Thursday, November 18, 2010
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery
By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: October 6, 2010
Mike Albans for The New York Times
Friday, April 16, 2010
Although he claims to be a Luddite and thus unwilling/unable to post to our blog (not to mention Wikkipedia), Alan Clarke has written the following as part of a book proposal he is sending around to prospective publishers.
I post it on his behalf.
This Proposal Adopts a Broad Interdisciplinary Perspective Which Should Attract Interest in the United States and in Europe and Canada
The most multi-disciplinary works on torture or rendition, of which I am aware, are found within edited anthologies. These necessarily present an eclectic range of disciplinary understandings, differing from author to author, and essay to essay. A given essay in an anthology (on torture or anything else) ordinarily uses the methods and understandings of a single discipline. True interdisciplinarity – the integration of a variety of disciplinary perspectives in a single coherent analysis remains rare. Edited volumes are, therefore, more appropriately seen as multidisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. Their strength revolves around the many perspectives that they bring to bear on a problem; their weakness is in failing to integrate the differing analyses in a sustained critique of the problem at hand.
Examples of edited anthologies focusing on torture include:
The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary, (William F. Schulz ed., 2007);
The Torture Debate in America 151, 154 (Karen J. Greenberg ed., 2006).
On Torture, (Hilde, Thomas C., ed., 2008);
Torture, A Collection (Sanford Levinson ed., 2004);
America’s Disappeared, (Meeropol, Rachael, ed., Seven Stories Press, 2005).
The strength of this proposal is that it integrates differing perspectives as it examines the complex problem of torture. A full understanding of the phenomenon of torture resists narrowly focused disciplinary analyses and is most usefully considered by employing findings of history, law, psychology, sociology, politics and philosophy. This book proposal aims to do just that. Because both Canada and many European nations were complicit in the U.S. use of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and rendition, this comprehensive and interdisciplinary treatment of the subject should attract a transnational audience.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
It would appear on the one hand that all story, by nature or stigma of being identifiably"story," whether asserted to be true story or not, is somehow automatically perceived as less perfectly true than pure, narrative-free information. If someone were to tell you that even mathematics is a kind of story about how the universe works, you might either agree or bristle, but you would immediately recognize that the implication is that mathematics does not simply describe the perfect truth of the world as it is.
On the other hand, even the most perfectly fictive stories, making no direct claims for any sort of verifiable truth at all, will be understood as promoting a view of the world that in some sense is either true or false. When the Vatican objects to a fantasy movie for children, we understand that the Church fathers find some insidious message about how the world really is to be objectionable, even dangerous for young children to imbibe.
Moreover, we have been noticing in class that this applies across many cultural and temporal divides, and that audiences wish to know (or to debate amongst themselves in the retelling) what aspects of a story are meant to be bracketed as the fictional or fantastic aspects, so that the true or, in common student parlance, realistic qualities of the story can be properly evaluated.
Aristotle once suggested that it is better story telling to allow the impossible than to allow the implausible. Is fictive story telling a kind of probabilistic estimation of the truth, even a sort of Bayesian reasoning from givens? Is that what story telling is for, in the end, to see what would be true if we (could ever) agree on our priors?
This peculiarity obtains not only across the infamous chasm between the "two cultures" of the sciences and humanities, but also across many of the sciences themselves. Even within closely related disciplines, such as the experimental social sciences, the truth-value of data often bears a certifying stamp specific to a particular, local tradition. Which are more reliable, for instance, data acquired from experimental subjects who did not know what the experiment was actually about (as is typical in social and cognitive psychology), or data acquired from fully informed experimental subjects motivated by immediate cash reward (as is de rigeur in behavioral economics)? The conundrum lies not so much in any profound metaphysical differences as in the different traditions of assuming that certain kinds of information are better than others, when such traditions often define each discipline's sense of its own unique mission.
Is it any wonder then, that it becomes difficult to measure how much research is interdisciplinary at all? The thought crossed my mind after reading the previous post (see below), on the curious contradiction between the assertion of policymakers as "an article of faith" that interdisciplinary research will be crucial to tomorrow's world and the "fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program" that confounds the measurement of interdisciplinary activity.
It also led me back to the questions raised in earlier posts (just a little further below) about whether and how the data and theory of the evolutionary neurosciences would revolutionize literary criticism. Until and unless literary critics and neuroscientists forge a common currency as to what counts as true--or at least as importantly true--the disciplines may poach information or ideas from each other but remain more or less locked up behind their castle walls.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
As I've watched Mark Jeffreys think about evolutionary advantages to various types of behavior, including sex and religion, I have found the questions fascinating.
Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know
To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”
(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.
As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”
This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.
Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?
Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.
[the rest of the article HERE]
[and a discussion of the ideas HERE]
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Here's a question: what is the proper role of professorship in an age of world mind? Last night, after spending some time in class discussing ancient sources of Odysseyan legends, Homeric and otherwise, I found myself following a series of hyperlinks concerning fairytales and legends deep into the labyrinth of the oh-so-aptly named World Wide Web. Living as I do in a rural area with no cellphone service and only a weak internet connection at home, I do not often run the risk of losing myself in the Web, but last night using speedy campus servers as my wings I found myself as quickly entangled in my informational misadventure as any foolish fly. When I retraced my breadcrumb trail of links back out of the rabbit hole ("block that metaphor!"), I discovered I had gone about 2 hours and 50 links deep (and/or sideways), and had not only encountered a great deal of reputably documented information I had not known about, as well as a number of questionably sourced articles I could more or less ignore, but had wandered into realms so far removed from my original query as to be in some ways absurd--the later colonial history of Trinidad and Tobago, the lore of spectral hounds in the British Isles, the impact of Isidore of Seville on the medieval preservation and distortion of classical learning, and so forth.
Can a hyperlinked world be anything but interdisciplinary? Is the best role of the lecturer/professor/mentor now to be a guide, a pointing finger only, a Virgil to the myriad student Dantes who have stumbled from their various thickets into the swirling limbo of facts and fictions that is this Web, this Matrix, this human-tended, human-groomed, superorganismic termite underhill of world mind? How should we then teach, when information itself is so superabundant that the single brain is stunned on contact? As the oracular Web itself reminded me, the world of scholarship was once so different. Back when that learned 6th-century Spanish Catholic and "last scholar of the ancient world," Isidore of Seville put together his compendium of world knowledge, the Etymologiae, it was brutally reductive and biased, but it was still a single, manuscript volume compiled by one scholar and then used as a primary source for nearly a thousand years by several thousands of later clerics, including the first teachers of what would become the great European universities. Yes, long, long ago, and yet. . . . Are we still teaching in a way that tacitly presumes such weighty tomes are the anchors and guarantors of our knowledge, when knowledge and lies alike now form one bewitching, fay electric swirl that halos and tempts astray each of our confused little heads? Is it even possible for individual human minds to follow the eerie, flickering lights of the Web, to wander into that world "under the hill" and safely return at all, much less with only true stories to tell?
Friday, March 5, 2010
The beauty of interdisciplinarity is that one's field becomes whatever one knows and one's research becomes whatever one does not know. More often than not, what little one knows serves mainly to point to wonderful new areas unknown. Or, as they were once infamously phrased--"the unknown unknowns." Teaching a class about storytelling from an evolutionary perspective this spring has opened whole new areas of those previously "unknown unknowns." Despite a long interest in the evolution of language and of symbolic culture, I don't think it ever occurred to me before this term that it is a complete mystery to all of us when the telling of stories actually began. Now that I think about this particular mystery daily, I find the world once again transformed by a new question. Genetic evidence for modern human origins (currently pointing toward somewhere in eastern or southern Africa perhaps a couple of hundred thousand years ago, see Tischkoff et. al. in Science, April '09, The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans), plus archaeological evidence for ornament and symbols as far back as the South African Middle Stone Age, and the ambiguous evidences from linguistics, genetics, archaeology, neurology, and so forth for much earlier use of language and control of fire, perhaps rooted well before our emergence as this particular species of Homo, all begin to rearrange themselves as fuzzy pointers to when people might have first begun that quintessential and universal human activity, telling tales, short or tall, around the common campfire.
Recently, Genevieve Von Petzinger, a graduate student at the University of Victoria in BC, made a sensation in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and rock art scholarship when she documented a comprehensive pattern to the simpler cave "signs" found among the famous Upper Paleolithic rock art sites of France, such as Chauvet cave. (For a laudably readable news article on her work, see The New Scientist cover story in Feb '09, The Writing on the Cave Wall.) While the really spectacular paintings on those caves have received by far the most attention, Von Petzinger focused on the dull little dots, squiggles, half-moons, and hand-stencils found scattered around the beautiful depictions of aurochs and horses. Turns out that there's a pattern to those squiggles, a pattern that echoes, with variations, the basic repertoire of rock art squiggles found around the world.
What do those squiggles mean? What stories did they once help tell? Down in Canyonlands, Sarah Jeffreys has been documenting and studying the layers of rock art left by indigenous Americans. Lo and behold, many of the same simple patterns reappear. Is there an innate fondness for certain fragmentary geometries, dots, lines, and so forth, shared by humans without knowing what they share? Do the stories connecting those dots have much or little in common? If much, is it because of the common psychology of humans everywhere, or were some fragments from tens of thousands of years ago still living as glowing narrative embers carried around the planet by far-flung foragers? Any discipline at all might bring some new perspective to bear, some new way of seeing the evidence all around us.