It was suggested to me to use the term "fair witness" instead of "whistle blower" (when proposing to design a university course about such topic, and potentially an academic study to compare the effectiveness of various means of exposing students to such concepts before they graduate and take on professional responsibilities), and I am wondering if and how widespread and accepted is the use of such an alternate term (in real life in general, but more particularly in academia).


The term Fair Witness was introduced by Heinlein in their novel Stranger in a Strange Land, as a profession invented for the novel, and is stated (by Wikipedia) to have been cited in (academic?) texts related to environmentalism, psychology, technology, digital signatures, science, and leadership.

I think that the suggestion was made in support of the idea that reporting on abusive actions should not be left to extreme cases where one judges actions to be abusive and calls to blow a metaphorical whistle to stop everything, but rather to attempt to "observe events and report exactly what is seen and heard, making no extrapolations or assumptions".

I like the idea that whichever term used should be independent of the ideology or the political orientation of the people reporting and the people being reported about, but I thought that the term "whistle blower" already had such an "independence" connotation.

  • 10
    Clearly these are not equivalent terms, since "whistle blower" implies that the person reported, of their own volition, an action they consider to be harmful, while the term "fair witness" (disregarding the fact that only a negligible number of people will be familiar with it in the sense that you wish to use it) carries no such implication. I understand that you are asking whether or not these are accepted as equivalent terms, but probably you should clarify what actually makes you think that they might be equivalent in the first place.
    – Adam Přenosil
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 14:36
  • 10
    "how widespread" I’ve never heard it, neither as an academic nor otherwise. It’s certainly not en par with whistle blowing. Frankly, it is telling that you only give a (background?) source for one of the terms. Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 14:38
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    No, no it isn’t at all. It is not a widespread term at all, nor legally meaningful in the way ‘whistleblower’ is.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 15:06
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    It's been a long time since I read "Stranger in a Strange Land", but my recollection is that being a Fair Witness was an essentially passive and reactive role. A Fair Witness would answer questions as accurately as possible, but would not draw inferences or volunteer explanation. In constrast, whistle-blowing is fundamentally active.
    – user888379
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 16:33
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    Traditional whistleblowers don't always judge whatever they are reporting to be actually wrong; what prompts them to blow the whistle may be merely their conviction that there are sufficient grounds to suspect that it is wrong, with the judgement about its actual wrongness being left to the regulatory bodies, courts, and similar authorities.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 22:23

4 Answers 4


A whistleblower is someone who sees something being done in private that is bad, wrong, or illegal (subjective judgement), and decides there is a moral imperative to reveal it to the greater world.

Heinlein's Fair Witness is a person professionally trained and certified to be an objective observer. Their job is to be a witness to events -- essentially "human video cameras" -- this is what I saw. They explicitly do not pass subjective judgement. They are also, notably, specifically trained to not fall into various common cognitive traps by which observation can fool you -- to assume nothing, and recall only what they actually directly observed.


Because "whistleblower" and "Fair Witness" represent related but qualitatively different concepts, you need to decide what you actually want to the course to cover. If you want to describe current and historical issues in law, ethics, politics etc. of whistleblowing, then you should use that term. (The course described in the linked question is clearly about "whistleblowing".) If you want to design a broader course that includes whistleblowing as a topic but tries to expand the scope to include general concepts of reporting on problems in industry (e.g. as an expert witness in a trial), you could use "Fair Witness".

If you do use "Fair Witness" in your description you should definitely include a capsule definition in your course description; based on the comments and my own experience (as a science-fiction-reading academic), I would say that the term is not generally known in academia — a handful of Wikipedia references notwithstanding.

Google n-grams thinks "Fair Witness" isn't common (I haven't made any effort to disambiguate the Heinlein sense from general usage; you can see that it gets slightly popular around 1840). I assume that a Google Scholar search would give similar results.

google n-grams plot of "whistleblower" vs. "fair witness"; the former is much more common, starting to increase in the 1970s and peaking in the 2000s, while "fair witness" is barely visible as a line along the bottom axis


I would suggest that the usage of Fair Witness to refer to whistleblowers would need clarification because individual scholars have already applied the concept in other contexts. For instance:

Ross Atkinson, in "Transversality and the Role of the Library as Fair Witness" (*The Library Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 2, April 2005), argues that the library should serve as a third party between scholar and reader to ensure that research remains accessible and relevant. In other words, the library would serve as a "Fair Witness" to the long-term publication of knowledge, not to ethics cases.

Julie Still, in "Librarian as Fair Witness: A Comparison of Heinlein's Futuristic Occupation and Today's Evolving Information Professional" (LIBRES, vol 21, no. 1, March 2011), extends Atkinson's initial gesture and interprets the role of the Fair Witness in Heinlein alongside the American Library Association's Code of Ethics, focusing especially on ensuring a lack of bias. Still's overall argument is that librarians can in time become more like Fair Witnesses or information brokers, circulating in organizations doing their work rather than being centralized in a library.

Dirk Dumon, in "Choreography Coaching in the Field of Amateur Dance in the Netherlands" (Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader, ed. Jo Butterworth and Liesbeth Wilschut, 2009), approaches fair witness from the context of coaching, citing Peter Dalmeijer: "Fair witness is a position we can take with respect to others and ourselves or, in other words, taking the position of an impartial (Dalmeijer 2003: 29)." In context, Dumon is describing how a coach sees elements that are overlooked but important.

It may be that Fair Witness is adaptable to your case as well. However, I would expect that you would need to define the usage specific to your course and context, since otherwise the concept is generalizable to areas unrelated to your own, like libraries and coaching.

  • While a few authors may analogise whatever they are writing about to the fictional Fair Witnesses, that doesn't make Fair Witness a standard, established, technical term, even in their fields (i.e. a term that would be readily understood outside an article in which the analogy is explicitly explained).
    – jsw29
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 16:46

Questions about the technical terminology of a particular field (in this case, engineering ethics) are better addressed to the experts in that field than to the people with general interest in the language, as are typical contributors to this site. Now, the OP is presumably an expert in the field in which he plans to teach a university-level course and thus familiar with the scholarly literature in that field. If he hasn't seen the term regularly used in the literature, that answers the question; nothing that anybody could say on this site can possibly cancel out the crucial significance of that fact. It should be noted that the question implies that the OP himself hasn't seen the term used in the literature at all: the only connection that he was able to find between the novel and the academic literature is that Wikipedia's article on the novel cites a few sources that refer to the novel's use of the term. If actual use of the term had been established in the relevant scholarly literature, the OP would have encountered it directly in his own research.

The OP's colleague's insistence that the term fair witness be used thus amounts to the insistence that a new term be introduced into this field. A course proposal is not a good place for trying to change the established terminology of an academic field. A course proposal is supposed to be a compact document that will enable those who read it to clearly see the merits of the proposed course. If one needs to devote several paragraphs in the proposal to explaining the sense in which one is using some term, and why one is using it instead of the better known one, that will only distract the readers from concentrating on the proposal itself. It will thus interfere with one's aim in writing the proposal, regardless of the strength of any reasons that may be offered for preferring the new term. Other contributors to this page have already pointed out that these reasons are not in fact strong, but even if they were, a course proposal would not be a good place to present them.

  • How many sentences/paragraphs would be needed to justify its use and explain its definition? It's for an academic audience, they should be familiar with the term. I was not but then again I am not in academia. EDIT: Reading the comments, suggests that is relatively unknown in many academic circles.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 17:18
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    @Mari-LouA, you can see in the question itself, how many sentences the OP needed to explain these matters. The fact that the OP says that Wikipedia states that the novel's use of the term has been 'cited in (academic?) texts' indicates that even the OP hasn't himself seen the term used in the intended sense in the academic literature in the wild. If even the OP (who is presumably an expert on the topic as he intends to teach a course on it) hasn't seen it so used, what reason is there to think that the people who will be deciding about the proposal have?
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 22:01

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