Tag Archives: research

A Writing November

Cartoon of open newspaper with "Correction" advertisement: "The Downing St memo seems to be at odds with pretty much anything you remember seeing and hearing in the media in the runup to the Iraq war.  Your memory is in error. We regret your mistake."

(c) Tom Toles (2005) | “The First Draft of the Rewrite of History”

I’ve decided to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo 2013), and will be using the 50,000 word-challenge to reboot my research on the British executive branch’s structure, values, personnel, and communications during the 18 months before the UK- and US invaded Iraq.*

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the March 2003 invasion and the 8th year since I began to study how the Blair administration rendered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “non-compliant” with international protocols on weapons of mass destruction and an “imminent” threat to the UK national interest.

I’ve already written and presented about this case for other communication academics (Popular Culture Association, 2008; Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 2009), and I’ve also written a 150-page doctoral study about it with a bibliography nearly 25 pages long. I may write for these readers again in the future, but not next month.

November is about writing about the British executive branch, weapons of mass destruction, secrecy, freedom of information, and civil servants, not for other academics and not as part of a degree program, but for members of the public: people like you who are savvy and curious, who don’t necessarily know a lot about the details of this case, and who care about good governance and want to read high-quality, engaging content about it.

I’m not going to write and revise next  month, though; I’m just going to write. By the end of the month, I’ll know whether I have it in me to turn this year-old baby into a book in 2014.

My goals for November are simple enough, and I’m declaring them here to increase the risk:

  1. Write ~2,000 words six days each week for 30 days, or a minimum of 1,670 words daily.
  2. Focus on generating these 50,000-50,100 words, rather than fretting about whether they are good words.
  3. Remember how much I love this project and wonder why it’s taken me so long post-graduation to return to it.

If you’d like to track my progress through November, there’ll be a word count widget in the right column of my homepage. And if you have a fiction or non-fiction book in you too, then you still have a day to sign up! As of tonight, nearly 190,000 other writers are waiting for you.

Expect an update on this from me in a few weeks.


* This intention marks me as a NaNo Rebel. Good luck to all the novelists too!

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Interview: Carl Hunt, Neuropsychopharmologist

In science, we are a conservative group, in the academy and at an Ivy League institution we’re also conservative. So I worried considerably about [the professional costs of High Price]. But then I thought about my knowledge, what I know, what I’ve learned, and I thought it would be irresponsible if I didn’t share some of this stuff with people who are coming up after me. I didn’t want young Black boys, girls, to think that they have to be perfect in order to get to where I’m at, because by no means am I perfect, nor was I perfect… I hope that the story helps people to understand that you don’t have to be perfect and you can still make a contribution to this country. —Carl Hunt

This quote comes from a July 2013 interview with Dr. Carl Hunt, Columbia University’s first tenured Black science professor and author of the memoir-investigation of the US’ War on Drugs and addiction’s impact on society, High Price and first author of the textbook Drugs, Society, & Human Behavior, published by McGraw-Hill and now in its 15th edition. As a researcher, Hunt studies methamphetamine and argues that the media and public policy have exaggerated the impact of meth in the same way that they reinforced “hysteria” about crack cocaine in the 1980s.

But more than commenting on the current drug narratives, Hunt and Smiley also describe the networks of support that helped Hunt to move away from drug sales and use in his teens and gave him access to college, higher education, and the research postr-doc programming that helped him become a professor in his field.

He cites support at 3 levels of bio-reality:

  • family: 5 sisters and his grandmother;
  • community: neighborhood mentors and peers; and
  • profession: a school rule requiring him to maintain a passing GPA in order to keep playing sport, out-of-school programming for “disadvantaged” students, international opportunities via the US Air Force, and PhD-level professionals who inspired him to think of himself as doctoral material and encouraged him to apply.

At about the 17 minute mark, Hunt and Smiley address respectability politics and the additional pressure minorities can face to damp down their personal style and the ways they express their individuality: respectability politics requires professional minorities to erase, minimize, and tone themselves down to fit in with classist and racist assumptions about “what a professional should look like.”

The transcript is available on the PBS webpage. Length: 27 minutes.

Photo of Carl Hunt on Tavis Smiley PBS set

Neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart on PBS (7/12/2013)

The NPR show On Point hosted Hunt for a longer interview with Tom Ashbrook in June this year (47 mins). The extended interview and some of Hunt’s other recent media appearances highlight how access to funding and political credibility influence researchers and their willingness to report on the empirical evidence their research produces:

Do you have to use drugs to be a good scientist?
No, absolutely not. You have to be open-minded and you have to be critical, and you have to let go of your predispositions about what you’ve been told that doesn’t have foundations in evidence.

Has your funding ever been threatened because you don’t buy into “the hysteria game”?
I had two huge grants, multimillion dollar grants. They run out, and I can’t get funded anymore. I wrote a really good grant recently — I’ll keep trying. I’ve been doing this book now, but one of the critiques of my last proposal was “what are you trying to do, show that drugs are good?” And it had nothing to do with that, but I think yeah, I think that people are suspicious of me.

Is that stymieing your science right now?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You don’t have money, you can’t do science. But that’s part of the price that I pay. (Carl Hunt Confronts Drug War)

Beyond the Vote: Political Meta-narratives & Asking the People What They Think

In this talk, Eric X. Li offers a provocative discussion of political meta-narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about our political systems—based on his study of the People’s Republic of China. At 15:08, Li makes some bold predictions about China’s future in comparison to the US and peer nations within the next decade. I hope someone checks back with him in 2023.

I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It is the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris, that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others, and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance. China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy, because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. — Eric X. Li

Li argues that the Chinese one-party system has allowed for greater adaptability and reform than we electoral democracy citizens have acknowledged, and he may be right. A vision of one model operating worldwide betrays a fear of political diversity, a lack of imagination regarding all the ways there are to govern different societies effectively. Why must only one governance model be adopted across the planet or presented as the end toward which we must or will inevitably evolve if we’re mature enough (and by whose standards might we be judged “mature”?

VoteButton_Dallas Observer

Your vote counts… Or does it? | via The Dallas Observer

I think Li is correct on this point: there are different ways to participate in governance, there are different ways for governments to be responsive, and voluntary elections are not the only way to prompt popular engagement or official reception. In the US, only 50-58% of voting-age residents have done so at a general election since 2000, and voter turnout has never been higher than 63%. (The voting age population includes imprisoned citizens and non-citizen residents.) If only 3 out of 5 people will participate in a general election, and 1-2 out of 5 on average in elections for more local levels of government, we can’t honestly call their choices the voice of the people.

The use of survey instruments, focus groups, and similar direct research tools in public sector administration has increased in Europe over the last 15 years along with shifts towards e-government; the UK government’s use of public consultations as it developed controversial bills is a recent example. These methodologies could help to reform electoral democracy here in the US too.

On Understanding

Convenience of conceptual analogies is no substitute for usefulness or rigour. —R. Brennan & S. Henneberg

One understands a phenomenon only when one has a holistic view of [it], a view that integrates all of its known components and all of its known manifestations. —T. Bouldin & L. Odell

Image of atom | via Citra's Chemistry

Image of atom | via Citra’s Chemistry

Pulling a mechanical thing apart to see how it works is easy. Observing a living system in progress is not. Humans have predictable biological components, but we are more than the sum of parts and so are the living systems we create. We can miss worlds by only examining predictable bio-molecules and chemical interactions for insights into the world around us. 

One of the programs that I work with teaches students and educators how to recognize and navigate ten levels of reality:

  1. the bio-atom
  2. the bio-molecule
  3. the cell
  4. the organ
  5. the organism
  6. the family
  7. the neighborhood
  8. the profession
  9. the nation
  10. Earth

Each level has fixed laws, and at increasing levels there’s both increasing complexity and increasing fluidity. Earth: What people think I am (covered in flags); What I really am (no borders)
Research that fails to account for anything other than linear laws won’t adequately represent reality beyond level 4. Humans (Level 5) are not reducible to biochemicals, and neither are their cultural networks or systems.

What people think is real also becomes “real” by mutual consent, because our consciousness gives us the capacity to build rules and structures on delusions as well as on sound premises. So a study of What’s Really Going On has to include the individual and community mental maps we generate in our relationships, with families, neighborhoods, professions, nations, and as a species.

If you were to design a study of people’s mental maps, what would you be looking for? What would you ignore? What would you compare? How would you assess what you noticed?