Thursday, December 22, 2016

[Yasmin_discussions] Frames and Understanding: What Do We Really Know?

Dear Yasminers,

Glenn Smith wrote on the issue of expertise by writing, "none of us want a 'creative' doctor — we want, rather a doctor who can apply the very latest 'best practices' as defined by his or her profession."

Salvatore replied, "As a matter of fact when you realize that 'disease' and 'cure' do not begin and end in the hospital or in the lab, and that, for example, when you get cancer you don't get it alone – your friends and relatives become ill as well, because their lives change completely; your students become sick, too, because you can't teach them anymore; your grocery store becomes diseased, because you can't shop there anymore; your entire nation gets sick, because they pay the taxes for your national health system; all in a sequence of different psychological, cultural, financial, economic, social, relational manifestation of the disease which are all 'cancer': where does the disease 'end'? – creativity, art and their interweaving and collaborating with sciences and technologies become more than welcome and, let me use a strong word, 'necessary'."

On one hand, I can agree with this from the perspective of a broad perspective. On the other, I'd have to argue that the frame of this statement is unclear.

It's easy for a design professor to redefine disease, especially someone who does not seem to have any serious interaction with the genuinely creative work being undertaken by designers who do work with hospitals to understand and improve cancer care. There are such people. The depth of knowledge and the resources required to work seriously on these issues are significant …

As Jeremy Bernstein wrote in his essay on Einstein, ( 27) "All of us who have tried to work in a deep science know just how hard it is to get to the frontier — just how much devoted training is involved."

The flow of metaphorical assertions — e.g., "your grocery store becomes diseased, because you can't shop there anymore" — tells us nothing about cancer, and it does nothing to help us cure an individual human being who suffers from a disease that we do not yet fully understand. The human species managed to eradicate smallpox in the late 20th century through a combination of scientific research, medical work, and public policy.

A couple of years back, Don Norman wrote an important blog post on CORE77 titled "Why Design Education Must Change."

Don's point is that designers receive a broad, creative training with a focus on making things. Designers are successful at using imagery and metaphor, and they apply practical skills in making artifacts. At they same time, designers tend to overestimate what they know drastically. They tend to believe that creativity, good will, and ingenious metaphor permit them to understand and even to solve the kinds of problems that defeat experts. Because of this, they can also overestimate their skills and capacities. This leads to problematic research among academic designers, and to serious failures when designers impose unsuitable solutions on the real world.

This is not the limited commentary of a mono-discipline scientist. Donald Norman is professor emeritus of psychology and cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego where he served as chairman of psychology before helping to develop the field of cognitive science and served as founding chairman of cognitive science. He is a working engineer and former professor of engineering at Northwestern, as well as a member of the National Academy of Science. He was a Vice President of Apple for five years, then vice president of Hewlett-Packard. Now, after unretiring for the fourth time, he is director of DesignLab at UCSD. Everyone in the design field knows his book, The Design of Everyday Things. If there is anyone who thoroughly understands the STEM agenda and the creative agency of the STEAM agenda, this is such a person. If you'd like to read Don's post, you find it here:

When we discuss matters of fact, it helps to define facts a bit more clearly. It is not a fact that the friends and family of someone with cancer become ill in the same sense that the person with cancer becomes ill. Their lives do, indeed, change, but not completely. Rather these changes involve varying degrees of change in much the same way the there are different kinds and degrees of relationships between and among them. Students do not become sick, despite the distress some may feel at missing a teacher. Other students may actually do better if the change brings them to teachers better suited to their needs and development.

As the metaphor stretches to the breaking point, it takes on a kind of poetic intoxication. The notion that one's grocery store becomes diseased is too far a stretch for me to accept. What if a family member continues to shop at the same store? What if one is merely one among ten thousand customers who shop at the store every week? Most cities no longer have the small local grocery stores where the lone shopkeeper and an assistant or two knew a single customer whose daily visit and a chat made a difference to neighborhood life. It's different world. Perhaps the grocery stores, supermarkets, and hypermarkets where many of us shop are diseased, but it's not because one customer contracts cancer.

The notion that an entire nation gets sick because everyone pays taxes into the health care system to support a cancer patient makes no sense. Or, perhaps, it makes a kind of poetic sense … but then, the entire nation must always be sick because the health care system is always at work helping those who contract a disease. If each entire nation is always sick, then how do we define health? Or do we believe that our entire nation is also healthy because the majority of citizens is healthy? Or do we believe that our entire nation is at peak physical fitness because our best athletes win the world championship in one sport or another. Can we then trust statistics for a nation with a star program for athletes — healthy nation! What if the same nation has poor health care and poor public health — sick nation?

Metaphor only stretches so far. Can anyone seriously claim that an entire nation is sick because taxes support a health care system that inevitably and always cares for sick people? I think — in fact — that the opposite case is true. Nations with good public health care systems are generally healthier than nations without good public health care systems. This is precisely because we all support the health care system with taxes. In turn, the health system cares for us when we contract an illness. Of course, that's just my opinion as a Swede.

For the most part, I've avoided Yasmin debates because I see views on art much as I see views on religion. In free societies, we are free to choose the gods we wish to worship just as we are free to hold any opinion we may choose to hold about art. That said, religious choice is different to the science of theology. One may choose one's beliefs. If you wish to believe that God sends angels to earth with every full moon, feel free. If you wish to believe that God is an eternal monkey king riding on a sacred elephant that stands on the back of an enormous turtle, feel free. That would make no sense to a theologian. Theology has something to do with historical evidence, the hermeneutic disclosure of sacred text, and the theological analysis of specific issues.

Once we get to a serious discourse on STEM and STEAM, we require a serious vocabulary and robust thought. If we want new ideas rather than hot moist air, we require a serious debate.

At this point, I'm going to say that the serious debate asks questions about creativity, about the spectrum across which creativity functions, and the issue involves the kinds of creativity we want. Glenn is right: "none of us want a 'creative' doctor — we want, rather a doctor who can apply the very latest 'best practices' as defined by his or her profession." I may want a doctor that listens, an empathic doctor who likes human beings, even a doctor who likes me. And I want my doctor to be aware of best practice, up to date on medicine and changing, evidence-based health treatment.

Let's be clear: I do not want my physician to treat my atrial fibrillation with moxibustion and a lecture on how this means that the prime minister must be sick as well. Rather, I prefer a doctor to try a new treatment for atrial fibrillation that did not exist twenty years ago when I was first diagnosed. The treatment did not help, but it did not hurt. At the same time, he replaced one medication with another that reduces my chance of heart attack and stroke by 90% against the older medicine. And I like the fact that a full cardiological team worked on me during the treatment. This does not mean the nation was sick. It means that a senior cardiologist, a junior cardiologist, two cardiological anesthesiologists, and a cardiological surgery nurse applied their best efforts to a non-invasive procedure that works for some people with the problem that I have, without working for all of us.

This kind of debate on matters of fact reminds me of a university professor I knew back in the heady days of post-modernism. It was his claim that all reality was a matter of social construction, that all facts were illusions, and that the world was what he declared it to be. One month, his paycheck come up short. His vocabulary shifted to that of a trade unionist talking about the value of the paycheck, the responsibility of the employer, and something that sounded a great deal like the neoconservative argument for sound currency. I do not suggest that we need to get that deeply into foundations of reality here, or the nature of facts. This was an example on the shift in vocabulary that takes place when people who argue for the fluidity of facts meet what sociologist Herbert Blumer described as the obdurate nature of reality in their personal experience.

Glenn makes more sense to me than Salvatore. Before accepting Salvatore's reply, I asked what kind of physician I want, and I asked what kind of health care system works best for my needs.

To apply this to STEM and STEAM, I'd argue for a responsible vocabulary that reflects the deep creativity of those who understand, work in, and occasionally manage to improve the world.



Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL:

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia

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