Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought, focuses on a major thread we've been following in class this year: namely, the connection between our choice of words and the thoughts behind them. He opens with an on-going law suit concerning the World Trade Towers. The suit concerns the definition of a single word -- "event." If the fall of the two towers is seen as one event (one plan master-minded by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda) then the lease holder of the WTC is entitled to 3.5 billion dollars. However, if the fall of the towers is seen as two separate events, then the leaseholder will receive 7 billion dollars. See how important language is?

Here's a second example he cites. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush used the following sentence to help justify the American invasion of Iraq that began later that year: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Shortly after the invasion it became clear that Hussein had no nuclear capabilities, nor did he ever explore the possibility of buying yellowcake [uranium] from Niger.

Many headlines screamed, "Bush lied." But did he? Pinker wants us to pay close attention to the language which, in his mind, rests on the word "learned."

Can you find an example of a headline or a news or sports story where a single word determines the way in which the event is understood?

6 comments:

Moira C. said...
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Agretch said...

This is Andrew's mom, Chris Gretchko. The interesting thing about the article "the stuff of thought" is that I feel it directly exemplifies what AIS is all about. Language is related to our interpretation of history and the word choices that depict events are normally very well chosen. History and English are intertwined. As a high school student I hope that articles like these make our kids better able to sift through the written word and interpret with a strong sense of clarity what the author is describing and what the lense of the author or the times can paint as far as the story/facts. Very cool that studies are more three dimensional than when I read one subject and may not have applied it to the real world.

Thanks for letting me glimpse the blogs.

Chris said...

from Chris' dad: In the article the author points out that Hussein "...had no nuclear capabilities, nor did he ever explore the possibility of buying yellowcake [uranium] from Niger." Use of the word "ever" in this context is not proven in the historical record. While it may be that Hussein was not exploring a yellow cake acquisition at the time immediately preceeding the 2003 State of the Union, (which many believe he was) there is much evidence that the foundation of a nuclear program did indeed exist. As well, contact between Iraq and Niger did exist. Inasmuch as Niger has nothing else to offer but yellowcake, use of the word ever in such a definitive context only damages the authors credibility.

Doc OC said...

I appreciate Chris's dad's close reading of Steven Pinker's claim. In fairness to Pinker I feel the need to cite the actual record. The part I paraphrased actually reads thusly: "[Hussein] probably had never explored the possibility of buying yellowcake from Niger." Pinker does not condemn Bush out-of-hand. He (like we) wants readers to pay attention to individual words. The word "probably" might soften the tone in some readers' minds.

Elizabeth L said...

While revising my paper of a Person's History I started to think about my chose of words. It was hard for me to decide on a certain adjective to use to express what I wanted to get across. I find myself more now starting to even be more cautious while talking to teachers, friends or even my family because connotations of words are so important and can be taken in such different ways by different people. Even to go so far in a law suit or being suspended from school by word chose. I thik this issue you brought of can be connected to OUR everyday life as well.

Elizabeth L said...

sorry i used chose instead of choice throughout the entire comment... thats embarrassing so read it as choices and choice ha!!!