Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Voice(s) of (Misinterpreted) Reason

A number of weeks back, my older sister forwarded me this article, describing a recent study examining the impact of a forum of reader comments on how other readers perceive, interpret, and ultimately assess digital media articles on science and technology; essentially, the group seeks to further understanding of how new media tools in journalism, knowledge exchange, and dialogue impact scientific literacy. Using an objectively written article describing and outlining general uses for nanotechnology as the fundamental piece, the investigators added a string of realistic, but fabricated reader comments; one group of tested readers saw what was described as "civil comments and the second "uncivil" comments. Curiously, it is unclear, at least from this overview, how cogent the experimental comments were, how comparable with regard to diction and syntax, and so forth, details that interest me greatly. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the research indicated that the tone of the comments sculpted and influenced reader perception of the information, regardless of prerequisite "knowledge of science"; again, for a more critical assessment, I am curious as to how this was measured and to what level of rigor and accuracy. 

Though the details provided in the overview are scant, the broad findings reported quite general, and the numbers within the study itself surely small, the implications therein for the evolution of journalism, reporting, and the digital community are vast. In this ever-shifting semiotic milieu, an already textured and complicated concept, that of context, both real and constructed, has new dimensions. The paradigm of triangular-interface, author-text-reader, becomes author-text-reader-reader dialogue, which can be further skewed or distorted, in the very literal senses of those words, through the lens of a community manager. So, not only is the reader ingesting and processing and reassembling pieces of information from an author, who may or may not be reporting accurately about a specific subject, scientific or otherwise, the reader also sifts through a deluge of possibly provocative or compelling or wrong or insightful comments, potentially drawing from only the primary article to which they are appended, but likely pulling in pieces from the mind and experience of their authors. This exchange is then, at least on a predominance of popular and reputed media outlets, facilitated, shepherded, and refereed by a community manager, whose own perceptions and experiences will ultimately and invariably impact how the discussion is mediated. 

Theoretically, the democratization of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, and of discourse concerning that knowledge is fascinating and welcome; realistically, and as a staunch proponent of freedom of speech, of discourse, of exchange it is painful to admit, it can be a frightening prospect. In a landscape where certain basic principles of science are still continually questioned, after decades of evidence collected and verified with controlled process, or, worse, denied and refuted with wanton rhetoric or with obstinacy, where education values are often institutionalized and mass-manufactured in a single-size approach, where a genuine inquisitive nature in the natural and scientific world can be unfairly squashed or suffocated, further leverage for uninformed, or misunderstood, or misinterpreted, voices can be significant. 

This research is soon to be published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and, obviously, for a more comprehensive and authentic response to some of these thoughts, I need to start there. In the interim, I briefly broach some related points that may be discussed in this particular paper, or perhaps should, and warrant some type of independent literature research on my end: whether the mediation of a computer or other technological device was significant, other than as a tool whereby these conversations are already playing out; in other words, does this study perhaps say more about powers of independent thinking, syntheses, analyses, and reasoning of those who participated? And to what extent are those participants representative of this particular society, or other separate societies experiencing parallel quandaries in scientific literacy, communication, and new media? In light of this type of research, then, what are the viable solutions that neither quell freedom of speech but can potentially effectively moderate exchange in particular forums? Are such solutions necessary, or is this a challenge each man and woman should acknowledge, and embark upon, for themselves?

(image taken from This Is The House That Lars Built)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day. In this endlessly fascinating and intricate time of relative easy access to seemingly infinite amounts of information, at least for those in socioeconomically established nations with reasonable political freedom, information in the sciences, in philosophy, in art, in literature, a time when exchange of knowledge has never before been so immediate nor so textured, yet the central tenet of biology remains brutally and incredulously attacked, it is not only fitting to commemorate this day, it is critical. Despite the volumes of sound scientific evidence, compiled and synthesized according to rational and controlled observation and process, and despite the vehemence of the science community and its advocates, the theory of evolution and its vehicle natural selection, its plausible and predominant mechanism, remain packaged and contextualized as objects of contentious debate in the sociopolitical and cultural media-arenas. The frequency with which I see not only vitriolic and uninformed strikes against the basic, elegant, and accepted biologic phenomenon, but basic explanations or cursory details ignorantly misconstrued in purportedly reputable media sources, is unacceptable, appalling, and frightening.

At an admittedly embarrassing pace, I have been reading Consilience, by famed sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. Born and raised in a rural and incredibly Baptist southern town in Alabama, in a section I read the other morning, he gives little pause to design by an intelligent deity, the contending theoretical foe to evolution, and some of his reasoning and prose is both frank and glib. Essentially, he argues, the God of Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the God who so many in my country proclaim designed this world and all in it a few thousand or so years ago, is mysterious and awesome and powerful, sometimes angry, sometimes merciful, but never tricky. If, for those who read the text absolutely literally and refuse to conceive the narrative as possible allegory, this God wanted humanity to believe that they were designed specifically in his image and the world shaped in only seven days, it seems unnecessary and strange that he should imbue this world with an exorbitant about of information and clues to confound that creation story, and that support biological evolution and Darwinian natural selection. It would be surprising, in the least, if evolution and all the data collected to support the theory were a whimsical prank.

I have heard, from other texts and other sources, the contrary argument, that such solid data and evidence were placed here specifically to serve as tests of faith. I, and Dr. Wilson likely as well, would argue that if this were so, this test is so holistic, so intrinsic to every aspect of how every living organism interacts with other living organisms, how every unit of biochemical reaction interacts, based on what has been observed and understood for decades and generations, that it is impossible to dissect from our physical realm. It would be the perfect test, too perfect for the perceptions and the reasoning of the human mind; a test designed such that we could, based on our senses and our conscious interpretation, we could only fail. So, a test rigged and dishonest.

The image of the tree of life carries significant phylogenetic meaning and symbolic mythology. This particular tree was designed in the nineteenth century by prolific biologist and taxonomist, and artist, Ernst Haeckel. The illustration is strong, steadfast, true, and it is beautiful. Its branches may be sheared, and its trunk may be hacked, by ignorance blissful or chosen, but the tree will continue to stand.

(image taken from Brain Pickings)


I have been writing since I could first hold a pencil, or a crayon, or a pen, or whatever effective implement was closest at that moment. Poems, nonsensical song lyrics, short stories with personified rabbits as characters. I have been writing about science, mostly medicine, professionally for the past four or so years; meanwhile, I have been writing various personal projects on digital platforms, at least extensively, for the past five years. Over the past number of months, more now than I can quickly tally, I have been frustrated. Frustrated with my own lack of creative output, something that has become a comfortably stagnant inertia, frustrated with the lack of intellectual engagement with some of my current professional projects, and frustrated with, at the most general, issues of scientific dialogue, knowledge exchange, and the media. How both new research, and established scientific theory, are contextualized in contemporary culture and the ramifications of these contexts, both subtle and significant.

These plaguing frustrations are not completely mutually exclusive nor completely overlapping, but they are importantly interconnected in that these areas are how I spend my time and how I exert, or wish to exert, my neural capacity. And lately, I am not satisfied. I procrastinate, I indulge in the decaying and the mundane; in many ways, allow a sort of mental stagnation to soothe and numb me. Or, perhaps worse, allow a near incessant stream of inner monologue commentary on these very frustrations go neglected or forgotten. Taking the proverbial grab-my-own-bootstraps-approach has, in past experience, been most successful in shaping my circumstance and my own sense of fulfillment; waiting for fate often leaves much to be desired. Simply, I need to write, and to commit thoughts into organized writing, more, and not merely to earn my salary.

So, the creation of a new project for myself, one to hopefully satiate those near carnal needs to create, to write, to interface intimately with issues of import, whether they be viral or arcane. My plan is to document thoughts, feelings, rants, theses on my passions, science, the arts, hauntology, evolution, nostalgia, the future, semiotics, and the points at which these passions intersect, in a longer, hopefully more coherent and organized, format. A place for consilient synthesis between the left and the right. Writing with the purpose of both processing and supplying analysis, and perhaps even some interesting meaning. Not to supersede or serve as substitute to other creative works, such as my prose poems, my idle discussions of a story book for children, my fiction, but, ideally, to complement them, fortify them, infuse them with nuance or added dimension. While all of my writing projects are primarily for my own sanity and thriving life-force, the opportunity to share and to potentially foster discussion is always exhilarating; thus, a public and open forum.  Welcome.

(image taken from Art Duh)