Science as a “job” versus a hobby (with an aside on negentropy)

I’ve been reading Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and flow (I can do this now that Wikipedia has helpfully allowed me to pronounce his name so I can actually talk about his work!  (“cheek-sent-me-high-ee” [note by me: presumably this is the American pronunciation, which is probably the best I can aspire to but nothing like the orginal]. Originally Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈmihaːj ˈtʃiːksɛntmihaːji]).

He has many interesting things to say, and his concepts of positive psychology / optimum experience resonate strongly with how I view the world. As with Vygotsky’s work, the way his ideas are represented in educational and psychology literature (actually, more likely I’ve read text books or review articles) does not do them justice. In particular, his description of attentional processes and their relationship with flow deserves much closer examination on my part as it is at the heart of expert skilled performance. But probably most pertinent to my current area of study are his comments on formal study (extrinsically driven “inquiry”) versus informal study (intrinsically motivated “hobby”) and their influence in organising “psychic energy” (flow). (And as an aside re psychic energy: I love the idea of  negentropy or “the specific entropy deficit of the ordered sub-system relative to its surrounding chaos” which can be used “as a measure of distance to normality” – in fact, it is probably an extremely important concept to get my head around. I suspect that Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of psychic energy, far from being New Age mumbo-jumbo, provides an opportunity to understand the “Chi energy” of martial arts in terms of cognitive science … this aside should probably be a new post …)

So back to the comment on formal study (“real scientists”) versus informal study (“amateur scientists”) from Csikzsentmihalyi, M. (1009) “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience”, New York: HarperPerennial, p137-138). It is pertinent to my current way of thinking particularly as a comment on the push for output / performance metrics to determine whether or not academics are “active researchers” and quality assurance of academia by ensuring all academics have Ph.D.s. to prove their research credentials …

Is it really true that a person without a Ph.D., who is not working a one of the major research centers, no longer has any chance of contributing to the advancement of science? Or is this just one of those largely unconscious efforts at mystification to which all successful institutions inevitably succumb? It is difficult to answer these questions, partly because what constitutes “science” is of course defined by those very institutions that are in line to benefit from their monopoly.

There is no doubt that a layman cannot contribute, as a hobby to the kind of research that depends on multibillion-dollar supercolliders, or on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. But then, such fields to not represent the only science there is. The mental framework that makes science enjoyable is accessible to every one. It involves curiosity, careful observation, a disciplined way of recording events, and finding ways to tease out the underlying regularities in what one learns. It also requires the humility to be willing to learn from the results of past investigators, coupled with enough skepticism and openness of mind to reject beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Defined in this broad sense, there are more practicing amateur scientists that one would think. Some focus their interest on health, and try to find out everything they can about a disease that threatens them or their families. Following in Mendel’s footsteps, some learn whatever they can about breeding domestic animals, or creating new hypbrid flowers. Others diligently replicate the observations of early astrononmers with their back yard telescopes. There are closet geolgistists who roam the wilderness in search of minerals, cactus collectores who scour the desert mesas for new specimens, and probably hunderds of thousands of individuals who have pushed their mechanical skills to the point that they are vergin g on true scientific understanding.

What keeps many of these people from developing their skills further is the belief that they will never be able to become genuine “professional” scientists. and therefore that their hobby should not be taken seriously. But there is no better reason for doing science than that sense of order it brings to the mind of the seeker. If flow, rather than success and recognition, is the measure by which to judge its value, science can contribute immensely to the quality of life.

Csikszentmihalyi has many more quotable quotes and pertinent comments, and it is an interesting study in motivation to note that I only blog things when the book I’m reading and the computer (rather than note pad) are in close proximity (I also have hundreds of photos taken at each single event that I photograph, but very few occasions where I take out the camera …)

While specialisation is necessary to develop the complexity of any pattern of thought, the goals-ends relationship must always be kept clear: specialisation is for the sake of thinking better, and not an end in itself. Unfortunately many serious thinkers devote all their mental effort to becoming well-known scholars, but in the meantime they forget their initial purpose in scholarship.

There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes toward levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally amateur from the latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly, a dilettante , from the latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes towards the value of experience as the fate of these two words. There was a time when it was admirable to be an amateur poet or a dilettante scientist, because it meant that the quality of life could be improved by engaging in such activities. But increasingly the emphasis has been to value behaviour over subjective states; what is admired is success, achievement, the quality of performance rather than the quality of experience. Consequently it has become embarrassing to be called a dilettante, even though to be a dilettante is to achieve what counts most – the enjoyment one’s actions provide.

An addendum … and possibly why I don’t blog often. It’s the unfinished nature of blogging that concerns me – by the time I’ve “finished”, what there is to write is a full-blown paper, not a quick comment. But when I do actually blog something while I’m still developing an idea, the logical continuation of the thought keeps popping up after I’ve published the post and I add addendums like this:

The bad connotations that the terms amateur and dilettante have earned for themselves over the years are due largely to the blurring of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. An amateur who pretends to know as much as a professional is probably wrong, and up to some mischief. The point of becoming an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals on their own turf, but to use a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills, and to create order in consciousness. On that level, amateur scholarship can hold its own, and can be even more effective that its professional counterpart. But the moment that amateurs lose sight of this goal, and use knowledge mainly to bolster their egos or to achieve a material advantage, then they become caricatures of  the scholar. Without training in the discipline of skepticism and reciprocal criticism that underlies the scientific method, laypersons who venture into the fields of knowledge with prejudiced goals can become more ruthless, more egregiously unconcerned with truth, than even the most corrupt scholar.

Harvey Norman franchising and the demise of good service

I went to Harvey Norman’s today, against my better judgement, since the last time I shopped there, I made poor purchasing decisions under the extremely persistent and persuasive sales pressure. I wanted to buy a desk lamp (Furniture), a camera cover (Electronics), some headphones and some blank DVDs (Computer). Having carefully selected all my items and carried them around the various sections, I went to the closest cashier (Computers) to pay. She saw my camera cover which was on top of the pile and said I would need to go to Electronics. I went to Electronics and my pile of goods piled up in a different order. This cashier said to go back to Computers for my computer items, and I would also have to go to Furniture to pay for my desk lamp. When I asked why I should have to go to different places to pay for different things within a single Harvey Norman store – surely they could track purchases on their computer system, I was told that actually each division was a separate franchise. I left my computer/electronics purchases at the cashier and went to Furniture to buy my desk lamp (which was the only thing I really needed). I was not very happy at this point and asked the Furniture people if I could speak to their manager to complain (no – not here on the weekend), and if not, could they give me a contact number (no – I could look it up myself).

Why am I writing about this? There are two main reasons. One is the demise of smaller specialty stores because big mega-stores can stock a wide range of things at lower prices. The other is that I find it offensive that, despite all the mantra about customer service, I need to know the internal structure of large organisations (like Optus, Harvey Normans, Westpac etc) to be able to interface with them effectively. They appear to operate as a single entity and apparently that is why I should go to them and trust them etc – but there are all sorts of things that I can’t do, or I have to go to a different department for, or get screwed up because the single organisation is not in fact a single organisation at all, but a whole lot of loosely affiliated systems that are unable or unwilling to communicate with each other. (An aside: I get regular mail from each division of Optus about the massive savings I’d get if I swapped my Landline, TV, Broadband or Mobile service to them – they are apparently oblivious to the fact that I already have these services with them)

To elaborate on small stores versus megastores: I make a conscious effort to shop at smaller, local stores where I can form a relationship with the people with whom I do business. The places I like to shop are specialty stores who stock a range of things selected by the expertise (and whim) of the store owner. I understand that smaller places may need to charge slightly higher prices because of things like buying power, but I also know that the people in the shop have decided what stock they will have to sell. I am perfectly aware when I step into or out of someone’s store and I know who is providing me goods and services at each store. If I get good service in the greengrocers, and bad service in the butchers next door, the butcher’s service does not impact on my assessment of the greengrocer. In contrast, any bad experience at a supermarket, whether it be with respect to groceries, deli items or meat, reflects badly on the whole supermarket.

The only times I go to places like Safeway or Kmart or Bunnings are when I want to shop efficiently for mundane consumables at a reasonable price. So back to my shopping experience at Harvey Normans. The store I went to is laid out like most department stores – open plan with no walls or doors between different departments. (Note: I’m there for shopping efficiency …)  I collected my items – and there was nothing to indicate that I should plan to group my purchases according to department, and there are no indicators to alert me to the fact that I’ve taken one department’s goods into another department without paying for them. (Note: In a normal shopping mall, I go into one shop, buy my things, proceed to the next shop, buy my things and there are alerts if I attempt to take unpurchased goods from one store to another). I was not exactly thrilled at being told to go to different places to pay for different things (inefficiently retracing my steps around the store carrying all my purchases) and I asked what sense it made to have a Harvey Norman “store” rather than going to a regular shopping mall with different shops. The somewhat aggrieved Furniture guy (who could not give me a manager or a customer service number to complain to) then spouted the value of the Harvey Norman brand, number one retailer of this and that and the other thing …

As I left the store, I was thinking that the people working there in sales are just trying to make a living and probably don’t get paid enough to have to deal with the anger of frustrated customers – but I also got to thinking that Harvey Norman have gone a step beyond other “megastores” in depersonalising and cheapening the concept of brand and of service. They have taken the idea of a “megastore” (lots of stuff, good prices, efficient shopping) but implemented it as separate open-plan “shops” (inefficiency of going to different counters for different purchases). There is no sense of individuality, no sense of each section operating as a separate entity – it has all the bad points of shopping malls and none of the efficiency of supermarkets – and none of the individuality and charm of small suburban shopping strips. It was a bit sad to see that the Furniture guy had a strong brand loyalty and pride in working for Harvey Norman rather than for the individual owner of the individual franchise (who that person is I may never know … and maybe it isn’t a person – maybe it is a nameless investment entity). It was even more disturbing that he was offended by my not be impressed by the Harvey Norman name (apparently I should be honoured to be able to give HN my money …).

It seems that 20 years ago, the idea of a supermarket invoked images of uniformity of product, cheap prices and convenience but limited personal service. Now it seems that advertising is how we know what to buy (versus discussing things with a knowledgeable store owner), and good service means cheaper prices and not having to wait in line to pay rather than knowing about the goods being sold. Loyalty means getting purchasing rewards via cards (versus having the shop-owner actually know who you are and give you occasional freebies).  The model of “best practice” and uniformity in shopping experience is now seen as something good and trustworthy, so that trust and loyalty is invested in brands rather than people and it is seen as riskier to go to a small local operator (might not be here next year) rather than a large brand name store (store will be around, albeit with different people).

And all this began with the microwave oven dying – I went to the local small electrical goods outlet that I’ve been to for the past 20 years to replace it rather than to possibly cheaper Harvey Normans for all the reasons above. Unfortunately they don’t stock desk lamps … if they did, I would not have wasted half the day writing about the demise of local shopping and customer service!

Educational theory and “Being Digital”

I have recently re-focused my thinking on issues arising from Ilana Snyder’s “Being Digital” project that I worked on last year. I prepared a report on some of the data from that project, available online at The interesting part for me was reading some of the literature on cultural form (particularly Raymond Williams) and digital literacy practices, and trying to get my head around the academic discourse and legitimate research methodology in non-scientific research disciplines.

Having just returned to considering these ideas, I stumbled across the work of Karl Maton and, in particular, this paper on the place of theory in educational research. I wish I had written this particular piece myself, although perhaps it is a good thing to have somewhere else to point people to when expressing similar views. Of course, this would touch on whether a published opinion can add weight to my own professional opinion without an additional ingredient of “data”, and what constitutes the legitimisation of a personal opinion into a professional opinion, and then into domain expertise. I am hoping that further reading of Karl Maton’s work will enlighten me on this in a way that triggers a whole new way of expressing the core ideas in my recent research activity.

Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.

Yearly updates

Today I paid a bit more attention to the fact that my sidebar on my blog seemed to have disappeared. When I went to look for it, I discovered that my sidebar had in fact been hijacked by a link injection evil-thing. This possibly explains random junk mail about Google Adword accounts (which I don’t have) and the fact that one or two domains seemed to have refused to accept my email address recently.

And then I noticed that it is more than a year since my last “yearly update” – so it is probably a timely reminder that I should either maintain my websites or shut them down. And if I maintain them, I should install updates and patches to the software running the sites.

So tonight I upgraded WordPress and deleted random other things and generally overhauled the code on my site.

It also gave me food for thought as to what I want to do with my web presence and what level of control I want to have over it. I have resisted the idea of Facebook / MySpace social networking versions of web-presence because of the lack of control and the “model of the world” implicit in them. At the same time, I have started to use open source tools in preference to hand-coding web sites, because my coding is aspirational rather than secure these days. But even though the code in open source tools like WordPress and Moodle is way way way better than mine would be, it is much more worthwhile to hack because of the number of potential targets for any one exploit.

Anyhow – the lesson learned today is to upgrade regularly. And to keep in touch with what the codebase is doing. And to have a bit more curiosity about apparently random things like the fact that my email was blacklisted by a few domains and other non-random but unsolicited junkmail. And to make sure that legacy stuff is removed from my website. And to keep backups of material. All pretty basic.

Opinions, rigorous thinking and self esteem

I am at a loss to figure out how children will learn to think clearly, to evaluate quality, and to show appropriate courtesy and respect to others if they are not given accurate feedback about their own thought processes, opinions and behaviour. Negative feedback can be delivered politely or impolitely, sensitively or insensitively, but is absolutely necessary if positive feedback is to carry any meaning. Without exposure to negative as well as positive feedback, self-esteem has no basis, and hence no on-going value.

During the course of unpacking boxes of books (from moving house) I came across Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, which addresses some of my concerns albeit from a slightly different perspective.

“At the family dinner table, conversation standards should be rigorous. Miss Manners will even make a major exception to the rule about not leaving the table for anything other than an emergency, in order to allow a disputed fact to be checked. (Ones that take longer must be deferred, but the volunteer researcher can usually escape helping with the dishes if he reads aloud from the reference book in the kitchen while the others are working).

Opinions, in Miss Manner’s opinion, are also subject to challenge at the family dinner table. She believes that the child who is allowed to get away with baseless opinions, or who is congratulated for mouthing a family opinion without having though it through, is destined to grow into a fuzzy thinker and a bore.

It annoys her no end to hear of children’s being credited for “discussing” possibilities, so that they can then produce the “opinion” of being against it. She would hope that the most active anti-nuclear-weapons parent would insist that the child understand that the issue is not whether one is for or against destruction of the universe – how smugly children accept congratulations for coming out against it – but how countries can live in peace and protect themselves from aggression. We all want our child to share our opinions because they are so wise. But if we want the child to be wise, as well, we will not accept his arriving at these opinions without knowing what he is saying.” (from Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children)

If Miss Manner’s droll style is not to your liking, we could go to the other end of the spectrum to highlight a lack of rigorous thinking through this highly amusing catalogue of self-esteem generated through style over substance (warning: those whose political-correctness has obliterated their sense of humour will probably be offended rather than amused … so if that is you, don’t follow this link … )

Bias in academic courses

Young Libs campaign to out biased dons (from The Australian):

“NATALIE Karam, a second-year university law student, recently changed classes because she was so uncomfortable about the ideological stance of one of her lecturers.”

Apparently this biased lecturer stated that he belonged to the Greens, and poor Natalie, a Young Lib, felt marginalised in his class by belonging to the mainstream and moved classes. It made her think twice: what if she said something he didn’t like? … Perhaps she should have thought a third or fourth or fifth time until she came to the far more sensible realisation that this lecturer is capable of distinguishing his own bias, her bias and any other bias that creeps into academic work unacknowledged. The whole point of the academy is to analyse ideas, understand different perspectives, identify what is bias and what is “mainstream” (I’m assuming that anything “not mainstream” constitutes bias in the terms of the article in The Australian), and present a range of conflicting viewpoints. This is unlikely to happen if everyone runs off to immerse themselves in the company of like-minded people who will never challenge their view of the world.

Then again, let’s imagine that the lecturer had kept quiet about his affiliation with the Greens. Natalie would not even have known how uncomfortable she should have been!! Or perhaps the lecturer would no longer have been biased? Hmmmmm – how would that work? So perhaps what she is really saying, along with her Young Libs leader Noel McCoy, is that biased (non-mainstream, Greens-affiliated) academics should not be allowed to give lectures at all? Sweet. I wonder how Ms Karam expects to practise Law if she is not able to identify, present, analyse, or assess a line of argument in a professional capacity that differs from her own views? Then again, perhaps she won’t need to present any legal arguments when she can just go to the media and market her clients as victims.

Barry Jones on resisting the forces of ignorance

An article by Barry Jones in The Australian argues that “Public intellectuals should not remain silent in the face of an assault on reason and our liberties”. Jones implores us to become involved in political life and public debate; to promote rational, informed discussion; to understand other cultures and other perspectives; and to understand that the roots of terrorism are not totally irrational and evil, but are the result of long periods of social injustice and marginalisation. Jones is critical of Australia’s politicians, the political system as it operates in Australia, the public service, the media and academics – all people who should be leading public discussion and debate, providing credible information (not political spin), and contributing to community knowledge and understanding.

We live in an era of instinctive, reactive and ill-informed leaders and followers, marked by contempt for truth, living by the dictum that the end justifies the means. It hardly matters whether that view is driven by cynicism or ideology.

The quality of public debate in Australia has been compromised, partly through media indifference and the systematic denuding of the ABC, but also through the retreat of the public intellectual. We have more paid academics than at any time in history, but across the nation, regrettably, they have fallen silent.

In universities and research institutions, professional activity and workloads have increased appreciably, and contribution to public debate is discouraged. The term academic is routinely used in a denigratory way to mean remote, pedantic, impractical or irrelevant. The only consolation is that in the medium to long term, it is elite opinion that wins out.

Reviving politics will involve encouraging knowledge, curiosity, understanding, scepticism and transparency. It will also require a revolution in education to redefine non-economic values and a critical spirit, with heavier emphasis on history, philosophy and language, as well as the skills needed for vocations.

(The article is an edited transcript of “The John Bray Oration 2007: Censorship and secrecy: threats to an open society in an insecure age”, delivered at the University of Adelaide on Sept 4th.)

Reports, recommendations, social dysfunction and education

[This post mostly relates to the “Little Children are Sacred” report on child abuse in the Northern Territory of Australia.]

I have just recently submitted my second commissioned report, both co-authored with James Quealy. I have also prepared reports and recommendations within the normal committee framework of two universities (i.e. not as an external consultant). I am still completely confounded by the fact that people commission reports, but fail to read the them. They then take individual recommendations out of context to support whatever decision they were already going to make, or dispute the basis of recommendations without reading the sections of the report from which the recommendations arise. There seems to be complicity all the way to the top to allow the mentality that senior decision-makers don’t have time to read the reports which provide the background to decisions they are making – apparently senior people only have time to read the Executive Summary, and then only if it’s less than a page …

The reports I have co-authored relate to the use of technology in education, and some of what they say relates to the education system as a whole, and therefore to the core values we have as a society. It would be nice if issues raised in the reports were widely discussed but I am sufficiently in touch with the so-called “real world” to know that such reports are ticked off on someone’s checklist of “what are we doing about X …”, and consigned to the bottom of a filing cabinet.

But what is this post really about? In reality, although I am mildly disappointed as to what happens to my own reports, I am completely dismayed by the current legislation in Australia relating to Aboriginal Welfare allegedly arising from the “Little Children are Sacred” Report: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse.

I have been thoroughly perplexed since the government’s first response to the report as to why their response is not immediately seen in the mainstream media as the direct path to a modern-day Stolen Generation. For years, we have been ashamed that John Howard is not prepared to say “Sorry” on behalf of white Australia for the effects of past decisions … and now he is about to begin a new round of paternalistic “white man knows best” intervention allegedly to “protect little children”, but with underlying serious consequences for aboriginal land rights and welfare payments.

And what is the connection of the first two paragraphs with the rest of the post? The government is supposedly acting on the report – John Howard asks how we could fail to be moved by such a disturbing report. Indeed how could we fail to be moved? But I have heard Pat Anderson say emphatically that the government response bears no relationship to any of the recommendations in her report and that resonates deeply with my experience of writing reports and with my feeling of the deep malaise in Australian culture that allows such sloppy decision-making processes the higher we go within ‘the system’.

I have read through the report and note that its proposed solutions are not quick fixes (i.e. think of a timescale around 15 years rather than 15 months). The primary focus is on education, but significantly, on culturally-relevant, inclusive, empowering, community-based education. Child abuse, child neglect, alcoholism, violence, family dysfunction are all seen to be symptoms of a broader societal dysfunction, not isolatable individual problems that can each be addressed. The societal dysfunction is not an indigenous problem alone, but one that is amplified by societal problems in mainstream Australia. Any solutions are inextricably entwined within both cultures.

I’ve not yet finished reading the whole report, but nowhere in the Recommendations or Overview (Executive Sumary) did I see anything about bringing in the Army and a white task force of health workers to save the children.

I was appalled with the approach of the government to tackle the problem of child sexual abuse. Having read the report allegedly inspiring this approach, I am doubly appalled at the response of our government. I am also appalled at the lack of analysis by the media. I am generally appalled at the lack of compassion and the lack of recognition in mainstream Australia that child abuse, alcoholism, family dysfunction and violence are extremely complex, are not just the result of ‘bad’ people, and are not just happening in remote communities. Each instance of family dysfunction has a long and complex history and any intervention must be sensitive to complexity.

Below, I have picked out a few quotes from the report as I looked through it. I have no idea what I’m going to do other than write this small somewhat inconsequential piece – probably nothing specific. I guess I have a strong view that education is the answer, but I have a strong view that the current education system, with its lack of moral fibre, lack of intellectual rigour, lack of any value system, is as much the problem as the solution.

From the “Little Children are Sacred” report:

It’s not just in white man’s law that child abuse is considered wrong.

“The title quote In our Law children are very sacred because they carry the two spring wells of water from our country within them reflects the traditional Aboriginal law of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and was provided by a senior Yolngu lawman.”

Child abuse is, more often than not, a symptom of deeper, more complex societal problems.

“the incidence of child sexual abuse, whether in Aboriginal or so-called mainstream communities, is often directly related to other breakdowns in society. Put simply, the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children. It will be impossible to set our communities on a strong path to recovery in terms of sexual abuse of children without dealing with all these basic services and social evils. Even then, the best that can be hoped for is improvement over a 15 year period – effectively, a generation or longer. “

There needs to be genuine consultation, not paternalistic government intervention

“It is critical that both governments [Northern Territory and Australian] commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities. “

“Our appointment and terms of reference arose out of allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. Everything we have learned since convinces us that these are just symptoms of a breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society. There is, in our view, little point in an exercise of band-aiding individual and specific problems as each one achieves an appropriate degree of media and political hype. It has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. We are all left wringing our hands. Look at all that money! Where did it go? The answer is, of course, down the plughole.”

Education is the key to the solution, but education needs to be community based and does not just relate to school. Language and cultural barriers are real.

“We are utterly convinced that education (that properly addresses the needs of the local community) provides the path to success. We have been dismayed at the miserable school attendance rates for Aboriginal children and the apparent complacency here (and elsewhere in Australia) with that situation.”

The difficulty is that because of the language and cultural barriers many people never get an opportunity to express their knowledge or their ideas. The impression is given to them that they are idiots and that people outside of their community are more qualified to deal with their problems. As a result of this general attitude people become apathetic and take no interest in dealing with the problems. “

The dominant mainstream white culture as expressed via television, movies etc does not set a high standard with respect to sexual behaviour, alcohol and drug use, and respect.

“The Inquiry was also told that many youth today have an erroneous belief that the wider Australian society is lawless. They believe that: “it is acting within “white fella” law when being abusive. A thinking that began with the systemic undermining of our own law with the colonization of Australia and the atrocities that followed. It is now reinforced by TV, movies, pornography and drugs brought into our community from wider Australia.” (Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra press release, 19 May 2006) It became clear to the Inquiry during its consultations that in many of the communities visited, the “language barrier” and the “cultural gap” was greater in the younger generation. The Inquiry was told that this problem is increasing, then intuitively it might have been assumed the gap was decreasing.”

Academic research into other cultures can be very influential – it is used as a bridge from one culture to another. When academic research is used to drive policy and policy significantly affects the lives of many people, there is a professional duty to ensure that research is supportable, and that it is used within its context of applicability. Even intellectually-rigorous academic research tends to be fairly specific and should not be disembodied from its caveats.

“My alarm bell is that sloppy and questionable academic research has the power to influence many people. Prejudice and ignorance may be reinforced. Media representations may then support such misconceptions, and hence feed into and trigger political action that has the capacity to create more problems. We do need education for early childhood; education for life; education for healing. But please not education that is fatally flawed (Atkinson 2006:22).”

If you break down existing systems whatever they are, you need to replace them with something viable and support the process of change. Better that systemic change occurs gradually towards a commonly agreeed target as inclusively as possible.

“Overall, the constant message passed to the Inquiry was that as traditional Aboriginal and missionary-imposed norms regarding sex broke down, they were being replaced with rampant promiscuity among teenagers. Teenagers no longer saw themselves as bound by the “old ways” and many viewed the modern world as “lawless”. One Yolgnu Elder told the Inquiry: ‘For young people today having sex is like fishing, and they throw that fish back when they finished.’ Such behaviour was seen as being encouraged by the dominant non-Aboriginal culture. The Inquiry was told in one community that the Elders were trying to teach the young people about staying with the “right skin” and getting “married” at the right time. At the same time, the Inquiry was told, the local health centre was distributing condoms and telling them they could have sex with anyone they want at any time as long as they wore a condom. “

As a footnote to this post, I visited the Cook Islands at Christmas and had a wonderful holiday in a beautiful location. I also had the pleasure of meeting local people and spending a lot of time with the family of my daughter’s boyfriend. One striking thing was the complexity of the local culture and family relationships, the significance of family land, the relationships between the different island groups within the Cook Islands, and the multi-layered integration of missionary and island cultures.

And at a level just below the surface were the multifaceted problems arising from lack of job opportunities, poor nutrition, alcohol abuse, and demographic distortion based on most young people leaving the island for “a better life” in New Zealand or Australia. I found it ominous to see Chinese workers being imported to build government buildings and tourist resorts – the influx of money and tourists is great for the economy, but not necessarily for the Islanders in that economy.

There are many complex problems bubbling below the surface in the Cook Islands, but there are also no obvious quick-fix solutions. The more I looked, the more complexity I saw, and the greater the depth of local customs and culture. I also noticed that local Islanders (some of whom had actively chosen to return to the Islands, others of whom had specifically chosen not to leave their home) were deeply aware of the problems and quite capable of articulating them, and were looking to instigate their own community-based solutions. I was very aware that I cannot possibly know more about their needs than they do themselves. A desire to help is one thing – the ability to be helpful is entirely a different thing. A first step is understanding the complexity of the problem. The next would be the willingness to work collaboratively and inclusively – as for any serious undertaking, that would require the time and effort to understand the island culture and be accepted into it. I realise that, although there might be many ways I could “help”, they would mostly be small gestures not lasting contributions. I hope that some of the people we met in our very brief visit (including a policeman and his family, a mountain-tour guide, a bank worker, various cricket teams, a dance group coordinator, a New Zealand ex-nurse, a diving instructor) can find a way to keep the community strong and address some of the underlying problems along the way.

I am finally understanding one of my (very wise) grandmother’s favourite sayings “Charity begins at home”. I used to think it had something to do with looking after family first, as a somewhat ironic justification of not having to give other people your money!! I thought it fitted with another of her sayings: “If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”, in a penny-pinching, frugal way. I now understand these sayings as they relate to values, not money (as I’m sure my grandmother meant them).

If we show respect and care (charity) for the people in our home (our family, friends and local community), we will not need to rely on the kindness of strangers. Furthermore, if we show respect and care as a habit within our home, this habit is likely to stay with us on a broader scale. And if we share our home with others, we are also beginning our charity at home. As for the second saying: if we take care of the little things (whether they be pennies and pounds, or the small things relating to respect and care), the bigger things (respect and care across the broader community) will take care of themselves. Maybe complex problems really do have simple solutions.

Watching your kids on the internet …

I was saddened to read of the deaths of two teenage girls in Melbourne, reported to be as a result of a suicide pact made online through MySpace. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage of this tragedy, much of which is exhorting parents to monitor what their kids are doing online. There is an insidious element of implied criticism of the girls’ parents – seemingly suggesting that these parents were somehow negligent in not knowing what the kids were doing because they were doing it in secret on line rather than in the open spaces of the “real world”. There is a not-so-hidden implication that we are being irresponsible parents to allow our kids online for too long. As a mother of two adolescents (a girl and a boy) who each spend a reasonable amount of unsupervised time online, I am reading the coverage with some interest.

I am particularly bemused by the commentary by some of the supposed experts in adolescent psychology … adolescence is a tricky time, and one that we all hope our kids get through relatively unscathed … but I would have thought it is precisely the time when we should be allowing our kids room to explore the world. It is a world that has always had a dark side and has always involved kids exploring some of the things their parents told them not to do. Mostly they survive. Often, parental boundaries are set with the naive intention of avoiding their kids being exposed to the dangerous things they chose to do themselves as adolescents …

The thing about suicide is how unpredictable it can be – there is no way to predict what is the precursor to suicide, although there are many ways to see the evidence with 20/20 hindsight. Suicide leaves a devastating after-effect, including an increase of suicides among those affected. But surely drawing attention to the “likelihood” of copycat suicides is tantamount to giving permission to copycats to go ahead by normalising their action?

There is no doubt that when you are touched by someone’s death, it is a good time to hold your special people close and to remember to tell them that you love them. But it is not the right time to suffocate them and to stop trusting them because someone else has shown poor judgement.

The thing about the internet is how much opportunity it gives us to observe the things that would otherwise be transient and unobserved by anyone who wasn’t right there at the time. That is to say, in many ways we can see way more of what our kids are doing online than what they are doing offline … in our houses, we don’t monitor all the conversations our children have, and we don’t control who they interact with at school or elsewhere unless we take them everywhere … I even suspect there are quite a few grandparents whose main contact with their grandkids is online.

Which brings me back (in a somewhat rambling way) to the theme of watching your kids on the internet … my 15 yo son is an avid internet user and I drop by his website occasionally to see what he’s up to and who he’s “hanging out with”. My argument is that he is bringing these people “into my home” through the computer and I want to get a feel for who they are … I try not to hang around his site too much because, frankly, I don’t need to see the adolescent details of his life, just like I don’t need to sit with his friends in the school yard, or listen to the details of their conversations at parties, or read their “I’m bored” / “Me too” / “Me too me too” deep bonding (!!) … would I know if he was using drugs or deeply unhappy or doing evil and / or illegal things on the internet or in real life? I like to think so, but I suspect he could easily lead a double life without me knowing and vice versa if he were intent on so doing – he’s smart, and we just hope that he uses it for good not evil through the values we have offered him through our own example as family and friends.

For the past few days his Journal has had an “Emo” theme of “Going to die in 5 days” with something about it being his foray into attention-grabbing journal entries so he can say he’s tried out the genre … and his “mood” is listed as bored and, amongst other things on his profile, he watches “anything other than the news”. There were a whole string of fairly mundane comments and stuff from his friends associated with the journal entry – ie nothing other than the title to ring any alarm bells. He writes a bit of “dark” poetry occasionally along with lots of light creative things too. We talk sometimes, but not all the time, and we don’t share everything with each other although I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other.

So what is a responsible parent to do with something like that? Is it a joke? Is it a cry for help? Is it nothing? Is it something? Should I be reading his online journal (which is online and therefore presumably fair game for anyone to read including his mother (although I feel like I should knock first before entering as I would into his room if he had friends over))? And if it is something to worry about, how would confronting him be likely to help? Will it exacerbate his crisis or lead him to the sudden realisation that parental love solves everything? Should I put him on suicide watch, cancel all ground-leave, medicate him, take him to a psychiatrist, yell at him?

As it turned out (more than 5 days later … ;-)) – it was about as meaningful in terms of any imminent death as my saying “I’ll kill you if you eat my last chocolate teddy bear biscuit” … (and I leave it to the reader to ascertain the level of threat associated with eating the last chocolate biscuit in my household :-)). Since my son doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, he was completely unaware that it was an ‘insensitive’ journal entry to have made in terms of timing … It has since been edited to say “Going to HAVE A COOKIE in 5 days” … which shows just how inane the whole journal thing can be and why parents might tire of watching their children endlessly online …

So to make a long story even longer, I read the post a few days ago, raised my eyebrows, checked that my son didn’t seem too distressed or secretive and let it go at that. Then I started wondering whether I was being a bad parent, a lazy parent, too confident that I know my son, too insensitive to “see his pain” (ie see pain that is beyond what is bearable for any healthy adolescent) … and started asking myself the question of “how would I feel if I ‘missed the sign'”? … And if I be honest, I probably only asked my son about the entry because I was worried about how I would explain having “seen the sign” and ignored it … especially as a Registered Psychologist ™. But then again, maybe I should have trusted my instincts as a scientist a bit more – watching our kids too closely will also have effects, not all of which are straightforward or “good” no matter what our intent. Heisenberg or Einstein or Schroedinger or someone particularly clever with Quantum Physics said something about the nature of observations and how they relate to the longevity and well-being of cats, and I suspect, along with Kath and Kim, that it may also apply to humans …

I should now be smiling wryly and saying “better safe than sorry” but that actually misses an important point – if my son was seriously suicidal in a pre-meditated way, knew I was watching him, and did not want to talk to me about it, he would probably change his method not his mind. Sometimes we overestimate our power and influence as parents, and we misunderstand the value of our love – adolescents are not really ready to understand the nature of parental love – maybe they are completely used to it and do not actually understand its value, maybe they feel betrayed by some element of it that they don’t understand, maybe they feel smothered by it, maybe they have never experienced it … but many adolescents are betrayed or devastated or overwhelmed by relationships and experiences outside of the family which they feel they need to deal with outside of the family, and in these things we sometimes support our kids best by trusting them to be able to cope. We can not fix everything for our kids (or anyone else), bad stuff does happen, we are not responsible for other people’s happiness (although that’s not to say that we can aren’t sometimes responsible for their unhappiness …)

Suicide leaves a trail of devastation behind it, and loneliness and unhappiness can be relieved by people taking time to care for each other. But life does have ups and downs and perhaps we should embrace a broader range of life’s experience to become resilient to some of the bumps along the way. Perhaps rather than referring people to Lifeline too quickly, we can make it our own crusade to look after the people around us. I think I am understanding my grandmother’s saying “Charity begins at home” a little bit more …

Cyberbullying by parents …

This is a link to a blog site to “discuss” recent changes at Essex Heights Primary School referred to in The Age.

It is a number of years since my kids went to Essex Heights. The school certainly had many good features, but one thing lacking was any innovative use of classroom technology – great to see that at least some of the parents are putting technology to good use (NOT !!) I was going to write some comments about the site, but it seems to be shrinking in content as I write – perhaps the publicity has made some people realise that everyone can read and judge for themselves and that the behaviour they’re modelling to their kids is less than inspiring.

These are my views. I’m not interested in yours –

These are my views. I’m not interested in yours – Opinion –

from Joel Stein: a very good point about the fact that as a professional opinion-writer, he is not actually paid to engage in conversations with the audience … he’s paid to research and present ideas.

“Part of the problem is that no etiquette has yet been established for the hyper-interactive world. And I, born before MySpace and email, don’t feel comfortable getting a letter and not answering it. And then, if I do, suddenly, we’re penpals, with all
those penpal responsibilities.”

Corruption in evidence presentations – Edward Tufte

I have just received my copy of “Beautiful Evidence” and I love it already …

“Making a presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity. The use of corrupt manipulations and blatant rhetorical ploys in a report or presentation – outright lying, flagwaving, personal attacks, setting up phony alternatives, misdirection, jargon-mongering, evading key issues, feigning disinterested objectivity, willful misunderstanding of other points of view – suggest that the presenter lacks both credibility and evidence. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they show and tell, Thus consuming a presentation is also an intellectual and a moral activity.”

Steve Irwin and Crocodile Tears

I am pleased to find I am not alone in my lack of surprise at the passing of Steve Irwin, although like Jack Marx, I extend my sympathy to his friends and family who have lost a loved one.

Steve Irwin engaged in risky behaviour, and although we are assured that he went to great lengths to minimise risk, there are inherent risks in dealing with deadly animals that cannot be eliminated. It is simply not possible to be simultaneously “confronting danger” and be completely safe – and it is surely not rocket science to understand this mutually exclusive relationship between danger and safety.

The “message to children” sent by Steve Irwin seems to have been that confronting danger is fun, exhilarating, and allows you to experience things you would otherwise not know – this message has now been rounded out by adding that confronting danger may also lead to death. It is truly bizarre how parents wish to shield their children from this rather obvious conclusion – dangerous animals are dangerous and can kill you. It’s not their “fault” – it’s what they do, and there is no moral value in play when they do it. You invade their territory, they may kill you and they don’t agonise about the right or wrong of it.

I’m sure Steve Irwin knew this, but it didn’t deter him from living his life to the fullest that way accepting the consequences of risk. Perhaps if we were not so freakishly safety conscious about things that carry small risks, we would be able to learn how to assess serious risks for ourselves and accept the consequences of our choices (safe and bored, or risky and exhilarating) rather than relying on litigation and the assignment of blame after any adverse event. And if we want our kids to make informed choices, they need information about consequences of accepting risk.

I am not generally a fan of Germaine Greer, but her comments on Steve Irwin’s death balance the accolades for his “animal-loving” “conservationist” persona.

Anti-obesity mafia

Quick, hide the chippies! – Education News –

Yet another ridiculously simplified take on childhood obesity – ban junk food, turn off the telly, regulate the junk food advertisers and the kids will become fit and healthy … the Government will be seen to be “doing something” about this terrible state of affairs – but whatever happened to parental common sense and personal responsibility?

PARENTS should only scoff chocolate or a packet of chips after the kids have gone to bed, as part of a new campaign against obesity.

Besides sneaking out of sight for a sugar hit, parents also are urged to put a two-hour time limit on their children watching television or surfing the internet …

o assist in the new campaign, a Federal Government website has had extra information posted on it, aimed at helping parents make the changes necessary to downsize their overweight kids.

Among the suggestions is that if a parent must eat junk food, it’s best to do it out of sight of impressionable children.

“Be a good role model; if you eat healthily your toddler will follow in your footsteps,” it says.

Kids are fat and don’t exercise … so are their parents. Good role models model the role – so are we teaching our kids that you can eat junk so long as you don’t get caught? That calories consumed in secret do not lead to obesity?

Perhaps the problem is precisely around the type of role models we provide as parents and teachers – if parents and teachers eat healthy food and incorporate normal exercise into their daily routine (walking or riding a bike instead of driving, playing outside with their kids, enjoying physical activity in the garden and around the house, playing sport) perhaps children will follow in their footsteps.

Balance in life does not mean balance every hour of every day, balance in diet does not mean every meal must contain all the food groups. Banning all sugar and fat is silly. Placing moral value on food items is silly. Understanding nutrition is important, but it is also important to understand the social nature of “breaking bread together” or sharing time and conversation around food. A healthy balance between nutrition, exercise, relaxation, social interaction and mental stimulation requires more than paternalistic bans on chips, chocolate bars and soft drinks (while allowing “sports bars”, “energy drinks” and other marketing rubbish …). Is it only me that thinks this approach is unmitigated vacuousness?

Cults of thinking – science versus dogma?

(cross-posted at yabber)

This excerpt from The Cults Of Military Thinking: Fools Never Differ by Darryn Reid and Ralph Giffin seems to suggest that educational technology and online learning are not the only areas suffering from whims of fashion and dogma rather than good science!!

“We explore the deeper reasons behind the formation of intellectual cults around fashionable ideas. Mistaken attitudes about rationality lead investigators to attempt to prove the truth of their ideas by accumulating supporting evidence, and to disingenuously evade scrutiny. The refutation of an idea is mischaracterized as personal failure. “

Leadership crisis

I don’t know of any research off the top of my head that would relate the changing age profile in our society to failure of leadership and I haven’t really looked very hard, but
here’s my line of thought:

– population demographics are such that we have an ageing population
– political / social leaders are now reaching leadership positions when they are older (cf age of famous political / military leaders in history …)
– because people are living longer (and because of the loss of a reasonable percentage the world war 2 generation of males ?), baby boomers reached leadership positions sooner, with less basis, and occupied them for longer

There is now a mismatch between peak of intellectual / motivational / creative force so that potential energy for leadership is lost and people develop wisdom and / or cynicism before they get an opportunity to practice energetic leadership.

In the emerging model in my head, the peak of focussed, driven intellectual energy maybe around the age of 30 to 35 … when potentially great people know enough to lead, but don’t know enough to have doubts.

Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy

NOTES & IDEAS: Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy | Academic Commons
via Stephen Downes

Students taking their first philosophy course often express surprise when encouraged to use “I” in their papers. Unlike academic writing in most other disciplines, philosophical writing frequently and strongly states the “I” because philosophers have to develop and defend their own positions. They cannot weasel out of taking responsibility for their views, and thus the assertion of the “I” means that they are willing to stand or fall with their expressed position.

This is an interesting perspective – I always understood that the third person / passive voice of scientific writing was to indicate that the concept being expressed could stand alone by itself without the need for a personal appeal by me as its proponent. But the mood has drifted such that it has become more like parliamentary privilege – I am sufficiently removed from the concept that I don’t need to identify with it or suffer any discomfort or guilt-by-association if it is flawed.

Responsibility. Judgement and Authority

From Ken Smith: The habits of judgment and authority via Stephen Downes,

“In the context of a discussion of the reliability of Wikipedia, Will Richardson paraphrases a librarian who has struggled to know how to evaluate the content of a web site. She said something like this:

I’ve been a librarian for ten years and I have to tell you, I feel like a fraud. I don’t really know where to start when it comes to figuring out whether a site is believeable or not.

Whether she intended it or not, whether she even knows it or not, she has, I think, put her finger on one of the central failures of our education system. Adults, professionals, people who have completed their formal education and taken on their career roles, should be responsible — it is useful to pull that word apart — should be able to respond to the complexity they face as professionals, as citizens …”

Although I don’t disagree at all with the central tenet re the failure of our education system, I’m not sure it is the librarian education that has failed. Librarians did not make judgements about the disicpline-based content of traditional media – but they made judgements about the source of the content … reputable media outlets would have their own way of ensuring that content is “believable” and librarians would make meta-judgements based on the source and “known reviewers”. When there are no established “gatekeepers” of authorative knowledge, each individual has to make their own judgement from first principles – which highlights the simultaneous strength and weakness of an unlimited information source such as the internet.