Showing posts with label literacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literacy. Show all posts

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Lies, Lies, Nothing but Lies! Oh, Wait a Minute, There’s a Bit of Truth There . . .

Analyzing Fiction

There has never been a better time to be a specialist in analyzing fiction.  Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature notwithstanding, there may still be hope for the study of “literature”; a.k.a., “the lies that tell the truth.”

Sarah Palin in a bikini! [click the link please!]

Fake News Is News

In the wake of the American presidential election, there has been a tidal wave of discussion online, on television and in the press about “fake news.”  One television news show I saw recently claimed that fake news stories outnumber “real” news stories (whatever “real” means) by a ratio of three to one, and fake news is viewed online tens times as frequently as its conservative cousin. Of course, the television news show in question was quoting online sources, raising the question “Is the news about ‘fake news’ fake?”

Fraudsters Target the Illiterate and Less Literate

Have you noticed that when you receive one of those fraudulent email messages trying to lure you to send money—you know, the ones that say my uncle in Nigeria has left me a multi-million-dollar inheritance, but I need your help to get it—those messages are full of grammar and spelling mistakes.  The mistakes are deliberate because the messages are designed to target people who are less educated, who cannot read well enough to detect the mistakes, and are therefore more susceptible to the fraud that the senders are attempting to perpetrate.

Understand What a Text Is Trying to Do to You

Other than going incommunicado and surrendering to the life of a recluse, the only defense against online frauds and fakes and misinformation in general is the ability to read.  Usually when people talk about reading they mean the ability to interpret alphabetic symbols marked on paper or a screen—and that’s what I mean most of the time when I talk about reading.  However, we also “read” images, numbers, people, situations, in fact, the entire world around us.  Anything we can read—which is just about everything—can be called “a text.”  

I would habitually tell university students that when you are reading a written text it is important to realize, at the outset, that someone is trying to do something to you.  The text might be designed to persuade, convince, enrage, shock, seduce, insult, confuse, convert, appease, hypnotize, pacify, inform, educate, or discourage you—and there are a thousand other possibilities.   As a practiced and skilled reader, you need to constantly consider what is being done (or attempted to be done) to you.  An educated reader begins her engagement with the text with an attitude of skepticism.  The attitude of an educated reader is to doubt, but if you are going to engage with or even enjoy a text to some degree you must consent, you must accept, as least provisionally to what is being done to you.  

Suspension of Disbelief

This process has long been recognized in literary studies.  It even has a name:  “suspension of disbelief.”  If you are going to enjoy a work of fiction, you must allow yourself to read as if it were all true—which, of course, invites the question of how to enjoy a postmodern novel where the author constantly intervenes to remind you that you are reading fiction.  The sophisticated reader is supposed to know how to believe in just the right degree.  There is even a threadbare old joke to make the point:  a country bumpkin announcing in a loud whisper as the ghost of King Hamlet appears behind Prince Hamlet:  “Ohh, he’s gonna shit when he sees that ghost!”

Resistant Reading

In contrast, postmodern feminism has given us the “resistant reading”  whereby unwary women are instructed to approach the slippery ideological seductions of Andre Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress” and Leonard Cohen’s “As the Mist Leaves No Scar” with caution.

That’s the fun stuff—the situations where the possibility of salutary readings are at least possible to imagine.  How do we deal with a digital universe in which 40% of what we read are outright lies and another 49% are out-of-context fibs, shadings of the truth, conspiracy theories, sales pitches and spin-doctoring?  (Please don’t quote my made-up percentages, but note that I have left 11% of space for facts, intelligent discourse, captions about cats and vacuity.)   The only viable countermeasure to being lied to, fooled, misinformed and defrauded is the ability to read.  

The Antidote to Fake News Is Reading 

. . . which returns me to the information which I cited in a previous post (How Many Americans Believe that Planet Earth Is Only 6000 Years Old) that 14% of Americans are illiterate and 21% of adults in the USA read below a grade 5 level.   Even as I quoted the article I found myself wondering if I wasn’t promulgating bogus statistics.  If I am going to post on the malaise of “fake news” and the antidote of effective reading, I have to make some effort to ensure that I am not spreading “fake news.”  I take as a basic truth underlying claims about illiteracy rates in both the USA and Canada that the reading skills of the population as a whole are well below where they should be—even though definitions of “illiteracy” are much debated and the measurement of reading skills always in question.

Why Reading a Book Matters

I also take the ability to read a book as the true measure of the capacity to read.  Having the skills and acumen required to hold on to the coherence and pattern of a text over hundreds of pages is the ultimate test of reading.  This coherence might be the connection between a hypothesis and statistical evidence, or the ongoing inductive and deductive reasoning that supports an argument, or details of plot, character and setting.  Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, this level of reading ability also means being able to spot inconsistencies, incongruities, outright contradictions, lacunae, logical fallacies, flawed writing and rhetorical smoke 'n' mirrors. 

Fake News Is the News We Want to Believe

"Fake news" is news that is oddly familiar; moreover, it is typically news that we would like to believe.  Every conspiracy theory contains a spattering of irrefutable facts; every fiction large chunks of reality.  The ability to read is not just being able to identify words on a page; the key to reading is understanding how the words connect together, and how collections of words work together and beyond--or don't.  More than the words themselves, it is the space between words that matter.  Making connections is making meaning.  Making the right connections--and spotting the disconnections--is getting the meaning right.

Fragments of News Convince Us that We Are Right and Knowledgable

However, we live in the age of headlines and captions and twitter.  We are bombarded with fragments of information on the assumption that we cannot or will not read sufficiently to question the ersatz.  As a result, we are all becoming lesser readers every day, more entrenched in the dogma of whatever we happen to believe at the outset, convinced of whatever panders to our current convictions and outrage, and unwilling or unable to read further.


I may think myself a pretty good reader, but this bit of "fake news" fooled me.  It fooled me for a few of the typical reasons.  I'd heard it a couple of times, then years later I got this image, which looks convincing, emailed to me.  It is fake,

Saturday 29 October 2016

How Many Americans Think Planet Earth Is 6000 Years Old?

A Short History of the World

Most people these days think of H.G. Wells as a science-fiction writer, in fact as one of the pillars of the genre together with Jules Verne, but his best selling, most popular work in his lifetime was A Short History of the World which he wrote in 1922.  In the opening paragraph of this brilliant and monumental work, Wells writes:

A couple of hundred years ago men possessed the history of little more than the last three thousand years.  What happened before that time was a matter of legend and speculation.  Over a large part of the civilized world it was believed and taught that the world had been created suddenly in 4004 B.C though authorities differed as to whether this had occurred in the spring or the autumn of that year.  This fantastically precise misconception was based  upon a too literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, and upon rather arbitrary theological assumptions connected therewith.  Such ideas have long since been abandoned by religious teachers, and it is universally recognized that the universe in which we live has to all appearances existed for an enormous period of time and possibly for endless time.

The Universe is 6000 years old

The idea, which Wells describes, of the Universe having been created 4004 years before Christ was first established by the Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century.  Since that time it has remained a logical assumption that if you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s description of creation, then you must also believe that the planet is in the neighbourhood of 6000 years old.

How many Americans think planet Earth is 6000 years old?  When I asked a version of this question on Quora, the blasé, un-challenged answer that came back was 30+ million. 

Is evolution news?

The question of evolution became “news” once again in the wake of the Republican primary debates, when it was noted that none of the candidates would admit to believing in a scientific as opposed to Biblical explanation of human existence.  Dr. Ben Carson, in particular, was singled out for criticism because he is a doctor, and therefore a scientist.  To reject evolution, as many commentators have pointed out, is to reject science.  It’s pretty much impossible for someone to believe in scientific descriptions of the behaviour of molecules and DNA, and still not believe in evolution.

Why can't US politicians say "the Bible isn't literal truth"?

Dr. Carson’s answer was evasive and disingenuous.  The really important question is why couldn’t Dr. Carson, a recognized scientist, say that in our day scientific research has displaced the literal interpretation of the Genesis story of creation.  For as long as the Bible has been studied, it has been understood that the Bible can be interpreted literally or allegorically.  With scientific advancement, the Bible can still be read as an allegorical text whose primacy lies in the moral lessons of its sub-text rather than in its literal, historical accuracy.  Who are Dr. Carson’s imagined constituents who cannot accept the allegorical truth of the Bible over a literal interpretation?  Who are these constituents who cannot accept what Wells describes as a “universal truth,” accepted for at least the last 100 years among the literate, that our planet is older and our universe took longer to create than described in the Judeo-Christian Bible? 

Do they really exist?  When I asked myself this question, I concluded that this constituency can only exist within a population that doesn’t read.  The question becomes one of literacy.  

If you read scientific explanations or, for that matter, if you actually read the Bible, it becomes pretty obvious that the Genesis version of creation should not be taken literally although, like every good myth or legend, it does have some basis in fact.

How many Americans can't read?

How many Americans can’t read?  Here, for me, is the real shock.
According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read.
[Since I first wrote this post, and continued to research illiteracy in the USA, I have discovered numerous claims that the American literacy rate is 97.7%, 99.9% and 100%.  In each of these three cases, the CIA World Fact Book is given as the source.  I have not been able to find literacy rates for the USA in the World Fact Book.]

The USA is the richest, most powerful and, allegedly, the most advanced country in the world, but in terms of literacy, based on the CIA’s World Fact Book, the average literacy rate for the world as a whole is 86.1%; making the USA slightly below average in terms of literacy.  The USA has better literacy rates than countries in dire poverty, facing protracted civil wars, and those countries which actively prevent women from learning to read,  but at an 86% literacy rate the USA lags behind China (96.4%), behind Cuba (99.8%),  behind Greece (97.7%), behind Jamaica (88.7%), Mexico (95.1) and Russia (99.7%); in fact, behind most of the stable nations in the world.  

Can democracy survive without literacy?

How do you conduct an advanced, sophisticated democracy when so many of your citizens can’t or don’t read?  As Wells points out, nations were able to exist and thrive through the invention of paper, then print, and in the USA in particular by being able to communicate across great distances using telegraph and railways and steamships.  How can you conduct an advanced, sophisticated democracy when so many citizens are prepared to believe that our Universe was created in seven days, 6000 years ago, because that is what they have been told, and so many leaders are prepared to kowtow to such beliefs?

Civilization and progress

Reading Wells' Short History of the World, you realize that civilization has progressed on our planet because of the double-edged swords of empires, technologies, religions and economies, which can spread knowledge, unify diverse peoples and promote peace and stability, but can equally create hegemony, inequality and injustice, and ignite civil and tribal wars capable of drawing the whole world into their vortex.

With a presidential election in the USA in ten days from now, I assume we will soon be relieved from the daily barrage of Donald Trump’s name and image and bombast—unless he marries a Kardashian (a possibility I would not preclude).  When you read the history of empires—Persian, Mongolian, Arab, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, European—it is impossible not to notice how the USA today shows all the signs of a well-established pattern of collapse:  irreparable internal divisions, widespread injustice and inequality, declining or stagnant quality of education, xenophobia and protectionism, imbroglio in foreign wars which the population neither supports nor understands, declining attachment to shared beliefs (including and especially in the American case in democracy itself), internal conflicts based on race, religion and economic class, decline in respect for leadership and the political class as a whole, economic decline and extreme indebtedness, an oversized military putting a strain on the overall economy, a marked decline in the physical and mental wellbeing of the average citizen (obesity, alienation, paranoia, drug addiction, etc), endemic egoism and radical individualism.  That Donald Trump is an icon of egoism and the reductio ad absurdum of radical individualism is of little importance, but what is truly nation-shattering is that so many Americans see him as representing them, as representing their thoughts and feelings and attitudes.  That is a fact and a fracture from which the USA will not soon recover.

PS:  I really got this election prediction wrong!

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