Academics and Ideologies

by | Oct 23, 2004

It all started when Professor David M. O’Neill of Hunter College wrote in the NY Sun Oct. 4 maintaining that bias-free reporting is impossible because nobody can be free of ideology. Joseph Kellard had a letter in response. To which Professor O’Neill then replied. Here is my response (slightly edited): It is fashionable among today’s […]

It all started when Professor David M. O’Neill of Hunter College wrote in the NY Sun Oct. 4 maintaining that bias-free reporting is impossible because nobody can be free of ideology. Joseph Kellard had a letter in response. To which Professor O’Neill then replied. Here is my response (slightly edited):

It is fashionable among today’s academics to pretend that objectivity is a myth. Thus, David M. O’Neill, a professor of economics at Hunter College, writes, “We can’t keep our ideologies from creeping into our journalism or research” [“Bill O’Reilly’s Odd Moment,” Letters, October 14, 2004].

Why would we want to? Because, he writes, such pursuits are better performed without ideology.

“Better?” By what standard?

“The only reason one set of facts becomes ‘evil’ rather than ‘unimportant’ or ‘good’ is because human beings choose to feel that way about them,” he baldly asserts. In support, he points out that some Germans spat on Oskar Schindler’s rescue of Jews.

But why should anyone “choose to feel” that this fact is important?

As my questions illustrate, Mr. O’Neill’s “I am right” rests on philosophical presuppositions about the nature of knowledge and values, which means, in his case, simply on what he chooses to feel.

In his view, “ideology”–i.e., abstract, evaluative ideas–is an agent of distortion. This means that your viewpoint is distorted because it is a viewpoint–“man is blind, because he has eyes–deaf, because he has ears–deluded, because he has a mind,” as novelist Ayn Rand put her indictment of that position.

“Right?” In his view, there is no such thing. There is no cognition without evaluation. Cognition depends on identifying essentials, weighing evidence, assessing credibility, and judging facts: Is Larry Stewart’s testimony relevant? Is lead paint harmful? Is Dan Rather reliable? Does President Bush follow his principles? A mind unwilling to judge values makes itself unable to judge facts.

If evaluation as such is arbitrary and distorting, how would it help matters to seek out ideological disagreement, as Mr. O’Neill recommends?

True, to validate one’s ideas it may pay to listen to those who disagree–if they are honest and reality-oriented–for they may indicate evidence one has overlooked, or errors in one’s reasoning. After Plato and Aristotle, this is not news. But objectivity does not mean openness to all viewpoints; it means adherence to reality. In journalism, objectivity means presenting the reader with all the facts necessary to make an informed judgment.

If there are many sides to an issue, a reader does need to be acquainted with them–but not as equally valid. Objectivity does not absolve a journalist from the responsibility of being critical and evaluative in determining the facts.

On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that broadening one’s exposure to arbitrary fantasies is any “better” than just one fantasy. And though Mr. O’Neill says that not all beliefs are worthy of support, he offers no grounds for seeing them as anything but arbitrary.

His position is typical of the intellectual bankruptcy of today’s universities, and a good reason to pull the plug on them.

Mr. O’Neill may have concluded that his own intellect is impotent, but that does not justify his projecting his condition onto the rest of the human race.

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Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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