Monday, April 27, 2015

Notes from a seminar on information at the College of Information at the University of North Texas shared with Haj Ross and Brian O'Connor, the other two panelists:

The quotes Haj sent resonate nicely with things I believe and have said, including:

1.      We generally know less on any particular topic than we are inclined to believe that we know.
2.      It would be remarkable if the limits of my imagination happened to coincide with the limits of reality (adapted from O. K. Bouwsma).
3.      A teacher is the ear the listens, the eye that reflects, the voice that encourages, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away (adapted from Rabbi Spector).
4.      To ask a question is different from having a question. To ask is a simple grammatical exercise – switch the order of verb and subject or raise the tone at the end of the statement, in  English anyway. To have a question implies that one does not know (admits ignorance), that one is willing to devote time and effort into finding out (commits to an inquiry), that one is open to alternative explanations, and that one is willing to questions one’s assumptions. The job of teaching is to help students to have questions. I give examples that include Carl Sagan’s account of how he developed an interest in astronomy and Stephen J. Gould’s “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale.” Sometimes I tell a story about how I learned that one of my assumptions was unfounded.
5.      I describe philosophy as thought in slow motion … and I encourage such thinking … examining the little words that occur in many assertions.
6.      I also describe philosophy as an ongoing enterprise aimed at mapping out the fuzzy boundaries between sense and non-sense. I was tempted on Friday to include one of my favorite assertions: “I just ate the last cannibal.” Bouwsma’s version was this: “Yesterday I suffered a fatal heart attack.”
7.      I admit to having been shocked by the question if poetry was evidence and then being accused of being a positivist. I wondered what a poem could be evidence of – creativity, perhaps. I am an admitted admirer of Karl Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations” – especially about the potential refutability of claims being a criterion of a meaningful claim. I am often critical of the wrongheaded confidence that people have with regard to particular beliefs. I find many alleged dichotomies as too vague and overly general to have useful meaning (e.g., instructivist vs. constructivist, objectivism vs. subjectivism, etc.). I do not believe that all measurements or indicators need to be subject to the rigors found in large-scale, randomized control experiments, but I am inclined to believe that we should have strong and multiple indicators to support strong beliefs (those we believe with a high degree of probability). I believe that use and context play a significant role in the determination of a claim. I believe that proofs (in the sense of formal proofs in logic or mathematics) are not what social scientists establish – rather, I believe the general goal is to establish strong confidence in the probability in findings that can aid in understanding unusual or new phenomena or serve as the basis for designing interventions that are likely to be successful or help people make better decisions and formulate more robust policies or be useful in predicting what is likely to happen if a certain course of action is followed. Of course some investigations are purely descriptive rather than explanatory or predictive. Those who think that Wittgenstein was a positivist have not read the Tractatus carefully – “the world waxes and wanes as a whole” and “the world of the happy person is not the same as the world of the unhappy person,” as I quoted in the talk. While he ended the Tractatus with the claim that “what we cannot speak about [clearly], we must pass over in silence,”  his later works (e.g., Philosophical Investigations) showed that he (and others) rightfully wanted to talk about many things that did not fit well into a simple correspondence theory of truth (e.g., mapping assertions to facts) – the concept of language games was described for just that purpose, I think. I see a tension between the complexity of things (what Wittgenstein called the world) and a natural tendency of people to simplify (create internal representations to make sense of experience). Both internal and external models are inherently simplifications. It is natural to create internal representations – that is what we do … we simplify. Yet we want to understand the complexity of things. The implication is that many investigations (efforts to understand) are best considered incomplete – worth revisiting and reconsidering and re-examining and reconstructing and so on.
8.      I also believe that ethics at every level is important and all too often overlooked – at the individual level (self-respect,  being honest with oneself, knowing oneself, etc.), at the inter-personal level (respecting others, not causing harm to others, helping others, etc.), at the organizational and institutional level (respecting the integrity of the organization, etc.), and at the societal level (helping to create a social environment that is fair and equitable to all). I cast my talk as being about the ethics of information as I think that many times there is an unwitting inclination to do harm (e.g., increase the digital divide, denigrate an institution or group of colleagues, etc.).
9.      I agree that helping to develop wisdom is a worthwhile goal, but I am not sure how best to promote that goal beyond citing cases that might be considered examples of wisdom. In my own life, I regard my father as a wise person and can cite many examples of what I consider to be wise acts.
10.   I have written about many of these things in my blog, which includes a poem, by the way – see … the poem is in a Nov 2010 entry.

As Haj said in the seminar, information is in large part about what is said. I do not disagree at one level, but I think that meaning is embedded in what we do. I continue to be wary of the truth people are telling as that seems all too often to be a truth they are interested in selling (e.g., spinning). The wise person in my life taught me that it is what one does that matters more than what one says. Bouwsma put it this way: “Surely your life must show what you think of yourself.”


P. S. I hope you do not mind that I attached your quotes (which I think are great) as I want to share them with others.

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