Objectivity, science, and (a)political action

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in April 2012

1000 words / 5 min.
Tweet Share
Theodore M. Porter, in Trust in Numbers, argues that the American distrust of elites – and of government itself – has led to a focus on “mechanical objectivity,” or rules to make decisions. In many ways similar to what American jurists call “procedural due process,” the idea is to diminish the necessity of personal judgement in favor of predictable, […]

Please note that this post is from 2012. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Theodore M. Porter, in Trust in Numbers, argues that the American distrust of elites — and of government itself — has led to a focus on “mechanical objectivity,” or rules to make decisions. In many ways similar to what American jurists call “procedural due process,” the idea is to diminish the necessity of personal judgement in favor of predictable, “transparent” processes and thus lessen the number of disputes over the outcomes of a bureaucratic decision.

Porter quotes Richard Hammond’s observations:

In a country where mistrust of government is rife, the temptation to substitute supposedly impersonal calculation for personal, responsible decisions … cannot but be exceedingly strong. (195)

Porter goes on to refer to Sheila Jasanoff‘s observation that “Americans fear expertise … yet insist that administrative decisions be depoliticized” and thus “oscillate ‘between deference and skepticism toward experts’” (195). The United States — which “continues to nourish a distinguished tradition of anti-intellectualism” — paradoxically seeks “experts who are not intellectuals or men of culture at all” (195). Porter writes:

Procedures have become as important as outcomes, and rules may be maintained even though they are unable to accomodate new kinds of relevant scientific information (197).

The Courts

American courts generally emphasize process, too, encouraging the application of rules by courtroom experts: “science should mean the straightforward application of general laws to particular circumstances” (195). Attorneys attack courtroom experts for having personal opinions and unique approaches to their studies. “General acceptability” was the core component of Frye, and the modern standard for acceptance of expert testimony (Daubert) emphasizes this factor too (though it expands beyond it).

The Supreme Court’s “hard look” doctrine emphasizes this, too. That doctrine requires judicial review of agency decisions are “arbitrary and capricious.” It requires administrative agencies to maintain a proper record of evidence and actions, adequately consider evidence and various analyses, and explain their reasoning. The doctrine is not intended to emphasize outcomes, but rather to encourage objective process. Even this doctrine, aimed as it is at process and not outcomes, has been attacked as too political (i.e., not objective enough):

Administrative law doctrines for reviewing agency rulemaking currently give judges a significant amount of discretion to invalidate agency rules. Many commentators have recognized that this has politicized judicial review of agency rulemaking, as judges appointed by a president of one political party are more likely to invalidate agency rules promulgated under the presidential administration of a different political party. Unelected judges, though, should not be able to use indeterminate administrative law doctrines to invalidate agency rules on the basis that they disagree with the policy decisions of a presidential administration. — Keller, Scott A., “Depoliticizing Judicial Review of Agency Rulemaking,” 2009.

United States vs. Europe

The American approach — the way agencies make decisions and the way courts review those decisions — is distinctly different from how it’s done in Europe. Although they vary in their details, in general, all European approaches “are capable in some measure of formulating policies and determining how to apply them through negotiation with the interested parties, behind closed doors” (197). For good or ill, European states tend to institutionally trust their elite experts and the agencies they staff — but American agencies today lack this kind of citizen trust:

American regulatory agencies are forced to seek refuge in ‘objectivity,’ adopting formal methodologies for rationalizing their every action (197).

It hasn’t always been this way in the United States. American administrative agencies really only grew as outgrowths of the New Deal’s attempt to rationalize, control, and improve the economy during the Great Depression. These agencies — and the few that preceded them — were staffed by experts, driven by numbers, and depended on expert judgment and expertise in ways that are quite similar to their modern European counterparts (198).

Citizen Standing and Openness

The 1960s brought a new focus on citizen involvement in agency decisions. “Openness” was the “antidote to self-interest and to corruption masquerading as expertise” (198). The 1966 case, Office of Communication of United Church of Christ v. FCC, 359 F. 2d 994, exemplified this trend:

This was the case that began the process of opening the regulatory and judicial processes to everyday citizens by granting legal “standing” to citizens. The expansion of standing enabled regular citizens to be heard before regulatory agencies and to bring actions in court, amplifying the amounts and types of political issues taken up in the public arena. — Horwitz, Robert, “Broadcast Reform Revisited: Reverend Everett C. Parker and the ‘Standing’ Case,” The Communication Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (1997), pp. 311-348.

Problems and Contradictions

The attempt to bring openness and greater democracy to agency decision-making succeeded in bringing greater citizen scrutiny and input to the exercise of expertise. It came as a reaction to behind-the-scenes decisions that appeared to favor established interests. Thus, citizen-activists fought against agencies that appeared too close to the companies they regulated — and often succeeded in opening up their processes.

But this didn’t necessarily result in better decisions.

Agencies responded with a greater use of, in Porter’s terms, “mechanical objectivity” in place of expert judgment. Additionally, the critiques used to attack agency expertise began to be turned against scientific and medical expertise more generally. Thus, anti-vaccination campaigners accuse medical experts of profiting from vaccines and acting as “willing conspirators cashing in on the vaccine fraud’ or pawns of a shadowy vaccine combine.” What was once an attack on an FCC that consisted of former broadcast executives has become an attack on doctors who favor broad public-health mandates and on climate scientists who warn about the dangers of human-induced climate change.