A Pro-Bono Offer To Teach Brett Stephens Some Epistemology

This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.

Greetings,
I’m a professor of philosophy of Brooklyn College and I’m writing to offer to teach epistemology (the study of knowledge) to Brett Stephens, your Op-Ed columnist. His last three essays (‘This Revolution Too, Will Eat It’s Children‘, ‘This I Believe About Blasey vs. Kavanaugh,’ ‘Believability is the Road to National Ruin‘) have shown an alarming ignorance of some basic principles of epistemology–the kind that we introduce to our beginner undergraduate students in elementary introductions to philosophy or in our elective epistemology class. (The study of epistemology goes back all the way to Plato and a firm grounding in its fundamentals is essential for any student, not just philosophy majors.)

To wit,  Mr. Stephens does not understand the relationship between beliefs and action. He does not understand the difference between belief and knowledge. He does not understand the difference between different epistemic standards employed in differing contexts–as such, he does not understand the difference between legal standards of belief and knowledge, and how they pertain to legal decisions, and ‘normal’ or other standards of belief and knowledge and how they apply in different contexts. These are elementary distinctions and everyone, especially every adult and every responsible citizen of a democratic republic, should be aware of them. It is entirely possible that Mr. Stephens has never taken a class in philosophy or epistemology and perhaps he has never been introduced to the notion of ‘epistemic standards’ and how these might vary across different ‘epistemic contexts.’ But that is no reason for him to remain ignorant of them.

Which is where my pro-bono offer to teach Mr. Stephens some basic epistemology comes in. I also teach philosophy of law, and would be happy to introduce Mr. Stephens to some basic jurisprudential debates about the nature of belief formation in legal contexts and how even within legal domains, there can be differing epistemic standards that generate varying epistemic contexts.

I write in the spirit of offering to perform my civic duty. Mr. Stephens has a prominent and powerful pulpit from which he can address the American people, and he is, as I am, concerned about the state of the American Republic. I believe, as I’m sure he does, that his writing would be improved if he did not trade in the sorts of elementary confusions that are on display in his writing. Mr. Stephens indicates in his pieces the need to keep an open mind; I appreciate that spirit, and in keeping with it, would like to help educate Mr. Stephens.

I do not have contact information for Mr. Stephens and would appreciate it if you could please forward this email to him. I can be reached at my work email address above. I look forward to hearing from him, given his avowed commitment to open inquiry and fair thinking.

best,
Professor Samir Chopra
Department of Philosophy
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210

 

Science And The Provision Of Existential Comfort

Stephen Asma offers a well-worn and reasonable defense of religious belief in The Stone–but ironically enough, in a plea for more tolerance, strikes a rather dogmatic note himself. The defense of religious belief and ritual is a familiar one: religion may be an opiate but it is an effective painkiller as a result. Asma offers us a story of a bereaved student and his family to illustrate the kind of tragic personal situation whose attendant pain can be palliated by religion:

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated….My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother…would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife….These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow….

Asma goes on:

[R]eligion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation….Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue….we need religion because it is a road-tested form of emotional management….No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy…..the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her….we can see why religion persists.

The italicized sections above are in tension with the overall tenor of Asma’s claims: they insist, seemingly as a matter of principle, of conceptual definition, that ‘scientific alleviation’ and ‘scientific explanation’ can provide no consoling, no comfort, whatsoever, in the face of this world’s relentless capacity to dish out inexplicable suffering to humans. But how can Asma claim, in the face of the diversity of the human condition, that scientific claims will provide no comfort at all to the afflicted, the bereaved, the suffering? Sometimes understanding the workings of disease may calm a terminally ill patient and those who love them; understanding the physical composition of the body and its relationship with the world of material forces may comfort both those who die and those who grieve for them; sometimes understanding the molecular basis of bodily pathology may ease the feeling of having being struck down by a malevolent curse. We need religion and science both to accommodate the diversity of the human condition; the knowledge science provides may too repel, in part, that terrible anxiety which underwrites our deepest fears.

Asma is right to try to make room for religion; but the catholic attitude he is calling for requires him to be open-minded about the role that science and scientific knowledge can play in providing humans existential and spiritual comfort. Not exclusively, of course. We are many; so are our solutions.

Brooklyn College’s Disrepair And The Attack On Public Education

Over the past two weeks, I’ve sent the following emails to my departmental faculty list, complaining about the state of classrooms at Brooklyn College. First on Thursday, September 7, I wrote:

Once again, this semester, I’m teaching in 4145 and 4219 Boylan. These classrooms are a disgrace. The air conditioner is so loud we cannot hear each other in class, and if you switch them off, you swelter. Yesterday, while teaching in 4145 Boylan, there was loud construction going on elsewhere in the building; no one knew what was going on. It took two phone calls to get someone to respond. That consumed 30 minutes of my class time. Meanwhile the airconditioner was not working at all, and my students and I were sweating profusely. This happens every semester in these classrooms. This is a ludicrous situation.

Then, yesterday, after further aggravation, I sent an angrier email:

In my initial email I had forgotten to make notice of 3150 Boylan. That classroom has destroyed my Social Philosophy class this semester; every class is hijacked by the noisy generators/cooling units outside; if you close the windows, you have to have the AC on; if you have the AC on, we can’t hear each other; if you open the doors and windows it’s too noisy. My students were walking out to get water, fanning themselves, talking to each other, complaining; and they were right.  Discussing Arendt’s critique of Marx seemed besides the point.

I refuse to teach in that classroom. Either Brooklyn College changes my classroom, or I’m not teaching. Or we can just meet there and hang out for 100 minutes if the college insists. But I won’t be teaching. If this college cannot provide working conditions that meet some minimum standards they should refund our students their tuition, and shut down this disgrace.

I’m so livid right now; every class of mine is an exercise in futility.

Meanwhile on September 12th, my colleague in the Sociology Department, Carolina Bank Munoz, wrote (on her Facebook page):

In 2016 Brooklyn College had a 5 million dollar budget cut, in 2017, 8 million, and now in fiscal 2018 we are facing a 10 million dollar cut. This is simply unsustainable. [New York state’s governor Andrew] Cuomo is literally killing CUNY. Yet undergrad enrollments are 25% higher than last year.

Brooklyn College’s state is quite typical of the institutions of public education in this city (public schools included)–that includes other colleges at the City University of New York, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse systems of college-level public education. Tuition continues to rise; administrator salaries continue to rise; the size and comfort of administrator offices grows; faculty share offices that are often equipped with printers that don’t have cartridges, but the place where the actual learning happens, where teachers and students meet continues to fall apart. The strategy being followed at CUNY is quite clear, has been for some time, and follows a pattern of declining public investment nationwide geared toward one goal: to make public education, like other public institutions, so broken, so unsustainable, that the only viable alternative will be their privatization, to be sold off to the highest bidding carpetbagger.

My options are limited: I’m reluctant to ask for an official room change for fear I will get a room that is worse–that might sound hard to believe but trust me, it’s possible; my class sizes–ranging from 25-30 students–is too large to allow the use of my office or the department lounge; and noise and commotion prevents the using of the school quad. I intend to escalate this confrontation by approaching the administration. I expect to be met with a shrugged shoulder and some muttering about ‘budgets.’

This is not the first time I’ve complained about CUNY classrooms. I did so last year following a New York Times article on the sad state of CUNY. Read my post–which also contains a rant about classrooms–and the New York Times article and weep if you care about public education and public institutions. My conclusion then is the same one I’ll draw today:

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.

 

Margaret Sullivan Won’t Miss Five Things About The NYT; Here Are Two More

Margaret Sullivan–“the media columnist for The Washington Post….former Public Editor of The New York Times“–lists the five things she won’t miss about the New York Times:

1. The inherent tension of the job. The whole concept of coming to work every day to handle complaints, and maybe to criticize work done at the next desk over, well . . .

2. New York Times Exceptionalism: The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing. In editorial matters, this manifests itself as, “It’s news when we say it’s news.” Examples: Initially underplaying the Panama Papers; not covering much of the early days of Chelsea Manning’s trial (she was then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning); assigning a reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election; not digging in early on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Excellent as it is, The Times is too often self-satisfied. If there’s a fatal flaw – as in Greek tragedy – this may be it.

This is a pretty damning indictment; one that is correct. Nothing else has made the Times look ‘out of touch,’ ‘not with it,’ than its slow-footed response to some of these times’ most important stories–too often, it is left chasing the leaders.

3. Defensiveness. Although The Times runs many corrections and has two staff people, including a senior editor, whose main job is correcting errors, it’s safe to say that many Times journalists find it hard to admit they got something wrong. In fact, what’s much more likely than any such admission is the tendency to double down.

Moreover, it’d be nice if the Times could be better at responding to correspondence that points out factual errors or conflicts of interest.

4. Articles that celebrate the excesses of the 1 percent

This could also have been titled ‘Articles That Provoke A Toxic Brew Of Uncontrolled Mirth And Homicidal Rage.’ Write on the rich and fatuous all you want; just read your copy back to yourself before you publish.

5. Articles or projects that seem to have “Prize Bait” stamped on them. The telltale signs: These pieces are very long, very elaborate, and clearly the product of many months of work. So far, so good. But they seem overwrought.

I can live with this last one.

Now, to add to Sullivan’s list, here are a pair of grouses:

  1. An appalling Op-Ed page, which continues to underwrite a cottage industry of satire and parody and just plain straight-up ridicule. Cluelessness, banality, sophistry, bromides; they are all here. It still remains unbelievable that the Times–with the platform and resources at its disposal–cannot put together a better crew here. (The Times grants ample space on its Op-Ed pages to ‘experts;’ it has no plans to be a Vox Pop even as it seems to work toward that standing through its comments sections.)
  2. Despite the pride the Times takes in its area staff, readers with a background in the regions being reported on often find the Times’ coverage superficial and uncritical. In some areas of coverage–like the Palestinian crisis in Israel or the fraught India-Pakistan relationship–the resultant skewed analysis is damnably poor.

CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.

 

‘A Manual For The Police On How To Conduct Beatings’

Leonard Strickland was beaten to death; in jail, by prison guards. Those who did so, and those who supervised them, were secure in the knowledge that very little would be, and could be, done to bring them to justice. History and the law is on their side.

In 1992, in one of Clarence Thomas‘ earliest cases on the Supreme Court, Hudson v. McMillian, Thomas found himself on the losing side in a 7-2 decision. Keith Hudson, an inmate who had suffered a vicious beating at Angola Prison, had filed suit in a federal court, claiming violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. He won $800 in damages as the judge found he had been beaten “maliciously, unnecessarily, and wantonly.” On appeal, the case had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the decision was “cautiously” affirmed with only Antonin Scalia and Thomas dissenting.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor distinguished this case from “those cases where deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s health is not a violation unless there is serious injury.” The relevant test was “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” (Note the ‘good faith’ exception.)

Thomas, in his dissent, claimed that “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’….The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation.” Thomas based his decision on: the culture and values of the eighteenth century, the history of the cruel and unusual punishment clause, the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying convention debates, and of course, the text of the Constitution. He noted the Supreme Court had, for a very long period in American history, rejected all “conditions of complaint ” claims and not held the cruel and unusual punishment clause relevant to prison conditions. He concluded that “Today’s expansion of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause beyond all bounds of history and precedent is…yet another manifestation of the pervasive view that the Federal Constitution must address all ills in our society….[including] any hardship that might befall a prisoner during incarceration.” Thomas went on to suggest that older cases affirming prisoners’ claims of beatings and torture should be overturned.

Scalia and Thomas lost, but they set the stage for what followed.

In 1996, thanks to extensive lobbying by William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who, though impatient with prisoners rights claims, for tactical reasons had earlier joined the Hudson v. McMillian majority, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, stating prisoners cannot recover damages under the cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause if there is “no permanent damage.” Prisoners cannot recover for pain and suffering even if the beating is “long, brutal, malicious, and wanton.” The Prison Litigation Reform Act was, as Martin Garbus claims, a “a manual for the police on how to conduct beatings and not get sued.”

The immorality and brutality of our prison system is scaffolded by our nation’s laws.

Note: This post is cribbed from Martin Garbus’ Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law, Henry Holt, New York, 2002, pp. 74-75.

On The Possible Advantages Of Robot Graders

Some very interesting news from the trenches about robot graders, which notes the ‘strong case against using robo-graders for assigning grades and test scores’ and then goes on to note:

But there’s another use for robo-graders — a role for them to play in which…they may not only be as good as humans, but better. In this role, the computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human.

Instructors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have been using a program called E-Rater…and they’ve observed a striking change in student behavior…Andrew Klobucar, associate professor of humanities at NJIT, notes that students almost universally resist going back over material they’ve written. But [Klobucar’s] students are willing to revise their essays, even multiple times, when their work is being reviewed by a computer and not by a human teacher. They end up writing nearly three times as many words in the course of revising as students who are not offered the services of E-Rater, and the quality of their writing improves as a result…students who feel that handing in successive drafts to an instructor wielding a red pen is “corrective, even punitive” do not seem to feel rebuked by similar feedback from a computer….

The computer program appeared to transform the students’ approach to the process of receiving and acting on feedback…Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note….interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent. As a result of engaging in this process, the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. These changes weren’t simply mechanical. Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Why would this be? First, the feedback from a computer program like Criterion is immediate and highly individualized….Second, the researchers observed that for many students in the study, the process of improving their writing appeared to take on a game-like quality, boosting their motivation to get better. Third, and most interesting, the students’ reactions to feedback seemed to be influenced by the impersonal, automated nature of the software.

Not all interactions with fellow humans are positive; many features of conversations and face-to-face spaces act to inhibit the full participation of those present. Some of these shortcomings can be compensated for, and directly addressed, by the nature of computerized, automated interlocutors (as, for instance, in the settings described above). The history of online communication showed how new avenues for verbal and written expression opened for those inhibited in previously valorized physical spaces; robot graders similarly promise to reveal interesting new personal dimensions of automation’s spaces for interaction.