Chris Uggen's Blog: February 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

congrats to Jesse and Mike

Yes, it can be bittersweet when graduate students move on, but I'm delighted to update the advisee page when they've moved on to great places.

Jesse Wozniak accepted a tenure-track position at West Virginia University. He'll be finishing up his amazing dissertation on state reconstruction and the formation of the Iraqi police force this year (and maybe squeezing in a Twins game or two). Then he'll join some good friends and colleagues at WVU in January. Apart from his research, Jesse has been a popular and effective teacher at the Minnversity, so we'll miss him on many fronts.

Mike Massoglia (Ph.D. 2006) accepted a tenure-track position at my beloved alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Mike has been writing influential articles the past few years from his own amazing dissertation on health and incarceration, but he's since taken up whole new agendas in life course criminology, housing mobility, and criminal deportation.

I'm glad for them both -- and selfishly happy to expand the network of potential couches upon which I might crash for my post-chair sabbatical road trip. Assuming they'd put me up for the night, I could couch-surf on the goodwill of former students from St. Paul, MN to Madison, WI to Milwaukee, WI to West Lafayette, IN to Morgantown, WV to State College, PA, to Bangor Maine, then back through St. Paul and Milwaukee to Portland OR, to Irvine, CA. Just leave the light on for me...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

streetfighting for science

I'm picking up a lot of good energy and ideas -- and meeting multitudes of kindred spirits -- at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meetings this weekend. I've been meaning to attend these meetings for years, so I jumped at the invitation to give a paper and let my (science) geek flag fly.

The most provocative session was a huge plenary on public engagement titled Science is Not Enough, moderated by former CNN correspondent and anchor Frank Cesno. The panelists were James Hansen (climate change scientist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren), Olivia Judson (evolutionary biologist and author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation), and the irrepressible Hans Rosling (international health innovator, known for his amazing TED talks and, of course, a TSP podcast).

Their themes will be familiar to TSP readers: (1) science is in a "street fight" with anti-science; (2) we could and should do a better job communicating scientific evidence to broader publics; (3) science reporting is often geared less toward accurately characterizing the state of knowledge in a field and more toward conveying two extreme positions; (4) the continuing struggle to simplify, clarify, and communicate our research without dumbing it down or burying important caveats; and, (5) the tensions between value-neutral objectivity and advocacy in public communication.

The panelists came from distinctly different places on these issues and their conversation seemed to echo conversations I've had with Doug Hartmann at our weekly editorial meetings. Dr. Judson saw her role as stoking scientific imaginations with the curiosity to know and the passion to care. Dr. Hansen more sharply emphasized how money and power could overwhelm scientific mesages (e.g., the petrochemical industry on climate change) and our responsibility as scientists to subsequent generations. Dr. Rosling viewed his role as seizing upon and illuminating intersections of public ignorance and indisputable scientific consensus.

There were lighter moments, of course, and a good bit more scatological humor than one might expect at the AAAS meetings. Hans Rosling was incredulous when other panelists claimed not to have time for facebook or twitter, for example, saying "that's like not having time to use paper on the toilet." He also got off a nice line about "peeing your trousers in winter" that I'll just have to save for my next lecture.

My own talk was in an early morning session on mass incarceration, organized by Bill Pridemore and Bob Crutchfield on behalf of the American Society of Criminology. The papers were strong, the audience offered great insights and questions, and some supersharp journalists followed-up afterwards with the sort of penetrating questions that took me years to formulate.

And I guess that's the challenge and the promise of good science communication. If a roomful of curious non-experts can somehow apprehend the crux of the biscuit at 8 am on a Saturday, there's no reason that sites like TSP can't do our bit to bring social scientific knowledge and information to broader public visibility and influence.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

snark for snark's sake

David Denby's polemic against smart-alecky new media types attracted a lot of, well, snarky reviews when it arrived in bookstores a few years ago. Of course, the First Amendment has protected all manner of speech about public figures since at least the Times v. Sullivan decision in 1964. Denby points to exceptions, but most serious journalists still seem almost constitutionally incapable of abusing such freedoms. In my view, the uglier snark story concerns not professional journalists, but the cultural transmission of snark involving all of us post breathlessly and nastily on social media.

It certainly seems easy to take shots at celebrities, politicians, and even our own friends and family with mean little missives on twitter or facebook. Watching indie darling Bon Iver on Saturday Night Live last weekend, for example, I wanted to post something clever about his descent through Coldplay territory and into Hornsby range (Christopher Cross won Grammys too, you know). After seeing Midnight in Paris, I felt a similar urge to tweet a line about Woody Allen's real genius being reflected in somehow rehashing Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure with actors lacking Keanu Reeves' emotional range. The trouble with such snark is that it isn't based on any real thought or analysis -- it is snark for snark's sake. I hadn't critically engaged Woody Allen or Bon Iver (much less Keanu or Coldplay) or even thought more than two seconds about it. I can't fathom the motives here -- are we in it for the "likes" and retweets? Do we feel better about ourselves when we rip the famous or successful?

Iggy Pop once said that "nihilism is best done by professionals" and so, I suspect, are such off-handedly cruel attacks. As an aspiring rock writer in the 1980s, I appreciated both the romantic humanism of Lester Bangs and the hyperliterate sneak atttacks of Robert Christgau. Mr. Christgau's wicked/smart capsule reviews, were peppered with mean and clever phrases like "idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos" (on Sonic Youth) or "the words achieve precisely the same pitch of aesthetic necessity as the music, which is none at all" (on Radiohead) or "As bubble-headed as the teen-telos lyrics at best. As dumb as Uriah Heep at worst" (on U2). The quintessential Christgau review? The fictitious two-word appraisal of Spinal Tap's Shark Sandwich -- the very definition of snark.

But Christgau also did real analysis, as in this rumination on the Eagles: "Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them. "Hate" is the kind of up-tight word that automatically excludes one from polite posthippie circles, a good reason to use it, but it is also meant to convey an anguish that is very intense, yet difficult to pinpoint. Do I hate music that has been giving me pleasure all weekend, made by four human beings I've never met? Yeah, I think so. Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love. As the culmination of rock's country strain, the group is also the culmination of the counterculture reaction that strain epitomizes."

Most of the tweets I see on, say, the death of Whitney Houston or a politician's fall from grace aren't nearly so reflective, even when smart people are tossing them off. As a criminologist, I'm often trying to cultivate a little reflection and empathy in my students, so that they see criminal behavior as human behavior -- and the person convicted of crimes as more than the personification of a single, awful act. David Carr describes this duality with staggering clarity in telling his own story: "If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true..."

Carr isn't being snarky, he's just an unflinching professional reporter trying to tell a complex story. One-sided snark, in contrast, simply "piles on" people at their weakest moments. I'll confess that after seven years of blogging, I've probably written my share of thoughtlessly cruel comments. Even when the object of your derision could not possibly be hurt by it, haven't you felt a little pang of regret after posting or repeating something petty, malicious, or unfounded? It feels, to me, as though I'd just binged on really unhealthy food or drink. Back when I was known to enjoy a beer or two during a flight delay, I recall getting some cheap laughs with an over-the-top Greta Van Susteren impersonation (don't ask) at the Detroit airport. Though nobody registered any dissatisfaction (and Ms. Van Susteren seems to be doing just fine, thankyouverymuch), I still feel rotten about it three years later.

So for now I'll stand with Denby -- in our bermuda shorts, watering our respective lawns -- and his old-fashioned assertion that mindless hair-trigger snark might somehow deplete us. If every cruel line in the snarkstorm represents an ugly little human transaction, is it so far-fetched to suggest that their collective weight might be dragging us down?