Literature and Empathy

Jerry Coyne has a post on a study published in Science about how reading literary fiction makes people more empathetic.  (He uses the word empathic, which looks to be the same thing, but the WordPress spellchecker objects to it.) Here is the New York Times writeup of the study, which uses empathetic.

[The study] found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Coyne finds the study unconvincing, as does Steven Pinker in a tweet. The significance levels aren’t all that high, and the empathy level is measured immediately after reading — there is nothing to suggest that the effect, if real, is permanent.  And one of the tests of empathy used — where you look at pictures of people and guess what emotions they are expressing — seems really unlikely to be affected by the kind of prose you just read.

The study offers the kind of results that English teachers and writers and fiction lovers will like.  Which provides plenty of reason to treat it with a bit of suspicion — it’s easy to be convinced by studies that prove what you already are sure is true.

But in any case, does it matter?  I suppose I’d like to be able to tell my kids that they should read good fiction because it will improve their emotional intelligence or social perception or whatever.  But even if it does no such thing, they ought to read good fiction because it will make their lives better.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Scenes from a commencement

Sunday was the157th commencement of Tufts University.  And kid number one was part of it!

The Tufts mascot is Jumbo the elephant, because P. T. Barnum was an early benefactor.  Here’s a statue of Jumbo:

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And here’s how we painted our garage doors to celebrate the commencement:

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Tom Brady attended the B.U. commencement, but hey, we got B. J. Novak from “The Office”!  His brother was graduating.

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Here is our graduate with some of his fraternity brothers, gazing off into the unimaginable future:

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Here is the basement of the fraternity house, a scene of unimaginable decadence and squalor:

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I’d include a photo of their bathroom, but I might face sanctions from WordPress.

Here is James with his Arabic professor.  I don’t recall professors like this in my day.

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Congratulations to James, and Jumbo, and B. J. Novak’s brother, and everyone!

More on the Harvard Cheating Scandal

See here for my previous post on the scandal. One of the writers at the great Lawyers, Guns, & Money blog has another post about it.  The New York Times article giving the students’ side of the case doesn’t make the writer more sympathetic.

In other words, a substantial number of students at one of America’s elite educational institutions expected a gut course, and were appalled when they were expected to learn something and given exams where there was some risk of bad performance.

I can easily imagine that there was some of that going on, but the situation really does sound different to me.  Here is a quote from a Harvard Crimson article the writer links to:

Another student wrote that he or she joined about 15 other students at a teaching fellow’s office hours on the morning of May 3, just hours before the final take-home exam’s 5 p.m. deadline.

“Almost all of [the students at office hours] had been awake the entire night, and none of us could figure out what an entire question (worth 20% of the grade) was asking,” the student wrote. “On top of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF had to give us a definition to use for the question.”

That same student also expressed frustration that Platt [the professor] had canceled his office hours the morning before the exam was due. In a brief email to the class just after 10 a.m. on May 3, Platt apologized for having to cancel his office hours on short notice that day due to an appointment.

The Lawyers, Guns, & Money writer talks about the students’ “pathetic sense of entitlement,” but this quote doesn’t sound like students who were annoyed that they were actually being asked to study for a course where they had expected an easy A.  It sounds more like students who were in a panic when they realized the course hadn’t prepared them for the final.

I’m still inclined to view this more as a case of educational malpractice than of organized cheating by a bunch of entitled elite students.  And I’m still convinced that the Harvard administration is going to have a tough time making any charges stick against these kids.  I have a reunion coming up at Harvard in a few weeks that I was making plans to not attend.  It might be worth going just to find out how Faust and company are handling this thing.

Thoughts on the Harvard cheating scandal

This blog seems to be turning into a real-time ethics course.  What are we to make of the Harvard cheating scandal?

When news of the scandal broke on Friday, there was much wringing of hands and clutching of pearls, along with a lot of schadenfreude. Here‘s one typical response. My initial thoughts were:

  • There’s got to be more to this story.
  • The professor was probably an idiot.

I can easily imagine Harvard pre-med students cheating on some important required course like Organic Chemistry (if Orgo gave them the opportunity, which I doubt it does). And they shouldn’t do that! But no Harvard student would have to cheat on a well-run intro Gov course, and there should be no incentive to.  And so today some of the complexities have started coming out.

Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected.

Here are the rules for the exam:

But the instructions on the exam said students should consider it “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” The professor had encouraged students to collaborate in their other course work.

A lawyer could drive a truck through that “etc.”.  Also:

Instructions on the final exam said, “students may not discuss the exam with others.” Students said that consulting with the fellows on exams was commonplace, that the [teaching] fellows generally did not turn students away, and that the fellows did not always understand the questions, either.

One student recalled going to a teaching fellow while working on the final exam and finding a crowd of others there, asking about a test question that hinged on an unfamiliar term. The student said the fellow defined the term for them.

The impression the articles give is that this had been an exceptionally easy course for years, the professor was trying to tighten it up, and he went about it the wrong way, by creating a confusing test with confusing rules.  And the result was chaos.

How does Harvard clean up a mess like this? They’ve got to say the right things about not tolerating cheating and upholding the ideals of the university and blah blah blah.  But if they really try to punish those students, they’re in for a fight, as well as for a ton of bad publicity.  I’ve got to imagine that a bunch of the students have parents who can afford high-powered lawyers, or who are high-powered lawyers themselves.

[Students] face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.

Remind me never to become a university president; it’s not worth the hassle.  Drew Gilpin Faust will probably appoint a faculty commission to look at standards for take-home exams and what-not. But I’ll be very surprised if any of those students get anything more than a warning to go forth and sin no more.  And, based on what we know so far, that’s about all the punishment they deserve.  This isn’t a plagiarism scandal; it’s a bad teaching scandal.

Stumbling on “Stumbling on Happiness”

I seem to be stuck in a rut, reading mostly books written by Harvard professors.  The latest is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology there.  It’s not about how to be happy, but about why we have difficulty figuring out what will make us happy.  As he says about books about how to be happy:

Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.

The problem we face, he says, is that our imaginations are faulty in systematic, predictable ways.  He points to the case of conjoined twins who spend every moment of their lives locked together, face-to-face, but who can’t imagine undergoing surgical separation.  “Why would you want to do that?” one of them asks.  “For all the tea in China, why?  You’d be ruining two lives in the process.”  A medical historian says this isn’t unique–in fact, he found the “desire to remain together  to be so widespread among communicating conjoined twins as to be practically universal.”  And yet conventional medical wisdom is that conjoined twins should be separated at birth, even at the risk of killing one or both.  This, Gilbert points out, is a failure of imagination.  When we imagine how others feel, or how our future selves might feel, we focus on ourselves in the present.  If we think we don’t have enough money, we imagine that having more money will make us happier; we can see now, so we can’t imagine that we could still be happy if we were to go blind.  But in fact, over a certain level of income, money doesn’t make people any happier, and blind people are as happy as sighted people.

Everything he says seems insightful and perfectly reasonable, but I have to say that every time I encounter findings from social psychology, behavioral economics, and related fields, I wonder about how reproducible they are.  This is pretty basic concern in these fields, and it’s referred to as the WEIRD problem. Most research of the sort Gilbert talks about is carried out on American undergraduates or people like them; the samples are overwhelmingly from drawn from societies that are Wealthy Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic. And there is a good bit of evidence that we have little basis on which to extend the findings of the research to the rest of humanity.  I suppose this may not be much of a issue for Stumbling on Happiness, which is aimed at people who are probably not terribly different from American undergraduates.  But I can never shake the feeling that grand statements about human behavior are being made on the basis on relatively flimsy evidence.

But mostly I don’t care when it comes to Gilbert, because he is a spectacularly good writer.  Wikipedia tells me that he started out wanting to be a science fiction writer, but the creative writing class was full at his local community college, so he took the only course that was open, which was Introduction to Psychology.  This was science fiction’s loss (although he has published stories in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, where I have also appeared).  He has a way with sentences that Lisa Randall should attempt to emulate.  Here is a paragraph taken at random:

By muddling causes and consequences, philosophers have been forced to construct tortured defenses of some truly astonishing claims–for example, that a Nazi war criminal who is basking on an Argentinean beach is not really happy, whereas the pious missionary who is being eaten alive by cannibals is. “Happiness will not tremble,” Cicero wrote in the first century BC, “however much it is tortured.” That statement may be admired for its moxie, but it probably doesn’t capture the sentiments of the missionary who was drafted to play the role of the entrée.

This is good stuff.  I’d love to take a course from the guy.

In which I issue a pre-emptory challenge

I’m listening to a course from UC Berkeley called “Punishment, Culture, and Society.”  It’s pretty good!  But I’m not going to talk about it!

Instead I want to talk about the professor’s grammar and pronunciation.  They ain’t that great.  He seems to think phenomena is singular; he uses hung when pedants would say he should use hanged.  (He occasionally corrects himself on the latter — someone apparently taught him the rule — but he can’t get it right consistently.)  And here are some of his mispronunciations:

  • Peremptory comes out sounding like pre-emptory.  And the guy’s a lawyer!
  • He says maelstorm instead of maelstrom.
  • He pronounces gibbet with a hard g — like gibson instead of giblet.  And the guy’s an expert on the death penalty!

Lectures are actually a good place to come across mispronunciations.  Where else are you going to hear the word gibbet?  I actually have no idea why I know how to pronounce it (I looked it up to make sure I was right).

It’s too bad we can’t easily track pronunciation over time, the way Google Ngram Viewer lets us track print usage.  How does a dictionary writer know that gibbet is pronounced with a soft g?  How is the poor law professor supposed to figure it out, without consulting a dictionary?

A long long time ago I wrote a series of vocabulary-building books.  One of them contained the word flaccid.  The dictionaries I checked all gave the pronunciation as FLAK-sid.  But literally everyone I asked actually pronounced the word FLASS-id.  (And I asked a lot of people — I have no idea what they thought of me.)  At some point dictionaries acknowledged the existence of FLASS-id as an alternative, and this article says some dictionaries now give it as the preferred pronunciation.

It seems to me that almost no one actually speaks the word flaccid, so some people figure out its pronunciation by applying some rule or via analogy — e.g., “flaccid is formed like accident, and I know how to pronounce accident.”  Or, if they can’t figure out a rule or an analogy, they try to intuit the pronunciation through some sense of the word’s meaning — e.g., “flaccid has something to do with softness and flabbiness, so it must have a soft, flabby pronunciation.”  What’s odd is that I now hear the soft acc sound in other words, like accessory.  What’s up with that?

Back to the law professor.  The Language Wars, the book I’m currently reading, describes the tortuous path English has taken to get to its current state of spelling, grammar, and pronunciation.  In the iptivist divide, it’s descriptivist, not prescriptivist.  Who cares how you pronounce gibbet, or if you use hung instead of hanged?  No one misunderstands what the professor is saying.  And yet, I can’t help getting the impression that the guy must be a bit of a lightweight.  Wouldn’t someone who really knew what he was doing manage to align his grammar and pronunciation with current standards, however arbitrary they may be?

That’s why writers would do well to heed Rule 7.

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (also, the cutest kitten photos ever!!)

OK, I’m lying about the kitten photos.  It’s just that the title of the post seemed a wee bit abstruse without throwing in some kittens.

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes was a bestseller when it was published in 1976.  Its thesis, briefly, is that consciousness as we know it arose very recently in human history — around 3000 years ago.  Before that, human beings were more like zombies, lacking introspection, and responding to auditory hallucinations coming from the right side of their brains — hallucinations that they typically interpreted as being the voices of gods.  This “bicameral mind” started to break down during the second millennium BCE in the face of the stresses of migrations, natural disasters, the development of writing, and so on.

Julian Jaynes

When I read the book, the evidence I found most interesting was Jaynes’s comparison between the Iliad and the OdysseyNone of the characters in the Iliad show any introspection — they are the playthings of the gods.  In the Odyssey, on the other hand, Odysseus is supremely introspective; the gods are still integral to the story, but Odysseus is his own master.  (Of course, the dating of both epics is pretty conjectural, since they had they origins in oral performance, probably hundreds of years before they were written down.)

Anyway, the book disappeared from my consciousness after I read it, and I never noticed any other books by Jaynes.  Was he just another scientific crank like Velikovsky?

The answer, it seems, is (pretty much) no.  The first time I encountered a reference to Jaynes in recent years was in a footnote to Dawkins’s The God Delusion, where he says, “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.”  That sounds about right to me.  The book does, of course, offer an intriguing explanation of sorts for the origin of religion, but Dawkins just mentions it in passing.

I was more surprised last week when Jaynes came up in a UC Berkeley course I was listening to called “Scientific Approaches to Consciousness.”  The professor devoted his final lecture to Jaynes’s theory, without offering any criticism of it — apparently it is worthy of being taught, more or less uncritically, to Berkeley undergrads.

The Wikipedia articles suggest that Jaynes’s theory is not quite in the scientific mainstream, but lots of interesting people (like Daniel Dennett) continue to have good things to say about it.  There is a Julian Jaynes Society, the existence of which strikes me as rather culty.  Here is a recent critique of the theory.  Time to reread the book itself, I guess.

And OK, here is a cute kitten: