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Abbott & Costello
Watch the comedic skit here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzxVyO6cpos
28 July 2022

Teaching ‘Epistemology’ to Design Students Using Abbott & Costello

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Original blog post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/teaching-epistemology-to-design-students-using-abbott-costello-734ce08b7624

I have addressed in past posts and articles that in order to perform design as a process, one might be able to get away without thinking philosophically and focus on following the methods in order to accomplish some design outcome. However, this usually fails… or when the designer does hit a barrier (mental, sociological or institutional), they are stuck at “Why-centric” questions that simply are un-answerable using ‘what-how’ considerations. This, folks, is why we need to use design philosophy in order to address the deeper questions that design focuses on- innovation, change, disruption, critical reflection, experimentation and employing the artistry plus the science to fuse them into something beyond what either accomplishes independently.

“Wait a second,” many might say as we try to introduce design philosophy into the mix. “We need to keep it simple, stupid.” Or, a myriad of other tropes that in defense and security fields we tend to hear after ramping down from one conflict period or another. “Get back to the basics”, “purge us of those Ivory Tower thinkers and navel-gazers… so we can do what we are best at!” Or, one of my favorite groups of institutional defenders are those that defend military doctrine as “the most good-enough solution we have for this imperfect world… you just need to follow the doctrine more closely and you will finally get it right.” They tend to add, “but if you figure something out we don’t have in doctrine, please tell us so we can add it and then everyone benefits from the improved doctrine… which we all need to follow.” Sadly, modern military doctrine suffers from many things, including an entirely non-reflective mode of decision-making. See: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/single-loop-thinking-non-reflective-military-cycles-of-ends-and-means-c7643fe51290

This sounds a bit flippant, but I like to think of Max Planck’s statement (usually paraphrased) that lamented, “the field of theoretical physics advances one funeral at a time.” More precisely, he said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Yet Planck was talking about scientific paradigms where the legacy (older, outdated) one is replaced by a new one that outperforms and exceeds it. In social paradigm theory, this does not happen. This is why epistemology is so important when designing toward complex security, policy, societal and cultural contexts (not necessarily resulting in new user experiences or products). Warfare is unfortunately tied to dynamic, complex if not chaotic contexts. In those, we will encounter different epistemological frames for interpreting the same complex reality… meaning a military force unable or unwilling to distinguish this will end up forcing their single frame upon every and anyone, in all wars, everywhere, and wondering why sometimes it works and many other times it fails.

So this is really the reason that design philosophy must be introduced if we are going to talk about the WHY of anything. For instance, when a military doctrine writer offers their position that war philosophy discussions are fun, but largely a waste of time, and then insists that we need to put everything into doctrine and follow it, I might ask in return, “why does doctrine matter?” They immediately launch into what is a philosophical explanation of why they feel doctrine is so important to the modern military force. This is sometimes a useful way to soften the objective, and get some to open up to the idea of having a philosophical discussion. To do this, we need to get to ‘frame awareness’ as in what one’s social paradigm is (and is not)… and in order to get to this, we must get at the core elements of ontology and epistemology. These words tend to frighten people. You will see some insist that we do not say these words, that we find something else instead or offer simpler terms. Why is this? There are a wide range of reasons, but for years I have focused on relating to two different groups of design students for how to broach this subject.

The first group are those able and willing to learn about design theory and dive headfirst into things such as epistemology. There are no hard and fast rules here, but typically they are unafraid of new ideas and often the institution has not yet gained a strong grip upon what they should believe, and disbelieve about reality, warfare, theory, doctrine and so-on. Sometimes they are at the Colonel or war college level- but sometimes not at all. Some war college professors have (in my experience and all experiences vary) been the most antagonistic to any war frame but the one that has carried them through their careers to their current station in life teaching a seminar “how things are…and how they only can be.” Not to pick on professors, there are plenty of other examples across the various classrooms, conferences, lectures, exercises, units and activities I have participated in and engaged in these design philosophical topics. For the record, many professors at the war college level do care deeply about philosophy, and they enrich their seminars by exploring such things concerning policy, strategy, operations and more.

The second group consists of these sorts- the ones that potentially can learn design and even work with ontology and epistemology, but they have a phobia to the terms or an anti-intellectualist stance for some reason (our military institutions across the globe have struggled with this for generations and for a range of cultural, social, and institutional reasons). Fine, we cannot use the terms… but we still need to get at what they mean and why they matter. For this post, I want to focus on ‘epistemology’ as that is the harder concept to master and often generates the most frustration. There are lots of fun ways to get at this, from pop culture to biological examples of flowers, weeds and bees. One that I find most entertaining is from an old Abbott and Costello skit about cheating the landlord out of rent with a fun math game. The link to the YouTube clip is here and readers should check this out first before going further.

I normally play the clip or place it in a design module for autonomous learning, and after the students watch the clip, you will want to ask a series of questions that brings into focus what epistemology means, and why it matters to designers.

In this classic comedic bit, Abbott and Costello owe 13 weeks of room rent at $7 per week to the landlord, who catches them on the stairwell. That landlord, using the math that we all use every day, knows up front that the men owe him $91. The men instead explain that they only owe $28 for the rent, and that 13 x 7 equals 28, not 91. The landlord disagrees, but due to overconfidence states that if the men can prove they are right, he will not charge them any rent at all. And the game begins…

The skit is clever and, as most students watch it (you can see their faces twist and distort as each math equation turns out to be 28 instead of 91), they struggle between how “’math is supposed to work” and how Costello is perverting the process to arrive at 28 in a strangely convincing “alternative math.” The landlord first demands that they show it through division. Costello wants to take 28, divide it by 7 and arrive somehow at the number 13. He draws the division problem as we might recognize it, but in processing the division- something else happens. Even with how he carries the 2, Costello is not following “the rules of math” as our society understands it and how our number system is established to operate (think Roman numerals… this skit would not work with them for the same reason!). At the end of this first part of the skit, Costello has arrived at 13 through following another way to do math that violates (or uses an entirely different construct) how we are supposed to “do math.”

The landlord is surprised, but a skeptic and feels that multiplication will prove he is right. Costello then draws out the equation as we would recognize it to be done by grade students… but in multiplying things up something else happens again. Notice that Costello is using the same numbers (symbols, data) that exist in our paradigm (the one that the landlord and those seeing this skit for the first time take for granted as ‘reality’ to the exclusion of all else)… and Costello is going through methodologies that also share similarities with “how we know to do math”. But he still keeps getting to 13 instead of doing “math right.”

The last part of this skit is brilliant and delivered with the additional tension that the landlord is no dummy, and feels that while Costello is doing some trickery with the crayon on the wall, the landlord still “knows what math is and how it should function in reality”- so he demands and takes the crayon to do the addition himself. Notice that Costello breaks the crayon in half, so that the landlord gets to draw but Costello can hijack the process once more and substitute an alternative way of doing math.

As the number 13 is drawn out 7 times in a column, “like a flock of seagulls about to hit the electrical poles”, the landlord starts the arithmetic in the “correct way” imposing his epistemology of “how one knows to perform mathematical activities with (what we call Arabic) numerals (the numbering system consisting of certain symbols we use to exercise our epistemological choices on how one performs math in compliance with our curated and socially maintained knowledge. The landlord gets half-way through the math, and then Costello cuts him off, changes the epistemological framework by imposing his own instead of the landlord’s, and finishes the equation to once more arrive at 27.

The so what: in this skit, it is about comedy. Abbott and Costello want to make you laugh, and to do that, comedy relies upon surprise. If you think about anything humorous, it must have some aspect of surprise or there is no “funny.” Humor is contextual, subjective, and requires quite a bit more artistry than science. Indeed, what makes this a funny joke is how the artistry plays with science to make science “not go right” in a cunning, mischievous sort of way. Abbott and Costello want to get out of paying the rent they owe, and of course they know how to do math correctly- and they know you as viewers know how to as well (most of you, anyway). The comedy in this deals with introducing a wonderful and easy way to see different epistemologies clashing and interacting in real time… both on the screen and in the viewer’s mind as they wrestle with “wait a second- how is this possible!”

We tend to take things like mathematics for granted in our paradigms because they impose a particularly strong element of objectivity and stability to how they operate, despite mathematics (and everything else socially constructed such as commerce, economics, culture, religion, politics, taxonomy, sports, engineering and war) functioning through an often hidden epistemological structuring that operates “above the methods”. If someone uses math and gets the equation wrong, they are told to re-do their work and figure out where their personal error occurred. By doing this, we are assuming and accepting the epistemology of how we know how to do math…and focusing on the methodology as well as an assessment of our performance within the process itself.

Design students struggle with breakout out of methodological and process-oriented reflection. In other articles I explain how this is single-loop and double-loop thinking. See: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/escaping-single-loop-thinking-to-get-stuck-in-the-double-loop-of-non-reflection-in-military-1e67d07fe99b and https://benzweibelson.medium.com/triple-loop-learning-moving-beyond-the-pale-of-the-institutional-limits-46d5541a3aa8

To achieve triple loop thinking and reflective practice that is essential in doing design (at least for security applications), one must embrace ontological and epistemological frameworks of those within a complex system where some groups of stakeholders operate using one, and others employ a dissimilar alternative. While I doubt that anyone is going to do math the way Abbott and Costello do here, this clip is a great way to showcase different epistemologies. Now, should we peel the onion layers further, the epistemological tension exploited here will only get Abbott and Costello out of rent this one time. Should the landlord and all of western society adapt their math epistemology, Abbott and Costello would then enter into a new framework where they could not escape how their own math works… and thus be on the hook for how rent would be added up in that worldview. But that is outside the joke (and sort of buzz-kills the humor)- this is just a fun and fast way to demonstrate epistemological tensions.

As for how successful this technique has been for me and my fellow design facilitators over the years, I am not entirely sure but the majority of student feedback has been strong. We used this for basic design education as well as in advanced design theory modules for social paradigm, war philosophy, and advanced design techniques across thousands of Special Operations military students, through the Department of Defense, as well as with NATO, at select war college seminars, and with multiple agencies, law enforcement groups, and international military partners. I did find that when we used the other famous “Who’s on First” skit by Abbott and Costello for another design application, international students unfamiliar with baseball sporting rules would struggle a bit more. However, this skit and the universal mathematical epistemology that modern society accepts quite implicitly is by far the fastest and easiest way to introduce ‘epistemology’ as a core design philosophical topic for basic and advanced students.

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