Using Photography and Flagship Species to Promote Conservation (spring 2009)

This sample comes from a course paper titled “Using Photography and Flagship Species to Promote Conservation.”

…Photographs have an indexical status, unlike other forms of visual representation: they record photons bouncing off of objects that are really present. Because photographs have a more “innocent” relationship to reality than other forms of art, they can be used as evidence for justification or incrimination (5-6). Photography is nostalgic; it touches its subjects with pathos. This is explicitly the case for nature photography, which represents a changed relationship with nature, which must now be protected from people rather than the reverse (15). Photographs are both “tokens of absence” and “pseudo-presences”; talismanic “attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality” (16). However, according to Sontag, “the ethical content of photographs is fragile”, because moral connection to a particular situation dissipates over time (21).

Image credit: Baby harp seal, National Geographic Kids photo gallery

In conservation, photos can be used as symbolic touchstones, images that remind the viewer of what he or she is laboring to protect. An example of this talismanic imagery can be found in Figure One, which shows a baby harp seal. Images of this animal, with its wistful expression, have been used by environmental organizations to protest seal hunting for decades. Certainly, photographs of harp seals being clubbed and staining the snow with their blood have not lost much of their ethical poignancy as time has passed…
Style exercise for teaching chart formatting for technical writing (fall 2009)

This exercise was created as part of a course on teaching technical or scientific writing. It is designed to teach students the potential consequences of creating charts that are badly (or deceptively) formatted. This exercise would be incorporated into a class session on ethics and visuals in technical or scientific writing. Download a pdf here.

Science Rhetoric and Public Opinion (fall 2008)

This excerpt is from a course paper titled “Science rhetoric and public opinion.”

…One illustration of the differences in methodology between science and philosophy is seen in a central goal of the scientific enterprise: to minimize subjectivity of the observer in the empirical development of knowledge. Francis Bacon, regarded as one of the founders of scientific thought, emphasized the need to vigorously guard against the “idols and false notions…of the human understanding” which prevent a clear understanding of the natural world (745). According to Bacon, human senses and the mind interpret the natural world, rather than objectively recording a “true” impression of reality. One should be able to identify sources of subjectivity and eliminate them, thus freeing one’s mind of these “idols” and reaching a true understanding of the universe. This view of scientific objectivity relies upon the observer eliminating all subjective interpretation of the world by his or her own senses. Most non-scientists still define science in these terms; however, modern philosophers of science regard this formulation of scientific objectivity as naïve (e.g., Kuhn 126, Popper 8). Instead, Popper says:

“…to attain objectivity we cannot rely upon the empty mind. Objectivity rests on criticism, on critical discussion, and on the critical examination of experiments. And we must recognize, particularly, that our very sense organs incorporate what amount to prejudices.” (8)

Popper and other scholars believe that, while one should strive to minimize subjective interpretation of observations, it is likely impossible to entirely eliminate subjectivity from science. Rather than relying upon completely eliminating subjectivity, the modern concept of scientific objectivity relies on the rational interaction of the community of scientists and the idea that, as ideas are tested in multiple ways by multiple individuals, the human conception of reality will at least approach the truth. Referring back to Figure 1, modern scientific philosophy regarding universal truth lies between Isocrates and Aristotle (though closer to Aristotle’s beliefs): unlike Isocrates’ view, absolute truth is theoretically attainable and worth pursuing; but unlike Aristotle’s view, it is not certain that we will ever achieve it. Again, it is important to make the distinction between the philosophy of science and the actual practice of science. Among most scientists, there is an underlying consensus that as scientific models of the universe asymptotically approach the “truth” (i.e., approach ever closer without ever exactly reaching it), our understanding will become similar enough to “reality” to render any distinction between the model and reality negligible. This view of human understanding of reality is closer to that of Aristotle than Isocrates…

Images as Scientific Representations of Reality: Global Climate Change and the ‘Hockey Stick’ Controversy (fall 2008)

This work sample is from a course paper titled “Images as scientific representations of reality: Global climate change and the ‘hockey stick’ controversy.”

…Global climate is controlled by a number of factors, including atmospheric composition, amount of incoming solar radiation, and reflectivity of the Earth’s surface (IPCC, 2007: 21). On a long-term timescale, the Earth’s mean temperature has changed substantially: the global climate for about the past 2.5 million years has been alternating between “glacial” and “interglacial” periods between which temperature has varied by up to 16oC. We are currently in an interglacial period in which global mean temperatures are 4-7oC warmer than those during the last glacial maximum, 21,000 years ago (p. 435). Evidence for these changes includes fossil distributions, isotope ratios in fossils and ice cores, and geological formations. Although some of these phenomena are visible, most are non-visual time series, and as such their representations fall near the middle of Pauwels’ framework for the nature of the referent (Fig. 1). There is typically no indexical or iconic relationship between these representations and the referent, as the referent is immaterial. Pauwels describes these as “mental referents”, whose representations

“…are not so much depictions of phenomena in the real world as conceptual translations of aspects of it. Yet, they are based at least in part on quantitative or qualitative aspects of an observed reality of some kind and thus are not purely invented or products of the imagination” (2006b: 3).

Representations of this type, like any other type of scientific visualization, incorporate a host of assumptions not necessarily evident in the diagrams themselves. These assumptions are generally laid out in accompanying text (particularly when assumptions are complex), but when separated from the text, as in public presentations, figures must stand on their own as persuasive statements. These representations are also open to interpretation by their viewers, allowing their use either as “boundary objects” for fruitful discussion or rhetorical props employed to direct public discourse. In the case of one particular figure resulting from a 1999 analysis of global temperature records, this phenomenon gained national attention…