Information, Knowledge and Wisdom

I try to write on a variety of topics, but I frequently return to questions of information and knowledge. (Wisdom is a whole other topic.)

We live in a world of information. Titles, fragments, snippets. Allegedly, we have entered a period of post-truth: a time when we get worked up over a headline, picture or soundbite, and can’t be bothered to go any further.

Yes. There is not much doubt of this.

And, if  you spend any time at all in the humanities, you’ll discover that someone smarter than you or I had this thought long ago.

from Choruses from The Rock
T.S. Eliot (1936)

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Take an hour today. Read something worthy of human intelligence. Information is over-rated. Honest.

You can read the rest of the poem here. Then go for a walk. Then consider rereading the Choruses.


Only for geniuses, eh?

As regularly as the spring rain, memes of the following sort show up on social media.

As a math teacher, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Adults—sometimes hundreds or thousands of them—argue about the correct answer to this “problem” and others like it.
Let’s be clear: this is a question about the order of operations in arithmetic. In the Province of Alberta (my home) this is expected of all Grade 6 math students. So, Facebook is clogged with adults working below 6th grade in basic number sense. Ok I do know. It’s cry, not laugh.
What sense can we make of this? Do adults not remember their elementary-school arithmetic? Apparently many do not. But some of the comments are also telling. It appears that many were taught methods that almost work, but don’t quite.
The acronyms BEDMAS or BODMAS are often taught to children.

Exponents (or pOwers)

If you follow BEDMAS, you’ll be right most of the time. It’s fine for the above problem. There are no brackets or exponents, so you divide 7/7 and multiply 7×7, turning the problem into 7+1+49-7=50. But there is a problem with BEDMAS/BODMAS and that is that the acronym suggests that division has priority over multiplication and that addition has priority over subtraction. This is not true.
Once brackets and exponents are cared for, you work left to right. If you come to a multiplication or division, do that before continuing with the addition or subtraction. Schematically, the problem above simply becomes 7+(7/7)+(7×7)-7, which is pretty easy mental arithmetic.
Even calculators can make errors.


If you’re not working left to right, you run the risk of making the error on the left.
Regardless, what am I on about here?
First, order of operations is elementary school arithmetic. It should not pose a problem for adults. But it does. This points to a serious educational deficiency—for the adults. This is not a problem of “new math” or “constructivism” or “Common Core”. The people getting it wrong online are, by and large, from earlier generations of failed arithmetic education.
But it’s clearly a problem, and I think I know why. It’s a problem of assessment. You see, if students (in any generation) get most of the questions right, they get a good grade. I suspect that the adults who can’t solve simple order of operations problems never could do it well. But they got all the easier questions right, so no one bothered to dig deeply into their failure on the one or two harder items on the test. Yes, this is just speculation on my part, but I’m willing to bet that it explains a good deal of the problem.
But there is a positive note to all this. Adults are arguing about math in their spare time.

They care. And that’s encouraging.

Back to the 80s #3: Manufacturing Consent

Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is one of the most influential scholarly works of the 1980s. Certainly in the English language, it created enormous waves in every aspect of social science, and popular culture.

manufacturing-consent-the-political-economy-of-the-mass-media-0-300x300In brief, Herman and Chomsky create a “propaganda model” to explain coverage of certain issues in the largest American news media.

The case has two parts. Herman and Chomsky analyze “natural experiments” in the news world to see if American media give differential treatment to what appear to be politically and morally similar events. When they see that the treatment is, indeed, differential, they then apply their media model to explain the difference.

Two of the “natural experiments” or case studies stand out. In the decade or so preceding the publication of Manufacturing Consent, three Central American countries suffered from civil war, military rule, and American intervention. All three held elections that were scrutinized by external observers. Two of the states—El Salvador and Guatemala—enjoyed the support of the American government; the third—Nicaragua—did not. All three situations got extensive treatment, but Herman and Chomsky provide abundant evidence that they were not treated equally. The press was continually sympathetic to El Salvador and Guatemala, and continually antagonistic toward Nicaragua. There were other significant differences, and these were examined in the propaganda model.

quote-the-propaganda-system-allows-the-u-s-ieadership-to-commit-crimes-without-limit-and-with-edward-s-herman-77-16-03The second main case study involved the press’s treatment of the Indochina war (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) from the 1950s to the 1970s. Throughout the war, according to Herman and Chomsky, the press continually misrepresented the nature of local support, the nature of US involvement, the consequences of US attacks on civilians, and the suppression of popular vote in order to protect US-friendly candidates, regardless of their local standing. (The natural comparison to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor is mentioned, but not deeply explored in this book. Much was made of this in years to follow.)

I will not delve deeply into the book here, as I wish to take the main conclusions and play them forward into 2017, but I will at least outline the propaganda model.

Herman and Chomsky’s key idea is that a free press, operating in a market economy within a militarily powerful nations is subject to pressures that act as filters to the news. The model identifies five filters:

  1. Ownership
  2. Advertising
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak, and
  5. Anti-Communism.

As mentioned previously, the model was presented in 1988, when anti-communism was a more powerful filter than it is today. That said, Herman and Chomsky, in a 2008 interview, note that it has been replaced with other convenient patriotic neuroses.

…The Propaganda Model’s ‘five filters’ requires some clarification. (a) Ownership and (b) advertising belong to straightforward institutional analysis – these are the kinds of institutional arrangements that predominate among US media firms and elsewhere. (c) Sourcing and (d) flak are two well-established processes to which any elite-serving media will adapt, whether we are talking about the elite US or British media or the elite media under Stalin and Hitler. On the other hand, (e) anti-communism, as a major theme of media production during the twentieth century, was reflective of the prevailing system of belief in the Western states, and has evolved with the collapse of the Soviet bloc since the first edition of Manufacturing Consent. In a crucial sense, and extending from the most minor comic books and cartoons all the way up to the highest academic discussions of the so-called Cold War (i.e. the system of propaganda known as the ‘Cold War’), anti-communism was a staple that provided content, narratives, heroes and villains. Since 1989, this staple has morphed into an array of substitutes. But the structural role that anti-communism and its successors have played, namely, the provision of an Enemy or the Face of Evil, remains as relevant as ever.


When asked how the model might be revised for the current situation, Herman and Chomsky replied:

It would look very much like the 1988 version, with the ‘free market’ as a principal ideological underpinning along with ‘anti-terrorism’ and the ‘war on terror’ that have provided the needed Enemy or Face of Evil, with anticommunism pushed into a back-up and reminder/ideological role.

So let’s move forward to 2017, and the current obsession with biased media, fake news and post-truth.

Let’s start with the obvious question: does the media have a left- or right- bias? And here we see precisely where the Herman and Chomsky model is almost speaking a different language from the popular discourse. Left and right are defined in popular discourse strictly in terms of local politics. In the USA, the Democrats are the left and the Republicans are the right. That might seem obvious to Americans, but to the rest of the world this is crazy: The Democrats are right and the Republicans are righter, by almost any standard. The discourse of “business first” and profitability for home-grown corporations are front and centre of political discourse—both in American and in much of the world. Since the heady Reagan-Thatcher days of the 80s, hardly anyone bothers to question this point of view. Certainly the mainstream media does not question this. The media is conservative in the same way that the mainstream political parties (at least in the USA) are conservative: they take for granted that the role of government is to ensure that existing power and economic structures be conserved.

The question of left/right bias in American media in 2017 is a thinly disguised question of favourable reviews of particular parties or candidates, not of left or right. Anecdotally, during the recent US Presidential election, the mainstream media certainly appeared to take more shots at Trump than Clinton, but at the same time, it gave Trump considerably more airtime. It’s hard to say which was more valuable to the parties and candidates.

But on a deeper level, this puts the whole fake news/post-truth debate in a different space than we have been seeing. Yes, there are propaganda sites out there, and yes, some media outlets show brand loyalty to political parties. This is also interesting, but not particularly deep or troubling. What is deep and troubling is the media’s bias towards certain views of the world. And this, if we can trust Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, is not new.

So let’s stop for a moment and catch our collective breath. Everybody thinks we should teach “media literacy” to our students so that they can navigate the wild world of fact/propaganda/lies/post-truth/alternative facts/doublethink, etc. etc. I’m ok with that, but let’s not rush into this. We have an enormous problem, made even more enormous by

  1. Our tacit acceptance of “the world as it is”, and
  2. The abyss we call the internet. As curated libraries shrink and are superseded by the uncurated online world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish mainstream media (with Herman and Chomsky’s reservations) from sincere and competent alternative media, from sincere and less competent alternative media, from partisan lies.

Let me close without resolution. Media literacy—whatever it turns out to be—will have to be a broad and deep endeavor for it to make any real difference for our students.


Alternative Facts

I post in utter amazement.


What in the world are “alternative facts”? Sometimes the facts are unclear. Sometimes the facts are in principle or in practice unknowable. But alternative facts?

As Chuck Todd noted, “alternative facts are not facts; they are untruths”.

No matter how many times gurus tell us that appearance is reality, it isn’t.

Is this what post-truth looks and sounds like? First claim: he gave facts. Second claim: he gave “alternative facts”. Third claim: nobody really knows the facts.

So far as I can see, all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. . . To appreciate the danger of Fascism the Left would have had to admit its own shortcomings, which was too painful; so the whole phenomenon was ignored or misinterpreted, with disastrous results.

The most one can say is that people can be fairly good prophets when their wishes are realizable. But a truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist… The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization….

I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.

–George Orwell, London Letter in: Partisan Review (Winter, 1945)


The Inauguration

As I ponder the forthcoming American presidential inauguration, I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s 1992 song “The Future”. Cohen sees a future where value has been lost, where all we have is a free market of taste.

Cohen wonders aloud if dangerous valuation is preferable to a world where right/wrong or true/false have lost their meaning.



Give me back my broken night
My mirrored room, my secret life
It’s lonely here
There’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
Over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby
That’s an order!

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole
In your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother
It is murder.

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold and it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant

You don’t know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I’m the little Jew
Who wrote the bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
But love’s the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
To say it clear, to say it cold:
It’s over, it ain’t going
Any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
You feel the devil’s riding crop
Get ready for the future
It is murder.

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold and it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There’ll be phantoms
There’ll be fires on the road
And the white man dancing
You’ll see a woman hanging upside down
Her features covered by her fallen gown
And all the lousy little poets coming round
Tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson
And the white man dancin’

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
Give me Christ
Or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don’t like children anyhow
I’ve seen the future, baby:
It is murder.

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold and it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said repent REPENT
I wonder what they meant


Good luck to us all.



Back to the 80’s # 2: The Keegstra Affair

In 1981, the village of Eckville, population about 700, became home to the most notorious incident in the history of Alberta education.

Eckville, Alberta

Susan Maddox, a relative newcomer to town, read over her son’s high school social studies notes with alarm. His notes were riddled with anti-Semitism, holocaust denial, fear of the “Jewish-controlled international banking system” and supposed threats to Christianity posed by the new world order.

Her son’s teacher, James Keegstra, was not only a veteran teacher, well-liked by staff and students, he was also Eckville’s mayor. Maddox’s complaint finally led to some investigation into Keegstra’s classroom practice. The Minister of Education removed Keegstra’s teaching certification (for failing to teach the approved curriculum, interestingly), and Keegstra became a test case for Canada’s hate speech laws, taking up court time into the 1990s.)

Keegstra’s initial conviction for willing promoting hatred, 1985. Photo from The Calgary Herald

(I do not wish to give air to Keegstra’s views at this time. If you can get a hold of Robert Mason Lee’s article “Keegstra’s Children” from the May 1985 issue of Saturday Night magazine, you’ll get a fuller sense of what Keegstra taught, and what his students learned.)

My interest today is in one narrow but crucial part of Keegstra’s teaching: that the mainstream press cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

But it was far more insidious than that.

Suppose you found a book that said that the Holocaust were, indeed, an actual historical event. Keegstra had a ready-made reply: the book is fake news. Photographs: they can be faked easily. So the inquisitive mind asks the logical question: why would someone make this stuff up?

The answer, according to Keegstra (and his ilk) is simple: it’s part of a conspiracy to promote the Zionist Agenda.

You see, on this view, the texts that agree with Keegstra’s point of view are the work of honest, decent people working to bring the truth to light. The texts that disagree are the work of the conspiracy and its well-intentioned dupes. The more evidence you find to support the reality of the Holocaust or the falsity of the Conspiracy, the stronger becomes your belief that the forces of darkness are powerful. Once in, you’re in deep.

Once you buy into this conspiratorial worldview, there is no escape. All of your information is second-hand, and you have to decide who to trust. And there is no guidance for who to trust. You have two opposing views and no means of adjudication. Well, almost.

As a student, you have your teacher to trust. Who can blame the children of Eckville for trusting their teacher, a well-known Christian, and mayor of the town to boot?

Of course, this is why we have approved textbooks, controlled curricula and curated libraries for school. Right?

Ask yourself any question about anything that you are not an expert. Then turn to the internet for answers. Are humans causing global climate change? I don’t know about you, but I do not understand nearly enough about the science to have an informed opinion. I do know (thanks to my education) something about science in general, about scientific credibility, and about the simple strategy that if I have to trust, I should trust the most qualified person in the room. It’s not infallible (what is?) but it’s better than just trusting anybody.

But this is more than a bit unnerving. Think about recent accusations that the media are biased—about anything you care to consider. There is a trivial sense where this is true. Media tend to report on things that fit their business model and that fit their market research. They tend to trust authority figures, including government. And, I don’t like where this is going.

It’s not that we’re trapped in a relativistic spiral. It’s just that it feels like it.

And students are trapped even more deeply than adults are.

But you don’t have to look far to find adults—pre-internet adults, mind you—who believe the most outlandish things because they are online. During the recent US election, I thought that nobody would believe the silly fake news articles about the Clinton’s having all their enemies murdered and getting away with it. Nope. I was wrong. Once a slice of the media (and the politicians it favours) are able to cast doubt on all disagreeing parties, we’re in precisely the same spots as Keegstra’s children.

This, in my mind, is the most crucial issue facing modern education.

Everybody says we should teach “media literacy”.

Teachers think they’re teaching “media literacy”.

We are an increasingly media illiterate society.

Where next?

I’ve got a couple more stops in the 80s before I can start to build my case for an appropriate response. See you in a couple of days.