Musing about Misty
Renée Marlin-Bennett
February 2007

I remember Misty Gerner as a passionate person, someone who was passionate about scholarship, about teaching, about peace, about life. But Misty was not ruled by her passions. She ruled them, making them her tools. By keeping a rein on her passions, she was able to harness their power for what I consider to be noble ends.

Let me explain. Passion is great, but, in the extreme, passion can cloud reason and make us resistant to empirical evidence that casts doubt on our favored views. How did Misty maintain but restrain her passion? I believe she had a personal characteristic that enabled her to become the superb scholar that she was: She was aware, aware of herself, aware of the nuances of communication, aware of others.

Self-awareness can be seen in Misty’s work with Phil Schrodt on events data research—the KEDS project and its successors. Find the set of events over a period of time between a pair or a group of actors, and you have narrated history—at least a history. I suspect that it was at least in part because Misty understood herself—someone passionate about making a peaceful world and righting injustice—that she saw how easy it is to write the history one prefers. To rein in the passion of interpreting and perhaps over-interpreting histories, she and Phil developed a more arms length approach to generating events data. (Keeping costs down was probably important, too!)

Their project is designed to produce a replicable history, one based on transparent coding rules. Computer generated data is quite useful for this purpose because the researchers, in designing the computer programs to extract events from textual material such as news feeds, are able to limit the normativity that otherwise seeps in. Normativity is not erased, but it is constrained.

The evidence I have for making the claim that Misty cared deeply about implementing this tenet of social science comes from a 1994 article on the project (Misty was the first author.) Some people, Misty and her co-authors recognized, have argued that human coding is better than machine coding because humans can read the context into a text, while machines can’t. In the article, Misty and her co-authors took the position that perhaps for the purpose of data collection and analysis, it is actually better not to have the context. They wrote:

“Although coder judgment is intuitively appealing, the assumption that the contextual knowledge of human coders will automatically improve the quality of event data ignores virtually everything we know about human cognition and perception. Humans, unlike machines, read text amid a background of biases, expectations, and prejudices. Thus the ‘judgment’ introduced by a human is as likely to increase the amount of noise in the data as it is to decrease it.”

And while this passage was in reference to a very specific problem of method—the question of whether machine coding or human coding was preferable—the idea embedded here is that clarity of vision, unclouded by biases, expectations, and prejudices, has value as we try to understand our world, and, indeed to make it better.

Now, not all of Misty’s scholarship required this degree of scholarly detachment. But I want to make the point that Misty was aware of herself, her motives in conducting a particular piece of research, the purpose of the research, and the proper amount of passion that ought to go into the analysis. Misty modeled the ideal: To be passionate about a cause, but to be able, at the right place and the right time, to maintain a scholarly distance. She understood, I believe, that being able to step back and produce knowledge ultimately serves the normative goals.

Misty’s awareness of communication, of language is a related theme. Creating better schemes for machine coding events data is, at root, an exercise in attention to language: How can machines read natural language texts (Reuter’s news feed) and parse human histories into a set of events that, collectively, become the raw material of meaning-making? To ask this question is to seek to find a means of truly recognizing the nuances of communication.

This awareness of language and the closely related awareness of other people can be seen in her more discursive work on the Middle East (One Land, Two Peoples), as well. In these works, with nary a coded event in sight, the narrative of people’s lives—the lives of many Peoples—emerges. Misty was aware and she listened. She parsed the words of the people she met, her interview subjects, her colleagues, and her friends, and what emerged was a keen understanding of the multiple narratives of the Middle East.

That there were multiple narratives did not diminish her concern for human rights, justice, and ethical action. And this is the lesson that I have learned from Misty, from her events data analysis, from her interpretive research, and simply from talking to her: to pay attention to the self, to others, and to words, because these are the core of our human stories.

And it is here that passion re-enters, because these human stories only have meaning when we are passionate, passionately caring about others, ourselves, and our planet. It is through the proper use of passion that Misty has shown us how to make the world a better place.