Objectivity and stuff

I wanted to write about some of the interesting things people have been saying about reviewing but part of my brain obviously wants to talk about reason and evidence and those sorts of things. I guess I haven’t done much of that this year in attempt to look less like a philosophy professor.

Anyway – objectivity! The thing with objectivity as a word is that we (including myself) use it in a way that implies various things which maybe aren’t really part of what it means. Objectivity carries positive connotations and connotations of authority in contrast to subjectivity. Those connotations suggest impartial judgement and a lack of bias. That’s all well and good – words can mean whatever a community of users want them to mean but I think it creates confusion.

Here is a different sense of ‘objective’ – to say something is objective is to say that two people can follow the same steps/process and come up with the same answer reliably. Maybe we should use a different word for that but such processes are often described as ‘objective’ because they clearly contrast with subjective judgement.

The thing is that meaning does not in ANYWAY imply a lack of bias. Lots of systematic or automated processes can contain bias. Indeed we expect there to be biases in, for example, processes for collecting data. More extreme examples include machine learning algorithms which are inherently repeatable and ‘objective’ in that sense (and the sense that they operate post-human judgement) that nonetheless repeat human prejudices because those prejudices exist in the data they were trained on.

Other examples include the data on gender disparity in compensation for Uber drivers – the algorithm was not derived from human prejudices but there was still a pay disparity that arose from different working patterns that arose from deep-seated social disparities.

However, there is still an advantage here in terms of making information and data gathered more objective. Biases may not be eliminated but they are easier to see, identify and quantify.

Flipping back to ‘subjective’, I have discussed before both the concept of intersubjectivity (shared consensus opinions and beliefs that are not easily changed) as well as the possibility of their being objective facts about subjective opinions (e.g. my opinion that Star Trek: Discovery was flawed is subjective but it is an objective fact about the universe that I held that opinion).

Lastly the objective aspect of data can be mistaken for the more subjective interpretation of the data. In particular the wider meaning or significance of a data set is not established simply by the fact that the data is collected reliably or repeatedly.

Consider another topic: IQ. I’ve discussed before aspect of IQ and IQ testing and much of the pseudoscientific nonsense talked about it. Look at these two claims between Roberta and Bob:

  • Roberta: My IQ is higher than Bob’s.
  • Roberta: I am more intelligent than Bob.

The first statement may be an objective fact – it is certainly a claim that can be tested and evaluated by prescribed methods. The second statement is more problematic: it relies on opinions about IQ and the nature of intelligence that are not well established. The objectivity of the first statement does not establish the objectivity of the second. Nor does the apparent objectivity of the first imply that it does not have biases that may also impact wider claims based upon it.

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30 thoughts on “Objectivity and stuff

  1. People who write reviews reveal their biases in many ways. It’s more useful to me if a reviewer honestly explains why they have a particular response to a work than if they self-censor trying to reach their equally subjective notion of objectivity.

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    1. Yes, I’d started writing something along those lines and then the word ‘objective’ bugged me and then I wrote this instead! I’m not even sure ‘bias’ is the word I want to use either but I don’t have the write one (‘prejudice’ is too strong and too negative). I’d like to use ‘bias’ for something that may even be ‘outside’ of the person – as in not a thing that is of them and operates seperate from them but is nonetheless present in their work (e.g. the book cover thing I did ended up with a bias against women artists which arose out of a set of rules that I made up that themselves had nothing about gender in them.)

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      1. Having brooded over this a bit, I’m not sure there is a better term than ‘bias’, which can be (and frequently is) supplemented by the use of modifiers, e.g,, ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘systemic bias’. That second one, I think, would be a reasonable descriptor of what you were trying to get at in your book cover example.

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    2. In Australia there were a pair of movie reviewers known as Margaret & David who were very entertaining and well informed. They didn’t care much for blockbuster movies or genre movies but they were still good reviewers – the genre movies they gave better reviews to were generally also genre movies that I enjoyed even if they didn’t necessarily give those films great reviews. They gave useful judgements even when I didn’t agree with their judgements.

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      1. I would define the perfect reviewer as someone who can tell you whether you are likely to enjoy something independent of whether they liked it. That of course is a pretty high bar to aim for; in practice, it’s hard to do better than finding someone whose taste is similar to yours, at least a large fraction of the time. That can be a tricky thing; for example, Paul Di Filippo writes insanely knowledgeable reviews; he seems to have read just about everybody, and is constantly pointing out connections between the book he’s discussing and the work of other writers. But I don’t find his reviews useful, because I just can’t figure out his taste: he’s written enthusiastically about stuff I thought was brilliant, and equally enthusiastic reviews of fiction I thought was junk.

        It also requires a reviewer who is self-aware enough to know their own biases. Somewhere I think C.S. Lewis said, “You cannot review what you hate.” That qualifier is a bit extreme – it doesn’t have to reach the level of hatred. Boredom is more than sufficient. I don’t really think you can honestly review what doesn’t even remotely interest you. I would be a terrible reviewer for epic fantasy or, for that matter, slapstick comedy.

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      2. PhilRM: I would define the perfect reviewer as someone who can tell you whether you are likely to enjoy something independent of whether they liked it.

        That is why, in my mini-reviews on File 770, if I didn’t like a book, I usually at least try to include aspects which other people who are not me might find appealing, frex, lots of detailed sex scenes, lots of extended fight or battle scenes, *cough*interminable counts of missiles launched and hits scored*cough*, etc.

        Also, can someone please explain the joke about Where Eagles Dare to me?

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      3. JJ: Well, apparently it wasn’t much of a joke 😦 but: in the dream within a dream within a dream (possibly with one more dream) sequence in Inception, there’s the Tom Hardy-led snowy assault scene that struck me as a straight-up tribute to the film version of Where Eagles Dare (not quite as good as the book, but far and away the best Alastair MacLean movie adaptation).

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  2. If you read through some of the tweet threads on the topic that spring up about once a month, you’ll see that authors complaining about negative reviews use “objectivity” to mean that the reviewer said things like “This story is dull, and the characters are cardboard” rather than saying “I thought this story was dull, and the characters seemed cardboard to me.” Now the truth is that their real complaint is that the reviews said anything negative at all; they would never be satisfied merely by a reviewer adding weasel words to negative reviews. But no reviewer worth reading is ever going to do it, so it gives them a criticism they can use forever.

    My favorite faux criticism was to the effect that “nothing a reviewer does is more offensive than when they try to interpret what a writer’s story means.” The same person, just days later, criticized Rocket Stack Rank for looking only at the surface and ignoring the meaning of a different story.

    The only constant is that they attack reviewers for negative reviews. Actually, they attack reviewers for including any negative words at all (even if the overall review is overwhelmingly positive), and they even attack if reviews were positive in the wrong way. (E.g. being excited about the cool story but missing the social message.) The rest is just sophistry.

    And they always make it personal. (But I guess they never claimed objectivity was a virtue.) 🙂

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    1. There are some things that can be taken as read as you point out. Given the context of a statement it is not necessary to repeatedly assert that something is an opinion when contextually it is clearly an opinion. Reviews should be read as opinions.

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    2. I was surprised to learn from the recent discussion that some reviewers get complaints for not being critical enough — apparently some reviewers are too positive for some people?

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      1. I agree that’s a bit weird. Of course what I really like here is that we are Inception-like getting into theories of how reviews should be reviewed. That feels like a level of abstraction that suits me 🙂

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  3. Objectively, reviews exist when people do them, yes. And all the reviews are completely subjective in content. Written fiction is a hundred percent subjective. Reactions and analysis of written fiction are always and forever completely subjective. That is the experience of fiction — the reaction is personal and subjective and based on the particular person’s experience of the piece. There is no such thing, factually and objectively, as “quality” in fiction or “good” fiction writing or “bad” fiction writing or “publishable” and “unpublishable,” etc. These are all subjective, opinionated expressions of what we feel about artistic creations. Awards are subjective, opinionated expressions of what we feel about artistic creations as a collective cultural conversation about what we each personally find valuable, meaningful, beautiful, etc., and how we find it so.

    But that means that reviews are not authoritative and definitive about the fiction or other creation that they are reviewing. Which does not fit well with many people who like things to be authoritative, including some reviewers. And fiction authors fear that people will subjectively imbue reviewers with definitive authority, (not a baseless fear,) because no matter how much you try to explain to fiction authors (and many of their fans) that negative reviews have very little impact on sales, they’re nervous about it and some of them get down-right ridiculous about it. But fiction readers tend to prefer, when presented with a negative recommendation even by a reviewer who they trust to match their own tastes, to check out the work for themselves to see if they subjectively agree with the reviewer or not. (And thus negative reviews can actually help generate name awareness of a fiction work that leads to more people checking it out, not less.)

    Positive reviews are either discounted by readers because they don’t particularly think the reviewer matches their own subjective tastes, or are accepted as a recommendation by a reviewer who they do think matches their tastes or may match it and thus is viewed as word of mouth. Both reactions by readers of positive reviews build name awareness of the work with potential readers who may then discuss it, spreading further name awareness, which is helpful to authors. So even if a reader doesn’t particularly value a positive review, it still builds name recognition. If they do value the positive review, it helps encourage them to buy and/or try the work, and if they read the work and have a similar reaction to the reviewer, those readers spread word of mouth in recs to others or in general discussion, which is the number one way readers pick reading choices. The more positive reviews a work receives — building name awareness of the work — the more negative reviews the work will also receive. As others have frequently said, reviews aren’t written for authors and promotional purposes, though reviews can help with promotion as a side effect.

    A lot of fiction reviewers don’t bother with doing negative reviews of things they didn’t like because they see it as largely a waste of their time. They concentrate on positive reviews, including positive reviews that have critical aspects, to alert others to works they think subjectively might be worth others’ time, that others might enjoy as they did. And since most fiction readers who bother to look at reviews are seldom interested in nor listen to negative reviews of fiction works, it’s a fairly logical decision to concentrate on what more of them are likely to be interested in — recommendations with analysis of why the reviewer subjectively found the work to be valuable. There are some readers, though, who are more interested in critical commentary so they do want to read negative reviews, and some reviewers who are interested in that kind of analysis, especially sometimes of very popular, widely known works. The authors’ job is to put out creative works and then largely stay out of the way as people subjectively dissect them.

    But you get a lot of people who in one capacity or another really think that they should be in charge of other people’s personal, subjective experiences of fiction works. That never goes well.

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    1. On Amazon, positive reviews are a dime a dozen (sometimes literally). So there, I always start with the one-star, which tend to point out things I’m concerned with. Such as: can the author spell, punctuate, and get subject-verb agreement correct at least 90% of the time? If they can’t do that, I’m not interested. I also like to know if the characterization is consistent, the plot makes sense (particularly in mysteries, where I don’t like the solution to come out of the blue or be obvious on page one), etc. Content notes are good too.

      Authors who whine about “bad” reviews ensure I’ll never read anything of theirs.

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  4. Fiction authors make creative use of punctuation and sentence structure, particularly sentence fragments. So again, desires about those issues are subjective style preferences. Whether characterizations are consistent is subjective, whether a plot makes sense or not is subjective, etc. People reviewing books get the plots wrong all the time. They skip details or misunderstand them. They have biases that make characters “unbelievable” to them and so forth. So if the reviews you read are by those whose taste is similar to yours, then they might be useful to you. But that requires readers to stick with one reviewer over many reviews and see if the reviewer has a high rate of correlation with their own tastes. Most readers don’t do that. Most readers don’t read reviews of works at all. And the majority of people who read reviews do so to find out about books’ existence rather than having much interest in what subjective judgement the reviewer has of the work (they use reviews as a news source essentially.)

    That doesn’t mean that fiction reviews have no cultural value, but their value is subjective to those reading the reviews. So for some people they are really helpful, some people find only positive or negative reviews helpful and a large number of them find reviews of no use at all. And then there are the millions who do not know that fiction reviews exist.

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    1. Kat Goodwin: Fiction authors make creative use of punctuation and sentence structure, particularly sentence fragments. So again, desires about those issues are subjective style preferences.

      Oh gods. Station Eleven</em. Sentence fragments. Don't even get me started.

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      1. There’s a visible difference between creative use and “genuinely does not know the rules of grammar”. Even stories that consciously wield a dialect often considered ungrammatical, or written to be read as by someone uneducated, generally demonstrate their facility at storytelling in having excellent pacing, interesting turns of phrase, and effective use of other aspects of storytelling. (Think of Flowers for Algernon’s opening and closing diary entries.)

        But at this point, when I’m talking about “Does not know the rules of grammar”, I’m talking about what I’d consider the bottom end of the slush pile, or the absolute abyss of the self-published communities: “Eye of Argon”, not “published by a major publisher but IMO can’t write their way out of a paper bag and oh god the typoes”.

        (For subjectivity — consider that there are different standards for whether I should have put the punctuation inside the quotation marks – some people say always, some people say that when one is using a quotation within a sentence, as I did, it goes outside, even though it goes inside when writing dialogue. Also, there is some question as to the spelling of dialogue, and many other words I tend to favour.)

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      2. lenorarose: Also, there is some question as to the spelling of dialogue, and many other words I tend to favour. That’s going to colour my view of everything you write.

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      3. What lenora said. I just read “Space Opera” by Valente, and there are sentences in that which are about 75 words long. No exaggeration. But they’re great sentences. And the differing styles through “Flowers For Algernon” are much of the point.

        But. I’m talking not dialogue or first-person stuff, but third-person objective writing that wasn’t even spell-checked, much less proof-read. “Teh”, anyone? Cases of “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” — where they use a word that sounds almost right, but isn’t. (Formally vs. formerly.) Random inconsistent punctuation. A character’s name being different on page 16 than page 14, flipping back and forth. Typos on every single page.

        That’s not stylistic differences, that’s incompetence. I’m not putting up with that.

        It’s all-too-common in self-pub, and also pops up to a disturbing degree in Baen. They don’t win Best Editor b/c they don’t Edit. If you look at an anthology, you see wildly and widely (heh) differing standards of spelling, grammar, etc. Which leads me to believe that they’re printing things straight off the .doc file from the authors. Thus authors who are meticulous about proof-reading and know their grammar have stories without such problems (maybe an occasional typo); others, not so much.

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    2. Although a lot of stuff is subjective, basic writing errors really are not. For me, that would be the things that cause a story to get a one-star review. Those (and only those) are arguably objective. (For the most part, at least.)

      But not many published stories fall into that category. Maybe 4% or so.

      At two stars (no basic errors, but story fails suspension of disbelief to the point where it’s unpleasant to read), it’s definitely based on what sort of things I find hard to believe. (E.g. emotional AIs.) I try to pay close attention when another reviewer recommends something I gave two stars to decide if I’m being unreasonable, and I’ve changed a few here and there, but this (and all higher rankings) definitely have a reviewer-dependent element to them.

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  5. “Those (and only those) are arguably objective.”

    Nope, grammar is not objective, nor are grammar “rules.” Grammar sets vary widely by location and are collectively agreed common usages that continually change (see Oxford comma.) And for fiction writers, grammar is irrelevant. ALL novels contain lots of sentence fragments because novels are basically long ass sound poems — rhythm and sound are important; expository nf essay standards are not unless the author wants them to be. Fiction writers don’t have to be educated and have the conventions of a particular grammar set memorized, nor do they have to be native speakers of the language. If they can speak the language, whatever dialect, they can create a written work that can be creative, communicative, poetic and connect with some people. They can do a fiction story in text abbreviations, pig latin or whatever. And they have. And they’ve often done so in the face of an imperialistic/colonial — and subjective — biases that they must follow the guidelines of some particular set of grammar, rather than in the melange of fractured English that the world has put to creative use and exists whether people think it should or not.

    Typos — actual accidental errors — do show up and they can be distracting — to some readers. Others don’t notice them or wave them away, so again, the tolerance for typos is personal and subjective. Typos generate in e-books mostly through formatting glitches that can make them hard to catch even with multiple go-throughs, but they are also frequent in print as errata, so a bevy of typos seldom says much about the author, even if it’s self-published. But some readers do not SUBJECTIVELY like certain grammar usages, or finding typos or any number of other personal preferences that don’t bother other readers.

    If grammar, typos, etc. are a subjective criteria that is important to you, if it distracts you from a narrative and disengages you from a story, then that’s a preference that you’ll likely mention in a review or word of mouth. But that’s your preferences and they aren’t objective. Grammar is totally not objective — it is very tied into and comes from cultural biases and usages and changes according to them too. As Camestros is noting — objective and factual do not mean “right,” even though many people try to use the word objective that way. What we think is “right” in artistic endeavors is entirely subjective and based on our personal biases, and those can greatly change as the cultures we live in do.

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    1. Oh gosh – I think the nature of grammar as a thing is too big for me to take on. I think there are aspects of it that are beyond what I’d call intersubjective but yes, there’s a lot of layers there including people’s attempts to make some aspects of grammar socially normative. Deeper aspects of grammar though are things that we tend not to be consciously aware of.

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    2. While I’m fine with or without an Oxford comma, sentence fragments, run-on sentences*, or with differences in US/Commonwealth/other spelling and phrasing, someone who has multiple typos on every page, doesn’t run spell-check of any sort (“teh”), or often uses a word that’s the complete opposite of what the sentence means in context, can’t keep the name/age/gender of their own characters straight (not for stylistic effect) — that’s not opinion, or a variety/dialect of the language. It’s simply not caring enough to bother doing the minimum to make your work good, so why should anyone else? Why make a reader struggle to understand you?

      I’m perfectly capable of understanding everything from super-plummy Oxbridge to txt spk to AAVE to the many people from India I run into often to instruction manuals originally written in Mandarin and auto-translated. But laziness and sloppiness, I can’t abide. This doesn’t even cover the people who don’t believe in line feeds, paragraphs, occasional capital letters, or even writing left-to-right in English. (!)

      Obviously you don’t spend a lot of time on the free to 99c self-published works, where this is endemic. It’s NOT the conversion problems that cause these, it’s writers who don’t give a damn. And their 5-star friends, relations, and purchased reviews who rave about how PERFECTLY the book is written with NO TYPOS plus grammar that your English teacher would cheer for. Uh, no. They also tend to get shirty if you suggest anything at all could be improved about the book and say NO U R TEH STUPID ONE! Not exaggerating here, either.

      *like this one!

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    3. I do like things that intentionally and consistently differ from “standard” grammar. And I don’t like things that read like a very rough first draft. But, as Kat said, that’s still a subjective opinion.

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  6. “Why make a reader struggle to understand you?”

    How much a reader “struggles” to understand a text and how much a reader understands of a text are personal, subjective, and subject to arguments among people about what that “understanding” means. Art is an experience, reaction and personal analysis, so troubles you have with a particular text are subjective as they are your experience. They may be things that an author subjectively may or may not find useful, but they’re still subjective and based on your experience and preferences. For instance, your preference to read 99 cent self-published novels is a subjective preferences which many others share and many others do not. Your preference that those authors write in a way you find helpful is a subjective preference, not an objective requirement as one can see by the factual existence of those novels with which you have a problem. Your analysis that the things you don’t like are the authors being “lazy” as opposed to other reasons it may be there is your subjective analysis, and so on.

    People like to have their analysis be seen as objective, by which they mean “right” and “correct” and thus, authoritative and should be followed by all. But analysis of an artistic expression is always subjective. Even if lots and lots of other people share your subjective preference.

    Take this little meme: https://www.instagram.com/p/BhuIv1aBo9e/?hl=en&taken-by=obviousplant

    You can read this text and understand it. It is a creation of art that plays with cognition — understanding. It’s subjective and our reactions to it, our experience of it is subjective. That it is exists, that someone put it together, is factual and objective.

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