22 September 2010

Is all information equal?

"That Titanic hit the iceberg could be down to a misunderstanding. Because the ship sailed during the transition from sail to steam there were two different steering communication systems in operation: rudder orders for steamships, and tiller orders for sailing ships. "The two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another," said Patten. "So a command to turn 'hard a-starboard' meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other."

"The man at the wheel, Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, was trained under rudder orders – but tiller orders were still in use in the north Atlantic. So when First Officer William Murdoch first spotted the iceberg and gave a 'hard a-starboard' order, a panicked Hitchins turned the liner into the course of the iceberg.

'"The real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg is because he turned the wheel the wrong way," said Patten. By the time the error had been corrected, two minutes had been lost. Nothing could stop the iceberg breaching the hull."
- The Guardian 22 September 2010

"Hard a-Starboard it is, sir" (A Night to Remember, 1958)

"Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as ’tiller orders’ which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way.

"It sounds counterintuitive now, but that is what tiller orders were. Whereas with ‘rudder orders,’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using tiller orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in tiller orders, but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the rudder orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’s mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late." - The New York Times September 22, 2010
"The Last Line" - The Titanic leaving Belfast
"During or right before the collision Murdoch may have also given an order (as heard by Quartermaster Alfred Olliver when he walked onto the bridge in the middle of the collision) of "Hard a'port"[3] (moving the tiller all the way to the port (left) side turning the ship to starboard (right)) in what may have been an attempt to swing the remainder (aft section) of the ship away from the berg in a common manoeuvre called a "port around"[4] (this could explain Murdoch's comment to the captain "I intended to port around it"). The fact that such a manoeuvre was executed was supported by other crew members who testified that the stern of the ship never hit the berg.[5] Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who was at the helm, and Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, who may or may not have been on the bridge during the collision,[6] both stated that the last command Murdoch gave Hichens was "Hard-a-starboard!"."[7][8]  - Wikipedia

Harland and Wolfe Shipyard, Belfast
 OK, I am a Titanic freak.

Before I was born, an aunt of mine worked as a secretary for Walter Lord, transcribing his recordings of Titanic survivors, sometimes making notes of the interviews in shorthand, as he researched the classic A Night to Remember. So I was raised on these stories.

So, of course, I was fascinated to see that the grand-daughter of Charles Lightoller, the Titanic's Second Officer (and highest ranking crew survivor), was proposing a new theory regarding that legendary 1912 accident.

But I was also a touch disturbed. As the story spread - to The New York Times and beyond - I wondered, where were the questions?

I wondered how officers on a line which had been all steam for 44 years in 1912, would make a mistake like this. And I wondered about the idea of "sail to steam transition" and what that meant for trans-Atlantic merchant seamen. And I wondered about what else was known about this moment in time, leading me to Wikipedia entries on "Tiller Orders" and First Officer Murdoch. It turns out that all British and American ships (the Titanic was British but was owned by Americans) used "tiller orders" in 1912, and would for decades (on British ships until 1933, on American until 1935).

That all took about seven minutes. So why did no one at The Guardian or The New York Times do this?

We have, in too many ways, become a community of "Noddies" - we see something, and we nod and agree.  Or if we do not agree we tend to consider "all information equal." As if, if someone says Barack Obama is an American on network news, the reporter has to indicate that this is controversial.

Now, I'm firmly (and often fiercely) post-modernist, but I still believe that all information must be analysed, whether it comes from The New York Times, The Guardian, NBC News, or your teacher or professor or lecturer.

So I read these Titanic stories, and I wasn't transported back to childhood fantasies of being on board, but rather back to last night, when I was almost begging university seniors to disagree with my controversial statements.

We train compliance so strongly in schools that we make doubting difficult and uncomfortable, and that is a dangerous thing.

I don't know if Louise Patten is lying, confused by a childhood story, or telling some type of truth. No one on the bridge that night in April 1912 is alive to discuss it. But I do know that claims should always engender questions. And I know that if we do not start that training at the beginnings of school, we will continue to be a world which fails to process information in the ways we must.

The Time Tunnel, 1966

- Ira Socol

3 titanic.marconigraph.com - STOP Command / "Porting Around" Maneuver
4 ""Last Log of the Titanic" -Four Revisionist Theories - a "port around" or S-curve manoeuvre in which "the bow is first turned away from the object, then the helm is shifted (turned the other way) to clear the stern"". Archived from the original on 2003-10-28. http://web.archive.org/web/20031028123941/http://www.geocities.com/murdochmystery/Last_Log_of_the_Titanic.html. Retrieved 2009-03-12. 
5 titanic.marconigraph.com - STOP Command / "Porting Around" Maneuver “SENATOR BURTON: Do you not think that if the helm had been hard astarboard the bow would have been up against the berg? QUARTERMASTER GEORGE ROWE: It stands to reason it would, sir, if the helm were hard astarboard.”
6 titanic.marconigraph.com - Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall reported during the Enquiry that upon arriving on the bridge after the fact...
7 Encyclopedia Titanica http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/item/1485/
8 Titanic Inquiry Project - United States Senate Inquiry http://www.titanicinquiry.org/USInq/AmInq10Boxhall03.php
some links above may no longer be working, but you can find them via the wayback machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070808064427/http://titanic.marconigraph.com/ 


Jerrid Kruse said...

While not questioning ideas is a problem, I think what often happens is that students create 2 knowledge frameworks. One for school, one for their personal life. When students don't question new ideas, they likely don't assimilate them, so do they really learn anything?

Anonymous said...

Students just want to get through the school day. Being curious or controversial doesn't help that goal.

But this KIPP stuff you've been talking about, and this post in specific remind me of 'The Diamond Age.' It's a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson. You should read it. :-)

It's about a 'lord' (in quotes because in Stephenson's world, the word doesn't mean what you'd think it does) who determines that unless he does something, there won't be anyone subversive or 'outside' enough to do a good job taking over from him. So his solution is to create a computer book that teaches young people to think critically and to question authority and generally be smarter about the vagaries of the human situation than everyone else. Naturally, the book accidentally falls into the hands of a young girl from the underclass...

It really should be required reading for students and teachers alike.


Kristin Key said...

In this case, I have to classify myself as a "noddie"! I do agree with you fully that students are not encouraged to question enough. We accept the majority of our infomation as truth and forget to think for oursleves. I would love to see this skill nurtured and promoted in our schools. I enjoyed exploring your blog. I am a student at the University of South Alabama and have been assigned to your blog for my class. I'll be keeping up with your posts for the next 2 weeks and making my own posts on my class blog as well!

irasocol said...


Students learn less in school, in my observation, because of exactly what you suggest. There is "always" a "right" answer in school. Which means students do not work for an answer they find themselves, which means it is meaningless to them. I see the result among University "noddies" and, as we demonstrate here, among reporters for major newspapers.


I need to start reading Stephenson. I really do.


Welcome, great to have you along here. What class are you in? Are you heading toward teaching?

- Ira Socol

Kristin Key said...

I am taking Dr. John Strange's EDM 310 class at the Univ. of South Alabama. I am actually already a certified teacher, but I am staying home with children at the present time! I am taking this class to renew my teaching certificate.