Saturday, April 30, 2016

Media Studies 101: First Day Assignment

Here's an idea I just had for an assignment to be given to freshman media studies on the first day of class. Its point should be self-explanatory. Comments are welcome.

Here are the instructions, which should be given one at a time, in order. (Don't make a slide with all the instructions at once.) This should all be able to fit into a 45-minute class.

1. Turn off/put away all your electronic devices. [There may be objections to this, but remind them that this is a media studies class and you are asking them to have the experience of being cut off momentarily from media.]
2. (Hand out a sheet of self-copying paper to each student.)
3. Write your name in the top right hand corner.
4. Write the name of a person you've never met that you developed a very negative of opinion of because of media coverage sometime between six months and one year ago. [This is important. Don't let them pick someone who is currently in the news. Or at least not someone they've only just heard something bad about.]
5. In two or three words, state your negative opinion. That is, what do you think is wrong with this person, or what do you think they did wrong*? Add these words to the name so as to make a complete but simple declarative sentence. E.g., "NN is a racist", "NN is a fraud," "NN is a traitor", etc. (It's a sentence about what NN is, not what NN did.)
6. Without talking or consulting the web, explain what NN did to deserve this negative judgment. Write a short paragraph telling the story as well as you can, from memory.
7. Tear off the top sheet of the copy paper and pass it to the front. Make sure you hold on to your copy.

You now hold a short lecture (about 20 minutes) about a case in which the media egregiously misrepresented a person. (E.g., the Tim Hunt case. Just make sure it's one you know well.) You present examples of the original reports, some of the fall-out, and then "what really happened", seen in retrospect.

Before you let the students go, ask them to write a short essay for next class:

1. Do some research into NN and the news story that caused you to form a negative opinion.
2. Write a short essay (max 1000 words) about the story.
3. Include: how the story broke and what the initial claims were. How the story developed. Whether the story turned out to be true or false, or partially true or false.
4. What the current consensus about NN is (as far as you can tell from subsequent media reports).
5. Make sure you provide sources for all the claims you make.
6. Read your recollected account from the start of class. Write a brief reflection about how accurate you think your opinion was before doing the research (max 200 words).

Like I say, the point of this exercise should be pretty clear. And the students will probably already have "gotten it" even before they do their research. Still, I think it is worth it, and might set a critical tone for the remainder of the course.

What do you think?

*Not sure why I put this inconsistency in there. Keep it simple. Say "NN is...". What NN supposedly did is the subject of the next step.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Circulation of Learning

I know that we have been to the Moon. So does Buzz Aldrin. But he knows this in a very different way than I do. Aldrin has first hand knowledge of humanity's journey to the Moon, while I must rely on films and books for this knowledge. Aldrin and all the still-living astronauts who have walked on the Moon are in their eighties now, which means that in another couple of decades we can expect to lose, as a species, our first hand knowledge of the Apollo program's accomplishment. We will all then know about it in the same way.

We might say that our knowledge will be "encyclopedic". As Diderot put it,

the purpose of an encyclopedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race in the future years to come.

While I'm sure that my first knowledge of the Moon landing came by word of mouth, my first clear memory of reading about it was in Charlie Brown's Cyclopedia, probably in the fourth grade. I remember very distinctly learning the word "telemetry" in those pages.

Like many boys, I went through a phase of intense interest in space travel. It's strange to consider that, when I was twelve, less time had passed since our last landing on the moon than has now passed since 9/11. I wasn't yet born when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on it, but I was almost two years old when Eugene Cernan took the last step off it. And yet, by the time I was reading about it in the early 1980s, it already seemed part of a distant, almost mythological past. It probably didn't seem that way to my parents, who were in their mid thirties.

Yet somehow, the "space age" never really materialized. Instead of pushing an ever-widening frontier of human exploration outwards, rockets and shuttles have been used mainly to install and maintain an ever-growing network of satellites in Earth's orbit, for research, communications, and surveillance purposes. Part of "knowing" that we went to the Moon is knowing that we soon stopped going there, and that we haven't been back in over four decades. Knowing about the Apollo missions is like knowing about the Vietnam war. Though it has a profound legacy, it's a thing of the past.

Imagine how different it would be if there had been two missions to the Moon every year since 1969. We'd be fast approaching the 100th mission. There would no doubt be permanent structures up there by now, and perhaps crews that worked there as long as they now do on the International Space Station. Knowing that we can get to the moon would feel very different than it does today. It would be part of our active experience.

Sadly, this shared experience would almost certainly include tragedies in which lives were lost. Exploring the Moon is not a low risk activity, after all. Nor would it have been cheap. As far as I can tell, it cost around half a billion dollars in 1972 to carry out a single moon mission. That's a 1 billion dollar annual budget for two missions. Today, we'd be spending 5 or 6 billion dollars a year keeping the program going, all things being equal. And they wouldn't be. Imagine an Apollo program that runs for 40 years, developing new technology and discovering the potential of the Moon's resources. When I was a kid, that's exactly what I was imagining. That image was part of the knowledge that was in circulation. It was what I was learning.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lunar Certainty

"All this talk about space travel is utter bilge, really. It would cost as much as a major war just to put a man on the moon." (Richard van der Riet Woolley, 1956)

When Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, it fulfilled John F. Kennedy's promise, made in 1961, of landing a man on the surface of the moon and returning him safely to earth before the decade was over. This remains humanity's greatest feat of engineering. It is without doubt the longest voyage any human being has undertaken, and required an enormous coordination of resources to succeed. Even a conservative estimate puts the price of the Apollo program at over 20 billion 1973 dollars (over 100 billion today). "At its peak," says NASA, "the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities." By the end of 1972, NASA had landed twelve men on the surface of the moon. All returned safely.

How do I know this? Well, as I was writing the above paragraph I had the Wikipedia article on the Apollo program open in another window. The precise dates and figures are all taken from there. But does that mean that until today, when I was writing this post, I didn't know these things? Certainly, none of the facts I have just presented surprised me. I doubt they surprise very many of my readers. There's nothing new in these facts. We have known this for a long time.

Indeed, all of these facts have been present to me with as much or greater precision before. I've long been interested in the accomplishment of the Apollo program, mainly out of my disappointment that there are no cities on the moon today. Given that the American government spent more than five times as much prosecuting a war in Vietnam at about the same time, the argument that it was too expensive to continue to explore and colonize the moon seems somewhat disingenuous to me. That's just my opinion, of course. The facts I stated in the first paragraph are what they are independent of the reason they interest me.

I'm also interested in this fact because it is at once the most amazing and most ordinary fact of our culture. The Wikipedia article is almost certainly reliable on most details. Each fact can be checked independently in multiple sources as well. Everyone knows we have been to the moon. But only seven living human beings can know for certain. How I know that they have been to the moon is one thing; how they know is another. What is remarkable, what is actually somewhat amazing, is that we can know that these men have stood on the surface of our only natural satellite, 400,000 kilometers away.

What is also remarkable is that before 1969 we could be as certain that no human had ever been there. In On Certainty, for example, Wittgenstein returns again and again to the proposition, "I have never been on the moon." He takes this as an exmple of the sort of thing it is not possible to doubt. §286 is a good example:

What we believe depends on what we learn. We all believe that it isn't possible to get to the moon; but there might be people who believe that that is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know. And, let them be never so sure of their belief—they are wrong and we know it./ If we compare our system of knowledge with theirs then theirs is evidently the poorer one by far.

That was written in 1950. Suppose we said the following today:

What we believe depends on what we learn. We all believe that it is possible to get to the moon; but there might be people who believe that that it is not possible and that it never happened. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know. And, let them be never so sure of their belief—they are wrong and we know it./ If we compare our system of knowledge with theirs then theirs is evidently the poorer one by far.

In fact, there are people who believe that we have never been on the moon. These are the so-called "cranks" who think the Apollo program was a hoax. (Interestingly, even they will grant that I've provided a clear prose statement of the "official story" in my first paragraph.) As I see it, they hold two fundamental beliefs: (a) it was indeed impossible to get to the moon in 1950 and remained so for the next 20 years, (b) an "official" assurance that something has happened is no reason to believe that something has in fact happened. After that there are the details: the discussion of the "anomalies" that reveal that the evidence NASA provides is faked, and so forth.

In any case, since these people do not believe that anyone has been to them moon, they do not know that we have been there. They have a different "system of knowledge", we might say. It is marvelously different, indeed; and one may rightly wonder how they know anything at all.

More to come.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

How Do You Know?

When we are asked how we know something there are really two kinds of answer. We may explain how the truth in question was discovered, or we may explain how we learned (how we are taught) that it is true. Properly speaking, only the original discoverers know something for the first set of reasons. We might also add those close peers who either directly or indirectly replicate the original discoveries in subsequent work. But it is important to realize that you don't have to be Einstein to know that E=mc2. However Einstein may have come upon this knowledge, my knowledge is of a different kind. When Einstein had to explain how he knew it, he gave one sort of answer. When I explain how I know, I give a different sort of answer.

What happens if we ask how "we" know that E=mc2? How do we know it as a culture? Well, we have access to Einstein's original arguments, but also the experiments that demonstrated that he was right. And there are are scientists all over the world who are able to replicate those results to a high degree of accuracy. They are able to vouch for Einstein, and they largely keep each other honest. They also teach physics students how it is done, i.e., what mass-energy equivalence means.

But suppose, now, that physics went out of fashion. Suppose that for two or three generations no young people pursued physics degrees and careers. The scientists lost their funding; the teachers lost their jobs. Imagine a world where no one was qualified to test Einstein's formula. Historians could tell us that a man named Albert Einstein discovered mass-energy equivalence in the early part of the 20th Century. But it would be unclear that this is something we knew as a culture.

What I'm trying to say, somewhat fumblingly, is that our academic institutions are an important part of what it means for me to "know" that E=mc2. There's even a sense in which my children "know" it! They really do know that there is a lot of energy in the head of a pin; it's just that the knowledge is distributed through a network that reaches from Einstein's brain (back in 1905), through the history of science, through our academic institutions, and into their science classrooms, and then into their own brains. The knowledge is also contained in all the laboratory equipment that demonstrates the truth of Einstein's theories every day. But only in so far as there are people who know how to operate that equipment. That's the important thing!

We know things not just because they have been discovered by people at some point in the past and not just because children believe us when we tell them about it. Our knowledge is maintained by our institutions of higher learning. We can only know what a select portion of each generation is trained to be able to know, not just indoctrinated to believe. I sometimes worry that we are forgetting this. We are forgetting not just what we know, but how we know these things.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Monday, April 11, 2016

Dare to Know

"The scientists are in terror / and the European mind stops"
Ezra Pound

"Sapere aude," said Horace. Kant used it as a slogan for the Enlightenment. It is generally taken as a call for courage in your investigations and reflections, to follow your ideas where they lead, to believe what you think is reasonable to believe based on the evidence and arguments you have encountered. These days, however, there are enormous pressures on scientists (of all kinds) to know particular things, regardless of where what Lisa Robertson calls "the motion of your own mind" is taking you. Scientists are not being encouraged to discover the truth, so much as join a cause. They are being asked to believe this or that important truth rather than ask questions and discover something new.

I think this has done a great deal of harm to our prose style. There is a big difference between describing known facts and subscribing to a common cause. Writing can be used for both, even very good writing. Political writing is not in and of itself a bad thing. The harm is done when a writer presents as fact something the writer does not know but knows only will win the favor of one or another establishment or foundation. That is, your style suffers when you are writing ostensibly "scientific" prose for political purposes. It doesn't actually matter what side you are on, nor even whether or not you are right, just that you are writing to position yourself on a side. You are not approaching the problem of writing facts down directly, but are introducing an additional concern, namely, "What will my allies think of my claim?"

To speak your mind plainly these days takes a measure of daring. Orthodoxies (and emerging heresies) are not at all shy about making their presence felt. Everyone who studies race, or gender, or geopolitics, or finance, or climate knows who their friends and, more importantly, their enemies are. Everyone knows that certain claims, no matter how well-evidenced or well-argued, will have negative consequences for their careers. Other claims will have positive consequences. Researchers are not at all wrong to have particular hopes for what their data will show, knowing full well what an effect or lack thereof in a particular direction will do for them professionally. They will not be praised simply for getting the facts right. They will be praised or censured according to which facts they discover.

This is itself a fact (if I'm right) about how knowledge is organized in our culture. It doesn't have to be that way, but powerful processes have made it this way and are keeping it this way for the time being. All academics must feel the pressure of these forces, though some perhaps more than others. I think many of the most common complaints about the style of academic writing can be traced back to these forces, which make us act by way of making statements of putative fact. I run into this problem again and again as a writing coach, when I realize that my advice to "write what you know" is actually at odds with the professional interests of the authors I work with. Or at least their perception of those interests. They simply don't believe that it will do them, or anyone else, any good to describe the facts plainly as they see them. Rather, they want to "write themselves into" one or another discourse.

My strategy here is to tell them that they'll need to "dare to know" the facts about these discourses too. They'll have to understand the powerful interests that shape their professional lives. It is possible, after all, to write strong, clear prose even when positioning yourself in the discourse community of your choice. Just write what you know about those discourses. Write what you know about the political situation of the science you are doing. Write to assert facts you know to be true in the interest of letting people discuss them. Whatever you do, please don't think your job is to write things you don't quite know as though you do (nor to write as though you don't quite know about things you do.) It will do bad things to your style.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Writing and Drawing

"Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?"
Ludwig Wittgenstein

One sense that the OED gives to the verb "to draw" is "to make (a picture or representation of an object) by drawing lines." There's something unsatisfactory about the circularity of this definition (it uses the word "drawing" to define the verb "to draw") but I suppose we all know what it means. To draw is to make a picture of an object out of lines, and a picture is a two-dimensional representation of an object (or scene). The lines are important. A photograph, though two-dimensional, is not a drawing, nor is a painting (which makes the picture out of broad and fine strokes rather than lines.)

The status of the "object" in this definition also needs some clarification. After all, it is possible to "draw" a unicorn, so the object in question need not actually exist. You can draw a line or square, too, so it doesn't have to be three-dimensional, though the representation will always be two-dimensional.

For some time, now, I have been trying to get writers to understand their work in similarly straight-forward terms. They have some object in mind, and they want to render it on the surface of the page. Their object is often four-dimensional—a story that unfolds in space and time, for example, or a data set from a time series—but their "picture" (the writing not the drawing) is always one-dimensional. Writing is linear: one word follows another in a sentence. One sentence follows another in a paragraph. Calligrams and other stunts not withstanding, the sense of a piece of writing is whatever emerges from reading the words in an order determined by convention.

Just as the meaning of one line in a drawing depends entirely on the meaning of the lines around it, so, too, do the words in a piece of writing depend on the words around them. Writing and drawing are both arts of arrangement. If you want to master either art, it is worth approaching it in the simplest form first. Consider the problem in terms of "marking up" a piece of white paper, either with two or three pencils of different grades (perhaps also an eraser), or with the letters of the alphabet and basic punctuation marks. (I would include italics among your basic resources for writing, but not boldface.) Imagine the drawing occupying about two thirds of the space of the page (leave a lot of white space) and imagine a paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, in a nice easy-to-read serif font, double-spaced, with no right justification.

The challenge is to render an object or fact accurately in that form and to do so within a manageable amount of time—twenty-seven minutes, for example. If you don't choose something to draw—a hand, a face, an apple, a cup—you won't expect to succeed. The same is true of writing. Choose some fact you know to be true or some event you know has occurred. Then describe it; write it down. It will help you immensely if you choose the fact to write down (or even the object you want to draw) the day before. This will give your subconscious time to prepare.

Once you have made your attempt, step back from it and look at it, or read it out loud. Do you like the way it looks or sounds? Consider again the object or fact or event you were trying to represent. Did you do it justice? Be honest with yourself, but not mean. Don't dwell on it too long. Tomorrow, do it again.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Too Much Information

I'd like to find a way to take Gilbert Welch's approach to medical illness also to the diagnosis of social ills.