Critical Thinking: UFOs

The press is having fun with the discovery that the Pentagon has spent a few million dollars checking out UFO claims.

Here’s a little video of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about the program. In his typically witty way Tyson points out that the presence of unidentified flying objects does not imply that they are evidence of alien visitation.

It’s ok not to know. It’s just fine to suspend judgment. Admit that you don’t know things. But there’s a huge gap between something defying explanation, and its being explained by guesses like “aliens” or “gods” or “ESP” or “magic” or what have you.

Not knowing is ok. It’s what pushes us to look for evidence. Recognizing your limitations, recognizing that there is work to do, and actually doing the investigation is at the heart of critical thinking. When you have decent evidence, be prepared to revise your position. Easy to say. Sometimes not so easy to do.

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Veritas Omnia Vincit, indeed

 

Canada watched, torn between the comedy and the horror of good intentions turned to viciousness at Wilfrid Laurier University last month.

b823649172z-1_20171115080829_000_gel20ah2u-3_super_portrait

Lindsay Shepherd, a 22-year-old M.A. student was at teaching assistant for an undergraduate Communications class. She prepared a seminar on the politics of gendered language/pronoun usage/binary concepts. In what appears to be an act of unexceptional diligence, she showed 3 minutes of a “debate” that had recently aired on public television (TVO). I’m not sure which 3 minutes Shepherd showed, but the full 9-minute clip looks like this.

In the clip we see (in)famous psychology professor Jordan Peterson squeeze in a few words about his views on gendered pronouns. Taking the offensive is Nicholas Matte, from the University of Toronto’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity studies. There isn’t much of a debate here. But perhaps there is enough material to stimulate some interesting discussion. What are the issues? Where are the divisions?

Apparently, a student in the class took exception to the clip, complaining that giving Peterson air time is tantamount to giving legitimacy to his position.

So far, so what? Another boring day of right vs left, conservative vs reformer, freedom of speech vs security of psyche. But of course, things are never so simple. Shepherd was called into a meeting with her supervisor, the program chair, the manager of the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Office. Not a very psychologically safe place, if you ask me. The power is entirely on the side of the university, and it’s 3-against-1. Further, the three have tenure, and Shepherd is a 22-year-old graduate student with very little infrastructure to support her.

Predictably, Shepherd was told that she should not have shown the clip and—believe it or not—was told that playing Peterson’s views was little different from giving a platform to Nazism.

Fortunately, Shepherd was wise enough to audiotape the entire ordeal. To her credit, she went to the press with her story, but said that she did not wish to release the recording unless it became absolutely necessary. Of course it became necessary.

CBC article with audio

So what is all this doing on a blog about publicly-funded K-12 education? First, any high school teacher could play that panel discussion with impunity, at least in my jurisdiction. Nobody has any doubt that 15-18 year olds can separate the signal from the noise, sort through the issues and makes some sense of what’s going on. It is patently absurd for a university to assume that undergraduates cannot do the same. And if they can’t, shame on the university and the high schools that feed it.

Second, it’s crucial that we remember why the post-Enlightenment world values freedom of speech so highly. There are many well-known arguments, but let me just focus on two ideas.

  1. Human beings are fallible. We struggle with the contingencies of our experiences, with the historical realities of ourselves, our cultures and our institutions. There are damned few things about which we are so certain that there is no point in hearing alternatives. This is not to say that a reasonable person should treat all alternatives as equally worthy of our time. But it is to say that we should be humble and recognize that the potentates of old were simply wrong to silence the other.
  2. People need to have the right to learn. I do not have all the same values, beliefs and knowledge that I had 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. I have changed. And I have changed for many reasons. I understand some things more deeply now than in the past. I have new information, new theories, new means of analysis. I have new experiences. The world has changed around me, and I have had to negotiate my way through this change. And this is true of everyone. The deep questions is: how can I learn if I am held to pre-ordained “truths” that I cannot question? Whatever I believe about gender expression today, it certainly is not what I believed in 1980, and it is highly unlikely to be what I believe in 2030. Why should a single point along this journey—say, 2017—be privileged above every other point of change? Why would we say, “this year, we have the TRUTH so you can stop thinking now”? To even suggest such a thing is to deny a person the right to learn.

As a teacher I must protect each student’s right to learn. Whatever they believe today, it must be open to reflection, to challenge, to reform. As a teacher, it is my obligation to question, to encourage the student to recognize both the justifications but also the implications of each belief. And perhaps most important of all, to recognize that intelligent, sincere people can disagree with us. The only way forward is through openness, not through bludgeoning our beliefs into others.

Wilfrid Laurier University’s motto is Veritas Omnia Vincit: Truth Conquers All. The irony is still hot.

Dr. Nathan Rambukkana, the supervisor who initiated the meeting (and who made the absolutely absurd comparison to Nazism) has issued a lukewarm apology in the form of an open letter. He does himself no credit.

Open letter from Nathan Rambukkana to Lindsay Shepherd

The President of Wilfrid Laurier has also apologized.

Apology from Laurier President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy

The university has shamed itself. A young woman’s career has been put in jeopardy. It’s a truly pathetic tale.

If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.–Noam Chomsky

Let’s give Lindsay Shepherd the final word.

Search Engines and Post-Truth

I had a rather mindless question this morning: In Harry Potter, what is the first name of  the namesake of Hufflepuff house? So I went to Google, and typed simply hufflepuff. Here’s what I got.

Hufflepuff

“Ah,” I thought, “Helga.” But then I looked at the google page. Stylistically, it looked awkwardly familiar. The layout, the references, the “similar links” appeared to be no different from what Google provides for living souls.

Uncomfortably, I typed “Haile Selassie”. Google quickly responded.

Selassie.PNG

My queasiness has not subsided much. Most people know that Helga Hufflepuff is fictional and that Haile Selassie was an Ethiopian emperor. Well, sadly, far more people know Hufflepuff than Selassie. But that’s another matter.

The point is that truth and fiction have precisely the same online frame. If you come into the frame with knowledge, you are able to understand the picture. But how is someone who does not enter with knowledge make sense of all this?

Honestly, I don’t know.

 

 

Constricting the modern mind

I will be brief and rambling today.

As I was wasting a few minutes on “social media” I noticed post after post where a meme–often a very clever one–was offered as evidence for a political opinion. You know what I mean “X destroys opinion Y with one example” blah blah blah. I find it both irritating and a bit frightening.

I find it frightening because more and more it appears that memes are displacing newspapers and news broadcasts as the fundamental information for voters. I see memes blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for Trans Canada Pipeline’s corporate decision not to further pursue the Energy East pipeline. I see local mayors tarred and feathered over I’m not sure what. I see that “the left” all agree on everything, and it’s all stupid. I see the “the right” all agree on everything, and that it’s all racist.

And I fear for the future of democracy.

One of the strongest responses could come from education. But I’m not sure that the will is there.

As I sadly looked at my Facebook page, a line from JS Mill’s On Liberty came to mind.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859).

Mill knew better.

People who disagree with us are not all fools, nor are they all morally defective. (Some may be, of course.) For virtually any position worth fighting over, reasonable people can disagree on the details, and sometimes the fundamentals.

But do we take other people’s disagreements with us seriously enough?

What are the real issues behind athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem? They are not all fools; they are not all anarchists hell-bent on destroying a nation. You don’t have to agree with anyone to take him seriously. But you do have to have some intellectual and moral courage.

Can we teach students to take others seriously? I think we can. I don’t think we do it well enough. Classroom debates rarely get to the heart of the matter. Debates tend to quickly degenerate into glib contests of verbal cleverness.

Student writing (or oral, or visual representation, or film, or whatever) should always consider the strongest opposition to the point being argued. In fact, this should be one of the main points of assessment in the scoring rubric (that’s scoring guide, or rules, for non-teachers). Perhaps as much as 30-40% of the student’s grade should be contingent on whether she takes her opponents seriously and gives them fair and honest voice.

I’ll stop here. I’ve given this much thought over the years, but I’ve never tried to articulate it until now. Hopefully, you’ve noticed that I haven’t given fair voice to someone who disagrees with taking opposing views seriously. It’s a dilemma.

Gilded Monuments and History

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, controversy over the proposed removal of a statue of Edward Cornwallis has been quietly brewing for nearly four decades.

300px-CornwallisStatueHalifaxNovaScotia[1]Cornwallis was a British military man, who was given the task of establishing the city of Halifax, and  was Governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-1752, after which, he retired back in England. At the very least, the statue is a tribute to colonialism, to the “conquering” of the new world and its first inhabitants. In short, the statue symbolizes the beginning of the modern Canadian nation-state, as well as the beginning of the decimation–some would say genocide–of indigenous Canadians.

We are hearing similar debates in the USA this year, with discussions about public commemorations of Civil War leaders. As in Canada, one side wants the statues to celebrate “glorious history” and the other wants to put an end to the public display of the vile politics of an earlier era.

There really isn’t much to say about the issue in general, apart from the observation that every public monument is different. Staying within Canada, consider Mt. Stalin. After the end of the second World War, the Canadian government honoured our great allies by renaming three peaks in the Rockies after Churchill, Eisenhower and Stalin. Since the war, we haven’t learned much to make us regret the first two, but as the realities of Stalin’s rule of terror became known, Mt. Stalin became a public embarrassment. But it took a fair bit of debate before the mountain was renamed Mt. Peck  in 1987. The fact is that Stalin was a major contributor to victory in the War. Yet, this wasn’t enough to outweigh his atrocities. Canada chose to stop honouring Josef Stalin. And rightly so.

Cornwallis will be a more difficult case. He was, undoubtedly, a man of his time, and we can’t hold that against him. On the other hand, we are acutely aware of the pains of colonialism and its legacy. The people of Halifax will have to weigh three things:

  1. Cornwallis was founder of the city.
  2. The statue celebrates the colonial imbalance of power that was instrumental in the decimation of First Nations.
  3. The statue itself has been a part of the civic culture for almost a century.

I have no pony in this race, and I leave it to the good people of Halifax to figure this out.

 

But what about history? What are we to make of the claim that the removal of statues is the destruction or denial of history.

It’s nonsense.

These statues are not history. They are public markers of admiration. When they were installed, the admiration was undoubtedly real. But it’s our world now, and we have both the right and the duty to carefully consider and reconsider who we choose to display publicly. Do the people of Halifax value the British presence and dominance in Nova Scotia more than they decry the destruction of indigenous peoples? Does the civic pride in looking at a depiction of a dead general outweigh the personal anguish of the victims of colonialism and their descendants?

Weigh carefully, my friends.

Finally, let’s think about historical precedents. Often after revolutions or even after minor insurrections, zealous crowds have toppled statues. I’m talking about something different. Let people use the wisdom of public assembly to guide decisions of public policy.

In the end, though, time will be the judge. All these dead guys displayed in bronze remain in the historical record. And the judgment of historians–and history students, will continue to evolve as do our collective beliefs of justice and goodness change. Time gets the final word.

Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

 

Dilbert on Amusing Ourselves to Death

Dilbert amusing
http://dilbert.com/strip/2017-04-30

 

Like all good humour, the strip is a minor exaggeration of reality.

 

Weapons

 

The strip serves as a segue from my concerns about the continuing relevance of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, to my next entry, which will look at Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.

As we move more deeply into the connected world, we have no choice but to surrender personal data. As we surrender data, market managers are able to tailor-make a world of consumption for us–whether we want it or not. The upshot is that the world of big data is relentlessly conservative–it makes a model of “you as you are” and works to market at you from that position only. The poor are set up for predatory loans and exploitative “opportunities”, while the affluent are guided toward status-enhancement.

Tighten your seatbelts; things are looking bleak.