Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Towards a Critique of the Labour Theory of Value

“What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.” (Zorba the Greek)

I suppose it's an oversimplification, but for me Marx stands for the idea that value is rooted in labour and worth is rooted in capital. History, on this view, becomes a struggle for control of the means of production. I was once a "Marxist" in this sense, but I will never forget the strange lightness that came over me many years ago when I was reading Ezra Pound: "Nature habitually overproduces. Chestnuts go to waste on the mountainside, and it has never yet caused a world crisis."

The other side of this insight is that almost everything that is worth having is free, almost everything that has to get done "just happens". The sun, the rain, even the long process of fossilisation, owes us nothing. The creativity of the seed far exceeds our own inventiveness. Even our own bodies, as Zorba points out, are mainly self-operating, self-cleaning natural processes. We put some fuel in them and out comes human behaviour. Without granting too much ground to Freud, we even have to agree that most of our mental activity goes on without our knowledge or guidance.

There's the old joke that 90% of life is just showing up. We can expand this: 99% [virtually] everything just sort of happens [think the burning suns, the spinning galaxies]. Life mainly continues—"goes on", as they say. It is as important to get out of the way as it is to make an effort. Even when we do work, it's not so much a matter of putting your shoulder to the wheel as pushing in the right direction. Most of the process is already underway.

This is important to keep in mind when working on your intellectual projects. Not only should you not try to lift them and move them somewhere all at once, not only should do a measured amount of work on them each day ... You should remember that an intellectual project, both as it exists within you and as it goes on around you, both as it belongs to you and as it belongs to others, is always already making progress, always already going somewhere.

It doesn't need you to do all the work. Certainly not all the time. Most of it happens all by itself. And many of the chestnuts really do go to waste. It happens all the time. It's not a crisis in the history of ideas when it does. [Update: with so many of us thinking so hard about so many things these days, I think I can rest assured that an idea I don't happen to make the most of will be "independently discovered" by someone else soon enough.]

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Scholar's Almanac and Daily Register

(With apologies to Dudley Leavitt)

This may sound a bit clichéd, but as I get older I really do find I know myself better. This is probably in part because every day teaches us something about ourselves and in part because as we get older our personalities stabilise. We gain in experience and we become more knowable. We both begin to penetrate some of our inner mysteries and become less mysterious. This goes for our selves as scholars, too, of course.

I was thinking about this recently when enjoying my annual bout of spring euphoria. Copenhagen is further to the north than the city I grew up in, so the summer days are longer, and the winter nights too. Since moving here, twenty years ago, along with all the other changes one goes through over so many years, I seem to have settled into an annual rhythm characterised by a somewhat melancholy winter, letting up when the light comes back in the spring. The thing is that it's only been recently that I've truly experienced this, as it is happening, as a kind of natural cycle. Something I expect.

We don't think the weather is damaged or broken in the winter, when days get shorter and the air gets colder. We just say it is winter. We don't think of spring as some sort miraculous and permanent return of life. We just recognize the seasons for what they are. But we sometimes forget this about ourselves, imagining that a current nadir or apex of mood is somehow fundamental, indicative of who we "really are".

I hope it won't be controversial to say that individuals will differ here, as will groups. I seem to have recognisable annual cycle of moods, some of which is determined by geography some by idiosyncrasy. Others, of course, have a monthly one, conditioned in part by gender and, again, in part by plain individual quirk. (Just because something is natural doesn't mean it affects everyone equally.) And then there's the whole changing arc of life events—marriage, children, divorce, grandchildren, retirement. We have to let these natural processes have some explanatory power with regard to our ability to get work done and derive satisfaction from it. We have to take them into account. As a culture we understand all this; as individuals we sometimes forget.

One reason to plan your writing process is that it gives you a way of experiencing how your naturally changing moods affect your ability to work. It lets you anticipate times when your work will go slowly and painfully, and when it will proceed easily. It will keep you from drawing too dramatic conclusions from how things are going right now. See your planning and journaling as a kind of "almanac" of your scholarship, a document of your experience. Know when to sow and when to reap, if you will. Know when you should not make major life decisions, because your optimism is likely to be unhinged, and when you should not expect to submit a paper, because your confidence is likely to be lacking.

One last thing. This winter I was less disciplined than usual, which showed me something important. Natural cycles can be tempered by personal habits. If, as the winter darkness approaches, you begin to live less healthily—you exercise less, say, and drink more—this will of course exacerbate the problem. Obviously, you have to be less ambitious at times when you have less energy, but it can be a good idea to be as, let's say, deliberate about what you are doing. Physical health helps you face the changes better. It also makes the euphoria of spring less, let's say, disruptive.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (3)

Here's a practical little trick that sometimes helps people write their paragraphs. Remember that my advice is always to decide today what and when you'll write tomorrow. (Happiness is knowing that tomorrow you will write.) You have to choose something that you know well enough to write about today, but then wait until tomorrow to write it. Tomorrow, then, you sit down at the appointed time and write your paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, stating a claim and providing support for it. You begin with the sentence you chose yesterday ...

And this is where people sometimes run into to trouble. What seemed to be "the truest sentence that you know" yesterday afternoon, seems altogether less founded in the morning as you try to construct a paragraph to support it. You feel vague, even ignorant. What should you do? Well, you should not stop writing and start reading, and you should not try to think of something else to write about. You've made a commitment to this paragraph. For the next twenty-seven minutes, make an honest effort to represent the fact it is about.

But what to do with your doubts about whether it is even a fact? Whether you know what you're talking about? Here's the simple trick. Write the negation of the sentence. If you had hoped to say, e.g., that the Internet has changed the way companies communicate with their customers, but can't think of why that is or how that is true, then type out the following sentence: "The Internet has not changed the way companies communicate with their customers." However much you may be in doubt about the first sentence, you'll probably now feel an immediate sense of certainty that this sentence is false. Okay, write down the reasons you are so sure, and then notice that these are also reasons to think your original sentence is true.

Another trick is to tweak the original sentence a little until you feel it's sitting more comfortably on your knowledge base. Maybe it isn't the Internet but social media you meant, maybe it's not businesses but organisations, maybe it's not customers but stakeholders. The original idea was true enough; you had just chosen the wrong words to express it.

All of this work of negating and tweaking your decision from the day before is to be done in the twenty-seven minutes you have given yourself to represent a particular fact in a particular paragraph of prose. Get used to doing this work. It really is at the core of scholarship. It's what we expect scholars to be capable of doing. With time, you will derive real pleasure from succeeding.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (2)

Consider the following two sentences.

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Bertrand Russell believed that language is basically assertive.

The first can be established merely by providing a reference (e.g., "Russell 1961: x", and the associated entry in the bibliography). I have claimed that Russell has written an eleven-word sentence. (As I pointed out yesterday, that claim is almost true: my memory got ten of those eleven words right. I'll address this issue on Friday.) The second, however, requires an argument, in which the first may play a role. The fact that Russell wrote a particular sentence will serve as evidence for the larger and much more interesting fact that he held a particular belief.

Notice that my claims about Russell's writing and Russell's mind themselves express beliefs—my beliefs. I believe that Russell wrote those words and I believe that he held that belief. Through my writing, I am hoping to persuade you to hold those same beliefs (what I believe about Russell, not what Russell believed about language). Now, I don't expect you to trust me blindly, certainly not when I'm writing for scholarly purposes, and that is why I will provide the reference for the quotation. You may or may not go back to my source to check my work, but the presence of the reference itself moves us beyond merely "blind" trust. After all, you can now assume that I at least looked at the page in question, and you can assume that one of my readers (perhaps one of my reviewers) has checked or will at some point check it. There's a fact in the world that corresponds to my claim and to the belief I want you to form, and I've told you exactly where you can see it for yourself.

Russell's state of mind in the early 1920s when he wrote those words is more difficult to establish, to be sure. But it is the presumption of scholarly prose that such states of mind are real and knowable. There is a kind of "fact of the matter" about what he meant. I'm not here talking about a general theory of mind, i.e., a philosophical position about the knowability of other people's state of mind. I'm talking about the knowability of the beliefs, opinions, ideas of other scholars, whose work we cite. We are naive, common-sense realists about the words they have written. And somewhat more sophisticated hermeneutic optimists about their meaning. That is, while we will always grant that there can be different interpretations, and while we may even grant that some of these disagreements are ultimately unresolvable (perhaps because of "the play of différance", perhaps because of "the death of the author"), we don't think that there is an entirely arbitrary relationship between the words a scholar puts on a page and the meaning that the scholar intended. Moreover, as scholars, we regularly invoke the intended meaning, committing both the original author and our fellow scholars to it. It's possible to get Russell's beliefs wrong, and being able to do so is an important part of being a philosopher.

I'll pick up the thread on Friday. Let me conclude today by marking two important limiting cases of this argument. First, when I say that there is a "fact of the matter" about what a scholar means, I do not mean that this fact is "empirical" and to be determined by the application of a "scientific method". I'm with Richard Biernacki on this point. Second, I want to stress again that this is neither a theory of mind nor a theory of language, nor even a theory of writing. It is a presumption about scholarly writing. It does not, for example, apply to the work (and perhaps not even the mind) of Gertrude Stein.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (1)

"What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" (Bertrand Russell)

What is it about a sentence that allows it to represent a fact? Let's not take the answer for granted. And let's not assume the question is unanswerable. Let's begin with a sentence of a kind familiar to scholars:

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Notice that this is not a sentence about either language or facts but about Bertrand Russell. It represents something he "said", i.e., wrote. It says that somewhere in Russell's writing the quoted sentence may be found. What is interesting is that it can say this without it being true. This is the most important clue to its capacity to represent. Many years ago, Karl Popper provided a much need counterpoint to the "verificationism" of the logical positivists by suggesting that the meaning of a proposition lies as much in what makes it false as what makes it true.

Consider the analogy of a map. We all know that the purpose of a map is to represent a territory. A good map will lead you to where you want to go. A bad map will mislead you. But it can only do this if you read the map as a representation of where you are and where you want to go. If all maps were made merely for the purpose of hanging decoratively on walls, i.e., if no one ever tried to get anywhere with their guidance, they would no longer represent their territories. But the map represents the territory even if I don't travel in order to verify it. The map tells me that Stockholm is to the north of Copenhagen. I don't have to go there in order to understand what this means.

But I do have to know how to read the map. Think about what that sentence about Bertrand Russell represents, what it means. First of all, the proper name has to refer to the famous philosopher, friend and mentor to Ludwig Wittgenstein, author of Principia Mathematica. Also, as I said, it must be taken not quite literally; Russell wrote it rather than said it. But I haven't yet said where; it is made true or false by the whole of Russell's work. (The whole of his life if we didn't narrow "said" to his professional writings, but let it refer to every utterance, spoken or written, by Russell.) Imagine a map that shows Stockholm to be to the north of Copenhagen but not how far. In fact, I can be much more precise:

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

And more precise still:

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts" (p. x).

Indeed, in order for that page reference to make sense I have to provide the 1961 Routledge edition as my source. Page x is actually the second page of the introduction. This is like putting lines of longitude and latitude on the map, and specifying a scale. To a properly trained reader, there is now a single page on which we may find or not find the quotation. And here's a twist I hadn't planned when writing this post: if you do go to check my quotation against its source you will find that Russell says "assert or deny" not "assert and deny" (as I discovered when I went to source to get the page number). That is, there is an inaccuracy in my representation of Russell's words, and those words, remember, are what my sentence is about. Someone who understands my words will get to the right place, and will confirm that it's the place I meant, but will find that it's not quite as I said it would be.

We'll continue this on Wednesday.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Recognising the Problem of Representation

A week ago, I said I wanted to spend some time on the problem of how to get better at representing facts in prose. So far, I guess, I've talked mainly about why it's important. But also about why it's not an impossible, ridiculous, trivial or oppressive activity. The first step in becoming good at something is to recognise that it is within the realm of the possible and the valuable. Competence, after all, is just to realise that possibility, to capture that value.

Next, it is necessary to recognise the particular difficulty of representation. You are going to take something that has very little in common with life as we live it, namely, some black marks on a white page, and get them to stand for particular states of affairs, particular arrangements of things, particular facts in the world. The problem can be compared to depicting a three-dimensional object with a two-dimensional drawing. Except that it's worse: writing is one-dimensional—one word follows the other in a sentence—while life is four-dimensional—it occupies space and endures in time. You are going to take some relatively meagre means and accomplish some rather exalted ends.

So you have to recognise also the partiality of representation. The representation does not "take the place" of the fact in every sense, only in the experience of reading. A represented hammer can only hammer represented nails. It won't help you build your house. The representation captures only certain aspects of the thing represented and its place in the world. Again, consider a drawing of an apple. It may capture its shape and even its colour. But it will fail to capture its weight and its flavour and its nutritional value. You can't eat the picture of an apple, no matter how realistically it's been drawn. The representation presents a particular point of view, not the thing as it is in all its facets.

Finally, therefore, you need to recognise the human factor. The partiality of a representation is also its subjectivity. After the writing is done, no matter how well it went, you have not a produced a piece of paper that, on its own, forever after, stands for some fact in the world. The representation is made possible by your knowledge of the world, in the sense that only with that knowledge can we understand the words properly. An ant walking across your drawing of an apple does not thereby stand in any special relation to the apple it represents. It can engage with the apple, not with your representation of it. But you, or anyone else who knows how to look at a drawing, are different. It is meaningful to you. We might also say that a representation is always a performance; it is performed in the act of reading.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Prose and Progress

"Prosaic writing," said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture." Against this, he sets "a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others". This way of constructing the difference between prose and poetry appeals to me, I must admit, but there is a danger in interpreting it as an argument against "prosaic writing". (When Adam Banks admonishes us to "retire" the essay and instead cultivate a "funky" sense of freedom in our students, even invoking Lorca's "duende", I imagine many people hear him as saying something like that.) After all, if given the choice between "limiting" yourself to "already accepted" meanings, on the one hand, and calling out to "each individual freedom", on the other, it seems obvious what your ambition should be. I get it. (I, too, have invoked the duende. I, too, have suggested we "put some stank on it".) But let's not abandon our culture altogether.

After all, culture is a collective accomplishment that needs, for the most part, to be conserved. When we learn to write prose, we are learning to say what our culture has already become capable of saying, what it is already "acceptable" to say. When we compare the available range of expression in prose today, with what that of, say, one-hundred years ago, we have to recognize that progress has been made. Even the diversity of voices that are allowed to express themselves in prose, i.e., that may speak as though the signs they are using are accepted in the culture, has vastly expanded over the past century. It is true that this required a great deal of "poetic" subversion of the institution of prose by great writers. Merleau-Ponty treats "great prose" as the way we realize the gains made by the "ostentatious display" of poetry's freedom. It "captures" and makes "accessible" meanings that hadn't yet been "objectified". If in poetry we call out to each other's desire to be free, in prose we help each other understand our limits. Every now and then someone figures out how to institutionalize something new, making it available to all.

The state of our prose is the current stage of the progress we have already made. In the composition classroom, I believe, we have to spend most our time consolidating those gains, passing on the ability to express "the meanings already accepted in a given culture". If we don't do this, and instead give the students the impression that they should be fighting against the limits of the prose essay, always transgressing the boundary of acceptable usage, forever trumping the composure of a well-crafted paragraph with the momentary excitement of a picture or a video or a song, then we are simply robbing them of their heritage. We are not teaching them the foundation of our own composure, perhaps because we ourselves have lost faith in it, overwhelmed by "the pace of change". Well, prose was always the means by which we slow things down, the way we find the time to get it right, after our poets have told us that there is something terribly wrong.

Perhaps it is true that poetry is progressive and prose is conservative. I prefer to think of the "limits" of prose as the frontier of the progress we have made. There is no shame in trying to enjoy the freedom we already have. Otherwise, what is the point of achieving it?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Composition, Representation and Expression

I agree with Freddie deBoer that it would be "disciplinary suicide" for the field of rhetoric and composition to abandon "the teaching and research of prose, the arrangement of words into sentences and paragraphs expressed to serve some rhetorical purpose."

(I am still too much of an outsider to take direct issue with Adam Banks' speech to the 2015 CCCC. I don't know his rhetorical situation well enough to criticise him on his own terms. But I will say, precisely as an outsider, that his message is disconcerting. It is not my impression that the essay needs to be treated condescendingly as an "emeritus" genre, certainly not if this is interpreted, as deBoer seems plausibly to worry it might, to go for prose writing in general. As a writing coach, i.e., someone whose daily practice builds on the competences that are fostered in the composition classroom, I don't relish the prospect of facing graduate students who were taught as undergraduates that careful prose writing is either a quaint throwback to a bygone age, or, worse, somehow inimical to the realisation of their freedom.)

My concern, or the sense I most often give to the "rhetorical purpose" of scholarly writing, is perhaps narrower than deBoer's, but very similar. I am worried about the ability of academics (and therefore the students that become them) to "assert and deny facts", i.e., to write "representationally". I truly and honestly believe that it is the primary obligation of rhetoric and composition instructors to help students develop this ability—essentially the ability to compose a coherent paragraph about something they know. It is the business end of a very particular kind of freedom. Call it "academic", if you want; but we condescend to it at our peril.

* * *

Representation and expression almost seem to differ only in their emphasis. In our prose, we represent facts and express beliefs. Perhaps we don't always have to believe what we say in order to represent a fact, and perhaps we don't always have a clear representation of the facts when we express ourselves, but there is a presumption in prose, one that guides the reader's interpretation of what we have written, that our expressions invoke a representation, that they are at least trying to bring the reader's mind into contact with the writer's world.

The world is everything that is the case; the mind is our awareness of it. Prose lets us articulate our awareness of what is the case. It lets us communicate from one mind to another what we think is going on in our world. My world is the world of the facts that I am aware of, the facts that I have appropriated for myself. In my prose I write these facts down in order to share my world with you. You may learn from me, then, what is the case, or you may have an occasion to teach me that I am wrong. When writing, I presume that my world is also yours.

We compose paragraphs to express our beliefs. The paragraph represents the fact we believe (in our minds) is the case (in the world). In the end there is only one world, which is why it is so important to compare our beliefs about it. We let the paragraph "stand in" for the fact, which may be long gone or very far away. We let our reader consider the matter carefully and compare it to his or her own representations of this or related facts. The aim is to affect the reader's beliefs, and when reading we likewise assume that the writer has a purpose. By this means we make our beliefs available to each other. We avail ourselves of each other in prose.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rhetoric and Composition

A few weeks ago, Freddie deBoer wrote a great post about the state of research in rhetoric and composition. There's a lot to think about in that post, and it actually offers a corrective to some of the things I normally tell my authors as though they are demonstrated "facts". For example, it looks like I need to reconsider my uncritical invocation of Arum of Roksa. Or maybe I just need to follow my gut and never invoke empirical evidence. Maybe I think it is obvious that writing makes you smarter and group work makes you stupid. That's already too glib, and I promise I will say something more serious about this in a few weeks, when I've had a chance to think some more about Freddie's argument, which is an important one. In this post I want to define "rhetoric and composition" for my own purposes. Though I wasn't as intentional about it as I should have been, it looks like that has become my field. I want to think that through a little.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Composition is the art of putting words together. Rhetoric-and-composition is about putting words together persuasively. The focus of my work is academic, or scholarly, or scientific writing, which I define broadly as the art of writing down what you know. Again, using these terms very loosely, "writing down what you know" can be understood as "putting words together to persuade the reader that something is true", and I would then clarify "persuade" here, again for academic purposes, as "providing a justification". Now, if you've succeeded in persuading someone that something is true, you've "gotten them to believe" it. So, basically, we're talking about writing that is concerned with the articulation of "justified, true beliefs". As I've said before, this is not the only kind of writing, nor the only kind of writing students should learn to do at university, nor even the only kind of writing that makes up a scholarly work. But it is central, or at least very important, to the academic enterprise. And, for whatever reason, it's what I've become a coach of.

There is, as far as I can tell, a misconception out there that writing "representational" prose is somehow easy or straightforward. That there's "nothing to it" that might be taught in a composition classroom. Related to this, there is the idea that classical, "scientific" prose doesn't require stylistic mastery—that its style is, ultimately, no style at all. I think this forgets how difficult it is to accurately depict reality on a page, whether in writing or, to take a more obvious case, in drawing. Think about how difficult it is to draw a picture of even a relatively simple object—an apple, for example. The choice of style—realism vs. impressionism, say—does not get you around the difficulty of capturing how the thing looks. It's just that you've given a different sense to what you mean by "looks" (or perhaps decided that the problem is actually to capture how it "feels to see it".) Once you have decided what you are trying to do, what aspect of the thing you are trying to represent, you are going to have to work at getting it right. The same is true of writing, in whatever style.

In the weeks to come, I want to get into this problem of how to get better at accomplishing something on the page. For the most part, I will concentrate on the representation of facts, on the composition of true descriptions of the world. That is, I will focus on the problem of "scientific" writing, broadly understood. But I will also now and then consider the problem of "political" writing: the composition of just prescriptions for history. After all, sometimes our research has very practical implications. I will even consider the problem of philosophical and poetical composition—the presentation of concepts and the presentation of emotions in writing. Success in all these domains is a real accomplishment and requires a confident, developed style. It's about being able to occasion and exploit a "writing moment".

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Error and Blame, part 4

"Coming to recognize you are wrong is like coming to recognize you are sick. You feel bad long before you admit you have any of the symptoms and certainly long before you are willing to take your medicine." (Norman Maclean)

[Part 1 here]
[Part 3 here]

I have found that sensemaking scholars in general have a hard time engaging with direct criticism. It is as if telling them that they're wrong about something is merely a signal to them that you're not the sort of person they should be talking to. Many years ago, one young sensemaking scholar seriously told me that, unlike me, he was brought up to see the good in people before the bad. He suggested I start by pointing out all the good things in his paper before offering my criticisms. In what has turned out to be a longer series of posts than I originally anticipated, I'm beginning to understand my feelings about that reaction to my work.

Consider Karl Weick's own response. He has offered only two dismissive "rejoinders" (see here and here) to my critiques. He's probably said less than 500 words on the matter. Granted, I've been pretty hard on the guy. I've called him a plagiarist and a poor scholar. I've accused him of getting a great many empirical facts wrong, in part because he can't distinguish between evidence and anecdote. I've even suggested he can't tell an anecdote from a joke. It's understandable that he's unhappy with me, but it is simply unacceptable that, as a leading figure in his field, he does not directly address criticism of his work. If I'm right, he owes it to his readers to acknowledge it; if I'm wrong he owes it to my readers to set me straight. My reflections about his analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster is making it clear to me why I think this is so important.

In his analysis he blames the disaster on "multiple failures of leadership". His only source of facts about the event—Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, which he distorts beyond recognition—reaches the opposite conclusion, namely, that the tragedy was the result of a "conflagration" of cultural and natural, organizational and infernal factors, for which no one could be held responsible, and about which nothing, at the end of the day, could have reasonably been done. Weick's source says "the men did not panic"; Weick says they did. Weick's source says that their leader performed brilliantly; Weick says he lacked wisdom. The truth is that the young men were unlucky and their leader was a tragic figure. Wagner Dodge suffered the loss of thirteen young men under his command—an experience that is unimaginable to most of us, especially those of us who have chosen less physically dangerous work.

Tim Vogus has offered a reason sensemaking scholars don't think my criticism should be acknowledged: "the right/wrong frame that you apply to thinking about emotional ambivalence," he tells me, "is unnecessarily limited and restricts our ability to integrate work on mindfulness across the setting[s we are interested in]". At the end of his remarks, he expresses the hope that his response "helps to advance the conversation and moves us away from 'tussles' and binary thinking in favor of carefully contextualized arguments and collaborative synthesis." That is, it's the very idea that there is a "right" and "wrong" here that he thinks is counterproductive. He believes that there will always be some "context" in which, say, Weick's analysis might hold up. He thinks I should be looking for a "collaborative synthesis" of my understanding of events with Weick's, not a correction of his mistakes. He thinks, I guess, that I should begin with everything Weick gets right.*

It's just that, for all intents and purposes, Weick is completely wrong about what happened in Mann Gulch. I mean this in the sense that only saying that the whole thing took place in a snowstorm in the Swiss Alps could be worse. He's wrong about what happened and why it happened. He's wrong about why it happened because he's wrong about what happened. Indeed, one suspects that since he wanted the disaster to have resulted from a "collapse of sensemaking" he distorted his so-called "data" (which not he but Maclean collected) to fit his theory. He cooked the data. He fabricated events to suit his hypothesis. Whether he did this intentionally, or was just enormously careless, doesn't matter. It's the worst thing you can do as a scholar,** especially when you are sitting in judgment where lives were lost.

"Can't you take it down a notch, Thomas?" I imagine some will say. Well, remember that I'm not using language that is any stronger than Weick himself uses when talking about the firefighters. Weick uses the "right/wrong binary" to call Wag Dodge a failure as a leader. I'm using the same binary to say that Weick is a failure as a scholar. Dodge had to defend his actions before a tribunal at an inquest, and live with them the rest of his life. Maclean worked on the problem until his death, too, stopped him. It took eight months, by contrast, to get Weick's paper from conception to publication, and it has since been widely celebrated as the victory of his style over stuffy, "academic" scholarship. (See John Van Maanen's famous argument with Jeremy Pfeffer.)

One last thing: Weick ends his paper by invoking the authority of his source, stopping "just about where Maclean would want us to end." On the contrary, I think Maclean would have wanted the conversation to go on at least long enough to discover Weick's errors. Indeed, if my sense of Maclean's intellectual courage is correct, he would have wanted us to go on long enough discover Maclean's errors too. But since Weick presents his analysis as entirely supported by Maclean's, which he then gets wrong, we have not even begun that critical part of the process of interpretation. After all, Weick went public with his analysis only a few months after he had begun reading Maclean's book. And then it's as if he wants to declare his paper the last word on the matter.

*This is very reminiscent of the regard that some social scientists have for the work of Malcolm Gladwell. I wrote about this back in 2010. As Teppo Felin pointed out in that discussion, Kathleen Sutcliffe and Timothy Wintermute made the connection to Weick's work explicitly almost ten years ago.
**[Update, 03/04/15: I'm sure this strong claim is debatable and I'm very willing to have that debate. I definitely think it's worse to fabricate your data than to plagiarise another's prose; and it's worse to massage your data than to patchwrite your theory. When I say that what Weick has done is "the worst thing" a scholar can do I mean, in part, that the most serious error in social science is to mischaracterise what the people you have studied have done. But I also mean something else. It's pretty bad to publish as your own something you haven't written (i.e., to commit plagiarism) for the sake of advancing your career; but surely it's worse to publish a result that is not supported by your data (i.e., to engage in fabrication) for the sake promoting your theory. In the first case, you're misleading your employer about your abilities. In the second, you are misleading all of us about how the world works.]