Of all of the takeaways from our workshop (Wednesday the 20th of February) this was perhaps the most recurrent piece of feedback, and the key message we would pass on to all readers of this blog! When thinking about the sort of workshops needed to challenge unconscious racial bias, Dr Veronique and I were keen to emphasise need for tolerance, respect and acceptance: a mutual understanding that prejudices in some form or another are an inherent part of how we see, and process the world. What is important is how we chose to act and respond when we find ourselves in situations where biases (of any form) play out in front of us.
In the first half of the workshop participants were introduced to the concept of unconscious racial (and gender) bias through a series of talks and structured group activities from organisers. We were also lucky enough to be joined by Dr Issa Robson, who was able to draw on her own first hand experiences as a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) student and member of staff. The second half of the workshop was dedicated to roll play activities designed to help participants reflect on questions of intersectionality and identity with the aim (as one participant phrased it) to hold up “a mirror to myself and how to challenge [my identity] more”.
Although these sorts of exercises can make for hard (and sometimes emotionally draining) work, the enthusiasm and openness of the participants made the workshop a joy to be part of. One participant commented that they felt “more confident and empowered to call things out” after just two hours!
Based on this wonderfully positive feedback, we hope very much that workshops on unconscious bias and prejudice will eventually be a mandatory part of training and staff induction, allowing for a wide range of voices and stories to be listened to and acted on. For now, at least, we are very grateful to everyone who made the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning so enriching and we look forward to seeing what 2020 has in store.
By Patricia Wu Wu, a PhD candidate in Fashion within the School of Design (www.patriciawuwu.com), and
Asad Khan, a PhD candidate in Architecture at the Edinburgh School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture (www.theentropyproject.com)
The Anthropocene is the geological epoch in which the collective actions of human activities have been the dominant influence on our environment. The aim of our workshop was to address this ecological crisis, in creative ways that engages participants to think and explore collectively through the making of narratives. We encouraged them to re-imagine their relationship with the world using LiDAR scanning as a means to challenge their perception of body and surroundings, and how that in turn generates alternative modes of seeing.
LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanning
uses an infrared light in the form of a pulsed laser beam to measure distances
when in contact with an object, and converts the signal’s return time back to
the scanner as a discrete set of distance values in the form of X, Y, Z
coordinates. These coordinates are stored in a 3D point-cloud archive, which
produces a highly accurate production of its target. Our focus was not to use
LiDAR to reproduce a replica of the physical environment, but we were looking
to subvert this particular technology into glitched and fragmented errors of
alternate realities that could not otherwise be seen by the human eye. Through
this thought process, we encouraged participants to arrange choreographed
scenes through the use of gestures, body movements, materials, etc to potentially
distort the machine vision of LiDAR into unexpected, unknown visual
On the first day of the event, we delivered our
research presentations and engaged them in discussions. This was then followed
by the creation of diagrams in preparation for their scanning work. The purpose
of diagramming was to capture their thought about how they wanted to be seen by
the machine, what parts they wanted to reveal or hide, before being captured by
the scan. Some were lines, curvatures, shaded contours to express body motion,
whilst others preferred to write short poems to express a certain feeling. The
diagramming process allowed them to conceptually grasp first how to plot a
narrative and project it into a 3D archive. Based on each diagram, participants
experimented with different postures, reflective materials wrapped around their
bodies and different locations to visually speak through their narratives.
After collecting their scans, they were taught how to visualise them and at the same time animate them into short animations. This tutorial was done during the second day to offer them a glimpse of the possibilities of navigating their LiDAR archive, and how they wanted to immerse themselves or others when viewing the scene. These techniques engaged them to understand and explore further the potential of a 3D archive, how their environment is being seen by LiDAR and how differently it is from our actual environment, but also, in how they originally perceived it as through their diagrams. The perception of opening the archive, from before and after, is transformed by the LiDAR through its glitches, where participants’ bodies were split into parts, or merged with others. These scans created surreal aesthetic glitches, almost ghostly figures of their bodies in both their presence and absence. The end of the workshop concluded with reflections about the event and supporting participants further with their own work in how they could incorporate LiDAR.
Despite welcome changes in the
way we think about women’s health and wellbeing, nevertheless in a recent STUC
survey 32% of respondents said that menopause was treated negatively in their
workplace and 63 % reported that it was treated as a joke. This can’t be good
for women experiencing menopause, for girls and young women looking ahead to
menopause, or for supportive colleagues and family members of all ages and
genders. Inspired by (but not a part of) the Menopause Café movement the
Invisible Women event was an open invitation to talk, listen and learn about
menopause. Staff and students of all ages and any gender were welcome. We
created an inclusive and supportive atmosphere, where the following things
beginning to make it normal
to talk about menopause
sharing information and
learning how to manage our
own wellbeing and support each other
being aware of the facts of
feeling able to ask for
support and reasonable adjustments
discussing experiences of
living and working with menopause
sharing insights and tips
feeling less isolated
recognising that menopause
transition is different for all women
having fun, drinking tea
and enjoying cake!
Nine women of various ages from
different parts of the University attended our event on the day. We split
ourselves into two groups and proceeded with illuminating and supportive
conversations, stimulated by prompt cards containing quotes from a variety of
sources including BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour and the STUC report.
Some prompts featured personal
experiences and reflections, such as author Allison Pearson’s observation made
on Woman’s Hour (15 Jan
“I really wish I’d known what was happening to
me, so I could have discussed it with my children, instead of them thinking I
was some kind of souped up Lady Macbeth.”
Excerpts from reports highlighted
the lack of any consensus on how women experience menopausal-related symptoms:
evidence offers estimates of the number of women who are negatively affected by
transition symptoms at work which vary from 10% to 53%. Some of these studies are more robust than others… but no clear pattern emerges.” Government
Equalities Office report (2017)
Other sources challenged negative
stereotypes and emphasised positive dimensions of change, such as this from
relationships counsellor Pam
is a perfect time to take stock of our life, …and start creating the kind of
life we want.”
We received very positive
feedback from the event, including comments like:
‘Helpful to chat with such lovely women. More of this kind of thing
‘Very informative and reassuring to hear other folk’s experiences.’
‘I would like to join an online community/ or a meetup group about
menopause. I’d like to read more, talk more + listen more about it. This was a
great event – thank you!
There is an appetite for the
discussion to continue, and perhaps for these issues to ‘find a home’ at the
University of Edinburgh – from where a supportive network might be managed, to
enable staff (and students) to talk, to find information and support, and to
feed into policy and practice where required.
Previously posted on the thinking.is.ed.ac.uk blog. Read the original post here.
Wikipedia is the 5th most visited website in the world and is an important first stop when looking up any topic – it is truly an incredible resource. But its power can be dangerous. It lacks diversity both in its editorship and its articles. This means that its systemic biases can have a large impact on the way we think. Wikipedia, like most mainstream publishing and media, is very disproportionately white and male. However, unlike traditional information resources, Wikipedia’s users can have a direct positive impact on its content. This is why Information Services held a Diversithon event for the Festival of Creative Learning on the afternoon of 20th February 2019:
“To increase the diversity of voices, genders, and cultures among its contributors and editors, the Wikimedia Foundation has made it a strategic goal to recruit and foster more women, people of colour, and other underrepresented individuals—including LGBT+ populations… the Wikimedia Foundation recognizes that the majority of its Wikipedia contributors and editors are disproportionately male, under 22 years old, and (most likely white and straight) from “the Global North”. They also admit that Wikipedia’s coverage is skewed toward the interests, expertise, and language skills of the people who created it…”— Wexelbaum, Herzog, & Rasberry, “Queering Wikipedia” (2015).
The Diversithon was a Wikipedia editing event held in a social and supportive setting to celebrate diversity for LGBT+ History Month 2019 and Black History Month.
This event trained its attendees in the skills required to contribute to and improve Wikipedia – a useful skill for anyone to have – and focused on creating new articles to include notable Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic professionals; LGBT+ professionals; as well as continuing our work to address the systemic gender gap on Wikipedia where only 17.83% of biographies are about notable women.
THE DIVERSITHON IN A NUTSHELL:
12 new articles were created.
2 more were drafted.
28 articles were edited.
249 edits in total.
9,530 words added.
9,190 articles views.
Our co-hosts for the event, the student support group Wellcomm Kings, kicked off the event.
Rosie Taylor, a Biological Sciences student and Wellcomm Kings convenor, presented on why we hold LGBTHistoryMonth, which she had stated she had orientated herself about using Wikipedia. Rosie discussed the history of the Section 28 and the protests against it. This legislation stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It was repealed on 21 June 2000 in Scotland by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000, as one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Scottish Parliament, and on 18 November 2003 in the rest of the United Kingdom. Rosie also provided some context on the Queer Community in Scotland and posed the question as to whether Scotland was indeed ahead of the curve? Homosexuality was, after all, decriminalised 13 years later than in England. She closed by stating there was still a long way to go. Despite the progress being made in some quarters, 1 in 5 LGBT+ people still report to have experienced a hate crime in the past year.
Tom and Henry from Uncover_Ed presented following Rosie’s talk; outlining the student research project they had been involved in, which focused on surfacing the lives and contributions of the University of Edinburgh’s global alumni. The UncoverED exhibition launched 31 January 2019 in the Crystal Macmillan Building.
“UncoverEd is a collaborative and decolonising research project, funded by Edinburgh Global, which aims to situate the ‘global’ status of the University of Edinburgh in its rightful imperial and colonial context. Led by PhD candidates Henry Mitchell and Tom Cunningham, the team of eight student researchers are creating a database of students from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Americas from as early as 1700, and writing social histories of the marginalised student experience. The aim was to produce at least one biography each of a ‘notable’ alumnus, leading up to a website and exhibition in January 2019”.
Roger Bamkin, co-founder of WikiProject Women in Red, was also in attendance and helped support the staff, students and members of the public at our Diversithon to create and improve Wikipedia pages over the course of the afternoon. WikiProject Women in Red is the second most active WikiProject on Wikipedia and its aim is to turn red-linked articles about notable women which don’t yet exist into blue clickable links which do.
“In November 2014, only about 15% of the English Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. Founded in July 2015, WiR strives to improve the figure, which has reached17.73% as of 18 February 2019. But that means, according to WHGI, only 284,439 of our 1,604,512 biographies are about women. Not impressed? “Content gender gap” is a form of systemic bias, and WiR addresses it in a positive way through shared values.”
Through our combined efforts, over the course of an afternoon, the following pages were produced:
Jane Pirie (1779-1833) opened a girl’s school in Edinburgh and was accused of lesbianism with the school’s co-founder Marianne Woods. The story of the court case was the inspiration for Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour”.
Lisa Middleton is the 1st transgender person to be elected in California for a nonjudicial position. Lisa was included in the 2016 Pride Honors Awards recipients from Palm Springs Pride with the Spirit of Stonewall Community Service Award.
Xheni Karaj is a LGBT rights activist and co-founder of the Aleanca LGBT organization. Xheni, together with Kristi Pinderi, were among the first activists to launch the LGBT rights movement in Albania. Translated from Albanian Wikipedia.
Clara Marguerite Christian (1895-1964), was born in Dominica and was the 1st black woman to study at the University of Edinburgh. Her university experience speaks to the “double jeopardy” of “navigating both race and gender within whiteness”, embodying “the simultaneous invisibility and hyper-visibility” of being a black woman in Edinburgh during the 1910s”.
Jabulani Chen Pereira is a queer South African activist & visual artist. In 2012, Pereira founded Iranti (South African LGBT organisation), a non-governmental organisation focusing queer human rights issues primarily through visual media.
Annette Eick (1909-2010) was a Jewish Lesbian writer. During the 1920s, a liberal time period in the Weimar republic, Eick wrote poems and short stories for lesbian magazines. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, she had to give up on journalism and started working as a nanny. In 1938, she was granted a visum to live in the UK and fled to London after surviving an attack by Nazis on the farm she was staying at during the Reichkristallnacht. Her parents were murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp. In London, Eick worked as a nanny and housekeeper and met her partner Getrud Klingel. They moved to Devon, where they opened a nursery and Eick started writing again. Her collection of poems, Immortal Muse, was published in 1984 and turned into a short film called The Immortal Muse by Jules Hussey in 2005. Eick became known to a wider audience through the documentary ‘Paragraph 175’ from 2000, which told the experiences of five gay men and one lesbian woman (Eick) that were prosecuted under the paragraph 175 which criminalised homosexuality.
Elizabeth Kerekere is a scholar, artist & activist within the LGBTQ+ community in New Zealand. Kerekere has been an active member of the Green Party, promoting suicide prevention, anti-violence, healthy relationships and housing for all.
Jessica Platt is a professional hockey player and an advocate for transgender rights. She plays for the Toronto Furies in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and was the first transgender woman to play in the CWHL.
Les+ Magazine was started in 2005 by a group of young Chinese lesbians. The slogan of the 1st issue states ‘After the darkness fades away, I’ll be holding ur hand, walking under the sunlight with pride, boldly & happily living our lives!‘.
Lala is a non-derogatory Chinese slang term for lesbian, or a same-sex desiring woman. It is used primarily by the LGBT+ community in mainland China, though the term has origins in the Taiwanese term for lesbian, lazi (Chinese: 拉子).
NEWLY drafted to Wikipedia: Mala Maña is an all-female vocal group from New Mexico, fusing contemporary & folkloric rhythm of the African diasporas with Latin American music. Can you help finish the article so we can publish it?
NEWLY drafted to Wikipedia:Marsha H. Levine is the founder of InterPride, an international organisation for Pride committees. She was Parade Manager of San Francisco Pride from 2000-2018. Can you help finish the article so we can publish?
If you want to know more about the Diversithon or would like to suggest a Wikipedia event yourself then the Wikimedia residency is a free resource available to staff an students at the university. Message me at email@example.com
Hannah is a native of Los Alamos, New Mexico. She graduated with dual bachelor’s degrees in Economics and International Studies from Colorado State University in the Spring of 2018. She is currently pursuing an MSc in Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh where she is also President of the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society.
The Festival of Creative Learning trip “Medieval Abbeys Under Siege” which was organised by the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society at the University of Edinburgh took students on a trip into history.
Visiting four different abbeys along the border between Scotland and England, students were able to learn about and envision a period of history ranging from the foundation of the abbeys in the early 12th century to their declining or changing usage in the 17th century.
Abbeys provided an important function in medieval society, housing monks and nuns of religious orders while also providing care, refuge and sometimes even education to those in need. Not only were these abbeys places of life and religious practice, they also currently act as the historic final resting places of Sir Walter Scott and (possibly) the heart of Robert the Bruce.
The medieval abbeys that rest on the Scottish border experienced hundreds of years of unrest as they were the perfect target for attacks during the Wars of Independence and the Protestant Reformation. The abbeys of Dryburgh, Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose are maintained by Historic Environment Scotland and provide the perfect medium for hands-on and creative learning.
Much in the way
that a book can require months of writing and production to produce a living,
breathing novel, events are also a painstaking process which mercilessly drain
morale and resources. I’m kidding, I promise. Putting an event together is an
absolute joy. The aim of the enterprise is to gather a group of like-minded (in
this case, lovely and bookish) people together, and entertain, inform, perhaps
even enthral them. In this wee piece, I will outline the process of creating an
event using the framework of our recent event ‘The Life of a Book’. I hope that
it entertains, informs, and perhaps even enthrals you.
Who is your
audience and what do they want to see? These are the most important
considerations to make and will ensure that anyone who comes along will have a
grand old time. For ‘The Life of a Book’, we wanted to give our members the
chance to hear from real-life industry professionals, giving an accessible
overview of the process of bringing a book to life. From there, the decision to
have a publisher and their author was a no-brainer, to specifically have 404
Ink and Chris McQueer even more so. Choose the people who are at the heart of
the concept you want to put on stage.
Find Some Funding
There is so
much funding available for events run by very determined people! Especially if
you are a university society, like us. Knowing that this event was going to
have more costs than our usual ‘pens and paper for the writing workshop’, we
scoured the Student’s Association website for a fund to suit us. We found out
that our event could be part of the Festival of Creative Learning, and through
our enthusiasm and a clear plan, we secured enough funding to bring our
wonderful speakers to the stage. Thank you FCL! (A shout out to your sponsors
You are the
politely worded email, the politely worded email is you. In our case, we were
contacting experts who we had a fairly distant connection with, so
professionalism and enthusiasm were key. In much the same vein as emailing to
ask for a job or internship: find out the name of the person you are emailing,
be clear and give them as much information as possible (the date, the event
outline, what you will pay them, etc.), show a genuine interest in what they do
(you obviously have one!), and tell them a bit about your organisation and what
your members will get from the event. If people know that you would value their
contribution, they will be a whole lot more likely to say yes.
This one can be
tricky. The best way to go about things is to figure out exactly what you want
and find somewhere that caters for your requirements. We needed a stage, four
microphones, and seating for around 80 people. A bit of Googling showed that
the Pleasance Cabaret Bar had all of those things, so there we were! It’s good
to be looking into the venue at least 2 months before the event, just to save yourself
running around town like a headless chicken and eventually trying to squeeze 60
people into the corner of St. Andrews Brewing Co. Not that we would know.
designer friend to make you a fancy banner for your event and you are off!
Alternatively, pay a professional designer, or wap out Paint and give it a go
yourself. We shared ‘The Life of a Book’ fairly relentlessly through our
newsletter, Facebook and Twitter, increasing the frequency of the posts in the
lead up to the event to drum up a bit of excitement. Getting wee bios and
pictures from your speakers/performers is a great way to put some variety in
what you’re posting, and always remember to tag them – they might even share
the post so you can reach a wider audience!
Make sure to
keep your speakers/performers updated in the run up to your event – the last
thing you want is them panicking, because then you’ll panic, and then everyone
will be panicking and no one wants that. We made sure to send over updates on
the content of the event, venue confirmations, information about invoicing us
and any other relevant details. Keeping it cheery is always a good shout –
you’re excited about the event and they should know that!
Running the Event
(hopefully) the easy bit. You’ve already planned it, after all! Get to the
venue ridiculously early because twiddling your thumbs is always better than
sprinting around like mad people (again, not that we would know). Welcome your
speakers, check in with them, get them a glass of water… or perhaps a double
gin and tonic, depending on the evening. Then nervously wait for that ‘2
minutes before start time’ rush of attendees, and you are good to go! At ‘The
Life of a Book’, this was the point where the committee was able to sit back,
relax, and watch our wonderful speakers do their thing.
Be sure to thank everyone! Thank your speakers, your fellow organisers, the attendees, the bar staff, the tech guy, the person who accidentally wandered in and quickly ran back out – no person shall go unthanked! And gather feedback; a concise Google form does wonders for letting you know what your audience enjoyed, and what they’d like to see. Follow up on all the last wee things with your speakers and venue – i.e. payment, and more thank yous! Then get prepping for your next event, because chances are it’s only a couple of weeks away and you need to get sprinting (we would know).
by Doe Charles, Illustrated by George Williams
often illustrators and designers are neglected in the publishing world. How
often do you hear about the author of a novel, or even the house? It’s pretty
often; now compare this to how often you hear about the illustrators – it’s
vastly different. In an attempt to quash this difference (albeit on a small
scale because we are but one society) PublishED decided to host a panel event
on illustration in publishing, an event affectionately now titled: No Unicorn
Books… Please. Some pretty amazing speakers came to talk to us, from a range of
different backgrounds, and they shed light on various aspects of the industry.
What’s that? You couldn’t make it, I hear? Fortunately, we’ve got you covered.
Phewph, that was a close call.
than outline the whole evening – which would take a while: the talk was an hour
and a half, guys… – instead I’ve grouped things together into general
themes/topics, each alongside an illustration of one of our guest speakers by
the lovely George Williams. How topical of us. So without further ado, and with
far less rambling, here goes:
What is the industry
everything in publishing, the general consensus was that it’s pretty hard to
define what the industry is. But, this is a good thing – it means there’s loads
of room to find your own area, and there’s more room to work in a way that
might suit you better. Arguably, the industry is less focused on the process
itself, rather the end product, something that was highlighted by each of the
speakers. As Alan Windram said, it’s about ‘getting that reaction from
children’: an ethos that can be carried across the different age groups and
main takeaway about the industry: collaboration is everything, you will be
working with other people all the time. Learn to collaborate.
What are the interactions
between illustrator and writer?
fickle one to answer, as there isn’t a straightforward response. Augusta and
Eilidh noting their own experiences which differed greatly. In short, a lot
depends on the publishing house: each has their own process. Lucy also noted
that cost is a big factor in this – some houses and writers are able to
interact more with the illustrator, others aren’t because it is too expensive.
The main takeaway here was that no two experiences you have will be the same.
of a book.
are a lot of variations to this, and things will shift around, and flow back
into each other, but, here is one flowchart of one ‘journey of a book’
–> Spreads –> Colour Palette –> Final Spreads
bear in mind, this is highly subject to change, and a more accurate
representation would involve about 80 more arrows… at least.
take only one thing away from this article, and I really hope that you take
away more, take away this: credit your illustrators. Without illustrators, you
get some pretty boring books, especially for kids, so start crediting them
please and thank you. Also, in the process, let’s work on getting the press to
stop cutting out information about illustrators – yes, we know they do it…
is a great hashtag across social media, and it’s well worth checking out. So go
and empower yourself, and more illustrators. Pictures really do mean business.
What lends itself to illustration?
more a question of what doesn’t lend itself to illustration. The general themes
were: avoid rhyming like the plague – it’s a faff, and it doesn’t translate
well; and, no unicorn books – stop consistently using what is popular, and
think outside the box. Another useful tip from Augusta was to use your
surroundings for inspiration.
Hot top tips:
‘Publishers want texts
that knock you sideways’ – Lucy Juckes
For illustrators, writers
12 double page spreads of story
Limit of 700 words
Start at the beginning, head to the end, and then do the middle
Send at least 3 texts to show you’re not a one off
Send independently as either a writer OR an illustrator
There we have it, a brief summary of the event, and an attempt to outline an incredibly vast industry. We have lots more talks coming up, including one detailing more closely the process of writing a book, from conception through to production. It’s well worth checking out our Facebook page or Twitter for more information.
Here at InterSci, we love bringing different perspectives together. And what could be more different than art and science?
Quite a lot it turns out. These two seemingly polarised cultures have some uncanny similarities. They both require unyielding creativity and curiosity, for example. It is similarities like this, as well as key differences, that make the collision of these two worlds so exciting to explore. So we thought we would.
Last year, we brought artists and scientists together in a workshop co-created by ASCUS Art & Science, an Edinburgh based non-profit organisation dedicated to bridging the gap between art and science. Inside the ASCUS lab, microscopes lined the worktops and conical flasks sat on the shelves; you’d have never guessed that we were actually in an art studio. In our workshop, artists and scientists paired up to collaboratively create pieces of art on postcards based on the scientist’s research and the artists creative medium. It was so successful, we decided to do it all again.
This year, our workshop brought together scientists in cancer biology, microscopy, analytical chemistry, laser technology and astrophysics and artists in printmaking, jewellery making, writing, textile and sculpture.
I participated in the workshop as a member of the InterSci team because I wanted to explore my PhD project from a different angle, having no background in art. The artist I worked with is in Fine Art and is interested in thinking about our place in the universe and how things come into being. Together, we created two postcards based on my research looking at the changes in DNA that cause epilepsy and autism. We decided to create one postcard focussed on epilepsy and the other one autism. We based these postcards on the emotions an individual may feel if they have epilepsy or autism: fear and loneliness respectively. Through this workshop, I learned that art can be very therapeutic and it made me think about my work in interesting ways that I never would have considered. Exploring the boundary between art and science, for me, was a worthwhile thing to do. I would highly recommend this process to other scientists who want to step out of their comfort zone, do something a bit different and see their work from a different perspective.
“It’s time to let the secret out: Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us.”
From ‘A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper’ by John Allen Paulos
Newspapers and online articles are filled with an attractive, addictive jumble of gossip, headlines, statistics, quotes, tips, life-changing news and celebrities. How do we sort this mess into fact, fiction, or, as I suspect forms the majority, somewhat meaningful half-truths? Making this task harder, is our innate wishful-thinking. As humans, we find it hard to look past our emotions and biases to evaluate articles and arguments in a rational objective way. This is where maths, particularly logic and statistics, can help us. And contrary to common belief, this doesn’t mean we need big calculations, abstraction from reality or number-crunching. Rather, we need to creatively imagine alternative scenarios to encourage a healthy skepticism; we need to puzzle-out mind-boggling statistical paradoxes and we need to use rational-thinking to find a clear path through an otherwise misleading and overcrowded junk-heap of ‘facts’.
In our workshop for the Festival of Creative Learning 2019, we applied a few simple concepts to analyse a selection of print articles and online articles on current news topics. One of the most useful concepts was the difference between good arguments, which are merely those which are reasonable, and valid arguments, which are those that if you believe the assumptions, you have to believe the conclusion. We are more likely to believe an argument is valid if we believe the assumptions and the conclusion. Can you spot which of the following arguments is valid?
Tidying our houses means that our possessions are easy to find. Therefore tidying our houses makes us feel better.
Cannibalism is a personal and acceptable choice although it causes harm to people. Therefore it is okay to inflict harm on people.
In the workshop, attendees chose to analyse a varied range of article topics from various sources. The body language of Shamima Begum, the health benefits of pomegranates, a rise in Chinese applications to Scottish universities, antibiotic resistance and a politically-charged article on the SNP investment plan are just a few. Almost universally, we found that the articles appealed to unnamed ‘experts’ for facts, unnamed ‘studies’ for statistics and unnamed ‘critics’ for opinions. Emotionally-charged language such as ‘back-of-a-fag-packet’ or ‘massive ego’ abounded and so did unexplained sciencey-buzzwords e.g. ‘phytochemicals’. The domains of statistics were unspecified. Apparently ‘a quarter of Chinese applications are to Scottish universities’. Is that likely? We believe the author meant ‘out of those to UK universities’. Arguments were never out of a logic textbook, but reconstructing implicit premises and reasoning, we found many that were reasonable. However, particularly the politically charged articles tended to be one-sided, presenting mostly arguments from one side.
Why not have a go at analysing a news article yourself? Here are some tips for conducting a logical and statistics-savvy investigation. Compare your analysis with the way you normally read an article. Do you find that you see flaws in statements that you would usually take on trust?
Try to determine the thesis of the article. What are the author’s conclusions? What is being argued for and against?
Is this intended to be one person’s opinion or as an objective news article? Has it been clearly labelled as opinion or fact?
Search out emotive language. Is it helpful in understanding the feelings of other people, or is it exaggerated and manipulative?
Look for counterexamples to every conclusion drawn. If they are outlandish, the conclusion is probably reasonable.
Work out the underlying reasoning behind arguments. Once you have found what you think is the general structure, think again whether the argument is reasonable.
Look for some reference for every fact (e.g. to a study, expert, book) and evaluate the quality of the reference.
Do the statistics make sense? Is the value expected or surprising? Sometimes a news article can present the statistic in different ways to make it seem big or small. For example, they could say ‘1000 people in the UK get disease X every year’ which seems like a lot. Or they could say ‘the chances of anyone getting disease X are 0.0015%’ which seems unbelievably small. But in fact, they are equivalent statements! So think of alternative presentations of the statistic before you decide it is large or small.
Are there any implicit assumptions, including stereotypes or assumptions based on our culture?
Is the article balanced and fair? Would anyone feel offended by what the article says?
Is the headline relatively accurate compared to the actual content of the article?
If there are any photographs, visuals and graphs, do they contradict the content of the article? Are they emotive or do they mislead? Have they been accurately labelled and explained?
If you would like to explore this topic further, here are some of the resources I found inspiring when putting this workshop together.
‘A mathematician reads the newspaper’ by John Allen Paulos
‘Logic’ by Wilfred Hodges
Some interesting resources on using argument technology to analyse an ethical debate:
The Dissection of Medical Dramas was a fun and interactive workshop that used role-play and popular television medical dramas, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago MED and Scrubs to identify and discuss ethical issues that arise in the medical context. It aimed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the issues.
The workshop covered various issues,
The four governing principles in medical ethics
Explicit and implied consent
Consent and refusal of consent
Informed and valid consent
Rights of refusal in relation to competent adult patients
Rights of refusal in relation to women in late pregnancy
Limits to autonomy in pregnant women
Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) Orders
Mature Minors and Gillick Competency
The audience members were very engaged
during the discussion of these matters and raised some extremely relevant and
interesting questions, allowing for reflection and consideration of some
controversial, topical and emotive issues. Most audience members participated
and we had some illuminating discussions as a result of the questions raised by
the audience members. This was extremely rewarding and added to the overall
value of the experience.
The feedback we received from the audience on our event was very positive. All of the audience members who provided feedback said that they would recommend the event to others and that they learnt something new. Almost all of them said that they found the event to be very useful. Upon reflection of the event, we felt like we would need to better manage our time should we run our event again in the future as we were unable to cover the role-play segment on the day. We had an unexpected, yet welcome, enthusiastic and highly engaged audience that raised several questions and issues after each clip. It was more important to have audience engagement than cover everything we had planned, however, in future we aim to better prepare for this so the audience gets to experience both segments, while ensuring that they can still be actively engaged.
Furthermore, the event might have benefited from a different room as the lighting, which would not turn off, reduced the quality of the images and video clips we showed. The room boasted terrific views of the coast line and the Firth of Forth, but unfortunately the window blinds had to be drawn. Another feature that could be considered should we run the event in the future would be acquiring a smaller, more intimate space as this one was quite big, making the number of audience members look smaller. Some people mentioned that the room itself was not the easiest to find and possibly a more easily accessible room would increase numbers.
This experience has nevertheless been amazing and certainly highly rewarding. The event has had a great impact as shown by the positive feedback we received and we have also been approached by members of staff to discuss our event with the purpose of sharing it with others.