Today, we set out to speak objectively. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A peculiar mischief is
abroad in the land of science and engineering. It
is a mischief born from the noblest of intentions.
For decades it has spread like winter flu, far
beyond the technical journals that gave it birth.
The intention is a craving to stand like
blindfolded lady justice -- pure, objective, and
To do this, we write about our work without ever
speaking in the first person. We try to let fact
speak for itself. Instead of saying, "I solved the
equation and got y = log x," we write "The solution
of the equation is y = log x." We turn our actions
into facts that are untouched by human hands.
We certainly should try to do that. But my own
person is not so easily erased. I think another
engineer -- I'll call him Hoople -- is wrong. I'm
not objective about Hoople at all, but I must
appear to be. So I write, "It is believed that
Hoople is incorrect." That's a cheap shot. I
express my thoughts without taking responsibility
for them. I seem to be reporting general
disapproval of Hoople. In the unholy name of
objectivity, I make it sound as though the whole
profession thinks he's a fool.
That sort of thing spreads. Now radio and TV
journalists are doing it. I cringe every time I
hear, "It is expected that Congress will pass the
bill." Who expects that! -- the announcer, the
democrats, a high official? Maybe it's the soy
So instead of objectivity, we get obfuscation. If
our work really occurred in objective isolation, we
could write about it that way. But people are
present. They think and they act. If we don't
represent human intervention accurately, we're
dishonest. Then we really lose objectivity.
The things we make tell the world what we are. Real
objectivity means admitting our actions and our
thoughts as long as they're part the story.
Instead, the language of technology and commerce is
filled with things like this:
A new reactor is described. Its features are
thought to be superior to those of the Hoople
I haven't eliminated my id here. I've
hidden it in a box, and there it's grown large. If I
really spoke objectively, I'd say,
I've tried to improve Hoople's reactor. I'll
describe my design. Then you can judge it.
These are much more than questions of
style. They're matters of honesty and directness. "If
you're ashamed of it, don't do it," the old saying
goes. In practice, that means doing things we can
talk about directly and using language that admits
what we've done. When we speak in language that's
clean and translucent, then objectivity takes care of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds