Friday, July 29, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name Does Not Smell As Sweet

Platonism, Essentialism, Performance, or Social Constructionism? Positivism, Realism, Pragmatism, or Relativism? Or better yet, what is a panda?


I read your article about pandas. I would like to just comment that pandas are not bears, they are marsupials; which is a different species. However, I still enjoyed reading it. I love pandas!

-- Moses Salmeron, San Francisco

FIRST OFF, let it be said that Moses Salmeron's love of pandas is shared by The Chronicle.

Also koalas and other warm, fuzzy animals with cute faces. In fact, one might reasonably think that their similarities to teddy bears could have perhaps confused us about the relations of bears and pandas -- this despite our best efforts to bring you the best-written and edited newspaper in the Bay Area.

Well, it turns out Chronicle editors were all over that front-page pronouncement of familial relations -- and the chorus was heard far and wide: ``Pandas AREN'T BEARS!''

But library researcher Johnny Miller met the onslaught of editors and stood his ground. ``Pandas ARE BEARS!''

Here's how it went:

The Oakland Zoo is in negotiations to obtain two giant pandas from China, and a Chronicle reporter was assigned to write a story about it. Librarian Miller was asked to write a ``fact box'' on giant pandas to run along with the story. A ``fact box'' is a small text box attached to a main story with key information about a subject.

It must be noted that librarians these days don't just sit at a desk, point out where to find a book and ``shush'' you into silence. Corporate librarians, researchers and information specialists -- they go by many names these days -- check facts, dig up background materials, crunch numbers, write reports and are experts at online as well as traditional research.

Miller researched pandas, wrote the fact box and turned in his work to an assistant city editor. She looked it over and cut it down a bit so it would fit on the page.

But later, a copy editor, one who gives the story a final edit, places the story on the page and writes the headline, challenged Miller's statement that ``pandas are bears.''

Researcher Miller pulled out the materials he had, defended his work and convinced the editor. But again, as he was leaving at 7 p.m., two more editors cornered him. And again he proved his point.

I'm sure you're getting the drift: There are a lot of people here concerned about getting things right.

The next morning, during our daily critique of the newspaper, the ``mistake'' was again brought up by yet another editor, and the question was asked whether we should run a correction.

When researcher Miller was approached about this, he chanted: ``PANDAS ARE BEARS . . . PANDAS ARE BEARS!''

As in the long discussion of the technical aspects of whaling in the book ``Moby Dick,'' you might want to skip this part, but Miller is right -- pandas are bears.
First, let me address the marsupial red herring, mentioned by Mr. Salmeron. The koala, native to Australia, is a member of the order Marsupialia, but not the giant panda. So koalas are not bears.

The giant panda is native to China and is in the order Carnivora. There are seven families in the order: dogs, bears, raccoons, weasels, mongooses, hyenas and cats. Several Chronicle editors claimed that the panda was related to the raccoon. True, the giant panda and raccoon are in the same order, but they are not in the same family.

There has been much debate about the evolutionary and genetic relationship between the giant panda, raccoons and bears.

A study of the molecular and genetic makeup of the giant panda shows that it is more closely related to bears than it is to raccoons.

The study further speculates that the bear and raccoon families diverged from a common ancestor 30 to 50 million years ago, with the giant panda being a later branch of the bear line.

Is that more than you wanted to know? For researcher Miller, the bottom line is that bears and the giant panda are listed together in zoological textbooks, together in the family Ursidae -- the bear family." (Richard Geiger, "A Bear of a Research Challenge," SFGate.Com (San Francisco Chronicle), Sunday, March 26, 2000).

Mathew Yglesias adds:

"It turns out, however, that giant pandas are bears after all. Red pandas, however, are raccoons and not bears. So the real moral of the story is that there's no such thing as a panda, per se, the two different varieties aren't closely related genetically and just look similar by coincidence." (Mathew Yglesias, TPMCafe Blog, Posted June 03, 2005).

A Rose By Any Other Name Does Not Smell As Sweet

Platonism, Essentialism or Social Constructionism? Positivism, Realism, Pragmatism, or Relativism? Discuss:

"Add a tenth planet to the solar system - or possibly subtract one.

Astronomers announced yesterday that they had found a lump of rock and ice that was larger than Pluto and the farthest known object in the solar system. The discovery will probably rekindle debate over the definition of "planet" and whether Pluto still merits the designation." (By Kenneth Chang and Dennis Overbye, "Planet or Not, Pluto Now Has Far-Out Rival," The New York Times, July 30, 2005).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Some excerpts from John Leland of The New York Times on the new celebrity of evangelicalism, Joel Osteen and his nondenominational Lakewood Church. (Forced to perform ritual gestures of "objectivity," Leland's contempt for Osteen oozes through in his tone and in a series of carefully selected direct quotes):

"The nondenominational Lakewood Church, the nation's largest congregation, moved into the Compaq Center, once the home of the Houston Rockets, over the weekend. After $95 million in renovations, including two waterfalls and enough carpeting to cover nine football fields, the arena now belongs to a charismatic church with a congregation of 30,000, revenues of $55 million last year and a television audience in the millions.

Like many new evangelical churches, the building has no cross, no stained glass, no other religious iconography. Instead, it has a cafe with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the offering.

On Saturday evening, at the first service in the arena, Joel Osteen, the pastor, exhorted a packed house of black, white and Latino worshipers, some of whom arrived three hours early. "What a sight this is. You guys look like victors, not victims," he said, to a round of applause. "We're just going to have a great time and celebrate the goodness of God tonight."

Mr. Osteen, 43, a personable Texan with soap-opera features and wavy, gelled hair, did not go to seminary and dropped out of college after a year. But since he inherited the church from his father in 1999, he has been on a roll, spreading a simple self-help message that congregants say is both uplifting and accessible. God, Mr. Osteen preaches, does not want to see people suffering and poor; he wants them to be healthy, wealthy and wise.

This message, along with Mr. Osteen's boyish appeal and media savvy, has produced the popular television ministry, a best-selling book, national arena appearances by Mr. Osteen (including two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden last year and another date scheduled for October) and a congregation that has quadrupled in six years. The choir alone has 500 members.

To his flock, Mr. Osteen is to varying degrees spiritual leader, motivational speaker and celebrity. Congregants line up for his autograph after services. His publisher, Warner Faith, provided a private jet for his tour to promote the book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," which has 2.8 million copies in print. With the book's success, Mr. Osteen said he has forgone his $200,000 salary from the church this year.


Mr. Osteen's rise is an indicator of the growth and upward mobility of the charismatic branch of evangelical Christianity, and a rebound for television ministry after the sexual and financial scandals of the 1980's, said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Mr. Osteen avoids contentious issues like abortion and homosexuality, and he does not ask for money on his broadcasts.


Mr. Osteen's rationale for spending $95 million on a church rather than on ministering to the poor was typically upbeat. "My philosophy," he said, "is that that $95 million will be nothing compared to what we'll do when we have 100,000 people."


Church members said they had experienced small miracles as a result of attending Lakewood, and especially as a result of tithing, which Mr. Osteen tells them will bring even greater rewards.

Jeffrey D. Holliman Sr., 38, who said Mr. Osteen makes the Bible "intelligible," added that God had recently steered money his way after the electric company threatened to cut his service. Walter Gonzalez, 28, said that since he started tithing, he had more money left after paying his bills.


If not for the religious references, Mr. Osteen's sermons, on topics like procrastination, submitting to authority and staying positive, could be secular motivational speeches. This is by design. "The principles in the Bible will work for anybody," he said. "If you give, you will be blessed. I talk about things for everyday life. I don't get deep and theological."


Mr. Osteen begins each sermon with a joke and follows with anecdotes from his own life, about how through faith he received a house, a parking space, a happy marriage. There is no time to ruminate on theological puzzles, like why God allows people to suffer.

"The answer is I don't know," Mr. Osteen said. "We deal every week with someone whose child got killed, or they lost their job. I don't understand it. All you can do is let God comfort you and move on. Part of faith is not understanding."

This relentless focus on the positive has led critics to call him lightweight.

"The idea of suffering as a Christian virtue is not part of his worldview," said Lynn Mitchell, director of religious studies at the University of Houston. "Some call it Christianity Lite - you get all the benefits, but don't pay attention to the fact that Jesus called for suffering. He doesn't tackle many of the problems of the world."

But many among his congregants said he tackled their problems. Mario Cervantes, 38, said that the church had taught him to name the things he wanted, and that he would receive them. "The Bible says, speak those things that aren't as if they are," Mr. Cervantes said.

"Now I'm speaking my marriage to Isabelle," he said, gesturing to his girlfriend. "And having a relationship with my children. The Bible tells me that as long as I serve him, I shall have what I want. The reason I didn't name material things is that I know I'm here on borrowed time from God."

After the opening night service at the arena on Saturday, Julio Roman, 18, a seminary student who flew in from Chicago, walked out ecstatic. "Did it feel like church?" he said. "Yes, in a bigger, more extravagant way. No more little storefronts - this is the new face of church." (John Leland, "A Church That Packs Them In, 16,000 at a Time," The New York Times, July 18, 2005).

What Is It Like To Be A Bat?

Once again a peek into the grotto of the American Right-Wing:

"Here, though, you come to another equation in the calculus of appeasement. Is the United States willing to fight this war the way it needs fighting, with grim ferocity and cold unconcern for legalistic niceties? To lay waste great territories and their peoples, innocent and guilty alike, to level cities, to burn forests and divert rivers, to smite our enemies hip and thigh, to carry out summary execution of captured leaders? Of course not — how barbaric! And yet (whispers the ancestral, tribal voice in our heads, and in British heads too) if not, then what’s the point? War is a tribal affair, one tribe exterminating another, or reducing it to utter impotence and ignominious surrender. That’s what war is, and it isn’t anything else." (John Derbyshire in The National Review, July 8, 2005).

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Peer Review (If You Can Survive It)

Most academics love to share horror stories about the day their papers were shredded to pieces by "The Big Name" at the national convention. For Iraqi historians, to escape with a verbal upbraiding was something to be thankful for:

"One Iraqi historian told me with some embarrassment that Saddam used to insist on coming to the meetings of the Iraqi Historical Association and giving a long-winded paper. The historians in attendance, of course, could not present any serious historical findings under such circumstances. This, even though Iraqi historians often had a first-rate training and some did serious archival work." (Juan Cole, Informed Comment blog, Tuesday, July 19, 2005).

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Civility and Its Discontents

The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was rather unimpressed by the "genteel tradition":

"I will be harsh as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his write from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present." (From The Liberator, January 1, 1831; cited in Richard Hofstader, Great Issues in American History, 1958).

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Conflict of the Faculties: Rhetoric Versus Philosophy

Philosophers are stampeding to claim the man below as their own; branding him a global sceptic. Sceptic he is; but of the variety that Plato encountered in Gorgias; that is to say, a rhetorician:

"A Michigan man who threatened to blow up his van near the White House two days before President Bush's second inauguration stunned a court yesterday by saying he couldn't promise that he wouldn't do it again.

Lowell W. Timmers made the remarks as he was about to be sentenced for making false threats in a Jan. 18 standoff with police that lasted nearly five hours. He has admitted that he parked his van near the White House and pretended that he was going to blow up some gas canisters. It was his way, he said, of protesting his son-in-law's arrest on immigration charges.

The hearing was supposed to be uneventful: Timmers, 54, pleaded guilty in March, and his plea agreement called for a likely 34-month prison term. But when U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan asked a routine question about whether he had learned his lesson, the proceedings went awry.

"What are the chances of you doing this again?" the judge asked.

Timmers -- dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, his long, white hair flowing down his back -- paused a moment before speaking up.

"There's always a chance of anything, Your Honor," he said.

The judge's jaw dropped. He pressed Timmers to be clear.

"The odds of that happening are 800 million billion to one," Timmers said, "but I can't ever rule anything out completely, Sir."

Sullivan, who has heard thousands of cases in more than two decades on the bench, said he was "astonished." "I don't think in my entire judicial career anyone's ever told me, 'Yeah, I might do this again.' "

"I didn't mean to upset you," Timmers told the judge at one point.

Defense attorney Tony Axam of the Federal Public Defender's Office tried to explain that Timmers, a self-employed woodcutter, is a "deeply, deeply philosophical person" -- for whom there were no absolutes.

"If you asked him if anything is absolute in this world," Axam said, "he may tell you he's not sure he's standing here."

The judge said that only added to his concerns.

"If he's not sure about whether he's standing here, maybe we need to send him to Butner for a little while for evaluation," the judge said, referring to the federal psychiatric prison facility in North Carolina.

Timmers said nothing in this world is for certain. "I could be dreaming right now," he said." (Carol D. Leonnig, "Sentencing in Explosion Threat Halted," Washington Post, Friday, July 1, 2005).

Monday, July 11, 2005

What Is It Like To Be A Bat?

This may be news to you Nairobians, but apparently it wasn't enough that your parents, husbands, wives, children, friends, and neighbors were rounded up and exterminated in Britain's gulags. According to the London's Sun, dying was too easy; its time you pulled your weight and did some of that rounding up:

"In the name of New York, Washington, Bali, Nairobi, Madrid and now London, we shall have vengeance and justice.

Britain is crawling with suspected terrorists and those who give them succour.

The Government must act without delay, round up this enemy in our midst and lock them in internment camps.

Our safety must not play second fiddle to their supposed “rights.”

Nor must those who preach foul sermons on our streets be allowed to do so any longer." (Sun, "Barbarism of Twisted Cause," Monday July 11, 2005).

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Best Blind Review Connections Can Buy

In his prefatory remarks in a creditably honest response to a rejection letter he received from a journal (my guess is that this is the Quarterly Journal of Speech), Josh Gunn (Communication, University of Texas, Austin), considered in graduate school gossip as a "rising star" in rhetorical studies, reveals the most open secret in the so-called "blind reviewing" of academic journal articles:

"Yesterday I received another rejection for a manuscript I've been working on for about three years now. Having submitted more articles for review than I can count, I must admit sometimes rejection is relatively easy, especially when the reviewer is curt and rejects my ideas out of hand. The rejections that continue to hurt are those that take the time to explain why my essay should be rejected in detail, but not to "help" me or teach me something. Rather, the rejections that hurt are those that say, in essence, you're an idiot, and here are four single-spaced pages why this is true. The editor, also a friend of mine, was very kind and humane: one reviewer recommended that the journal pursue the article, while the other, reject. Divided reviews are my lot, so this is nothing new. But I think the editor was concerned about the tone of the rejection, so she apparently she contacted a third scholar, who also urged rejection. The editor, bless her, offered a revise and resubmit with significant revisions, but I decided to send it elsewhere because I think the damn thing is good enough already, and I don't want to take advantage our friendship (I suspect she would have rejected someone she did not know with the same set of reviews)." (Posted on The Rosewater Chronicles Blog, June 29, 2005).

What Is It Like To Be A Bat?

The American Right-Wing responds to the London terrorism attack. John Gibson on Fox:

"All day long people have been saying to me, "Wasn't it great they didn't pick Paris?" And I've been saying, "No, no, no."

Paris was exactly the right place to pick and the Olympic committee screwed up.

Why? Simple. It would have been a three-week period where we wouldn't have had to worry about terrorism.

First, the French think they are so good at dealing with the Arab world that they would have gone out and paid every terrorist off. And things would have been calm.

Or another way to look at it is the French are already up to their eyeballs in terrorists. The French hide them in miserable slums, out of sight of the rich people in Paris.

So it would have been a treat, actually, to watch the French dealing with the problem of their own homegrown Islamist terrorists living in France already


But, alas, they picked London. I like the Brits. I like London. I hate to see them going through all this garbage when it would have been just fine in Paris.

C'est la vie. Goes to show the Olympic committee doesn't recognize the perfect opportunity when it presents itself.

That's My Word."

(Posted on Atrios, 7/7/05).

A Short Definition of Terrorism

Terrorism .... is "an evil end to an evil means." Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi, on the terrorist attack in London (Alan Cowell, "Blair's Rising Star Runs into a Treacherous Future," New York Times, July 8, 2005).

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Social Construction of Objectivity

Nothing seems to prove the journalist's objectivity quite like the direct quote. Precisely, Mark Liberman argues, and that's why it is constructed very methodically:

"[W]hen I listen to recordings of journalistic interviews, I rarely get the impression that anyone is trying to learn anything new. The journalists already know what the stories are. Their questions are not designed to discover any new facts or ideas, but rather to get quotes that will fit in to designated places in the frameworks of logic and rhetoric that they have already erected.

To see how this works, let's look at a couple of cases from Tim Duncan's interview after game 7 of this year's NBA finals.

Case 1: The headline for Sam Smith's piece in the Chicago Tribune is "Ginobili's why these Spurs are the best". Smith leads with a riff on how "Tim Duncan finally emerged ... from the forest of Detroit Pistons defenders to protect, if not secure, his legacy as one of the game's greatest players ever", and then quickly switches focus to the role of Emmanuel "Manu" Ginobili: was Manu Ginobili, the usually unpredictable and often spectacular Argentine, who again finished what Duncan started and carried the Spurs the last steps to their third title in seven years. He scored 15 fourth-quarter points and made the plays that made you gasp, remember, stand and cheer.

"Manu is unbelievable," Duncan said. "I don't think we've even scratched the surface with him. He plays with reckless abandon. He doesn't care if it's a preseason game or a Finals game.

"He's going to continue to grow, and we're going to continue to grow around him. He was so big for us every game. We love what he does down the stretch."

Here's the whole of the relevant question and answer from which Smith's quote was taken. The question was actually asked by Massimo Moriani from La Gazeta de lo Sport. I did the transcription from the recording on the website. The selections used by Smith are in boldface.

Q: Can you please tell me what it's like to uh- have had Manu as a teammate for the last three years, and watching him grow so much?

A: Oh, Manu's unbelievable. And uh- um- [pause] you can say this about so many people and- and- and whether it'd be true or not, I- I think it's absolutely true for him. I don't think we've even scratched the surface with him. He's uh- he's got so much to him. Um, he- he's- he just plays with reckless abandon. He doesn't care the time, the situation, he doesn't care um- if it's a pre-season game or it's a finals game, he plays the same way. And uh- uh- he's gonna continue to uh- to grow and we're going to continue to grow around him. We're going to continue to understand what he- what he wants to do and when he wants to do it. And uh- um- he was so big for us, every game of this in the fors- in the fourth quarter. He jus- he was the guy that really took things o- really th- really made things happen. And- and to have s- to play beside someone like, who can do that in that situation, uh- it- it takes so much pressure off myself, off of Tony, um- uh- it- it helps our team so much, and- and he can just- you can see it in him, he does- he doesn't care, he's- he's gonna- he's gonna make the play. He's gonna make it happen, um- and he got a lot [pause] uh- well he gave himself a lot of crap for the- for the- the finish of uh- whether it be game six or whatever, he- he thought he took some bad shots, he thought he uh- he thought he didn't make some plays down the stretch and missed some shots, he- he got on himself about it more than anybody else got on him, but that's what he's gonna do. And- and- and we understand it now, a- and we're- we uh- we love having him, and we- we love uh- uh- we love what he does down the stretch.

Let's note in passing the selective snip-n-trim quotation. As in the quotes from Rasheed Wallace that I cited before, the meaning is not significantly changed in this case, but it might have been, and I'd rather not have to rely on the reporter's judgment and good faith. If something is in quotes in a news story, without any indication of ellipsis, it seems to me that it ought to be a genuine quotation, not a collage of fragments from which hundreds of words have been silently omitted.

However, that's not the point I want to make here. Smith didn't learn from Tim Duncan's interview about how important Ginobili's contribution was. He heard it on the wind, he saw it on the court during the game, and he backed up his impression with scoring statistics. Why did he bother with the quote? I suppose that it was partly because Smith wanted to suggest that Duncan recognizes Ginobili as Pippen to his Jordan, but the main reason is surely that a news story is supposed to follow each point with a supporting quotation from a newsmaker. Once this obligation is recognized, then the questions and the answers in most journalistic interviews become completely predictable. It was certain that someone would ask Duncan about Ginobili -- both because of Ginobili's play and because he is so popular overseas -- and it was equally certain that Duncan would say a bunch of complimentary things. There was a place in Smith's story for a quotation, and the postgame interview ritual predictably supplied it, without adding anything to anyone's knowledge of Ginobili's play or Duncan's attitudes.

Case 2: The headline for Stephen Holder's piece in the Miami Herald is "Not just Spurs of the moment". His point is that "The Spurs are here to stay, folks, with the primary pieces of their roster -- Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- under contract through the end of this decade". And like Smith, Holder anchors his point with a quote from Tim Duncan:

''It's a great feeling,'' Duncan said. ``In years past, we've lost six, seven, eight, nine guys in a year and rebuilt. I think we've really got a core here that we're in love with; that obviously is a pretty decent core, and we're going to have it together for a couple of years.''

There will be no rebuilding project this time around. The Spurs have all five starters coming back. And four-fifths of the starting five is expected to be here awhile.

Here's the relevant part of my transcript of the postgame interview:

Q: Tim, along ((those same lines)), are- you're not the GM, I don't- I don't think you are, but you know, you guys had a-A: Not officially, at least. Q: Yeah, not officially. Everybody comin' back, you know, long range things set up, is that a good feeling, and do you expect that, you know, this is a team that can kind of- besides some little pieces, can stay together-A: It's- it's a great feeling. It's a great feeling. Years past, we've uh- um- we've lost six, seven, eight, nine guys, in- in a year, and- and- and rebuilt, I think uh- we've really got a core here that we're um- that we're in love with, that uh- um- obviously is a pretty decent core. Um- and we're going to have it together for- for- for a couple years. And- and uh- um- Pop'll probably come in here and say that we- we did- we didn't play very well tonight. and uh- he'll be tough on us, but uh- um- we- we can play- we can play a lot better. And- and- and that's- that's so horrible ((to)) say right now, as we're sittin' up here NBA champs, but um- w- we have- we have years t- t- to do that, and I think that's the greatest feeling in the world. We have a team um- that we'll be able t- t- to try to uh- in- in years to come, to try to get back to this point.

In this case, the quote is an accurate, contiguous selection, with entirely appropriate editing of disfluencies.

However, the content of the quote is again almost completely uninformative. Everyone knows that the Spurs have a terrific core of relatively young players under long-term contract. It's predictable that someone will ask about this -- it's such an obvious question that Duncan doesn't even wait for the (admittedly numb-tongued) reporter to finish asking before he interrupts and starts to answer. And the content of his answer adds nothing to what we already know, either about the situation or about his attitude towards it. Even if he was perversely dissatisfied with the situation -- which he surely is not -- he wouldn't say so in a press conference.

So why did the reporter bother to ask the question? Well, there are places in a news story where convention dictates that there should be a quote, and so the ritual Q&A must be enacted. And when Holder got to the spot in his story where he needed that quote, there it was.

In a case like this, where everyone pretty much agrees about the content, these apparently pointless rituals do still have a social function. They tend to ensure that the content of newspaper and wire service stories will not stray very far from the publically sanctioned conventional wisdom. However, when there's significant disagreement or controversy, the same techniques take on a very different character. Then it becomes a matter of journalists trying to trick people into saying things that can be taken out of context to make them seem to have said things that they never meant.

And from a certain point of view, the goals and the methods of the ritual love-fest and the confrontational grilling are essentially the same. The journalist wants to get a quote to slot into a certain place in the story's logical and rhetorical structure, and asks questions designed to elicit answers from which the needed words can be taken, in more or less the right order, without too much extra stuff in between. (Mark Liberman, Language Log Blog, posted June 25, 2005).