Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Trained incapacity and untrained capacity

Erin Wais, who studies rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, wrote a fascinating paper last year on trained incapacity. Thorstein Veblen coined the term, applying it to business models, and Kenneth Burke expanded its applications beyond that. The term itself is not complicated, although some of its implications are. Erin explains that "Burke defines the phrase as 'that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses.'" People who are trained to do one thing are trained not to do something else; sometimes, however, that "something else" might have been a better approach.

Like many good papers, that one got me to thinking, and I shared some of these thoughts with my literature students when I discussed "The Yellow Wallpaper" with them a couple of weeks ago. This story, written in 1899, deals with a woman's mental illness. The woman's husband, John, is a physician. He approaches the problem by insisting that his wife get complete rest, not even allowing her to write. His training makes him sure that his approach is correct: "I am a doctor, dear, and I know," he insists. His wife is not so sure: "John is a physician, and perhaps--(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)--perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster." If it weren't for his training, he wouldn't know to take such a silly approach as he does.

This story takes place over a hundred years ago. Is trained incapacity less of a problem in healthcare now? I'd like to make the argument that it is. Not because physicians know more than they did then--their higher level of training, if anything, probably leads to a higher level of trained incapacity--but because their patients are taking more control than they once did.

One remedy for trained incapacity may be untrained capacity. When patients, who tend to be rather ignorant about advanced medicine, insist on having things explained in simple terms before making their own decisions, that limits the risks of situations like the one in "The Yellow Wallpaper." (The woman in the story had little choice, but most patients in real life have more.)

This may sound strange coming from a teacher, but I think we sometimes underestimate the value of ignorance. The best example I can think of involves racism. Racism is not ignorant behavior. It's learned behavior. Watch toddlers of different races playing in the sandbox. They haven't yet been taught to be racist, so they aren't. If they were never to be trained that way, they would never develop this trained incapacity.

Having said that, I don't mean to imply that training is necessarily a bad thing. Part of the problem might relate to Pope's observation in "An Essay on Criticism": "A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing." The learned behavior of racism can be fought with more learning. The mistakes made by nineteenth-century physicians can be fought with twenty-first century medicine.

So how do we know how much training we should have, or of what kind? I don't know. I'm still training myself in that.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What does it mean to study rhetoric or composition?

Clancy has brought my attention to a post in The Valve. I've commented on this post both in Clancy's blog and in The Valve. Now I want to raise an issue that goes well beyond this article and into what it means to be a scholar of composition or rhetoric.

Mark Bauerlein, who teaches literature at Emory, says that "to speak responsibly about racial identity and race relations requires a lot more inquiry into the history, econoomics, demographics, and psychology of race relations than may be found in the doctoral curriculum in composition." In other words, composition scholars don't know enough about race relations to speak responsibly about it. Professional scientists often make similar claims about rhetoricians of science. Rhetoricians aren't scientists and don't know enough about science to speak responsibly about it.

I don't think those are fair statements. Composition scholars are fond of pointing out that you can't write writing. You have to write about something. So the study of composition becomes the study not only of the language used, but of its subject matter. The same holds true for the study of rhetoric. That's one of the reasons Quintilian called for rhetoricians to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of subject matters. If they knew nothing of the subject, they couldn't speak responsibly about it. It's also one of the reasons that the best doctoral programs in rhetoric today require many classes in subjects outside of rhetoric.

So what are we to make of rhetoric and composition scholars who do not, in fact, have advanced training in areas outside of rhetoric or composition? Do I have the right to analyze a book about race relations, or eighteenth-century chemistry, or the Holocaust, even though I hold degrees in none of those areas? I don't see why not. As an English major, I routinely wrote papers about novels, although I will never be a novelist. No one seemed to find that odd. For that matter, I once wrote a paper about the sexual power structure demonstrated in Huckleberry Finn, even though I had no real training in that area. The paper still got an A.

To study rhetoric is to study other subjects, as well. Sometimes rhetoricians are experts in those subjects. Sometimes they're not. Either way, their background in rhetorical criticism provides a filter that creates a different picture of the subject than anyone else would see. I think there can be great value in sharing those pictures.

Monday, March 27, 2006

DNA testing: proof beyond reasonable doubt

A phrase in the March 2006 issue of Discover set off a train of thought that I'm surprised isn't more widely discussed. Instead of quoting the phrase right now, let me build the track for the train to reach it.

Almost everyone accepts that DNA testing can give proof of family relationships. If my sister and I each had a DNA test, the results would show that we're related--in other words, that we share a common ancestor. Indeed, we do: our parents. By the same token, if my cousin and I each had a DNA test, the results would again show that we're related, only more distantly. In other words, our common ancestors would be more distant. Indeed, they are: our grandparents.

This evidence is so strong that in a court of law, it overrides eyewitness accounts. If my father were to deny paternity (which he wouldn't, of course), and a DNA test showed otherwise, the court would accept the DNA evidence over my father's testimony. So far as I'm aware, nearly everyone accepts this procedure. As Gil Grissom has commented on CSI, people may lie, but DNA doesn't.

If a chimpanzee and I each took this same DNA test, it would show that the chimpanzee and I are related, only more distantly than my cousin and I are. In other words, our common ancestors are more distant. If a lemur and I took it, it would show that the lemur and I share an ancestor more distant than the chimpanzee and I have. If a grizzly bear and I took it, it would show that the bear and I share an ancestor more distant than the lemur and I have.

This is exactly the result that Charles Darwin would have predicted in 1859. Evolutionary biology, like all other legitimate science, allows scientists to make hypotheses, test them, and falsify or verify them. If anyone says, "Evolution isn't a science because we can't observe it," they're showing their ignorance of how science works.

Is the theory of evolution true? I would have to say that it is--not only by the standards of scientific proof, but by the American court standards of reasonable doubt. As Charles Siebert points out in the Discover article, evolutionary researchers use "DNA evidence as solid as that used to convict criminals" (37). It's unreasonable to ask for more than that.

The beginning

In my first paper as a master's student in English, I argued that Herman Melville's view of reality could be better understood by comparing it with the view implied by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—that is, absolute reality cannot be known. The professor found only one flaw with the paper: much of it discussed a subject that wasn’t literature. “Physics seems to interest you more than fiction,” he wrote. C.P. Snow was correct in bemoaning the gap between the two cultures: science and the humanities.

To bridge this gap, I turned to rhetoric. Rhetoric is often studied in humanities departments. Aristotle points out, however, that “it is not concerned with any special or definite class of subjects.” It relates to all fields of human endeavor. Even in science--an area once thought to be free from rhetoric--rhetorical criticism has been growing.

In this blog, I'll be sharing my thoughts on science, literature, history, rhetoric, and anything else that comes to mind. You're welcome to join me. It will be a fascinating ride.