THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 10

Subject:  Socratic Method – Dialogue 

Event:  Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone, 1876

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.  -Alexander Graham Bell

On this day in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words ever spoken on the telephone.

Born in Scotland, Bell immigrated first to Canada and then to Boston, Massachusetts, where he opened a school for teachers of the deaf.  Long-distance communication became a reality in the 1830s with the invention of the telegraph, but messages could only be transmitted in Morse code.  Bell’s vision was to transmit the human voice over a wire. To help make his vision a reality, Bell hired Thomas Watson, an electrical designer and mechanic.

Bell placing the first New York to Chicago telephone call in 1892. (Wikipedia Commons)

While working on a transmitter in his laboratory on March 10, 1876, Bell spilled battery acid on his clothes.  He called out: “Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!” Watson rushed excitedly from the other room, reporting that he heard Bell’s voice coming from the transmitter.  Without realizing it, Bell had just made the first telephone call.

Bell offered to sell his invention to Western Union for $100,000.  Western Union’s president, however, failed to see how Bell’s invention could ever become more popular than the telegraph.  Within two years the telephone was worth more than $25 million, and Alexander launched his Bell Telephone Company, which would become one of the world’s largest corporations (1).

Today when we make a telephone call, we take for granted that the person on the other end of the line will answer with “hello.”  The truth is, however, that when the first telephones were put into service, people were not sure what to say to initiate the conversation.  Bell suggested the nautical greeting “Ahoy,” the word he used for the rest of his life. His rival, Thomas Edison, who made improvements on Bell’s invention, suggested “hello,” a word that previously had been used more as an exclamation of surprise rather than a synonym for “hi.”  Edison won the war of words in the long run, primarily because the first telephone books suggested “hello” as the officially sanctioned greeting (2).

In addition to the telephone, Bell is also credited with another noteworthy invention, the metal detector.  After President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, Bell invented a metal detector to help doctors locate the bullet.  Unfortunately, the bullet was never found because the metal springs from Garfield’s bed rendered Bell’s metal detector useless. Garfield died from infection from his wound on September 19, 1881.

The invention of the telephone for the first time in history allowed two people who were not in the same location to hold a spoken conversation.  Dialogue, dating back to Socrates, has been an essential method for employing reason to discover the truth. The Socratic method — also known as the ‘method of elenchus’ or ‘method of interrogation’ — is a process where people come together, not for small talk, but to discuss big issues and to cooperatively exchange views and objections with the purpose of reasoning together to arrive at the truth.

Rather than argue with people, Socrates’ approach was to ask probing questions, the kind of questions that forced his interlocutor to examine and test his or her own beliefs.  Socrates was not afraid of asking questions that made people uncomfortable, nor was he condescending or arrogant; his main interest was finding the truth.  Socrates’ mother had been a midwife, and he used this profession as a metaphor for his style of teaching:  rather than fill others with ideas, his goal was to draw them out of his students.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Socratic method, and how does it differ from traditional debate?

Challenge – Dial-Up the Dialectic:  Socrates’ method of dialogue is alive and well in the 21st century.  Many have begun to practice Street Epistemology, reasoned conversations that help people reflect and reexamine their deeply-held beliefs.  Do a bit of research on Street Epistemology to see who is doing it and how it works.

Sources:

1-“10th March 1876 – Alexander Graham Bell makes the first ever phone call.”  This Day Then Blog.

2-Krulwich, Robert. “A (Shockingly) Short History Of ‘Hello‘” NPR 17 Feb. 2011.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 20

Subject:  Epistemology – The Columbo Method

Event:  Premiere of the television detective drama Columbo, 1968.

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. -Thomas Berger

Imagine if the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates became the lead in a new detective television series.  It’s not that far of a stretch when you consider that Socrates was consumed by the same thing that all television detectives are.  Like Socrates, they are on an epistemological quest for knowledge, more specifically, knowledge that will lead them to the truth.  

Socrates used an analogy to describe the difference between unsound truth and sound truth.  He imagined two beautiful statues by the sculptor Daedalus.  The unsound truth, which came about via intuition, is like a statue placed precariously atop a pillar.  The first strong wind that comes along will knock it over.  The sound truth, however, is anchored to the ground by tethering cables, making it impervious to even gale-force winds.  For Socrates, the test of differentiating the unsound truth from the sound truth was to determine which one stood up under the scrutiny of questioning (1).

When we think of Socrates today, we probably think of his characteristic toga, and we probably also think about his characteristic Socratic method of questioning.

File:Columbo Peter Falk 1973.JPG
Peter Falk as Columbo (Wikimedia Common)

Another character known for his characteristic dress and method is the television detective Columbo.  Instead of a toga, he wore a raincoat.  Like Socrates, he valued questioning, but he added a wrinkle that made his method memorable and particularly effective for fighting crime.

The television show Columbo — which premiered on this day in 1968 — had a unique template.  Instead of following the typical “whodunnit” structure of traditional detective dramas, the Columbo writers inverted the template, beginning each episode by making the audience eye-witnesses to the crime being committed, which included knowing the identity of the perpetrator.  Instead of being a “whodunit,” Columbo followed the “howcatchem” format.  After seeing the crime committed before their eyes, the audience then got to see the cigar-smoking, raincoat-clad detective Columbo sniff out the trail of clues until he found the guilty party.

Like Socrates, an essential element of Colombo’s method was questions; however, his approach was a bit more indirect. It begins with an understanding of the importance of first and last impressions. Psychologists who study memory highlight the serial position effect and our tendency to recall best what is presented first (primacy effect) and what is presented last (recency effect). 

Columbo’s method began with a first impression that was deliberately crafted to disarm a suspect.  His disheveled appearance and his seemingly absent-minded manner put the suspect at ease, and his opening questions were always casual, respectful, and non-threatening, designed to get the suspect talking about things other than homicide.   

Columbo’s final interactions with a suspect were also deliberately designed to leave an impression.  Just as he appeared to be finishing his meeting and turning to leave, he would turn back around and say, “There’s just one more thing.”  Having thought that their interaction with the detective had concluded, the suspect would be caught off guard   At this point Columbo would point out facts from the case that appeared to be in conflict.  Instead of presenting this conflict in an accusatory manner, he would state it in a way that was self-deprecating, rubbing his head and expressing his own confusion, appearing to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. He would then deliver the final probing question which the suspect — being disarmed by Columbo’s odd manner — would answer in a careless, less than thoughtful way, often revealing something important (2).

In one episode called “How to Dial a Murder,” one suspect, who happened to be a psychologist, saw through Columbo’s method, saying, “You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. . . . You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a minefield”(3).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Columbo method, and how does it differ from the Socratic method?

Challenge – That is the Question:  Do a search for quotations about “questions.”  Select one quotation that you like, and write a paragraph explaining why you think the quotation is an important one.

Sources:

1-de Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy.  New York:  Vintage International, 2000.

2-”The Columbo Technique.”  Changing Minds.

3-Griffiths, Mark D. ”The Psychology of Columbo.” Psychology Today, 20 Feb. 2018.