Monday, 26 September 2011

Juries and Stories

Although the paper on which it is based is rather old now, the idea that the real task of jurors in criminal trials is to compose a story is so good that I thought it would be worth passing on to readers of OnFiction.

Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie proposed in 1988 that jurors are faced with a sequence of evidence, one witness at a time, and from this rather unhelpfully ordered set of observations, each constructs a narrative account of what went on in the events that led to the trial. Pennington and Hastie did two experiments. They took a real trial in which a man called Johnson killed a man called Caldwell, and derived from it a set of 119 statements which started like this.
1 The first witness is a police officer: Sergeant Robert Harris
2 I was on my usual foot patrol at 9:00 p.m.
3 I heard loud voices from the direction of Gleason's Bar
4 Johnson and Caldwell were outside the bar
5 Johnson laughed at Caldwell
Some of these items were elements in the defense story—the overall theme of which was not guilty by reason of self defense. Some were elements in the prosecution story—guilty of murder. Other statements were elements of both defense and prosecution stories, and yet others were elements in neither.

In their first experiment, after participants had read the evidence-statements, and rendered a verdict, they were given a memory test, which they were not expecting. As compared with those who rendered a not-guilty verdict, those who rendered a guilty verdict remembered more of the original 119 items that were elements of the prosecution story, and also claimed to remember more items that were not actually among the original 119 items but were inferences from the prosecution story. In the same way those who rendered a not-guilty verdict remembered more of the 119 items from that story and more new items that were inferences from it.

In their second experiment Pennington and Hastie varied order of presentation. In one order the statements came in a sequence consistent with the prosecution story, and in another order the sequence was consistent with the defense story. Pennington and Hastie also constructed two sets of statements in orders of statements given, one witness at a time, that were close to the orders of the original trial. Participants were most likely to render a verdict of guilty when prosecution statements were in the order of the prosecution story and defense evidence came in the order of witnesses (78%) and least likely to render a guilty verdict when defense evidence was in the order of the defense story and prosecution evidence was not (31%). People were most confident of their verdict when they heard the evidence in story order.

Bruner (1986) has argued that narrative is a mode of thinking about agents and their intentions, and how these intentions meet vicissitudes. Court cases—actual and in court-room dramas—have people constructing their own version of the story, to make a series of events that they learn about in somewhat haphazard order into a narrative with a causal structure. Only in a story-structure can it be understood what someone did to whom, with what intentions, and what effects. Stories organize our explanations and understandings of the social world. In a court, only the story agreed by the jury has a proper ending.

Stories have these effects not just in court cases but in day-to-day life.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1988). Explanation-based decision making: Effects of memory structure on judgment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 14, 521-533.

Image: Jury box in an American court room, Wikipedia.

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Monday, 19 September 2011

The Fugue

You sleep as I measure,

Two inches from my heart,
To the prison of my ribs,

Two inches from my ribs,
To the softness of your back.

And three long steps more
To the chamber of your heart.

And if my beat ever lost
Your flowing counterpoint,

What sad fugue would that be,
What sad melody?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Narratives for Systemic Thinking

Narrative  approaches tend to be characterized by trajectories: if not of plot, per se, at least of some (more or less linear) sense of beginning, middle, and end, possibly with logically necessary structures, and often employing tactics to reduce the information involved into a cogent story. Building on Rebecca Wells Jopling's last two posts on concept redefinition, I consider a question I've been mulling for some time of whether particular narrative approaches help make systems more navigable.

In contrast to narratives, systemic approaches focus on relationships between focal points in networks and systems. Relational strategies for representing systems demonstrate systemic interactions, and these tend to be expansive, complex, and often to involve feedback strategies that assess the alignment between the experience that people have interacting with systems models and the authors' intentions for such experience. While choices of characters, setting, and plot events can help determine the scope for reducing experiences to narrative form, systemic approaches are often modular in ways that can expand to capture fuller and fuller ranges of sub-systems, super-systems, and other phenomena related to a system's focal points. The down side of such expansive modularity, of course, is overwhelming complexity, complication, and scale -- systemic representations often tend toward the classic problem in which representations threaten to approach the complexity and scale of the thing they represent.

On top of the inherent complexity of many systems, this representational tendency makes legibility of navigation a central authorial challenge for those wishing to represent systems. Since you are likely reading this essay in an electronic form, in Hypertext Markup Language, many relatively novel authorial tropes for denoting systemic relationships seem quite ordinary to you, whether or not you know very much about the structural semantics that enable you to navigate the internet.

Navigating the internet has likely contributed considerably to vernacular systems literacy: many more people than just gamers, for example, have become familiar with the conceptual space created by following trails of links through searches. Likewise, the widespread aesthetic of using linked tables of contents in favor of infinitely scrolling lists has potentially increased the familiarity of the general hierarchical structure of systems within supersystems and of sub-systems within systems. At the same time, the monetization of internet pages, the push to understand the impact of particular regions of the internet,* and the availability of free analysis software like Google Analytics (why yes, we are paying attention to who's reading this) have familiarized a significant subset of internet users with the idea and mechanics of feedback mechanisms for improving the usability of a systemic representation.

The success of goal setting narration, trauma narration, and medical narrative approaches all suggest ways that the analytic framework of narrative helps coalesce complex experience into more engageable forms. However, the motive for representing systems often involves the inverse of such a transformation: I want people to engage my systemic representations in order to understand the ways that their understandings of, say, the digestive system, an ecosystem, or the food system are built on focal narratives that reveal only small points in a complex and dynamic system. In other words, I want people to find the narratives they have and to use those to orient themselves in seas of knowledge they are probably only able to navigate partially.

I found starting with the premise that narratives could be useful to navigate systems somewhat problematic until I began to better understand the inverse nature of the lenses provided by narrative and systemic approaches. Simply thinking of narratives as vessels of some sort, for example, with which to launch people into systemic understanding, tended to provide too much momentum of a particular narrative imprint: leading questions led people to see systems in light of the specific narrative frame suggested. (The success of branding provides excellent examples of this.) Similarly, of course, relying on people's own narrative entry points into systems significantly colors the systems they see, construct, and are able to navigate. However, it was grappling with just this -- and with the question of how to get people to acknowledge and be interested in moving beyond the limits of their own systemic understandings -- that made it clearer how narrative and systemic approaches could be used to turn particular representations on their heads.

It seems to me that this function is precisely what makes the concept redefinition discussed in the last two weeks so compelling: by starting with a narrative rut that is already well worn by the user and scuffling it up a bit, redefining a common concept might serve to refresh a view of a given systemic relationship such that, as Jopling describes it, the new concept "broadens the semantic network of the reader, encouraging ideas that might not have been born of the older term and its cognitive and emotional networks."

Although they rarely explicitly name them as such, people who work to represent systems to user groups similarly use other kinds of narrative frames to prod people into reconsidering systems, pushing people to expand the range of their customary ideas of spatial and temporal scale, for example, or to take a different perspective. Likewise, interactivity and manipulability are often used in models to encourage people to delve in and explore. More thoroughly exploring the structure of the relationship between narrative and systems approaches could help inform the development of very helpful tactics for interweaving narrative and systemic representations.

*see also
You can also play around with the exciting ways people are using HTML5 to create systems navigations (and that I've used to illustrate this post, as well as to design my current system explorer) here, at the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit site.
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Monday, 5 September 2011

What Concept Redescription Can Do for an Argument (part 2)

(Today’s piece is a continuation of last week’s piece.)

The philosopher Kate Distin’s (2011) Cultural evolution provides a second example of a concept redescription which works very well for the argument presented. This book is a follow-up to The selfish meme: A critical reassessment (2005), in which she analyzes and evaluates arguments of the major memetics theorists, differing markedly with most of them in her views on mind, consciousness, and imitation. Even though, near the end of the first book, she suggests the viability of an argument concerning language as a DNA-type mechanism for cultural inheritance, in the later book she no longer uses the term “memetics,” nor the theory’s accompanying terminology. The word does not appear in the index, and appears only one or two times in the main text. Again, the move here is from a flashy neologism to the more bland but more inclusive concept description, “cultural inheritance”. It allows her to develop her conceptual network without frictional encounters with memetics-inspired assumptions on the part of the reader familiar with that theory. In contrast to Moerman’s alternation between old and new terms, Distin shuts the door on the older term from the beginning, and I think her argument is more easily followed than it otherwise would have been.

Distin employs a unique tactic for dealing with her own silence throughout the text concerning the terminology of memetics. One finds, somewhat unexpectedly at the end of the book, a three-page appendix giving reasons for her evasion of “the m-word” (p. 232). She notes, “… there are several sound communicational reasons why it has been better to shed my theory’s old memetic skin…” (p. 233). Some of these communicational reasons are that this phrasing can provoke “a hostile reaction” (p. 231), presents “distracting connotations” (p. 232), and might prevent readers from taking her ideas seriously (p. 232). She is most likely right on all counts. But she also notes, “Many of this book’s arguments could have been redescribed memetically, and there is no representational reason why they should not have been” (p. 233). I must disagree with Distin on this point, however. There are a number of important arguments in the book which could not have been elaborated in their full breadth and depth using the limited vocabulary and limited ontology of the memetic theory. Her theory achieves its forcefulness, I believe, only through the precision granted by the new semantic network afforded by calling the process “cultural inheritance”.

The historian Donald Harman Akenson has a more difficult task before him as he redescribes historical concepts in his book Saint Saul: A skeleton key to the historical Jesus (2000). The concepts at issue are often also persons about whom a great number of people have strong feelings and opinions. The Saul of the title is a controversial figure both within Christianity and without. He has been known as Paul for two millennia. Akenson needs to take both some of the shine and some of the adherent venom off of Paul in order to make his point. His thesis is that the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 CE greatly influenced the composition of a number of New Testament texts, and therefore scholars need to reread very closely the pre-70 CE writings of Paul in order to gain a fresh historical perspective on the life of Jesus. But to develop this thesis, it is first necessary to help the reader to get back, imaginatively, to the time before the temple was destroyed. The name “Saul,” Akenson notes, “constantly reminds us that the great apostle has to be viewed as a fervent adherent of the Yahweh-faith of his time. He was not a twentieth- or fourth- or second-century Christian, but a zealous … believer in the Yahweh-religion of the Second Temple era” (p. 61). This is already a step toward broadening the concept of “Paul”. The concept redescription may also enable the reader to see Saul as one token of a more comprehensive type: “jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being” (Akenson, p. 13). In contrast with Moerman’s interleaving style and Distin’s appendix style of dealing with the rejected term, Akenson confronts the problem head on in his third chapter. The goal, he says, is to “guard ourselves against words that give false continuity” (p. 55) – precisely Vi├Ęte’s point concerning symbols.

Each of the examples we have looked at show skilled writers eschewing a term rich with accumulated associations for the reader and choosing terms that enable cognitive operations very much like those afforded by Viete’s logisitica speciosa. The new terms can empower the reader to make their own connections free from associations which they may find themselves otherwise powerless to suppress or to set aside long enough to fully understand and evaluate the author’s ideas. The cognitive psychologist Deborah McCutchen noted some time ago, “In writing, unlike some tasks, decisions at the most detailed level of word choice and sentence construction can have large effects on abstract goal outcomes such as tone, perspective, and audience. This is because those goals are fully achieved only at the most local level” (1984, p. 230).

So, does this mean that writers should routinely choose new names for the concepts they wish to discuss? Why can’t the writer just use the current, popular term, redefine it to her specifications and get on with it? This way of proceeding does work in many contexts. However, when the accepted concept description very saliently undermines the grounds of the argument one proposes, it must go. One then takes great care to choose another term that can support the weight and flexibility of one’s argument, all the while reminding oneself that “it is not easy to deny the existence of something that has received a name” (Dantzig, p. 91).

Akenson, Donald Harman. (2000). Saint Saul: A skeleton key to the historical Jesus. Montreal & Kingston: McGill/Queen’s University Press.
Dantzig, Tobias. (2007/1930). Number: The language of science. London: Plume.
Distin, Kate. (2011). Cultural evolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
McCutchen, D. (1984). Writing as a linguistic problem. Educational Psychologist, 29, 226-238.

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