Monthly Archives: February 2018

Errors and Sources

These are two things you have to acknowledge. If someone asks you where you got your information from, you have to tell them. You may have learned something just from reading a book or you may have gleaned it from careful analysis of data. You may have happened on a long-forgotten document in an archive. Whatever is the case, you have a story to tell about how you know something. If you are a scholar, other people have a perfectly legitimate interest in that story. If you refuse to share it, you have stopped behaving like a scholar. Even telling someone that you don’t know where you got it (if you in fact don’t remember) is a (true) story about the basis of your claim. Being a scholar means having to be honest about that.

The same goes for your mistakes. If someone points out that you’ve gotten something wrong, you have an obligation as a scholar to do something about that. You have to acknowledge the mistake and you have to try to correct it. This also means that you have to check whether it affects the general conclusions you’ve reached. Don’t assume (or pretend) that it doesn’t matter. “When the authors protest that none of the errors really matter,” Andrew Gelman reminds us, “it makes you realize that, in these projects, the data hardly matter at all.” You seriously undermine your credibility by not taking people who think you’re wrong seriously. If they do spot a mistake, you really lose us if you act like it’s of no importance to you. Why did you assert a fact that it’s of no importance to you to be right about?

Remember Wayne Booth’s story about “the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford”: “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” Make sure you know the answers to those questions. Think of them as answers to the questions, “How could I be wrong?” and “Where can I find more information?” That is, if you know a thing you also know how things could be different, and you know how to find out whether they have changed and how similar things are now arranged. You are not just saying things that other people can take or leave, believe or reject. You are proposing to discuss these things with people whose opinions you respect. Scholarship is an ongoing conversation among people who are mutually committed to acknowledging both their sources and their errors.

Knowledge, Belief and Institutions

Philosophers have long thought of knowledge as a special case of belief. The idea is that in order to know something you have to believe that something is the case. It also has to actually be the case, which is just to say that the belief has to be true. Finally, you have to understand why it is true; you have to have a justification for believing what you believe. While many issues can still be raised, this definition of knowledge as “justified, true belief” offers a nice heuristic for deciding whether you, as an individual, know something. In this post, however, I want talk about what we can call “epistemic institutions”, i.e., social arrangements that support knowing and believing.

I’m thinking especially of the institutions* of journalism and education. These institutions shape what we think, they direct our “epistemic” states. But it recently occurred to me that we do well to distinguish between institutions that help us to know the truth of things and institutions that aim merely to get us to believe that particular things are true. The difference, it seems to me, is that which exists between journalism and propaganda, education and indoctrination.

Now, it should be obvious that no organization* would identify itself as a propaganda machine or indoctrination center if its aim was to actually get us to believe something. It would say it was engaged in journalism or education. So it is on us to make the necessary distinction, i.e., to exercise critical judgment. What then are the criteria for deciding whether or not an organization is engaged in journalism or propaganda, education or indoctrination? When we open a newspaper or enter a classroom, how do we know whether we are being supported in our search for knowledge, or being manipulated into believing something? From the other side, when we sit down to write an article or stand up to begin a lecture, how do we know what we’re doing? Are we journalists or propagandists? Are we educators or indoctrinators?

More instrumentally, suppose we wanted to become good at any of these things. (I may find it distasteful, but is it really my place to say that propaganda and indoctrination are always bad things?) I think it would be good not to kid ourselves that we are doing one thing when we’re really doing another.

Obviously, from the point of view of immediate action, a belief is as good as knowledge. If I falsely believe that a threat is imminent or that a reward awaits I will be guided to the same action that I would take if I were right. The difference lies in what the consequences of that action will be, how successful it will be. (This is why pragmatists sometimes tell us that “the truth is what works”; a true belief is simply one that guides action towards its desired outcome.) Since knowledge is a species of belief, an educator’s immediate effect on me may be indistinguishable from an indoctrinor’s. Both will get me to believe something. How can I tell the difference between the processes that got me into this state of belief? Or can I, perhaps, tell the difference between the states of belief themselves?

I think the most important clue is the role that criticism played in the formation of your belief. Another is whether the soi-disant journalist or educator cares very much what you end up believing. Was the belief you formed at any point challenged? Were you afforded a means to make up your own mind?

It’s relatively easy to decide whether your situation is a “critical” occasion. Try asking some questions. “How do you know?” is a classic question. If your instructor immediately takes this as though it’s a polemical one, you might be dealing with an ideologue (which we can take as a covering term for propagandists and indoctrinators). Also, you should be skeptical (i.e., less disposed to believe them) if they answer this question by invoking their authority rather than telling you what their evidence is and how they got it. My favorite example of this is a professor I once heard answer a sincere question from a student about his method by explaining where he got his millions in funding from. Education and indoctrination have very different “foundations”. If drawing attention to them immediately causes a crisis, you’re not going to be able to do much in the way of critical thinking.

The other question is whether your instructor leaves you a dignified place of disagreement. Do they imply that you are either stupid or evil if you don’t believe what they are trying to tell you? Or are they content to lay out a set of arguments and let you draw one of several conclusions, including (as per the previous paragraph) the possibility that some of those arguments are unfounded? Someone who truly knows something will be patient with your attempts to learn it; they know themselves how difficult it is to understand. Someone who has merely been instructed that something is “true” will be distressed (and perhaps disgusted) when you do not process the instruction to “Believe!” as easily as they did. An ideologue is someone who thinks you should believe things even if you don’t understand them. A teacher is someone whose primary aim is to get you to understand something. Only that way can you also know when you finally come to believe.


*A quick terminological note. We sometimes use the word “institution” to denote what is really an organisation. As I use this distinction (I’m sure imperfectly at times), journalism is the institution of bringing news of current events to the population and CNN, for example, is a news organization. When we say that the New York Times is an “institution” we mean that in an honorific sense. Really it’s just another organization; it’s just that it is so powerful that it has a formative influence on what we think journalism is. A particular university is an organization; higher education is an institution.

Book of Sand, Box of Parts

“Both these worries aggravated my already long-standing misanthropy.” (J. L. Borges, “The Book of Sand”)

Jon Winokur runs a blog called Advice to Writers and an associated Twitter account to remind us of the “writerly wisdom of the ages”. The other day he tweeted Shannon Hale’s approach to writing a first draft, which she describes as “shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” I retweeted it with a caveat. “Please remember,” I said, “that what is good advice for writers of young adult fantasy is not necessarily good advice for early career researchers.” Novelists and literary types are not always good models for researchers and scholars. You may admire the result, but you don’t want to write like Henry “Vas-y” Miller.

Jo Van Every, an academic career guide, came to the defense of Hale’s metaphor,  however, suggesting that early career researchers, perhaps, “already have sand in a box. They are now using that sand to create different published outputs.” This was a good prod for me to clarify the issue I have with the image of writing as filling boxes with sand. I prefer to think of scholarly writing as building something out of relatively well-defined and sturdy parts, I said, not as shoveling and shaping a mass of undifferentiated particles. I could have added that I don’t think it is helpful to think of producing scholarly output on the model of weeding a garden or pruning a tree. That metaphor has other, perfectly legitimate, uses in academic writing.

The correct metaphor, if you ask me, is that of a construction. It’s not as limited as, say, Lego, but more like a constructor set that also lets you include bits and pieces of everyday reality, ordinary household objects and other toys. There are general structural elements and more specialized parts. Your paper will present a theoretical “framework”, for example, built out of concepts that your reader recognizes and it will then then put it to work by subjecting it to a “load”, i.e., by introducing data that has been gathered according to a methodology that, again, is recognizable to the reader. A paper can certainly “fall apart” on you (or in the hands of your reader) but it cannot, meaningfully, be “smashed to atoms”. Its meaning does not erode like a castle in the sand.

Maybe some novelists have a more rugged conception of their materials but, like I say, I’m not going to tell novelists how to write a first draft or how to think of their writing process. I’m just trying to help scholars avoid a less than apt metaphor with which to understand their own writing.

In any case, Jo rightly reminded me that researchers aren’t usually “starting from scratch” when they’re writing journal articles. They’ve “already got a conference paper, a working paper, pages and pages of analysis” or some basis like that to proceed from. This happens to be something I have an opinion about too., and I answered that conference papers and working papers are best seen as unfinished journal articles. They should be written in the same way. You still need to decide what to say (i.e., what you know) before you begin one. As for “pages and pages of analysis”: I would encourage researchers to think of them merely as a warmup. After they have helped you decide what to say, throw them out. Now write what you know for the purpose of discussing it with your peers.

Understandably enough, this suggestion puzzled Jo. “Isn’t that ‘warm up’ the first draft?” she asked. “I’m not sure what is gained by calling it something that isn’t writing.” And this is indeed exactly my point. The metaphor we are evaluating is one of shoveling sand into boxes and then later shaping that same sand into castles. I’m suggesting that you should not try to shape your drafts, and therefore that you should not produce them as though they are made of a “malleable” substance. Instead, write it around claims you identified through the “free-writing” process.

I realize that it is counter-intuitive to say that that process isn’t actually “writing”. But I really do believe that it stands in the same relation to your final text as drawing a mind-map, talking to a colleague about your results,  or just going for a walk and thinking things through. It’s as far from scholarly writing as that. Or as close to it, if you will. And here Hale’s image of a box of sand may have some carry after all.

Some researchers (especially ethnographers, I have found) approach the writing of their analysis as shoveling particles of experience into their paper where they will gradually be given meaning. That is, they are simply importing their data set into their word processor, which they think of as a tool to help them with their analysis. (There are much better tools for this purpose, I’m told.) In the first instance, it’s just a box to distinguish their “sample” from the “population”. If they had been working with more quantitative data, there would be no confusion here; it obviously wouldn’t be writing. But because qualitative analysis is, indeed, very much like drafting a novel–they are drawing , not just on their interview transcripts and field notes, but  also on their memory of their research experiences–it feels like they are actually in the first stages of their writing. This is the feeling I’m trying to get writers to understand better.

Just because you are putting words together, even in sentences, doesn’t mean that you are writing. You might, for example, be speaking. Even if you are typing, you might be transcribing or, to come closest to drafting a novel, thinking “out loud”, i.e., transcribing what is on your mind about something. But to be really engaged in scholarly writing is to be composing a paragraph–at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. If you’re not doing that you may as well be talking or drawing a picture … or, of course, thinking. That’s also something you should do, of course. But it isn’t writing.