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

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 clich√© 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 “Scientism May or May Not be the New Creationism”

It’s Easy Being Cynical (if You Read the Huffington Post)

I was going to write a post about renewable energy or saving the whales or some other laudable baloney, but I find myself, once again, distracted by cynicism. Cynicism about the irrelevance of what I write, not only because most of what I write isn’t very good, but also because virtually no one reads any of it. The two might be correlated. But I’m also increasingly cynical about the relevance of what passes as news and analysis, but mainly the latter. And cynicism about this begets cynicism about the broader state of rational discourse and the capacity to address the myriad of pressing problems that one is already cynical about.

Like most cynicism, mine is probably too cynical. I recognise that cynicism has to do more with outlook and attitude rather than a reasoned response to (mostly anecdotal) observations. There are certainly lots of things that I am optimistic about. Many of them are the same things that I am cynical about. And given that in other cases I have chosen hope over cynicism, I’ve probably just got a case of the winter blahs.

In any case, the philosophy and psychology of cynicism aside, let me outline some of the particular things that I have recently observed in the media that have been troubling me. Continue reading “It’s Easy Being Cynical (if You Read the Huffington Post)”

Kevin O’Leary is a Stereotype of a Rich Person

If 25% of the content on the Toronto Star website can be viral videos (the Huffington Post’s is around 95%), then I see no reason to continue upholding my self-imposed restriction against reposting videos to my blog. It’s still lazy blogging, but since I realised that no one reads this blog (and, as usual, making this very post an excercise in existential futilism), I am less inclined to care about blogging standards. Here’s a recent video that’s making the rounds of a “conversation” between Kevin O’Leary and Chris Hedges concerning the “Occupy Wall Street” phenomena on the CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange (a transcript of the video can be found here).

Besides this being a somewhat entertaining (though slightly depressing) video, and besides it reconfirming what most people are already certain of, namely, that Kevin O’Leary is a jerk, there are a few other things about this video worth reflecting on.

Continue reading “Kevin O’Leary is a Stereotype of a Rich Person”

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 “Making Sense of Junk Science Reporting”