The Proliferation of Phatic Communication, Or, of Cats and Ice Cream

I find myself more and more often going through a frustrating routine which involves signing into facebook, reading through the latest status updates, and after a bit of eye rolling and disappointment, signing out and vowing never to do so again (I usually repeat this several times a day). It’s partly because the process has become so predictable: Picture of cat. Picture of dog. Someone is going to the gym. An obvious observation about the weather. A Youtube link to some song everyone has heard before. Humorous anecdote. Inspirational message posted as a jpeg. However, this post isn’t (primarily) meant to be a sanctimonious knock on facebook or on the inanity or unoriginality of the things most of my “friends” post (although most of it is unbearably inane and unoriginal).

I want to discuss the broader implications of something others began noting shortly after usage of facebook and other “social media” sites became widespread, namely, the proliferation of these kinds of posts. Why this is noteworthy is because they all, despite their range of topics, tend to serve a similar function. They are all forms of “phatic communication.” This term was coined by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s as somewhat of a technical term for small talk. Malinowski was originally making an observation about “primitive cultures” – he argued that phatic communication is the primary form of communication in these cultures. But, he noted that the same could be said for “civilized cultures” as well (except that “civilized cultures” were obviously better because they had science and other substantive forms of communication). Academic colonialism notwithstanding, here’s how he defined the concept: Continue reading

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Scientism May or May Not be the New Creationism

In a recent article on the Scientific American website, science writer, (pop)-psychologist, and general “skeptic” Michael Shermer argues that Liberals are “at war” with science. Ignoring the preposterous war cliché that pervades silly writing about any sort of apparent disagreement, Shermer’s argument is supposed be novel and interesting because it is presumed that it is common knowledge that Republicans (Shermer’s argument is American-centric) have a general disregard, if not disdain, for scientific truth, while there is an attitude of superiority amongst Democrats because, contrary to Republicans, they give science its duly deserved reverence.

Don’t be too smug, says Shermer. While not as bad as Republicans, Democrats are in some regards a bunch of science haters:

The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book. 

Admittedly, to some the 41 percent of Democrats being young-Earth creationists is a little surprising, considering the way that evolution vs. creationism debates are framed in the United States. In any case, let’s leave this aside for the moment and consider the second statistic that Shermer provides. Citing such a relatively low degree of scepticism amongst Democrats as evidence for a proverbial “war on science” reveals much about Shermer’s totalising view of science, his completely unrealistic expectations of public understanding of science, and I would argue, his wholly inaccurate and generally problematic conception of belief acquisition. Continue reading

Making Sense of Junk Science Reporting

If you’ve read a few of Heather Mallick’s columns in the Toronto Star, you’ll know that her writing is often characteristic of the triteness and superficiality (masked by an air of folksy-wisdom) that one finds in many newspaper editorials (perhaps the same can be said about my writing).

The superficiality is certainly understandable – most readers of editorials get bored after about a thousand words (if not less) – brevity and conciseness are the name of the game in newspapers. Indeed, prolonged analyses of current issues and ideas have little place in most of the mass media – asides from the average reader’s attention span, there seems various other intersecting reasons for this (television and radio are structured by time restrictions; magazines and newspapers are limited by the contraints of space; propaganda is more effective as sound bites; there is arguably a lack of a general culture of critical reflection that would be amenable to sombre and thorough analyses, etc.). Continue reading