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I don’t know how this adds up. So this Minnesota church is struggling with declining membership — only about 25 people show up each week, and most of them are elderly — so what they’ve decided to do is tell all those old people to stay home or go to a different church so … they … can … increase the numbers of … young people?
Grove United Methodist Church in the St. Paul suburb of Cottage Grove is closing in June, with plans to relaunch in November. The present members, most of them over 60 years old, will be invited to worship elsewhere, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. The church is asking that they stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about reapplying.
There’s some funky logic going on here. They must have additional plans to reinvigorate the church, other than telling the old folks to stay away, unless they think somehow that older people actively repel the youth. But if they’ve got some dynamic plan to draw in more, younger members, why do they need to kick out the loyal congregation? And do they seriously think the ejected members will want to come back in two years?
They’ve got some new guy coming in as pastor, and I’d really like to know what magic he plans to work to get new people to join the church that just kicked out Grandma and Grandpa. Other Methodist churches are undergoing this peculiar division of their congregations, and it’s associated with deep splits over the inclusion of LGBTQ members. I wonder if that’s the unstated and unreported rationale for showing the membership the door.
After Chad and Yara hit it off and mated, I started shuffling Chad off to meet other spider ladies. First up, I paired him with Melisandre.
This morning, I find one live spider and one dead spider. My immediate thought was that the little witch had murdered the male, but no — Chad was fine, it was Melisandre’s corpse that was dangling from a silken thread. This is not right. Chad, you brute. Now I hesitate to move a known domestic abuser to a new cage, the rotten killer. Mate, don’t murder.
I suppose it’s possible Melisandre lost her magic necklace and just died of old age…
Since we discontinued the ads on this site, I (and other bloggers) get lots of promotional crapola from people who want to put them back on — I will not. I thought this invitation from sourceglobalmedia.com was, well, unethical.
Please let us know pricing and options to place content relevant on your website but would have 1 link to Gaming Industry website. Further details:
● We will reimburse yourselves for a one off administration fee in uploading and maintaining the content on your website as long as the site is still live.
● Within the body of the content Please do not suggest the article is paid / sponsored / advertorial in the content
● We will provide you with the article that will include citations and images, as to make the content with editorial value, we request that all these are kept in.
Please come back to me and we can provide both content and payment.
It’s that second clause in particular. They’ll provide content, but we are required to pretend it is our own original work, and not mention that it was paid advertising. We won’t do that. That’s sleazy.
If you suddenly see posts written in an entirely different style, babbling about my amazing scores in fast twitch video games, you’ll know I sold out. The legal debts must be getting to me.
Cardinal Raymond Burke was asked about what to do if a family member brings their gay partner to an event which, I guess, we can use as a guideline to answering the question in my title.
This is a very delicate question, and it’s made even more delicate by the aggressiveness of the homosexual agenda. But one has to approach this in a very calm, serene, reasonable and faith-filled manner. If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are — reason teaches us that and also our faith — then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person? We wouldn’t, if it were another kind of relationship — something that was profoundly disordered and harmful — we wouldn’t expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it. And neither should we do it in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it, committing acts which are always and everywhere wrong, evil.
And so, families have to find a way to stay close to a child in this situation — to a son or grandson, or whatever it may be — in order to try to draw the person away from a relationship which is disordered.
And we know that with time, these relationships leave the person profoundly unhappy. And so it’s important to stay [as] close as one can. But, that particular form of relationship should not be imposed upon family members, and especially upon impressionable children. And I urge parents or grandparents — whoever it may be — to be very, very prudent in this matter and not to scandalize their children or grandchildren.
Well. I certainly do regard the priesthood as a festering tradition of ignorance and evil, and I am concerned about not doing harm to my children and grandchildren, but I’m not going to accept the recommendations of an evil person. We should do the opposite. If a priest shows up at your garden party, don’t shun them, or call the police, or throw them out — treat them with sympathy and understanding. Explain to your kids that sometimes people fall into a bad crowd and make poor life decisions, but we still have to treat them with the dignity and respect owed to all human beings, no matter how flawed. Don’t try to convert them, no matter how obvious their suffering, because we don’t know what led them to this disgraceful state, and disrupting their life may cause even greater misery.
Let the kids learn from this person’s example…but by no means allow your children to be alone in a room with a Catholic priest.
I used the last day of my winter break to see Little Women. I hadn’t read the book, and if you’d asked me yesterday what it was about, I’d have waved my hands vaguely and mumbled “Period drama? About girls growing up?”, which wouldn’t have sounded interesting at all, but you know, I see all kinds of crap because we have one theater in town and the selection is limited, so I’d go see it anyway. Jeez, but I was clueless. It’s a fantastically thoughtful film about women who are all different and have different aspirations and have to navigate oppressive social structures and often compromise their goals…but can still sometimes find happiness. Or not. I honestly thought at the beginning that I was going to have trouble keeping track of all these women, who was who and who was trying to do what — I am infused with patriarchal bias myself — and figured it was going to be Sex and the City in rural Massachusetts in the 1860s. It is so much better than that, and the acting was phenomenal, and Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth all stood out as real and important people.
Go see it if you can.
I am now in the unusual situation of having seen three excellent movies in the last month. Little Women, obviously, and The Lighthouse (a story of a descent into madness that didn’t rely on jump scares and gore), and Parasite, about class warfare and artificial dichotomies and opportunities between the rich and the poor. There hasn’t been a single superhero in tights in the bunch, and I’ve been really, deeply enjoying my outings. Superheroes have an appropriate niche, of course, and I’ll almost certainly go see any that show up in my town, but it turns out that movies that illustrate real issues and don’t resolve everything with punching and explosions are much more satisfying. It seems I need more fiber in my cinematic diet, with only occasional bites of flamboyant desserts.
(Oh, wait, I just remembered — I also saw Jo Jo Rabbit, another terrific movie. I am overwhelmed with great films lately!)
I recently appeared on Radio 4’s ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, to chat about the psychology of comedy alongside Frank Skinner, Prof Sophie Scott, Robin Ince and Brian Cox. Fun was had and you can listen to the recording here.
I spoke about a project that I conducted a few years ago called ‘Laughlab’. Billed as ‘the scientific search for the world’s funniest joke’, this online experiment ran for a year and was reported across the globe.
The project website had two sections. In one part, people could input their favourite joke and submit it to an archive. In the second section, people could answer a few simple questions about themselves (such as their sex, age, and nationality), and then rate how funny they found five randomly selected jokes on a five-point scale ranging from ‘not very funny’ to ‘very funny’.
During the project, we approached some of Britain’s best-known scientists and science writers, and ask them to submit their favourite jokes into LaughLab. The joke that went on to win the ‘best joke submitted by a well-known scientist’ category, was submitted by Nobel laureate, and professor of chemistry, Sir Harry Kroto:
A man walking down the street sees another man with a very big dog. The man says: “Does your dog bite?” The other man replies: “No, my dog doesn’t bite”. The first man then pats the dog, has his hand bitten off, and shouts; “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite”. The other man replies: “That’s not my dog”.
The comedy K
Early in the experiment, we received the following submission:
There were two cows in a field. One said: “Moo.” The other one said: “I was going to say that!”
We decided to use the joke as a basis for a little experiment, and re-entered the joke into archive several times, using a different animal and noise. We had two tigers going ‘Gruurrr’, two birds going ‘Cheep’, two mice going ‘Eeek’, two dogs going ‘Woof’, and so on. At the end of the study, we examined what effect the different animals had had on how funny people found the joke.
The winning animal noise joke was:
Two ducks were sitting in a pond, one of the ducks said: “Quack.” The other duck said: “I was going to say that!”
Interestingly, the ‘k’ sound (as in the ‘hard c’) is associated with both the word ‘Quack’ and ‘duck’, has long been seen by comedians and comedy writers as being especially funny. The idea of the comedy ‘k’ has certainly made it into popular culture. There was also an episode of The Simpsons, in which Krusty The Clown (note the ‘k’s) visits a faith healer because he has paralysed his vocal chords trying to cram too many ‘comedy k’s’ into his routines. After being healed, Krusty exclaims that he is overjoyed to get his comedy k’s back, celebrates by shouting out ‘King Kong’, ‘cold-cock’, ‘Kato Kaelin’, and kisses the faith healer as a sign of gratitude.
By the end of the project the project had received 40,000 jokes, and had them rated by more than 350,000 people from 70 countries. They were awarded a Guinness World Record for conducting one of the largest experiments in history, and made the cover story of The New Yorker.
We carefully went through the huge archive and found our top joke:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”
Five years after the study, we came across a documentary about Spike Milligan (‘ I Told You I Was Ill’) that contained a brief clip from a 1951 BBC programme called London Entertains with the following early Goon sketch:
Michael Bentine: I just came in and found him lying on the carpet there.
Peter Sellers: Oh, is he dead?
Michael Bentine: I think so.
Peter Sellers: Hadn’t you better make sure?
Michael Bentine: Alright. Just a minute.
Sound of two gun shots.
Michael Bentine: He’s dead.
This is clearly an early version of our winning joke. It is highly unusual to be able to track down the source of a joke, because their origins tend to become lost in the mists of time. Spike Milligan had died in 2002, but I contacted his daughter Sile, and she confirmed that it was highly likely that her father would have written the material.
LaughLab has now finished but is described in my book, Quirkology.
And you can download over 1000 of the LaughLab jokes (all clean!) here.
In the past decade, demonising immigrants has become a key part of the global rise of populism, from Donald Trump in the US to Viktor Orbán in Hungary. At the same time, the reasons why people might need to leave their homes have become ever more compelling as civil wars intensify and the effects of climate change emerge. In his book "This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto" (Jonathan Cape), writer and journalist Suketu Mehta argues that only facts and compelling human stories can counter the anti immigrant rhetoric of powerful populists.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I'm a migrant myself and I have never seen migrants so demonised. I had been writing a book about New York for a while after I wrote Maximum City. Then I took some time out to write this book now, because I believe that there is an emergency around the world in relation to the conversation around migration. The conversation around migrants in places like the United States now is approaching incitement to genocide.
When countries like the US and the UK talk about immigration, even among the liberal circles, it’s framed in terms of "how many immigrants should we let in?" What I want to ask is: why are they moving in the first place? It's not because they hate their homes or their families. It's because their future was stolen by the rich countries, by the west through colonialism, corporate colonialism, war and climate change.
Could you expand on the role of colonialism in this?
The book begins with this anecdote that my grandfather once told me. He grew up in India and then worked in colonial Kenya then retired in London. One day, this angry British gent comes up to him and wags a finger at him and says, "Why are you here? Why don't you go back to your country?" My grandfather said, "Well, it's because we're the creditors. You came to my country, you took all my gold and my diamond. You prevented my industry from developing so we've come to collect. We are here because you were there." The statistics bear it out.
When I walk around London now, with its monuments and its beautiful towers and museums, I feel like I should have a room in them because they were built with my money or my ancestor's money. In my book I've used footnotes to back up what I say. I have 50 pages of footnotes, so anyone who wants to see where I get the information can refer to the original studies and the original articles.
Why did it seem so important to footnote everything?
Well, the conversation — actually it's not even a conversation, it's basically shouting — about immigration around the world is a battle of storytelling. There are these populists like Trump, like Modi, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, like Orban in Hungary, like Erdogan, Putin. They are strong men, and populists, and a populist is a gifted storyteller. They know how to deliver a soundbite, but they tell false stories. The only way to fight a false story told well is to tell a true story better.
The way you tell a true story better is to fact check everything, which is not what the populists do. It's really important, I feel, when we make these arguments to make sure that we're aware of our own biases. People might argue with our statements or positions, but they can't really argue with the numbers if you show the studies.
I did lots of original reporting for the book. I went to Mexico and Morocco, and Spain and Hungary. I've traveled all over for this. I have been traveling for many, many years now looking at immigrants and at borders and I know how to tell a story. I think it's really important for a book like this to have three things: the human stories, the statistics to back them up, and an argument.
My argument that I've made in the book is that people are moving like never before and there is this enormous resistance to their movement. So mine is an angry book because I rail against the staggering hypocrisy of the rich countries now saying "No, you can't come into the UK. You've got to respect our borders” when they never asked anyone's permission when they went to live in other countries to steal and to loot.
It's an angry book with a happy ending. The happy ending is that, when people move, everyone benefits. When people come to the US and the UK, the US and the UK benefit enormously because they're not making enough babies. There may be young immigrants and their energy, and their vigour to pay the pensions of their older citizens.
How did we get to this point where hateful language is so mainstream?
I went to an incredibly racist public high school in Queens and I was bullied and a victim of tremendous racist abuse, but then I left the school, went to college, I went to graduate school, I lived in New York and every year I said, "Okay, this country is really shedding it's past." Particularly when Obama got elected in 2008, we felt elated, we felt America had turned a corner.
Because my grandfather lived here, I used to come to Britain quite regularly and I had seen this celebration of “Cool Britannia”. London was hip and multicultural and everyone wanted to come here. But then the 2008 financial crisis came, which was an enormous jolt to people, particularly the white working class of all these countries. They were full of anger, and they should be because their futures too had been stolen.
The UK has never in my memory been so polarised. Brexit, which really, the biggest driving factor was fear of migrants, led to the biggest own-goal in British history. What I show in my book is that the fear of migrants is doing incalculably more damage to these countries than the migrants themselves ever could.
You've mentioned that famous phrase, "We're here because you were there." Is immigration a form of reparations, and what do you think about reparations more broadly?
Absolutely, immigration should be a form of reparation. Again, the numbers don't lie. The biggest inequality in the world today is the inequality of citizenship. In 1916, in the post-colonial world, citizens of the richest countries were 33 times richer than the citizens of the poorest country. By the year 2000, the citizens of the richest countries were 134 times richer than the poorest country. Colonialism has been replaced by corporate colonialism.
As their money flows out of their countries, the people do the logical thing and follow the money. They follow their money to these countries that historically have been looting them and continue looting them today. What I'm calling for is immigration as a form of reparations not just for historical wrongs, but for current wrongs — and the biggest is immigration caused by climate change.
The United States put one third of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, European countries another quarter. The rich countries fouled up the atmosphere, and polluted it with their emissions so that they could build up their economies, and have left it to the poor countries to pay the bill.
How can the forces of resurgent nationalism be countered?
A lot of the fear of migrants isn't actually economic, it's cultural. It's fear of white people being replaced by non-white people. But people who have everyday lived experience of migrants, people who live in cities, people who live in places like London or New York or Berlin, they're much more accepting of immigration than people who live in the countryside. Most of the people who voted for Brexit have barely any experience with migrants so it's easy to arouse fear and hatred of them.
But who is actually arousing that fear and hatred? It's people like Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News and his tabloids in the UK, which have these sensational headlines. They'll pick like one isolated crime of a migrant man raping a white woman, let's say, and extrapolate it to all of them, even though all the evidence shows that migrants overwhelmingly commit crimes at lower rates than the majority population.
It's hard to respond to someone shouting in your face with a dry recital of facts and statistics. You've got to answer in an equally compelling way. My way of answering these people is to actually go to the migrants themselves. That's why I have stories like the families meeting at Friendship Park, on the American-Mexican border. It's the only place along the border where you're allowed to meet briefly for 10 minutes. I saw a man who hadn't seen his mother for 17 years see her across the fence. He wasn't allowed to hug her or touch her, but he could look at her across this fence and tell her how much he loves her, and his mother told him how much she misses him and asked him is he eating right. He pushed his pinkie through the fence and his mom pushed her pinky through and their pinkies touched, and they wept. I started weeping.
The media does a really bad job of highlighting these stories, but this is what we need to be doing. I'm a journalist and I teach journalism, and there's a way of making these stories compelling. We have truth on our side. That's the one thing the populists don't have. That's why the populists are so afraid of journalists and writers. That's why journalists and writers are being shot, imprisoned, heckled, scorned like never before. We are the people that Trump and Johnson and Putin are afraid of. We're the truth-tellers.
In the book you write that "etymology is destiny" and talk about the different categorisations — migrant, asylum seeker, refugee and so on. Why do these words matter?
There's a whole taxonomy of people who move from one country to the other. You could be an economic migrant, you could be a refugee, you could be an expat, you could be a traveler, you could be a tourist, you could be a circular migrant. What category you answer to at the border is literally a matter of life or death. Some countries will let in asylum seekers but not economic migrants, others will take in skilled immigrants but not refugees. So the person who has to move has to figure out what classification he or she fits into.
But it doesn't matter what they call us. In the end, we are none of these things. We're not refugees or economic migrants or expats, we're human beings exercising our human prerogative to move across this beautiful blue-green rock in the solar system.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist
Sometimes people change their minds while under the kind of pressure that could give you the bends. I’ve spent the last two years interviewing people who did just that. Like Susie, who discovered her husband had been telling a criminal lie since he was 12 years old and began to fear for herself and her young child. Or Peter, who opened his ailing mother’s post for her and discovered she wasn’t who he’d thought she was. Or Dylan, who quit the strict apocalypse-heralding religious sect he’d been raised in. Sometimes their stories were about not knowing what to believe, like when upper-class Alex finished a stint on the reality TV program Faking It, where he had been trained as an East End bouncer, only to realise he didn’t know which of his identities he’d been faking. Or Nicole, who spent years believing her mother abused her until she read an exposé arguing the whole thing had been a setup.
I had wanted to know what really goes on when someone changes their mind. The project started just after I finished a piece for the US radio show This American Life. The conceit had been simple: turn around to my own catcallers and try to reason them out of doing it. Every one of the men I spoke to said they thought women enjoyed it. I thought, because I used to think I understood persuasion, that I could just tell them, “We don’t”. But after hours of conversation these men walked away as sure as they’d ever been that it was okay to grab, yell at or follow women on the street.
So I wanted to know: what cogs are turning when mind-changing goes right? And can it tell us anything about our own attempts at persuasion?
It’s easy to think we know what a good change of mind is. We think we know what rationality requires, and the only question is why other people don’t do it more often. The ideal mind-change is calm. It reacts to reasoned argument. It responds to facts, not to our sense of self or the people around us. It resists the siren song of emotion. In the technological belt of California, where the only thing more precisely engineered than the software is the people – or maybe the people’s teeth – there is a whole organisation dedicated to achieving this ideal. It is called the Centre for Applied Rationality, and it will sell you a $3,900 four-day workshop during which participants eat, sleep and do nine hours of back-to-back reason-honing activities together daily under one (presumably rationally designed) roof. The proper way to reason, at least according to our present ideal, is to discard ego and emotion and step into a kind of disinfected argumentative operating theatre where the sealed air-conditioning vents stop any everyday fluff floating down and infecting the sterilised truth.
People like to talk about the “public sphere” – if there is such a thing then its convex edge reflects this image back at us. Think of the number of programmes dedicated to the mind-changing magic of two sides saying opposite things. The branding of these things often bakes in a little reward: how brave I am, for attending the Festival of Dangerous Ideas; how clever, for my subscription to the Intelligence Squared debates.
But how many times have you seen a TV panel discussion in which the defender of one view turned to their opponent and said, “You know, actually, that’s a pretty good point”? Ever? And if the ideal doesn’t work in practice, what makes us so confident that it’s the ideal?
While researching and speaking to people who really had changed their minds in high-stakes ways, I was routinely struck by how personal and idiosyncratic their routes to truth had been. For Dylan, for instance, the decision to leave his cult had almost nothing to do with what he believed. Instead it was about who he believed. After years of being married, he discovered that his wife had all along been concealing from him that she, privately, did not believe what the cult did – she never had. She had married him and loved him but had all along hoped that he would one day change his mind about whether the apocalypse was really coming. He trusted his wife more than his elders, and so this, rather than any countervailing evidence, finally uprooted his 26-year-long beliefs.
Or take Alex from Faking It, whose path to changing his mind about who he “really” was had very little to do with evidence or argument in any traditional sense, and much more to do with marshalling the same evidence into a different story. Alex, like most of us, had fallen into a kind of evidentiary loop about his own personality: his belief that he had certain traits led him to enact those traits, and thus his beliefs created the evidence that in turn supported those beliefs and so on, ouroboros-style. The way out of this loop was not more evidence, it was to momentarily let go of the hope that evidence about ourselves can be marshalled into a coherent personal autobiography with the self as the unified narrator. Or Nicole, who has spent years wondering whether her own memory of being abused as a child is accurate. What weighs on her in her uncertainty is not just the evidence and the arguments, but the costs of being wrong if she finally does settle on one verdict. Over and over, I heard stories of people finding their way back to the truth by using trust, their sense of self, hope, the things that other people told them: all the things we typically think we should check at the door when we’re trying to be rational.
But it’s not clear that these strategies are, in fact, irrational. Philosophers and scholars of rationality have spent millennia asking the same question I did moments ago: what makes us so sure we know what rationality requires? Maybe you think it’s simple, that being reasonable just means believing things in proportion to the evidence, but if that was your first thought then please accept my condolences as you plummet backwards down the rabbit hole. What counts as evidence? Are sensory perceptions evidence? Or feelings, like empathy? If not, what licenses your belief that other people’s suffering matters? When is there enough evidence to believe something? Do different beliefs require different amounts of evidence and, if so, what sets them apart? Could anything else have a bearing on what we should believe, like the costs of error? And what sort of “should” are we using when we ask, “What should we believe?” Are we aiming at truth, or at morality, or are they the same goal? Are the standards for believing mathematical or scientific truths different from moral or interpersonal ones, or is there no distinction? What’s the responsible way to respond to the news that someone as intelligent as you, in possession of as much evidence as you, reaches a different conclusion?
Over millennia these questions about what to believe, when, and why, have pinballed back and forth between the most blisteringly intelligent people of their day, and still nobody has the settled answers. Not all that long ago, on philosophy’s timescale, the Pittsburgh-based philosopher John McDowell wrote his seminal work Mind and World, which wonders among other things what sort of thing rationality could be. Reviewing it, Jerry Fodor wrote that “we’re very close to the edge of what we know how to talk about at all sensibly”.
I do not have the poetic instincts or vocabulary to be able to describe, against that backdrop, what hair-tearing frustration it is to see the concept of “rationality” bandied about in public without any acknowledgment of the longevity and complexity of these questions. Instead, pundits who take themselves to be the chief executors of rationality simply assert things about what it is to “be reasonable” by taking as bedrock the very things that still remain to be proved.
You will see people speak as though “being reasonable” is just being unemotional, as the MP Michael Gove did when he appeared on Good Morning Britain after the fire in Grenfell Tower, speaking in tones usually reserved for children who’ve had too much sugar. “We can put victims first [by] responding with calmness,” he told Piers Morgan. “It doesn’t help anyone, understandable though it is, to let emotion cloud reason . . . And you, [Piers], have a responsibility to look coolly at this situation.”
The idea seems to be that being emotional precludes being rational, and we can select only one way of being at a time. Antonin Scalia, the former US Supreme Court Judge, argued along these lines when he wrote, “Good judges pride themselves on the rationality of their rulings and the suppression of their personal proclivities, including most especially their emotions . . . overt appeal to emotion is likely to be regarded as an insult. (‘What does this lawyer think I am, an impressionable juror?’).” Where did we get this confidence that emotion has no place in reasoning?
Or you will see people speak as though “being rational” is just the task of getting your behaviour to match your goals, an inheritance from an economic model of the rational consumer. You want to save more money? Here’s an app. You want to exercise more? Here’s a morning routine. Geoff Sayre-McCord, an impossibly genial philosopher at the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, who collects motorcycles and writes about belief, told a story at a Princeton workshop on the ethics of belief that illustrates how slippery this idea of “rationality” can be. An economist friend of his gives a speech at a conference, espousing the idea that “rationality” governs the space between our goals and how we act, but has nothing much to say about which goals we should pursue. Hours later, at the pub, the economist laments his teenage son’s failure to set the “proper” goals: “All he does is play drums and drive around with his friends! He doesn’t study; he doesn’t think about his future. He’s being so irrational.”
In our haste to congratulate ourselves for being reasonable, we accidentally untied the very notion of “rationality” from its rich philosophical ancestry and from the complexity of actual human minds, and now the idea of “being reasonable” that underpins our public discourse has little to do with helping us find our way back to the truth, or to each other, and altogether more to do with selling us a dream of an optimised future where everything is protein powder and nothing hurts. The strange thing is that most of us are already suspicious of this image of “rational debate”. Most of us learned long ago that changing our minds about something that matters – whether we were right to act the way we did, whether to believe what we are being told, whether we are in love – is far messier than any topiaried argument will allow. Those spaces aren’t debates. They are moments between people – messy, flawed, baggage-carrying people – and our words have to navigate a space where old hurt and concealed fears and calcified beliefs hang stretched between us like spun sugar, only catching the light for a second or two before floating out of view again.
So why, when we know that changing our minds is as tangled and difficult and messy as we are, do we stay so welded to the thought that sterilised debate is the best way to go about it? Why do we hold our ideal of rationality fixed and try to bend ourselves around it, instead of the other way around? Why do we still think the important question is a psychological one about how we do change our minds, instead of a philosophical one about how we should?
In each of the stories I encountered in my research, one thing was consistent: without an intimate genealogy of a person’s beliefs, it was close to impossible to predict how they might change their mind – and how they would cope with the fallout. I think it is a service to our current persuasive crisis to return some of our attention to individual success stories. We are already agonisingly familiar with the ways persuasion can go wrong. My hope is that returning to the intricacies of how it goes right might provide us with a useful blueprint for some of our most difficult persuasive missions. When we set out to change people’s views it’s easy to forget just how resistant minds are to changing. It’s easy to feel, as I did when I spoke to my catcallers, like we’ve spent a whole lot of conversational energy ticking all the boxes in the rational persuasion manual and been rewarded with nothing but a frustrating stalemate. It is a uniquely teeth-grinding moment: not just to fail to persuade, but to have no idea what went wrong. My hope is that in paying attention to the mechanics of individual stories we can learn to better diagnose these moments, and, more optimistically, to see what happens when things do click. The people in these stories pulled off massive mind changes using altogether human tools of reasoning like trust, and credibility, and their sense of self, and their emotions, and their ways of avoiding the shame of having to reckon with the fact that they were wrong. If we can understand those tools a little better, and see them as rational as well as practical, then we may be able to use them in changes of mind we most want to accomplish.
It strikes me as a tragedy that in deference to our rusted-on idea of persuasion, we structured our public discourse around regimented debates, leaving persuasive strategies built on how we actually think to the used-car salespeople of the cognitive landscape: advertising executives, or lawyers, or actual used-car salespeople, whose highest aspiration for their insights is that they might better crowbar purchases or decisions out of the unsuspecting public. It is as though beginning in the muddy reality of being a person was a fitting strategy for professions that never hoped to leave that muddy reality, but for professions whose highest aspiration was truth, enlightenment, reason or progress, the chaos of actual life was not just useless but distracting.
And so the people who trusted this model of rational discourse were advised to retreat from the messy and the real, declaring progressively more and more ways of connecting to the world or other people to have no place in a proper argument. Or they spent their time reading manuals about how to spot a fallacy and dutifully tuning into each new broadcast debate trying not to wonder why it feels so hollow. And now those of us who felt like we should have been the most useful warriors for persuasion sit suspended, alone, on syllogistic crags far above a world where Nazis are back, and so is polio; where it’s prohibitively expensive to fight either, and the oceans are rising while we tell each other to just “be reasonable”.
We live in times that demand a better understanding of persuasion. Perhaps it’s time to dial down our confidence in the sterilised TV debate, and turn our attention to real stories of what happens when we change our minds.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist
Einstein’s War: How Relativity Conquered Nationalism and Shook the World (Viking) by Matthew Stanley
During World War I, German infantry troops entered and destroyed the Belgian town of Louvain. The ancient university library there was entirely destroyed, along with irreplaceable treasures. The British prime minister Herbert Asquith described it as a “blind, barbarian act” and the Daily Mail plastered headlines across its pages about the “Holocaust of Louvain”. As Matthew Stanley puts it, “The town’s name quickly became shorthand for atrocities against culture and learning.”
The event also led to a Europe-wide view of Germans as being barbaric and uncivilised. In England there were calls for there to be no contact whatsoever with German academics or indeed, anyone German. In response, Ludwig Fulda, a Frankfurt playwright, drafted the so-called “Manifesto to the Civilised World”, which sought to defend German honour on the world stage. Ninety-three German intellectuals and scientists signed the manifesto, which denied all accusations of wrongdoing, asserting in fiery terms that it was not possible for Germans to commit crimes against art and science. Albert Einstein was one of the few scientists invited to sign it who refused. Einstein’s War is the story of the evolution of his general theory of relativity, which he formulated and perfected during the years of that grand conflagration.
During the war, Einstein spent most of his time based in Berlin. He was always keen to point out to anyone who wanted to know that, though born in Germany (Ulm), since 1894 he had held a Swiss passport, and he publicly and vociferously opposed the war. His personal circumstances made it difficult to complete and publicise his theory. He was assisted by many friends and colleagues. The general theory is often thought of as appearing fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus’s skull. That was not the case. It is well known that he wrote a letter to his then partner, Mileva – also a physicist – describing it as “our” theory. In addition to Mileva, he sought out assistance from a number of other scientists and mathematicians.
But even with their help, relativity remained enormously abstract for many scientists, who were sceptical of it. Many could not accept that light could have weight, a necessary concomitant of Einstein’s theory. Until proof of that was found, only a few scientists regarded the theory as having any real worth. Karl Schwarzschild, for example, noted that a strange feature of his solution to Einstein’s equations led to a “closed off” pocket of space-time forming. He concluded that this was a mathematical oddity of little significance. Later generations of physicists gave these “oddities” the name “black holes”.
Then entered the English astronomer and Quaker Arthur Eddington. His religious beliefs were important to this story, because with the war raging in Europe, he battled with the authorities to avoid being conscripted and to continue his scientific work in support of Einstein.
The fact that Einstein was based in Berlin, and regarded by many as German, only served to make Eddington and Einstein’s task more difficult. During the height of the war, a Breslau mathematician described the theory as an example of “German work” and used it to celebrate Kaiser Wilhelm II’s birthday, saying that the theory was only possible because of the German nation and its resources. Einstein was furious at this chauvinistic use of his work, publicly pointing out that he was a Jew, a Swiss citizen and “only a human without special favour toward any state or national entity”. Although they had never met up to that point, he and Eddington were clearly kindred spirits.
Eddington knew that in order to prove Einstein’s theory and that light had weight, it would have to be shown that it was susceptible to gravity. This could be done by demonstrating that light from a distant star is deflected by the sun. The experiment could only be done from Earth during a full eclipse. That is what Eddington and his colleagues did. Attempts had been made before, but politics and atmospheric conditions had prevented success – one group were arrested in the Crimea as spies. In 1919, Eddington’s team travelled to Principe, an island off the west coast of Africa, while another team, led by Charles Davidson, went to Sobral in Brazil to take photographs of the eclipse.
After painstaking analysis of the glass plates of photographs, Eddington was able to show that the actual position of stars in the Hyades was different from their apparent position, by a factor that perfectly reflected the predictions in Einstein’s theory. As a result of Eddington’s work, Einstein was acknowledged as a genius. The scientific community immediately knew that their world would never be the same again. Perhaps, just as importantly, the scientific world was forced to recognise that they could not ignore a theoretician simply because they were working in an enemy state.
The evolution of the general theory of relativity, from its early conception by a Swiss Jew working in Germany – the enemy of England and France – to its substantiation by an English Quaker, is a fascinating and gripping story and Stanley tells it with verve and erudition.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist
In September 2011 I took a month-long CELTA course to gain a qualification in teaching English as a foreign language. I was in the middle of a PhD project about race and racism in Naples, Southern Italy, and I was about to start fieldwork. My intention was to offer a free English course for migrants in a mosque in the city as a way of giving something back to the communities who had agreed to help me with my research. I told my CELTA class in the UK about this and the teacher warned me not to idealise the idea of teaching migrants and refugees. She regaled us with stories about violent episodes and panic buttons installed in classrooms.
I knew people with refugee status and these comments felt both morbid and melodramatic. Language learning is a key issue in fraught contemporary debates about migration. We are all now familiar with the videos that go viral on the internet at regular intervals where an individual is shown or heard shouting something like “speak English!” (or another national language) at people. The victims guilty of speaking another tongue are usually not white and are speaking a language associated with migration, as opposed to tourism. Angry instructions to speak or learn a language are one way in which racist abuse is meted out.
These episodes of individual racism reflect the nationalist idea that people must speak the dominant language of the country they live in. New arrivals are frequently told they need to learn the national language in order to integrate, and sometimes as a precondition to being granted entry and leave to remain. This directive is issued at regular intervals by politicians and is embedded in immigration legislation and structures. In a moment characterised by economic austerity and security fears, the question of language frames discussions about community, safety and shared resources.
At the same time, language learning can enable migrants to speak for themselves, organise their lives and politically vindicate their right to stay and prosper in their new home. This is why I ignored the teacher I met during training and set up my own free English classes in Naples in 2012. Here’s what the experience taught me.
Lesson One: don’t tell people what languages they need to learn. I came to set up my English classes through Asli, a Somali woman and mum of three who got involved in community organising through her local mosque. The idea was that a lot of Somali people in Naples had family members in the UK whom they occasionally visited. Being able to speak English is considered a valuable skill globally and, in their case, could better connect them to the wider Somali diaspora. Asli advertised the course through her networks and I started organising my classes. The first week, about 20 people showed up and we learned basic introductions. It was fun. The following week it was really cold in the city and no one showed up. I carried on and eventually established a fixed class of about six regular students. Excluding one man, who was Egyptian and an imam at the mosque, everyone was from Somalia. They had all been living in Naples for a number of years and spoke Italian.
The teaching room at the mosque was painted a garish green. It had a blackboard and rows of desks. I cut letters out of big pieces of card and stuck them to the wall at the beginning of the course. I had a beginner English textbook and a literacy book. I also had a friend who let me photocopy pages of the books for free in their shop. Asli provided pen and paper. I didn’t have the CD for doing listening exercises and would read out the listening transcripts at the back of the book for the students to answer the comprehension questions. We started working our way through the textbook.
Then word got round that free English classes were being offered at the mosque, and groups of newly arrived Nigerien, Chadian, Sudanese and Ethiopian migrants started joining the class. They were awaiting the result of their asylum applications, having recently travelled to Italy via boat from Libya as it collapsed into civil war. Over two or three weeks, my class quintupled in size. Fortunately, one of the other imams at the mosque was a Ghanaian man who spoke both Arabic and Hausa. He was able to help me speak with the new members of my class. They wanted to learn English but I told them it would be better for them to learn Italian first. I also suggested learning literacy as, from my initial discussions, I could see this was needed as a foundation in most of their cases. This caused a lot of frustration. One man told me he was intending to go to the UK after he had got his Italian visa documents. However, I refused to change my mind and offered beginner Italian and literacy alongside the beginner English classes I had already started.
In retrospect, this decision was deeply arrogant. Most of the second group of students that came to learn with me stayed in the class, and we had some great classes. But who was I to say what languages people should learn? And who was I to presume where people would or wouldn’t end up living? Many people who arrive in Italy use it as a launching pad for heading further north into France and Germany, where there is more work and opportunity. I may have been well-meaning but, by insisting that they needed to learn Italian over English, I was reinforcing the ideology behind hostile immigration laws that trap people and stop them living full lives.
Lesson Two: commit to messy and incomplete translation. Having foolishly placed myself in the position of teaching both English and Italian, I also had other challenges to contend with. Two older Somali women struggled to get beyond the first class or learn the alphabet. One woman, Halima, had issues with her eyesight that had never been diagnosed or treated. Another woman, Habiba, had some sort of specific learning issue that I wasn’t qualified to help her with. She never got beyond the letter C and couldn’t connect the sounds to the shapes of the letters. Both women continued to come to my classes until I ended the course in July. It became more of a social event in their week. We would drink tea and chat about our lives.
Some of my students told me they had never been to any school before arriving in Italy. This was the case with a lot of the Nigerien refugees. We spent our time learning how to put Italian sounds together and role-playing various scenarios like buying food in the market, going to the hospital and so forth. I typed and printed these scenarios up myself and they practised them with me before performing them in front of the class, sometimes with props.
Some people, like my dear friend Ilham, whom I had met through friends in anti-racist activism, had been exclusively to Koranic schools. Ilham was in her mid-20s like me. She was divorced and had a seven-year-old son, who was still in Somalia with her mother, and she was working to pay for a visa to travel safely to Europe.
She had learnt the whole Koran by heart by the age of 15, but she told me she couldn’t recite it all now. “Dunya [the world] took it away,” she explained. Ilham would go to any free classes being offered in the city and would learn anything you put in front of her. Others, like Saley, had finished school and learned a European language. He was a qualified mechanic and had been working in this profession in Libya before civil war broke out.
Throughout all this we worked hard to translate for and understand each other. Some people started to tell me about their experience of crossing the Mediterranean. One Somali man, Abdourahim, described a flat expanse of sea that reflected the moon the whole way across. He only vomited once, when they docked in the port in Lampedusa, because of the smell of the petrol. It was a messy and open-ended process of speaking across boundaries. Embracing this was one way in which we worked through some of the structural inequalities between us.
Lesson Three: teach languages to excite and incite resistance. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) bell hooks writes that classrooms should be spaces full of emotion and excitement where people can learn how to strive towards freedom from oppression. The moments where we were able to seize joy and generate resistance in our classroom were really important.
Once, Ilham started to explain to me that Italy had colonised Somalia and that was why the country had so many difficulties today. She tripped over the conjugation of the verb “to colonise” in Italian. So we stopped and wrote up the whole conjugation of the verb in present and past tenses before she resumed her account.
On another occasion we learned how to write and read the Italian word “ciao”; not a simple task if you don’t know that “ci” in Italian is pronounced as a soft sound, like “ch” in English. I asked them to copy the word 10 times and then I asked one of the students, Rabou from Niger, to read it out. He struggled for a few seconds and then suddenly shouted “ciao!” He looked at me in consternation and then triumph. Then everyone laughed. The epiphany of being able to recognise and read out a common word he had been hearing for many months, in the confusing babel of his migration experience, was empowering for him.
At the end of the course we had a party, played games and took lots of blurry photos. But what became of everyone? As far as I know, everyone who was waiting for asylum claims to be processed did get a visa eventually. But there was, and continues to be, very little work in Italy. The austerity measures of 2012 have been superseded by an increasingly hostile climate for migrants in Italy and across Europe.
Many people granted refugee status in 2012 were only given temporary visas and subsequently became undocumented. Some of the people I taught are still in Naples. At least one of my students still lives there and is working as a street vendor whilst participating in the city’s anti-racist networks. But most of them have moved to the north of Italy or elsewhere in Europe.
The final lesson I learned was that language learning could be used to speak back to power. But the tendency to patronise and to exaggerate differences was an ever-present danger. The classroom became a mirror for a growing politics of exclusion in wider society. I remain hopeful, but continue to watch as borders and hierarchies amputate possibilities for joy, growth and collective resistance around the world today.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist
Placeless People: Writings, Rights and Refugees (Oxford University Press) by Lyndsey Stonebridge
How can the right words be found to speak to the experience of the placeless as well as the violent ruptures of displacement? This is one of the key motifs in Placeless People: Writings, Rights and Refugees, a new book by Lyndsey Stonebridge, a professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham. It focuses on the refugee upheavals of the 20th century, and a series of writers – from Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt to W. H. Auden and Edward Said – who were caught up in them. The stories of these writers are then used to reflect on human rights today. Words often fail us but this book reminds us how much writing matters.
Stonebridge argues that for placeless people – refugees, unwanted migrants – testimony becomes key: refugees have to tell their stories in limited and often stylised ways. This problem is there from the refugee interview with the Home Office to the literary seminar. It is a kind of “enforced testimony”, to borrow from the social historian Carolyn Steedman. It is a straightjacket in the clothes of benevolent expectation.
In one of my favourite passages, Stonebridge describes the Palestinian poet Yousif Qasmiyeh refusing an invitation to be a “witness writer” at an academic conference. Qasmiyeh writes: “Being a refugee should not require foregrounding one’s legal condition above all else, overshadowing one’s personal, professional and writing history.” His poem “Holes”, Stonebridge tells us, successfully “disrupts the categories that conditioned its writing”.
Writing matters because it can disrupt expectations and categories of thought. The theorist Paul Gilroy liked to chide his former colleagues with the slogan that “sociology is fiction but literature is truth”. He’s onto something there, because writing can be a place to find a home in a placeless condition. Edward Said and Theodor W. Adorno – philosophers who were both exiled from their homelands – are both guides here, in their suggestion that the only home available to them is in the fragile and vulnerable space on the page.
Stonebridge’s book includes Lili Andrieux’s drawing of a woman reading at Gurs, the French internment camp for refugees where the political theorist Hannah Arendt was sent in May 1940. Stonebridge writes: “To read a book in a detention camp is not only to escape a horrible reality; it is to affirm the possibility of an imagined world.” This is not a simple escape into nostalgia but a difficult confrontation with the technologies of modern violence and their totalitarian origins.
Stonebridge draws out the links between totalitarianism and racism in her account of George Orwell’s 1984. We often think of totalitarianism as simply oppression from above: everyone is taught to remember Room 101 and the rats in Orwell’s dystopian novel. We are not taught to remember the cinema audience laughing at footage of Jewish refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, a newsreel that draws Winston Smith into what William Hazlitt called “the pleasure of hating”. The sadistic celluloid portrayal recounted by Winston Smith is chilling to read, as bullets fly into a woman who tries in vain to protect her child, and bombs blast the refugee boats into matchwood. Here, in Orwell’s writing, we find the tussle between complicity in the violent spectacle and an attempt to develop a different kind of relation to those people in the crosshairs.
It is ironic that Orwell does this with his writing, when he himself expressed anti-Semitic views. Infamously, in his political diary there is a “fieldnote” that describes a “fearful Jewish woman, a regular comic paper cartoon of a Jewess, [who] fought her way off the train at Oxford Circus, landing blows on anyone who stood in her way”. It shows how even in the midst of his radicalism, Orwell struggled to reckon with the affective grip of racism. How relevant that is today. As Stonebridge comments, “Orwell was far more daring in his exploration of the modern mind than his critics often give him credit.”
If all writing ultimately fails, the authors Stonebridge guides us through somehow manage to fail better. This is a book about displacement but it offers us ways to feel at home despite these toxic and hateful times.
I recently joined Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific to chat about my work. I have known Jim for many years and so it was lovely to talk about my thoughts on magic, lying and luck. The talk was recorded at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and managed to get quite a bit of attention online. I hope that you enjoy it!
You can listen to the interview here.
The paperback version of my book, Shoot For The Moon, is just out and we have made a video to celebrate the magic of the Moon landings. I worked with magician Will Houstoun to tell the Apollo story through the medium of sleight of hand – hope you enjoy it!
My latest book, Shoot For The Moon, has just been published, and presents a radically new look at the science of success.
In July 1969, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A few years ago I was chatting to comedian and space enthusiast Helen Keen about the Apollo landings. I knew that the technology used during the missions has been extremely well documented, and asked whether anyone had explored the psychology behind this remarkable achievement. Helen didn’t think that it had, and kindly put me in touch with her friend, Craig Scott. Craig is another space enthusiast and, over the years, has become friends with many of the people who populated NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era. He kindly put me in touch with this remarkable bunch and they were kind enough to agreed to be interviewed them about their historic work.
I discovered that most of the controllers came from modest, working-class, backgrounds, and that they were often the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps most surprising of all, they were astonishingly young. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the average age of the mission controllers was just twenty-six years old.
After extensive interviewing and research, I eventually identified the eight principles that I believe make-up the Apollo mindset. ‘Shoot For The Moon’ describes these principles, including how the seeds of success were sewn in the President Kenndy’s charismatic speeches, how pessimism was crucial to progress, and how fear and tragedy were transformed into hope and optimism. The book also describes techniques that allow you to incorporate these principles into your own life. Whether you want to start a new business venture, change careers, get promoted, escape the rat race or pursue a lifelong passion, these techniques will help you to reach your own Moon.
Books on success usually focus on genetically gifted Olympians, hardheaded CEOs and risk taking entrepreneurs. This book presents a radically different perspective on how to achieve your aims and ambitions. It tells the inspirational story of a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary. Perhaps most important of all, once you understand how they did what they did, you can follow in their footsteps and achieve the extraordinary in your own life.
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
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As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
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Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……
In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.
In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens! We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.
A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.
In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!
We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.
In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).
Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.
Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!
Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”
I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?
That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.
The post It's Westworld. What's Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? appeared first on Sam Harris.
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?
If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
When are exams and what will be on them?
How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?
Such questions might include but are not limited to:
How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)
Whether or not Bernie would have won
6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!
Please contact your TA for assistance.
Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.
PRESS RELEASE MARCH 12 2013
Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial
On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).
The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.
In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of. The sue was an immediate media security event. Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law. In effect, he has his own concierge security service.
Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside. Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.
The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.
For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.
Best regards / Mvh,
UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)
I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.
Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)
Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.
Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
This is indeed a very disappointing decision.
Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.
The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that
In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.
Editor “Charb” said,
We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.
Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.
UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.