Category Archives: Soapbox

Knowledge is power

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

“The list of things that I believe is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite.  Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain evidence that would support anyone of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs.  I believe too much, there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life is too short.”

These words are a direct quote from the opening paragraph of an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985. He goes on to argue that we can have good reasons for believing something if we have good reasons for believing that others have good reasons to believe it.  So, it is reasonable for a layperson to believe something that an expert also believes and that it is even rational to refuse to think for ourselves in these circumstances.  Because life is too short and there are too many other things to think about.

This implies a high level of trust in the expert as well as a concept of knowledge that is known by the community.  Someone somewhere has the evidence to support the knowledge.  For instance, as a professor, I am trusted by my students to provide them with knowledge for which I have the supporting evidence or I believe someone else has the evidence.  This trust is reinforced to a very small extent by replicating the evidence in practical classes.

More than 30 years ago, John Hardwig concluded his article by worrying about the extent to which wisdom is based on trust and the threat to “individual autonomy and responsibility, equality and democracy” posed by our dependence on others for knowledge.  Today, the internet has given us access to, if not infinite, virtually endless information.  Unfortunately, much of the information available is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, sometimes due to self-interest.  Our problem is sifting the facts from the fabrications; and identifying who are experts and can be trusted as sources of knowledge.  This appears to be leading to a crisis of trust in both experts and what constitutes the body of knowledge known by the community, which is threatening our democracies and undermining equality.

Source:

Hardwig J, Epistemic dependence, J. Philosophy, 82(7):335-349, 1985.

Wading in reflections

I have written before about Daniel Goleman’s analysis of leadership styles [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017]; to implement these styles, he identifies, four competencies you require: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.  Once again, I am involved in teaching helping people develop these competencies through our Science & Technology Leadership CPD programme for aspiring leaders in Research & Development [R&D].  As part of the module on Science Leadership and Ethics we have asked our delegates to write a short essay reflecting on the ethics of one or two real events and, either from experience or vicariously, on the leadership associated with them.  Our delegates find this challenging, especially the reflective aspect which is designed to induce them to think about their self, their feelings and their reactions to events.  They are technologists who are used to writing objectively in technical reports and the concept of writing about the inner workings of their mind is alien to them.

Apparently, the author Peter Carey compared writing to ‘wading in the flooded basement of my mind’ and, to stretch the analogy, I suspect that our delegates are worried about getting out of their depth or perhaps they haven’t found the stairs to the basement yet.  We try to help by providing a map in the form of the flowchart in the thumbnail together with the references below.  Nevertheless, this assignment remains an exercise that most undertake by standing at the top of the stairs with a weak flashlight and that few both get their feet wet and tell us what they find in the basement.

References:

A short guide to reflective writing, University of Birmingham, Library Services Academic Skills Centre, https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/skills/asc/documents/public/Short-Guide-Reflective-Writing.pdf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/intermediate2/english/folio/personal_reflective_essay/revision/1/

Sources:

Image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/589901251161855637/

Goleman D, Boyatzis R & McKee A, The new leaders: transforming the art of leadership into the science of results, London: Sphere, 2002.

Dickson A, Books do furnish a lie, FT Weekend, 18/19 August 2018.

Female writers from Sappho to today

A couple of weeks ago, after reviewing one of my posts, my editor commented that I was repeating myself because I had already written on the same topic in an earlier post.  I feel that is inevitable in a weekly blog which has an archive of more than three hundred posts – I am just not sufficiently creative to produce something original every week. Besides, maybe that’s not necessary.  Anyhow, today I am returning to a theme that I have written about previously: the Treasury at the Weston Library in Oxford.  It is a small museum with a rotating collection of treasures from the Bodleian Library, which until the end of February 2019 is on the topic of ‘Sappho to Suffrage: women who dared‘.  As you might expect from the title, the oldest treasure in the exhibition are fragments of a copy from the 2nd century AD of one of Sappho’s poems.  Sappho, who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos between 630 and 580 BC, is the first female writer known to Western civilisation.  Her work was almost lost – the fragments of papyrus on display were found on an ancient Eygptian rubbish dump.  Perhaps this is a good representation of men’s attitude to women’s writing because probably since Sappho, female writers have been neglected by publishers and male readers.  As Nilanjana Roy has reported, publishing houses submit more books by male writers for literary prizes and book reviews tend to highlight more books by men than by women.  In books written by women the gender of characters in evenly divided, whereas in those written by men, women only occupy between a quarter and third of the character-space and men tend to read books written by men.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that many men are lacking in understanding and social awareness of half the population.  Encouraged by my wife and daughters, this imbalance in my reading habits is being addressed by reading the books shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction each year during our summer holidays. I can recommend the 2018 winner ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie – it’s very topical, will make you think and pulls you along to its dramatic final page.  However, you should also read ‘When I hit you’ by Meena Kandasamy – it was both enlightening and shocking to me, and I was left wondering about the line between fiction and non-fiction.  I also really enjoyed last year’s winner: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman.

BTW – the thumbnail is a scan of postcard bought in the Weston Library showing a painting by their artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, who captured moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.

Source: Gender and genre: reading the world by Nilanjana Roy in the FT Weekend, Saturday 22 September 2018.

Previous posts featuring the Weston Library Treasury: ‘Pope and Austen‘ on September 9th, 2015, ‘Red Crane‘ on July 26th, 2017 and ‘Ramblings on equality‘ on October 11th, 2017.

Making things happen

Engineers make things happen and no one notices them when everything works reliably and smoothly.  You could replace engineers in that sentence by managers.  Managers are responsible for people and organisations while engineers are responsible for the systems that underpin modern life.  You can pair scientists and leaders in the same way.  Scientists discover new knowledge which sets a direction for the future of technology while leaders create a vision for their organisation which also sets the direction for the future.  Then engineers and managers turn the imagined futures into reality. Of course the divisions are fuzzy.  Some of us would be considered engineering scientists because we work at the interface between science and engineering.  And many engineers spend more time managing people and organisations than practising engineering.  However, the bottom-line is that engineers and managers are responsible for the functioning of modern society and deserve greater recognition for their successes; if only to ensure a continuous and diverse flow of talented young people into the professions.  So, here are two Liverpool engineers that have made the news recently for their contributions to engineering: Chris Sutcliffe who was awarded  a prestigious Silver Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering for his role in driving the development of metal 3D printed implants for use in human and veterinary surgery; and Kate Black who was named as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering for her work on the development of novel functional materials, using inkjet printing, for the manufacture of electronic and optoelectronic devices.

See ‘Happenstance, not engineering?‘ on November 9th, 2016 for an explanation of why people are quick to assign blame when things go wrong and slow to praise when things go well – it’s all about the relative number of sites in the brain capable of blame and praise.