"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, March 2, 2015

Meaning and Content

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers in the Philippines posts the following on its Facebook page:

BS Aquino's Seven Deadly Sins!
“Teachers suffered severely under his term as President. Instead of addressing the backlogs and needs of the public education, he gave us K to 12 which will take down the teaching of our National language in college, mass lay off of educators, further developed our education to be subservient to the needs of foreign countries by focusing in producing semi-skilled graduates. We asked for higher wages, but gave us Results-based Performance Management System (RPMS) which will squeeze us to do more beyond our capacities and means and cut down our benefits through the introduction of P5,000 Performance-Based Bonus (PBB) in replacement of our P10,000 worth Performance Enhancement Incentive (PEI),” added Ms. France Castro, Secretary General, ACT.

The above statement and the image accompanying reminds me how a human mind not only reads what it sees but also infers what is implied. Making inferences seems a huge deal even in elementary schools where children spend quite some time reading fiction. Inferences depend a lot on one's experience. While it is true that inference is often taught with dependence on clues or data, arriving at more than one correct answer is often possible. Inference after all does not come with a full set of compelling evidence. In peer reviewed scientific literature, authors exercise caution in providing only what is in fact directly supported by data. Yet, as in any form of communication, there is content and there is meaning.

Kahan and coworkers have experimented, for instance, on how science is communicated affects reception by its readers. Climate change, the subject used in this study, can be introduced via two channels:
Channel 1 is focused on information content and is informed by the best available understandings of how to convey empirically sound evidence, the basis and significance of which are readily accessible to ordinary citizens (e.g., Gigerenzer 2000; Spiegelhalter, Pearson, and Short 2011). Channel 2 focuses on cultural meanings: the myriad cues—from group affinities and antipathies to positive and negative affective resonances to congenial or hostile narrative structures—that individuals unconsciously rely on to determine whether a particular stance toward a putative risk is consistent with their defining commitments. To be effective, science communication must successfully negotiate both channels. That is, in addition to furnishing individuals with valid and pertinent information about how the world works, it must avail itself of the cues necessary to assure individuals that assenting to that information will not estrange them from their communities (Kahan et al. 2006; Nisbet 2009).
This study concludes with the following:
Cultural commitments are intrinsic to human rationality. It is only through access to networks of trust and authority that human beings (experts as well as lay people) are able to form reliable assessments of whom to trust on what, and thus to accumulate and share collective knowledge. The distinct networks that various groups of citizens rely on usually lead them to converge on the best available information. Nevertheless, the sheer number and diversity of cultural communities that inhabit pluralistic democracies assures—almost with mathematical certainty—that risks and other policy-consequential facts will on occasion become suffused with antagonistic meanings, generating conflict that persists even in the face of ample and widely distributed scientific evidence. Although small in proportion to the number of complex scientific issues on which diverse citizens unremarkably (almost invisibly) reach agreement, these cultural meaning conflicts can pose a disproportionately large threat to the health, safety, and prosperity—and even to the deliberative capacity—of self-governing societies. Identifying how to protect the deliberation environment from this distinctive toxin, we submit, is the central mission of the science of science communication in a democratic society.
Returning to the post made by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, there is indeed certainty that the current administration in the Philippines has made several mistakes in basic education. There is enough evidence. In fact, these mistakes are glaring errors. These maybe even catastrophic. Sadly, delivering such content with images that force readers to infer beyond what is supported by data unfortunately brings the discussion into something personal. To claim a higher moral ground is often precarious as it elicits responses that are totally irrelevant to the information being provided. Making erroneous policies cannot be automatically equated to malice. The teachers are obviously frustrated, but one still must pause and reflect that in so doing, the argument may not win a proponent but only a more determined opponent....

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