Our worlds of words

I’ve come across a terrific infographic on academia.edu, posted by Nathaniel A. Rivers (Thinker/Thought, 2015), and I figured that a blog post would be a good way to share it.

Here’s the link to the graphic: thinker_thought_burke_definition

The infographic distills some of the thinking of the late Kenneth Burke, America’s most famous rhetorical critic (and my favorite as well). I turn to Burke’s writings often (as I’ve done just now) in the course of my exploration of the rhetoric of human space flight.

Rhetoric, in Burke’s view, is “an essential function of language…the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to

symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives, 1969). For Burke, the symbolic action of communication is the way that people make meaning, the means of creating and maintaining subjective social reality, “the dancing of an attitude” toward that reality (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 1973). For traditional rhetorical scholars, the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. For Burke, the goal of rhetoric is identification. Burke advocated against rhetorical frames of rejection – for example, debunking or polemic, so popular in public discourse these days – and advocated for rhetorical frames of acceptance, ways of finding common ground. “Identification is compensatory to division,” according to Burke.

Burke was, of course, great with words – take “rotten with perfection,” for example called out in the infographic. My favorite Burkeanism is “war is a disease of peace” (or, war is a perversion of peace; or, war is a disease of cooperation).

I am guided by this advice from Burke: “A critic eager to define [her] position should explain…what to look for, and why; [and] how, and when and where” (Philosophy of Literary Form). What I look for is rhetorical evidence of ideological inclinations – an engagement with, or the embrace of, particular belief systems. Beliefs generate motives, words represent motives, and motives drive acts. I take this approach because ideological inclinations are so often unacknowledged, sometimes even denied.

Billionaire dreams of space, continued


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, promoting SpaceX. Credit: Business Insider.

This morning, on Marketwatch, Marek Fuchs offered some interesting thoughts on the billionaire quest for human space flight and the colonization of Mars.

For those who don’t follow the business press, Marketwatch, “published by Dow Jones & Co…. with more than 16 million visitors per month…is part of The Wall Street Digital Network, which includes WSJ.com, Barrons.com, AllThingsD.com, BigCharts.com and VirtualStockExchange.com.” This is an outlet I’d certainly categorize as mainstream media.

Fuchs is a former stockbroker and business journalist turned journalism professor.

On Marketwatch, Fuchs observes, “Looking at the overwrought media coverage of the billionaire space cadets, you can’t help but think that a kick-it-to-the-limit, faith-driven ethos has overtaken our economy.” He is of course referring to the so-called “commercial” space developers Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk.

Overwrought, indeed – coverage sometimes verges on religious fervor….

According to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos’s net worth is $46.7 billion. With a B. Branson’s net worth: $5.1 billion. Musk’s net worth: $13 billion.

For comparison, according to the World Bank, the PPP GNI (gross national income converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates) of Cambodia in 2014 was $47.5 billion; Guyana, $5.6 billion; and Iceland, $13.9 billion.

Fuchs argues that we need billionaires to invest in less glamorous but more practical enterprises – he notes that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates “are buying up railroads like a pair of latter-day Vanderbilts.”

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a bunch of billionaires decided to build a national high-speed railway system that could get people and their cars and goods and their trucks off the highways – at an affordable price? I can dream, can’t I?)

(And now I’m just making stuff up – but what about if the billionaires put up just $1 billion to subsidize Syrian refugee families for a year? At $50,000 per family – a wild guess – that would cover 20,000 families.)

“I suppose every healthy society — and economy — needs those with dreams fevered enough to challenge our assumptions, as well as incrementalists who focus on patching and dabbing at troubles,” Fuchs says. “The problem here comes in the balance…. In an era of zero interest rates, in which the major government initiative to improve the economy is to heedlessly print money, do we really need our highest-profile business leaders frittering away their time playing rockets instead of trains?”

I would say no.

And yet I have no doubt that the media, and government officials, too (see photo above), will continue to fawn over these businessmen and talk up their dreams of living on Mars.

See: Meghan Daum’s profile of Musk in Vogue magazine, photo by Annie Leibovitz. (Geeze.)

Also see this item from Reuters about Brevard County’s provision of $40 million in incentives, including an $8 million grant, to Bezos’s company Blue Origins. Bezos announced September 15 that Blue Origins plans to build a rocket plant in Brevard.

And check out this interesting piece by Noah Smith, a professor of finance at Stony Brook University and contributor to Bloomberg View that pokes some holes in the “great man” myth about Musk. “Entrepreneurs and institutions are highly complementary,” Smith writes. SpaceX would not exist without Musk, nor would it exist as it is today without outright government support and a heritage of government-funded technology to build on.

A Richard Dawkins slap-down


Credit: lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

Johns Hopkins University science historian Nathaniel Comfort has written a brilliant review of Richard Dawkins’s new book, A Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (Nature 525, 10 September 2015).

(Comfort happens to be the 2015-16 Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. My work is funded in part by NASA’s astrobiology program.)

I haven’t read Brief Candle – so how I can I say the review is brilliant? I say this because Comfort offers a cogent critique of Dawkins’s abrasive rhetorical style and “fiercely reductionist, materialistic world view.” I’ve read a lot of Dawkins’s short works, and his book The Selfish Gene is sitting on my book shelf. I have to confess that I chose not to finish that book and am not inclined to read his others because his way of thinking and writing (Comfort calls his prose style “swaggering”) turns me off. It’s exclusionary and judgmental.

Think about the so-called Brights movement that Dawkins and other vocal atheists signed up to – a great example of how to offend scads of people in a few easy steps. Dawkins wrote in 2003 that the Bright movement “is intended to come to the aid of another beleaguered community in the US: those who, in the most religiose country in the Western world, have no religion, who are variously labeled atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, philosophical naturalists, secularists, or humanists.”

FYI, I identify as a humanist. I don’t believe in a supernatural being. I go to church (Unitarian Universalist). I do not perceive myself to be in conflict with people – among them most of my family and friends – who believe in a supernatural being.

Here are comments on Dawkins’s new book from Publishers Weekly:

“Dawkins tells a good tale as he expounds upon the value in broadly promoting science literacy. In his last full chapter, which takes up a full third of the book, he revisits the scientific ideas for which he is best known in professional, if not popular, circles. Not surprisingly, Dawkins lives up to his reputation as one who attacks his opponents mercilessly, whether the attacks are warranted or not. He once again targets the Templeton Foundation, with its mission to reconcile science and religion….”

And from Kirkus Reviews:

The Selfish Gene and his spirited defense of atheism, The God Delusion (2006), are his most controversial works, and many readers will welcome his belated attempts [in his new book] to heed criticisms of his unnecessarily abrasive style when debating religious opponents.”

Here’s what Comfort has to say about Dawkins and his latest book.

“Dawkins’s greatest gift has been as a lyricist. With terms such as selfish genes, memes and the extended phenotype, he has provided much of the vocabulary of modern evolutionary biology. He has published a sackful of books laying out the evidence for evolution, against design in nature, and for natural selection as the only mechanism of adaptive evolution. A skilled and popular lecturer, he also discovered a taste for the camera, hosting numerous television documentaries.”

However, over the past 10 years or so, Comfort observes, Dawkins has evolved “from popularizer into evangelist. His 2006 book The God Delusion (Bantam) was an ecclesiophobic diatribe, published around the same time as…similar books by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. The gospels of…Daniel, Sam and Richard form the scripture of the ‘new atheism’, a fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion…. For a time, Dawkins was a rebellious scientific rock star. Now, his critique of religion seems cranky….”

Cranky, indeed.

On September 10, the day on which Comfort’s review was published, Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) tweeted, “Jerry Coyne (@EvolutionIsTrue) brilliantly replies to Nathaniel Comfort’s Nature review….”

In a blog post titled, “A snarky review of Dawkins’s new autobiography,” Jerry A. Coyne writes, “To be fair, the review is a mixed one, with Comfort lauding Dawkins’s past books popularizing evolution, and praising Dawkins’s “lyrical” and “sparkling” prose. But he simply can’t help himself when it comes to the atheism bit.”

Coyne, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, appears to be a member of Dawkins’s atheist-scientist camp. Coyne is the author of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (2015). On Coyne’s web site, Dawkins and fellow atheists Sam Harris and Steven Pinker offer praises for Faith vs. Fact. Dawkins: “it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book.” Harris: “Coyne has written a wonderful primer on what it means to think scientifically, showing that the honest doubts of science are better — and more noble — than the false certainties of religion.” Pinker: “some propositions are flat wrong. In this timely and important book, Jerry Coyne expertly exposes the incoherence of the increasingly popular belief that you can have it both ways: that God (or something God-ish, God-like, or God-oid) sort-of exists; that miracles kind-of happen; and that the truthiness of dogma is somewhat-a-little-bit-more-or-less-who’s-to-say-it-isn’t like the truths of science and reason.”

Talk about snarky.

Pinker, and fellow atheists and media talking-heads Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer have written promotional blurbs for Dawkins’s new book. Pinker: “Readers…are in for many treats: lively prose from one of our greatest living writers; stimulating ideas on the nature of life and the human condition; and the opportunity to eavesdrop on the workings of an extraordinary mind, intellectually fierce yet personally generous.” Shermer: “may do more to elevate atheism to a legitimate position than any that came before.”

You have to hand it to the likes of Dawkins, Pinker, and Harris: they’re almost as good at promoting their brand –now known as “the new atheism”– as NASA is at promoting its brand. And the media keep eating it up – both brands.

Speaking of which, is anybody paying attention to NASA’s massive publicity campaign for the Hollywood movie “The Martian”? For starters, check out these videos and this Web page. NASA brought “The Martian” star Matt Damon to JPL recently to talk about the movie. NASA’s staging a screening of the movie at Johnson Space Center. NASA officials traveled to the Toronto Film Festival last week to talk up the movie. Tune in to NASA TV tomorrow, September 17, at 2 pm ET for more about “The Martian,” live from NASA headquarters.