All entries for November 2009

November 22, 2009

‘Primary Schools Need to Make Children “Media Savvy”

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This is the title of an article that appeared in today’s Observer by Anushka Asthana, in which I was interviewed on the topic. Until the current ESRC project on ‘mimetic processes’ (i.e. how and why behaviours are imitated), in which I collaborate with several Warwick colleagues, I have not really published much in this area. However, it is an interest that I have nurtured over the years through teaching a variety of courses and lectures here at Warwick, at a summer school in Sweden and a liberal arts college in Germany. I have come to believe that media literacy ought to be introduced at the primary school level in the same spirit as reading, writing and numeracy are normally taught – insofar as they still are!

And what is that ‘spirit’? It’s simply that people should understand as well as possible the means by which they send and receive information. While much of media literacy may be regarded as technologically enhanced versions of traditional literacy and numeracy, there is clearly much more to it that is not normally covered in the traditional courses, especially in terms of the processing of visual and aural information – not to mention the blending of information channels (e.g. fonts as non-neutral displays of writing).

As I said in the interview, I believe that children already develop many of the relevant critical skills spontaneously because of their constant exposure to marketing campaigns, commercial and political advertisements and other forms of public relations through television, the internet, etc. However, the point of school, after all, is to provide systematic training, which means passing on some intellectual tools for dealing with these matters.

An interesting feature of the Observer article is the reaction that Anushka elicited from Cary Bazalgette (former head of education at the British Film Institute) and Tim Bell, one of the masterminds behind Margaret Thatcher’s successful election campaigns in the 1980s and nowadays the PR advisor for Belarus (If nothing else, the man certainly enjoys a challenge!) Bell’s comment was priceless PR spin. Here’s his criticism of my idea:

But Tim Bell, one of the best known figures in the communications industry, said that teaching children how to be critical in this way was a waste of time. Lord Bell added: "What we need are people who are educated and have open minds."

‘Open’, as in an empty vessel – or a blank slate, perhaps?

In any case, the workshops connected to the ESRC project on mimetic behaviours will continue on Monday 14th December. One of the speakers will be one of the UK’s leading social historians of advertising, Liz McFall, from the Open University.

November 08, 2009

The Dawn of Weimar Britain: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

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Last week a UK High Court gave the green light for a green activist to sue his employer, who had sacked him for refusing to do an errand because it conflicted with his green beliefs. For intellectual ballast, the judge quoted no less – or, should I say, no more? – than Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, a work whose authoritativeness matches that of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything in the history of science discipline. But that’s not really my point….

My point is to draw attention to the five criteria that the judge offered to expand the definition of ‘religious discrimination’ that may be invoked by others in the future in similar cases:

• The belief must be genuinely held.

• It must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available.

• It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.

• It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

• It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Humanism was given as an example meeting the criteria, while belief in a political party or the supreme nature of Jedi knights, from the Star Wars movies, were offered as ones that do not.

The general response to this ruling has been positive, with some lawyers seeing it as opening the door to the re-classification of stances like feminism, humanism and vegetarianism as protected religious beliefs. Even New Atheism might count!

I completely disagree with the ruling and the sentiment informing it. In fact, I published a letter in the Guardian the next day, which said:

Justice Burton’s ruling in favour of a green activist whose beliefs interfered with his job has the potential for becoming an epistemological nightmare. In particular, by raising what were previously treated as ‘political’ and ‘lifestyle’ choices to the status of ‘genuinely held beliefs’, the ruling effectively creates an incentive to be dogmatic in one’s opinions, simply in order to avoid forms of social intercourse that one finds disagreeable. After all, evidence of a changed mind is all that would be needed to lose one the protection afforded by the ruling.

A potential practical consequence of this ruling is complete social and political gridlock. It reminds me of Article 118 of the old Weimar Constitution, the first half of which reads as follows:

Every German is entitled, within the bounds set by general law, to express his opinion freely in word, writing, print, image or otherwise. No job contract may obstruct him in the exercise of this right; nobody may put him at a disadvantage if he makes use of this right.

What’s gone wrong here? Part of the answer lies in how ‘free individuals’ is conceptualised. The Weimar Constitution began with a majority principle based on the idea of a ‘German people’ whose common values uphold the constitution. One of those values, of course, is freedom of expression. But to enforce that freedom, the constitution then needs to allow for ‘minority rights’, whereby individuals with deeply held beliefs are allowed opt-out clauses from certain aspects of normal social life that inhibit their expression; otherwise, the majority principle would prove oppressive. Hans Kelsen, one of the great legal minds behind the Weimar Constitution, justifies all this (though without quite seeing its practical consequences) in On the Essence and Value of Democracy (1929).

In the Weimar period, ‘minority rights’ were normally understood in ethnic terms but of course this was also the time when feminism, vegetarianism, etc. start to be recognized as ‘identity politics’. In any case, the pernicious long-term consequence of this way of thinking about freedom of expression is that it encourages a hardening of one’s sense of identity in order to gain personal and political leverage. Of course, in the case of ethnic identity, such a move can be easily turned against oneself – as the Nazis showed all too well.

My own view is that liberal democratic societies should discourage the formation of strong identities – be they around blood or belief – otherwise they will end up undermining their own principles.

November 03, 2009

When scientists lose touch…the case of David Nutt

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If a scientist – or any academic – were fired whenever she said something that her peers regarded as false, then scientists would hardly ever say anything at all, out of fear of rejection. As it happens, science’s own peer review process already induces a certain measure of timidity, but tenured scientists (admittedly a dying breed) can remain gainfully employed while rejected by colleagues. All of this is important to science because free and open inquiry is the only way knowledge truly progresses.

Politics is something else entirely. Politicians are directly affected by the consequences of their decisions. In fact, that is the whole point of politics, especially in a democracy, where politicians don’t exist apart from those they govern. If people don’t like a policy, no matter how well-thought out or well-evidenced it is, then the policy goes and the politicians pay. This explains the long tradition of scientists advising politicians but staying away from actually making policy.

David Nutt, recently departed chair of the current Labour government’s drugs council, has long argued strenuously and colourfully for the declassification of narcotics like ecstasy and cannabis. The scientific side of the argument is quite strong though given the taboos and mysteries that surround ordinary drug use, there is always room to doubt the reliability of what we know. In any case, Nutt is paid to be a scientist not a politician. Once Nutt learned that the government would not implement his position, given how strongly he apparently feel about the matter, he should have simply resigned. And if he wants to get closer to politics, he can still sell his services to a more sympathetic party (Liberal Democrats?) or start a political action committee.

What amazes me is that Nutt had to wait to be fired. Why didn’t he just resign in protest? This is certainly not an unheard of option in the current Labour government! Inasmuch as I am inclined to agree with Nutt’s substantive position on drugs, I find his behaviour incredibly clueless. He clearly doesn’t understand the relationship between science and politics in a democracy. Politicians don’t ask scientists for advice because they want the scientists to rule on their behalf. Scientists are asked more in the spirit of a special interest group, albeit one with considerable mystique, rather like the church. Just as politicians would ideally like to have the church on their side, so too they would like to have the scientific community. However, politicians need to keep a lot of interests and prospects in balance, since in the end it is all about winning elections. And neither the clerics nor the scientists need to face the electorate. It’s as simple as that.

What is perhaps most striking about this episode is the demonstration of political backbone by the Home Office in standing down a formidable and noisy scientific advocate like Professor Nutt. This is a good sign that science is becoming normalised in democratic politics. I also suspect that politicians are becoming more informed about the sociology of science, which teaches not only that uncertainty is always present in science but also that the overall weight of scientific opinion can shift drastically with the appearance of a few well-supported studies. Imagine if Nutt got his way, and then as a conscientious scientist he was forced to change his mind six months later in light of new evidence, and then government policy changed alongside it. It’s hard to see how science’s - or for that matter, the government's - public standing would become stronger in the process.

November 2009

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