Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's now-famous, possibly-not-so-impromptu, not-entirely-accurate explanation of quantum computing has unfortunately distracted attention from the real news behind the viral video:  the announcement of $50 million in federal government funding for the Perimeter Institute, a research center affiliated with the University of Waterloo.  Ignored amidst the Trudeaumania is the key question:  will the money be well spent?

The Perimeter Institute is devoted to theoretical physics, an area whose enormous prestige, dating back to the days of Einstein and greatly enhanced by the terrifying grandeur of nuclear weapons, has gradually decayed over many decades.  It hasn't had a true worldview-overturning breakthrough since the subatomic particle revolution of the 1960s, and has since spent several decades wrestling with a grand theoretical framework--string theory--which has yet to demonstrate any significant explanatory power.  Once able to command cosmological-scale research budgets to build enormous experimental contraptions with which to smash particles together and announce suspiciously in-line-with-theory results, the field has found itself receiving less and less of the research funding pie, as more and more of it gets siphoned off by more fashionable fields with more recent tales of great impact.

Then, suddenly, along came quantum computing.  In 1994, a computer scientist named Peter Shor discovered that a computer working according to the principles of quantum mechanics, rather than the classical physics that governs conventional computers, could--in theory, at least--break widely used cryptographic systems that are otherwise believed impervious to practical attacks.  Now, this isn't a very practically useful result, unless you happen to be a spy agency interested in decrypting other people's secrets.  The main consequence for most people is that they'll have to upgrade their software at some point in the future so that it uses cryptography that even a quantum computer can't break.  (And as it happens, such cryptography doesn't appear to be all that hard to come up with.)  Indeed, there's very little, beyond breaking the current generation of cryptography, that quantum computing appears to be particularly useful for.  But it has two very important things going for it:  the words "quantum" and "computing".

To the average person, the word "quantum" summons visions of impossibly complex, incomprehensible theories accessible only to the most brilliant scientific minds.  (To quote Bernard Shaw, back in 1938,  “You have nothing to do but mention the quantum theory, and people will take your voice for the voice of science, and believe anything.”)  It's no coincidence that Trudeau, a politician with a reputation for thin intellect even by politician standards, chose to explain something with the word "quantum" in it--and that everyone was wowed by the spectacle.

As for "computing", no word screams "practical" (not to mention economically promising) quite as loudly.  If you wanted to tie your abstruse, largely useless theoretical field of study to something eminently useful and profitable, you could do worse than try to figure out a way to connect it somehow with computing.  And thanks to Peter Shor, quantum physicists have been able to do exactly that.

The result is a cash-strapped, out-of-fashion physics researcher's dream:  a field tailor-made for a pretty-boy politician to make a grand show of handing a large wad of taxpayers' money to, while enhancing his gravitas and convincing an already-credulous press corps of his sound policy sense.  I'm pretty sure that Shor had nothing like that in mind when he came up with his algorithm--but I also doubt that the delighted physicists at the Perimeter Institute waste too much time worrying about that, as they contemplate the many ways they might spend their unwisely-bestowed windfall.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

A lot of nonsense has been written about the battle between Apple and the FBI over an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.  First, some background: 

Apple iPhones have a feature that encrypts the user's personal data using a key that's stored in a special hardware chip on the phone.  The chip must receive a numerical PIN set by the user before it releases the key, and after a few incorrect PIN guesses, it will erase the key.  The purpose of this feature is to protect the user's data from someone stealing the phone and decrypting the data by trying all possible numerical PINs.  If the PIN is four digits long, for instance, there are only 10,000 possible PINs, and without the erasure feature, a patient attacker could simply try them all, eventually retrieve the encryption key, and decrypt the data.  But because of this feature, a would-be attacker--or even the FBI--can't simply try all possible PINs, since after a few incorrect guesses, the chip will erase the encryption key.  (The encryption key itself has so many digits that guessing it by "brute force" is simply infeasible in any reasonable amount of time, even using high-powered computers to run through the guesses.)

However, the iPhone--like just about every well-designed software-based device on the planet--also has another important feature: to address the problem that all software has bugs (including bugs that result in security holes), all iPhone software can be updated.  If Apple sends a software update to an iPhone, the phone will check a "digital signature" on the update to make sure that it really is from Apple, and if so, will use it to update its own software.  Another way of saying this is that if Apple wants to alter the behavior of an iPhone in any way, it can do so, by sending it an update that changes its software accordingly.

You can probably see where this is going:  the FBI wants Apple to send an update to the San Bernardino terrorist's phone that disables the key erasure feature, so that the FBI can try every PIN and fairly quickly decrypt the phone's contents.  Apple doesn't want to do this, and is claiming that the FBI's demand is a threat to its users' security and privacy.


Just about everybody under the sun, from technical security experts to pundits to other high-tech companies to politicians, has weighed in on the issue.  Unsurprisingly, politicians have mostly sided with the FBI in this specific case, refusing to go to the mat for the privacy rights of an Islamist radical who murdered 14 people and sought to murder many more.  Pundits have been more varied in their responses, generally coming down on Apple's side or the FBI's depending on the general strength of their libertarian passion for privacy or enthusiasm for terrorism-fighting.  But it's the responses of the security experts and the high-tech companies that are the most interesting, mostly because of their disingenousness.

Security experts such as Matt Blaze, Nicholas Weaver and Bruce Schneier, for example, argue that permitting the FBI to demand that Apple produce this update weakens everyone's security, because what the FBI can do, a sophisticated hacker might also be able to do.  But of course, the FBI isn't asking to do anything--it's asking Apple to do something that it is already quite capable of doing:  create and deliver an update that disables a security feature.  That is the nature of updates:  because Apple doesn't know in advance what security holes might exist, it retains the ability to change anything anywhere in the system, if necessary--and can therefore disable security instead of repairing it, if it so chooses.  The risk that somebody--whether Apple or someone else who has compromised Apple's update system--might use the update system to disable security features in one or more iPhones has thus already long existed--the only question is whether the FBI should be allowed to take advantage of it, and if so, under what circumstances.

Why, then, do these intelligent, knowledgeable security experts make such a specious argument?  It's possible that they are simply reflexively spouting the techno-libertarianism popular in their community.  More likely, though, it's because they see on which side their bread is buttered:  the more privacy and security are governed strictly by technical feasibility, the more it is their technical expertise that matters, whereas if government, law and politics are allowed to rule, then they and their expertise have clearly subordinate roles.

And make no mistake--once it is accepted that the disposition of the FBI's request has no security impact, it is law, government and politics, not technology, that must and should rule the day.  Blaze, Weaver and Schneier are clever folks, but they have no special insight into what particular set of legal or political safeguards best balance national security against personal privacy in cases such as these.  Their influence as commentators therefore depends on their ability to persuade people that the Apple-FBI dispute is a purely technological argument over how to optimize users' data security, rather than an inherently political and legal argument over tradeoffs between personal privacy and crime-fighting.


What, then, of Apple itself, and its industry peers, all of whom have come out strongly on Apple's side against the FBI?  Are they not merely looking out for the interests of their customers, by defending them against the prying eyes of the US government?  Well, one might expect so--except that when other governments are intruding on their users' privacy, such stoutness in defense of customer interests is nowhere to be found.  For example, the Chinese government makes all sorts of far more privacy-destroying demands of American tech companies doing business there, and companies such as Apple routinely accede to those demands

Indeed, that's the real motive behind tech companies' opposition to the FBI in this case:  if they are known to be required to allow the FBI access to customers' devices--whatever the due process safeguards--then governments such as China's will be very reluctant to allow their citizens to be subject to such foreign snooping.  (After all, the procedural protections enjoyed by US residents against federal government snooping don't apply to foreigners.)  They thus have a clear financial incentive to prevent the FBI from gaining the access it seeks, so as to preserve their lucrative business in countries that don't trust the US government.

Now, I'm not arguing that it's inherently disingenuous to support Apple in its dispute with the FBI.  Nor am I arguing in support of unlimited, arbitrary FBI access to Apple users' iPhones.  Rather, I claim that balancing the privacy rights of users--particularly against potential abuse by government officials--and the business interests of major exporters, on the one hand, against the national goal of effectively fighting against crime and terrorism, on the other, is a fundamentally political problem. And however much they may wish otherwise, neither security experts nor interested corporations merit a particularly privileged say in that discussion.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

"Tempus fugit", as Virgil said--especially between annual ICBW predictions posts.  Here are this year's predictions--starting, as always, with a review of last year's...

  • The US economy will continue to be robust, leading towards a new recession in the 2016-2018 timeframe.  The fed will back off on its easing, keeping inflation in check, and interest rates will climb slightly in response.  Oil prices will bounce off their lows, but still remain well below their $100-ish average of the last few years.  The US market will rise modestly from its current already-frothy highs, setting the stage for a major correction post-2015, leading into the aforementioned next recession.  Real estate will also continue to climb moderately.

  • Not bad in general--the markets decided to go sideways rather than "rise modestly", but growth did maintain its fairly robust trend, the Fed finally bumped up interest rates a bit, and real estate prices did rise. Oil prices did bounce briefly in the spring, but then resumed their slide.

  • The EU will face another year of turmoil, with massive bailouts to Greece and possibly Spain looking necessary to save the Euro.  Eventually the currency will break up--as Herb Stein famously said, "if something cannot go on indefinitely, it will eventually stop"--but it probably has a couple of more years of stagnation, bailouts and general economic misery left in it before it finally gives up the ghost.

  • While the terrorism and refugee crises obviously distracted attention from the continuing EU bailout crisis, the Greek bailout went roughly as I predicted, with Greece accepting new austerity measures in return for a bailout extension.   

  • President Obama's recent modest approval ratings increase (near, though not above, 50 percent) will generally hold up through 2015 following the Republican takeover of the Senate, much as Bill Clinton's did once he became the sole bulwark against the GOP-dominated Congress in 1994.  This will enable him to continue implementing his executive amnesty for illegal immigrants, defend Obamacare against legislative attacks, and support local anti-police initiatives.  The effects of these policies will be as intended:  increased illegal immigration, rising crime, and erosion of affordable employer-provided health care.  Republicans in Congress will launch legislative measures to counteract all of these, as well as various tax reform and pro-business proposals, but they will all fail, some due to internal GOP squabbles and the rest after being vetoed by the president.

  • Pretty spot-on, I'd say...

  • By the end of the year, the frontrunners in the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate races will be Hillary Clinton and (out-of-the-box call, here) Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

  • I think I can be forgiven for not predicting Trumpmania.  But it's also interesting that Walker turned out to be much less ready for the national stage than his political skill at the state level suggested.  It may be that state and federal politics are becoming more distinct than they were in the past. 

  • The Israeli elections will produce an inconclusive result followed by weeks of complex political wrangling, out of which Bibi Netanyahu will once again emerge as the prime minister.  He will lead a center-right coalition little different from the current one, although possibly including more ultra-Orthodox representation.  Israel's policies will therefore remain largely unchanged.  Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority will continue its current strategy of war-by-legal/diplomatic-means, while quietly continuing its security cooperation with Israel.  The EU will similarly make a grand show of supporting this international campaign, while quietly undermining it at exactly the moments when it threatens to cause concrete harm to Israel (as in the case of the recent UN Security Council vote).  Hamas and its Gaza-based partners will continue to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, with public encouragement from the PA, but those will gradually decline in frequency and effectiveness as Israel's counterterrorist forces--assisted by the PA's internal security agencies, happy to betray their Hamas rivals--get a better handle on combatting them.

  • Mostly correct, but I failed (as did the Israeli government, I gather) to predict the current campaign of low-level, low-tech terrorist attacks. 

  • The Islamic State will weaken considerably in the face of stiff resistance from the Kurds, the US, and internal elements tired of their incompetence, corruption and indiscriminate brutality (with emphasis on the "indiscriminate" part).  Its foreign supporters will respond by shifting their generosity towards new candidate Sunni radical forces in Syria and Iraq, who will be little better in their behavior but less enamored of the kind of grand international gestures that bring on Western countermeasures, and more willing to take on the Iranian proxy governments in Syria and Iraq directly.  The result will be continued slaughter in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

  • The Islamic State lost ground in 2015, but has responded, bizarrely, by lashing out at its external adversaries--France, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

  • Nuclear talks between the US and Iran will continue to be extended without resolution, as Iran continues to refuse to denuclearize.  US sanctions will remain mostly in place--they were enacted by legislation, not by executive choice--but their effect will be eroded by increasing international disregard for them.  Fortunately, the global fall in oil prices will have roughly the same economic effect, limiting Iran's economic resources--although not enough to block its continued heavy involvement in its proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, of course.

  • I certainly didn't expect that the Obama administration would ever be willing to cave as completely to the Iranians as they did in their 2015 pseudo-agreement (it has been neither signed by Iranian representatives nor ratified by Congress). 

  • Elsewhere, the decline in oil prices will weaken Vladimir Putin's Russia, forcing him to pare back his aggressive moves against European neighbors as he deals with his domestic economic crisis.  China, on the other hand, will get an economic shot in the arm from cheaper oil prices and more robust exports to the US.  

  • My biggest miss of the year.  Putin has reacted to the collapse of his nation's economy by acting even more boldly abroad--in Syria, for instance.  And in China, low oil prices appear to have been insufficient to compensate for decades of bubble-like economic growth reaching a breaking point.

  • The recent Sony-North Korea-"The Interview" incident will turn out to be the harbinger of a trend, with more hackers making "hacktivist"-style outrageous behavioral demands of their corporate victims, and more studios milking horrible films for quick pay-per-view profits by finding a way to link them to some major current-affairs controversy.

  • Once again, I'm years ahead of my time...

    And now for this year's predictions:
    • The US economy will stall this year, as trouble abroad (in China, Canada, and other oil-based economies) hurts exports and the Fed's tentative forays into non-zero interest rates burst various mild bubbles in the stock and other asset markets.  The stock market and real estate markets will fall, interest rates will remain very low, and the price of oil will not rebound significantly from its current lows.
    • Immigrant-related issues will continue to distract the continent from the greater threat of disintegration due to the incoherence of its monetary union.  Hence bailouts of bankrupt southern members will continue as a quid pro quo for cooperation in stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants.  Meanwhile, rightist, populist, nativist parties will continue to surge across the continent, jettisoning many of the domestic and foreign policies anchored into place by the previously-dominant bureaucracy/union/activist/corporatist coalition.  (Hostility to Israel will of course be one of the few policies to survive the purge.)  
    • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will narrowly win the presidential election over Republican nominee Marco Rubio, with the crucial Republican-vote-diverting assistance of third-party candidate Donald Trump.  However, the Republicans will maintain their Congressional majorities--just barely, in the case of the Senate.
    • The stalemate in Syria will continue mostly unchanged, tying down the main pro-Assad participants (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) as well as the anti-Assad ones (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) while the US largely stays on the sidelines.  ISIS will continue to weaken under the pressure of its many enemies, and its big terrorist "successes" of 2015 will be repeated very sparsely if at all.  On the other hand, Israel will find itself increasingly drawn into the fray in support of the Sunni rebel side, as the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah axis intensifies its drive to establish a front along Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria. Finally, the Kurds will once again be in the region's crosshairs, as Iran, Turkey and ISIS all increase their pressure on them, each for its own reasons.  The Obama administration will sit that one out as well, leaving the Kurds in a precarious state.
    • The current "stabbing intifada", consisting mostly of random Palestinians spontaneously attacking random Israelis with knives, will evolve into a complex game in which the Palestinian Authority attempts to carefully calibrate the level of violence so as to keep Hamas and other radical groups occupied without provoking a major Israeli crackdown.  Ultimately this strategy will fail, and at some point Israel, responding to one or more high-casualty attacks, will launch a major "lawn-mowing" operation in the West Bank to round up terrorist organizations hiding out in PA-run areas.  World condemnation will follow, although European vituperation will be milder than usual, as a result of the new terrorist-hostile political environment there, as well as greater Israeli willingness to take active measures to counter European meddling.
    • Disney will announce that following the huge success of "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens", Star Wars Episode 8 will be entitled, "The Force Has Breakfast".
    Readers are once again encouraged to add their own predictions in comments.  Just think--You Could Be Right!

    Saturday, December 26, 2015

    Despite his crazy, radical political positions and his uninhibited, don't-give-a-hoot-who-I-offend old-white-male persona, he's been pulling in surprisingly huge crowds during his primary campaign rallies, and polling far more strongly than anyone expected.  But given his likely hopeless weakness as a general election candidate, his party's establishment stalwarts have no intention of letting him win the nomination, and are busily maneuvering to try and stop him.  So what, ultimately, will they do about...Bernie Sanders?

    You would of course be forgiven for assuming that I was referring instead to Donald Trump, the Republicans' far more sensational and threatening version of the Sanders phenomenon.  But the parallels between the two men serve well to highlight the striking contrasts between the states of the two parties.


    As I've been saying for decades, the modern "left"-"right" partisan split in American politics began during the 1960s, when the middle class split into two halves:  an affluent, college-educated white-collar "upper" half, and a less prosperous, less educated blue-collar "lower" half.  The upper half allied with the poor and minorities to form the "new left", while the lower half allied with the wealthy to form the reconstituted "conservative movement".  The battle between these two interlocking alliances dominated US politics for some thirty years, with sides lining up on partisan wedge issues in accordance with the coalition partner most invested in the issue.

    On social issues, for example, the "left" embraced a social libertarianism that was anathema to generally socially conservative poor and minority constituencies, but eagerly embraced by the educated upper-middle class, who reciprocated by endorsing welfare, racial preference policies and other spoils lavished on the poor and minorities.  Conversely, the "right" embraced a social and religious conservatism that sat poorly with wealthy conservatives, who were nonetheless placated by the alliance's endorsement of the low tax rates and business-friendly policies they were most interested in.

    The boom of the 1990s brought about a shift in these coalitions:  as I mentioned thirteen years ago, the poor essentially disappeared as a distinct class, as welfare reform and increased employment merged them into the lower end of the lower-middle class.  Meanwhile, the upper-middle class acquired enough investment capital to cause their interests and those of the wealthy to converge.  The result was a "left" that essentially represented, and reflected the interests of, the more affluent half of society, while the "right" reflected primarily the interests of society's lower half.

    However, the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent weak economy have again rearranged the alliances somewhat, refocusing everyone's attention on bread-and-butter economic issues.  The groups hardest hit by this economic downturn--minorities and white-collar workers in fields such as law, journalism, academia and (non-federal) government, including education--have been particularly active in pushing to preserve their once-comfortably-secure positions, recreating a kind of revised version of the old post-60s poor/upper-middle-class "left" alliance.  This is the alliance that drove the election of Barack Obama as president, and has become, in effect, the Democratic party's "base". 

    Although its most conspicuous victories have been in the social policy realm--gay rights, for instance--it has used these social policy wedge issues primarily as a means to exert greater control over institutions and their vital resources.  Academia, media, entertainment, government--all have been effectively overpowered, and their money and resources commandeered, by the Obama alliance for the furtherance of its own collective interests.

    The old "right" alliance, on the other hand, has been far less successful at re-establishing itself.  Its two main components--wealthy entrepreneurs and investors, on the one hand, and the non-minority blue-collar lower-middle class, on the other--are no longer content to trade off blue-collar social policy for wealth-friendly economic policy, now that economics has become paramount to both constituencies.  Instead, they find their interests at cross-purposes, the business class seeking greater freedom from taxation and regulation, and the blue-collar class hoping for a more active government role in job creation. 

    The flash point of this conflict is the de facto "open borders" immigration policy which has been in effect for several decades now, due to persistent non-enforcement of immigration laws.  To the non-minority blue-collar lower-middle class, open immigration is both an economic threat (in the form of job competition) and a cultural one.  But it has also greatly benefited wealthy businesspeople, both as employers and consumers, by steeply reducing the price of unskilled labor.


    Enter Donald Trump, a wealthy real estate mogul who has paradoxically won instant credibility as a representative of blue-collar Americans, first by promising to drastically curtail immigration, and second by embracing populist economic policies such as protectionism that focus on job creation rather than capital growth.  A more threatening figure to the old "right" alliance between the entrepreneurial and working classes could scarcely be imagined.  And his success bodes exceedingly ill for that alliance's short-to-medium-term health.

    Bernie Sanders, in contrast, is--despite his ostensibly extreme socialist economic views--very much within the mainstream of the Obama alliance.  There is no doubt that his brand of socialism would, in the extremely unlikely event of its implementation, end up being very friendly to the lawyers, academics, educators, journalists, government workers and minorities that make up the Obama coalition, since he fully embraces the policies of the Obama administration and the alliance it represents.  Indeed, he's consistently been rather reluctant to challenge his putative primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, on policy matters, since she's also promising something more or less like a third Obama term.  Far from threatening the Obama coalition, Sanders prefers to represent himself as the more trustworthy guardian of its principles, less likely to compromise them than a longtime inside operator like Clinton.

    In practice, neither Trump nor Sanders has a realistic hope of winning his party's presidential nomination, since neither is nearly sufficiently skilled or polished enough as a politician to expand his own base into a majority coalition without alienating large chunks of it.  However, while Sanders is actually salutary for his party, improving its general election prospects by allowing eventual nominee Clinton to pose as a bridge between the Democratic base and moderate independents, Trump represents a massive threat to the Republicans' November hopes.  Should he decide to launch a third-party campaign, for example, he would likely have absolutely no difficulty peeling off enough votes to doom the GOP's chances utterly.  (Indeed, the Democrats would be well-advised to bankroll that campaign themselves, should Trump balk at blowing his own cash on such a purely quixotic effort.)  And even if he bows out gracefully, he may already have caused enough internal alienation between business and blue-collar Republicans to seriously erode at least one faction's turnout for any eventual nominee in the general election.

    Of course, the GOP's problem isn't really Trump--it's the schism within its own ranks between its blue-collar and business wings.  One way or another, they will have to iron out their differences and agree on a compromise they can both support, or else resign themselves to permanent minority status at least until the next major shakeup of partisan alliances.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2015

    The issue of whether the US should take in Syrian refugees is easily one of the biggest and most annoying red herrings in the recent history of American politics.  The simple fact is that regardless of how many refugees the US takes in, it will be no more than a tiny fraction of the total number suffering in Syria.  The real issue, therefore, is what to do about the situation there, which has been generating horrific levels of carnage for four years now, killing hundreds of thousands, driving literally millions to flee their homes  and incidentally spawning a virulent new genocidal-terrorist quasi-state in the process.

    Unfortunately, nobody wants to discuss that very pertinent question, for multiple reasons:
    • It's an embarrassment to the Obama administration, which has miserably failed to address either the humanitarian or the national security aspects of the problem.
    • It's a deeply divisive issue for Republicans in Congress, who are split between hawkish interventionists and neo-quasi-isolationists on many foreign policy matters, including this one.
    • All sides of the civil war in Syria are too rabidly anti-US and anti-Western to win wholehearted American support on either moral or national security grounds.
    • Recent US adventures in the Middle East (in Iraq and Afghanistan) have ended badly enough to eliminate any taste among the public for a reprise. 
    The refugee issue, on the other hand, is wonderful fodder for partisan bickering, for several reasons:
    • It parallels the immigration issue, which both sides of the aisle in the US are constantly working for partisan advantage.
    • It naturally divides along class lines, with upper-class Americans generally supporting allowing refugees in, and lower-class ones opposing it.
    • It feeds existing partisan attack patterns, providing Democrats with an opportunity to accuse Republicans of being racist and Republicans with an opportunity to accuse Democrats of jeopardizing American security.
    So what would a reasonable US policy look like, absent partisan pie fights about red herrings?  Well, here's a proposal:
    • There are already millions of Syrian refugees living in squalid conditions in various neighboring countries in the region.  The US could help them much better by providing them with aid in their current locations, than by cherry-picking a few for transplantation to the US.  (Perhaps the government could re-purpose some of the money currently allocated for Palestinian "refugees" whose families have lived in their current location for multiple generations now.)
    • The bulk of the killing in Syria over the last four years has been done by the Assad regime and its supporters, Iran and Russia.  Given that these are three of the most implacably and aggressively anti-US governments on the planet, military support for their dedicated enemies--including some perhaps-not-so-savory ones--should be a no-brainer, especially since they've been holding their own remarkably well to date, and may need only a bit more assistance to put the regime and its allies to flight.
    • If it turns out that ISIS was in fact responsible for the Paris attacks, then the US should join with its French ally in destroying the ISIS quasi-state.  The US can then atone for its errors in Iraq and Afghanistan by deliberately not staying around to try to construct a stable, friendly regime in its place.  Realistically, the best that can be hoped for there is a replacement that's too frightened or preoccupied to engage in anti-Western terrorism--and little can be done to improve the odds of that outcome, beyond consistently destroying any emerging quasi-states that fail to live up to it.

    Wednesday, May 20, 2015

    Should ABC News punish newscaster George Stephanopoulos for failing to disclose his deep links to the Clinton Foundation while reporting on its alleged links to political corruption?  I can think of two defensible answers to this question:
    • ABC News is a respectable, non-partisan news organization with a commitment to objectivity and fairness.  By hiding his clear bias on a subject he was himself reporting on, Stephanopoulos has tarnished his own reputation for professional integrity and that of his employer.  If he's not severely punished, then the very journalistic credibility of ABC News is in jeopardy.
    • ABC News is a typical center-left, Democratic-leaning news outlet, just as Fox News is a center-right, Republican-leaning news outlet.  (Any audience member can easily deduce this from the prominence of George Stephanopoulos--a longtime Clinton administration staffer--among its journalists, just as they can deduce Fox's tendencies from the presence of Roger Ailes, a longtime Republican political operative, among its executives.)  ABC News executives are thus quite justified in firing Stephanopoulos for not disclosing his political activities to them--and equally justified in reacting to the whole affair with a shrug, if they so choose. After all, they wouldn't be betraying the organization's center-left identity by doing so, and if their audience didn't appreciate the kind of journalism produced by dedicated pro-Clinton partisans like Stephanopoulos, they would have long ago switched to another channel anyway.
    Now, I happen to lean towards the second answer, but I can easily understand someone preferring the first one.  Strangely, though, most commentators give neither answer.  Instead, (mostly right-leaning) people argue that (1) ABC News is a typical center-left, Democratic-leaning news outlet, and therefore (2) it should punish Stephanopoulos to protect its reputation, while others (mostly left-leaning) argue that (1) ABC News is a solidly professional, non-partisan organization, and therefore (2) it is uncertain whether Stephanopoulos' "mistake", which has "baffled" colleagues, is sufficient cause to punish him.

    Why are so many commentators giving such incoherent, self-contradictory analyses?  My best guess is that the overwhelming majority are basing their assessment of the Stephanopoulos flap not on their principled views of journalistic ethics, but rather on their own personal partisan biases.  Needless to say, this conclusion only strengthens my conviction that my second answer above is the more reasonable and realistic one. 

    Saturday, May 16, 2015

    The twin controversies surrounding the PEN writers' organization's award to Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the attack on a Mohammed-drawing cartoon contest in Texas, have together generated some spectacularly confused commentary.  In particular, commentators on all sides of the resulting debates seem to be under the impression that the key issue is the tension between the individual's right to freedom of speech and the damaging effects of "hate speech" on society as a whole. 

    That would indeed be the case if, say, either incident had involved a law criminalizing "hate speech", by some definition of the term.  But no such law was applied in either case, and in the US, such a law (despite its substantial political appeal) would in fact stand no chance of passing Constitutional muster.  Rather, the Texas contest participants and Charlie Hebdo staff, far from being arrested or indicted, were attacked by armed terrorists.  This is a very different matter, and one that commentators should find much easier to navigate.  For when terrorists attack civilian targets, any alleged moral imperfections of the victims fade into irrelevancy compared to the danger posed by terrorism itself.

    This is easy to see in cases where one's sympathies already align with the victims and against the terrorists.  For example, when Ward Churchill dared to suggest that the victims of the World Trade Center attack were in some way culpable for their own slaughter, Americans responded fairly uniformly with disgust and outrage.  But historically, defenses of terrorism by sympathizers with their cause have actually been disturbingly common.  The most notorious domestic American example, of course, is the Ku Klux Klan's terrorist rule over the South, which was enthusiastically embraced by millions of supporters of Jim Crow.  More recently, though, terrorist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground have been lionized by political sympathizers despite their bloody histories. And international terrorist organizations such as the PLO and the IRA established large followings in America and elsewhere among supporters of their respective political causes.

    It is perhaps with this context in mind that defenders of Charlie Hebdo and the Texas contest organizers have fallen back on the weakest, most timid defense of all:  "free speech".  One might expect them to articulate a more straightforward assertion of outraged innocent victimhood, given that the terrorists in these cases intended to murder their targets in cold blood, not just fine them for violating a "hate speech" ordinance.  Yet the shocking willingness of prominent sympathizers with the terrorists' cause to blame their victims appears to have scared them off explicitly claiming the moral high ground even from brutal murderers, in favor of adopting what amounts to a legalistic procedural justification for not being butchered by violent fanatics.

    Much has been written--most of it devastatingly accurate--about the hypocrisy of commentators who enthusiastically defend offensively anti-Christian art while condemning its more mildly anti-Islamic equivalent.  But such partisan double standards are hardly uncommon in today's hyperpartisan political environment--the hypocrites are simply aligning their religious defenses with their partisan loyalties, with fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians generally being on opposite sides of the domestic "left-right" political dividing line.  Justifying terrorism, on the other hand, isn't mere partisan hypocrisy. Unqualified condemnation of terrorist violence from all sides should be automatic in a peaceful democratic society, and those who add caveats and qualifiers are playing a far more dangerous game, one that should be as roundly and uniformly condemned as terrorism itself.

    Thursday, February 19, 2015

    About two decades ago, I happened to attend a conference also attended by one Hugo de Garis, an artificial intelligence researcher with some rather eccentric ideas about the future of his field.  To put it simply, he believed, and apparently still believes, that humankind is doomed to be destroyed--that is, physically exterminated--by its own hyperintelligent creations.  Once artificially intelligent machines have evolved to the point where they are enormously more intelligent than humans and capable of surviving and advancing without us, he reasons, we will become a superfluous irritant to them, and they will easily dispose of us.

    Some friends and I had a lot of fun with this crackpot idea at the time, and I'd long since all but forgotten about him and his theories.  But to my shock, I've recently spotted them making something of a comeback.  In particular, prominent figures such as entrepreneur Elon Musk, tycoon/philanthropist Bill Gates, and even physicist Stephen Hawking appear to be lending weight to de Garis' old fears.  So perhaps it's worth reviewing why these people are such idiots some of the fundamental problems with these predictions.

    To begin with, we need to ask what, exactly, we mean by intelligence.  This is a deceptively difficult question--deceptive because most people believe they have a very clear intuitive sense of what intelligence is.  The problem is that this intuitive definition, when considered carefully, ends up amounting to nothing more than "behaving like a human."  Computer science pioneer Alan Turing even codified this intuition, defining a "Turing test", in which a computer and a human are each conversing with a human tester over a teletype, and the tester is tasked with distinguishing them.  If the tester can't identify which is the computer and which is the human in this "imitation game" (the same one that inspired the film title), then the computer is judged to be intelligent.

    The intuitive appeal of this test hides enormous difficulties.  To begin with, why is intelligence dependent on a human tester's skill at discerning it (or lack of skill at spotting an absence of it)?  We know that people are inclined to "see" nonexistent intelligence all over the place--in their own pets, for instance--and frequently incapable of detecting it where it does exist--say, in severely disabled, unconscious or mentally ill patients.  Clever "chatbots" have been devised that can convince many people that they're intelligent by using various tricks to make their pre-programmed behavior look spontaneous and creative.  (For example, they can simulate human-looking spelling or grammatical errors--ironically, making themselves look less intelligent in order to seem more human, and hence intelligent.)  While experts can still distinguish the best of them from humans, there is no reason to believe that chatbot technology, like computer chess technology, can't one day reach the point of outdueling the world's greatest experts.  But would a chatbot that fools even expert humans one hundred percent of the time--say, by perfectly imitating the conversation style of a flighty, celebrity-obsessed teenage girl--necessarily be intelligent?

    Let's put that objection aside for a moment, though, and assume that humans can somehow learn to be ideal "Turing testers", infallibly distinguishing human-like intelligences from sub-human ones.  If that is our criterion for "intelligence", then what, exactly, distinguishes intelligence from human-ness?  If the answer is "nothing", then AI appears to be completely pointless.  After all, we know how to create people--the process is widely considered to be a lot more fun than AI research, in fact--so why do we need another method? 

    Presumably we'd like an answer that's not "nothing"--that is, some set of measurable properties, distinct from "behaves just like a human", that we can use to characterize intelligence.  But what could they possibly be?  Intelligence test-taking ability, to take one example, clearly doesn't do the trick:  superb IQ test-taking machines that are not actually intelligent are easily as within the realm of possibility as superb chess-playing machines that are not actually intelligent.  In fact, our intuitive notion of intelligence is so bound up with human-ness that no such set of criteria has ever been proposed that even comes close to matching our intuitive ideas about intelligence.  And that's why, more than a half-century after its invention, everyone still talks about Turing's indistinguishable-from-humans criterion, rather than some more objective, property-based one.
    Let's imagine, though, that we've somehow overcome that obstacle and come up with such a set of objective criteria that still "smells" like intelligence.  Unfortunately, even that's not enough--we must then ask:  do our criteria also allow for a non-human, at least theoretically, to surpass humans?  And do such superhumans, by our criteria, still seem intuitively intelligent?  What if, for instance, one of our criteria is some level of "unpredictability", analogous to human creativity?  Would a "superhuman" by our measures then be "hyper-creative"?  Or simply so erratic and random as to seem uselessly dysfunctional?  And what about the type of pattern recognition that IQ tests often test for?  Would a hyperintelligent machine recognize patterns so complex that it ignores simple ones, and thus appear unintelligent to us, rather than brilliant?

    But let us suppose once again that we've somehow overcome all these definitional issues, and we've moreover managed to create a whole line of machines, each as unmistakably hyperintelligent as, say,...this man.  Kim Ung-yong, the Guinness Book world record holder for IQ, is as close to a superhumanly intelligent being as we've ever seen--he's literally one person (himself) away from being more intelligent than every human being on earth.  Yet he has a fairly ordinary job, and values happiness above material success so much that his countrymen have labeled him a "failure" for having accomplished little beyond making a healthy, pleasant, prosperous life for himself.  In the de Garis nightmare, hyperintelligent machines are bent on world domination at our expense.  Where did they get this motivation?  Because they're just like humans, and that's what we'd do if we were hyperintelligent?  What about Kim Ung-yong?

    Again, the de Garis/Musk/Gates/Hawking scenario appears to derive from a vague intuition based purely on human personality, not human (let alone superhuman) intelligence:  since we treat at least some non-human creatures with subhuman intelligence as disposable commodities, killing them at will, so would a superhumanly intelligent machine treat less intelligent humans.  Putting aside the fact that human behavior is far from so uniformly heartless--think of vegan pet-owners--we seem to have once again made a completely unjustified equivalence between "intelligent", and "behaves like a human (towards inferior beings)".  Remember, though, that we've explicitly asserted that these superintelligent machines don't necessarily act like humans.  (Otherwise, how can they surpass humans in intelligence?)  We could therefore just as easily hypothesize that all sufficiently intelligent machines go insane from all that brilliant thinking, or get suicidally depressed and destroy themselves.  (Intelligence in humans is, in fact, positively correlated with mental illness, including depression.)  Certainly the suspicion that humans might behave badly in such circumstances is by itself no reason at all to suspect the same of our hypothetical future hyperintelligent creations.

    Note that I haven't even made the argument here that human control will preclude ruthlessness towards humans--I've simply accepted the common assumption in all the dystopian nightmares that our hyperintelligent machines will somehow cleverly "bypass" their programming and do as they please despite our attempts to prevent them.  But it's hard to even make sense of such an assumption, let alone imagine how it could come to pass.  We humans, for instance, have only very loose, imprecise "programming safeguards" installed by our millions of years of evolution, and we're also programmed for considerable flexibility and individual variation as part of our survival kit.  Yet the vast majority of us are quite incapable of bypassing our programming--by committing suicide, for instance, or abstaining forever from sex--and it's not clear that even those of us who do are actually bypassing anything, as opposed to faithfully executing rare, "malfunctioning" variants of our standard built-in survival-and-reproduction code.  So what would it mean for a hyperintelligent machine to bypass what would presumably be a core element of its very being?  How would hyperintelligence help it to follow a path different from the one it was programmed to follow, any more than, say, Kim Ung-yong's intelligence could somehow lead him away from his natural path towards happiness and contentment and towards wanton destruction of his inferiors?

    Finally, what if the "bypass" is actually a result of flawed human programming--that is, that humans in effect mistakenly program a machine to destroy humanity, rather than the computer deciding to do so itself?  In fact, Stanley Kubrick envisioned exactly such a machine in "Doctor Strangelove", and it's even been reported that Kubrick's "doomsday machine" was actually built, by the Soviet Union.  But none of that has anything in the slightest to do with intelligence, except in the sense that intelligence, whatever one defines it to be, is probably hard enough to program correctly that bugs are inevitable.  The obvious lesson to draw is not, "don't develop superintelligence"--much less, "we will inevitably develop superintelligence, and it will destroy us"--but rather, "make the fail-safe mechanisms on whatever we build a lot simpler and more reliable than Kubrick's Soviets did." 

    There remains one last question: if the hyperintelligent-machines-destroying-humanity scenario is so shot full of logical holes, then why do so many prominent nerds seem to find it so compelling?  I can't say for sure, but I have an amateur-psychological hypothesis:  for a certain type of successful, self-absorbed, math-and-logic-oriented personality, intelligence is less a talent than a kind of mystical power.  They see that they possess more of it than most people, and have experienced the advantages it gives them in certain competitive situations.  They have probably used it at times to defeat or even harm others in various (presumably legal) ways.  And when they imagine a creature who has a lot more of it than they do--whatever that might mean to them--they grow very, very afraid.

    Saturday, February 07, 2015

    A shocking development has rocked the world of journalism:  One of the nation's foremost practitioners of the art of reading news off a teleprompter while conveying the misleading impression of being an actual experienced, trustworthy professional journalist has been discovered to have actually misled people about his experience, trustworthiness and journalistic professionalism.  It's as yet unclear at this point whether he'll be able to return to his job of reading the news while conveying his usual misleading impression of experienced, trustworthy journalistic professionalism, or whether his having been discovered to have actually misled people has done career-ending damage to his ability to continue to convey that same misleading impression.

    Tuesday, February 03, 2015

    The current brouhaha over vaccination presents a fascinating case study illustrating three frequent conflicts in American politics:  between democracy and individual liberty, between science and public policy, and between individual and collective goods.  While it should go without saying that vaccination is a vital and powerfully effective disease-fighting tool, the issue of how a democracy should deal with anti-vaccine fanatics isn't quite so cut-and-dried, and has exposed some of the idiosyncrasies of American political debate:
    •  Libertarianism and distrust of democracy:   Most of the arguments I've seen so far amount to hysterical rants about the evil and stupidity of "anti-vaxxers", coupled with nasty partisan accusations of the "other side's" pronounced anti-vaccine tendencies.  (In fact, there are loud anti-vaccine fringes on both the left and the right, to which mainstream politicians on both sides have occasionally pandered.)  Sprinkled in amongst these diatribes are indignant anti-vaccine pronouncements steeped in libertarian self-righteousness, larded with references to alleged scientific proof of the dire consequences of vaccination,  and finished off with apoplectic accusations of "poisoning children".  This acrimony is typical of debates--such as abortion--where both sides deeply distrust the democratic process to provide the "right" answer, and prefer instead to gin up enormous volumes of rhetorical fury in order to provide preparatory justification for whatever possibly extra-democratic tactics might be necessary to win the day for their own side.
    • Science as authority, citizen pursuit or villain:  Some of the most embarrassing arguments are the ones in which the participants attempt to invoke science on behalf of their claims.  The anti-vaccine efforts are laughable, of course, citing vaguely-referenced studies alleging all manner of terrible harms, while simultaneously denouncing the medical establishment for covering up the awful truth.  but the pro-vaccine ones are rarely better--they either cite a scientific consensus whose strength and validity the speakers are completely unqualified to assess, or else recite potted versions of the actual science that they don't really understand.  The truth is that neither side is really competent to discuss, much less judge, the science behind this issue.  And it's a good bet that on one or more other issues--second-hand smoke, say, or genetically modified organisms, or global climate change, or evolution--any given pair of disputants would find themselves adopting each other's previous approach to the relevant scientific evidence. 
    • Allergy to collective burdens:   Vaccination, like virtually all public policy options, imposes risks on some people, and benefits for others.  It therefore produces "winners" and "losers" either way--the losers, in this case, being those who suffer from either a vaccine reaction or the disease itself.  As it turns out, there's a "free-riding" opportunity here:  if only a very few people refuse vaccinations, then they are effectively protected by "herd immunity", while avoiding the risk of an adverse reaction to the vaccine.  This risk is very low, and is also insured by a strict tort liability system incorporated into the funding of vaccine production.  But Americans are generally very reluctant to enter into this sort of collective assumption of even very small individual risks.  That's why the vehicle for the insurance system is tort law, rather than normal insurance--it gives individuals the sense that they are autonomously receiving compensation for a wrong, rather than passively accepting societal care following a misfortune.  And that's why enough Americans still choose to free-ride that the herd immunity on which the free-riders depend is in some cases quite possibly on the verge of collapsing.
    In an earlier time, when circumstances were dire (thousands of children dying of infectious diseases), these problems were overcome of necessity.  And one certainly hopes that they will be overcome once again, before any preventable diseases rage completely out of control.  But in the meantime, it sure would be nice if more Americans discussed the issue as if they hoped to persuade their fellow voting citizens, rather than bulldoze them; admitted that they don't really understand science and are simply using their common sense as best they can; and spoke more of their concern for each other's well-being than of their rights and entitlements to do as they please and still have others look out for them.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2015

    Jonathan Chait's recent cri de coeur on the resurgence of "political correctness" is a bit muddled about its subject, alternating between complaints that it's too extreme, that it's too identity-based, and that it's too repressive of others' free speech rights.  Needless to say, he's being pilloried from both the left and the right, the former for his treason and the latter for his hypocrisy (he's allegedly committed at least some of the crimes of which he accuses the "PC police"). 

    And some of those criticisms are quite valid.  For example, complaining that "political correctness" is dangerous because it's too extreme, or otherwise wrong and terrible, is a red herring.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding what is extreme or wrong or terrible, whether they are to Chait's left, to his right, or in perfect alignment with him.  I happen to agree with Chait that the ideas he's ridiculing are ridiculous, and when people who adhere to them decide to admonish me for ridiculing them, I typically laugh them off as fools, rather than warn darkly of the danger they pose.

    In particular, racial, ethnic or gender essentialism--the idea that an argument's merit depends on those innate properties of the arguer--is certainly most worthy of criticism.  In many cases, it's tantamount to outright bigotry.  (See my comments on white privilege, for instance.)  But it's also pretty transparently stupid, and reasonable people shun such arguments, including Chait, myself and many others.  Lumping the purveyors of such crackpot ideas together as a dangerous movement seems a tad overwrought.

    The point at which these ideas really do become dangerous, though, is the point at which they sneak their way into official or de facto policies applied by organizations with real power.  It's here that Chait's misunderstanding of the history of "political correctness" sends him badly off-course.  In Chait's telling, "political correctness" enjoyed a bit of a heyday during the 1990s on college campuses, then disappeared for a while, only to reappear lately both on campus and on Internet social fora.  In fact, the political correctness campaign of the 1990s was a coordinated effort by campus radicals and liberal college administrators to effectively purge or silence all political conservatives on most major college campuses.  The purge having largely succeeded, the campaign died down, only to heat up recently, with the same campus radicals (or their successors) attempting this time to ally with newer, more left-leaning college administrators to purge moderate or centrist liberals.  It's this new purge which has Chait, a fairly middle-of-the-road liberal despite his sometimes-incendiary rhetoric, so up-in-arms.

    Some non-academic circles, particularly the journalism and entertainment industries, have also mirrored this same sequence of purges.  As Chait himself tells it, his colleagues are now loath to express opinions that might run afoul of his own circle's equivalent of campus radicals, for fear not only of rebuke, but of real loss of stature in the rather close-knit community of "mainstream" opinion journalism (overwhelmingly dominated, of course, by liberals).  And cases such as Brandon Eich's and Maria Conchita Alonso's show that enforcement of politically correct orthodoxy is not confined to college campuses alone.

    The problem, therefore, is not actually "political correctness"--neither the opinions themselves nor their aggressive advocates--but rather the institutions that have been captured by those advocates and purged of opponents.  More precisely, it's that several important social institutions have repeatedly proven themselves vulnerable to such capture and subsequent purging.  Unsurprisingly, those institutions also enjoy a cartel-like non-competitive position that allows them to be co-opted without losing their social influence. 

    The solution in each case, then, is not to attempt to counteract the influence of politically correct infiltrators--let alone to purge them--but rather to remove the institution's protected status, and subject it to the kind of competition that makes internal enforcement of a repressive political orthodoxy untenable.  When accredited universities and cable-carried news channels are no longer dominated by a single political outlook, and students and viewers are free to choose options they're comfortable with, then the iron grip of political correctness will inevitably fall away.  As for Chait's own field--well, perhaps he's working for the wrong type of magazine...

    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    Two interesting developments in on-campus politics reinforce points I've made previously about bias in the modern university:

    1.  A political science professor at Marquette University has been suspended for a blog posting criticizing a fellow instructor for allegedly restricting in-class debate on gay marriage.  An obvious parallel can be drawn with the Salaita affair, in which the University of Illinois administration vetoed a job offer to a Native American studies professor based on the virulently anti-Zionist content of his Twitter feed.  Yet a web search for pages containing the names of both professors turns up remarkably few hits, most of them explaining why the cases are actually completely different.  (One distinction offered is that criticizing a fellow professor is far more egregious a breach of civility than, say, preaching hate for all the citizens of an entire country.  I'll leave it to the reader to infer the implications of that argument.)

    What this juxtaposition demonstrates is that although academics remain adamant about imposing their political preferences on academia to the greatest extent possible, they're equally adamant in refusing to admit that that is in fact what they intend to do.  Arguments about "civility", consistently mustered against only certain points of view in any political debate, are transparent pretexts for the imposition of political limits on that debate. 

    And those limits would be eminently defensible--if only those imposing them were willing to fess up and concede their intentions.  Marquette University, for instance, is officially a private Jesuit institution, and could at one time have been understandably expected to impose a Catholic-friendly atmosphere on its students, even at the expense of stifling "debate" about, say, the empirical falsehood of this or that tenet of Catholic dogma.  If it is instead now a bastion of liberal dogma, then why shouldn't it proudly so declare itself, and impose its moral principles accordingly?

    The question answers itself, of course:  if it did so, then many (though certainly not all, and maybe not even most) students would refuse to fork over its hefty tuition, being more interested in a rigorous education undistorted by those particular doctrinal restrictions.  So instead it lies, and pretends that it is a non-partisan champion of free and open intellectual inquiry, taking no position on where it may lead.  In this respect, Marquette is no different from virtually every other university in America--as William F. Buckley Jr. pointed out more than fifty years ago.

    Unfortunately, this pretense not only criminally defrauds the students who pay enormous sums to receive what they imagine to be a non-partisan education; it's also responsible for both originating and exacerbating the problem it's designed to cover up.  A university with a clearly stated mission has at least the foundation of a defense against being co-opted by a faction with a conflicting agenda, but a university embracing empty neutrality is defenseless:  between a leadership hamstrung by its obligation to at least appear to make all its decisions impartially, and a group of partisans ready to advance their cause by any means at their disposal, there's simply no doubt which side will win every political or bureaucratic battle.  Indeed, that's no doubt how the erstwhile Jesuits of Marquette University came to be completely dominated by partisan leftists in the first place. 

    2.  A recent research paper has taken the highly unusual step of arguing that (per its title), "Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science".  It claims that the uniformity of political opinion in the field of social psychology introduces biases into its research, and that the solution is to increase the diversity of political opinion among researchers in the field.

    The obvious question to ask is why they stop at the political biases of social psychology researchers, omitting, say, the research assistants who collate survey results, the subjects on whom the research studies are performed, the employees of the printer companies whose products print the surveys used in the studies, and so on.  Mightn't their political biases affect research results as well?

    Of course, if your research methodology allows the political bias of your RAs, subjects or printer manufacturing workers to bias your research results, then there's a serious problem with your research methodology, and the solution is to fix that problem, not attempt to root out imperfect balances in political opinion wherever they might conceivably interact with your research.  But couldn't the same thing be said of the researchers themselves?  If the quality of their research depends on their collective political balance, then how can they ever even conceivably do good research, given that they will inevitably be collectively biased in some direction or other (say, in the direction of increasing government grants for social psychology research, perhaps)?  And if the research is subject to political bias, then what other kinds of bias might also be seeping into research results?  Racial bias?  Gender bias?  Religious or cultural bias?

    The problem of bias--political and otherwise--in experimental results is hardly a new one, and it's actually rather shocking that social psychologists are only now beginning to discuss grappling with it.  And the fact that introducing political diversity into the field is considered a plausible and reasonable approach to the problem is a demonstration of just how pitifully na├»ve and confused the social sciences are in dealing with it.  Generating unbiased experimental results--or even getting a reasonable handle on the possible biases in one's experimental results--is extraordinarily hard, and that's one reason why scientists (supposedly) undergo such extensive and rigorous training, and why their work is (supposedly) subjected to such intensive peer scrutiny before being published.

    In practice, of course, those standards have long disappeared, and much published research--even in the hard sciences, as my co-blogger is fond of pointing out--is actually transparently shoddy.  So when a social psychologist advocates increasing political diversity in the field as a way of reducing experimental bias, he should be understood to be saying, not "here's a previously-undetected source of subtle bias in our research, and here's a clever way to reduce it", but rather, "we all know that our work is shot through with bias of all kinds, which we frankly can't be bothered to try to mitigate significantly, but this particular type of bias is likely to be both obvious and annoying to the non-scientists who pay our salaries, so perhaps we should at least make some pretense of trying to address it."

    Thursday, January 08, 2015

    In the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, numerous conservative press critics are condemning the "cowardice" of media outlets that are censoring the Charlie Hebdo's controversial Islam-ridiculing cartoons.  These critics are giving journalists far too little credit for courage:  they routinely face mortal danger all over the world, yet continue to report on far-flung places where their comrades have only recently fallen.  Pursuing the story even in the face of violence is a core journalistic value.   

    But while it's clearly not cowardice that's triggering the censorship, neither is it principled reluctance to offend religious groups, as the news outlets themselves typically claim.  There are in fact many examples of newsworthy images offensive to religions other than Islam that have been given wide, generally uncensored coverage in the media, from the famous artworks "Piss Christ" and "The Holy Virgin Mary" made of elephant dung, to this New York Daily News photo of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, which includes a carefully censored caricature of a Muslim, and a completely uncensored anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew.

    Rather, journalists selectively resist or appease threats of violence the same way academics do:  based on political sympathy.  No Western journalist (or academic) would ever dream of kowtowing to threats of violence from right-wing terrorists, but threats from more politically sympatico sources--say, Hamas or the Obama White House--receive considerably more cooperation.  And while Al Qaeda-trained French Islamist terrorists may not exactly be in perfect political harmony with most Western journalists, Muslims in general--even radical ones--are definitely considered part of the broad coalition of "the left", and their sometimes-overly-rambunctious-when-aroused sensibilities are therefore more often accommodated, to avoid accusations of "Islamophobia".