Post-truth and a good argument

The term post-truth was, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the Word of the Year 2016. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

In USA of course the term became widely used in the context of the US presidential campaign, and in UK it was aired in the debates on Brexit. It was these two recent campaigns that formed the backdrop to a fascinating programme on a BBC Radio 4 on post truth politics:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg

One thing the programme did very well was to alert us to different kinds of untruths and facts [1]. For example Trump in his campaign said many things which were simply untrue by any reasonable definition of the word. This was illustrated when, talking about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York 2001, he said ‘I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down’. It either happened or it did not and as much as far as we can take anything as objective, then Trump is simply wrong [2]. However pointing this out seems to have had little effect; those disposed to vote for Trump did not care, the statement expressed a sentiment – presumably that there were groups of different ethnicity that were not patriotic in the same way as they were.

In our own Brexit campaign a different kind of fact emerged: if we left the EU then there could be £350 million extra for a new hospital to be built every week [3]. You can say it is a lie if you like, and I don’t think any economist would say that we would have an extra £350 million a week by leaving the EU – or if by some miracle we did have the money it is unlikely that it would find its way into building hospitals. However the claim about the hospital is not an untruth in the same way that Trump’s claim about the Twin Towers is. It is describing something counter factual, extremely unlikely, but not a fact that can be disproved.

Finally there are arguments which seem to be about facts which are really about values –for example more egalitarian societies are better than ones in which wealth is unevenly distributed. This has an appeal to the facts and is often dressed up as an argument about the facts but it cannot really be divorced from value judgements about what kind of society we want. The distinction was put very well in the BBC Radio 4 programme by Professor Peter Mandler who offered objective comments as an academic on Brexit (again as far as objective has any meaning) while recognising that in terms of values and identity he was aghast at the decision taken.

Why is post-truth on the rise? One presenter felt that all this started with the claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in 2002, but I don’t really buy that, at least not in UK. For example, the issue of missing WMD was well known before the 2005 election in UK and it did not seem to be a significant factor in the result [4]. Of course the consequences of missing WMDs has been lingering and toxic particularly for those who supported the war in Iraq but I don’t think it has undermined our belief in the possibility of establishing truth. Quite the opposite. For example when it came to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war it was striking how far most people believed that this inquiry had really got to the truth by painstakingly sifting through evidence.

A second candidate for the rise of post-truth is that we increasingly live in ‘echo chambers’ – another term that has ‘spiked’ over the last couple of year. The idea here is that we tend to move around only with ‘people like us’ so that what we take for granted is rarely challenged; when we meet at work or socially, opinions are  echoed not challenged. Predictably the internet gets the blame for this increasing polarisation as, particularly in the USA, people are said to get their news from social media and block out dissenting views – or social media algorithms block dissenting views for them. To compound matters, if and when we do access views from those outside of our echo chamber then we make an active attempt to rationalise our views rather than reason about them. In fact this process of rationalisation might end up strengthening our prejudices, for rather than loosely go along with something we have now actively worked out a line of defence; interaction with others no longer seems a way to strengthen democratic debate but to reduce it. I find interesting  here the claim that those with ‘cognitive advantages’ (e.g. higher levels of literacy or numeracy) might be more adept at rationalising and better able to undermine the arguments that disturb their thinking. This offers a new take on the idea that the problem with democracy is that it leaves those with less education vulnerable to populist movements, but that is for another day.

The thing about echo chambers is that by design or by accident, or more likely both, we have ended up living in increasingly segregated worlds [5]. This argument is expressed particularly strongly in the USA. It is something that is widely discussed in UK too though my hunch is that the effects of ‘echoing’ are softened by the position of the BBC as a national broadcaster and the more inclusive character of organised religion.

Hope for addressing the consequences of the echo chamber was given by a ‘die hard’ conservative Bob Inglis, someone who had changed his view of climate change, but nothing else as far as I could see. As he put it, if the arguments come from  ‘another tribe’ (‘liberals and Al Gore’) you don’t need to engage with them, it is only, as in his case, when the argument came from someone with similar values that he was prepared to listen.

I find post-truth disturbing as a phenomenon. My career has been in teaching and learning and like many others I believe that being educated is about being able to weigh up arguments and to understand values. It is also very much about learning to get on with other people as a community. Some of my recent work has been about what it might mean to strive for a rational consensus online; we might not ever be objective but we have the concept of objectivity for a reason, it is something that we can measure our patterns of argument against. We know we can do much better online than attack others and shut down argument.

It is tempting to see post-truth as a new phenomenon but it is not. We have always stayed firm in a belief when evidence points the other way and we have always been manipulated by the media and those controlling the media have always sought to manipulate us [6]. My hunch is much of the thinking about post-truth is generated not by WMDs but by the recent banking and economic crises; we are returning to politics as a zero sum game with whatever advantage going to one group being seen as at the expense of another and it is in this climate in which selective reasoning thrives.

[1] Toulmin is a common point of reference for those interested in theory of argument – Toulmin, S. (2012) The Use of Argument, Cambridge, CUP.

[2] See for example fact checking sites such as:

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/22/donald-trump/fact-checking-trumps-claim-thousands-new-jersey-ch/

[3] I am not sure anyone wants to revisit this but the claim was:

‘The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.’

[4] If interested in the result go to the BBC site at

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4360597.stm

[5] On the day after the Brexit vote I was talking to a friend who said how pleased he was with the result and how he had not met anyone who voted to remain. Until that point I don’t think I had met anyone who voted to leave. This kind of polarised experience was I think fairly common.

[6] This is Orwell in 1943 reflecting back on the Spanish civil war:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1942’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Looking back on the Spanish War http://orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1

 

Photography and social research

I have often felt in doing research that I have missed out on using photographs, but when it comes to it I am not sure what an image tells us. Or rather my suspicion is, to borrow a phrase from Ryle [1], that an image gives you a ‘thin’ description’, it shows you what is happening but not why it is happening or the intention of the person doing it. Words offer the possibility of a thick description and I would much prefer, for example, to read George Orwell on shooting an elephant [2] rather than look at a photo or see a film of the same thing – though to be fair a photo has the particular value that it could have established whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant or not.

Two sets of photographs have recently grabbed my attention. Both from 1930’s and early 1940’s. The historical context is important as this is the period in which small, reliable and affordable hand held cameras were coming on to the market triggering a new interest in photography, just as hand held video cameras and now Smart/ I phones have led to an explosion of moving images being taken today.

The first set of photographs were taken by [3] Bateson and Mead – in fact of the two Bateson seems to have led on the photography. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both established social researchers and were excited about using photos in their ethnographic reporting as this might fill a gap between ‘journalistic description’ and ‘over analytical disembodied discussion’. The book they produced was a mix of text (Mead provided the written descriptions of Balinese culture, for example, covering topics including learning, integration of the body, parents and children, rites of passages and so on) Bateson’s photographs could illustrate through image what was being described in text. The book was first published in 1942 though the images were taken some time earlier when, over a period of time, they immersed themselves into Balinese life. [4]

Bateson and Mead worked with a great many photos as well as some short film clips. Interestingly they did not ask permission to take photographs and their subjects, they suggest, had lost a sense of self consciousness as they had got used to the sight of cameras being carried around the village. Very few of the compositions were in any sense ‘posed’ and this the authors see as giving their work greater authenticity.

Mead and Bateson were leading social researchers of the last century and they have been rightly celebrated; if judgments are to be made about their work then these should be framed by the times in which they lived. Mead and Bateson wanted to learn from the communities they studied and they offer some fascinating insight not least in respect to education. In a section about learning Mead describes a socialisation framework which might be seen as a community of practice. Children it is said learn virtually nothing from verbal instruction and even in story telling words must be repeated to have meaning. However some of the text really grates to the contemporary reader and many would question  the process by which western ethnographers come to enter and appraise traditional community. The photos look horribly intrusive and Mead and Bateson did not follow through on the ethical issues raised by their methods and I doubt if any of their colleagues or readers at the time would have done so either. [5]   The pictures are helpful to support the text but they are secondary. To be honest they remind me of tourist ‘snapshots’ more than anything else (nothing wrong with that of course but unsettling in the context of social research). Mead and Bateson set out to avoid presenting Balinese culture as disembodied and being over analytical, yet in tone that is what they have done.

Around the same time that Mead and Bateson were in Bali, other American photographers, some of the key names were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and Roy Stryker, were working on documenting the experiences of smallholders in the USA itself.  This was the work of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA) – the FSA programme being part of the interventionist New Deal to tackle unemployment and poverty. In particular smallholders in central USA were made destitute not only by the economic depression but also by ecological catastrophe. Farm land in the plains was always susceptible to drought and erosion but the soil could be held together by grass. As the great plains were ploughed up the soil lost its binding and come the droughts the soil simply blew away in great dust clouds [7]. Faced with the destitution of farmers the government at first did very little but the New Deal offered by Roosevelt offered more, though how radical has always remained a matter of debate. The idea of a historical section seems to have been to record the lives and trials of shareholder farmers in the hope that this would generate a sense of social solidarity leading to action to address their plight. The photographers working on the project produced a very large numbers of images which can be accessed in library of Congress web site [6].

Many of the photos draw the viewer in and do what they set out to do which is to provoke an emotional response. I don’t want to overdo the contrast between these photographs and those of Bateson as the FSA ones were taken by professional photographers and were designed to persuade not just to document. However it needs to be said that the photos are engaging and humanist in ways that Bateson’s are not. Interestingly though, similar ethical issues are raised by both sets of photographs as the FSA photographers did not seek permission from their subjects either  and there has been some talk of smallholder  being unhappy at the way their lives were documented.

The FSA collection remains haunting. And particularly so as it seems to offer a direct  comparison with the images we have of, displacement and forced migration  in particular from Syria into Europe.

Photographs

The images below are available from the Library of Congress and are respectively titled:

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (Arthur Rubinstein April 1936)

dust-storm

Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, October 1935)

destitute-children

Toward Los Angeles, Calif. (Dorothea Lange March 1937).

next-time

Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (Dorothea Lange, February or March 1936)

pea-picker

(Note the collection is available to view via the Library of Congress and I understand is copyright free but apologise in advance if this is not case.)

[1] Ryle, G. (1968) The Thinking of thoughts, What is ‘Le Penseur’ doing?, University Lectures No 18, University of Saskatchewan. Online. Available HTTP: <http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/CSACSIA/Vol14/Papers/ryle_1.html>

[2] Orwell (1936) Shooting an Elephant is in various collections but can be accessed at the Orwell archive online at http://orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph

[3] Bateson, G.and Mead, M. (1942) Balinese Character A photographic analysis New York Academy of Sciences, New York

[4] It is a grey area but I don’t think I have permission to upload photographs to the site but you can see them on a web site publicising a ibrary of congress event at

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-bali.html

[5] a contrasting approach is to give cameras to participants in order that they may make their own images and discuss them together – see for a example Johnsen, S. et al (2008) Imagining ‘homeless places’ Area, 40, 2. 194-207.

[6] I became aware of these photos via an exhibition at my university: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930’s America http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/whats-on/2016/the-human-document/

[7] Some of the context can be seen in the film ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’.  I found it extraordinary. The film can be easily accessed on You Tube, for example at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQCwhjWNcH8

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in praise of praise

As I come to later, I was taken back a little by a Sutton Trust report on ‘what makes great teaching’ . [The Sutton Trust is linked here [http://www.suttontrust.com] and the report itself is at http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-makes-great-teaching-FINAL-4.11.14.pdf] .

The report says many sensible things about support for learning and the critical importance of feedback. However tucked away was a small section on ‘ineffective practices’ including criticism of ‘lavish’ praise:

‘Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning.’ In fact this criticism of lavish praise was highlighted in the Sutton Trust’s press release and although the report was focused on ‘great teaching’ press reviews predictably accentuated the negative (‘what we were doing wrong’) including the harmful effects of too much praise. For example TES saw lavish praise as one of the ‘seven deadly sins of teaching’ (the report did not of course say anything about sin but never mind) http://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/10/30/thou-shalt-not-praise-the-seven-deadly-sins-of-teaching.aspx and praise was the focus an ITV news item: http://www.itv.com/news/2014-10-31/lavishing-praise-on-pupils-unlikely-to-boost-results/

This is one more example where there was an opportunity for a national conversation about teaching that was sidetracked into a put down of practice – not much evidence of praise, lavish or otherwise, when it comes to the media and teaching. But there is a larger question here, are children (or for that matter adult learners) being praised too much? As it happens a while age I wrote a short reflection on my first experiences of teaching in secondary school, of my first school I noted:

‘Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people. Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible. I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a little perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, are you pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it? Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling. I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically or lack belief in my potential for learning and the teaching assistant had, whether intentionally or not, pointed this out to me. I thank her to this day for doing so.’

Was I wrong? Well I don’t think so. Self-esteem is core to learning – and many of us are fragile learners, we believe criticism and need to hear praise several times over to believe it. Of course if you only hear the praise and are not given the advice on how you can improve then yes praise is an ‘ineffective practice’. Most teachers follow a ‘two stars and a wish’ approach and this mix of praise and formative feedback is surely effective practice. However praise needs to be seen in context. Praise may indeed be lavish for one but finely tuned for others like Shahira. What the teaching assistant in my story was telling me was that I was not going to get anywhere without looking at each particular child and trying to see the world through her eyes and adapt accordingly.