Posted tagged ‘Rhetoric’

Not Quite Getting It…Or the Perils of Village Life

April 25, 2013

I usually think well of Garance Franke-Ruta’s work over at The Atlantic, so what follows isn’t so much a “pox-upon-her-house” screed as it is a cautionary tale.

Vice President Joe Biden came to my patch yesterday,  MIT, to play his familiar role as consoler-in-chief at the memorial service for Sean Collier, the MIT police officer murdered last week.

Édouard_Manet_-_The_Funeral

His speech was vintage Joe, powerful, direct, colored by emotion expressed bluntly, clearly, without (seeming)* artifice.  It was aimed carefully — if you actually listened –  towards at least two audiences: not just the sea of police and students spread out before him, but also the Republican party, and the American people beyond.

That’s what Franke-Ruta missed as she chased a tired meme.  Hers is the artless Joe, who genuinely, if perhaps a little embarassingly, is all raw heat, no reflection — the administration’s “id” as her headline would have it.  The comparison to be drawn is obvious, and Franke-Ruta does so in her first sentence:  Joe’s the man with real-people responses, which  his boss, the President is too cool (read, not quite human) to deliver.  From there, her analysis dives even deeper into conventional wisdom:

Today’s example was Biden unleashing a stream of wholly warranted invective at the Boston Marathon bombers. Speaking at memorial services for slain M.I.T. police officer Sean Collier, he called bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev “two twisted, perverted, cowardly knock-off jihadis.”…

Some asserted he was insensitively diminishing the attack by calling the attackers “knock-off.” But there was no question that in repeatedly calling the suspects “perverted jihadis,” Biden was once again taking on his designated role as senior administration official who gets to sling it.

Fortunately, Franke-Ruta posted a video of part of Biden’s speech, so her readers could check her exegesis.  Listen, and you’ll certainly hear Biden excoriate the Tsarnaevs.  But the guts of his argument are to be found in what Biden said next, about the right — and wrong — ways to respond to the acts of terrorists, hard core or mere knock-offs:

The truth is on every frontier, terrorism as a weapon is losing…and what galls them the most is that America does remain that shining city on a hill. We are a symbol of the hopes and the dreams, the aspirations of people all around the world…our very existence makes the lie of their perverted ideology.

So the only way they can gain ground is to instill fear that causes us to jettison our values, our way of life, for us to change.  The moment we change, the moment we look inward, the moment we get in a crouch and are defensive, that’s the moment they win. What makes me so proud of this great state, and the city of Boston and Cambridge and all those involved and the students on this campus, what makes me so proud to be an American is that we have not yielded to our fears; we have not compromised our values, we have not weakened our constitutional guarantees. We have not closed our borders.

I can surely argue that some of that is more aspirational than hard fact.  Post-9/11 and continuing into this decade, we have yielded some guarantees.  We have allowed our fears to legitimize laws like the Patriot Act, to allow torturers to thrive in our dark rooms, to sink to force feeding prisoners starving themselves to escape the legal purgatory that incarcerates without providing any avenue for either exoneration or certain punishment.

But Biden did limn a present realit as well, in that we still live in a country where a ruling like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld can be both heard and decided against the government.  I live in a town where  police officers tackled a cop-killer in the midst of a gun battle, in the hopes of keeping him alive long enough to face a court.  Here in Boston, Dzokhar Tsarnaev was charged as a common criminal, read his rights (not fast enough for some, but still) and will in fact face civilian charges.  This country are so far from perfect it sometimes feels like we’re can only approachperfection  the long way round — but that’s in the nature of cities on hills.  I’m pretty sure Joe had something like this in mind when he spoke yesterday.

And I have next to no doubt at all that he was scolding that claque of Republican leaders who seem to have lost all courage, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and all the rest.  They’ve been up on their hind legs since Friday,  bellowing the urgency of making sure Tsarnaev face  a jury-rigged military tribunal system, and damned be the American constitutional system and any faith in the power of a jury of Americans to do and be seen to have done justice.

That rebuke is what this speech was about, beyond the pure duty of comfort that Biden handled so well in the first, longer section of his remarks.  He was telling a failed Republican party that America is something other than hollow republic the Bush-Cheney regime sought to build.  He was as well talking to the broader audience through the TV set, making the case (again!) that there is an alternative to a government based on authority granted out of fear.  He was reminding everyone in earshot that the way the Republicans ran the republic — and would do again, if they get the chance — is not just an error; it’s un-American.  This was powerful stuff, and inside the political ring, it was had the power to hurt, a nut-cutting blow.

That is to say:  who cares if Biden used the phrase “knock-off,” or uttered in public the word “perverted?”  Franke-Ruta’s gnawing away on those old bones is a failure of reportorial nose, a misjudgment that obscured the real story right in front of her.

As I said at the top of this post, I don’t think Franke-Ruta’s a bad journalist, not at all. So I take her whiff as an indication of what it costs when you live inside a thought/media/opinion bubble, at the heart or even the outskirts of the Village.  Our Village elders have focused on atmospherics so long (who’d you like to have a beer with, or did he say “terrorist” and such nonsense) that it becomes harder and harder for them –  or their juniors, wallowing in the same mire — to hear, actually to notice, what’s happening right in front of them.

One last thought:  it doesn’t even take malice, nor is it a mark of stupidity, sloth or professional incompetence to fall into this trap.  Group-think happens not because (or not only because) Roger Ailes sends down a memo.  It’s a natural human trait to pay attention to those who do what you do, or hope to.  Reporters read other reporters.  They — we, for I sometimes commit acts of journalism — drink at the same bars. We talk — just like everyone else.   We’ve all, I think, experienced us doing this to ourselves in some context or other.  The failure comes in the inability to acknowledge the risk, and to take conscious action to challenge it.  There’s a lot of that going round these days.

*Biden — and his speech writers, of course — are not amateurs.  He’s a pro, and a much better master of rhetoric than often given credit for (see above).  His speeches are what they seem — expressions of his thought and feeling.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t crafted — which is no bad thing.  As John Kenneth Galbraith is rumored to have said “the treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my work usually enters between the sixth and seventh draft.”)

Image: Édouard Manet, The Funeral, ca. 1860.

Have a Way With Words?

October 24, 2011

Know any folks out there interested in rhetoric?  Communications pedagogy? Research into professional communication and/or literacies across media?

Well, some of my colleagues are looking to hire a senior (aka tenured/tenurable) scholar/teacher in this area, with MIT hiring its first (in a long time, certainly, if not ever) professor of rhetoric.  Here’s the description:

MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Science seeks to appoint a distinguished scholar in rhetorical studies at the rank of tenured associate or full professor to start in the Fall of 2012. Candidates should have a Ph.D. in rhetoric or a relevant field of interdisciplinary rhetorical studies, with a distinguished record of publication, broad experience in developing innovative college level courses in rhetoric and communication; and a record of funded research in one or more areas of communication education or media literacy. The candidate will work collaboratively with colleagues in the Programs of Writing and Humanistic Studies, Comparative Media Studies, and Literature, while providing faculty level support for MIT’s educational programs across the disciplines at MIT. Relevant areas of specialization include the history, theory and critical tradition of classical rhetoric; contemporary rhetorical studies in one or more academic or professional disciplines or fields of study; and oral presentation, visual studies, digital humanities, narrative, and media studies. MIT is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer.

And here is where one would submit an application.

So — if this big and broad community has some among it, or some in its circle of acquaintances who might be interested…come on down!

And, of course, use this thread to spread the word about jobs you seek and/or jobs you know of.

Image:  Jan Steen, Feast of the Chamber of Rhetoricians near a Town-Gate, before 1679.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

April 6, 2011

Late to the party (I think I’m going to let that become my middle name), but just to add one thought on the Paul Ryan lovefest by the innumerate and/or the malign:

With this story, we’ve welcomed into English a new  term of art.  Just as “charm” to a physicist means something quite different than that evoked by memories of Fred Astaire…

…so “Serious” clearly has a meaning to Villagers and the political elite utterly distinct from anything the rest of us understand by the word.

As far as I can tell, it has become a modifier to describe any proposal that transfers a financial burden or the balance of life’s risk from society and or its best-off to middle and the poor.  If a suggested change in the social contract doesn’t f*ck the poor, it can’t be serious.

Syryosly:  the word has become code, several posts here have already pointed out.  Its use signals that the weaker party to any bargain is about to get screwed. The claim that enduring others’ pain is “serious”  is as archtypical an example of rhetorical deceit as one could hope to find.

Which thought leads me to two conclusions.

First, that as Dean Baker says via John, any pundit caught using the word has told you how to rate their opinion on anything.

Second, this disdain for language is one of the central fronts in the GOP and friend’s assault on the whole idea of a social contract.  That”s the point in the debasement of language: to make it as near impossible as it can be to discuss the reality struggling to escape out from under a fog  of meaning-denude verbiage.

There is no one better on this subject than George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has much to say to anyone interested in how to use and abuse language as a tool to convey experience.

In that essay, Orwell captures the modern GOP and its handmaidens — the Brooks’s, the Sullivan’s, the Slate contrarians and all the others — with perfect prescience:

…it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Who can tell what drives people capable of better to rhetorical drink?  But those “serious” writers who now find themselves writing both falsely and badly have drunk deep of some bad hooch, to the point where the hunger to cuddle up to the powerful has led them to spiel dreck despite what they know — or should — to be true.

Let me give (almost) the last word(s) to Orwell, here from the last sentences of the essay.  It is, characteristically, a message of some succor.

…one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Amen, George, and amen.

Images:  Publicity photograph of Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in 1921.

James Henry Cafferty, Sidewalks of New York, or Rich Girl, Poor Girl, 1859

Manzi Responds — and So do I

January 13, 2010

Jim Manzi, with impressive speed and more civility than I displayed in my original post, writes to object to my treatment of some of his remarks in his latest blog flurry.

In the comment thread to that post, he says:

Thanks for your detailed read of my article.

You say that:

“It sure is easy to make your case if you feel no compulsion to actually, you know, make it.”

The case I was trying to make in the article was (as you have included in your quote) that accepting that freer markets can drive faster growth “does not lead to the conclusion that we can or should continue on the deregulation-oriented path on which we find ourselves without considering the balancing consideration of social cohesion.”

You say that:

“The GOP approach to public life has not changed in a generation:  lower taxes, less regulation.  That’s it.”

(As an aside, I don’t speak for the GOP), but if this is meant to apply to my article, I think you ought to confront that 2 of the 4 recommendations I make are for: (1) re-regulating financial services along a moderninzed version of New Deal concepts, and (2) trying to pursue parent empowerment though competion within regulated public schools rather than trying to privatize them through vouchers.

Best regards,
Jim Manzi

Given his politesse, I thought it proper to respond here, rather than in a thread that readers might or might not see.

He notes, correctly, that in the second of the excerpts I took from his post, his parenthetical remark — “I…accept the advantages…” refers to proposals in the original  essay that sparked this whole food for two types of changes to our current regulatory regime — re-regulation of financial services and deregulation public education (in the context of his rejection of the alternative of private vouchers.

In that context, Mr Manzi objects that I criticize him inappropriately for his uncritical use of axioms instead of evidence, because despite that dependency he argues for a particular policy position seemingly antagonistic to his assumptions.

To be fair, there is something in that.  It shows that his beliefs are not wholly simplistic and doctrinaire: he at least admits the possiblity that there might be competing goods whose claims need to be balanced with his articles of faith, which is more sophisticated than a lot of the market fundamentalism out there — and I apologize for failing to note this aspect of his larger argument.

At the same time this misses my core point:  that while you can accept the notion that the world retains some complexity, as long as you retain your commitment to ideas as revelation, it becomes GIGO time:  garbage in produces garbage out.

So even if I agree with Mr. Manzi on the usefulness of an updated New Deal approach to financial regulation (and I might, though the devil is in details his original article does not address), and disagree with his characterization of the educational problem we face (though face one we certainly do), as long as this style of argument is accepted as serious policy thought, any position can and will be justified.

Not near good enough, at least not in the relentless fact-centered world I inhabit in my perch at a pretty good engineering school.

As to Mr. Manzi’s second complaint  that he does not speak for the GOP –  of course, that’s true.  But I never said he did.

Rather, I’ve picked him out for my screed below because I think he offers an interesting case study of the damage to be done by the intellectual sleight of hand used over and over again by those who more directly seek to advance the fortunes of the most failure-ridden American political organization of my lifetime.

That is:  I take him as the high-culture version of the kind of argument that asserts that any government action — lending with conditions to financial firms, say — is by definition socialism.  And as socialism is by definition bad….well you know how that goes.

Arguing from assumptions not in evidence is an old debater’s trick.  It can win a point or two.  It is not a substitute for serious thought, nor for actual engagement with the ground of reality needed to test ideas, nor in aid of the construction of policy that has a chance of actually doing some good on the ground.  It is in fact mere mental masturbation.

And while I have no problems with what adults do in the privacy of their own mental spaces — this is no way to propose to run a country.

Onward.  Back to the day job.

Image: Js. Gilray, “Uncorking Old Sherry” 1805

Andrew Sullivan Fouls (Another) One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part two

October 14, 2009

Way, way back in blog years (aka, about two weeks ago), I posted the first of a three parter on Andrew Sullivan’s follies as he attempted to waffle his way around the theodicy problem.  That’s how to harmonize belief in an omnipotent and omniscient loving God with the existence of evil in the world, preferably with a sophistication (if not the blunt practicality) exceeding that of the old aphorism, “Malt does more than Milton can/To reconcile God’s ways to man.”

In that first post, I did not engage the argument head on, though, just to be open about my own dog in this hunt, I think that at this point in human history it is abundantly clear that if you wish to retain a God with personality and direct agency in the world, that deity would have to take the responsibility for deeds so grotesque that Einstein’s line — “only his nonexistence excuses him” — seems to me the only plausible response.*

For me, better to reign in hell — or rather, better, to act with firmness in the right as we may see the right** on this perhaps-not-fallen earth — than bow to any doctrine that pays homage to the author of so much misery.

But dogma, or leaps of faith, may lead others to a different conclusion.  I spent much of the prior post describing what I understood to be Sullivan’s position to argue that his error wasn’t that he thinks suffering is a tool for harrowing faith to the point of redemption– for him. Rather, he ran into trouble when he asserted that his personal experience of his God’s love in response to his pain offered anything more than an individual, subjective kind of knowing.

Such solopsism is a venial sin.***  It’s hardly unprecedented in human affairs that one Andrew Sullivan might mistake deeply felt personal experience for a truth universally to be acknowledged.

But  where he truly stumbled was when he tried to demonstrate that his theodicy possesses a naturalistic justification:  that the difference between human beings and animals lies in our  awareness of suffering.  He claimed that our conscious emotions in the anticipation of our own deaths and other losses enables God to turn our suffering for a spiritual purpose.

This is, I argued, just another God-of-the-gaps wheeze, and betrays deep ignorance of what people who actually study animal behavior and culture have been talking about for a quarter of a century or more.

That’s no surprise.  I’ve noted elsewhere that Sullivan is an innumerate thinker with a purely instrumental — and quite disdainful — view of what science actually does.

Here, as a warm up to my final, science-free rant on Sullivan’s biggest failure in this round of theodicy cage matches, I just want to add one thought.  Sullivan’s fear of science — not of any particular fact to be uncovered, but the terror that the enterprise as a whole really does have something to say at odds with his most deeply held beliefs — can be seen in the tricks he plays with language, as much as in any explicit argument.

To put it another way:  you can see how much this stuff matters to him by the way he commits the very sin he condemns so swiftly when performed by those attempting to justify more obvious wrongs.  When someone calls torture “enhanced interrogation” — Sullivan knows what is being done, and contemns it.

But when he says “Darwinist” in the title of this post, “What is Evil to a Darwinist?”  he attempts the same sleight of hand.  By mislabeling the object of scrutiny he attempts to weight the scales towards a false conclusion.  (And yes, I know that the title is taken from the text of the email he quotes below; I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Sullivan’s readers know precisely what the construction “Darwinist” implies; it parallels his term “Christianist” — which denotes an ostensibly religious person committed to a particularist and overly literal interpretation of Christianity that blinds him or  her to the variety of messages and meanings one might find in more modest faith.

A Darwinist in this context is an evolutionary literalalist and a fanatical materialist, blind to the reality of spiritual experience.  Worse, he or she is a member of a cult, slavisly serving the author of a revealed text, presented to humanity by none other than the devil’s chaplain himself.

Of course, the proper term, in reference to Jerry Coyne, Sullivan’s principal antagonist in this latest round of the theodicy chronicles, and to the relevant group as a whole,  is “evolutionary biologist.”

But if you then used that term, then the offending headline asks this question:  “What is evil to an evolutionary biologist?”  – and the fraud becomes obvious.

What is evil to a physicist?  To a diesel mechanic?  To a cook?  To me, to you, to Andrew Sullivan, to my nine year old?****

There are evils specific to, say, an evolutionary researcher.  Lying is evil — and not lying in general, but specifically committing fraud or deliberately obscuring what is known or not in a given field.  The Creation Museum is thus evil — but it is so within the specific confines of its claim of scientific authority.  If it were simply a religious exhibit, conceived and presented as such, it might be silly, but it would not be sinful, at least not within the context of the professional concerns of an evolutionary biologist.

Evil to a cook? According to Ruth Reichl, contempt for the cuisine you present.

Evil to a kid:  breaking small “f” faith, arriving earlier than discussed to end a play-date or failing to launch into as promised the next goddamn iteration of the Lego game you’ve only repeated 73 times that day (not that I mind, mind you)…

That is:  If you are a scientist, or a banker, or any person working in the world, then (while I agree with Hilary Putnam and many others who dispute the fact-value dichotomy) the evil to be understood in the theodicy issue is not one of a bounded professional ethics, but moral reasoning.  And pace apologists, one does not need a single divinity, a single text…and/or one does not need all of a text as an indispensible aid to such judgment.  (To see what I mean, look no further than the contrast between the moral worlds of Samuel, chapter 15, and that of Micah, chapter 6.)

But if you are a Darwinist, then, like the Christian, or the Christianist, you are on the spot.  You aren’t a human being with expertise in a certain area and intellectual method.  You are a believer, a member of a cult, a person of the (a) book.  Your failure to advance a theory of evil to contest with that of the revealed-religious believer is dispostive; the laurels must go to those who enter the lists.

Hence the usefulness of the such rhetorical posturing, and the deceit.

And what is most galling about this is that Sullivan truly does know better.  He has no time, none at all, for the enablers of torture.  He has justified contempt for every attempt to weasel some language of essential difference to justify distinctions in law between gay and straight.  He has no patience for coded racism.  He knows langauge, and he knows how it can be used for harm…or dare I say it, for evil ends.

No excuses then, for this.

One last note:  he may defend his headline as merely a quote from a post that is in its entirety a reader’s email.  That doesn’t wash, at least not for me.  First — he chose to run the email himself, and he bears responsibility for its rhetorical sins as well as whatever else it may contain.  Second, he wrote the headline.  He had alternatives.  He chose this one; he owns the word, and its sins.

*from a letter written in response to learning that his friend Nernst’s two sons had been killed in action in World War I.

**and yes, I am aware of the crucial edit there.

***though it certainly can lead pretty directly to literally mortal ones.

****I’m deliberately not delving into the folly of the post itself here — but as this headline was in fact taken from the linchpin passage in this reader’s email, you may get a sense of the poverty of the argument there.

Images:  “The Ruins of Lisbon,” after the Nov. 1, 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed that city. German copperplate engraving.

Darwin cartoon from the London Sketchbook, 1874

Further to “Darwinism” as Rhetoric: Up From Comments Edition

December 14, 2008

I should learn from commenter (and blogger) JRE on the virtues of concision, as he expresses in a couple of hundred words here what I labored to put in more than a thousand in (a) my critique of Archbishop John Habgood’s misuse of the term “Darwinism” and (b) the boom I lowered on the good cleric’s defender, Mid Anglican blogger Leslie Darrow.

JRE writes:

It is clear that Leslie Dellow has discovered a tree, and missed the forest, with

I think your problem is that having the syllable -ism tagged onto a word, or somebody’s name, automatically has pejorative overtones in your ears, and perhaps that is the result of hearing creationists use the word “Darwinism” in a pejorative sense …

Yes, “Darwinism” is pejorative, and no, it is not pejorative simply because “ism” is tacked onto someone’s name. A great scientist is frequently honored by having his or her name attached to a species, a physical unit, a constant, an observed relationship (or “law”), even an interpretation of the natural world (as in “neo-Darwinian synthesis”) — but never to an entire field of study. The reason is that the universe of knowledge does not belong to any researcher, however brilliant. Once a community of natural scientists had confirmed and expanded Darwin’s findings to the point that no reasonable person doubted their validity, the field was “evolutionary biology.” Darwin was, and is, rightly honored as the greatest pioneer in that field, but he doesn’t own it any more.

We see the same tactic employed wherever some group wants to oppose an established body of science for political or philosophical reasons. It’s been a long time since the germ theory of disease was controversial, so we don’t hear microbiology referred to as “Pasteurism.” But there are still those uncomfortable with vaccination or antibiotics, and for whom it is always “Western medicine” or “allopathic medicine” rather than plain old medicine. Similarly, we often hear those who resist the political or economic consequences of discoveries in climatology speak of the “church of Al Gore” because — in this context — a religious reference is a pejorative. I find that fact perversely comforting: dramatic confirmation that science has so earned the respect of the public mind that it is a far more effective debating trick to call your opponent’s position religious than to describe it as scientific.

Exactly so…and I’ll have more to say soon about the unfortunate trope a-building on environmentalism as religion — something that needs to be pushed back against hard and fast.

Image:  See here for details.  I’m being deliberately obscure, so that those that are interested can guess the relevance to this post.  Hint:  once you get past the first order connection, consider this, then this.

One Last Sunday Post…Lest We Forget Thursday Night Edition

August 31, 2008

This is truly off theme for this blog — but reading Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday I came across this post on his (and my) most remembered Martin Luther King speech.  The post resonated later in the evening as, I listened to Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR and heard one his guests argue that Obama’s nomination acceptance on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech did not sufficiently emphasize the Blackness of the Civil Rights struggle and of King’s message.

Smiley and several of his other guests disagreed, but the comment made me go back and listen again — second time in a day — to the clip Ta-Nehisi posted, the key passage in the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before he was assassinated.

Listening and watching again — especially with the foreknowledge that MLK seemed to have of what was coming so unbelievably soon — crystallized why I thought Obama got his note just right in his acceptance speech.  He spoke of King not by name, remember, but as the Preacher from Georgia.

The Preacher — someone who teaches, persuades, one whose success is judged by what his or her words inspire their listeners to do.  The rhetorical idea was obvious, and I think right:  Obama was saying that King’s words belong not just to one man, time, and struggle, but form a teaching that transcends those particulars.

And in that context, the Mountaintop speech is as important, maybe more so, than the visionary and uplifting Dream.

Remember, King really was a preacher, steeped in Bible.  He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the image of the mountaintop.  His predecessor there was Moses — not like Jesus a messiah, divine and already at least in one attribute an inhabitant of the world to come, but a prophet, a teacher, a mortal man with great flaws to accompany his strengths, who had done his best by his stubborn and stiffnecked people.

Moses had led that people for a long time; at the threshold of success, of labor’s end, he learns he will not complete the journey.  Most of the book of Deuteronomy is devoted to Moses giving the last lessons he can to his people, uplift and threats, and a final admonition:  “Therefore choose life.”  Then he climbs to the mountain peak, looks over the land promised the Jews, and dies.

The full range of meaning and feeling in the old tale of work transcending death is what makes King’s reworking so powerful.  This is what great speakers and teachers do:  they endow their words not just with overt meaning, but with a layered wealth of story, more meaning, more stuff for their listeners to chew on.

Obama in a literally mundane context turned his speech on the same idea.  He’s a great speaker in the same vein as King, not because he can deliver a line well, but because the speeches he writes and delivers as well as he does have both sound and meaning — a very carefully constructed web of references and connections to other stories we have told each other.  The Preacher from Georgia was a great way to frame the memory of Dr. King, that is, IMHO, not because in anonymized him, making him safe for white America — King is too strong a figure to be overtaken by his epithet, and Obama knows it.  Rather the trope works because it demands we pay attention to the full meaning of both King’s words and Obama’s.

In other words, what a great speech, for what it said, for what it demands of its listeners, (all 40 million of us) and what it requires we remember.

So:  for your viewing pleasure:  “I’ve been to the mountaintop” excerpt (the full text and video can be found at the link above); “I have a Dream” and the last section of Barack  Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in which the young preacher from Georgia makes his appearance.  (Full forty-five minute version here):

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

I Don’t Really Want To Argue With Neil Shubin…

April 7, 2008

but I will, a little. Not on matters of substance on the evolutionary history of the human body, as discussed in his book, Your Inner Fish. I’ve just begun it, and so far, it’s great. I’ll blog a bit of a review when I’ve actually gone through the whole thing, but for now, I want to raise a point that we confront every year for our science writing students at MIT — the problem of placing numbers in context.

Shubin runs into this issue right on the first page of chapter one. In his lede to the big idea of the book as a whole: that we can read a deep story of human evolution through, among other types of evidence, ancient transitional fossils, he seems to be trying to do two things at once. He promises to explain his confidence in the conclusions he will present over the next few hundred pages, and, just to make sure of his reader’s patience across that narrative, he adds the hook of a suggested scientific thriller or detective story. The passage concludes with this thought:

How can we visualize events that happened millions and in many cases billions of years ago? Unfortunately, there were no eyewitnesses; none of us was around…Even worse, the animals that existed back then have been dead and buried for so long their bodies are only rarely presereved. If you consider that over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, that only a very small fraction are preserved as fossils and that an even smaller fraction still are ever found, then any attempt to see our past seems doomed from the start.

There are at least two problems with this, both illustrative of common errors in science writing for the public. The first is a kind of science-yness contained within the sudden eruption of a statistic: the fate of 99 percent of all species that have lived on earth. What does that number mean? Nothing, here. Neither that number, nor the facts that follow — the fractions that leave fossils, the remnant that might be found — tell you anything about the quality of the evidence or of the statistical reasoning one could attempt based on those fossils that are discoverable.

Put the same thought into a different context. Amazingly, even though there is a poll of 3,000 people to discover the current state of US opinion about President Bush, amazingly, the opinions of 99.999 (as of July, 2007, according to the CIA) percent of all Americans remain unknown! Surely any attempt to guage US political opinions seems doomed from the start!…Or not.

The analogy is not quite fair of course. But the underlying point remains: the issue is not how many species have gone extinct, but whether the recoverable record of their former existence is robust enough to support the conclusions Shubin wants to draw. The use of a faux statistic here — or if not false, then so contextless as to be free of meaning — serves merely to distract. It lends the appearance of rigor, of a kind of authority.

Look, it says: scientists use numbers; they can quantify their knowledge — which must mean they really know something.

But if the reader smells a rat, if he or she notices that number is off-topic, not relevant to the actual argument being made, then any rhetorical advantage is lost. You’ve just given your audience a reason not to trust you.

As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of finding simple ways to express numerical reasoning to broad audiences. This is how not to do it. Don’t just throw numbers at the page. Show how they actually work. Make explicit the argument that your knowledge of the numbers and their relations express. Stay away from the “three out of five dentists recommend…” sleight of hand.

There…I got that out. Now for the other point. This really is one of rhetoric. Shubin finishes off the passage above by telling his readers that “any attempt to see our past seems doomed from the start.” But of course that’s true only if the preceding statement makes sense, which I’ve just argued it doesn’t.

Really, though, what is that comment doing here at all? It’s an old rule in story telling: don’t give your audience a reason to tune out. Telling them up front that there is a good reason to think that what you are about to talk about couldn’t happen would seem to violate that rule.

What makes the slip more frustrating is that Shubin immediately launches into his genuinely remarkable story of how he and his field performs exactly that “doomed” task. Turn the page, just that one page, and Shubin launches into a clear, personable, and persuasive account of the task of finding a fossil record and the implications of doing so for understanding events in deep time.

The book properly begins on that second page of text, in my humble opinion. There, Shubin writes:

“I first saw one of our inner fish on a snow July afternoon while studying 375-million-year-old rocks on Ellesmere Island at a latitude about 80 degrees north.”

That’s a classic opening, placing us as the Latinists among us would say in medias res (h/t Mrs. Small, Berkeley High School’s erstwhile defender of classical education) — in the middle of the matter. We are there with Shubin, we are seeing our inner fish for the first time, we are shivering in the snow at some exotic, romantic location, and we are ready for our guide to tell us how we got there, and where we go from here.

That’s how you begin a piece.

So why the throat-clearing (for that’s really what I think it was) of the prior page?

If I were to play text-doctor at a distance, I’d guess that what happened here is that either Shubin or his editor didn’t trust the strength of their material. Someone decided that the reader needed to be tricked into reading a fish story (though they would not have thought it in quite those terms). The narrative hook being set seems to be that of the heroic researcher performing the impossible — that “doomed” attempt to read the past. Better, by far, IMHO, just to get on with it.

The moral: less is better, and above all, trust your stuff.

One last thing: I’m picking on Shubin here not because I think his is a bad book. Quite the contrary: as far as I’ve read so far, its a very good take on an important subject. Most of it is exemplary science writing: communicating deep ideas with a light touch in a manner intelligible to any interested lay person. Go buy it.

In general I’m a wimp of a critic. I don’t like dumping on crappy stuff. I know that it takes just as much sweat and effort and blood-oozing-from-the-forehead to write something that doesn’t hang together as it does to complete a book that clicks. As long as someone made a sincere effort to get something they cared about down on the page, I don’t want to be the one sticking the boot in. (Stuff like this, however, is fair game. If you set out to do a dishonest thing, then I’ll slam into the pile as happily as anyone.)

I’d much rather praise a good piece of work while taking a hard look at the parts that don’t go as right as they should. Certainly, you need only look here, or here, or here, to find plenty of bones to pick. (And trust me — you don’t know pain until you see a work that you tied intestines into knots over for a couple of years going for the grand sum of .06 on the remainder table. Feh. That was a pretty damn good book too, if I do say so myself. But I digress….)

Writing anything is hard; science writing is particularly confounded by the need to express often highly abstract ideas in concrete, lay-and-language friendly terms. So read this post as just me taking advantage of what are in fact minor mistakes in Shubin’s fine book to point out a couple of common pitfalls in the practice.

Image: Joaquin Sorolla, “Beach at Valencia” 1908. Source Wikimedia Commons.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,821 other followers