Monday, July 31, 2017

Is there Truth? Dealing with theoretical disagreements

One of my enduring interests is in trying to understand the nature of knowledge. In my studies, guided by my logical mind, I am absolutely confident that knowledge is limited, imperfect, and that there are no facts, no “capital-T Truth,” no absolute system of objective knowledge—no “God’s Eye View” to use a phrase from the philosopher Hilary Putnam. And unconsciously and intuitively, I am absolutely certain that some things are absolutely true and somethings are absolutely false.

I do not have an answer to this dislocation between my logic and my intuition. This is one of the reasons that I so often turn to the phrase from the Tao Te Ching, that the Tao that can be [spoken of/named] is not the absolute Tao. But saying that there is no answer is often unsatisfactory.

The idea that knowledge is contingent on historical or social or other factors—that it is not objective—is a lens that can be used on itself: the idea that knowledge is contingent, is an idea that is, itself, contingent. If you believe that knowledge is contingent, where do you choose to stand? To what do you commit? (I have some answers to these questions that I find at least marginally satisfying, but those answers are not what I want to talk about.)

In a recent post, I was talking about the political nature of knowledge—how beliefs guide our actions, shape our morals, and generally influence those decisions that move into the political sphere—the sphere of dealing with individuals and groups. Beliefs cause conflict. I had a professor once whose beliefs clashed with mine in ways that left us unable to work together. Fortunately, I was able to work with other people. But I was thinking about this conflict in the context of a scholar with whom I am currently working who has a number of theoretical differences with her professors, and this is contributing to difficulties.

Managing this kind of theoretical difference can be very difficult. Ideally professors would welcome other ideas—but, again, belief shapes action: if you believe that an idea has an insufficient grounding, you won’t accept work based on that idea. A professor who disagrees with a theory may not think “I should be open minded,” but rather “If only I could help this student understand their error.”

Getting through a situation like this is difficult, but I think it can be negotiated. I do not think that a student should give up ideas just because a professor doesn’t like those ideas. In my case, the ideas that my professor didn’t like were grounded in a large community of scholars doing good research, so it was hardly the case that I had good reason to abandon these well developed ideas because one professor objected. For the scholar with whom I am currently working, there is a similar concern: both she and her professors share some theoretical roots, but their theories diverge, and she has good reason to reject their line of reasoning and follow her own because it grows out of solid foundations. At the same time, we can’t say that her professors are “wrong” because judgement of right and wrong requires some absolute standard for comparison. We can say that their ideas are incompatible with hers, but by what standard do we choose one set of ideas as right and one as wrong, when one of the basic presumptions is that knowledge is contingent?

To me, the answer is pragmatic: there is no abstract answer, but action can be taken.

Faced with someone who disagrees with fundamental theories that you accept, I think there are generally three important steps:
1. Demonstrate that you understand and value their view. Look for places where their view overlaps with yours.
2. Focus on specific points of difference, and emphasize how they are limited differences within a larger framework of agreement.
3. Describe your specific framework as an alternative to, not a replacement of the other.
A possible fourth action is to call on specific published scholars to support you, but I haven’t included that in this list because citing the “wrong” scholar can cause problems: you don’t want to cite a scholar that your audience hates. Calling on a Freud or a Marx, or some other polarizing figure, can trigger emotional responses. But if you can use citations that your professors like to support your own arguments, then citation can be very effective.

Emotionally, I really believe that there are right and wrong, and when I get into a theoretical debate, the emotional side can really trigger a stronger attachment to ideas than I can logically defend. In a world where knowledge isn’t absolute, it should be possible to avoid some sorts of theoretical conflict by trying to accept and negotiate difference rather than trying to strongly defend a point.

I think theoretical debates are important because theory shapes action, and action has real impact in the world. But is winning a theoretical debate important? It depends on context, but I would always recommend that students try to avoid theoretical debate when it comes to writing their dissertation—is there some way that a contentious theoretical debate can be transformed into an exploration of a theoretical alternative?

This is hardly a well-rounded essay—ending, as it does with questions. But then, the truth [Tao] that can be told is not the absolute truth [Tao], so maybe an inconclusive ending is appropriate.

Monday, July 24, 2017

"A Better Deal"?

Really? That's the best message you can come up with Democrats? Talk about tepid and uninspired!
I generally vote Green or Peace and Freedom, so I'm more sympathetic with Democrats than with some of the other parties, but this is hardly going to inspire me to vote Democratic. Or anyone else.
They're trying to reference the New Deal, I suppose, but that hardly seems like a winning strategy: Republicans have been hating the New Deal for almost a century, so referencing it isn't going to inspire people who aren't already pro-Democrat.
I suppose they're also referencing Trump and his reputation as a deal-maker. But that hardly seems like it will differentiate them from Trump in a positive way--"better" is nebulous. There's nothing there that can make them anything more than being "not Trump."
Democrats, I offer the following two alternatives that are almost surely superior and more compelling: "A Fair Deal" and "An Honest Deal." Both still use the "deal" references, but also show some specific direction for how they're different. Both rely on important moral touchstones that Democrats don't use effectively. Somehow, Clinton was branded "crooked" while Trump skated through numerous self-contradictions and obviously false statements while being the representative of the party closely tied to the moral imperatives of fundamentalist Christianity.
"A Fair Deal" references the importance that people place on the idea that the economy is "fair”—an idea suggested by recent research that people are more concerned with “fairness” than inequality. (
“An Honest Deal” references an obvious issue, and in the context of commercial exchange “an honest deal” is a close synonym for “a fair deal.” But the idea that you’re getting an “honest deal” is potentially important in convincing people of the value of important regulation of economic behavior: most of the behaviors that Democrats try to regulate could be framed in terms of honesty or playing fair. Polluting could be described as “cheating,” as a way of getting an unfair advantage, and that kind of discussion can be blended back into Free Market theory: to suggest that the markets have to be free of cheaters.
I haven’t thought deeply about these. They’re the product of only a few moments of reflection after seeing the new “A Better Deal.”

All Knowledge is Political

When I say “All knowledge is political,” I am not thinking of the epistemological concerns—I am not concerned with the question of whether or not knowledge can be objective or not. That question is of interest, but not my subject here. I am interested in the political ramifications of accepting something as knowledge, and in that sense, it is related to my two recent posts about research institutions.
Accepting an idea has political ramifications. The stronger our belief in an idea, the greater our commitment to responding to that idea, and therefore, the greater that idea’s impact on political behavior. In my earlier post on political allegiance, I wrote about how partisan political attitudes towards certain ideas (e.g., evolution and climate change) would naturally lead to a partisan sorting: those who strongly believe in climate change have a strong motivation to align with the political party that accepts climate change. This sorting is a directly political dimension of knowledge: a belief in how the world works leads to political choice.
There are many such issues. Abortion, for example, is politicized according to beliefs about whether abortion is right or wrong. Beliefs about economic behavior become politicized, leading to choice in party alignment. The issues that define the political parties grow from beliefs about how the world works, thus all knowledge is political. Not all beliefs are necessarily partisan, but they can become more so: anti-abortion Democrats were more common once than now, for example, but as Democratic opposition to abortion became more conventional, anti-abortion Democrats had an increasing motivation to leave the Democratic party. This is the sorting process that I mentioned in the earlier post.

But this political nature of knowledge is not only a matter of national partisan politics, it’s in every arena where people interact. Scholars have to deal with politics in many places—publication is not pure blind review, for example, and university departments are often rife with political differences, some of which stem from beliefs. When I say “All knowledge is political,” I am being, I suppose, a bit hyperbolic, inasmuch as there are some ideas that do not immediately lead to political action. Knowing how to boil an egg, for example, is not likely to carry many political ramifications—at the least, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which disputes over how to boil an egg impact a community. But to the extent that ideas lead to action affecting people, those ideas are political in one dimension or another (in the general sense of “political” as meaning interactions among members of a community).

As a philosopher whose interest is the search for “truth,” whatever that may be, it seems to be completely appropriate for political action to follow knowledge. This is essentially the idea of evidence-based practice: we want to act on the basis of ideas that have been tested and demonstrated to be sound.
The opposite is not true, however. It may be unavoidable that knowledge will be shaped by political factors—certainly there is a vast body of philosophy that discusses such political factors that shape that which gets accepted as knowledge—but that does not mean that research should be founded on political concerns. Knowledge may be unavoidably shaped by political or social conditions, but this does not mean that research should be shaped by adherence to political ideology. Research should be exploratory and should strive for objectivity, even if objectivity is impossible in practice. In a sense, the goal of research should be to confirm, deny, or elaborate on/modify theories. And yet, even in such contexts, there are political influences that are undeniable—the very choice of subject of interest may be guided by political concerns.
This post, I suppose, is influenced by the current situation in the US, where news media outlets are regularly attacked as being biased—and some absolutely are, even explicitly. News organizations, like academics, are supposed to set out in search of the truth, of the facts, of that which is true for everyone, but the politicization of news, and the partisan lines drawn, work against this ideal. Outlets that expressly support one view or another—e.g., Huffpost on the left, or Breitbart on the right—have to be approached with great caution for the precise purpose that their material is driven by ideology, rather than non-partisan search for understanding. Such explicitly conservative or explicitly liberal news organizations would have been frowned upon in a different age when newspapers at least laid claim to objectivity. Fox News used to try and present itself as fair and balanced, but the need to be fair and balanced no longer seems to be necessary, as news outlets become increasingly politicized by the very choice of which stories to pursue.

The political dimension of knowledge cannot be eliminated. But if society hopes to avoid increasing partisan division and conflict, shared foundations need to be identified on which to build some sort of consensus. As a philosopher, I believe that the search for truth guided by good standards for research can provide such foundations. Some common ground is necessary for cooperation. Where can this be found if we let all knowledge be shaped by partisan politics? The idea that there can be knowledge that is shared—that is generally true, generally objective—is a crucial element in building some sort of consensus. The idea that we should strive for objectivity, even if it is not possible, is also political, in that it would guide actions and debates.

Bertrand Russell once wrote something like “with subjectivity in philosophy comes anarchy in politics” (in his History of Western Philosophy). Russell, obviously, was espousing objectivity, and in this paraphrase, and yet he captures the important political dimension of knowledge that knowledge leads to action, and without some sort of consensus of knowledge, there is a corresponding difficulty of finding consensus in political arenas.
I don’t know the answer to the increasing partisan differences in the US, and the increasing presence of false or misleading information masquerading as knowledge, but I would say that trying to find common ground in accepted truths and values would be a good place to start. Is there anyone who thinks that researchers/investigative reporters should be trying to find confirmation of what they already believe? Research—the search for knowledge—needs to strive for disruption: it is not about accepting common knowledge, but challenging it. Ideas should be challenged—but only on their own merits. Attacking an idea because of the person who espoused it is to surrender to the ad hominem fallacy and to lose sight of the attempt to understand the world.

Is there any way to find a common ground that grows out of earnest attempts to develop our understanding of the world?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Metaphors for Oral Examinations and Live Reviews

The other day, I got an e-mail from a student preparing for a face-to-face annual review. She wrote about her preparation in competitive metaphors: a poker face; weapons and armor. I don’t think these are the best metaphors for approaching such situations. Even if these competitive metaphors are the most accurate description of the situation (depending on the character and intentions of the examiners), they are not necessarily the most effective way to think about the situation.

One metaphor to consider is to think of the examination session as the meeting of a working group trying to refine a project so that it can be brought to a successful conclusion. This may be accurate in the case of some professors, or in the case of some specific questions. During my oral examination, one of my professors, sensing that I was getting defensive, interrupted me to emphasize that the question had been meant to help me define my project, not to test me.

Another metaphor, is to think of being a salesperson. The examination is an opportunity to sell your ideas to professors—to persuade them to accept what you’ve got, or at least to get their interest in accepting it if necessary improvements are made. While it’s probably not best to think of the examiners as “suckers” to be cheated, it is useful to think about what sells a product or an idea. What moves people? What persuades them?
Sell something that you believe in, and keep your attention on those parts that you believe. In an examination, it’s good to keep a focus on the motivating reasons that guided choices. Focusing on motivations is more effective than focusing on weaknesses. If you’re trying to sell something to others, you consciously attempt to focus the conversation on the issues that are most positive. If you’re in a competition, you have to defend the weaknesses. If you’re selling something, you try to shift the focus to strengths. (Which is not to say that you want to make light of the concerns of your examiners, of course, but to emphasize your ability to guide the conversation.)
Part of what persuades people is that they see other people interested. It is commonplace in academic writing to cite the scholarly literature, but it can be useful in speaking, too. You don’t need to produce an exact quotation or citation to say “Scholar X was working on this idea, and I have adapted it.” Can you use citations as “celebrity endorsements”? If a famous scholar studied it, it must be interesting, right?

One metaphor that is relevant in some contexts is an idea that a friend suggested to me as I was preparing for my oral examinations. “Think of it as a celebration of your progress,” he suggested. On one level it requires confidence to approach an examination with the attitude that it is a celebration, but depending on context, it may well be appropriate. For me, taking the oral examination required getting all my professors to agree to give the exam. In that context, it’s pretty likely that the professors are predisposed to sign on: if they thought you had no chance of passing the exam, they probably wouldn’t agree. In situations where the exam is only held by application, then there’s pretty good reason to believe that the participants believe you have a decent chance of passing, so it makes sense to approach it as a celebration of sorts. This metaphor is not appropriate for reviews that are automatic, like the annual review faced by my client.

Live examinations and reviews are challenging. Thinking of them with positive metaphors— as collaborative work or as an opportunity to sell your ideas or as a celebration—can change the emotional tenor of the event. Some people love competition, so the competitive metaphors may work well for some. But others might do better thinking of the event otherwise. Emotional state is important for thinking well: if you’re feeling stressed, it’s harder to use the higher reasoning functions. Confidence is important: if you’re confident, it’s easier to think well. I like the sales, collaboration, and celebration metaphors because they are situations in which many people feel more comfortable and confident than in competitions.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Research, political allegiance, and views towards colleges and universities

The lead headline of the recent survey on attitudes towards institutions in the US ( was the difference in attitudes between the major political parties. Most Democrats (72%) believe colleges and universities are a positive influence, and most Republicans (58%) believe that they are negative, and this represents a big change from 2010 (only seven years ago), when both Republicans and Democrats shared roughly similar views (a majority of both groups thought colleges/universities positive—58%R/65%D—and very few had a negative view—32%R/22%D).  
While the article reporting the study talks about how the views of the groups have changed, I wonder whether that change represent the changes of views of individuals—did people stop believing that colleges are a positive influence—or does that change represent a process of people changing political allegiance with respect to the values that they place on education and research?
It goes without saying that those who are Republican and those who are Democrat are not the same today as in 2010. Some people may have switched party allegiance. All those who were 11 to 17 years of age in 2010 have now become eligible voters. Many who were alive in 2010 are no longer alive today.  The population surveyed recently is not the same as previously, and the study itself did not use the same respondents. 
In any event, I wonder to what extent different dynamics contributed to this change.  Was it changes in attitudes towards colleges/universities? Or was it changes in attitudes towards political parties?

Because the overall proportion of Americans who view colleges/universities as a negative influence has remained approximately the same (I can’t find numbers on this for 2010 in the report, but it does say “Little change in overall public views”), I’m inclined to think that changing political allegiance probably has a lot to do with it, on the premise that it’s easier to change political party affiliation than to change fundamental beliefs.  If you believe in colleges and universities, and you see one political party hostile to them, and another supportive of them, you have a reason to switch parties. If you believe that colleges and universities are a problem, you are similarly motivated to switch.
Republicans often complain about the liberal bias of colleges and college professors, and use that to discredit the work of scholars.  I wonder whether that “liberal bias” is not at least partly the result of Republican policies and positions. 
Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a scholar who is intensely focused on his/her research. This is a fairly stereotypical view of a scholar, I think.  Let’s assume that this professor does not have previously fixed political affiliation, but rather is focused on the results of his/her research: he or she believes only what the research analyses show.  This professor is then put into a world where one party is constantly attacking the validity of his/her work, and the other party supports it.  Which party will this professor affiliate with? And if one party fights to cut budgets for research and education, and another party fights to increase research and education budgets, which party will that professor affiliate with?

Which comes first the affiliation to a political party or the adherence to some ideal? Which is more important to a person: beliefs about the nature of the world, or allegiance to a political party?
I am an academic. I work with academics and have for most of my life.  Like any group of people, there is diversity in the group, and group generalizations are dangerous, and liable to fail. Nonetheless, I would argue that academics are primarily interested in the search for understanding, and in sharing their insights with the rest of the world.  
I have often heard Republicans argue that because university professors are Democrats, their research is not to be trusted.  This is, on one level, the ad hominem fallacy: the truth of statements does not depend on the speaker.  If someone says “the earth is round,” the truth of the claim is independent of the speaker—it matters nothing whether this was stated by a Democrat or a Republican (or anyone else).  
Research ought to be critiqued. It ought to be challenged. Its premises, methods, analyses, and conclusions should be examined. Research absolutely needs to be examined for biases. And research based on falsified data should be rejected. But the identity of the researcher is not in itself reason to reject research: even the boy who cried wolf was telling the truth in the end. The veracity of research is not dependent on the author, but on the research itself. 
A researcher who has dedicated a larger part of his or her life to research is likely to have a strong allegiance to that research.  Which is more likely? That the person who has dedicated life to research would change political party? Or that they would falsify research to support a political agenda? I would guess that the former is more common than the latter.  Perhaps this is a naively optimistic view of human nature, but the scholars I have known have seemed more interested in the search for truth than in political concerns, and their political allegiances have followed the dictates of their understanding of the world, rather than their understanding of the world following their political allegiances.

I wrote most of this yesterday, before I read recent news about political commentator Joe Scarborough (, who announced that he was changing his political party affiliation from Republican to Independent.  Scarborough is not an academic, but as a major media presence, he is part of another institution (the news media) that is viewed vastly differently by Republicans (negatively) and Democrats (positively). I’m not going to try to guess at Scarborough’s full motivation, but a question to ask is: is this change in party allegiance due to Scarborough changing the principles that he held as a Republican elected member of the US House of Representatives? Or is the change in allegiance due to changes in the party with which he was previously affiliated? Or is it due to specific hostility of the Republican party to any member of the media who ever criticizes anything GOP?  Scarborough and his fiancĂ©e were recently insulted on Twitter by a prominent member of the GOP. Does such an attack motivate changes in allegiance?  And similarly, would a university professor change political allegiance because politicians attacking researchers and universities?

I can’t speak for all academics, but personally, I make decisions based on my understanding of the world.  For example, I believe the US will be stronger if people choose to buy American-made goods, even if they’re more expensive. As a result of that belief, I often buy American-made goods, despite their higher cost.  For example, I believe that burning fossil fuels is bad—from the immediate impact of local smog, to the global impact of anthropogenic climate change—so I drive little, take public transportation, ride my bike, and generally act in ways that will hopefully reduce my carbon footprint. I’m deeply invested in trying to learn, to pursue “truth,” whatever that may be, and this, too, shapes my decisions.
My political allegiance flows from my beliefs, not vice versa.  I am registered in the Green Party and generally vote for Green candidates because the Green party generally shares the same environmental values that I do. I don’t always vote for Greens, because not all Greens match my concerns. My interest in preserving the environment drives my allegiance to the Greens. It is not my allegiance to the Greens that leads me to be an environmentalist.

The Republican party takes many positions that run contrary to academic consensus (e.g., on climate change), which is a simple explanation for why Republicans view colleges and universities negatively. But looking a little deeper, where does the causality run? Do we want to say that Republicans take their views because they want to contradict academics? Do we want to say that academics are taking their positions to contradict Republicans? Or do we just want to say that people have beliefs about the world that lead them to affiliate with specific political parties?
In observing the partisan difference in views towards colleges and universities, I imagine that the main factor in creating this partisan difference is people increasingly aligning themselves with the party that agrees with their beliefs. And as the positions taken by the political parties become increasingly polarized, the sorting process speeds up. The more that the Republicans attack colleges and universities, the more that people who dislike colleges and universities will align with Republicans, and the more that those affiliated with colleges and universities will reject Republicans. In the case of Joe Scarborough, perhaps Republican attacks on the news media (an institution of which he is part, and one like academia, that is ideally dedicated to non-partisan discovery of the truth) contributed to his decision to change his party affiliation, and as a result, the Republican party has fewer pro-media members (which is the shift reflected in the survey: fewer Republicans support the media/academia than in 2010).

I think this sorting is unfortunate, because I think that academics are generally trying to find common ground. The very idea of objectivity is that some things are equally true for everyone.  Even theories that acknowledge that knowledge is not objective, still strive for some shared ground—something beyond solipsism.  If we can’t find common agreement on understanding the world, then it’s impossible to find agreement on policy.  

We need models of how the world works to make policy. We want these models to be accurate. The models should precede the policies. Policies should follow the models. And we should be willing to learn! Researchers challenge accepted knowledge, and if they provide good reason to believe that old models are wrong, we should look for policies that respond to the new knowledge.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Colleges and Universities are Good

My plan was to post once a week, but I was thinking through some issues related to a recent survey and ended up writing about it and figured I would post. The survey was reported here:
I believe in research and education. I believe that a healthy society will encourage education and research. And I believe that research and educational institutions like colleges and universities are generally good things for the health of a society.  Have researchers been wrong? Sure. Have those errors had negative ramifications for society? Sure. Still, on the whole, I believe that research and research institutions are good for society.
Research, of course, involves adopting new ideas. And adopting new ideas means change.  Both of these things are difficult, and many people resist them.
The recent study shows that over one in three people in the US (36%) think that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. As someone who is interested in research and the search for better understanding of our world, and who believes in the value of research institutions and educational institutions (including, of course, colleges and universities), I find this extremely disturbing.
I fundamentally believe that research is good.  On an unconscious level, I believe that there are real facts to be discovered—there are real truths to be discovered.  Consciously, I am very aware that it is not quite so simple—that is to say that personally, I see logical problems with the idea of “real truths” or “facts,” and I cannot see that there is any consensus amongst those interested in describing the limits of knowledge: some people believe that knowledge is objective, others believe it is political. Logically, I am confident that knowledge is shaped by political forces. Nonetheless, I fundamentally believe that humans can generate explanations of the world that lead to more effective action.
It is important to acknowledge that researchers and the research consensus are not always right. (It is overly simplistic to talk about theories being “right” or “wrong,” but it is efficient and useful, and I will do it here.)  The history of science is a history of old accepted knowledge being replaced by new ideas: the geocentric view is replaced by the heliocentric; phlogiston theory is replaced by oxidation; etc. 
The pragmatic effects of research are most easily seen in the sciences. (Which makes me wonder whether whether there would be a sharp divide on opinions of science in colleges/universities and the non-science parts of colleges/universities.). But in social sciences, too, academic theories play out in the real world. Economic theories shape economic policies. Educational theories shape educational policies. Theories of crime shape criminal policies. Etc. Etc.
Research leads to innovation.  Innovation leads to progress.  The value of progress is not always clear, but on the whole I believe in progress. Despite all the times that theories have led humanity down dangerous paths, I believe that better understanding of the world generally contributes more to human life than it takes away. I admit that is a value judgement. That value judgement may be at the heart of the divide between those who believe that colleges and universities are positive and those who believe they are negative. 
At the heart of research is the belief that we can develop new ideas that are better than the old ideas.  As a result, research is, in a way, antithetical to conservatism. The the extent that conservatism wants to retain the status quo, and that researchers like to challenge the status quo, it is not surprising that there is a conflict.
And saying that makes we wonder about the role of religion in shaping these opinions about colleges/universities.  The report on the poll does not discuss whether religious differences affect views of colleges/universities, but it would make sense that someone who believes that a holy scripture holds ultimate truth, would also think that those who spread contrary views have a negative influence.  Thus, for example, we would expect creationists to be hostile to institutions that teach evolution, and, those who believe in strict patriarchal gender roles to be hostile to those who teach feminism.  I wonder how many of the 36% who believe that colleges are a negative influence also are very religious, and hold the scripture of their belief as an ultimate truth? I suppose that if I learned that 36% of Americans were creationists, then this result would not be surprising at all.  It would still be disturbing to me because the theory of evolution plays a critical role in medical science and other fields that have an important direct impact on people, and I think such research should continue, while I imagine that creationists would not support such research (NB: I say “I imagine” to indicate that this is a guess, not a claim based on empirical evidence, and I want to recognize the danger in generalizing about the beliefs of any group of people).
I imagine that there are other reasons that people think that colleges and universities are a negative influence.  I suppose it’s possible to believe in the value of research and innovation, but think that the institutions are flawed. I wonder whether people with such beliefs are a large proportion of those who view colleges/universities as negative.

The main headline from the study was the political partisan divide in attitudes. While I do think it’s an issue worthy of discussion, I’ll save it for another post.  For the moment, I just want to reiterate my belief in the value of research institutions.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Too Much to Say: Complexity

In my previous, I was talking about focus and the importance of limiting what you try to say. For this, again, I am seeking some focus amongst the many possible ideas that I could pursue, and I am going to pursue one point I made in my previous: I argued that many people get stuck because they have too much to say.

I think that most people have a lot to say on subjects that interest them. But writing can have a chilling effect. For some people—people who are inclined to self-doubt—writing out an idea provides an opportunity for self-criticism, and that often ends with the writer rejecting the current attempt.

The problem, I think, is that an idea, once written down and examined, reveals a great deal of complexity.  This complexity makes it easy to critique a sentence and find problems with it.  And for those who are self-critical, finding problems with a sentence can stop things.
Here are some of the questions/issues in my own writing, that can get me stuck:
  • How do I know this?
  • What does this central term mean?
  • What are the implications?
  • What are the political, moral, and ethical dimensions?

Just these can be enough to derail a writing project if they absorb too much attention. Each one of these can be a rabbit hole—a whole world to be explored and explained.
How do I know? Asking how you know something leads to a discussion of what you think, and every time you say “I know because X”, it’s possible to ask “how do you know X?”  There is no logical end to this regression of doubt. You can always ask “how do I know?”

What does this term mean?  This is another place where there is a lot of room to get caught up.  Words and terms are often defined variously.  Crucial terms are often subject to a great deal of debate.  What is “literature”? What is “art”?  What is “design”? What is “deconstruction”? What is “imperialism”?  Defining a term depends on a wider world view: ideas are understood within a larger matrix of ideas, and thus words take meaning within a specific framework of other related ideas (cf. Charles Fillmore’s idea of Frame Semantics). Different views of the world lead to different definitions, and debating such definitions can take a lot of time and effort without contributing much progress.

What are the implications?  Accepting one idea often means accepting others.  Discussing the implications of one idea can lead to any number of wide discussions, as the one idea can be considered in relationship to any number of other ideas.
What are the moral and ethical dimensions? Research—objective description of the world—is ideally objective.  But in the real world, all knowledge has political dimensions, and thus also moral and ethical dimensions.  It is easy to revere Galileo for his contributions to Astronomy, but it is necessary to recognize the political elements in his work: because he challenged ideas accepted by Catholicism, he challenged not only ideas but political power.

There is complexity beyond these ideas. One can always ask “how does the idea relate to X?” For every different X, there is a different discussion. Such discussions may not be infinite, but they almost always push a careful writer to ever-greater length.

I often compare academic writing with legal writing.  Both academic and legal writers try to cover all the possible concerns.  The length and obscurity of legal writing—of contracts, for example—is due to the attempt to touch on all relevant concerns, and to frame things in terms that are clear and beyond debate. Academic writing is similarly careful, and that can lead to long, detailed discussions.
Once you get into a careful discussion of an idea, it’s easy to find additional details to discuss.

In my experience, almost nobody actually gets stuck because they have nothing to say.  In my experience, people get stuck because they need to say so many things.  In practice, my response is always to turn back to the communicative act: if you’re writing, you’re trying to communicate with someone. What do they expect? What will suit them?  Set limits, and set priorities.  What are the most important ideas you want to discuss with your audience?  

For me, I have lots of ideas about research and writing and the search for truth. This blog is a means of expressing those ideas. As I try to get back into regular blogging, I need to write about something, and choosing amongst my many possible ideas is enough of a difficulty that I was motivated to write about that problem of choosing what to say.  Even when it’s difficult to find something to say—something worth saying—it’s not really because I don’t have anything to say, but rather that the complexity of the world means that everything I write is something I can challenge, and that makes me doubt, and that makes it difficult to write something I like.  But that’s not a question of not having anything to say.

If you’re thinking you have nothing to say, it might be because you’re struggling with the complexity that makes every statement a challenge.

One motivation for this post was my experience with people who feel that they don’t have enough to say. People who have to write a large work are often intimidated by all that must be written.  But in my experience, there will be enough to say, and the problem will be to keep the discussion limited. The problem isn’t filling empty space, but deciding what to leave out.  If you dig into the complexity of what you write, there will be plenty of material.

The complexity of the world will leave every work wanting in some way.  Sometimes you’ll benefit from producing and sharing imperfect works. And, with a little luck, sometimes you’ll share something that other people like better than you do.  I’m not particularly happy with this post, but what the heck. It doesn’t really tell a good, focused story, but at least it does talk about a problem in writing that many people face.  

Sunday, July 2, 2017


It’s one thing to say “I’m going to post to my blog once a week.” And it’s something different to actually post things. It’s one thing to want to write. It’s something very different to actually write. A general intention may maintain a project, but specifics are necessary for any manifestation of the project.

When I think “I’m going to blog regularly,” it’s easy to feel that I have a lot to say. But as I sit down to write this specific post, it’s difficult to figure out what to say. The problem that I’m struggling with is one that I think many people face when trying to write, and I think that many people in a similar situation might tell themselves that they have nothing to say. The real problem, I think, is actually having too much to say. As I write that, I’m remembering an anecdote on this point from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The narrator is relating an experience as a writing teacher in which one of his students was asked to write about a place and failed to produce. Asked to write about more a specific location, the student failed to produce. But when she decided to write about a single brick in a single building, the student produced far more writing than required.

Right now, I have many ideas for potential blog posts. None of those ideas are fully formed. As a result, when I start to put words on the page, I become more aware of the limitations and difficulties of writing about a specific idea. That awareness of limitations and difficulties can lead to thinking “I have nothing really worth saying,” or to trying to work on some other idea. This can be a crucial moment in the process, and I think that a lot of writer’s get stuck at that moment. This is where the blank or almost-blank page can become a terror. Personally, I don’t struggle with those particular difficulties too much, but I do get stuck at the beginning of projects trying to decide what I will write and choosing amongst possibilities. I’ve chosen this post to be about focus because I want to have a sense of focus for the blog and for the post, but that was one possibility amongst many.

An ongoing challenge as I write, is to avoid the temptation of the road not taken. I have ideas about focus, but as I try to turn those ideas into a coherent, convincing, and interesting series of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraph, difficulties arise. As I become aware of those difficulties, there is a temptation to say “another road would be easier—writing about another topic would be easier.” But that temptation is based on a false premise: the other topic seems easier because I haven’t tried to actually write about it yet. Focusing on a specific task, and staying with it to a sort of completion is crucial. With a blog post, staying focused is pretty easy, because the blog post doesn’t take that long to write. Whatever I write today, I can write something different tomorrow or next week. But longer works challenge that focus: over weeks or months the temptation to change focus continues, and grows with every new obstacle that arises.

For this blog post (and each blog post), focus is wanted. And for the overarching project of blogging, I want a focus. My interest is in discovering the truth, and helping others discover it. Of course, I’m not entirely sure what “the truth” is. My interest in “thought clearing” is to find clarity of ideas, and to help other people find clarity in their reasoning and writing. But “clarity of ideas” might be as elusive as “the truth.” It is my hope that what I write about focus and the processes of writing and research can help people struggling with their own writing and research. And that, I suppose, is the general focus for this blog.

Future blog posts might discuss general ideas of research, the political dimension of knowledge and research, and sports evaluation/analytics as an example of research issues. Do you have any subjects you would like me to address?

If you have questions about some aspect of writing or research or writing about research, please write a comment or send me an e-mail.

Struggling with academic writing and research? Check out my book: Getting the Best of Your Dissertation.