Use-Value of Scientific Knowledge

Rationally Speaking is a podcast created by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef of New York City Skeptics. Dr. Pigliucci is currently a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, but he also holds two other PhDs in genetics and botany. Ms. Galef is a writer and public speaker with a BA in statistics, who has a particular interest in science, technology, and rationality. In their podcast entitled “Is anthropology still a science?” they respond to the American Anthropological Association’s decision to remove all references to science from their mission statement—an interesting topic, and their discussion is worth hearing, but I’m particularly interested in a short exchange about the use-value of knowledge.

First, Dr. Pigliucci distinguishes between advocacy and science using ecology as an example (since he spent a considerable amount of time earlier in his career studying invasive species):

If you study the environment, you are an ecologist, but if you are advocating on behalf of particular, you know, types of defense of the environment or managing of the environment then you are an environmentalist or you are interested in policy and things like that, so you’re not doing science anymore . . . . If I publish an article as an ecologist, I’m expected not to do advocacy; in fact, the article would very likely be rejected if I started doing advocacy in a scientific journal, because the editor would correctly point out that what the science of ecology is about is to find out how things are, not to make value judgments or suggestions about value judgments . . . . That doesn’t mean that the same person cannot involve himself or herself in both activities, but it does mean that the two activities are, it seems, distinct . . . . If you want to make your department or your association or your journal mostly about advocacy, then you really ought to be, in fact, decoupled from the science branch.

Julia responds, “I’d like to talk a little bit more about the question of whether the knowledge in anthropology is generalizable or not . . . .” She refers to a comment on the Rationally Speaking blog from a grad student who asks, “what is the purpose of anthropology if not to produce generalizable knowledge? Of what empirical use is anthropology to anyone if it doesn’t produce this kind of knowledge?” Elaborating on this idea, Julia asks, “are the questions that it asks specific questions, like describing this particular society or this particular culture, or . . . are we trying to get at general principles of why things happen the way they do?” And later, in clarification, “what is the use, I mean, should anthroplogy be asking these specific questions, or should anthropology be trying to answer general questions?”

Dr. Pigliucci replies:

Why is it that certain people . . . see ungeneralizable knowledge as [un]worthy of science? I don’t think that’s the case. . . . There’s a lot of knowledge in science that is not actually generalizable . . . [such as] almost anything you get out of evolutionary biology. . . . One of the problems with the study of invasive species is precisely that it seems very hard to find any generalizable conclusions. It seems to be the fact that invasive species behave in a fairly idiosyncratic way. . . . But that doesn’t mean that that research is useless, because, for instance, if it comes to managing a particular species that is invasive in a particular area, . . . well, then you want to know a lot of specific knowledge about that particular system, and it doesn’t really matter whether that knowledge is generalizable or not–you have a problem to solve, and you’re solving it upon scientific grounds, you’re not solving it in a nonscientific manner . . . . It’s pretty clear,

he goes on,

that science is a highly heterogeneous kind of enterprise that addresses a variety of questions at a variety of levels, and these questions may have different degrees of generalizability, and some of the specific questions may be actually more useful, frankly, than general questions. We may come up with some general platitudes about, for instance, again, the behaviour of invasive species, but if they’re not particularly useful in terms of managing the species in the field, then it seems to me that we haven’t gained that much.

This is an interesting exchange, to me, because it implies that even scientific knowledge has some kind of use-value, and that the use-value of the knowledge is more or less the point of creating that knowledge. This is particularly interesting coming from Dr. Pigliucci, who argues for the importance of distinguishing the creation of scientific knowledge from the use of it. (I will note that it’s not a foregone conclusion that all or most scientists would agree that the purpose of creating knowledge is for its use-value; even Dr. Pigliucci seems to suggest that the goal of generalizable knowledge, as opposed to specific knowledge, is to contribute to the development of overarching theories—as is the case in physics, for example. Still, it’s not clear what the point of such a theory would be.) I agree from a practical perspective that what’s published in a scientific journal should be science, as opposed to advocacy, but I don’t think journal articles are the be-all-and-end-all of science as it’s practiced. If a scientist’s job is merely to produce scientific knowledge, but we argue that knowledge is produced for its use-value, then whose responsibility is it to make use of that knowledge?

An anthropologist who also commented on the Rationally Speaking post suggested that in the case of anthropology, at least, advocacy cannot really be separated as cleanly from science as Dr. Pigliucci would like. He suggested that a picture of anthropology that ignores the use-value of the knowledge it creates (i.e., “tak[ing] all of our research data and go[ing] up into the Ivory Tower”) doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of anthroplogy. Thus, although I agree with Dr. Pigliucci about the distinction between science and advocacy in principle, I’m not sure that looking at a field such as anthropology through that lens gives an accurate or complete picture of what’s going on there (it might give a picture of what should be going on there, but that’s not a scientific approach to studying anthropology). Nor does it give an accurate picture of what’s going on in ecology. If we look at science as it’s practiced, I think both ecologists and anthropologists are equally likely to use their knowledge for advocacy purposes as part of their jobs, and in the case of anthropologists, this occurs under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association.

To give a concrete example, here is the goal of some ecological research that was conducted by a friend of mine:

. . . to determine if channel geomorphology controls (a) the sensitivity of small streams to the altered rates of terrestrial inputs that result from riparian management, and (b) the extent to which these changes are conveyed downstream.

Is this science or advocacy? Or both? Maybe it makes more sense to look at certain applications of science as a part of advocacy, rather than an activity done by a discrete group of people to create knowledge that’s used by another discrete group of people. In this case, a problem is identified with our current forest management practices, some research is carried out to determine the specifics, some recommendations are made, some regulators are lobbied, some policies are changed. And in practice, as Dr. Pigliucci acknowledges, several of these steps might be done by the same person. But this doesn’t mean that the articles produced by this project were motivated by value judgments, and I don’t think this is grounds for “decoupling” the scientific part of the forestry department from the advocacy part, even though the forestry department is ostensibly “mostly about advocacy.” (Forestry, according to the Association of University Forestry Schools of Canada, is “the art and science of protecting, conserving and managing forests.”) I’m inclined to think it’s more likely that the invocation of such a distinction in a discussion about anthropology is a result of some kind of bias.

Georges Bataille Generator

Reading the Wikipedia entry on Georges Bataille, you would get a distinct impression that he was a pivotal figure in the history of Continental philosophy in particular, and Western civilization in general. He is purported to be a key intellectual influence on Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and several others.  None of these claims is substantiated with evidence—the exact influence of Bataille on Madness and Civilization, say, is unexplained, and no explanation is given as to how exactly Bataille’s work “has gradually matured to reveal . . . considerable philosophical and emotional depth.” However, for you indie music fans, Georges Bataille is featured in that Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”:

I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met
Who could appreciate Georges Bataille;
Standing at a Swedish festival, discussing Story of the Eye.

Since Of Montreal is a good band, and they seem like a smart group of people, this allusion to Georges Bataille would appear to reflect favourably on the quality of his work, right?

In fact, the opposite is true. Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s frontman, may be good at music making, but his taste in literature is evidently bottom of the barrel. Story of the Eye, in fact, is probably one of the worst things ever written that is still referred to as “literature.” It’s hard to believe, upon reading it, that what you’re reading is the same thing that was referred to by Barnes, because why would anyone want anything to do with a person who didn’t recognize right off the bat that Story of the Eye was a piece of garbage?

I will concede that a big part of the problem with Story of the Eye may be the translation, as I could imagine certain turns of phrase, like “she huddled against me with a beating heart and gaped at the huge phantom raging in the night as though dementia itself had hoisted its colors on this lugubrious chateau,” could actually read much better in French, and in English with a stronger translation. Surely reading another of his works would give us a better indication of whether it’s a translation problem or a Bataille problem, right? Reading through The Solar Anus, however, it’s hard to be convinced that he’s not just a bad writer:

The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.

As far as Story of the Eye is concerned, this opinion is shared by a lot of the people at Good Reads (at least the ones on the front page). Anita describes it as “an enormous turd polished to a sheen by specious intellectualism.” According to Nathan, “the best part of this tedious wankstain is that it is short.” Chris, a reviewer with a keen eye for the written word, remarks that “in Story of the Eye the scenes aren’t particularly moving, interesting, or even necessary. Come to think of it, Story of the Eye pretty much sucked.” Patrick described my experience exactly: “This book was unabashedly, humiliatingly retarded. It’s the kind of book that’s so famous and then you read it and wonder if someone is pulling a practical joke on you.” John notes that “This book is just plain bad. No real characterization, plot, description, . . . nothing really.” “It reads like a dishwasher manual,” says Jaga. According to Blake, “it begins badly and then gets worse. The narrative is too brisk and lacks subtlety; the images are crudely sketched when they ought to be sharply drawn and vice versa and the transitions are blurred. It was just not pleasing.”

Strangely, the average review of Story of the Eye on Good Reads is 3.77 out of 5, which is unexpectedly charitable. This appears to be a result of a surfeit of readers who revel in pornography, as long as they have an excuse to parade it around as a showpiece of intellectualism. Take Beverly, for example: “Bataille’s masterpiece, a genius of eloquent pornographic imagery, so that one’s disgust is coupled with desire. I never read anything so appalling and enthralling at the same time.” Or Mr.: “a mordantly brilliant dip into the post-Nietzschen world modernity . . . . A seminal piece of 20th century literature.” Or Forrest: “It served as mirror to observe my own reaction to the transgressive.”

Of all the reviews I read, positive and negative, Doug’s is my favourite. It consists only of a quote from Nabokov, apparently as an authority on pornography, but also as an authority on good writing:

In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated . . . . Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in) and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.

Not surprisingly, this describes Story of the Eye quite accurately. Nabokov disliked pornography and considered it somewhat antithetical to literature, because in pornography “every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation.” There is certainly no aesthetic enjoyment to be had from Story of the Eye, as even many of the favourable reviewers admitted (e.g., Melissa, who gave a four-star review, suggested that “if you read for narrative pleasure you should run in the other direction”). Thus it appears most likely that people who think highly of Story of the Eye either aren’t very well read, or their reluctance to admit that they like the story because it’s pornography compels them to gussy up their opinions with intellectualism.

This idea of gussying shallow things up with intellectualism may be familiar to some people in the context of other Continental writers like Derrida, and certain manifestations of academic postmodernism that emerged after these writers–at least, certain writers in the humanities took a lot of criticism for gussying up their weak ideas with fancy words (and between some and much of this criticism was warranted). Andrew Bulhak, a fan of Alan Sokal, created a script using the Dada Engine that generates complete academic papers with titles like “Deconstructing Social realism: The postcapitalist paradigm of narrative and neocapitalist modernist theory,” which are total nonsense but which are designed to sound like typical unintelligible humanities papers. After having read The Solar Anus, I think Bataille’s work would be a good candidate for one of these text generators. It would produce statements like this:

The Epididymis of the Moon
Each of the moon’s phases represents a step in the transition from flaccidity to erection. As the crescent reflects a building of lunar passion, the full moon results from an ejaculation of gibbousness. Each lunar orgasm is constituted from particles of thought, and as the lunar erection thrusts into the dripping shadows, the light of the sun is reflected in a torrent of blood. Thus menstruation is a flushing of the bodily consciousness through the plumbing of fear and loneliness. Within the woman, impregnated by the gibbous moon, the fetal goddess becomes restless. It plucks the legs from a hornet and watches it writhe, electrified by the erotic pain of dismemberment. Like a fly caught in flowing sap, the fetal goddess is drowned, at birth, in a cascade of semen, and her body corrodes into the fluid of moonlight. But because the craters of the moon tolerate only love and hate, they drink the saliva of the bourgeoisie. In the struggle for power, only love caresses the shafts of moonlight penetrating the clouds, making them shudder with thunder and delight. And like rain the shaft of moonlight pours onto the oceanic sea a torrent of waves, and those waves lap against the shore like a tongue, making the rocks wet with pleasure. In the warm cavity of a shadow lurks the anus, and within the anus, the written word trembles sordidly.

Any takers?

On No-Drain Tuna

A few words on the issue of no-drain tuna. I tend to think about no-drain tuna in the context of people being estranged from real experiences. Along with the car, no-drain tuna is an excellent example of that old Lame Deer maxim, “White people are so afraid of the world they created that they don’t want to see, feel, smell, or hear it.” A car, in comparison to walking, is designed to prevent sensory stimulation; it’s designed to be quiet, to ride smoothly, to have soft, comfortable seats, to restrict air temperature to a comfortable medium, and now to divert passengers’ attention away from the outside world and onto LCD screens often depicting idealized representations of that world. In general, a better car is one that is more isolating. This is necessary because we’ve manufactured spaces for cars to move through that are abjectly hostile to human beings—interstate highways, parking lots, underground garages—when they’re compared to our primordial byway, a trail through the woods. The experience of using no-drain tuna is similar when it’s compared to catching, cooking, and eating a fish.

I’m not sure exactly what the complaints were that the tuna company received about the draining of traditional canned tuna. Maybe some of the juice splashed onto people’s hands, or maybe it smelled bad; maybe it increased the amount of time it takes to make a sandwich (although increased in comparison to what, one might ask), I don’t know. Maybe some people forgot to drain it and they ended up with watery tuna by accident. I really can’t think of any other possible objections to drainable tuna. I also don’t know if the tuna company—I haven’t taken note of which one it is—produced this product in response to consumer demand, or in response to complaints they received about having to drain tuna, or as a result of extensive research involving focus groups opening and eating different kinds of canned tuna, or because they just needed a gimmick to set them apart from their competitors.

Whatever the case may be, I’m reasonably confident that the underlying motive behind this product, and the reason the tuna marketing team surmised that this product would appear attractive to consumers, is the ease of not having to drain tuna before you eat it. It doesn’t matter if no one found draining classically-canned tuna particularly difficult; if given the choice between having to drain tuna and not having to drain tuna, most people would probably pick the latter because it’s easier. For the marketing team this is a two-pronged tool that recruits both the people who resent traditional tuna because they dislike the process of draining it, and the people who don’t particularly care about whether they’re required to drain it or not—all things being equal, both groups would likely pick the no-drain tuna if given the chance, and that probably covers about everybody.

This concept of ease is often taken to be self-evident as a marker of human progress. The easier our lives are, the more advanced a civilization we belong to. Whether or not they’ve given any thought to the matter, I would be surprised if most people wouldn’t consciously choose to do something easier rather than something harder, because their conscious knowledge about what they want is underlain by this idea of ease. It seems self-evident, but it’s more likely that the preference for ease is a cultural thing that’s been adopted unconsciously by our being bombarded by the idea that we should want things to be easier. Other cultures might recognize more readily the value of things being hard. (Only lip service is paid to this counteridea; it usually appears in the form of an inspirational quote from someone like Siddhartha Gautama, unimaginably far-removed from our everyday lives.)

Research has shown that what people think they want is not always what they actually want. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, pointed out in his TED talk on spaghetti sauce that when people are asked what kind of coffee they would like, they almost always indicate a preference for a “dark, rich, hearty roast,” but when given samples of coffee to taste, they generally gravitate toward coffee that’s weak and milky. The idea that we might actually want a life of difficulty, on some less-than-conscious level, is not unprecedented; see, for instance, the criticism of a life of unadulterated ease presented eagerly in the film WALL-E. The disconnect between what people think they want and what they actually want, I think, explains, at least in part, why some people are attracted to certain unpleasant activities, like camping or jumping off a cliff into a cold lake. It’s because on a level deeper than their consciousness, they crave real sensory experiences; they desire to escape, temporarily, from this world governed entirely by ease.

Curiously, within each of these “unpleasant” activities is some measure of variation in the degree to which the activity severs one from his or her easy, everyday life. In camping, some people will take along a giant RV and a couple of motorboats, rendering the overall experience not much different from the experience of being in their backyard (apart from the boats), while others will load up a pack and spend a week huffing up and down mountainsides and sleeping on rocks. And even within this latter group, some people will spend a lot of money on lightweight sleeping pads and Gore-tex boots, while others will carry a box of melons on their head and wear flip-flops made out of old tires. The key is that even when seeking real sensory experience, the countervailing desire to lapse into ease is sometimes overpowering. It’s much more common, I imagine, for people to go car camping than it is for people to do grueling multi-day backpacking trips.

What predisposes a person to one or another of these categories is hard to say, but it could be figured out with some cursory empirical research. Is their something that distinguishes backpackers from RV campers, like socioeconomic class or level of attained education? And what is the significance of camping and backpacking being predominantly the activities of white people? Perhaps other groups of people get their sensory stimulation in other ways, through sex (BDSM?), through food (arugula?), through drink (IPA?), through music (Metal Machine Music?). Perhaps other people succumb to their conscious desire for ease, and then wonder why their lives are so unsatisfying—indeed, these are the people depicted by marketers, people continually haunted by the burden of figuring out how to stack tupperware containers in their cupboard so they don’t avalanche out when the door is opened, or people concerned about the possibility that their child might come into contact with monstrous germs coating their countertops and door handles, or people perplexed by the problem of figuring out by sight whether or not their beer is cold (so they don’t have to touch it, I suppose). Approaching these advertisements as a form of dramaturgy, is there any evidence that the people depicted therein derive any fulfilment from their lives?

Potent Quotables

We noticed that in the jewelry stores they had some of the articles marked “gold” and some labeled “imitation.” We wondered at this extravagance of honesty and inquired into the matter. We were informed that inasmuch as most people are not able to tell false gold from the genuine article, the government compels jewelers to have their gold work assayed and stamped officially according to its fineness and their imitation work duly labeled with the sign of its falsity. They told us the jewelers would not dare to violate this law, and that whatever a stranger bought in one of their stores might be depended upon as being strictly what it was represented to be. Verily, a wonderful land is France!

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

People are Bad

I was flossing my teeth at the balcony window the other night, taking in the view over the city, and I noticed someone trying to aim a projector at the big blank wall of an apartment building across the way. Since the projector was off to the side, this involved zooming and shifting the image in several axes and the individual at the helm was obvious having some difficulty. In any case, when it settled down enough so I could read it, I was a little dismayed to find that what was being projected was an ad for something called “People for Good,” and it featured a giant ScanLife barcode that people could use to download the People for Good app onto their iPhones. I was dismayed because I don’t like having giant, luminescent, animated billboards right across from my balcony, and I know, based on the opposition to the giant, luminescent, animated billboard next to the Burrard Bridge, that I’m not alone in feeling this way. So I hatched a plan to skewer People for Good in a scathing blog post, which wouldn’t have any effect on the persistence of that billboard, but which would certainly make me feel a lot better.

As it turns out, People for Good is a national campaign with the goal of “making the world a better place” by encouraging people to do good deeds for one another. As their manifesto notes, “It may sound ambitious but it’s easier than you’d think. In fact, you could help make the world a better place right now. Just by doing something nice for someone.” Their website implores visitors to “join the movement” and “pledge their support” by installing a Facebook application or by downloading the free People for Good iPhone app, both of which give you a list of suggestions for good deeds that you can do each day – offer to give someone directions, for example, or shovel the snow off someone’s walkway, or send someone a handwritten note instead of an email. It is the claim of People for Good that “when you do something nice for someone, it gives you a natural high that can last for weeks, even months”; and presumably, people doing good deeds for one another will create a cascading effect that will eventually engulf the world in happiness and good cheer.

Whoever wrote the web copy anticipated some scepticism: “Rest assured,” they say, “we’re not asking for money, we just want you to donate a little generosity.” Needless to say, I was not resting assured. This campaign, which involves billboards and subway ads and newspaper ads in major cities across Canada, obviously cost a lot of money to produce, and I was a little suspicious that someone would invest so much money in something without expecting a return. My scepticism was fuelled by the overall superficiality and banality of the campaign. There’s little else on the website or the apps apart from those suggested good deeds, and after reading the examples I gave above you could probably come up with another fifty off the top of your head while playing with a Rubik’s cube. Eleven out of twelve people gave the iPhone app a five-star rating, and at least two of these eleven people work for Thinkingbox, the company that designed the app; presumably the others, who showered the app in effusive praise, are their friends and family members. The one person who offered a two-star rating wrote what everyone else must be thinking: “I love to do nice things for people but I was disappointed by the lack of original and new ideas.” What’s more, an individual who goes by the sobriquet “fartamplifier” pointed out on the People for Good Youtube page that “ doesn’t function properly in IE9 (even with compatibility mode turned on) and FF5. It locks up both browsers and the site is displayed incorrectly.” In short, the app is stupid and the website is boring.

My question must be fairly obvious by this point: if these guys had a million bucks to spend on making the world a better place, why did they choose to spend it on something so inane and unsubstantial? People for Good was started by Mark Sherman, founder and executive chairman of a company called Media Experts, and Zak Mroueh, the head of a branding company called, modestly, Zulu Alpha Kilo. In a July 11 press release, Mr. Sherman characterizes the campaign as a feel-good bit of philanthropy:

When something is not right, we tend to rely on someone else-our neighbour, our boss or our government-to fix it. But the truth is, anyone can help change the world. Companies can harness the power of their collective to heal and improve our society. We took stock of what we could do as two business owners.

Mr. Mroueh has a similar outlook:

Small good deeds – even as basic as genuinely saying “thank you” to someone who helped you, smiling at a stranger or helping out a co-worker – make a big difference in creating social capital, the glue that holds us together as a community.

He acknowledges that the campaign is intrusive, but the intrusion is justified, he argues, because it intrudes “with a different kind of message.” But is the message really as different as he claims?

In answering this question, it’s helpful to look at another similarly unusual project that was carried out by Mr. Mroueh’s company, Zulu Alpha Kilo. In October 2008, a team of “interdisciplinary thinkers” from Zulu Alpha Kilo built a white box in the middle of Dundas Square in Toronto and offered to give passers-by creative solutions to any questions they might have, like “how can we raise $20,000 to help teach students to invest?” or “how can we put an end to road rage?” or “how can I dress up my wheelchair to look like a rollercoaster?” They called it “thinking inside the box.” After twenty minutes of deliberation on each question the team would present their solutions and then move on to the next question, and they repeated this process for nine hours while the video billboards around the square broadcast the proceedings. The similarities between this project and the People for Good project are quite plain: both have no apparent product that’s being marketed, both involve unusual ways of interacting with the public, both involve a considerable investment, and both offer a vague proclamation about how the project is doing good (in the case of the Think project, it was giving people a “new appreciation for creativity”).

The product being sold in both of these cases is obscured by the digressive rhetoric surrounding it. What we’re seeing here is advertising trying to become indistinguishable from its medium. We’re aware of how product placement incorporated advertising directly into the content of TV shows, but taking that idea to its logical conclusion would involve making the TV shows themselves into advertisements; if the TV show itself is an advertisement, people might not notice that that’s the case, and they might be less averse to the intrusion of the ad into their life. I’m obviously not privy to the conversations that happen in the boardroom of Zulu Alpha Kilo and other advertising agencies, but I imagine there’s some awareness that people generally dislike and / or ignore billboards and TV ads, so the future profitability of the ad business has to involve drawing a façade over the face of the ad to make it less identifiable as such.

The copy on Mr. Sherman’s Media Experts website reflects this strategy using different words. “The business of media,” it states, “is about engagement, not just exposures; it’s about getting into consumers heads and hearts, not just about counting them.” They quote the ancient Greek writer Aesop as saying “appearances often are deceiving,” and they cite this as thinking that “resonates with [their] own.” This is the kind of thinking, apparently, that underlies Media Experts’ presentations about “digital solutions 2.0,” with titles like “Data Driven Digital Marketing,” “Mobile Marketing Revealed,” and “Social Media’s Impact on your Company’s Brand.” There was no billboard in Dundas square that said “hire Zak Mroueh,” but by putting that box into the square and allegedly getting it into newspapers across the country – into the content of the papers, not the ads – Mr. Mroueh loaded his sleeve with a big ace for next time he’s in a sales meeting with a company who’s looking to refresh its brand strategy. If he can do this for his own company, what can he do for you?

Blurring the lines between advertising and non-advertising is a valuable tool because it can make advertising seem so benevolent. The People for Good campaign is ostensibly philanthropic, if you don’t look too closely – it really does appear to be about nothing more than spreading good cheer and making people connect with one another, and indeed, there’s nothing on the ads themselves, the website, or the Facebook or iPhone apps that would suggest otherwise. And there’s no evidence incriminating enough to make Mr. Mroueh concede, if asked, that yes, this actually was a form of marketing for his and Mr. Sherman’s companies. It’s all circumstantial. People complain about advertising being misleading, but this is advertising that’s misleading in it’s very form; it makes it difficult for people to tell if they’re reading the news or being targeted by advertisers, if they’re talking to their friends or being targeted by advertisers, if they’re looking at art or looking at marketing, and this is undermines the whole concept of an informed consumer. Advertising that intrudes on our friendships and our public spaces without announcing itself as advertising is intrusive to a degree that makes old-fashioned TV ads and billboards seem totally innocuous by comparison. This is especially concerning in light of the growing scope of corporate control over politics and government. In the United States last year, for instance, Google and Verizon got together to draft a policy proposal regarding net neutrality, and they left it full of loopholes that would very clearly give them control of content provided through mobile devices – the most rapidly growing sector of data traffic. And the FCC engaged them in talks! Control over web content in the hands of behemoth corporations, coupled with advertising that you can’t tell is advertising (made by people who are  “in the business of changing attitudes and behaviour”), is a prospect that motivates me to move to the backwoods of the Yukon to live in a cabin.

Joke about tinfoil hats if you want, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think about how our current trends might manifest a few years into the future – in fact, I think it’s necessary. I’m a university-educated adult with a strong background in thinking critically, but even I was naïve enough to expect a product being sold in black and white when I got to the People for Good website, and I was frustrated how my research into the project wasn’t turning up any obvious culprits. People less cynical than myself probably wouldn’t think to try and identify a product in this campaign. As long as advertising like this is so banal that it doesn’t make people think twice, then mission accomplished.

Updated July 24.

Potent Quotables

After the fighting—more particularly after the slanging-match in the newspapers—it was difficult to think about this war in quite the same naively idealistic manner as before. I suppose there is no one who spent more than a few weeks in Spain without being in some degree disillusioned. My mind went back to the newspaper correspondent whom I had met my first day in Barcelona, and who said to me: “This war is a racket the same as any other.” The remark had shocked me deeply, and at that time (December) I do not believe it was true; it was not true even now, in May; but it was becoming truer. The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Okay, Men and Women are Different. Now What?

I was browsing through the back catalogue of Language Log today (because I enjoyed their latest releases, so to speak), and I found an article from October 2010 describing a study that purported to provide evidence to the effect that women are more apologetic than men. The paper, by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, was described in detail by Mark Liberman in his post so I won’t bother to reiterate what he said in too much depth. In a nutshell, the researchers had thirty-three female and thirty-three male participants complete daily online questionnaires related both to instances that occurred each day in which they were transgressors of apology-worthy acts and to instances in which they received apologies for others’ transgressions. They found that members of the female cohort reported being subject to more apology-worthy transgressions, receiving more apologies, committing more apology-worthy transgressions, and giving more apologies than the males. They suggest that this is because males have a higher threshold in determining which actions and behaviours are worthy of apology–in other words, it will take a more egregious transgression to prompt a male to apologize than it will for a female.

I don’t have any particular qualms with the study itself, and I’m inclined to believe that the study was conducted as carefully as Dr. Liberman says it was (he knows more about statistics than I do, after all); it appears that among the participants they selected, the females really did exhibit a lower threshold for apology-worthy actions than the males did. And it’s very possible that the authors’ speculations about the sources of this disparity, namely “that women might perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people and on maintaining harmony in their relationships,” or “that men have a higher threshold for both physical and social pain,” could be the case. My problem in particular has to do with why we find this kind of study interesting, and what we hope to do with the knowledge that we derive from it.

If we compare this study to a hypothetical study that includes blondes versus brunettes, or black people versus white people, or people from San Francisco versus people from New York, we might find that the San Franciscans, the black people, or the brunettes apologize more than their counterparts, and we could speculate that San Franciscans are more apologetic because they have a lower threshold for physical and social pain than New Yorkers, or because they are more focused on the experiences of others and on maintaining harmony in their relationships. But why, when we search the scientific literature for research dealing with differences between groups of people, do we find a paucity of articles comparing New Yorkers to San Franciscans or blondes to brunettes? What is it about men and women that makes people so motivated to systematically codify all the differences between them? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I imagine that it’s either a response to or an assertion in favour of the idea that men and women should be differentiated from one another. And a political will apparently exists to promote this type of differentiation–a research study comparing New Yorkers to San Franciscans would likely be rejected by NSERC or its American equivalent as frivolous, but a study comparing men to women is worth a few thousand tax dollars.

Liberman acknowledges that studies dealing with differences between groups generally have a bad track record in terms of their role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes.  He hints at this by noting at the end of his post that the study does not include information about within-group differences so that a comparison can be made with the across-group differences. This track record arises from a tendency for people to slide into generalizations about the group members. When looking at populations, statisticians can say that on average, this population is so-and-so, even while acknowledging that the individuals within the group are different  from one another. But when looking at results of a well-done and careful scientific study that talks about men and women as discrete groups, it’s still hard not to apply the results, which refer to an imaginary entity (the average or prototypical member), to all of the members as individuals. Schumann and Ross do this, to some extent, when they speculate about the causes for their findings. When Liberman suggests that it would be good for the papers to pick up this story because it’s not the usual stereotyping fluff, he overlooks the role of this article and others like it in producing a conception of gender that posits men and women as categories of people with more across-group differences than within-group differences, and this conception of gender is what makes gender stereotyping possible (just like it makes it possible to stereotype blondes or New Yorkers). Liberman helpfully indicates as much in another post of his that he links to as part of a warning against misinterpretation of generic plurals:

Most members of the general public don’t understand statistical-distribution talk, and instead tend to  interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved. This is especially true when the statements express the conclusions of an apparently authoritative scientific study, rather than merely someone’s personal opinion, which is easy to discount.

His injunction against “the use of generic plurals to express statistical differences” was presumably intended for discussions of statistical differences in public arenas, because the article in question–which, remember, he would have liked to see picked up by the press–uses generic plurals with aplomb: “The diary data suggest,” the authors write, “that women offer more apologies than men do […].”

When I talk about “discrete groups,” I’m referring to the problems of clearly delineating who is a man and who is a woman. A hundred and fifty years ago scientific researchers had no problems differentiating between black people and white people, but nowadays we’re more aware of the fact that categories of race aren’t as clear-cut as they claimed they were (even at the genetic level). A lot of work has been done to show that the same is true with categories of gender and sex, but this work is hampered by actively malicious treatments of sex and gender differences (like what Liberman refers to as “gender-stereotyping fluff”) as well as by uncritical acceptance of gender as a set of two distinct categories (like the study in question). Both types of research make gender stereotyping possible, because they are both used for that purpose.  Clearly, this study, as much as it is exemplary in its execution, is still treading on the wrong side of the problem / solution divide.