Sunday, August 13, 2017

No excuse for silence

Last year I asked Trump voters if they supported the appointment of Steve Bannon.

I argued that supporting his appointment showed support for the White Nationalist movement and the philosophy of White Supremacy.

The evidence for my argument was pulled from well-known White Nationalist websites.
Prominent leaders of the White Nationalist movement spoke out, celebrating Bannon's appointment and the promise of an administration that supported their agenda.

All of that was held before our eyes. The writing was on the wall.

We cannot act surprised when we see the violent results of a tacit acceptance of White Nationalists and other white power hate groups.

I asked my conservative relatives and friends to renounce this ugly side of right-wing populism.
They reacted by dismissing the size of the movement, by accusing me of tarring the President with the same brush as the extremists, by suggesting I was exaggerating the threat.

They asked me to wait and see.

Today, I ask them to find an excuse for the violence and murder that their silence permitted.

I cannot excuse the silence.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Not a Game

A good argument is not a game.

I've heard people say things like, "She won that argument big league!" 

This is just one example of how the language around debate can make arguments seem like competitive matches. 

But there is an essential characteristic games have and good arguments lack.
Games have clearly defined conclusions.

Baseball has innings.
Soccer has the clock.
Track has a finish line.

If you are having a good argument, there is not a definitive end point. 
What is the best way to teach writing?
What tax policy will best benefit the middle class?
What scientific instrument will tell us the most about exoplanets?
How has America's history impacted racial minorities?

We don't get to finish those arguments. 
They are good because every answer requires (get ready for it) an argument
And every argument can be questioned.

Sure, you can have a silly argument.
Or you can have a pointless argument like, "When was Chuck Mangione's 'Feels So Good' released." 
The banter might even feel so good that it could, for a time, be mistaken for a real argument, until someone pulls out their phone and settles the dispute. 

Good arguments remain unsettled.
They are unsettling.

Most remain unresolved.
On the rare occasion when a good argument does get resolved, the world is changed.
What is the shape and nature of DNA?
Is slavery a moral practice?
Can you compel a person to believe in a specific god?
How do species of plants and animals emerge?

And while each of these arguments were clearly settled, none of them had a clearly defined conclusion. You can still find people who will contend that one or all of these debates still rage on.

But the arguments and their resolutions have already changed the world.

All of this to say, if you get into an argument with the goal of winning, you're doing it wrong.

Good arguments are not won.
Good arguments are resolved over the course of generations.

Don't join an argument to win, join to change the world.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Why #IStandWithCEU

We moved to Budapest in 2004.
My wife Dora enrolled in the MBA Program at Central European University.

The University plugged her into a network of people who lived, worked, and thrived in a world where borders do not restrict.

In seminars, peers from around the globe considered how to communicate across cultures, how to negotiate with someone who holds different values, and how to work towards a future where differences don't divide us.

Dora went on to join an international team of professionals who advised businesses seeking to develop opportunities in new markets like Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Those years taught us to tear down walls and seek out ways to work with others.

Those years were about seeing our differences as assets - as conversation starters.
The unfamiliar was an invitation.
"So, wait... You celebrate Christmas in January? Who brings the presents?"
"No. I don't know anything about Zoroastrianism. What is it?"
"Look, you're going to have to explain the regions of India to me."

A few years after Dora graduated from CEU, I joined the University as a member of the faculty. I worked with students from Romania, Nigeria, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, and the list goes on. I developed a composition course that focused on communication across cultures.

It was at CEU that I began to understand the potential political and ethical implications of teaching students to write in English.

While at CEU, I realized the extent to which stepping into the unfamiliar can change a person.  It sent me back to school to study people joining professional and scholarly communities.

Hungarian politicians passed a bill aimed at shutting CEU down.
Dora and I are profoundly disappointed.
The people attacking CEU are cowards.
They are afraid of the challenges presented by a changing world.
They think they can stop those changes by building fences and walls, by stifling inquiry, and by attacking critics.

The cowards are having a moment right now.
They convinced a lot of people to fear the unfamiliar.

But I am not afraid.
Dora's not afraid.

The cowards' moment will pass.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Nesting Dolls and Invisible Work

Much of what I've been writing about this year is linked to how we argue with people who can't agree on what is known.

Over in philosophy, they'd say I'm focused on conflicts of epistemology.

I didn't realize a theme was developing, but when I look at many of the arguments in the public discourse today, these kinds of conflicts have clearly created an "issue of the moment."

Part of what is going on is simple. We all see the world through our lenses, and new information is sorted into categories that match our worldview.

This aspect of the issue explains a wonderful new addition to the stack of nesting dolls that is Philip K. Dick's "Man in the High Castle."

Dick wrote a novel set in an alternate history where the fascists win WWII and take over America, but it's PKD, so of course there's a mind-bending twist:
In that alternate universe, there's another author who created another alternate universe in which the Allies won and then turned on each other.
The idea is that readers have to navigate meaning across three realities, ours, the book's, and that of the book within the book.
More recently, a tv series based on Dick's book has been made, and as a promo, the marketing team set up an online "resistance radio station" set in the alternate United States where fascists rule. Here's the next nesting doll: Many Trump supporters assumed the radio station was a real protest of the real president.

It's easy to make fun, but without the dizzying context of Dick's fiction, a resistance radio station does feel pretty explicitly anti-Trump. Not to mention, the show itself is being viewed by many critics and commentators as anti-Trump. So, I'm not sure we should be making fun.

And that's just one example of how not knowing a single piece of the larger puzzle makes navigating today's public discourse a new kind of challenge. I think the Tom Nicols got a lot right in his essay published in Foreign Affairs.
It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.
I've tried to say something similar here, but Nicols composed a much stronger argument for the point.

Beyond the rejection of expertise for the reasons Nicols describes, I believe there is something else going on as well.

It's a manifestation of a certain lack of empathy.

A lot of people work hard to get to where they are in life. Some of those same people, however, are reluctant to believe others have worked hard enough to be respected as experts. Now that technology has granted everyone the ability to "do our own research," it's easier to dismiss the work required to actually become an expert.

Reading papers written by economists is a good practice if you want to be informed. It does not, however, grant a person the ability to create statistical models that predict how certain incentives will impact human behavior (one of the things economists can do that most people cannot). It takes years of hard work for aspiring economists to get to a place where they can perform as an expert economist. Those years of hard work happen in classrooms, offices, conferences, and other settings most of us would find boring. This makes the work of becoming an expert invisible.

Athletes have to deal with a similar issue. Most of the work that makes professional athletes so good at what they do is hidden from the fans.

But at least athletes have fans.
Economists, small business owners, cognitive psychologists, restaurant managers, linguists, plumbers, and biologists rarely earn acclaim from outside of their disciplines. Sure, they might have clients or students who value their work, but those relationships are more complex than fandom.

If a person claims to be an authority, then we have every right to ask them, "Who gave you that authority?"
With legitimate experts, the answer is usually some version of, "I have been working in the area for 15 (or more) years and have earned several honors."
Unfortunately, too many people are too quick to dismiss those years of hard work.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pleading Ignorance

The last time I was in school, I enrolled in a seminar on education policy. It's not my area, but the course satisfied a degree requirement. After week one, I learned just how far out of my wheelhouse I had strayed.

I enjoyed the seminar and learned a ton, but the bulk of what I learned is 'just how little I know.'

I walked away from the experience with a profound appreciation for work I can't really do - the work economists, sociologists, and education researchers put into understanding how policies impact large populations.

Because that's what's at stake, right? Large populations.

Kids across the country are impacted by national and state education policies like Common Core, NCLB, School Choice, and Race to the Top.

So, while I was considering those issues in that seminar room, I had to stop thinking like a teacher. I had to stop thinking about individual classrooms, even individual schools. Not because those spaces don't matter (they do), but because the research tools used to understand education policy are not the tools used to examine pedagogy or a student's development.

That was a hard break for me to make. I didn't really succeed in the ten weeks I had, but the course did change the way I argue about school and education policy.

Ed policy is primarily the domain of quantitative researchers. They pour over numbers for two reasons:
  1. Legislation and policy are designed to impact huge numbers of people. When talking policy, knowing the details of what happens to a few individuals isn't informative - it can even be misleading.  
  2. Because of the first reason, numbers have typically been the best way to change the minds of policy makers. 
Let me say that again: Numbers have typically been the best way to change the minds of policy makers. 

I am no longer sure about that.

School Choice advocates believe that a crucial American value is at stake: Individualism.

For conservatives, the right to make choices for ourselves and the obligation to take responsibility for our choices is paramount. It is an assumption that undergirds the foundation of our nation.

I hear that.

To a point, I agree with it. According to the Political Compass survey, my distrust of authority makes me a Leftist Libertarian.

But I can only value individualism to a point.

If the choices I make benefit me while I knowingly damage my community. I gotta stop.

That is the limit a society ought to put on individual liberty.

I don't think many people from either side of the spectrum are going to argue against that.
I know liberals who will say conservatives don't believe this.
I also know conservatives who will say liberals don't believe this.

But put aside the disdain for a second.

The issue we have is not that one side wants to damage the community. They don't. I know you think they do, but they don't.

The issue we have is that neither side can say when the other has knowingly damaged the community.

We no longer agree on what we know anymore.

We have undermined the institutions we used to count on for knowledge.

NASA, economists, the media, universities...

Those were once sources all sides would go to for reliable information. Granted, arguments abound within each of these institutions, but we used to allow those internal arguments and accept each institution's concensus.

Today, people use disagreements between scientists or scholars to discredit science and scholarship.

So, we have a school choice advocate running the Department of Education. She aims to implement voucher programs nationwide. She intends to do so despite news of major studies from education policy researchers showing how voucher programs harm students who participate.

Here is an analysis of the results from a study of Louisiana's voucher program:
When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.
The work that went into these studies is complex and requires specialized knowledge. The findings have been examined by other specialists looking for weaknesses in the studies. The data used to arrive at the conclusions is drawn from the real world. Three separate studies found the same thing:

Students were harmed by voucher programs.

That much can be asserted with the closest thing to which I call certainty.

But if I present this to the new Secretary of Education or other supporters of school choice, the current state of political discourse allows them to focus on the sliver of uncertainty inherent in all the sciences. They can tell me we'll never truly know that harm was done... or what caused the harm... or what harm actually is... or something else.

They will remind me that the only thing we can be certain of is the value of the individual.

I think knowledge has got to up its public relations game.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

We Cannot Argue about Saydnaya Military Prison

Over the past several years I have tried to remove "moral outrage" from my rhetorical toolbox.

I don't want to argue that someone else's views are awful, even if I believe they are.

I prefer to build arguments that demonstrate how my position is strong.

I didn't always feel this way. I've used moral outrage in my arguments more than once.

But then I recognized something:
When people argue that my position is morally bankrupt, I roll my eyes.

They might have a point. But I will never know, because the moment they go down the path of moral outrage, I tune them out.

And I'm pretty sure anyone I argue with is going to do the same thing.

No one ever asks, "Are we the baddies?" We all believe that our actions are justified.

So, when I try to convince a person that our disagreement stems from their moral failing, I have already begun to lose the debate.

All that said, today I learned of the report issued by Amnesty International detailing the systematic killing of civilians in Saydnaya Military Prison in Syria. And now I have to dust off my moral outrage.
At Saydnaya Military Prison, the Syrian authorities have quietly and methodically organized the killing of thousands of people in their custody. Amnesty International’s research shows that the murder, torture, enforced disappearance and extermination carried out at Saydnaya since 2011 have been perpetrated as part of an attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic, and carried out in furtherance of state policy. We therefore conclude that the Syrian authorities’ violations at Saydnaya amount to crimes against humanity. Amnesty International urgently calls for an independent and impartial investigation into crimes committed at Saydnaya.
I cannot assemble an argument related to this without moral outrage.

In the 20th century, we defined "human-perpetrated evil" as the systematic murder of civilians by a government. That is not something I will debate.

What was done at Saydnaya is evil.
Supporting the Syrian government is facilitating evil.

If we fail to help people trying to escape from a government that built facilities for the systematic killing its own citizens, that is a moral failure.

If you are rolling your eyes right now, your moral compass is not functioning.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's Hard to Hear "Wrong"

John William Waterhouse's "Echo and Narcissus"
I love mythology.

Mythology gives us fun and exciting stories with huge characters you want to believe once roamed the earth.

But myths are not real.

Just like learning styles.

Yeah. That's right. I said it.

Learning styles are not a thing.
Even if you want them to be a thing, they are not a thing.

I'm sure you've heard about learning styles.

Maybe you even took a test that felt very "test-like" and made you feel confident telling people something like this:
"Oh, I am a kinesthetic learner; I need to be moving to learn effectively."

The person who gave you that test probably believed in learning styles. A lot of people do. It's a very popular idea. But to be clear, learning styles are not a thing.

Learning Styles emerged from a theory that had not been researched. The idea sounded great, and a lot of people decided to believe it before doing the research.

The good news is that other people went and did the research. Here's what they found:
The overwhelming majority of the literature concludes the same thing: there is no proven benefit to matching a teacher’s instruction to a learner’s preferred style.
So, a lot of people are wrong - a lot of smart people.
And I want them to stop being wrong.

I want to stop reading about learning styles in papers from strong students.
I want to stop hearing intelligent parents tell me about the learning styles of their children.
I want to stop knowing that this myth is behind lesson plans being used in my kids' schools.

I want to stop all this, but I also don't want to be a jerk.

Telling people they are wrong about something they believe makes you look like a jerk - especially when that 'something' makes them feel informed.

People look back on all the times they used that flawed knowledge, all the times they mentioned it in passing, all the times they relied on that incorrect information to make a decision. Suddenly they feel foolish, and you are the reason they feel foolish.

You may think you're doing people a favor, but it sure doesn't feel that way for the person you're "helping."

It was easy for me to accept learning styles aren't a thing because of the way I heard the news.
I had used the phrase in a paper I was working on, but I wasn't referring to the concept that's been debunked. One of my advisors pointed it out and told me to get it out of my manuscript. He knew I didn't mean to invoke the popular concept, but he explained that the phrase was a red flag in education research. He told me it is pseudo-science, like astrology.

I got the message and pulled the phrase out. That was easy, but I was not invested in the idea.

It's a different story for people who learned the concept from a respected teacher, an authority, or a good read. These people are going to resist, and I get it.

I want to take something from them. They had this knowledge, and it was useful.

Here comes some jerk who has proof that the thing they valued is actually worthless.

So, you have to acknowledge some kind of worth.

It is a good idea to vary teaching methods so that students experience learning in more than one way. So, a lot of the teaching techniques that were prompted by the idea of "learning styles" are helping students.

Show people why it was okay to believe what they did.
That makes letting go of flawed knowledge easier.