November 4, 2017: Mind the Gaps

4 Nov

I’ve never actually taken a Rorschach test— which I guess might be a good thing, if it means nobody has had cause to suspect that I suffer from mental illness. But I’ve looked at the cards, of course, and wondered how I would describe them if I had to. As “Bear, Bat, or Tiny King?”Deborah Friedell’s review of Damion Searles’s book The Inkblots, makes clear, psychologists are divided on the utility of the Rorschach test, in part because interpreting a subject’s responses is pretty subjective:

The Rorschach is difficult to score – errors are common – and psychologists looking at the same responses often come to different conclusions. Even determining what distinguishes a ‘movement response’ from a ‘form response’ isn’t straightforward: you might think that ‘a dog snapping at a butterfly’ or a ‘bird in flight’ would count as movement responses, but no. A single answer is rarely dispositive, since what matters is the interplay of form, movement, colour and attention to detail: this is why it’s hard to cheat even if you know a bit about the test. A ‘manic-depressive in a depressive stage’ isn’t supposed to see moving images or respond to colour, while schizophrenics give plenty of movement and colour responses, but with a poor sense of form. When the test diagnosed a subject who otherwise displayed no symptoms as schizophrenic or manic depressive – this happened a lot – Rorschach would claim that the subject had a mental illness in a latent, otherwise undetectable form.

I generally feel like any image I might identify in the ink blots is, at best, a stretch— I search for things because I know I’m supposed to see something— which apparently means I could be either a schizophrenic or “feeble-minded.” What the test asks of the subject is, in essence, to fill in the blanks, to transform an abstract shape into something concrete through an act of imagination; they are judged both on how easily they do this, and on the specific directions in which their imagination tends. An inability to see anything in the blots is a problem, but so are responses that are (in the eyes of the one administering the test) implausibly far from the shapes on the card; such responses lack “good form.” You need to be able to link the shapes together into something, but that something must also remain grounded in the material with which you started.

Whether or not the Rorschach test, specifically, is a good indicator of anything, the logic behind it makes a lot of sense: human beings live constantly with imperfect or incomplete information, and filling in gaps is essential to how we move through the world. How well one does this (whatever “well” means) will have a lot to do with one’s success in school, in work, and in relationships— not to mention basic problems like finding one’s way around or avoiding danger.

It’s so important that we do it automatically, instinctively, or unconsciously; we can’t help it. One consequence of that is that we do it when there simply isn’t enough information to work with, and that can have disastrous consequences. “How Fake News Turned a Small Town Upside Down”, by Caitlin Dickerson, shows how badly wrong this can go. The details of the situation are complex, and part of the point is that it is hard to summarize what happened. In essence, though, a criminal act, of a sexual nature, involving three young children, occurred in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho.

three children had been discovered partly clothed inside a shared laundry room at the apartment complex where they lived. There were two boys, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old, and a 5-year-old girl. The 7-year-old boy was accused of attempting some kind of sex act with the 5-year-old, and the 10-year-old had used a cellphone borrowed from his older brother to record it. The girl was American and, like most people in Twin Falls, white. The boys were refugees; Brown [the reporter covering the case for the local paper] wasn’t sure from where.

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Because the three people involved were all minors, the police released very little information about the incident, creating what Dickerson aptly calls a “vacuum of facts,” into which not only Twin Falls residents but, eventually, people from all over the country readily poured their assumptions, their fears, and their prejudices. Very quickly, rumors settled on the idea that the two boys were Syrian refugees— despite the fact that no Syrian refugees have been settled in Twin Falls. In Facebook groups, Brown saw numerous “articles that said that the little girl had been gang raped at knife point, that the perpetrators were Syrian refugees and that their fathers had celebrated with them afterward by giving them high fives. The stories also claimed that the City Council and the police department were conspiring to bury the crime.” None of this was true, or supported by any evidence whatsoever. But, within a few days, the Drudge Report had a headline reading “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.”

The scare quotes around “refugees” are pretty revealing. The story was picked up by what Dickerson calls

an ascendant network of anti-Muslim activists and provocateurs…The narrative they espouse — on blogs with names like Jihad Watch — is that America, currently 1 percent Muslim, is in the midst of an Islamic invasion. Central to the worldview of these bloggers, some of whom have celebrity-size social-media followings, is that Muslims have a propensity toward sexual violence. They seize on any news item that bolsters this notion.

Eventually, a reporter from Breitbart began investigating the story, and reporting rumors— and his own theories— as if they were facts. “He described what took place as a “horrific gang rape” and wrote graphic details about the incident, which the Twin Falls Police say are untrue.” The town’s mayor and his wife began receiving death threats, accused not only of covering up the facts of the case but supporting the imposition of Shari’a (a pet fear of Islamophobes).

There’s much more to the story, including a conspiracy involving Chobani yogurt, and the whole thing is well worth reading. The most salient fact about the story, though, is how much it depends on a lack of salient facts. It’s obviously possible that all of the people promoting conspiracy theories about Twin Falls would have done so even if the details of the case had been made public; one characteristic of conspiracy theorists is that they readily dismiss anything that doesn’t fit the theory as part of the coverup. But in the absence of information, people filled in the gaps, and filled them in with what was, for them most readily available: fear, misinformation, and prejudice about Islam.

In Twin Falls, the police had little choice but to keep information from the public, since the law protects the identities of minors involved in crimes. When information that could be public isn’t, though, there are going to be questions about why. “In Glyphosate Review, WHO Cancer Agency Edited Out ‘Non-Carcinogenic’ Findings”, by Kate Kelland, describes the controversy over a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer into the effects of the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. Numerous other institutions and agencies have found no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer, but IARC’s report classified it as a probably carcinogen. Now, there’s not necessarily anything nefarious in different groups coming to different conclusions from the same data, and different agencies will use different thresholds to define “probable.” But Reuters got ahold of an earlier draft of the report, which more closely agreed with the findings of other groups; sometime between that draft and the final report, numerous sections were edited to provide stronger support for the conclusion that glyphosate is a carcinogen. And, maybe more to the point, the process by which the report was written, and these changes made, has been mostly opaque.

Compared with other agencies, IARC has divulged little about its review process. Until now, it has been nearly impossible to see details, such as draft documents, of how IARC arrived at its decision.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that in its assessment of the weedkiller, the scientific decision-making process “can be traced from start to finish.” Jose Tarazona, head of EFSA’s pesticides unit, told Reuters: “Anyone can go to EFSA’s website and review how the assessment evolved over time. So you can see clearly how experts … appraised each and every study and also how comments from the public consultation were incorporated into the scientific thinking.”

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency published a full 1,261-page transcript of a three-day scientific advisory panel meeting on its ongoing evaluation of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate in December 2016.

No such record of the deliberations behind IARC’s monographs is published.

Again, then, in the absence of information— in a “vacuum of facts”—those interested in the report have little choice but to fill in the gaps in whatever way they find most likely. The clear implication in the framing of the Reuters story is that the report was edited to reach the conclusions its authors wanted to come to; one theory is that certain members of the EU, especially France, put pressure on IARC to declare glyphosate a carcinogen, possibly because the manufacturer of Roundup is Monsanto, a company that has come into conflict with the EU before (mainly over GMOs). All of this is supposition, but supposition is how we link facts when we don’t have solid information with which to do so.

On a (much) lighter note, “I Bullshitted My Way to the Top of arts Fashion Week”, by Oobah Butler, shows how people forced to fill in gaps in their information can end up looking foolish. I admit to taking a certain amount of vindictive pleasure from the simple fact that the people who end up looking like fools here are people in the fashion industry. (I don’t think they really need much help with this, but still.) How Butler manages to hold off making jokes about the emperor’s new clothes is beyond me; it is impossible that such jokes did not occur to him. The success of his efforts at promoting the work of a non-existent (sort of?) designer, based mostly on a generic website and business cards, show, or seem to, that hype and buzz matter far more in this world than substance. If you can utter a sentence like “Let’s just say streetwear is a religion, and Peviani constantly sins,” you are, clearly, completely full of shit; the only question is how aware you are of this fact. (In fairness, this story reminds me as well of The Sokal Affair, which illustrates the susceptibility of academia to similar manipulation. We are none of us as smart as we think.)

What’s ultimately much more interesting, though, is what Butler refers to as the “void” at its center: Georgio Peviani. Butler’s scam at Paris Fashion Week only works because there are actual clothes for sale in the world— all over the world, apparently— with this name on them, but no actual human being with that name to take credit for them. Into that void— that “vacuum of facts”— Butler and the people he meets can put whatever they want, or whatever they expect. Peviani is successful in part because he doesn’t exist, and so can be adapted to the needs of any situation. Butler couldn’t have pretended to be Calvin Klein or Georgio Armani or another, real designer; at the same time, he couldn’t simply make someone up out of (wait for it) whole cloth, because the clothes needed to be real, to be out in the world, to look like real products, if they were going to sell the idea of Peviani. I’m reminded, as I often am, of Roland Barthes’s description of the Eiffel Tower as a kind of “empty signifier,” a thing that must (because of its visibility and centrality) stand for something, but doesn’t necessarily or inherently stand for anything in particular. Its potency as a signifier is a product of this malleability.

It’s also fascinating that Butler is actually able to track down Peviani— sort of. A Zambian emigrant named Adam (only his first name is given here), who owns a company in London called Denim World, made up the name 30 years ago, choosing it because it “sounded nice; sounded Italian.” At the height of its popularity, the brand sold over 35,000 pieces of clothing worldwide, and apparently nobody buying or selling these clothes ever worried about who Georgio Peviani was. The success and durability of the brand gives substance to the name, even with nobody behind it. “Georgio Peviani” is real, with or without Georgio Peviani.

In a way, then, the gaps in this story are productive; they allow for creativity (and mischief). I’m reminded of Barthes yet again, and his distinction between the “readerly” text, in which the author controls and dictates the text’s meaning, and the “writerly” text that allows or even requires that the reader contribute to the meaning of the text through their own interpretation. “Keepers of the Secrets”, by James Somers, shows this logic at work in historical archives. He suggests that the job of the archivist is, in a way, to organize material so that researchers can navigate collections of material that are often vast and various, while still having open gaps for them to fill in; to avoid foreclosing meanings or interpretations in the way that they organize things. Archives should be writerly texts, rather than readerly ones.

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, [Thomas] Lannon [archivist at the New York Public Library] said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

At the same time, research needs to have space built in for serendipity, if it is to discover anything genuinely new, or find connections that nobody has seen before. If one can immediately go straight to what one is looking for, one will never find the things one did not know to look for.

Lannon said that Google had changed the way people sought information. “They only want information based on the information they think they want,” he said. As a rule, he said, archivists at the library should give you the box you’ve asked for — but also suggest another box. There are fewer opportunities, now, to stumble into a world you don’t already know.

As it turns out, this way of thinking— of the archive as a writerly text rather than a readerly one, with gaps left open for researchers to fill in— also comes with a practical need to getting archival materials processed and available in a reasonable amount of time, and usually with limited budget and personnel:

By the 2000s, something like a third of all collections at libraries were unprocessed, and backlogs were just getting bigger. One staff member at a public university responded to a survey by writing, “Virtually all the collections processed in the past three years have been done in response to angry donors and family members.”

A 2005 paper titled “More Product, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large. Our professional fastidiousness, our reluctance to be perceived as sloppy or uncaring by users and others has encouraged a widespread fixation on tasks that do not need to be performed,” the authors wrote. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

There are ways in which that seems like an unfortunate direction to be going in, and Somers deals with those questions a bit. But these ideas about archives illustrate how the human tendency to fill in the gaps cuts both ways. Doing so is a creative act, and a necessary one, but like any creative act, what it creates can be good or bad, entertaining or terrifying, or occupy any number of more ambiguous positions.

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