I make no apologies for how ever dull, dry and boring some of my blog posts here may seem to some people. This may be one of those posts, but this is my blog and I'll write want I want to.
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly New Statesman, February 25, 1933
My favourite pastime is studying. I like learning about all sorts of things, music, science, politics, economics, history and current affairs. This led me towards MOOC - Massive Online Open courses. These are being run by universities all over the globe. They use them as a sort of sales vehicle in the hope that if you get hooked on them you will upscale to a paid course.
I've done dozens of these courses in recent years. One that I particularly enjoyed last year was run by Stanford University and was entitled Introduction to Mathematical Thinking and hosted by a well respected mathematician called Dr. Keith Devlin.
Much of the course was devoted to the application of the rigors of mathematical logic to the everyday language we humans use. All human languages have shortcomings that make it easy for meaning to be distorted and misconstrued (as do the users of them). By applying certain mathematical rules, we can overcome many of the errors of thinking people make everyday.
This concept was not entirely new to me. In fact the course reminded me that when I was a kid, maybe in the first or second year of secondary school, I was lucky enough to read a book by RH Thouless called Straight and Crooked Thinking. This book was quite famous back then but seems to have fallen out of fashion of late. You can however read it online: Straight and Crooked Thinking by RH Thouless.
The book was a revelation to me then. I was just becoming interested in politics and reading the newspaper at that time, so the book helped me avoid some of the pitfalls that one encounters in dealing with communications that have an agenda at heart.
Many concepts are covered in the book, certainly too many to explain here within the confines of the 1000 word target of this blog post. However I'll give you a few examples of the type of issues the book addresses and how they come in handy when listening/reading the daily news.
The first chapter introduces the concept of emotionally charged words. Often, especially where a newspaper is trying to trigger a prescribed response, a journalist will use similes of harmless words, replacing them with alternatives that may contain stigma, prejudice or some other emotional colour. The Daily Express is particularly good at this using it as a technique to elicit clicks in its online version every day. Here is a random title from today's edition "Sturgeon FUMING as she's savaged for IndyRef2 obsession amid SNP-led Scotland 'CRISIS". Can you see what they did here? FUMING, savaged, obsession and CRISIS are all emotionally charged words that could have been written with milder alternatives (annoyed, condemned, concentration and situation for example), but the author has deliberately used the most extreme alternative for each of these words with the deliberate intention of making the SNP leader look bad because the Express don't care much for the SNP.
I saw another good example in a tweet this week. The MP Zarah Sultana had made a speech in the house. She tweeted a video excerpt from her speech along with the message:
Just because they want to learn, young people are burdened with colossal student debt.
My debt is nearly £50,000 & last year alone it grew by more than £2,000 in interest.
Now someone who is obviously a supporter of the party on the opposite benches replied:
Just a thought Zara , is it fair that kids whom choose to become bricklayer, plumbers , electricians etc pay via their tax for their peers to drink and socialise throughout a 3 year course in media studies at some spurious polytechnic ?
The chap has used a series of emotionally charged words and concepts in his reply to belittle the MPs position. Let's deconstruct this because it is quite skillfully and mischeiviously done. Firstly he uses the word 'kids', suggesting that children are being taken advantage of. Yet he's actually talking about people of working age. Would have been less inaccurate perhaps to say 'young adults'. Then he names three trades, bricklayer, plumbers and electricians, as examples of these working age adult's jobs. Notice he chose to use types of work associated with the working class. He could have said 'banker, stock broker or civil servant' none of which necessarily require a degree to enter, but his choice again emotionally colours his argument. He then asks why these people's taxes should pay for their peers to 'drink and socialise' - notice that he didn't say 'study' which is what student loans are for. The vast majority of students don't borrow enough to pay to drink and socialise, many indeed have jobs to help pay for food, but again he's cleverly invoking a stereotype of student days of the past which were much easier than today. Then the last two stingers, 'three year course in media studies' and 'some spurious polytechnic' both of which are deliberately designed emotional triggers. Media Studies are often derided as vacuous and easy options by right-wing commentators, however ironically the people on media studies courses are the ones learning the very pitfalls and traps the author is laying. Again 'polytechnic' is a derogatory term for university, as they were tertiary educational institutions in the UK which, prior to 1992 were regarded differently to universities due to their specialization in STEM subjects, a distinction that was abandoned in 1992 by the further and higher education act.
So nearly every word and phrase in this tweet has been tweaked with emotionally charged language, designed to persuade the reader to believe a particular political viewpoint.
For what its worth I replied with:
Is it fair that many have no choice other than to become bricklayers, plumbers, electricians etc because they can't risk taking on student debt as they already come from a poor background?
Twitter's character limit makes it hard to address each of the authors' word choices individually!
Talking of limits, I've just reach mine for this blog post. In fact I'm over the 1000 word target already! But I hope I've introduced you to the gist of Straight and Crooked Thinking, a topic I may revisit in the future.