Striving For Objectivity in AskMeFi February 15, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

Speaking of objectivity... how do we do it?

I was looking at this. I'm not trying to single it out, but it triggered something that's been nagging at me for a while now.

A ton of questions on AskMeFi seem to be about relationships, health issues, etc.

How can the community hope to address them in any helpful way? To some extent, we have to assume that the poster is being honest and describing the situation as best they can. But we're still seeing the situation through all of the filters of the posters. Can we really expect to do anything more than confirm their biases, and tell them what they hope to hear? Although a well phrased question could theoretically provide a useful sanity check, it's also easy to see how a poorly framed question could have a negative consequences to the poster. This goes doubly for posters that are worried, upset, or otherwise very engaged in a situation.

Personal friends might understand a poster's context, and be able to tell them when they're being irrational or making a mistake. But can strangers have any hope of judging these things from a distance?

This is not rhetorical, I'd honestly be interested in hearing thoughts about this, and how to maximize the value of the service and minimize the damage.
posted by Stagger Lee to Etiquette/Policy at 11:30 AM (20 comments total)

Sometimes it is useful to attempt to be objective. Other times it's your subjectivity that makes your advice valuable.

Some people are good at being able to tell which is called for in a given question. Others are not so good at it.
posted by hermitosis at 11:32 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Answer questions for which you think you have a good answer. Ignore everything else.
posted by Babblesort at 11:32 AM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

But can strangers have any hope of judging these things from a distance?

Distance is EXACTLY what most people need with relationship problems. Have you ever told a friend his new girlfriend is horrible and that he should call the wedding off? I haven't, even if I felt that way, but I wouldn't think twice telling a stranger that presented a story of someone being horrible and an impending wedding that they should call it off.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:33 AM on February 15, 2011 [14 favorites]

That's pretty much true for the human experience at large, though, isn't it?

The only honest answer being, we all muddle through as best we can with the information we have at hand.
posted by ErikaB at 11:34 AM on February 15, 2011

I don't think that these questions - about emotional situations, in particular -really lend themselves to "obejectivity." All we can really do is answer those questions in good faith to the best of our ability with the information presented to us. The quality of the answers will depend on the completeness and accuracy of the information the asker presents.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:35 AM on February 15, 2011

I don't think objectivity is the desireable end here. What you'd hope is that people can be the odd combination of subjective and dispassionate enough so that they can give you perspectives you may not have considered. I mean obviously there are some questions where there's a right answer and you just hope someone has it, but a lot of times getting a bunch of differing but hopefully kind perspectives can help nudge you in the right direction especially if you were maybe leaning in the other direction.

So in the example you chose, it's clear that there's some excited energy in that person's therapy sessions and I think it's good that a bunch of people are pointing out that what might feel good and exciting could also spell trouble for X, Y or Z reasons. The person can, at the end of it, do what they want.

Where things go wrong is where the person is clearly set on a path, the commenters think that path is a bad idea, and there's a lot of heat and very little light generated as people get exasperated with each other. It really wasn't until coming to AskMe and spending a lot of time observing and interacting with it that I could place my finger on exactly how and why people ask questions that aren't the ones that solve the problem that they really have. We see it a lot in the library but it's more difficult to quantify and I'll usually walk away either being like "Well I screwed that up" or "That person is crazy" but really there's a whole level of awareness as both an asker and an answerer that gets refined over time [and again, only if it's something you want to do] where you have to get an objective view of yourself which, while technically impossible, can be approximated by getting a lot of disparate but similar views from other people.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:45 AM on February 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

"Have you ever told a friend his new girlfriend is horrible and that he should call the wedding off?"

Yep. Then I officiated the wedding anyway, because he was my brother and I had to respect his choice.

They did later divorce, and I have managed to avoid telling him even once that I was totally right and that Anne Marie was a lunatic and that he should never even think of dating a Republican again.

So I have to say it here.
posted by klangklangston at 11:46 AM on February 15, 2011 [13 favorites]

What I see as the great really wonderful superfantastical awesomest property of askme is not that it answers questions, but rather that it provides several different answers, and often many of them are contradictory. On relationshippy-type stuff, it is about providing different points of view, and showing how the presentation of the same situation can be interpreted in many different ways. (As is happening in the question you linked to, where different interpretations are being presented along with different plans of action; some of them are probably new to the OP.)

I'm saying that the sum of the answers is more important than a particular answer in particular.

What I do worry about on askme is how often answers are presented as so cut-and-dried. Maybe this is part of what Stagger Lee is worried about? In many questions, I feel that wrapping up a pretty solution and sending it back to the asker with a bow on it is simplifying the manyfold complexities of life. (And I warned a friend about this when I recommended they look at Askme during their break-up.)
posted by squishles at 11:47 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

One of the major benefits that AskMe can bring to relationship questions is the fact that a few other members will have been in analogous situations already. That should make them better able to cut through bias in the original question. And the sheer variety of experiences here gives us a range of perspectives on different situations. So another danger would be that the questioner can cherry-pick the answers they want to hear from the multitude, and ignore the ones they don't. But that's up to the questioner. There's nothing we can do about that without shutting down AskMe.

There are problems inherent in asking a bunch of random Internet strangers a question, and we've lost at least one member (ikkyu2, who I considered a really beneficial member of the MeFi community) over his vehement objections to misinformation being posted on AskMe. But it seems to me that bad answers to relationship questions are relatively benign compared to, say, health questions.
posted by adamrice at 11:50 AM on February 15, 2011

Maybe this is part of what Stagger Lee is worried about?

I think that there's a tendency to come and say something like "Wow my girlfriend does all of these annoying things, aren't they annoying?" And we say "They sure are!" We then respond to that information, and give what seem to be totally reasonable answers.

Somebody more engaged in the situation might be able to say something like "Wow yeah that is annoying, but you've had six failed marriages, are you sure you're not sabotaging them?" Or WHATEVER.

We lack that insider perspective that poster can't know to include. (Forgive the bad example) It leads itself to confirmation bias, for much the same reason that googling symptoms to illnesses can be a terrible and harrowing affair.

...but I do also agree with some of the people that have posted their thoughts in this thread.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:56 AM on February 15, 2011

Having posed a couple of anonymous Personal Relationship questions, I will tell you that, regardless of my phrasing, both times I did this I got a pretty stark wake up call. I also got lots of great advice, and very little "just telling you what you want to hear" platitudes.

In fact, I would say that asking personal friends this stuff in real life is more likely to result in them only seeing things via my side of the story. Both times I posed anonymous AskMes, I had consulted friends already and was concerned about the amount of "You Go Girl" moral support and whether that was clouding the advice they were giving me.
posted by Sara C. at 12:11 PM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't mean to crawl into that dire pit between trite and melodrama when I say this, but isn't this really just yet another example of humanity's problem with its persistent condition? We have to believe what others say and we have to hold up our biases as examples of our experiences, yet at the same time eschew them for the sake of credibility through perceived objectivity. It's an impossible dance, and on crutches no less. But without trying, how will we ever not perceive each other as strangers forever?

I mean, really, how can we ever understand?

(I'm's just that a stranger has been trying to help me understand MySQL for two weeks now and I've listened to her for 231 pages and still don't get it and probably never will. I'm losing hope. I don't even believe that somebody who knows me best could help me now. This may or may not be informing my take on your query about objectivity and bias.)
posted by iamkimiam at 1:06 PM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Although a well phrased question could theoretically provide a useful sanity check, it's also easy to see how a poorly framed question could have a negative consequences to the poster.

I have seen many instances in which people responded to an AskMe with, "I know you asked question X, but it sounds the question you really should be asking yourself is Y," and the poster responded, "You're right, I hadn't thought about it that way!" So, yes, it can be helpful.

AskMeFi relationship questions are not a science the way that techie and "what's this book?" questions are. Sometimes there is no right answer. It's always the poster's responsibility to take the answers with as much salt as he or she desires.
posted by Tin Man at 1:07 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, what Sara C. said.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:08 PM on February 15, 2011

In every relationshipfilter post there are two questions being asked, an explicit one (the asker spells it out) and an implicit one (you only see it if you read between the lines). Yes, everyone is biased to some degree. But you can read the bias and extrapolate what's really going on. Sometimes the way someone frames a question is the most revealing part about his/her predicament. And generally, I think MeFites are savvy enough to spot the disease when the asker can only describe the symptoms. One of the reasons I like AskMe so much.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:34 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a job for Watson.
posted by Eideteker at 2:06 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

it's also easy to see how a poorly framed question could have a negative consequences to the poster.

It seems par for the course for people replying to these kind of questions to raise other questions. I also see a fair bit of reinterpretation of OP's facts, usually in insightful ways. I've also see quite a few "you really need to talk to a lawyer | doctor | therapist" responses where online objectivity seems especially problematic.

Then again, an awful lot of wider social and political issues and ills are themselves the result of... lousy framing.
posted by Hylas at 3:29 PM on February 15, 2011

I think one of the things AskMe is really good at is trying to see around the subjectivity of the asker. I mean, sometimes, yes, it is a little bit "you go girl" - or the opposite, really. The DTMFA chorus gets a bit loud at times. But I think that respondants are generally good about asking clarifying questions or suggesting alternate interpretations of events.

Basically, I agree with Tin Man above, even if he doesn't have a heart and may, therefore, not be the best person to ask in matters of said heart.
posted by maryr at 7:47 PM on February 15, 2011

With relationship issues, the answer is always (1) talk to your SO, (2) DTMFA, or (3) therapy. Always.

Anyway, your point about the poster's filters -- I've seen plenty of questions where it seems too heavily slanted and that point gets hammered home in the responses.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:19 PM on February 15, 2011

"the sum of the answers is more important than a particular answer in particular"

I think this is a key point for any question that is more complex than "what's this book/movie/song/device."

And for me anyway, it's not just a voting mechanism, either. (87% of mefites say I should cut my hair in a stacked bob!)

Seeing the variation of hive mind responses means understanding the problem space a little better so as to make my own best decision.

I have not posted any relationship questions, though.
posted by epersonae at 9:52 AM on February 16, 2011

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