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MLK luncheon: “What matters is what you’re doing”

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 12:44 PM PST

When former NFL player Wade Davis, as a teenager, first told his mother that he was gay, he wasn't prepared for the response he got: "You're already black!" she told him, adding that she wished he would die of cancer rather than tell her he was gay.

Their relationship remained uncomfortable for years, Davis says, but eventually, after many difficult conversations, they came to better understand each other's perspectives. Now, years later, he says his mom and his fiancé happily talk and text each other. That long and hard progression, he said, helped to give him insight into the need to ask deep questions and try to understand why other people with different views feel the way they do.

Davis, who now serves as the NFL's first-ever LGBT inclusion consultant, described these experiences in the keynote address at the 44th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration luncheon, held at a packed Morss Hall on the MIT campus. He explained that he eventually learned that his mother had a much older brother who had been killed in a lynching. He finally understood that her harsh words were her way of trying to protect him from the prejudices and hatred she knew he would encounter in the world — and that she had experienced all too vividly.

"You have to have compassion for those you disagree with," Davis said. In this case, he said, the breakthrough in understanding only came after "I asked my mother better questions." Reflecting on a short poem by Langston Hughes, called "Personal," Davis said this compassion is the key to effective action even when the path is difficult. "The work must become personal," he said, as people struggle to bring greater justice and equity in the world.

In his own growth, he said, he came to realize that thinking that of oneself as a good person doesn't really matter. "We're so interested in our own goodness," he said, but that's not as important to others. "They don't care if you think you're a good person. What matters is what you're doing."

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his remarks introducing Davis, said that right now we live in "an angry, cynical time, in which many people are careless with the truth. … And sometimes it nearly breaks your heart."

But, he said, "when I feel worn out by all the terrible noise, I take great inspiration in thinking about our community at MIT because, I would like to believe, MIT is different. MIT can be noisy, too. But it's mostly the noise of bright, curious people testing old assumptions, coming up with new ideas, and trying to understand each other."

"As for cynicism," he added, "to me, cynicism could be a sign of defeat. It could be a sign that you have lost faith in human goodness and possibility, and lost faith in our creative power to make a better world. By that definition, MIT is the opposite of cynicism. And I am grateful for, and proud of, this community's practical optimism, every day."

Of course, MIT is not perfect, he said, but "I am very grateful to belong to a community that, I would like to think, is willing to face its imperfections, to talk honestly and openly about them, in a spirit of mutual respect, and to work together to make things better."

Reif described significant progress MIT has made over the last two years in implementing new programs to foster inclusion and equity, including a $23.4 million increase in financial aid, new interactive sessions on diversity during undergraduate and graduate student orientation, and new mental health staff trained in "culturally competent" care.

"The harder, more systemic issues now become our central focus," he added. "This includes the long-term challenge of recruiting more graduate students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups and making sure they are positioned to succeed. But we have the right people pursuing the right strategies … so I am optimistic that we can steadily turn these aspirations into action, too."

The luncheon also featured reflections on King's legacy by two current MIT students. Josué Lopez, a fourth-year doctoral student in electrical engineering and computer science, said, "For the past decade, I have been trying to tackle climate change, via technology, education, and more recently, direct nonviolent action. As someone who grew up in a low-income and immigrant community in Los Angeles, I am painfully aware that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the devastating effects of climate change and environmental waste and pollution, otherwise known as environmental racism."

Lopez added, "This year we tragically saw that the most vulnerable communities in Houston, Puerto Rico, and Dominica will take the longest to recover from the physical and psychological scars of devastating hurricanes strengthened by climate change. … The Puerto Rican student association and I all have family, friends, and communities that were affected. So it's personal. This is why I understand that climate change is fundamentally an issue of equity and justice."

He concluded by telling the gathering that "looking at all of you, I see individuals who want to work toward a more equitable future. Regardless of the state of American or global politics, we at MIT have opportunities to implement plans that will directly support equity and justice here and everywhere."

"Most importantly, believe in your own ability to make a difference," he said. "Believe that equity and social justice are worth fighting for. Believe that we will win in pursuing justice and equity, because we must!"

Tori Finney, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, said that until recently, she had never reflected deeply on the influence of race on her own life and identity. Growing up, she spent eight years at an international school in Belgium where she only encountered five students of color. "It was a confusing time," she said. "Both my racial and national identity were challenged. Classmates would comment that I was not 'really black' because I didn't talk or act the way they saw black Americans act on TV, but I still somehow felt too black to fit in with some of them."

She recalled,"We didn't complain and further alienate ourselves when our next-door neighbor called the police on me for standing outside my own house when I was 12." That and similar experiences "were upsetting to me, but I didn't really understand why, or what I could possibly do to change anything," she said.

Finney gradually became aware of the effects that microaggressions can have on a person's mental health: "All at once, years' worth of reactions to injustices against me came crashing down. I refer to this as an awokening." At MIT, she said, "I went to mental health walk-in hours one afternoon, and was introduced to a new term: racial battle fatigue."

This term, she said, "describes the stress and anxiety that many people of color develop while navigating a predominantly white institution. With racial microaggressions acting as the source of trauma, this mental health disorder is similar to PTSD. It can affect people both mentally and physically, often contributing to fatigue, hypertension, headaches, and sleep issues."

Finney said, "While my focus today is mainly on the effects of racial microaggressions, I would like to mention that the problem extends beyond race. … I believe that there are countless MIT students that have similar problems based on gender identity, sexuality, religion, and other aspects of their identities."

What should people do about these things? "We can increase informal dialogue," Finney suggested. "We can spend more time asking people about what behavior they might find harmful. We can brainstorm icebreakers that will encourage people to talk about their differences in classes or meetings. In these conversations, we can respect the fact that something we thought was okay might not be okay for someone else. Instead of making excuses for it, we can learn what we need to do to change."

Comparing injustice to air pollution, which can spread insidiously, she said, "If we all work together, we can cleanse our campus of the pollution of microaggressions. And in doing so, we can prevent it from spreading elsewhere."

Jennifer Rupp: Engineering practical ceramics

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 11:20 AM PST

Ensuring that her research contributes to society's well-being is a major driving force for Jennifer Rupp.

"Even if my work is fundamental, I want to think about how it can be useful for society," says Rupp, the Thomas Lord Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT.

Since joining the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in February 2017, she has been focusing not only on the basics of ceramics processing techniques but also on how to further develop those techniques to design new practical devices as well as materials with novel structures. Her current research applications range from battery-based storage for renewable energy, to energy-harvesting systems, to devices used to store data during computation.

Rupp first became intrigued with ceramics during her doctoral studies at ETH Zurich.

"I got particularly interested in how they can influence structures to gain certain functionalities and properties," she says. During this time, she also became fascinated with how ceramics can contribute to the conversion and storage of energy. The need to transition to a low-carbon energy future motivates much of her work at MIT. "Climate change is happening," she says. "Even though not everybody may agree on that, it's a fact."

One way to tackle the climate change problem is by capitalizing on solar energy. Sunshine falling on the Earth delivers roughly 170,000 terawatts per year — about 10,000 times the energy consumed annually worldwide. "So we have a lot of solar energy," says Rupp. "The question is, how do we profit the most from it?"

To help convert that solar energy into a renewable fuel, her team is designing a ceramic material that can be used in a solar reactor in which incoming sunlight is controlled to create a heat cycle. During the temperature shifts, the ceramic material incorporates and releases oxygen. At the higher temperature, it loses oxygen; at the lower temperature, it regains the oxygen. When carbon dioxide and water are flushed into the solar reactor during this oxidation process, a split reaction occurs, yielding a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as syngas, which can be converted catalytically into ethanol, methanol, or other liquid fuels.

While the challenges are many, Rupp says she feels bolstered by the humanitarian ethos at MIT. "At MIT, there are scientists and engineers who care about social issues and try to contribute with science and their problem-solving skills to do more," she says. "I think this is quite important. MIT gives you strong support to try out even very risky things."

In addition to continuing her work on new materials, Rupp looks forward to exploring new concepts with her students. During the fall of 2017, she taught two recitation sections of 3.091 (Introduction to Solid State Chemistry), a class that has given thousands of MIT undergraduates a foundation in chemistry from an engineering perspective. This spring, she will begin teaching a new elective for graduate students on ceramics processing and engineering that will delve into making ceramic materials not only on the conventional large-scale level but also as nanofabricated structures and small-system structures for devices that can store and convert energy, compute information, or sense carbon dioxide or various environmental pollutants.

To further engage with students, Rupp has proposed an extracurricular club for them to develop materials science comic strips. The first iteration is available on Instagram (@materialcomics) and it depicts three heroes who jump into various structures to investigate their composition and, naturally, to have adventures. Rupp sees the comics as an exciting avenue to engage the nonscientific community as a whole and to illustrate the structures and compositions of various everyday materials.

"I think it is important to create interest in the topic of materials science across various ages and simply to enjoy the fun in it," she says. 

Rupp says MIT is proving to be a stimulating environment. "Everybody is really committed and open to being creative," she says. "I think a scientist is not only a teacher or a student; a scientist is someone of any age, of any rank, someone who simply enjoys unlocking creativity to design new materials and devices."

This article appears in the Autumn 2017 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Alumni call on MIT to champion artificial intelligence education

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 08:10 AM PST

In the weeks before the launch of the MIT Intelligence Quest, an initiative that will advance the science and engineering of human and machine intelligence, School of Engineering graduates were asked: "What positive role can MIT play in the AI revolution?"

Alumni urged MIT to energize the artificial intelligence community, including people in industry, academia, and the government, around a thoughtful strategy for the future. They wrote directly to Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who posed the question in a monthly newsletter, The Infinite.

"The AI community is struggling to ensure that AI-inspired transformations end up benefiting science and society," says Auroop Ganguly PhD '02, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. "A clear lack of leadership is becoming apparent, particularly in this country, across not just government agencies and labs, but also in academia and private-public sectors. This is an area where MIT, with its enormous resources and reputation, can help jump-start innovations."

AI-inspired technologies hold great promise, wrote alumni. Smart vehicles may save lives worldwide and smart buildings save energy and reduce carbon emissions. The latest advances are inspiring progress in health care, education, energy, and the environment.

But decisive leadership is essential to guarantee that development of AI technologies includes consideration of societal and ethical questions alongside the technical, say alumni.

"Recent developments ranging from autonomous cars and infrastructural resilience to weather prediction and remote sensing suggest the possibilities that AI can bring to bear in these areas," says Ganguly. "Private industry may be willing to invest once academia, led by MIT, moves in this direction, as may be evident from signals coming out of technology companies," he says, noting Microsoft's AI for Earth initiative and Google's stated desire to use AI to address humanity's greatest challenges.

MIT alumnus Tom Wylonis SM '68 who is board chairman of Evaxion Biotech, which is using AI to seek solutions to global challenges to human health, wrote: "Since industry investments tend to be short-term due to risk aversion, MIT should also lead the way with fundamental research that lays the foundation for longer-term benefits from AI."

Wylonis, an active mentor to MIT students and funding board member of Sandbox, an Institute-wide program that supports student-initiated ideas, suggests MIT has another leadership role to play.

"I believe that MIT should do all it can to increase the number and quality of MIT graduates with AI specialization," says Wylonis, citing a rise in AI investment in nearly all industrial sectors. "Along with this, encourage other educational and research institutes to follow suit since we are likely to encounter a massive future shortage of AI talent."

Alumni repeatedly circled back to the issue of ethical deployment of AI technologies. "MIT can amplify the positive impact of AI by actively encouraging a dialogue between technologists and social scientists on where AI can and should impact society," wrote Don Shobrys '75, an engineer and consultant who has volunteered extensively at MIT, including stints serving on the Corporation, as president of the Alumni Association, and as co-director of the Venture Mentoring Service.

Yu Chen '00, a technical program manager at Google, advised: "MIT will be one of the technology leaders defining the future, so I want us to be mindful about designing a future that works for everyone, not just those who have more access to money or resources or information."

Many alumni also suggested MIT must help set the agenda for public debate and convene conversations about important issues. Offering people clarity about the role and workings of AI is crucial, they say.

Ray Stata '57, SM '58 a longtime MIT volunteer and benefactor, wrote: "MIT is already well-along in AI education and research. But for the alumni it would be great to offer an online course which describes the basics of neural networks and how deep learning is applied to solve problems in new ways."

Joanna Bryson ScD '01 an associate professor focused on AI ethics at the University of Bath, declared: "MIT needs to take a strong stand on fact-based assessment of AI." She added: "MIT needs to claim the high ground and maintain a human-centered perspective on AI."

Cornel West advocates the “examined life” on campus

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 07:07 AM PST

How can universities be a force for social good in turbulent times? At an MIT talk on Wednesday evening, the prominent philosopher Cornel West had a clear answer: painful self-reflection.

More precisely, West suggested, the individuals who populate institutions of higher education should rigorously reexamine the consensus beliefs they encounter and, ideally, develop an "aversion to conformity" that will help bring vitality and diversity to academic life.

"The unexamined life is not worth living," West said, alluding to the ideas of Socrates. "The examined life is painful."

Higher education, West added, should be about not "information," but "transformation" — a process of questioning assumptions and refining habits of critical thinking that can be applied to any issue.

"I don't fetishize smartness," West said, observing that the lessons of one discipline do not necessarily translate into other realms — and that we should be wary of overestimating people based on their apparent sharpness in one sphere of life. At leading universities, West suggested, there is greater danger in overestimating people than in being humble about our capabilities.

"We recognize we will be wrong as well as right," West said.

West's talk, titled "Speaking Truth to Power! A Discussion on Institutional Provincialism," took place before a packed auditorium in MIT's Room 10-250. West was joined by five MIT scholars who made their own remarks after his talk and engaged with an extensive round of questions from the audience.

West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School and holds a joint appointment with Harvard's Department of African and African-American Studies. He is author of, among other books, "Race Matters" and "Democracy Matters." He has appeared in over two dozen documentaries about social issues and released three spoken-word albums.

West was introduced by Ty Austin, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Architecture, who outlined the issue West discussed: Institutions benefit by developing stable identities, but too much conformity, or too narrow an institutional identity, can limit an university's ability to influence an ever-changing world.

"We bring a sort of identity [and] mindset into this vast metropolis of higher learning," Austin said. And yet, he observed, if a university's inhabitants adhere to "the same identity and like-mindedness," it is quite possible that "the very institutions that are said to broaden horizons and advance technology and society" would exist for "the benefit of the few, by marginalizing the many."

"A test of who we are"

West did not offer a detailed critique of the Institute: "I'm not here to pontificate. I don't know that much about the internal dynamics of MIT," he said. Instead, he offered reflections about the practice of self-examination, as well as the larger, pressing problems in the world today.  

We are facing, among other hazards, "economic catastrophe" in the form of inequality, West said. He noted that the three richest Americans have wealth equivalent to the bottom half of the population.

"Salute their smartness, their intelligence, [but] we're talking about structures, we're talking about institutions in place, we're talking about policies that generate massive redistribution of wealth from poorer working people to the well-to-do," West contended.

The changing climate, West said, was an environmental "catastrophe" in the making for all of society. He also decried the increase of racially charged politics and immigration issues in the U.S. in recent years.

"We live in one of the bleakest moments in the history of the empire," West said, adding: "It's a test of who we are."

West's talk occurred during Black History Month, which he called "sacred ground" in American life, and he decried the use of sanitizing euphemisms for political discord in the U.S., such as the term "race problem" as a description of civic conflict. Instead, West said, there have been a "series of catastrophes visited upon blacks" in the U.S.

While talking about the need for self-critique on campuses, West also sounded upbeat notes about the possibilities for social rejuvenation that come with intellectual freedom.

"Social movements need some MIT folks — who do their homework," West said.

"That's a challenge to all my brothers and sisters here of all colors at MIT," he added. "How do you not just talk about it, but enact a sensitivity to the problem, in your curriculum, in your own praxis, in your organizational affiliation."

The event was sponsored by all five of MIT's schools — the School of Engineering, the School of Science, the School of Architecture and Planning, the Sloan School of Management, and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences — as well as the Media Lab, the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, the Office of Graduate Education, the Institute Community and Equity Office, and the Committee on Race and Diversity.

The view from the panel

The event also featured a panel of MIT students and faculty who spoke about how they work to help bring alternate ideas to the Institute.

Joy Buolamwini, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, founded the Algorithmic Justice League to push back against ethnic biases in machine learning, such as in facial recognition programs.

"I'm coming up against something I call 'the coded gaze,'" Buolamwini said, referring to the decisions and assumptions in such programs, which, she noted, reflect "the priorities and preferences of what those who have power choose to focus on, who's visible, who's rendered invisible."

Sasha Costanza-Chock, the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor in Contemporary Technology, suggested that preventing intellectual provincialism at MIT means avoiding "the technological solutionist ideology" of attempting to solve hard problems from the lab without sufficient on-the-ground knowledge of social realities.

"In this process of problem-solving," said Costanza-Chock, it is important "to think about how do we say, 'Well, I may be a brilliant person, and I may have a certain set of skills and knowledge in one domain, but how do I really work in partnership with, or even in service to [people who] are experiencing the lived reality of intersectional oppression?"

Jennifer Light, chair of MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society, observed that knowledge of the past can make clear that science and technology should always be understood in relationship to civic life — and have been used to exacerbate harmful social goals. For instance, Light noted, professors at elite U.S. universities in the 1920s favored eugenics programs.

"Smart people have lots of bad ideas," said Light. "And history can be a tool to understand that, and take to your own present."

The panel was moderated by Ceasar McDowell, a professor of civic design in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who also contributed remarks to the discussion. In contemporary higher education, he noted, there can be a tension between the effort to support a high volume of innovation and the need to understand the social effects of new technologies.   
"We want people to innovate. We want people to move things to market," McDowell said. And yet, he noted, institutions can guide the process of research and development, potentially with ideas of social good and ethical standards in mind. In that sense, McDowell said, one challenging form of self-examination for universities would be to discuss the "set of standards [for] things we're going to innovate around."

Finding joy in social activism

The event's concluding remarks were delivered by Duane Lee, an astronomer who is a postdoc at Vanderbilt University and an MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT. Lee discussed the need to challenge conventional wisdom as a way of increasing diversity in academia.

"At times we delude ourselves that we are immune to biases," said Lee, relating multiple instances in which professional colleagues have asserted to him that increased diversity in his field would lead to a lowering of overall academic standards.

On the contrary, Lee suggested, if the discipline had been tapping into a talent pool consisting of everyone in society, not just the narrower cross-section of society it has traditionally employed, then the standards of the field, along with the rate of progress, would likely be higher than they currently are.

West praised the contributions of the other panelists and, along with them, fielded audience questions, telling one undergraduate that social engagement can also be a source of energy and enjoyment.

"There's got to be some joy in it," West said about the practice of social activism. "If it's just done out of joylessness, then you're not going to be a long-distance runner."

For that matter, West noted earlier in the event, persistence and determination are key components of enacting civic change in the face of setbacks or just intermittent public indifference. 

"All of us fall short," West said. "Samuel Beckett is right: Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

MIT Federal Credit Union embraces the Read with Malcolm initiative

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 06:55 AM PST

On Jan. 31, MIT Federal Credit Union (MIT FCU) President and CEO Brian Ducharme delivered 40 copies of "The Magician's Hat," a children's picture book written by New England Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, to the first graders of Morse Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After reading this story aloud to his excited audience of early readers, Ducharme handed out books so each child might take a copy home.

The MIT Federal Credit Union is a proud sponsor of Credit Unions Kids at Heart, a Massachusetts-based charitable organization and partner in the Share the Magic Foundation's Read with Malcolm initiative. One of the largest credit union collaborative public service initiatives in the nation, Credit Unions Kids at Heart has since 1996 raised funds for Boston Children's Hospital's research activities aimed at the prevention, treatment, and/or cure of pediatric neurological diseases.

In 2017, as an extension of its mission to help children lead healthy, happy lives, Credit Unions Kids at Heart embraced the Read with Malcolm initiative, a youth literacy program of Malcolm Mitchell's Share the Magic Foundation. The Share the Magic Foundation works to promote the long-term benefits of reading and book ownership among students in Title I schools and underserved communities. With the support of a select number of its own participating credit unions, including MIT FCU, Credit Unions Kids at Heart has donated hundreds of copies of Mitchell's book to the first grade classes of eligible area schools.

"It was fulfilling, on many levels, to be a part of this program. The Read with Malcolm initiative reminds us of the importance of putting books in the hands and homes of young children, and of providing those children with interesting, inspiring, and age-appropriate stories to read. These kids were spot on in their understanding of the message of 'The Magician's Hat,' and genuinely appreciated being able to take home a copy of the book," says Ducharme. "We are proud to participate in a community-driven program that supports children's overall health, both physical and mental, through Credit Unions Kids at Heart and the Read with Malcolm initiative."

The MIT Federal Credit Union was founded as a nonprofit financial institution in 1940 to provide basic financial services to employees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today, with assets in excess of $500,000 million, the Credit Union offers traditional savings and checking accounts as well as lending programs for mortgages, autos, personal and student loans. With locations and ATMs in Cambridge and Lexington, along with mobile and, online banking services, MIT Federal Credit Union serves the greater MIT-Kendall Square communities which includes employees of Novartis (Cambridge), Lincoln Laboratory, Draper, Whitehead Institute, The Broad Institute, Phillips, and Forsyth. MIT Federal Credit Union also serves MIT students (graduate and undergraduate) and alumni. MIT Federal Credit Union is a member-owned, cooperative financial institution whose primary mission is to provide quality financial services that meet the needs of its members while ensuring the financial well-being of the organization.

Jane Melchionda, president and CEO of Eastern Corporate Federal Credit Union of Burlington, Massachusetts, founded Credit Unions Kids at Heart in 1996 with a small group of Massachusetts credit unions. Since that time, the program has expanded nationally to include dozens of participating credit unions. The program and its team of dedicated supporters are presently committed to funding several pediatric research projects at Boston Children's Hospital, including: moyamoya disease, Sturge-Weber syndrome, pediatric brain tumors, and cerebral palsy. In 2017, the Credit Unions Kids at Heart Team also embraced the Read with Malcolm initiative, a youth literacy program founded by New England Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Throughout the 2017 NFL season, the Credit Unions Kids at Heart Team will sponsor First Downs for First Graders and donate copies of Mitchell's book, "The Magician's Hat," to many first graders within the cities and towns where credit unions are located.

Applying philosophy for a better democracy

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 06:35 AM PST

Why would a politician publicly contradict himself? What does it mean to call someone a racist? Can you control hate speech without eroding free speech? What happens to democracy if truth is subjective?

These are among the rich range of topics discussed in 24.192 (Language, Information, and Power), an undergraduate philosophy seminar taught by Assistant Professor Justin Khoo. Offered for just the second time last fall, the class explores philosophical and political issues surrounding discourse, with a focus on connecting philosophical ideas to current controversies about speech.

"The class has been a great space for discussion about very relevant issues we face today. In 24.192 we regularly engaged on topics of bigotry, ideal political discourse, and the ever-growing polarization of partisanship and media sources," says Joseph Edwards, a sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science. "This class has put philosophy and linguistics on the front line in terms of how we look at our cultures and societies."

"We're not just playing with ideas, but ideally articulating viewpoints in a way that can change hearts and minds," says Khoo. "It's a lofty goal."

Philosophy of language as a framework for difficult questions

Readings range from classics of philosophy such as John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" to works by contemporary philosophers, such as University of Connecticut professor Michael Lynch, as well as a wide selection of opinion articles on such topics as censorship, racism, and the nature of truth in politics.

"We have to distinguish between what is objectionable within a certain context and the idea that a view should never be expressed ever," says Khoo, noting that the philosophy of language provides a framework for considering such difficult questions. "When you call a person 'racist,' it's not just the dictionary definition. You are judging them in a particular way. You are labeling them a bad person."

With that in mind, is "racist" a useful label? Khoo says that the tool philosophy provides for considering such questions is abstraction — getting away from the particularities of today's political firestorms to try to understand the fundamentals underlying language-related issues.

Truth and politics

For example, one evening this fall the class met in a Stata Center lecture hall to discuss truth in the context of politics while enjoying a buffet dinner provided by Radius, an MIT initiative that fosters greater engagement with ethics, and which served as co-sponsor of the course.

Rather than debating the latest headline-grabbing bit of news, however, Khoo introduced the class to the liar paradox. He wrote "This sentence is false" on the whiteboard and examined the challenges the sentence presents. "Things shouldn't be both true and false. As soon as you talk about truth you come across some interesting paradoxes in philosophy," says Khoo.

While belief is not the same thing as truth, and lying is commonplace, human interactions depend on the norm that people generally assert things that they know to be true, Khoo says. "Under what conditions would it be reasonable to try to get your belief into someone else's mind just by asserting it if that rule weren't widely adhered to?" asks Khoo. "Violations of these rules can't be the norm, because if they were it's hard to see how we could communicate at all."

Nevertheless, Khoo notes, "There are rewards for flouting these norms. This is where we're going to get political." Citing an article by Lynch, he points out that a politician who contradicts himself can actually win people over on both sides of an issue — because, Khoo says, "Listeners can believe what they want."

"The danger emerges when distrust undercuts the sources for truth in society. You give up on the truth and retreat to subjectivism: 'All I know is the content of my own mind.' That's paving the path to authoritarianism. The point of democracy is to think about issues yourself," says Khoo.

Applying philosophy to life

Students say the class has enriched their thinking about topical issues. "I talk about the subjects and the ideas we talk about in the class with people in my dorm," says Lawson Kosulic, a junior double majoring in philosophy and physics. "Many of the frameworks we use in philosophy of language are very applicable to real-life situations."

For example, the class discussed the effects that hate speech and subtler forms of discriminations can have on human behaviors. "Some people feel silenced by what other people are saying. This restricts the amount of information and perspective we get," says Kosulic.

Edwards says, "We spent many hours approaching how we communicate our values and what effect communication has on our democracy. Finally, we discussed how much credence we give our information ... and whether academia offers us any factual security."

The question of what to do about the issues raised in the class is answered differently by different philosophers, but Khoo says his point was not to give students answers but to provide resources for them to think through questions on their own. "The goal of the course is to create an open and friendly environment for students to talk about these issues," says Khoo.

Kosulic says the class has gotten him thinking about how he uses language himself. "This is why I'm so interested in philosophy. When you take these classes, you see it takes something subjective and emotion-filled and makes it more structured. It lets you look at it in a logical framework," says Kosulic. "When I go to class it leaves me feeling inspired. Every time there's a new piece to the puzzle."