Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bring Back Rigorous Frosh Rhetoric Prerequisites

Remember my saying that you couldn't go several days without hearing something silly being said supporting materialist ideology about our minds in the media?  A few hours after I posted the piece below, NPR's Morning Edition, Saturday had a piece doing that, over and over again.   The motive was a sort of promo-review of a really stupid sounding movie purported to teach children and parents about the science behind their puzzling behavior, explaining it all through the latest in neuro-cog-science.   If you don't catch the movie, don't worry.  They'll change everything said in it around in a few years, if not months.

I kept gritting my teeth listening to it wondering, didn't anyone teach them how metaphors work?  Over and over again, people who go on like that continually mistake metaphors standing in for the thing they are only a comparison to, for the thing the metaphor was invented to explain.   A metaphor isn't necessary if the object of the effort is understood, in itself.

It makes me think of something said about metaphors in an old internet forum on "Metaphors, analogies, thought mappings" I once read and, wouldn't you know, I found it.

"When a precise narrowly focused technical idea becomes metaphor and sprawls globally, its credibility must be earned afresh locally by means of specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application. It is not enough for presenters to make ever-bolder puns, as meaning drifts into duplicity. Something has to be explained."

The problem is, that's not how human beings in real life operate.  Once they have learned a metaphor the strong tendency to mistake it as established fact takes over.  While it is endemic to many branches of science, it is especially true of those things presented by science reporters in the media.*   Metaphors have a shelf-life that fact isn't supposed to have and when you substitute metaphors for fact, you are bound to risk coming up with some really bad consequences.

Interestingly, in the same forum discussion was this, from a teacher.

I've been teaching a class of 4th/5th grade students to create a blank map of a place as a class, then invent that place through their studies. They "discover" items on the map by turning up items in reading, looking at photos, listening to sounds, brainstorming, etc. When they've studied those items and written about them a bit they're drawn into the map. As the map grows denser their ability to explore it, and thus generate ideas from it, grows.

In a curious way, this is a way of reversing the metaphor of the mind map -- it's a mind map that really becomes a map.

I've been fascinated at how readily the students take to this kind of thinking. I've had to explain this approach to adult teachers many times and generally received confusion and skepticism in return. But when I showed it to the students not one of them needed an explanation. One said: "I can't wait to get started!" and there was lots of agreement.

I post this here because it is, in a sense, a large-scale metaphor for learning, although it's functional as well.

You have to wonder what the tendency of the students to mistke their metaphor for some actual representation of their actual mind, the know to them, the unknown to them, and that the entire thing was based on assumptions that don't meet the requirements of "specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application".  Evidence based science, among other things, in short.

The mistaking of metaphor for the thing the comparison was created to explain is a common enough problem, it is found in the ideological enemies of the "brain-only" materialists, the biblical literalists, whose reading of the book of Genesis, etc. is recapitulated by them for what is merely a different ideological position.

While listening to the NPR piece I kept thinking, this has to be a result of sci-folk not being exposed to the humanities to the extent that they understand the very real and serious limits of metaphors, not to mention identifying a metaphor as one and not a scientific "fact".  Only, when I looked, NPR's Science Editor Jon Hamilton "... graduated with honors from Oberlin College in Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English... He earned his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University."  And Neda Ulaby "... taught classes in the humanities at the University of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University and at high schools serving at-risk students..." and was "A former doctoral student in English literature.   What the hell?   How can you get through your Frosh year as an English major without understanding the nature of metaphors?   Bring back rigorous Frosh Rhetoric prerequisites for all incoming Freshmen, especially any of them who are going to blather in the media about "brain science".

*  The distinction between serious-popular and serious-academic as opposed to journalistic theology which Richard McBrien made yesterday is as good a description of science writing, as well.  Only sometimes the journalistic writing pushes an agenda on behalf of even those writing serious-academic science, these days those whose primary avocational goal for science is pushing materialist ideology.


  1. Humanities once led the sciences; now it bows to them. No matter how much education you have in "liberal arts," it is considered a diminished course of study fit only for those not rigorous enough to be scientists (whose rigor extends only to memorizing data. The admirable figure is the brain surgeon who memorized a complex, and long, text on his subject. An anecdote I read years ago; and no doubt a useful thing to do if one is to practice brain surgery. But it's not much above an auto mechanic who learns enough to work on any kind of internal combustion engine, from a lawnmower to a 12 cylinder run more by computers than mechanics.

    Still, the "liberal arts" not being "hard," they are not regarded as useful. English majors know poetry and trivia; scientists know "facts." Lawyers quibble over definitions; scientists deal with "truth."

    And on and on it goes.....

    There's an article at Salon, apparently (from the headline) about monstrous human acts (Nazis, etc.) and how science can explain them and, I guess, teach us not to do them?

    Are we still in the 19th century?

  2. History, (meh) mere humanities.

    If scientists are going to mess around with metaphors and get into trouble with them it's really necessary for them to at least be taught what they're doing. As Weizenbaum said, scientists are always getting caught up into pretending their merely formal language and their pose of suspended disbelief (he compared them to theater goers) as being what they are not. When he saw it happening in the 1960s he understood the dangers of it enough that he became a dissident scientist who was shunned and black balled by other scientists for pointing it out.

    1. A lot of scientists, I understand, don't like Kuhn, either. He proves they are merely engaging a philosophy, which is all science was understood to be until the time of the Enlightenment, when it became a religion, because now it deals in "Truth."

      "Absolute truth," according to some. I keep remembering how some of the quantum physicists, like Schrodinger, understood philosophy (being well-educated Germans; Anglo-Americans (English and Americans) have always been too practical to have need of "philosophy" or, really, the "humanities") and discussed it often in conjunction with their mathematics.

      Most scientists, though, are like priests without the education in the subjects surrounding their field of work. C.P. Snow tried to point it out, but too many people focussed on his critique of humanities scholars untrained in science, and paid too little attention to his critique of scientists unschooled in the humanities.

      Which is the roots of the "Mad scientist" of the 19th century novel and 20th century movies.