In a Vacuum

You hear it a lot in debates, forum discussions, and all out flame wars.

The people who say it do so smugly, as if they have just made a point (which they never do).

It is, overall, terrible advice.

And it always follows the following format, “X does not exist in a vacuum.”

An Excuse, not an Argument

Basically, when discussing any subject, it is natural to demand that the discussion remain on point and focus only on the matter at hand. If, for example, the topic is the actions of a particular person, it is rational to require that judgment only be passed on that one action and that one person.

To which the irrational arguer will reply, “He does not exist in a vacuum.” And they say this because they don’t want to be objective. They want you to be convinced by evidences of different crimes in different places, and sometimes committed by different people, rather than examine the current subject with an unbiased eye.

Once the arguer resorts to this excuse, he is no longer attacking your viewpoint—he is attacking objectivity itself.

Vacuums in the Wild

Because when it comes to making important judgments, putting the subject in a vacuum is key.

Just ask any scientist. When building an experiment—any experiment—the first step is always Isolation. This often requires the building of closed systems, free from outside interference, where every variable can be tested one at a time. In experiments where closed systems cannot be built, the scientist must set to work eliminating variables by other means, until the only measurable quantity left is a single variable, considered on its own, in a metaphorical vacuum.

And science is by no means the only field where this is a requirement. The other obvious example is law.

Most people agree that everyone should be equal before the law, and that no bias or preference ought to be allowed therein. Whenever this is not the case, there has been a miscarriage of justice.

So how is such impartiality achieved? Why, by putting the subject in a vacuum, of course. Judges are required to pass judgment only on the current defendant, and only on the current crime. If a suspected bank robber, for example, once served a sentence for manslaughter years before, the previous case should have no bearing on the current judgment. Similarly, if a suspect has friends or family who are known criminals, the judge cannot consider this as evidence that the suspect is guilty.

Both of these professions, which concern themselves with removing confusion and uncovering facts, require that subjects exist in a vacuum, at least when under the scrutiny of judgment. To deny the subject his right to exist in a vacuum is tyranny and pseudoscience.

A Losing Proposition

When someone tells you that X does not exist in a vacuum, you may take it as a sign of desperation. They only ask you to remove the subject from the vacuum because they cannot find fault with it in there. In order to fit their narrative, it must be thrown together with known malefactors, so that they can condemn the thing with a sense of righteous arrogance.

Once they’re grasping at such flimsy straws, do not let them get away with it. Do not cede any ground to them. Instead, expose their inability to judge. Remind them that isolation of factors is how professionals make their judgments. And don’t be afraid to call them out for their rejection of objectivity.


I write this post because I see, more and more every day, a war raging—a war against objectivity. The proponents of this war demand that thinking people pick teams and swear loyalty, rather than apathetically examine the facts with a clear head and a desire for truth.

I find that people need to be reminded, occasionally, that objectivity is both possible and desirable. All it requires is the sacrifice of the ego, combined with a sincere desire to learn. And with it comes the avoidance of conflict, as well as greater understanding of any subject.

Objectivity will, of course, always win in the end, but the opposite approach will claim more than a few victims before that happens, unless we reach out to warn these people today. Any small reminder may have a far-reaching affect. And that’s all this is: a reminder.

Thanks for remembering.


[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…up for air.”]

2 thoughts on “In a Vacuum

  1. I heard a very funny joke on Big Bang Theory once. It went something like this:

    A farmer had some chickens that wouldn’t eat. He tried everything he knew, but could not get the chickens to feed. Desperate, he called the smartest person he knew, a physicist, and asked for help.

    After a few days the physicist called him back and said, “I have a solution to your problem, but it only works with perfectly spherical chickens in a vacuum.”

    Now, why is that funny? Like you said in your blog, scientists are always trying to isolate variables (in a vacuum) to infer fundamental principles of science. The problem is, in order to isolate something in a vacuum you have to burden it with assumptions. Often these assumptions are so strict as to render them completely unapplicable to the real world… like the farmer’s chickens.

    You see, the purpose of science is not to arrive at the truth. No, the truth is often too complex and subjective to be dealt with by limited mortal beings, such as ourselves. The real purpose of science is not to arrive at the truth but to model it. A model is truth confined by certain assumptions (inside a vacuum, if you will) so that we can understand it.

    But, and I say this emphatically, a model is not the truth!

    As the great statistician George Box once said, “all models are false, but some are useful.”

    So, when somebody uses the X-does-not-exist-inside-a-vacuum argument, they might be trying to move the goalposts, as you said, or maybe they are rightly saying, “Your model is too simplistic to be practical.”

    Not to be misunderstood, let me make it clear that I am a strong proponent of objectivity. But objectivity always comes at a cost. Sometimes that cost is worth paying… and sometimes it is not.

    I am also a fan of subjectivity, for it will often lead us aright, when brutal objectivity will lead us astray. And it is frequently the more beautiful of the two.

    1. I was of course referring to the subject of “Judgment”.

      When judging an object, it must be examined in a vacuum. The people who say “X does not exist in a vacuum” are the people who would, for example, condemn a man for the actions of his ancestors, or insist that a certain idea be viewed through the lens of their pet politics.

      And as far as practical application goes, when that farmer finally does get around to taking his chickens to a veterinarian, that doctor will begin his diagnostics by eliminating possibilities, in the service of isolating the actual cause. There is more than one kind of vacuum, after all.

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