On beard-stroking

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Back in 2005, Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University published an essay on the topic of – and forgive me if you have a nervous disposition – ‘bullshit’. Frankfurt’s description is interesting:

“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”

It is not about lying. It is about an indifference to the truth. The central claims may be true or false. That’s not the point. The point is that the bullshitter is a fake, a phoney.

I think there is a similar phenomenon that we might describe as ‘beard-stroking’. In this instance, the beard-stroker’s claim is essentially true, but it is a relatively small, perhaps trivial, claim. The beard-stroker then inflates it with much intellectual methane until the claim can suitably fill some vessel or other.

As an example, let me give the inflation of the relatively simple idea of children learning that an odd number plus an odd number is an even number. It is a straightforward piece of declarative knowledge that can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but to the authors of a new paper on early maths teaching, it swells to blimpish proportions:

“…as students operate on particular whole numbers, they might notice—either spontaneously or through teacher scaffolding—that the action of adding two odd numbers results in an even number. This compression of their observation about multiple instances of adding two particular odd numbers can be represented in a unitary or generalized form through natural language (e.g., ‘‘The sum of two odd numbers is even’’). In turn, the action of representing a generalization is a socially mediated process whereby one’s thinking about symbol and referent are iteratively refined (Kaput et al., 2008), leading to a mediation of the generalization itself…

…consider a representation-based argument (Schifter, 2009) that students might construct through either physical objects, such as cubes, or a drawing that depicts such objects. They might reason that since an odd-numbered set of cubes can be separated into pairs of cubes with one cube left over, the combination of two odd-numbered sets of cubes results in no cube without a ‘‘partner’’ cube. That is, since the leftover cube in each of the two sets combines to form a new pair, the resulting sum is even…”

This discussion continues at some length and is typical of many discussions in education research papers. In much the same way that an analogy is the extended form of a simile, beard-stroking is perhaps the extended form of the deepity – a phrase that is true on a trivial level and which is then used to add weight to a implied meaning on a different level that is false.

As with bullshit, the question of the intention behind beard-stroking is an interesting one. We fool nobody like we fool ourselves and I doubt it is a conscious strategy as much as a habit. Regardless, it is the enemy of clarity because we have to let  the gas out in order to see clearly what remains.

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5 thoughts on “On beard-stroking

  1. Pingback: Ontario takes a fresh view of maths teaching – Filling the pail

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