Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Example

Rebecca Howard's concept of patchwriting is introduced early in Susan Blum's My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009). Under the heading "Encouraging Plagiarism 'Patchwriting'", Blum quotes Howard's description of how she realised that academic norms against plagiarism were inhibiting student learning. "Patchwriting was for them—as it is for us all—a primary means of understanding difficult texts, of expanding one's lexical, stylistic, and conceptual repertoires, of finding and trying out new voices in which to speak" (Howard, quoted by Blum, p. 26-27). I'd really prefer Howard speak for herself here ("as it is for us all"?)* but the point is that she does have broad support in the community of writing instructors. "She urges a permissive rather than punitive stance with regard to student learning," Blum reports (p. 27). "Many in composition studies have now been persuaded of the rightness of her position."

Blum, too, seems to have been persuaded. In her conclusion she tells her own anecdote about a case of plagiarism. She presents it as a "hard" problem and puts a great deal of the blame on herself. Recall how profoundly Howard's experience affected her: "Fifteen years later [it's] still sitting with me. [It's] a moment I don't feel comfortable with at all" (5:00). But unlike Howard, who felt she was forced by rigid guidelines to give a student an F, Blum (informed by Howard's work) chose pedagogy over punishment. I think "permissive" is the right word, but here, again, I'd really like to hear what my readers think.

Blum discovered that a student had copied an entire paragraph verbatim without quotation marks (unfortunately she doesn't state clearly whether the source was cited or not) and the assignment was strangely alienated from itself in other ways. "Only peripherally did it even begin to mention [the assigned topic], and then not in any terms or ideas that the course had covered. There were strange phrases and odd old sources cited" (Blum, p. 174). The student offered the following explanation: "I've been working thirty hours straight and threw the paper together. I often collect quotations to use in my paper and I must have forgotten to put quotation marks around it" (p. 174-5). Blum interprets the student's explanation in terms of her theory of "the performance self" (on which more in the next post): "[The student] had copied pieces, uncredited, from other sources; she was uncertain about how to denote even those sources she did cite; and she wished only to turn something in, complete her performance, and get some sleep and then go home for Christmas" (p. 175).

What baffles me here is why this is a pedagogical conundrum. The student's work exhibits a complete lack of mastery, both of course content and study skills. She has terrible work habits, does not do careful scholarship, and this results in a text that is, not just partly plagiarised, but doesn't even really answer the assigned question. Nonetheless, Blum gives the student another chance. The violation was reported to the provost, and she would get only half the grade on the resubmitted assignment. She was given four days to rewrite it, and the result was disappointing: a light rewrite that also contained plagiarised material.

Unbelievably, Blum gave her a third chance! She assigned additional reading on avoiding plagiarism, told her to read the assignment one more time, and then to start over. "The third version was unimpressive but clearly original." Now, here's what she wants us to take away from the example:

[I]t demonstrates how hard a problem this presented. Here was a student at a highly selective university. She was a senior, planning to go to graduate school. We had already met to go over the penalties for plagiarism. And yet she did it again.

Blum now engages in some soul-searching ("I failed to convey the needed information") and then some reflections about how difficult, how time-consuming it is to deal with such cases.

And that's really my point. The reason to punish students who cheat, rather than letting them pretend they just have something to learn, is that there is no time to worry about student intention and motivation. If you don't take your studies very seriously you can make mistakes that can get you kicked out of school even if you didn't cheat very consciously. That threat is what lets the teacher get down to the business of teaching. It doesn't mean she should spend her time "policing" plagiarism; it just means that when she does run into it, it doesn't require further teaching. There's certainly nothing to suggest that exactly this student deserved all that extra care and attention from her professor. It's a simple administrative matter, or, in mild cases, a straightforward grading issue. Give the low grade, explain why, and move on.

One last thing. I hope I'm not the only one that raised an eyebrow at that "Here was a student..." bit. Are all those who get in to "a highly selective university" just destined to succeed, so that it's the university's fault if they fail? (That's not a simple rhetorical question by the way. Keep that tuition issue in mind.) But more importantly: this student wants to go to grad school?!?!? And her teacher wants to do everything she can, bending over backwards, to make that dream come true? If that student did out-compete someone for a graduate placement ... well, that's where we'd have the real travesty of justice, don't you think?

*To be fair, she sometimes cites empirical work to support this. But as far as I can tell it would let her say only "as it is for one third of us". That issue is worth a separate post.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What Am I Missing Here?

At the two-minute mark of this video, Rebecca Howard begins to tell a story about a student plagiarism case she was involved in with a second-year Chinese student. The student had cut and pasted significant passages from a source that she did not cite properly. When confronted with it, the student acknowledged the problem, said she was aware of the plagiarism policy, knew it was cheating, and did it anyway "hoping she wouldn't get caught", because she would have been unable to express the necessary ideas in her own words. Howard, apologizing (it seems to me) for the severity of the plagiarism rules (the lack of "leeway"), informed the student that she would get an F in the course, "And that was the end of that."

While the case seems cut and dried to me, Howard presents it as a very difficult conundrum. "I will never forget [it]," she says. I, however, don't understand what it was that made the case so difficult. A student who was unable to do the assignment, and therefore unable to demonstrate that she had learned the content of the course, chose to pass off someone else's demonstration of the skills under examination as her own. She was caught. And this led to a failing grade for an assignment that presumably would have gotten a perfectly respectable grade if the plagiarism had not been noticed. In that case, she would have graduated with a certified ability to do something she could not do, or understand something she could not understand. This is plagiarism in its most ordinary form—neither exceptionally brazen nor forgivably minor. And the student was punished to my mind somewhat mercifully. (I hope at least that some sort of record of the reason for the F remains in the university's records.)

It's true that universities who let students into degree programs that they don't have the basic writing skills to pass are doing those students a disservice. But its the admissions office, not the writing center, that has a problem here. There's the old adage, "Your lack of planning is not my emergency." We need to come up with something similar here. Your lack of admission standards is not my teachable moment, perhaps.

As always, I mean it when I say I'm looking for more eyes on this issue. This re-evaluation of plagiarism seems very wrongheaded to me and it puzzles me that writing instructors are leading the charge.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Patchwriting 2: Definition and Policy Proposal

As I understand it, Rebecca Moore Howard would prefer that we dropped the notion of plagiarism from our vocabularies for talking about academic writing. Her most forceful argument appears to be a 2000 piece in College English, in which she says plagiarism is an inherently sexual and sexist notion. You can get a pretty good sense of her (more moderate) views on patchwriting and plagiarism by watching the videos on her website. And here is the patchwriting section of the plagiarism policy she proposed in 1995:

Writing passages that are not copied exactly but that have nevertheless been borrowed from another source, with some changes—a practice which The Bedford Handbook for Writers calls "paraphrasing the source's language too closely". This "patchwriting" is plagiarism regardless of whether one supplies footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes that acknowledge the source. However, patchwriting is not always a form of academic dishonesty; it is not always committed by immoral writers. Often it is a form of writing that learners employ when they are unfamiliar with the words and ideas about which they are writing. In this situation, patchwriting can actually help the learner begin to understand the unfamiliar material. Yet it is a transitional writing form; it is never acceptable for final-draft academic writing, for it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source from which he or she is patchwriting. Because patchwriting can result from a student's inexperience with conventions of academic writing, instruction in quotation and source attribution and a request for subsequent revision of the paper may be an appropriate response for the instructor. But because patchwriting often results from a student's unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text, instruction in the material discussed in the source and a request for subsequent revision of the paper is even more frequently the appropriate response. Patchwriting can also be the result of a student's intent to deceive, in which case the minimum penalty is an "F" in the course and the maximum penalty, suspension from the university. (Howard 1995: 799-800)

On the plus side, it's good to see that she characterizes it as a form of plagiarism and says that it is "never acceptable in final-draft academic writing". That is, she does not suggest a lowering of the bar. But I'm uneasy about the decisive role she assigns to intention. Not only does she allow that it is "not always a form of academic dishonesty", she proposes severe penalties only in cases where the "intent to deceive" is present. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that intent is notoriously difficult to prove. The second is that if patchwriting is what Howard says it is, then it is, actually, always deceptive. Let me explain why I say that.

Howard tells us that patchwriting is a way students deal with their "unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text". Indeed, she says that "it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source". Obviously, however, it can only "demonstrate" something if is caught by the teacher. Until then, patchwriting actually fakes familiarity with the words and ideas of the source. In other words, patchwriting is done with the intention of deceiving the reader about the linguistic and intellectual competence of the writer. For this reason I think it is very important to call it plagiarism. The student must be told that what they have done is more like cheating than it is like learning. In the end, I don't think patchwriting can help the learner even to begin to understand difficult notions. All it does is to open the possibility of getting away with one's ignorance.

It gives the teacher a lot of unnecessary work to do, treating students who are taking an easy way out, half-hoping to get away with it, as though they just well-intentioned learners. Students must understand that a certain amount of care is required of them. Under those conditions, catching only the odd patchwriter/plagiarist will suffice. They have to realize that it's much better to use a concept in their own perhaps misunderstood way than to "patch" in a sentence or phrase that (presumably) uses it correctly but for no reason the student is aware of.

Next week I'm going to present an example of patchwriting by a high-profile academic that appears in a widely used textbook. I'm going to be very curious to hear what my readers think of it, i.e., how bad it is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mayhewianism #7

On my other soon-to-be-retired other blog I used to keep track of "Mayhewianisms", defined as expressions that are characteristic of Jonathan Mayhew's exemplary scholarly persona. Ideally, they are actually written by Prof. Mayhew. They're usually assertive in tone, and have a tendency to draw a line in the sand. They often appear to tell you who you think you are, but really just reveal that Jonathan has a clear sense of who he's talking to. Anyway, I just found an oldish one, not previously noted:

"If that quibble seems too basic to you you are reading the wrong blog."

I think I'll continue the series here at RSL.

Monday, September 22, 2014


I'd like to write a few posts about "unintentional plagiarism", or what Rebecca Howard has called "patchwriting". My aim in raising this issue is to hear the views of my readers about it, so please don't hold back in the comments. Let me know what you think.

I've seen it come up in a few places, most recently in reading Diane Pecorari's Academic Writing and Plagiarism (Continuum, 2008). She cites Howard's Standing in the Shadow of Giants (Ablex, 1999) for her definition.

[Patchwriting is] copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another. (Howard 1999, p. xviii, quoted by Pecorari 2008, p. 5)

Now, the thing that concerns me—in fact, bothers me a little—is the emerging consensus among writing instructors,* at least those working with undergraduates and foreign graduate students, that patchwriting is "virtually inevitable as writers learn to produce texts within a new discourse community" (Pecorari, p. 5). They rightly think it should be corrected, and even punished (with lower grades), but they urge us not to conflate it with "prototypical plagiarism", by which they mean the use of a source without proper citation and with the intention to deceive. My view, which I think is shared by many others, is that a lot would be gained if the question of intention was simply ignored. The question should be a strictly factual one.

Consider the example Pecorari provides:

In a study of the course of the progress of second-language writer through a business course, [P. Currie] found that the student, Diana, worked diligently in the early weeks of the course to raise the level of her writing assignments, but was at real risk of not receiving the grade she needed to stay in her program. Eventually Diana hit upon the strategy of repeating words and phrases from her sources; in other words, she began to patchwrite. From then on her teacher's feedback was more positive. (Pecorari, p. 9)

The question I want to raise goes, in a sense, to the response of the teacher. By giving the student more positive feedback (and presumably a higher grade) for submitting work that demonstrates greater writing ability than the student actually possesses (Diana would not be able to write as well without relying on her sources) is she really doing the right thing?

Pecorari emphasizes that Diana did not consider what she was doing "cheating" and that patchwriting is hard work in a way that plagiarism is not. (She mentions buying an essay from someone else; presumably straight copy-paste plagiarism is just as "easy".) But it does not seem to me that these considerations in any way mitigate the problem that plagiarism actually represents. After all, Diana is going to great efforts to appear to be, at the very least, a better writer (in English) than she actually is, and probably also a better thinker and a more knowledgeable person. She is constructing an illusion of her academic competence.

I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's remark, inspired by Talleyrand, that people have language, not to conceal their thoughts from each other, but to conceal the fact that they don't have any thoughts. My worry is quite simply this: by not pushing back on patchwriting as severely as we do plagiarism in general we are training people to "fake it until they make it". In the realm of scholarship, this actually implies faking it even after you make it (i.e., tenure). It will leave writers alienated from their thoughts, having too long practiced reproducing a semblance of scholarly prose, rather than a representation of their own thinking in prose. Indeed, there's a growing suspicion, both inside and outside the academy, that much, perhaps most, scholarly rewriting** is an elaborate put-on. Perhaps this is because we have come to accept patchwriting as a developmental stage?

When I say we should push back on it as severely as plagiarism, I'm not saying there can't be questions of degree, or a space for clemency. What I am saying is that we should treat it, precisely, as fakery.* We should not grant that patchwriters work "without an intention to deceive". They're coming off as smarter and more articulate than they really are. Consider an analogy. A student at the conservatory playing a digital piano figures out (at great effort) how to program in certain difficult passages of the music she's practicing for an upcoming exam. During the examination she shifts back and forth between live and playback, not wholly seamlessly, but well enough that it sounds like she's just in the early stages of mastery. Would it not be more honest, and more teachable, for her to struggle through those difficult passages, rather than glossing over her incompetence by pre-programming them?

These are my initial thoughts. I'm looking forward to hearing what others think. I'll put some examples on the table this week.

*Update: I may be overdrawing my disagreement with patchwriting theorists. "Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself. ... At the very least, patchwriting is bad writing, she said." (Kelly McBride at Poynter.org) These are all attitudes I would endorse. I guess my issue with the concept of patchwriting is that it gives plagiarists a word that's not as loaded for something that's just as bad. I think we should just call it plagiarism, because that is actually what it is.

**What a weird slip! I meant simply that people are suspecting that scholarly writing is more often than not pretending to be something it's not, not that its "rewriting" (whatever that might mean) is some kind of pretence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Become a Better Writer

No amount of advice will get you around the need to practice. The best writing advice, in fact, will always be advice that gives you something to do, exercises to practice. If you're not writing as well as you'd like, it is probably not because there is something about writing you haven't been told or didn't, when told, understand. Rather, there is something you are not doing every or every other day. There's no rule of writing that you've misunderstood, but there may very well be one you've disobeyed. Let me tell you what it is.

For academic purposes, the paragraph is the unit of composition. A paragraph states one thing you know and tells us how you know it; it makes a single, well-defined claim and offers support for it. It is usually at least six sentences long, one of which—the "key sentence"—states its central claim. A paragraph also normally consists of no more than two hundred words and can be written in under half an hour by anyone who knows what they're talking about. Don't say that that's your problem: you don't know what you're talking about. You know a lot of things, and those are the things you want to be better at writing down.

In any case, here's the rule that will make you a better writer if you obey it (you should have no difficulty understanding it): Every or every other day spend exactly 27-minutes writing one paragraph about something you know. Do this at least once and at most six times on any given day. Always decide what you will write about the day before, which means articulating a relatively simple declarative sentence that says something you know to be true for every paragraph you're going to write tomorrow. It's a good idea to write this sentence down.

Include in your decision about what you're going to write a decision about who you're going to be writing for. Have a clear sense of your reader and what the reader's situation will be when reading. That is, don't just imagine Jim down the hall. Imagine a peer working in the same discipline as you, steeped in the same tradition, and, say, engaged in reading the third paragraph of your theory section, or the second paragraph of your introduction, or the first paragraph of your conclusion. What are you trying to say to whom in this moment, given their situation as a reader?

Finally, always decide the day before exactly when tomorrow you're going to write the paragraph. Then, when the appointed hour arrives, just sit down and write down what you thought you knew (and hopefully also knew you knew) the day before. Remember that your goal is to say one thing in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Work on it, struggle with it, for twenty-seven minutes. Then stop, no matter how well it went. Take a three-minute break, and then go on to the next paragraph, or the rest of your day, just as you planned.

It is this experience—that of writing down something you know at a particular time, for a particular length of time, for a particular kind of reader—that will make you a better writer. It's this experience that teaches you what writing is. There is no better advice.*

*Okay, that's probably going a bit too far. There may well be better advice. Perhaps even some that I might offer. There's certainly lots of perfectly good writing advice out there that doesn't suggest exactly this and I can't say with 100% confidence that it's "no better" than mine.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Are Our Referencing Errors Still Undermining Our Scholarship and Credibility?

Have a look at this paragraph, which appears in a recently published paper by Xingsong Shi and Peter Franklin in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources ("Business expatriates’ cross-cultural adaptation and their job performance", vol. 52, pp. 193–214):

Acculturation and cross-cultural adaptation have long been favoured subjects of research. Business expatriates represent one important group of sojourners, and previous research, reported on by Black and Mendenhall (1989), reveals that between 16% and 40% of expatriate managers return prematurely from their assignment, premature return being used as a measure of failure. Black, Mendenhall and Oddou (1991), Graf (2004) and Black and Mendenhall (1989) report that a failed expatriate assignment may cost organizations between $50 000 and $150 000 per return on average. Even if some doubts have been raised about the accuracy of these estimates, e.g. by Harzing (2002), the costs are no doubt high rather than low. Black and Mendenhall (1989) also point out that some further costs of expatriation failure cannot be easily calculated, such as the damage to the morale in the companies, the damage to the relationships with local business partners and governments, as well as losses in corporate reputations and business opportunities.

The first thing to notice is the age of the sources. We are being given a 25-year-old source to support the claim (made in the present tense in 2014) that between 16 and 40 per cent of expatriate assignments fail. Surely, either our knowledge or the reality, or both, has changed since then? This is even stranger in the case of costs, where we're being given a dollar figure without being told how it has been adjusted for inflation with sources ranging from 1989 to 2004. It turns out (I've looked at the sources) that the figure is reported in the 1989 Black and Mendenhall paper, which means that, here in 2014, we're being given a figure that's not just 25 years out of date, but missing 25 years of inflation. Indeed, Shi and Franklin simply misreport Graf's 2004 figure of $200,000-1.2 million. Graf's figure, however, is itself somewhat vaguely based on three sources published between 1986 and 1996, and also without being explicitly adjusted for inflation. "Doubts ... about the accuracy of these estimates", indeed!

Which brings us to the deeper problem with this paragraph. Just what exactly are those "doubts" that were raised? The paper they are referring to is Anne-Wil Harzing's absolutely eviscerating takedown of the myth of high expatriate failure rates and the sloppy scholarship that perpetuates it. Her paper is organised around twelve rules for correct referencing, showing how every one of them is broken by scholars who cite high expatriate failure rates. (Rule number 6: Do not misrepresent the content of the source. Rule 9: Do not cite out-of-date references. Rule 11: Do not try to reason away conflicting evidence.) It is not merely a critique of Black and Mendenhall's (or anyone else's) "estimate". Here's how she puts it:

The 16-40 EFR range became popular in the late 1980s and, by the late 1990s, became the most cited EFR figure. The origin of this EFR range, however, is unclear. None of the studies used to substantiate this claim actually mentions the 16-40 per cent range. Only one article (Shilling, 1993) mentions the 16-40 range without referring to other articles, but the claim is not based on empirical evidence. The Shilling article, however, does not appear to be the source of the 16-40 per cent figure either since only one other publication refers to this article. Most publications that mention the 16-40 per cent figure refer back to Black (1988), even though Black quotes a 20-40 per cent range. Since three subsequent articles by Black and co-authors mention the 16-40 per cent percentage, the 16 per cent lower boundary may well be simply a slip of the pen.

That is, after reading Harzing 2002 you are not obligated to merely note that "doubts have been raised about the accuracy" of the 16-40 per cent expatriate failure range before assuring us that "the costs are no doubt [!] high rather than low". You are obligated not to report that range because it has, literally, no factual basis, as Harzing points out:

Black’s 1988 statement that: ‘Studies [Baker and Ivancevich, 1971; Tung, 1981] have found that between 20 to 40 per cent of the expatriate managers do not successfully make the transition and return early’ (p. 277), however, fuels a whole series of attributions. […] Quite an achievement for a source article—Black (1988)—that offers as support one publication that does not include any failure rates (Baker and Ivancevich, 1971), and one publication in which only 7 per cent of the American companies have failure rates in this range (Tung, 1981).

There you have it. In 2014 researchers are reporting an "estimate" of expatriate failure rates that stem from egregiously misreading a 33-year-old study, while simultaneously misreading a paper (Harzing 2002) that shows that this very figure is the result of egregious misreading and endemic poor scholarship in the field. The title of Harzing's paper? "Are our referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?"

I'm sure one day I'll find a paper that dutifully notes that I have "raised doubts" about the accuracy of Weick's story about those Hungarian soldiers in the Alps, being careful, of course, not to mention the plagiarism and, for good measure, plagiarising a couple of sentences from my paper!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (3): Boredom

"Knowledge, or the process of seeking knowledge, is a form of play; it is certainly so with all scientists and inventors who are worth anything and who truly accomplish worth-while results." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp. 76-7)

"One might ... give the name 'philosophy' to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §126)

"Perhaps after all philosophy began with a sense of boredom." (Lin Yutang, ibid., p. 79)

In yesterday's post I complained of melancholy. I could have said apathy instead. My aim in these somewhat strange posts (even to me) is not confession, however, but an analysis of the difference between an "epistemic" and an "epistemological" project, each striving towards a different goal, each beholden to a different standard of virtue.

In his lectures The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger suggested to his students that they did "not in fact apprehend [the] walls [of the lecture hall]—not unless [they were] getting bored" (p. 161). Philosophy, it would seem, begins by going into, or through, one's boredom, rather than allowing oneself to be entertained or, of course, following one's natural curiosity and making a discovery or inventing something. We can apprehend the wall, but soon we wonder what's on the other side of it, or who built it, or where that crack came from. Or we can, as it were, remain bored, and dwell upon the "being" of the wall and, therefore, the being that sits there apprehending it, i.e., our own existence.

I'm suggesting that philosophy is the act of checking our curiosity, of abstaining from the immediate pleasure of discovery and invention, for the sake ... well, yes, for the sake of what? As Wittgenstein puts it, perhaps philosophy is precisely the investigation of what is possible before we satisfy our curiosity. In a profound sense, perhaps, philosophy is an investigation of our curiosity itself. We're trying figure out what it is we really want or need to know, and we're trying to determine, in advance of an actual scientific (or "epistemic") inquiry, what it would mean to overcome our ignorance, what it would mean to know. That is what epistemology is about.

To put a positive spin on it, the philosopher is trying to refine our curiosity. In tackling our boredom, the philosopher is looking for something similar to what T. S. Eliot called a "superior amusement", i.e., something like poetry. (Wittgenstein famously said that philosophy should be composed like poetry.) It is not just that philosophers lack curiosity (about microbes or stars) but that they are skeptical about our attempts to satisfy it. It's not just that they are bored, either; it's that they are critical. Before learning what is actually going on, they want to be clear about what might possibly be going on. They want to know how the actual is possible.

In a famous poem, John Berryman quotes his mother's words: "Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources." There is a similar social censure of the incurious. In fact, we often think of those who lack curiosity as boring. If curiosity and playfulness are widely regarded as virtues, however, we must grant that they are normally associated with youth. So maybe I'm just getting old. What I experience as a lack of curiosity is perhaps just a feeling of having learned quite enough about life. What I experience as boredom is just ordinary contentment. It's not that I lack resources, but that I have too many of them. Instead of thinking of my melancholy as a lack of something, then, a lack of interest in life and learning, for example, perhaps I could think of it as a distinct passion in itself. Maybe it is finally time for me to think.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (2): Curiosity

"Knowledge, or the process of seeking knowledge, is a form of play; it is certainly so with all scientists and inventors who are worth anything and who truly accomplish worth-while results. Good medical research doctors are more interested in microbes than in human beings, and astronomers will try to record or register the movements of a distant star hundreds of millions of miles away from us, although the star cannot possibly have any direct bearing on human life on this planet. Almost all animals, especially the young, have also the play instinct, but it is man alone that playful curiosity has been developed to an important extent." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp. 76-7)

If knowledge is a good then curiosity is a virtue. I said yesterday that I'm not a curious person. I hope, of course, that I have other virtues!

I've been reading Lin Yutang's lighthearted prose in attempt to rouse myself out of a vague melancholy that has been weighing on me, then lifting, and then weighing on me again since I returned from the US last month. The quote I'm using as an epigraph for this post tells me something about what I mean when I say I lack curiosity. First of all, I don't approach knowledge very playfully. I suppose that's understandable since I'm an academic writing coach. Knowledge (or at least the process of seeking knowledge) is the focus of my work. I have a professional interest in science.

But it gets worse. More often than not, I find knowledge oppressive, or at least distracting. Don't get me started about the popularisers! Certainly, I don't think the task of finding new knowledge is a very pressing one. I am, indeed, much more interested in human beings than microbes, much more interested in the lives we lead on this planet than the motion of distant stars. And here's the kicker: I think we know more than enough about human health and our place is the universe. Eat well, sleep regularly, get some exercise. Treat your neighbours with kindness and respect. At the political level, provide an unconditional basic income for everyone so that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you will have to move into a smaller apartment, eat plain foods, and amuse yourself by throwing a frisbee around at the park with your children.

I suppose it's easy to see why my "knowledge" about life would leave me incurious. I think the deaths that result from our ignorance about cancer are less important than the deaths that are caused by knowing who the enemy is. Everything we need to know is already known. The bulk of knowledge (and I'm not saying it isn't knowledge) blinds us to those simple truths, which, if we lived by them, would make this planet so pleasurable a place to live that we'd be perfectly content to think the stars are campfires and the planets the chariots of the gods, or whatever we'd think if we weren't so damned curious about what things "really" are. Obviously, this will not do in the long run if I'm going to keep (or at least enjoy) my job. I have to recover that sense of "playful curiosity" that is at the heart of science. A sense of its marvellous futility. Perhaps it will be useful to recall that our word "school" derives from the ancient Greek notion of "leisure".

Immediately after this remark about curiosity, Lin goes on to excoriate "censors and all agencies and forms of government that try to control our thought". Such agencies, I think, are even less curious and certainly less playful than I. And I think their attitude, unfortunately, can be found among some of the most well-meaning people in our midst. As Lin puts it: "Short-sighted politicians and clergymen may think that uniformity of belief and thought contributes toward peace and order, but historically the consequence is always depressing and degrading to the human character." For my part, the earnestness with which some scientists (and their popularisers) "know" their stuff and insist that those of us who won't believe them quickly enough (because we don't understand them) are foolish and even dangerous depresses me immensely. I have enough things to worry about before worrying about whether or not my opinions conform to the current state of scientific orthodoxy.

And anyway, the universe would be a cruel place if our happiness depended on the success of our quest for knowledge. For countless millennia, human beings have found happiness on this planet without knowing anything about microbes or the true nature of stars. Ignorance and error, even outright stupidity and folly, must surely be compatible with the enjoyment of life. But the satisfaction of our curiosity is an intrinsically pleasurable thing. It's something that happens when we play, not when we work. I think science may have forgotten this.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (1)

"The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, p. 393)

What's so good about knowledge? Why is it better to know than not to know? Indeed, is knowledge always a good thing? Is it sometimes better not to know? Certainly, we cannot realistically pursue a goal of knowing everything there is to know, even about a specific subject. And whatever we do know derives its value, its virtue if you will, from its contribution to the important business of living. Life, we might say, has an "epistemic" component, and worrying about that dimension suggests an epistemological one.*

I worry about the epistemic component of the problem of living. That makes me an epistemologist, just as an ethnographer is interested in the "ethnic side" of life, if you will.* The ethnographer is not, qua ethnographer, interested in becoming a better native, a more upstanding member of the community, but what it means to be a native in a particular land. I'm less interested (or at least I sometimes tell myself I'm less interested) in actually knowing something, than in understanding the difference that knowing it will make to our lives.

I'm not really very curious person, perhaps. But I am obsessed with what happens when we satisfy, or fail to satisfy, our curiosity. When I consider carefully how our research and teaching environments are organised (my experience is mostly with universities) I sometimes worry that we let real curiosity go unsatisfied, and glut ourselves with trivia instead. Sometimes, I think I'm against curiosity altogether. I suppose that's a bit like an ethnographer who has a low of opinion of nationalism. You can understand something well enough to be afraid it.

It seems life would be easier if we were less naturally curious. Or perhaps the problem lies with how easily we let ourselves be satisfied. Maybe I just think we have poor taste in knowledge.

I'd like to try to affect our taste in knowledge. In particular, I think we need to have a much more refined taste for social science. We're much too eager to learn how society works, how people live together. We're much too ready to believe what social scientists tell us, what some recent study has shown. We need to hold claims about the society in which we live to a much higher standard. After all, what we think is true of our society is very much a part of how that society works. If you think you live in a democracy your political activities look very different from how they'd look if you thought you were living in an oligarchy. If you think people's decisions (including your own) can be manipulated by "priming", your negotiating tactics will probably show it.

I'm interested not just in how we practice what we know, but in how we go about our knowing. What sorts of practices lead to better kinds of knowledge. Our knowledge will never be perfect, but there must be a sense that we're striving to improve. What criteria, then, can we come up with for "good" epistemic practices? This is a somewhat different question than the one philosophers classically raise: what are the criteria for knowledge? Instead of asking how we can know that we know one thing or another, I want to describe a set of practices such that, if we practice them, what is likely to result is "good" knowledge. I think it's much less important to believe the right things than to cultivate the right attitude about our beliefs. I think epistemology should be about that attitude, not about the beliefs that emerge at the end of it.

I'll have some more to say about this later.

*It should be possible to distinguish between "epistemic" and "epistemological" as easily as we distinguish between "ethnic" and "ethnographic". Knowers have have epistemic traits just as people have ethnic ones; our interest in these traits is epistemological and ethnographic respectively. When they produce "an ethnography" of a group of people (sometimes called "natives") ethnographers delineate their "ethnicity"—the nature of their particular humanity, or what we call culture. When epistemologists produce "an epistemology" of a group of knowers (sometimes called "scientists") they delineate their "epistemicity"—okay, that's not a word, but epistemologists do delineate the nature of knowledge, sometimes the nature of the knowledge that belongs to a particular group of knowers. Ethnos just means "people" in Greek. Episteme means knowledge. Foucault talked about epistemes in part to avoid talking about "sciences". He preferred to talk about "field[s] of scientificity" over talking of "scientific theories".