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The poststructuralist impulse, insofar as it had any unity, was, as I understand it, all about denying the possibility of coherence and stable meaning in a text. Contrary to a modernist impulse to believe that a text “speaks for itself”, poststructuralists in general, and Derrida especially, denied that any text could have a stable meaning. Every word, every phrase, every sentence: they can only be understood in their relation to other words, phrases, and sentences, whose meaning only makes sense in relation to others, and so on and so forth, in a never-ending chain of difference or deferral (or Différance). I wonder if this critique has largely ended the traditional humanities’ interest in training students in the interpretation of text.
I also wonder if this leads to the problem that most people these days can’t interpret texts for shit.
They just assume that text “speaks for itself” as they apply their own interpretations in their attempt to understand them. The unexamined operations of interpretation are confused with the supposed plain meaning of the text.
This is the problematic misunderstanding of interpretation underpinning the very idea that the most reliable and accurate source of information is a document dump. Julian Assange pioneered this problematic belief with what he termed “scientific journalism“:
Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.” Because Assange publishes his source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative.
Assange here conflates the “data” of scientific publication with “source material”. They are not the same thing. “Data” is what appears in the source material of scientific research once very strict rules of interpretation have been accepted and adhered to. The strictest rules of interpretation would be the rules governing mathematical language. 1 + 1 = 3 is always going to be interpreted as “wrong” here, and rejected by anyone with a modicum of knowledge about arithmetic. The rules of interpretation for plain language are far more flexible, far more ambiguous, and it is often far, far harder to conclude which particular set of rules should apply to a particular piece of language. The upshot of this is that providing source material is no guarantee of protection against misinformation. All it requires is the introduction of a particular interpretation (a “spin” or “framing” of the source documents) in order to misinform. And this is exactly what Wikileaks does.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has described the process:
WikiLeaks seems to have a playbook for its disinformation campaigns. The first step is to dump many documents at once — rather than allowing journalists to scrutinize them and absorb their significance before publication. The second step is to sensationalize the material with misleading news releases and tweets. The third step is to sit back and watch as the news media unwittingly promotes the WikiLeaks agenda under the auspices of independent reporting.
So the solution is to just read the documents themselves, ignoring whatever “speculative” analysis Wikileaks adds? I don’t think so, no. See, the poststructuralists had a point when they said that there is no underpinning essence of meaning in a text. Texts flat out do not speak for themselves: interpretation is necessary, and this is itself an unstable process, with no essential key. Their restriction of analysis just to text led to a dead end, though, from which I think the humanities are still struggling to recover. One attempt to recover from it draws a little from pragmatism. In this approach, texts in themselves may provide no inherent meaning, but text, if related to empirical activity and human action, can be made to convey stable meaning. Mathematical language is perhaps the best example of this success, but it is a poor model for everyday language, and everyday language should not be modeled on mathematical or other scientific language, as Assange wrongly wants to do.
Here are a few of the interpretive issues that prevent document dumps from being a reliable source of information:
- Intent is really hard to infer. Mathematical and scientific language gets around this by purging intent from permitted language altogether. This is not going to work in ordinary language, where the intent of the writer is often the main thing the reader is interested in. But without clear linguistic markers indicating intent, intent is flat out unknowable. And speaking of “linguistic markers”…
- Context is everything. This is true for even mathematical and scientific language. True, “1” and “10” can stand on their own pretty well (though if you thought the second example was “ten”, it’s actually in binary notation and represents “two”, HA!), but any entry into empirical science immediately raises the question “1 of what? 10 of what?” The International System of Units is a global agreement by which the relationship between mathematical measures and empirical reality are universally standardised (even while the US insists on using the old imperial measurements for too many things). In everyday language, the relationship between concepts and reality is highly, highly variable. An attempt to standardise the relationship appears to have led the philosopher Wittgenstein to conclude that the very nature of ordinary language makes such universal standardisation impossible. Quoting from the linked Stanford Philosophy page, Wittgenstein claimed “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”. Unless a word’s meaning is made consistent (and consequently restricted in that consistent usage to a specialised context, such as scientific language), its use, and consequently its meaning, will vary. The specific meaning, therefore, depends on the specific context. How to determine the context? Well..
- For document dumps, most if not all of the context is missing. If there is an email in a document dump discussing something, what non-email discussions occurred prior to and subsequent to the composition and sending of that email? Every conversation, every interaction, potentially relates to every other. Scientific language, again, tries to standardise this, through the use of referencing. Everyday language does not, and should not. What’s the point of in-jokes, which depend on a secret knowledge of a shared prior context, if the context is required to be explicitly explained each and every time? An upshot of this lack of context is that entirely innocent conversations can, without knowledge of the prior context, look decidedly odd. There is an entire conspiracy theory, known as “Pizzagate”, which started from confusion about why John Podesta, a high-level member of the US Democratic Party, and his friends, talked a lot about pizza in emails. Somehow people got the idea that “cheese pizza” was code for “child pornography”, and suddenly a whole host of other innocent connections became interpreted as nefarious.
Zeynep Tufekci has also previously made the argument that releasing private information, without regard for its relevance to the public interest, actually constitutes a form of censorship:
Once, censorship worked by blocking crucial pieces of information. In this era of information overload, censorship works by drowning us in too much undifferentiated information, crippling our ability to focus.
I think Tufekci’s argument here is still too tied to a model of document dumps as raw information provision. The tendency in our “informational” era is to view more information as a good thing, despite the occasional complaints about “information overload”. Provision of documents (“information”), though, is not the same thing as provision of meaningful information. Document dumps presume that meaning exists in documents themselves. As the poststructuralists rightly recognised, it does not. But the ability to impute meaning to a document constitutes a source of great power in the Information Age. An entity that can convince others of the context and intent of particular documents, confident that others who view the documents will be literally unable to determine context and intent from the documents themselves, will be well placed to forward disinformation (or rather, “disinterpretations”), quite effectively.
If understood as statements about what is true or false, Donald Trump’s public statements often appear confusing or simply ridiculous. The practice of his communication is not the academically valued one of persuasion through rational argument, though. His statements are much more readily understood as what Aristotle described as “sophisms”. Trump has returned an ancient and power-derived rhetorical practice to the mainstream, one which the truth-derived practice of Western philosophy has long opposed and sought to cast out. That this sophistical practice is now commonplace for someone in a key Western political position is deeply disturbing to the entire project of modernity.
I am relying on this assessment very heavily on Foucault’s (2013) interpretation and extension of what Aristotle wrote about sophisms. Sophisms are statements that, according to Aristotle, have the semblance of reasoning but are not actual reasoning. A specific examples he lists in Sophistic Refutations (cited on p. 45) is “Socrates is white; white is a color; therefore Socrates is a color”. Foucault interprets this further, asserting that, for Aristotle, ‘the sophism is not a defective category of reasoning, it is not reasoning at all’ (p. 44). Foucault’s own extension to Aristotle’s work, regarded by Foucault as inadequate in Aristotle’s own writings, is to more fully express what a sophism is, and how it differs from philosophical reasoning.
Foucault argues that the sophism is distinct from the traditional understanding of reason (the syllogism). In traditional rational discourse, words signify what is meant. But the sophism ‘does not take place in the dimension in which words are signs’ (p. 43). Rather, what is at stake is the ‘materiality’ of discourse. In effect, statements are not judged by what they should (univocally) mean, but by the very conditions of words themselves, their scarcity in particular. Because there is a finitude of words but an infinitude of things, words can have multiple meanings. And a sophism arises when ‘someone..makes use of the same word, the same name, the same expression in order to say two different things, such that he [sic] says two things in the very same thing said’ (p. 44).
Here is a practical example, in the form of a Presidential tweet:
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
In terms of propositional logic, it is unclear whether Trump just admitted to taping his conversations with Comey or not: did he or didn’t he? But this is not a proposition. It is a sophism, and no such distinction need be made. Trump’s statement here can readily be used either way at will. This is a further difference between rational discourse and sophism: in rational discourse language has meaning first and foremost; in sophistical discourse, language first and foremost has uses.
The meaning of this statement is therefore secondary to how it might be used. Depending on how it might be used, it could mean that Trump taped the conversations. Or it could mean that he didn’t. Or it could mean that somebody else did. Or might have. There is no set, “real” meaning, until this material utterance is put to use.
In terms of how a sophism could be “put to use”, Foucault notes a number of aspects that arise out of the “materiality” of discourse, that differ from traditional, “syllogistic” reasoning:
- Where a syllogism relies on agreed premises between communicators, a sophism relies only on the materiality of what has actually been said (i.e., the words themselves)
- Where a syllogism is constrained by the possibilities of logical validity, a sophism draws on any previous statements said, which is potentially all that have ever been said
- Where a syllogism works with concepts, represented by words, a syllogism works entirely with words
- Where the syllogism produces ‘an effect of truth’ through ‘agreement’ between two communicators, the sophism produces ‘an effect of victory’, when one interlocutor ‘can no longer speak without contradicting himself [sic]’. (p. 47)
Trump later “clarified” his earlier Tweet about the Comey tapes:
With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
…whether there are “tapes” or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
The statement is secondarily a proposition about whether Trump actually recorded his conversations with Comey or not. Rather, the fact that others were using this previous statement to create possible legal problems for the President prompted him to strategically cut off the linguistic basis of such assertions. But he also strategically retained the suggestion that such tapes may or may not exist, and further reinforced previous utterances strategically positioning him as being attacked unfairly through ‘surveillance’ and other unethical and illegal means.
Trump’s utterances should be viewed not as part of a rational debate, in which seeking the truth matters, but as part of a power-play, in which the victor is whoever can make the other unable to speak without getting exposed as caught in a contradiction. Note: not ‘making a contradictory argument’, which presupposes rationality, but getting exposed as caught in one, which, ironically, means that sophisms are the only strategy that can be pursued, thanks to their inherent multiple meaning.
Western modernity was founded on the presumption, going back as far as Kevin Bacon and Rene Descartes, that there is a singular truth, that it is possible to reach this truth once error has been eliminated, and that this will improve the condition of humanity once it is reached, or at least sought. A major Western political figure now routinely makes use of a rhetorical practice in which truth is secondary to rhetorical victory. Where does this leave the value of truth in modernity?
I probably shouldn’t go off my main subject like this, not least on a topic that attracts more irate drive-by commenting than any other topic I know, but it’s turned out to be a day of looking at scientific claims with a skeptical eye, so….
As widely reported in the Australian media, Maurice Newman, Tony Abbott’s chief business advisor wrote an op-ed in The Australian claiming that the whole idea of climate change is being put forward by the UN in order to subvert capitalism, freedom and democracy (and possibly Mom and Apple Pie as well). He’s received a lot of well-deserved mockery online. The premise itself is laughable on its face. Is it really worth it to actually look over the specific claims he’s making?
I do have an unfortunate tendency to try and do that, and I did indeed make the attempt. Right here and now, I’m not going to go over every claim. I’m very wary of succumbing to what some opponents of pseudo-science call the Gish Gallop, a debating tactic relying on overwhelming your opponent with a mountain of apparent “facts”, all quick and easy to present but difficult and time-consuming to debunk. There are quite a few such “facts” in Newman’s op-ed. I’m just going to focus on one, as it’s highly revealing about a number of things.
Newman wrote the following:
Make no mistake, climate change is a must-win battlefield for authoritarians and fellow travellers. As Timothy Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, says: “Even if the (climate change) theory is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.”
The interesting thing about this alleged quote from Timothy Wirth is that Newman provided no source, just like he failed to do for every other “fact” he wrote (a very useful tactic in the Gish Gallop). The first impulse from a 21st century citizen when confronted with a questionable claim – Google it – turns up a mountain of hits for this alleged quote. Every single one of the results in the first 3 pages is either a site dedicated to climate “skepticism” (the very reason they come up in Google is the reason the scare-quotes are well-deserved), or a site oriented to showing why everything remotely left-wing is evil incarnate (I’d call them “right wing sites”, but I’ve met enough sane right-wingers not to generalise these hate-sites as representative of the entire political right, so I’ll call them by a slightly more accurate name of “anti-leftists”). Not a single site that I looked at provided any attribution for this quote
This shows two things. First, Newman almost certainly learned of this alleged quotation from one of these sites. Second, Newman is not a skeptic. He made no attempt to check the validity of this quote, but believed it anyway.
What is skepticism? It doesn’t mean flat-out refusing to believe something even when there’s evidence that it’s occurring (such as there as with anthropegenic climate change). It also doesn’t mean automatically refusing to actually look for evidence in favour of a position when the evidence is lacking. A skeptic should still be willing to change their mind in the face of convincing evidence. So I was skeptical of the validity of this alleged Wirth quote, but I continued to look for evidence of its veracity.
Interestingly, the most fruitful line of pursuit came from Wikipedia, but not from a Wikipedia article. Timothy Wirth is a public figure, so he has a Wikipedia page. The alleged quote doesn’t appear there, which by itself doesn’t say much. However, once you flip to the Talk page, things get interesting.
In her latest work, danah boyd directly confronts the issue of contemporary American teens using Wikipedia for school-work. Against the conventional practice of overtly or covertly encouraging students to avoid it, she makes the interesting claim that the real value of Wikipedia as a learning tool is on the Talk page. There, she says, you can trace the very process of knowledge production as it occurred. In the case of Timothy Wirth, the Talk page suggests that the alleged quote was present at one point but got removed, with the explanation that there was no primary source provided. You can see, further, attempts to find that primary source, and specific details, not readily findable with a raw Google search, emerging in the process of trying to justify its inclusion on Wirth’s Wikipedia page.
It may come as no surprise that the findings on the Talk page so far strongly indicate that the quote, if valid, has been manged. While Newman’s article strongly implies that the “economic and environmental policy” at issue has something to do with “authoritarians and their fellow travellers”, an alternate version, quoted in an article from Real Clear Politics, narrows the focus down merely to energy policy:
Sen. Timothy E. Wirth, D-Colo., said it in 1988, as the National Journal reported. “What we’ve got to do in energy conservation is (to) try to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, to have approached global warming as if it is real means energy conservation, so we will be doing the right thing anyway in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.”
We finally have an alleged primary source: National Journal, 1988. Sadly, these archives don’t appear to be online in a readily-accessible form, although further info from the Talk page suggests that the title of the National Journal article in question is “Less Burning, No Tears”. A Google Scholar on this title is somewhat fruitful.
There is a citation to this National Journal artice in the peer-reviewed journal “energy and environment”. In a journal article critiquing the merits of focusing on energy policy as the primary means of addressing climate change, the authors quote Senator Timothy Wirth as saying the following:
What we’ve got to do in energy conservation is try to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, to have approached global warming as if it is real means energy conservation, so we will be doing the right thing anyway in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.
The quote, in that form, does appear to be accurate. The journal article quoting it describes it as an example of the belief that the best way to address global warming is through energy policy (although I think best practice would have been to cite it as “cited in Stansfield 1988: it’s not a direct quote from Stansfield). It doesn’t delve into the issue raised by the quote about whether or not it’s pragmatic to go ahead with changing energy policy as if global warming was occurring even in the face of possibly uncertainty about it’s reality.
There’s certainly a pragmatic argument to be made about what’s best to do in the face of available scientific evidence, and that’s not a scientific question about what is actually occurring. It takes a lot to get from there to the routine trotting out of this quote as some sort of proof of a hidden agenda behind the claims about what actually is happening to the climate, though. I thought it was pretty conventional wisdom in philosophical and scientific circles that is and ought questions are of two different orders.
Also important, particularly, for Newman’s conspiracy claims about the UN, is that Newman describes the (mangled) quote from Timothy Wirth as coming from the “president of the UN Foundation”. But Wirth held no position at the UN when this quote most likely appeared, in 1988. He was a US Senator, nothing more. Did Newman bother to check this? I think we all know the answer to that question.
In terms of the contemporary politics of knowledge, I think this demonstrates pretty well that the use of the term “skeptic” is extremely inappropriate when applied to climate change deniers like Maurice Newman. Skepticism would entail an equitable evaluation of evidence, not a one-sided credulity towards the supposed meaning of mangled and misinterpreted quotations. Such deniers do not deserve the “skeptic” label they have misappropriated for themselves.
In terms of the politics of knowledge of Wikipedia, it suggests that Wikipedia can actually be a pretty good filter for reliable information, if the quality of discussion on a Talk page is good: better than Google in this case. Also, danah boyd may be right.
In terms of the general politics of knowledge online, this seems like a very good example of the echo chamber effect, and an intriguing case study in what happens when someone who was stuck in that echo chamber, like Newman apparently was, dares to venture outside of it. Look like Australia’s general interest intermediaries are still doing their job. For now.
In what may be the fastest back-pedal in Australian political history, a Coalition policy document claiming that mobile phone providers and Internet service providers in Australia would be required to install Internet filtering software on phones and modems, switched on by default, has been disowned by both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Both have insisted that the problem was one of unclear communication, that the alleged claim that the Coalition had any plans for mandatory opt-out internet filtering was down to nothing more than a “poorly worded sentence”, and that the Coalition does not, and never did have, a policy of mandatory, opt-out internet filtering.
There was really nothing “poorly worded” about it, nor was it just one sentence. In multiple parts of the policy document, statements are made that cannot be interpreted as anything other than a requirement for Australian phone providers and ISPs to install blocking software on consumer devices. The ALP, sensing blood in the water, have ever-so-helpfully placed key sentences from the abstract on their own website now that the document’s been taken off the website of the Liberal party. I’ve reproduced their picture of the relevant part of the policy abstract below:
It’s not exactly unclear.
And if that isn’t clear enough, here’s my own snapshot of a section, further down in the document, with further relevant highlights:
Just in case it still isn’t clear if this filter is mandatory, be sure to read that last bit about “all new home broadband services”.And if that isn’t clear enough, the document repeatedly says that the proposed filtering system is modeled on the filtering system in the UK. In the UK, ISPs are required to give all citizens filtered internet connections unless they explicitly opt out.
The claim from Turnbull and Abbott now is that the Coalition policy has always been to encourage, but not require, mobile phone and internet service providers to offer internet filtering options to consumers; anything that suggests to the contrary is simply down to a “lack of clarity”, or a policy being “poorly worded”. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to square such a line with what the evidence plainly shows. This policy advocated that filtering software be placed on all mobile phones sold and modems installed in Australia, and that the filter would be on by default unless the customer explicitly requested to opt out (and requiring they actively prove they are not a child in order to have that request granted). That policy has now been reversed.
The policy itself, “The Coalition’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children”, doesn’t appear to have originated from Malcolm Turnbull’s office. Indeed, I suspect that the media interest in it may have been the first time he became aware of it. The first official media quote from a Coalition spokesman – which said mandatory opt-out filtering was Coalition policy – came from Liberal MP Paul Fletcher. The Age describes Fletcher as the chairman of the Coalitions’ online safety working group, and a backbencher. Most likely, the idea of internet filtering was floated as policy by that working group. Possibly someone should have taken the time to run that by the Minister of Communication first. A messy conflict of goals might have been avoided, and the embarrassing revisionism about what official Coalition policy was, as outlined in an official Coalition policy document, wouldn’t now be occurring..
I mean, I can understand party- internal policy disagreement. We’ve had a Labor government for the past six years, after all. But let’s not go around pretending that a now-disowned policy document didn’t say exactly what it damn well said.
As I expected, the meeting between Erdogan and “representatives of the protestors” has drawn criticism for allegedly not actually meeting with people who represent the protestors:
Those in the park and Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group seen as most representative of the protesters, said the group that had met Mr Erdogan did not speak for them.
The Turkish government has also apparently floated the idea of a referendum on whether development at Gezi Park should go ahead. At this time there is no indication when such a referendum might go ahead. But that’s not the main problem with the suggestion.
I don’t like how the referendum offer is being reported as a “concession” to the protestors. That would imply that holding a referendum would actually address the core issue driving the protests. It doesn’t. The original protest against redevelopment of Gezi Park was actually quite small. It was only when that protest was dispersed with disproportionate force that protesting started en masse.
The current protests’ momentum stemmed from the Turkish government’s mistreatment of a small, harmless protest. It is not about what does or doesn’t happen at Gezi Park, not anymore. Describing the referendum offer as a “concession” is to buy into the Turkish government spin. It’s a way to avoid discussing serious problems about the current Turkish government’s attitude to freedom of speech and of assembly that the current, ongoing crackdown has brought to light.