Sunday, June 14, 2009

September 07, 2006 (2): It's Not What you Read but How you Read It!

Harlan Ellison used to go off on these great rants about how important it is that everyone read. He would stress that what you read was less important than the fact that you were reading. (He would say things like, "You can read comic books for all I care!") This made for wonderful rhetoric; but, like all rhetoric, it needs to be put in perspective. The recognition of the need to read with perspective is what stimulated me to begin my day with that quote from Joe Conason.

The fact is that reading, itself, is only a part of the story. Reading is only important to the extent that it cultivates our ability to read critically. So, while I am firmly opposed to censorship, I still recognize that there is a lot of reading matter out there that has been either maliciously designed to shape the reader's opinion or assumes a position of authority that is actually grounded in ignorance. If we lack the ability to read critically, we can be victimized by both classes of text.

I suppose the best example of the former category is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Again, going beyond all the rhetoric that has been spilled over this book, we may never know how many Jews died as a result of its publication and distribution; but, if ever there were a book "maliciously designed to shape the reader's opinion," it was this one! In this respect the Internet has probably served us very well by providing resources that expose this malice for what it is. Those resources include books, the cover of one being the lead illustration for this entry.

The thing about this first category, however, is how blatant is usually is. The second category tends to be more subtle and sometimes more insidious. Let me offer up a few examples:

  • In 1959 Oxford University Press published a book by Deryck Cooke entitled The Language of Music. Cooke was a reputable musicologist, if not a heavy hitter in the academic league. He is probably best known today for coming out with the first performing edition of all five movements of Mahler's tenth symphony (which, if nothing else, inspired others to take on this extremely challenging task). His public reputation, however, was primarily as a broadcaster and music critic; so there was no questioning his credentials for writing about music. Unfortunately, his credentials for writing about language, not to mention the more general nature of communication, were not as impressive, if they existed at all! As a result, the book came out with some really astonishing bloopers about language and communication. Now, in fairness to Cooke, linguistics, as we know it today, was somewhere between infancy and adolescence in 1959; but, in spite of the many reprintings of this book, Cooke never seemed to want to go to the trouble of reviewing his initial Preface and bringing into a more contemporary perspective (or, for that matter, explaining why he would not try to realign his position). So the book is still available in its initial form, and Oxford now touts it as "a modern classic!"
  • Now, to be fair to Cooke, I do not think that there was any "hidden agenda" behind his book. He wrote about things he knew and extrapolated speculatively from there. We may not even accuse him of being too lazy to subject his speculations to critical review. The very thought of such a review may never have occurred to him. On the other hand I do not feel I can be as generous when I examine Joseph Weizenbaum's 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. Weizenbaum will probably be best known as the author of Eliza, an astonishingly simple piece of software that could carry on a conversation with a human user, pretending to be a Rogerian therapist. (Rogers' approach to psychotherapy was that the therapist should allow the patient to keep talking, contributing as little as possible to the content but just encouraging the patient to say more.) Weizenbaum's reaction to Eliza's success was a horror equal to that of Victor Frankenstein's; and he went on an ethical crusade against writing software that might be dangerously "deceptive." One can even discern in the subtext the implication that some people were too irresponsible to be allowed to write software. Now, in light of some of the software that is out there today, such as viruses, Weizenbaum could have initiated an important conversation; but he was so blinded by what he felt was an affront to his personal ethics that the soundness of his arguments was compromised.
  • Roger Penrose, on the other hand, seems to have had a deep appreciation for sound argument, which may be one reason why he was awarded a Wolf Prize in 1988 (which he shared with Stephen Hawking). Unfortunately, Penrose then decided to shift his attention from mathematics to consciousness; and the result, which appeared in 1989, was The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. There was no doubting Penrose's understanding of the laws of physics or the mathematical theory behind the software that computers run. It was "the middle of the sandwich" that posed the problem. Indeed, Penrose's model of consciousness was so well crafted that it took one of the most reputable cognitive scientists (Aaron Sloman) a major exertion of effort to tease out the faulty reasoning in the book. Penrose's response was to write another book (Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness), which acknowledged that the logic of his first book had been challenged but never addressed the challenges!
  • This now brings us to the object of one of my own campaigns for critical reading: On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins. This is the first time I decided to compose my text as I read the book, but it was still easy to home in the the heart of the weakness of this book. Since Hawkins tended to substitute anecdote for the logic of argumentation, my task was far easier than Sloman's.
  • Now I find myself confronted with Ray Kurzweil and his book The Singularity is Near. In this case I have chosen to focus my critical thinking on the ways in which Kurzweil has chosen to apply his arguments to the nature of education. Nevertheless, this book emphasizes that the need to read critically is as important today as it was in 1959!
Needless to say, this was an "autobiographical" list. For better or worse, age allows you to look back on what you have read and recognize the claptrap in some (much?, most?) of it! Unlike Satie, however, I do not feel I can look back and say that I have seen nothing. Perhaps the problem is that I have seen too much: I may never be able to sort it all out, but I sure hope that I never lose the energy or the will to keep trying!

No comments:

Post a Comment