Neutrality vs. Objectivity

NEUTRALITY vs. OBJECTIVITY….Congress used to have an agency called the Office of Technology Assessment, famed for producing sharp analysis of technical topics using only a tiny staff and a tiny budget. Unfortunately, science being what it is, sometimes serious research leads scientists to conclusions that conservative politicians don’t like. So Newt Gingrich killed the OTA.

Science, needless to say, marches on, and so does the need to suppress it. At NASA, climatologist James Hansen said he was recently warned of “dire consequences” if he didn’t stop suggesting that global warming was real and something ought to be done about it. Meanwhile, over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, controversy about the effect of global warming on hurricanes has been suppressed and scientists have been warned not to give interviews without prior permission. Jerry Mahlman, a former director at NOAA who retired in 2000, says that dissenting scientists are being intimidated from talking to the press and that their papers are being withheld from publication. “I know a lot of people who would love to talk to you,” he told TNR’s John Judis, “but they don’t dare. They are worried about getting fired.”

And it’s not just science that modern conservatives are trying to shut down. It’s broader than that. As Beth Daly of the Project on Government Oversight says, it’s more like a Republican “campaign against expertise,” and its latest target is the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Daly was referring to Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra’s recent attack on a pair of CRS reports about the NSA’s domestic spying program ? reports that happened to come to conclusions inconvenient to the Bush administration. Hoekstra implied that CRS’s analysis was fatally flawed simply because one of the analysts involved was formerly a Democratic staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. No Democrats allowed in the CRS!

But at least CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan defended his agency in that case. Not so in the case of Louis Fisher, a long time CRS analyst who’s a highly respected expert in separation of powers issues (“His writings are considered the gold standard,” says Robert Spitzer of the State University of New York). On January 10 Fisher gave an interview to Government Executive in which he said that the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act hasn’t been very effective ? “I get the picture that people can do really awful things inside agencies and they never pay any price at all, and that’s really scary,” he told the magazine ? and apparently this conclusion was inconvenient. On January 13 Fisher’s boss told him he needed to be more “neutral” and on January 18 Fisher shot back with a long memo defending himself. Last week, according to Roll Call, Mulhollan ordered Fisher to apologize by the close of business Friday, something Fisher has so far declined to do.

Fisher’s email to Mulhollan is worth reading for his defense of substance and logic over artificial neutrality:

The word ?neutrality? appeared to rule out coming to a conclusion in one?s writings, either inside or outside CRS. In the past, you had told me that if the evidence comes down on one side or the other, we should say so. We should not be forced to look for middle ground. Objectivity means looking at all the relevant material and presenting a report that has integrity, credibility, substance, and logic. ?Neutral? writing implies that we take no positions and reach no conclusions.

….Any analyst in CRS, when asked to respond to a request, is often in a position of doing more than being neutral. If an attorney in [the American Law Division] is asked to analyze a draft bill and determine whether it is constitutional or not, the attorney does that, and may??properly??tell the office that existing caselaw indicates that the bill, if enacted, would likely pass muster in the courts or likely be struck down as unconstitutional. The goal of the memo is not neutrality.

Newspaper reporters might well take note of this: objectivity is not neutrality. The fact that there are two sides to a story does not make both sides equally valid. Louis Fisher appears to recognize this, and the only question left is whether he’ll be fired for saying so. Stay tuned.