination claims, but it can encourage reflective engagement with all of the sources.1

April Hathcock’s “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS”

A great example of reflectively analyzing values in librarianship was published last week at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. April Hathcock’s “White Librarianship in Blackface” article was the best thing I read this week. Hathcock admirably takes the time to spell out that by “whiteness” she doesn’t mean a simple happenstance of ancestry but rather a more abstract “system of exclusion based on hegemony.” If I understand her article correctly, she’s warning against how even well-intentioned diversity initiatives can reproduce systems of privilege. For instance, requiring letters of recommendation only from professors rather than community members, such as the applicant’s local public or academic librarians, whose relationship with the applicant might provide many more relevant insights into their aptitude for the profession.

Rather than relying on application requirements that effectively bar applicants who could most benefit from the mentoring aspects of these initiatives, aspiring to actual inclusivity requires that we intentionally work against accidental exclusion and encourage diversity along multiple axes. I’ve been meaning to read Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America for a while now, but I think I’ll turn to the library-focused articles and chapters in Hathcock’s bibliography first. (Sorry, Eduardo. You’ve been bumped again.)

  1. Of course, this kind of engagement might be a lot more comfortable to perform in an academic setting than a public library. I’ve only answered reference questions in college settings, where patrons might be somewhat more predisposed to a librarian giving them conflicting sources and embellishing them with context—or at least, patrons might just be more patient with librarians doing so. 

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