Our Institutions Keep Undermining Themselves
Abandoning old-fashioned ideals like objectivity and rigor is bound to backfire.
The Urban Institute is one of America’s most storied think tanks. For half a century, it has produced high-quality research that has helped guide American policymakers as they tackle major domestic policy challenges.
Part of what makes the organization’s work so valuable is that it’s produced in an environment that values rigor and objectivity. Regardless of whether you agree with their policy recommendations or political lean—they tend to argue in favor of progressive solutions—you can count on their research being thorough and reliable.
That’s why it was so alarming to see a recent Urban Institute blog post by one of its policy analysts, Lauren Farrell, that argues that we should rethink the very concept of impartial research. She warned that the research practices of “objectivity” and “rigor” are “harmful” and “rooted in racism, ableism, and classism.”
“Objectivity allows researchers, intentions aside, to define themselves as experts without learning from people with lived experience,” she cautioned. “Objectivity also gives researchers grounds to claim they have no motives or biases in their work. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism permeate US institutions and systems, which, in turn, allows for research that reproduces or creates racist stereotypes and reinforces societal power differences between who generates information (white cisgender people) and who is a subject (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color at the margins of class and gender).”
Farrell acknowledges that “rigor measures whether research is reliable, accurate, and trustworthy. It’s a standard asked for by funders and research institutions alike.” The problem, in her view, is that “researchers often define rigor as following an established research protocol meticulously instead of ensuring data are contextualized and grounded in community experience.”
Farrell’s blog post set off a bit of a firestorm on social media, which is perhaps why the president of the Urban Institute, Sarah Rosen Wartell, stepped in with her own statement assuring the public that posts on the blog “represent individual authors’ views and not Urban policy.” She also noted that “rigor is a hallmark of what we do” and that the institute tries to make sure its research is “inclusive and respectful.”
The response from Wartell—who, full disclosure, was briefly my boss while I was a junior staffer at the Center for American Progress from 2009 to 2012—is emblematic of the struggle between truth and social justice that is taking place across many left-leaning institutions in the United States.
Some years ago, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt described that battle when it started to break out in higher education. “Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its telos—its purpose, end, or goal,” Haidt wrote. “What is the telos of university? The most obvious answer is ‘truth’—the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second or equal telos.” Then Haidt posed the key question: “What happens if they conflict?”
While we all have our own ideological preferences, we should always want truth to win in any conflict with a political agenda. Understanding the facts is the first step to making social change, and we shouldn’t bend them to fit our beliefs. It shouldn’t take a social media uproar for an organization as prestigious as the Urban Institute to affirm its commitment to truth and to practices like objectivity and rigor.
Farrell seems to be concerned that objective and rigorous research may produce findings that are unfriendly to a progressive social agenda. She wants us to infuse our research practices with left-wing ideology for the purpose of serving left-wing goals.
But the point of research is not to promote a particular ideology or agenda. The point of research is to tell us what is true. Objectivity lets us see the world as it is, rather than what we might wish it were. It’s important to acknowledge reality and settle on a good set of facts before we do anything else. We can then use that knowledge as we see fit, based on our values—which is where ideology and argument about what should be done can come into the picture.
Unfortunately, many institutions we would expect to embrace the telos of truth are now under pressure to instead adopt the telos of social justice. One of the unfortunate undercurrents of this rebellion against old-fashioned objectivity and truth-seeking is the misperception that these concepts are the lone purview of European-Americans, who have imposed them on all institutions. Farrell seems to be under the impression that objective research is all generated by, as she describes them, “white cisgender people” at the expense of, well, everybody else.
Farrell is not alone in this view. Last summer, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture published a graphic on its website that depicted “objective, rational linear thinking” as a facet of “whiteness & white culture.” Facing criticism, the museum later removed the graphic, but the fact that one of America’s pre-eminent cultural and historical institutions allowed this to happen is a sign of how far the attack on the scientific method has gone.
Yet objectivity and rigor, far from promoting racism, have often provided the data that serve as the antidote to racism. Look at the example of W. Montague Cobb, an African-American physician and professor of anatomy who used the scientific method to help debunk racial aspects of biodeterminism, which claims that different “races” of people had fundamentally distinct bodies that made some inferior or superior to others.
Cobb—whose work features prominently in an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture—wrote powerfully about how the field of science, far from being the purview of one dominant racial group, could dismantle these racist ideas:
It is my belief that physical anthropology can make a significant contribution to our national welfare if it would by giving the people by modern propaganda methods the scientific facts we have about race. In this way, a great blow could be struck at the dominant group’s entrenched belief in its racial superiority.
Even if institutions manage to walk back their mistakes, this self-destructive behavior will have serious long-term consequences. If institutions continue to undermine their own credibility, people may start going to less reliable sources for information instead. When the Urban Institute publishes a blog post criticizing fundamental research practices, it undermines its legitimacy as an arbiter of the truth. The same is true when, for instance, Princeton University’s president writes a letter telling the world that “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton” and that racism is “embedded in structures of the University itself.” Why would the public trust information coming from a racist institution, or one labeling itself as racist when it really isn’t?
Not every piece of research will align itself with a person or institution’s particular social agenda. Neither will every reported piece from a news outlet. But if consumers of news and research are interested in what is true—and we very much should be—we should want to know the facts, whether they bolster arguments of the left or the right. Our knowledge-making institutions should reaffirm their commitment to the telos of truth and resist those who would sacrifice objectivity and rigor in service of an ideological agenda.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.
It's hard for me to understand what Farrell is claiming, exactly. I can understand the claim that complete objectivity is a goal not achievable by mortals, but then that applies equally to the oppressor and the oppressed, so why bother discussing anything at all? Her essay doesn't seem to call for a more nuanced epistemology, but for 𝐰𝐚𝐫.
Zaid Jilani was right to criticize Lauren Farrell’s oversimplified and buzz-word filled post on the Urban Institute blog. But I think he also missed a different problem that it promoted. Writers like Farrell create a false dichotomy pitting “objective” research that supposedly reinforces historical power dynamics, exploits and harms communities of color, and aggrandizes white researchers against power-sharing research that “centers” communities and where researchers “check their bias” and “recognize their power.” This dichotomous thinking is patently silly, but what neither Farrell or Jilani acknowledge is that objectivity in research is a fool’s errand. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t rely on data collection or dismiss all facts as “perspectives.” But at every stage of research, humans are involved. We notice some things and discount others. We choose how to draw trend lines. We make human decisions about what data mean.
The idea, then, that we should support or reject “objective” research misses the point. Harvard Professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot has illuminated this challenge poignantly in her writings, explaining that when we attempt to remove ourselves from our research, what we are really doing is not trusting our readers to understand context. By revealing more of who we are as researchers (our starting assumptions, the biases we hold, what surprised us along the way, etc.), we give our audience the tools to separate us from our research and therefore see our subjects more clearly.