Thursday, 21 November 2013

Perishing publishing

The history of publishing is an important one, because the printed word has always held an important political place in society. After all, why else would dictatorial regimes have controlled and tracked the distribution of paper and typewriters in their day, or monitor blogs and Twitter now? Publication (literally, "making something public;" that sense gets lost as we use the word over and over again) has always played a central role in reflecting the state of public discourse but it also plays an important role in setting the terms of that discourse and structuring people's ideas moving forward.

As publishing technology has developed, we can see a double trend in the public discourse. First, we see that as publishing becomes more accessible and affordable, more voices are able to enter into the public discourse. The drivers of the Reformation could ever have suggested that individuals read the Bible and figure it out for themselves had each copy still been laboriously made by hand: the printing press was instrumental in that possibility. Second, we see a trend where, amid the growing number of voices and perspectives within the public sphere, the coherence of that discourse degrades. That's not terribly surprising, and not just an accidental connection either: as the number of people at any party grows, the likelihood that the whole party is talking about the same thing decreases (unless that thing is Rob Ford's inanity).

Looking at the present state of publishing technology, we see that anyone with even the most marginal technological savvy, the most basic of hardware, and the most intermittent of internet connections can broadcast their thoughts and emotions to the world with ease. The price of this is that public discourse is a cacophony of SHOUTING VOICES COMING FROM PEOPLE WITH CAPS LOCK PROBLEMS AND WE OFTEN HAVE VERY LITTLE OF SUBSTANCE TO SAY. Not only is there a lack of agreement about which topics are important enough to warrant discussion, but we also don't have any agreed upon rules of decorum that guide these discussions. One man's shameful fallacy is another's proud arrow protruding from the side of a slain enemy.

Again, touching back on the political power of the printed word, we've found ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Once upon a time, the people powerful enough to control the publishing industries of their day could control the public discourse. Voices, especially those in great need, were not heard; power structures were perpetuated, and the rich stayed rich. The opening up of the publishing world should have saved us from this fate, but it hasn't. Whereas the printed word could once serve as a rallying point for dissidents, there are so many venues and voices now that any semblance of rallying is impossible. How can we organize opposition to the party line if we can't reach fellow dissidents through the din? (The answer to that rhetorical question, by the way, is "quite infrequently".)

Suggesting topics that are "worthy" of public attention would be extremely difficult. The whole idea that having one person or group dictate the terms of discussion will allow for a comprehensive treatment of problems is wrong-headed. We all have our blind spots, and sadly what lies in those blind spots is sometimes the very thing that oppresses those around us. That's why it's so important to let a multiplicity of voices be heard.

But leaving the topics or content of public discourse aside for a moment, let's turn our attention to its form. It seems that anything goes, out there on the internet. It's the Wild West of argumentative strategies, and trolls lurk under every bridge and behind every status. Some have suggested that we need to step up our critical thinking game, especially in schools, to bring some semblance of order back to this shambles. But the rules of critical thinking are not God's gift to humankind: they're rules of discourse that have a very real history and a real connection to imperfect mankind (and that was meant to be gendered: if we're going to keep women out of intellectual history, it's surely unfair to saddle them equally with its faults). The rules of critical thinking are agreed upon conventions, but they aren't agreed upon by everyone. They aren't even known to everyone. And that's where the problem lies in suggesting a rigid return to yonder days of critical yore: these rules are known well by some, tenuously by others, and not at all by others still. This gradient of familiarity and facility with the rules once again allows a problematic power structure back into the discourse, where those in the know can marginalize the voices of the uninitiated. (I imagine that any other set of rules would suffer from the same intrinsic flaw.)

So do we need no rules at all? That doesn't get us anywhere because these rules are supposed to guide rational discourse. Lawlessness here (as we presently see) has arational, if not irrational, consequences. But if we can't go back to doggedly applying the rules and we can't go forward without them, then what do we do? I suggest that it's about attitude. These rules are meant to provide a medium for us, by which we can come to an understanding with one another, so that our ideas can copulate and make beautiful babies. If we took up the rules of critical thinking in that spirit, not as the weapons by which to smite our enemy and establish our rightful truth-y-ness, but rather as the tools to enrich both of our notions of what's what, I think that we would employ them very differently. Rather than starting out assuming that each of us is right, and need only convince others of our obvious enlightenment, perhaps we should dive off the block assuming that we're both wrong, but that we're more likely to approach the truth through discussion than through alienation.

Here's my practical suggestion: learn the rules of critical thinking, and learn them thoroughly. But apply them judiciously in order to maximize understanding rather than using them to shut down dialogue. And speaking of using things judiciously: remember that every bit of noise that each of us makes on the internet contributes to the background noise in which we lose discussions of freedom and equality. Does that next cat video really need another re-share? I suppose I ought to take a dose of my own medicine and end this post, post haste.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Romantic co-operation of sciences and humanities

In an article from last winter, Peter Calamai tackles the very pressing contemporary problem of the relationship between science and society. Specifically, he claims that getting the public to reason on the basis of our cutting-edge science faces challenges on a number of fronts. First off, the general public has only a relatively tenuous grasp on the main tool of the sciences themselves: mathematics. Our problems with numeracy, as a nation (though there is no comparative data to show whether this national problem is particularly acute in Canada or rather whether we're part of a global mathematical deficiency), stand between us and the scientific results that might help us in our lot as decision-makers.

Beyond this general weakness in mathematics, Calamai also mentions a general misunderstanding of the scientific process itself. Specifically cited as a culprit here, or at least an accomplice, is the way that scientists are portrayed in the media as very confident in their conclusions. Of course, to portray science more humbly, as the house of uncertainty that it really is, must be carried out carefully. Scientists are not simply bumbling about in the dark: there is always a degree of uncertainty, but along with that goes that very important correlate that evaluating confidence in conclusions is an immense part of the scientific enterprise itself. In short, while portraying scientists as forever unsure of outcomes would open up an easy target for skeptics, portraying them as very sure of the probabilities of outcomes would have quite a different effect. It's a bit of a trade off, of course: is it better to be someone certain about probabilities, or probable about certainties? The jury's out. But either way, it seems that the media's misrepresentation of scientists as always sure of a definite outcome does real scientists a disservice, because they (and present science) do not live up to that image.

So the general public is not only deficient in the language of science, but also in what kinds of results we can expect from scientific predictions. And whether to attack this problem in society through better schooling early in life, or through other public education later in life, is an open-ended problem. For what it's worth, I think that neither of those options alone is a viable solution. Humanistic scholars speak of a lifestyle of critical engagement; to assume that scientific education at one or another point in life is sufficient I think sells short the analogous point that science is not just a practice, it's a way of looking at the world, and one that needs to be fostered throughout one's life if one is going to use it effectively.

But are things so dire as all that? Are we really in such a bad way? Calamai cites Frank Graves, who says that while we might hope for scientific literacy to be better in Canada than it presently is, we shouldn't neglect the fact that we're trending upwards in scientific literacy. The public of course lags behind the cutting edge (and even specialists lag behind that cutting edge in other specialties, by the way), but we're still gaining ground, and that's a sign of improvement.

However, Graves also discusses the fact that the anti-science crowd (that's to say, the anti-vaccine movement, Young Earth Creationists, and the like) is gaining traction in the general public. This is anathema to science establishing itself as the thoroughbred in our decision-making stable. Graves points out that the reason these anti-science movements manage to win people over is that they appeal more directly to their practical concerns (and often their fears, which psychology teaches us is an easy and reliable motivator). They understand the target audience better, and therefore market their product more effectively, whether that product is in fact better or not. Graves very sagely points out that what we need here is not just a clearer restatement of scientific theories or predictions; what we need is a clearer connection to people's preexisting interests.

Malcolm Butler worries that the long-term outcome of this trend towards anti-science is that we risk "having the development of public policy drive not by fact but by hysteria." I believe that the root of the problem we face lies lies in the very opposition that Butler sets up here. If Graves is right that we need to better connect to people's values in order to reach them, and if anything beyond science (including those values) is treated as hysteria, with all of the dismissive judgment that a word like "hysteria" entails, then the scientific community has already foreclosed the possibility of reaching out. Simply put, a scientist is unlikely to connect with someone's values if they dismiss those values as hysteria. Scientists don't like having their ideas being dismissed by the broader public; it should come as no shock whatsoever that the inverse is also true.

Of course, not all scientists are dismissive in this way, but given that the generalization is already prevalent, scientists will need to work even harder to overcome it. But what work is that, exactly? Well, if you want to connect your theories to someone else's values, then you'll have to learn about those values. Scientists need a better understanding of their target audience if they wish to market they product more effectively, and that understanding requires a better grasp of humanistic inquiry, which seeks to understand the human animal in its cultural domain.

And to all those scientists who may have just read that last sentence about the importance of humanistic inquiry, and subsequently rolled their eyes, consider the relationship between scientists and politicians. Calamai himself notes somewhat disparagingly that the ears of politicians only perk up when the scientists start speaking their language, giving them insights into how to better disguise their politically motivated decisions as "science-based". Scientists disparage having their work taken up for purely instrumental reasons; I would press them to be consistent in applying that rule, and realize that for scientists to engage in humanistic inquiry for purely instrumental reasons, to be better equipped to convince people to use science in making decisions, is equally unacceptable. If scientists worry that the full benefit of their message gets lost on politicians because of merely instrumental interest, then they should recognize that the need for humanistic inquiry requires a full-blooded commitment on their part as well, lest something important be lost.

So what's the bottom line, here? What's the take-home message? The Canadian fluency in the language and process of scientific discovery is weak, which leads our citizenry to misuse an essential tool in decision-making. If we want to do a better job selling the importance of that tool, then we need to address people on their own terms and do a better job of connecting science to their own values. To do so, I argue that there needs to be a stronger bridge between the sciences and the humanities, one that exists not for the sole and instrumental purpose of convincing more people to be scientific in coming to decisions. This bridge, by the way, is not one-way, as ideas need to travel back and forth across it without being dismissed out of hand.

There are definitely institutional barriers to this discussion, and further barriers to making that discussion part of the public discourse. I won't address those here, but would love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section, for further discussion.

Friday, 26 July 2013

My body's nobody's body but mine (but perhaps also my unborn child's)

The abortion debate in Canada is making headlines again. Maisonneuve magazine, a great (and surprisingly anglo, given the name) publication out of Montreal, published a piece in their last issue about the recent surge in pro-life support in the Great North. Some bits of that article are extremely helpful, I think, in exploring a more nuanced understanding of the terms of this debate. So let me recap the article with a bit of running commentary.

There's a vocal group (I'll go out on a limb and say a vocal minority) of Canadians who are making waves about illegalising abortion, and some Conservative backbenchers take them very seriously. Though the Conservatives presently have a majority government (a fact that I never tire of lamenting), these backbenchers aren't being given the leash needed to make a serious issue of abortion in Parliament, so the legality of abortion hasn't taken the national spotlight. But given the current power of the party, and the intensifying crescendo from the pro-life campaigns outside of political circles, abortion is an issue that we can less and less easily ignore in Canada.

Doctor Morgentaler was of course the pioneering figure/principal villain in the original move to decriminalize abortions up north. Since then, the government has remained pretty silent about the whole affair, though while there are not laws that strictly regulate abortion, the nation's physicians have set themselves some pretty strict guidelines. Pro-lifers make a lot of hay about the deregulated nature of abortions, sometimes claiming that Canada's abortion laws are as lax as those of North Korea (and does anyone here know very much about North Korean abortion laws anyway?), but that seems out of place because of the physicians' own guidelines. Self-regulation seems fine when it actually works.

The financial crisis of 2008 didn't show us that leaving sectors legally deregulated is asking for trouble; it showed us that banks in particular can't be trusted to regulate themselves. Banks need legal watchdogs, but Canadian doctors seem to be doing pretty well regulating themselves, so the issue of legal deregulation seems a non-starter. Apparently 72% of Canadians want "some protection for the unborn", but having that protection meted out by doctors rather than politicians seems a preferable option. (And this seems to be completely in line with Conservative ideology: Harpers's party ran on a platform of paring down big government and letting industries monitor and regulate themselves, as they've been doing by cutting back the environmental monitoring that the government uses to keep economic ambitions in check. Maybe that's why Harper doesn't want to reopen the issue: abortion is the poster-child issue for self-regulating industry.)

The pro-life movement, however, has been anything but silent. They've got protests and marches and demonstrations and conferences and conventions. And they've got religious affiliations, as the movement is strongly tied to Christian ideals. Their "crisis pregnancy centres", which are basically their response to the abortion clinic, have strong Christian overtones, including formally recognizing the divine nature of Christian scripture. Jenn Giroux, one of the spokespeople for the movement, decries the "desecration of motherhood" since the invention of the birth control pill, and urges young women to give their best years to having children.

And this is where the real problems lie. The pro-life movement, espousing fundamental Christian values, opposes itself not only to abortions, but also to birth control, despite the fact that birth control is one of the most effective and safest ways to reduce the number of abortions. The pro-life group runs an ad campaign that a foetus is a baby, not a choice. But therein lies some troubling ambiguity. One might conceivably oppose abortion, that is, get on board with the idea that once you're pregnant you shouldn't have the choice to terminate the pregnancy. But that need not entail that one oppose birth control. Pro-lifers lump together the decision to conceive with the decision to carry that conception to term, but we need not lump the two together. And when we separate those issues, and give people the option to make decisions about getting pregnant, they tend to choose less often to get abortions.

(Simlarly, the founder of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, ended up leaving the organization because they started to oppose drinking wholesale, instead of drunk driving specifically. That story may be apocryphal, though.)

What actually drives a woman to get an abortion? Fear? Desperation? Those in the pro-life campaign who paint it as a frivolous decision that one makes on a whim, if there are any such people, are deluding themselves. My anticipation is that women worry about what will happen to them if they have the child, about whether they will have the support necessary to raise a child and have a life of their own (which I take to be an integral part of raising a happy and healthy kid). Women want to flourish, and they want a situation where their offspring can flourish too. And if their situation is desperate enough, can we really blame them for believing that it might be best for everyone involved if the child were never born? Worries about support from their partner, from their family, from their community, or from their economy are all serious issues for women to consider in regards to having children, and it makes sense to reflect seriously on these issues when planning to begin/expand a family.

If we all agree on that point (and I know that some won't), then we get the ball rolling in terms of taking safe sex seriously. But if condoms and other methods of birth control are unavailable or socially unacceptable in one's circles (as the pro-lifers advocate), then unplanned pregnancy will be an issue that needs addressing. How can we justify jacking up the odds of unplanned pregnancy while at the same time banning abortions? Of course, total sexual abstinence is the best method of birth control, but only if by "best" we mean most reliable. Abstinence stems an important process of sexual self-discovery, one that is playing more and more of a prominent role in our society as the media grows more sexualized and one's identity is increasingly determined by one's sexuality (by which I don't mean sexual orientation), now more in the spotlight than ever before.

There are four interwoven issues here: sexual discovery, safe sex, abortions, and the risks of unplanned parenthood. The pro-lifers take safe sex and abortions off the table immediately, making sexual discovery come with the very real risk of unplanned parenthood. If the pro-lifers really want to stop abortions, they have to provide an environment where women, their children, and their partners can all flourish. We need greater social support for mothers and a greater push for gender equality in the workplace, specifically as it pertains to the issue of parenthood. What we don't need is any more finger-wagging from a group of religious folks telling us that the modern world is full of sin and corruption, and should consequently be abandoned. Even if sin and corruption are rampant, abandoning the modern world just isn't an option for most people. People need the support to live a healthy lifestyle where an unplanned pregnancy isn't likely to doom a woman and her child to the cycle of poverty, or where having a child doesn't keep women and their children trapped in abusive relationships. Cause real people live that situation every day, and I'm not sure that it's so clearly preferable to abortion as the pro-lifers make it out to be.

What the pro-lifers are advocating is not just putting an end to abortion. It's a whole cluster of values: women being nurturing mothers, starting families younger, generally putting their own goals aside (when those don't align with motherhood), etc. That lifestyle may be suitable for some, and to those I say that you should pursue your goals as fervently and passionately as any of us pursue what is important to us. But it isn't anyone's place to push that life on an unwilling woman. And that's exactly what pro-lifers seem to be doing through their attempts to illegalise abortion, suppress birth control, and misinform women about their own health issues, thereby making informed decision-making more difficult. It's not just about abortion.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Nature of Philopolis, pt. 4

The first three installments, which can be found here, here, and here, have generated lots of interesting comments and discussion, so I'm very excited to see what responses I get to the this fourth and final installment in which I draw my conclusions. Really looking forward to discussing some feedback.

            So what is Philopolis offering that’s unique? For now, we differ from both Chautauqua and TED in our outlook on the creation of knowledge, in that we strongly endorse a participatory model rather than a cloistered-production-and-dissemination model. Philopolis has the in-person feel of Chautauqua, which is unfortunately campy and niche at the moment. However, given that we don’t pass this off as a wholesome summer camp, but rather as a festival, we move in a much more urban circle than the rural Chautuaquans. Hopefully that makes us less camp.
            At the opposite extreme, TED dominates the massive online dissemination model, whereas Philopolis has basically no online presence. What little online presence we have basically serves entirely to draw people to the in-person festivals, which are the real bread and butter of our organization. However, if we were to drastically expand our online presence, what would it look like? TED has videos of talks, but that’s appropriate for the dissemination model of education in a way that doesn’t seem to suit the participatory model. An online community of Philopolis would be more of a discussion board (or set of discussion boards) than a set of videos. Discussion boards, of course, exist all over the internet. What Philopolis would hopefully “lack” is the near-instant recourse to the ad hitlerum fallacy that we find in any online thread. Is that even possible? Or does one need face-to-face interaction to resist calling one’s interlocutor a Nazi at the drop of a hat?
            Another potential obstacle is that online interaction often takes place in short bursts. There is a parallel in teaching here: pedagogical researchers, of whom I’m often deeply distrustful, tell me that students have a very short attention span and that we therefore should be switching activities every 20 minutes. First off, this endorses the tacit assumption that even if their attention span really is that short, that they cannot (or should not) be expected to work at lengthening their attention span. And I don’t believe that either of those things is true. Second, short spans of attention seem to me incompatible with philosophical reflection as it’s currently practiced. That’s not to say that philosophical reflection shouldn’t change either, but my point is that there is an impasse between currently short attention spans and the current model of philosophical reflection that requires sustained time and effort. I don’t think that we should give in entirely to either of those: we shouldn’t resign ourselves to short attention spans, nor should we preclude the possibility of philosophical reflection evolving in a fruitful fashion that does not require quite as lengthy an engagement as it currently does.
            So Philopolis faces the following challenges: first, embrace the urban feel of the festival, which differentiates us from the campiness of Chautauqua camp. Second, embrace the participatory model of knowledge and education that distances us from both Chautauqua and TED. Third, negotiate the current impasse between short attention spans and the time-consuming cognitive demands of present philosophical practice. Fourth, negotiate the enormous gap between the universal but “thin” sense of community that comes with present forms of online interaction, and the “thick” sense of community that comes with in-person interaction, as well as the serial bursts vs. sustained attention that goes with that dichotomy.
            This is the state of the Philopolis union so far as I can see it at this point. My hope is not that this conception goes unchallenged: I welcome revisions to my questions and challenges as much as I welcome answers to them. Also, it’s kind of nice to think that some of these issues are those that are defining of our time: the relationship between communication, community and education (and democracy), and how that relationship is affected by the introduction of new online technologies, which in turn replace modes of communication that have been the bedrock of our culture for decades (and in some cases centuries). Are online and real life opposed, or can they play complementary roles? Can philosophical reflection evolve into bite-sized chunks, or is it essential that it be a sustained activity? Is a hybrid of theory and practice a reasonable goal to set for oneself as a community?