Future of Reading

Theresa Schilhab respond to FAZ published responses to the Stavanger Declaration

Theresa Schilhab respond to FAZ published responses to the Stavanger Declaration

You can find publish article (in german) here.

Theresa Schilhab initial respond to given questions:
-In the German discussion of the Stavanger Declaration appreciation was mixed with a few critical comments. Some of them concern the scientific approach or foundation of the declaration. How would you reply to the allegation, the authors of the declaration have been searching for causalities that match their own world view?Science always works with hypotheses and from a set of perspectives in the sense that in order to do research a bunch of assumptions needs to be agreed upon and left untouched for the time being. Much like you need to accept the outline of the coordinate system you work with, e.g. the values of the axes in order to plot in and understand the coordinates of the particular dots (items) you find within the system. There needs to be an Archimedean point which is constant while other elements vary.
However, the chosen constants are not protected against dispute. Research depends on the ability to form reasonable frameworks, that is to be able to argue legitimately for the hypotheses and frameworks you establish. You need to convincingly and meticulously explain why you choose, metaphorically speaking, these particular variables for the axes and why for example the intervals have a certain length.
Integral to E-READ is the insistence on transdisciplinarity and multiplicity in the scientific approaches. The community consists of researchers from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds such as reading researchers, historians of literature, developmental psychologists, researchers in graphic design, philosophers of technology, neuroscientists and biologists of minds like myself (I am both neurobiologist and philosopher). Thus, E-read actually bridges the traditional gap between the natural sciences and the arts and humanities. The initiative is founded on the very idea that to answer the evolving of reading in the age of digitalisation, ideally the research community needs to cover multiple methodologies from experiment-based research to anthropological studies and various scientific approaches to the concept of reading. Moreover, researchers come from all over Europe representing many different local approaches to the theme of E-READ. The multinational and manifaceted assembly of researchers is an extremely potent way to immunise against biases and hidden agendas in the research.
To cut it short, it is extremely unlikely that philosophers of technology restlessly share their world view with neuroscientists, developmental psychologists or researchers of graphic design. And we have had our share of exchanges of opinions or clashes of world views. For instance, graphic designers may be more interested in the phenomenal ‘feel’ of reading than how the neurons become activated at a subconscious level which is the interest of the neuroscientist or the societal structures of power guiding the inclusion of reading devices that may interest the philosopher of technology.

– A different commentator stated the declaration shows a subliminal, yet ahistorical and unpolitical adverseness against technology. How would you comment on that?
E-READ is established to address literacy in the 21 century and is therefore essentially a historical approach implicitly endorsing ‘historical consciousness’. The research question concerns how literacy evolves in the face of the technological development. That question entails considerations of questions like what reading is and has been historically; of what functions literacy has had during different societal eras; of what competences are needed by citizens at any given point in time, as well as how these socio-cultural demands match our biological and neuropsychological make-up and to what extent these are malleable. The notion that reading and literacy have changed during the last approximately 5400 yrs. has been explicit to the discussions internal to the network.
Just like Gutenberg’s fantastic printing technology opened a completely new page in the book about human knowledge acquisition that changed the way people shared and stored knowledge both privately and as a society, the new internet supported smart technology changes our ways to organise and access information and knowledge. Obviously, the kind of technology introduced now carries entirely new possibilities and challenges in need of investigation. An although it is a very sound response to recall that new technologies always appear alien and maybe even threatening, whether it was the steam engine, the airplane or even the book itself, this relevant objection should not mute the critical extrapolations that arise from what we do already know. As explained before, science works from and must work from what we already know. We could say that science sums up what we know and which world view we have agreed on in a certain era and on that base then forecasts what would be in the future.
But science as an activity of understanding also attempts to avoid biases and prejudices. Science should be self-aware of the short-cuts and variables it must include to get any science done.

– Any researcher dealing with an issue that raises ideologically coloured discussions has to make sure not to be ideologically biased in his studies, as well. How do you secure the neutrality of the outcome of a study in general?
As just said, it is a mark of ideal in science that it always attempts to falsify its own assumptions and underlying values. That is, research needs to be explicitly critical towards its own foundation and framework to be viewed as scientific. To ensure these explicitly critical steps of the scientific activity, the continuing debate with and abundant responses from other researchers is of utmost importance. That is the rationale behind the peer viewing procedures when papers are published and the conference culture that dominates exchanges of scientific ideas. Researchers are always expected to be able to qualify their opinions in light of any critique anyone might raise against them.
Hence, scientists should welcome all kinds of criticism because their mere existence aid in sharpening the reasoning and the validity of the scientific conjectures. For science it is priceless to get the opinion of practicians on scientific themes such as reading on different substrates because their experiences of real life in the class room, with particular educational aims in mind, with different reading abilities among pupils, in response to the complexity of the surrounding society and so on and so forth, can be considered a kind of a litmus test on the soundness of the scientific descriptions.
Again, the multidisciplinarity of E-READ is a very useful approach that inherently challenges the tacit assumptions the individual researcher may carry with her in her research. E-READ has also worked actively for outreach initiatives and widespread contact with the public and stakeholders for the very reason that science grows from elaborate dissemination exchanges.

– How did you insure it in an exemplary study contributing to the Stavanger Declaration?
The actual study is a so-called meta-analysis that compare results based on a huge number of single studies on the reading of comparable texts on paper and on digital devices. Inherent to such an approach is that it sums up trends in the data. Hence, to a large extent the results are so-called data-driven. Obviously, the single studies are selected based on particular so-called inclusion criteria set by the researchers. These criteria are thoroughly explained in the paper for other researchers to for example find loop holes in the arguments or replicate the result of the meta-analysis for themselves. In the purported analysis, the criteria were for example ‘Participants read individually and silently’ and ‘The statistical data allow parametric analyses’. That way, the meta-study demonstrates to what extent its claims has legitimacy. Obviously, based on the results of this meta-study it is not valid to discuss reading effects of reading aloud or reading effects from reading that occurs as part of a social activity.
For scientists it is pivotal that the limiting conditions are transparent. It is worth mentioning that the validity of the meta-study is highly dependent on the validity of the single studies.that is, that the researchers of the individual studies have been similarly rigorous in their scientific approach.

– Did the E-READ network rather encouraged or help to balance potential biases?
As mentioned in the above, it is a major privilege for researchers to meet so many different approaches dealing with the same themes. To assemble a large group of scientists as is the case with the COST network initiative is, I guess, the best thing to do in order to take stock of, to make progress in and to sustain the exchange of opinions within an academic field. The structure has first and foremost encouraged exchanges and pointed to so many aspects that are in need of more research. In the declaration that fact has also been emphasised, that future research initiatives are needed. That we are only in the beginning of understanding the influence of the technological turn in our time. And we should absolutely take it seriously that at the verge of this new era we have absolutely no means to fully understand the complexities of the switch. That means that on the face of it neither technology sceptics nor technology optimists should be favoured in the approach to technology. Hence, politicians who claim that technology is the future we cannot oppose, should be met with the natural scepticism inherent to science.

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