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MORE THAN WINNING: Pondering back to school, hurricanes and such

Contemplating science, hurricanes and thanking educators.


North Carolina may go back to school in the dog days of August and play high-school football games before Labor Day, but September’s shortening days and cool breezes mark “Back to School” month for me. With Florence bearing down, evacuations and preparations nearly complete, it’s time to offer gratitude to my teachers.

Partly due to the patience of my English and science teachers, I’m a member of the community of scientists and writers.I’ve written a couple of plays for local theatre, a few poems, three-quarters of a novel, and “Crowfighting Song,” a short story recently published online in “Entropy.” The short story is not going to make anyone forget O. Henry, Ernest Hemmingway or Joyce Carol Oates, but within the serviceable prose there may be a tear and a smile, some small truths, and maybe even a little wisdom.

Mr. McCabe, my high-school English teacher, would have pithy, humorous, accurate commentary about each of my work products. He would smile at my ongoing struggles to respect language and respect the reader. His humor and guidance continue to influence my attitude toward storytelling.

My plodding practice of writing is satisfyingly frustrating, but the practice of psychology pays the rent. A respect for language is necessary, regardless of scientific discipline. One of the most challenging problems of every discipline is communicating results clearly. When I turned in an early draft of a research project, Dr. Christine Nezu, mentor and friend, complimented me: “Your writing is fundamentally strong. All the pieces are there. I added a few thoughts for clarity.”

The pages bled with those few thoughts.

Being fundamentally an optimist, I made the necessary adjustments and focused on remembering “fundamentally strong.”

That project eventually completed my degree and earned publication in a well-regarded peer-reviewed scientific journal. (Search “Hostility Bias and Basquill” if you’re interested in reading sound science.) It is a humbling contribution to a worthy social science.

Of course, these days, it would have to be rewritten—not because the conclusions are wrong, but because the writing style is out of step with the times. Today, I’d have to leave the cautious third person of most scientific writing and write in first person, kind of like slapping my name on every building I can.

I’d also have to abandon the respectful tone and cautionary statements of most scientific and legal writing in favor of hyperbole. Gone would be acknowledgements of the foundations a study stood upon, confidence intervals, probabilistic statements, respectfully offering alternative explanations of the same data, and ideas for future study. No, in the service of “winning” (today’s political correctness), I’d have to short-circuit logic and language centers of the brain and fire up my limbic language centers, the reptilian brain that lives on all-or-none thinking and arouses strong emotions. And who needs “peer review”? A winner would tweet from his hyperbolic hip and rebrand the study, “Basquill’s Best Bias a Winner!” All about me and all about winning, right?

These days it’s not enough for any kind of writing to tell little stories, show little truths, or even hint at wisdom. Winning demands we tell a biggly, yuuge story; show biggly, yuuge truths; and blast everything else as fake news, bad science and hoaxes. Bad hoaxes. It also should use one syllable, maybe two. And it should never use words like “maybe.”

Oops, Florence dipped a little south of us, just as meteorologists predicted earlier. Weathermen have been spot-on in their cautious predictions about Florence, predictions they continually revise with better data.

Millions of people in the Carolinas prepping, evacuating or already storm-drunk, are motivated by little-more than the word of some scientists. It’s ironic many of the same fine folks reject cautious conclusions of scientists when they predict increasing frequency and intensity of storms like Florence and link those predictions directly to human activity.

Now, that’s psychologically interesting.

As Florence gears up (or slows down, since you’ll be reading this post-storm), I’ll keep practicing psychology and my plodding writing style, and thank many teachers who guided me to respect language, respect what’s gone before, focus on small stories, small truths, and developing even a dash of wisdom more than “winning.”

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