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Posts Tagged ‘French Revolution

“One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity”*…

But, as the tale of the disastrous diet demonstrates, that instruction needs to start early and go deep…

While on vacation, Marcial Conte, the Brazilian publisher of my first book, met a woman who asked about his work. Upon learning he was responsible for A Mentira do Glutén: E Outros Mitos Sobre O Que Voce Comê (The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat), she lit up.

Her husband, she said, had followed my revolutionary diet protocol and changed his life. Pounds melted away. Myriad health problems resolved themselves.“ She told me to thank you for saving her husband’s life with the ‘UNpacked Diet,’” Conte grinned at me. “Incredible, no? The only change they made was keeping aluminum foil.”

Incredible, indeed. The diet was satire, invented by me, and it came at the end of a book dedicated to exposing pseudoscientific nutrition claims. For the centerpiece of the faux diet, I used just such a claim: that the cause of all modern ailments was food packaging. By “unpacking” your food — that is, by refusing to eat food that had come in contact with plastic, styrofoam, or aluminum foil — I pretended to promise readers a magical panacea for everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, as well as effortless weight loss.

The satire should have been clear. Every chapter was packed with warnings about precisely the kinds of claims made in the diet, such as:

• Beware of panaceas… like a diet that promises miraculous weight loss and a solution to every chronic illness.

• Distrust the promise of secret knowledge hidden by conspiracies… like the diet that “they” don’t want you to know about.

• Don’t trust individual anecdotes… like the glowing testimonials I included at the end of the invented diet. (I took them from other pseudoscientific diet books.)

• Stay alert for myths and fallacies such as the “appeal to antiquity”… the idea that our ancestors lived in a dietary paradise and that modern technology is uniquely evil and dangerous.

• Watch out for grains of scientific truth turned into alarmist falsehoods… like the cherry-picked scientific studies that filled the UNpacked Diet’s footnotes.

Each deceptive tactic in the UNpacked Diet had been scrupulously debunked in the chapters that preceded it. Not only that, but after the diet there was another section called the “UNpacked Diet, UNpacked,” in which I went through each of the deceptive tactics and explained why I chose it. How could this couple have taken it seriously, much less followed it? Even if they had missed the final section, their reaction to the UNpacked Diet should have been skepticism and disbelief, not enthusiasm.

I would have been more shocked at Conte’s story if I hadn’t already heard from others who had likewise tried the diet. Readers have emailed asking where they can buy the “UNpacked Diet-approved unbleached coffee filters” that I dreamed up as part of the satire, or with follow-up questions about what’s permissible within the framework of the “diet.” In just a few pages, those powerful rhetorical techniques overcame chapter after chapter of carefully crafted guidance on how to resist them.

My current approach is to present my students with what you’ve just read: transparency about my own thought process. Misinformation exploits the (reasonable!) suspicion that authority figures are hiding something, coming up with secret ways to “nudge” us in certain directions or manipulating us with… well, with science communication techniques. Transparency about how we approach the communication of science — or the communication of a lot of things — creates trust, which is essential to effective persuasion. I’ve found that students report increased trust and a sense that I’m an honest broker of information when I take the transparency approach.

At the same time, knowing that some people believe in the healing power of my satirical diet immediately after reading almost 200 pages on why they shouldn’t has left me deeply shaken. Changing how we communicate science can help, but it’s a Band-Aid solution. A real solution means changing education so books like mine are obsolete.

By the time children finish high school, they should be intimately familiar with manipulative rhetorical techniques, common fallacies, and their own susceptibility to persuasive anecdotes. Alongside hours of studying the Krebs cycle and mitochondria, there should be hours allotted to how to distinguish scientific reasoning from pseudoscientific nonsense. From vaccines to climate change, misinformation poses an existential threat when it inhibits our collective decision-making ability. The time has come to start treating it that way.

How exposure to misinformation inoculation sometimes makes things worse– and how to do better: “They Swore by the Diet I Created — but I Completely Made It Up,” from Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz), via the always-illuminating @DenseDiscovery.

* “One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity. Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.” – Bertrand Russell

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As we think critically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

Happy Bastille Day!

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Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël

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“The things you used to own, now they own you”*…

 

things

 

Photographic artist Barbara Iweins practice has always dealt with the boundaries of intimacy and vulnerability, and how these can be pushed to their very limits. Her relationship with the medium began 11 years ago, when she was suddenly compelled to buy a camera and photograph strangers she met in the street.

“Ever since I was young, whenever I was in a public space, my eyes would be drawn to certain people and I wondered what they were thinking or doing at that exact moment, or even what their fears were, or their joys,” she explains. So, one day, she decided to act on that impulse, asking strangers if she could enter their personal lives. “Like a voyeur, I revisited them year after year with a new project. By the end of those five years, we were so close, that I could even make a picture of them at one of their most vulnerable moments: when they just opened their eyes in the morning. This project was called 7AM/7PM.”

Having spent so long focusing on the vulnerability of others, recently, Barbara decided to turn inwards, using her own private life as a case study for the first time. “It was time for me to lay myself bare a little as well,” she adds. The result is Katalog, a project she began in 2018 which she describes as “a radical confrontation with my possessions through my photographic lens. The exposure of oneself, pushed to its paroxysm.” In a mammoth project, for two years and 15 hours a week, Barbara isolated herself and photographed all 10,532 objects in her house. “In order to rigorously confront myself with everything I own, I then classified everything by material, colour, their frequency of use and their emotional value.”

You’d assume that this would be a somewhat performative gesture, that the majority but perhaps not all of Barbara’s possessions would make it into the series but, she tells us, “to be totally honest with myself, I needed to capture them all. No book, no piece of clothing, no kitchen utensil, no Lego was going to escape my lens.”…

The photographer undertook this mammoth task in an attempt assess the value she places on objects: “Artist Barbara Iweins on spending two years photographing all 10,532 objects in her house.”

* Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

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As we take on taxonomy, we might spare a thought for Jean-Jacques Rousseau; he died on this date in 1778.  A central figure in the European Enlightenment, he was a novelist (Emile, or On Education illustrated the importance of the education of the whole person for citizenship; Julie, or the New Heloise was seminal in the development of romanticism in fiction), a composer (perhaps most notably of several operas), and an autobiographer (his Confessions initiated the modern autobiography; his Reveries of a Solitary Walker exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, and featured an heightened subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing).

But it is as a philosopher that Rousseau was best known in his time and is best remembered.  His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones of modern political and social thought.  He was deeply controversial in his time: he was condemned from the pulpit by the Archbishop of Paris, his books were burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  But during the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophes among members of the Jacobin Club. He was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 2, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”*…

 

During the eighties, a nameless Cold Warrior grew frustrated in his job for the Department of Defense and poured out his feelings in an unusual way. He was a midlevel (GS-11/GS-12) analyst working at the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center, at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Every GS-11/GS-12 in that era would have been given a government-issue desk calendar, and this Kansas scribe made the most of his. Like a monk, he labored over his document every day, adding carefully crafted letters and elaborate drawings to what became, over nine years, a remarkably full chronicle of the decade.

There were outbursts of anger, often directed at senior officials of the U.S. government, and joyful moments of exultation, generally following victories for the University of Kansas basketball team. Events of worldly and even otherworldly significance were described in passing: the end of the Iranian hostage standoff, the Challenger disaster, small upticks and downticks in the tension of the Cold War. There were tender moments as well: memories of a friend, or an anniversary of a magical night long ago. He noted the riots in Poland and demonstrations in China and other places where the people were beginning to make themselves heard after decades of government suppression. The anonymous employee’s irrepressible spirit seems to follow a parallel course, delighting in the creation of a secret treasure trove of writings in no way approved by his superiors…

More pages ripped from history at “A Disgruntled Federal Employee’s 1980s Desk Calendar.”

* Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

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As we contemplate the chronicle, as we might spare a thought for Jean-Jacques Rousseau; he died on this date in 1778.  A central figure in te European Enlightenment, he was a novelist ( Emile, or On Education illustrated the importance of the education of the whole person for citizenship; Julie, or the New Heloise was seminal in the development of romanticism in fiction), a composer (perhaps most notably of several operas), and an autobiographer (his Confessions initiated the modern autobiography; his Reveries of a Solitary Walker exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, and featured an heightened subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing).

But it is as a philosopher that Rousseau was best known in his time and is best remembered.  His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones of modern political and social thought.  He was deeply controversial in his time: he was condemned from the pulpit by the Archbishop of Paris, his books were burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  But during the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophes among members of the Jacobin Club. He was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”*…

 

It is often observed that the French Revolution was a revolution of scientists. Nourished by airy abstractions and heartfelt cries to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, its leaders sought a society grounded, not in God or tradition, but in what Edmund Burke decried as “the conquering empire of light and reason”. To be sure, if we tallied the professional affiliations of the members of the first National Assembly, we would find it overwhelmingly populated by lawyers. But the revolution’s symbols and motifs were not derived from legal practices and traditions, and it was not as men of law that Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat called for the death of their king and the creation of a democratic republic. Rather, they did so as scientists—middle class intellectuals who saw in government a field ripe for experimentation, innovation, and improvement.

Nowhere was this as clear as their approach to “the will of the people”. Of the many puzzles to which revolutionaries applied themselves as scientists, few seemed so pressing and so intractable. It is obvious what a king’s will looks like, or so we like to think. Kings are individuals, they have bodies, and they can tell us what to do. However they choose to communicate their will — through voice, a gesture, a written pronouncement — it is relatively clear when such acts belong to them. But “the people” enjoy no such obvious body and no evident means of self-expression. What does the will of the people actually look like? And how do we hear their voice if they don’t have a mouth with which to speak? As French revolutionaries enthroned the will of the people, they stepped into uncharted terrain. Democratic revolution, it turned out, required men capable of visualizing the invisible and making appear what escaped our immediate senses. Indeed, it seemed to require the labor of scientific inquiry applied to the people themselves. Like the invisible composition of air, the secret patterns of a magnetic field, or the stratifications of the earth’s soil, democratic politics was governed by a hidden law which the scientist-statesman had to uncover…

Kevin Duong explores how leading French revolutionaries, in need of an image to represent the all important “will of the people”, turned to the thunderbolt — a natural symbol of power and illumination that also signaled the scientific ideals so key to their project: “Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People’s Will.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we agree with Ursula LeGuin that “You cannot buy the revolution; you cannot make the revolution; you can only be the revolution,” we might send provocative birthday greetings to poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, and environmental activist  Margaret Eleanor Atwood; she was born on this date in 1939.  Currently enjoying wide celebrity via the television adaptations of her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, her wide body of work has earned her the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Prince of Asturias Award for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Canadian Governor General’s Award several times, winning twice.  In addition to her fourteen novels, she has published she has also published fifteen books of poetry, ten non-fiction books, seven children’s books, four collections of stories, three collections of unclassifiable short prose works, three opera libretti, and a graphic novel.

Atwood is also the inventor and developer of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents, for which she holds several patents.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

For tonight’s debate…

Logical Fallacy Bingo

Definitions of each flavor of fallacy, and clean copies of the board at Lifesnow.com.

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As we overcome our wistfulness on remembering that this is Oscar Wilde’s birthday, we might recall that it was on this date in 1793, nine months after her husband, the former King Louis XVI of France, was beheaded, that Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine. (Readers who are parents– or collectors– can find commemorative dolls here.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 16, 2012 at 1:01 am

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