The Problem With Wokeness: David Brooks

Valid, and good recognition that this is an issue for both the right and left, as are labels such as snowflake and virtue signalling:

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on “Meet the Press” that for all the horror of the recent school shootings, we shouldn’t be scaremongering. There’s much less gun violence over all in schools today than in the early 1990s. Four times as many students were killed per year back then than in recent years.

This comment elicited a lot of hatred on social media, of a very interesting kind. The general diagnosis was that I was doing something wrong by not maximizing the size of the problem. I was draining moral urgency and providing comfort to the status quo.

This mental habit is closely related to what we now call “wokeness.” In an older frame of mind, you try to perceive the size of a problem objectively, and then you propose a solution, which might either be radical or moderate, conservative or liberal. You were judged primarily by the nature of your proposal.

But wokeness jams together the perceiving and the proposing. In fact, wokeness puts more emphasis on how you perceive a situation — how woke you are to what is wrong — than what exactly you plan to do about it. To be woke is to understand the full injustice.

There is no measure or moderation to wokeness. It’s always good to be more woke. It’s always good to see injustice in maximalist terms. To point to any mitigating factors in the environment is to be naïve, childish, a co-opted part of the status quo.

The word wokeness is new, but the mental habits it describes are old. A few decades ago, there was a small strain of Jewish radicals who believed that rabid anti-Semitism was at the core of Christian culture. Any attempt to live in mixed societies would always lead to Auschwitz. Segregation and moving to Israel was the only safe strategy, and anybody who didn’t see this reality was, in today’s language, insufficiently woke.

This attitude led to Meir Kahane and a very ugly strain of militancy.

In 1952 Reinhold Niebuhr complained that many of his fellow anti-communists were constantly requiring “that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor.” This led to “apoplectic rigidity.” Screaming about the imminent communist menace became a sort of display art for politicians.

These days we think of wokeness as a left-wing phenomenon. But it is an iron law of politics that every mental habit conservatives fault in liberals is one they also practice themselves.

The modern right has its own trigger words (diversity, dialogue, social justice, community organizer), its own safe spaces (Fox News) and its own wokeness. Michael Anton’s essay “The Flight 93 Election” is only one example of the common apocalyptic view: Modern liberals are hate-filled nihilists who will destroy the nation if given power. Anybody who doesn’t understand this reality is not conservatively woke.

The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation — building a wall between you and the problem — not a solution.

There’s a debate on precisely this point now surrounding the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is, of course, well known for seeing the problem of racism in maximalist terms. The entire American story was and continues to be based on “plunder,” the violent crushing of minority bodies. Even today, “Gentrification is white supremacy.”

Coates is very honest about his pessimism and his hopeless view of the situation. But a number of writers have criticized his stance. Cornel West has argued that it’s all words; it doesn’t lead to collective action. In The New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney argues, “Afro-pessimism threatens no one, and white audiences confuse having been chastised with learning.”

I’d add that it’s a blunt fact that most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat.

The greatest danger of extreme wokeness is that it makes it harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time. For example, it is certainly true that racism is the great sin of American history, that it is an ongoing sin and the sin from which many of our other sins flow. It is also true that throughout history and today, millions of people have tried to combat that sin and have made progress against it.

The confrontation with this sin or any sin is not just a protest but a struggle. Generalship in that or any struggle is seeing where the forces of progress are swelling and where the forces of reaction are marching. It is seeing opportunities as well as threats. It is being dispassionate in one’s perception of the situation and then passionate in one’s assault on it.

Indignation is often deserved and always makes for a great media strategy. But in its extreme form, whether on left or right, wokeness leads to a one-sided depiction of the present and an unsophisticated strategy for a future offensive.

via Opinion | The Problem With Wokeness – The New York Times

What Silicon Valley Could Use More of: Inefficiency – The New York Times

Worth reflecting upon:

Hypocrisy thrives at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley. This is where Google executives send their children to learn how to knit, write with chalk on blackboards, practice new words by playing catch with a beanbag and fractions by cutting up quesadillas and apples. There are no screens — not a single piece of interactive, multimedia, educational content. The kids don’t even take standardized tests.

While Silicon Valley’s raison d’être is making platforms, apps and algorithms to create maximum efficiency in life and work (a “friction-free” world, as Bill Gates once put it), when it comes to their own families (and developing their own businesses, too), the new masters of the universe have a different sense of what it takes to learn and innovate — it’s a slow, indirect process, meandering not running, allowing for failure and serendipity, even boredom.

Back in 1911, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” By that metric, Uber and Google and Amazon Prime have given us a whole lot of civilization. And there’s no doubt our lives are better for it. (Ordering Chinese takeout in 30 seconds on an app might not be up there with Shakespeare or the incandescent light bulb, but it’s pretty great.) This unrelenting drive for efficiency has, however, blotted out a few things we all know intuitively but seem to be forgetting.

To create a product or service that is truly efficient often involves a lot of inefficiency — more like learning to knit than pressing a button. Likewise, gadgets built with a single-minded focus on efficiency can often backfire, subverting their purpose. Algorithms designed to dish up the news and information we most prefer end up blinkering us to all but a narrow slice of political and social reality. Our smartphones untether us from the office, saving us energy on travel, but also allow our lives to be interrupted nearly 24 hours a day, chewing up any productive idle time.

This all seems fairly obvious. But, as Edward Tenner writes in “The Efficiency Paradox,” “we sometimes need to be reminded of the obvious.” Tenner has made a career worrying about unintended consequences. His 1996 book, “Why Things Bite Back,” dealt with phenomena like the overuse of antibiotics leading to resistant bacteria and the introduction of football helmets causing an increase of neck and spine injuries. In 2003, he published “Our Own Devices,” in which he turned to what he called body technologies — sandals, office chairs, computer keyboards — and how they had impaired as much as enhanced us. In short, for every three steps forward, he sees the two steps back.

With the internet now a dominant social force, Tenner is ready with his wet blanket. But he is not a cyber-pessimist or a fetishizer of the analog. He is, instead, a staunch moderate: “Silicon Valley’s mistake is not in developing efficient algorithms from which we all benefit, but in encouraging the illusion that algorithms can and should function in the absence of human skills.”

The dehumanizing effects of big data are well known and Tenner adds no groundbreaking insight here. (Books like Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” and Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here” were more pioneering on this front.) But what Tenner brings is a new frame. Unlike critiquing the denizens of Silicon Valley for deepening social and economic inequality, destroying our brains or helping to undermine democratic norms (issues that seem to matter to us more than them), questioning efficiency is truly kicking the geeks where it hurts.

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Drawing on an eclectic bunch of anecdotes and studies, Tenner makes his way through four sectors in which “intuition, skill and experience” have been effectively crushed by “big data, algorithms and efficiency”: media and culture, education, transportation and medicine.

A few of his examples:

Search algorithms have extended the ability to find scientific journal articles and books dating to the 19th century. In principle, this means scholars may encounter a broad range of research and discovery, dredge up forgotten work and possibly connect important dots. But in reality, as one sociologist found after studying citations in 35 million scientific journal articles from before and after the invention of the internet, researchers, beholden to search algorithms’ tendency to generate self-reinforcing feedback loops, are now paying more attention to fewer papers, and in general to the more recent and popular ones — actually strengthening rather than bucking prevailing trends.

GPS is great for getting from one point to another, but if you need more context for understanding your surroundings, it’s fairly useless. We’ve all had experiences in which the shortest distance, as calculated by the app, can also be the most dangerous or traffic-clogged. Compare the efficiency of GPS with the three years aspiring London cabdrivers typically spend preparing for the arduous examination they must pass in order to receive their license. They learn to build a mental map of the entire city, to navigate under any circumstance, to find shortcuts and avoid risky situations — all without any external, possibly fallible, help. Which is the more efficient, ultimately, the cabby or Google Maps?

In the early 2000s, electronic medical records and electronic prescribing appeared to solve the lethal problem of sloppy handwriting. The United States Institute of Medicine estimated in 1999 that 7,000 patients in the United States were dying annually because of errors in reading prescriptions. But the electronic record that has emerged to answer this problem, and to help insurers manage payments, is full of detailed codes and seemingly endless categories and subcategories. Doctors now have to spend an inordinate amount of time on data entry. One 2016 study found that for every hour doctors spent with patients, two hours were given over to filling out paperwork, leaving much less time to listen to patients, arguably the best way to avoid misdiagnoses.

Faced with all these “inefficiently efficient” technologies, what should we do? Tenner wants more balance. Let’s not put the brakes on the drive for efficiency. These tools are good. But they should give way a bit to human sensibility, to our own instincts and insights, which could help them work even better. “Analog experience can enhance digital efficacy,” he writes. “Digital tools can improve analog access. We don’t have to choose between the two.”

His recommendations are sensible, if hard to imagine actually coming to pass. He wants us to spend more time in the physical world, in the “terrain” of our cities or between the paragraphs of a printed book. We need to get a little lost, pursue “productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends.” He likes the idea of systematically educating high school students in the skill of online searching, so they can make the algorithms work for them rather than slavishly accepting their results. He wouldn’t mind if we returned to the days of the dial-up modem, when we waited patiently for the pixels to materialize on the screen one by one. Instant gratification has dulled our senses. He’d put us all in Waldorf schools if he could.

If this sounds like Tenner is a man impassioned, I should be clearer: This is no manifesto. There is not much blood flowing through this book, which reads more like a report issued by a concerned think tank. Maybe it’s just that preaching moderation doesn’t lend itself to writing that pulls your face to the page.

But it would be unfortunate if Tenner were dismissed as just a cranky man in his 70s who thinks we spend too much time on our phones. What he is asserting is something we all know to be true. It’s bigger than the tyranny of efficiency. What he’s really asking is that we remember that the tools we’ve invented to improve our lives are just that, tools, to be picked up and put down. We wield them.

via What Silicon Valley Could Use More of: Inefficiency – The New York Times

Heterodoxy Academy: Encouraging diversity of thought

Rubin Friedman flagged this initiative to me that aims to increase diversity of thought within the academic community (primarily social sciences). Although I sense a slight balance to the right (might reflect my bias!), the principles and approach of the Heterodoxy Academy are broadly applicable.

During one of my executive development programs, considerable emphasis was placed on being able to ask open-ended questions as a learning and engagement technique, rather than leading questions to advance one’s position.

I particularly like the OpenMind exercises to increase awareness of one’s biases and develop techniques to broaden one’s perspective and engage and understand the perspectives of others. These are particularly useful when engaging in polarized political discussions such as immigration.

The five steps are below but I would encourage readers check it out (for the useful “life hacks” you need to do the exercises, each step takes between 10-20 minutes in my experience):

First step: See what you’ll gain from viewpoint diversity

  • Viewpoint diversity helps you get closer to the truth. In order to fully understand an issue, you need to challenge your assumptions and consider it from multiple angles.
  • Viewpoint diversity will help you be more persuasive. By engaging with people with whom you disagree, you can understand where they’re coming from, and craft arguments that will more likely appeal to them.
  • Viewpoint diversity will open up opportunities for growth and learning. Realizing that your views and opinions have evolved over time is a sure sign of intellectual development.
  • Therefore, it’s ideal to talk to both people with whom you agree and disagree, and try to learn from them why they believe what they believe.

Second step: Cultivate intellectual humility

  • In order to prevent our certainty from blinding us to other ideas, we must develop intellectual humility: the value espoused by Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Buddha, and many others. We can become wiser by recognizing the limits of our knowledge.
  • But doing so isn’t always easy. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is set in stone. This often causes them to prioritize looking smart at all costs, which makes it harder to learn and grow. Those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can develop. As a result, they often relish accepting new challenges, which makes it easier for them to learn and grow.
  • In order to inject more growth into your mindset, you can: acknowledge that your abilities are fluid; view each mistake as a learning opportunity; and challenge yourself to do things you haven’t already mastered.

Third step: Explore the irrational mind

  • Our minds are divided into two parts that sometimes conflict: the elephant represents our quick, automatic intuitive thinking; the riderrepresents our slow, effortful reasoning. (You saw these two processes in action when you read the colors out loud effortlessly and then struggled a bit when naming the colors after.)
  • We often fall prey to post hoc reasoning, the process in which our elephant makes a snap moral judgment, and our rider works to justify it. (You might have used post hoc reasoning to justify your response that it’s acceptable to hit the switch on the trolley, and it’s acceptable to push the worker off the bridge.)
  • A common form of post hoc reasoning is when we seek or interpret information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs, which is called confirmation bias.
  • Our reasoning becomes even less reliable when we are motivated to reach a particular conclusion, especially when a moral issue is at stake. (We explored this in the different cases about the unintended economic and environmental side-effects of the president’s new program.)
  • As a result, it can be difficult to convince other people to change their minds, especially on moral issues—because their brains, just like ours, are wired in these ways.

Fourth step: Break free from your moral matrix

  • We all live within a moral matrix: a consensual hallucination that we believe represents objective reality. Many different moral communities exist, each with its own set of shared values, and each convinced that its group alone sees truth as it really is. (You saw a metaphor for this with the optical illusion of the young woman and old woman.)
  • The moral mind is like a tongue with six different taste receptors. We all share these same foundations, but we build upon them in different ways to create our own moral matrices. The six moral foundations are: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty.
  • Many disagreements can be attributed to the application of different moral foundations. There are also cases when different people apply the same moral foundation in different ways. When someone disagrees with you, it’s probably not because they’re evil. It might be because they have constructed a different moral matrix and they rely on the moral foundations differently than you do.

Fifth step: Prepare for constructive disagreements

  • We can engage in constructive disagreement by seeking to learn, rather than to be right. The key to constructive disagreements is mastering the language of the elephant (automatic, intuitive thinking).

  • Sometimes, our automatic thoughts (generated by our elephants) aren’t accurate, and these cognitive distortions can cause negative feelings. Our riders can rein in our elephants by examining our initial thoughts, and—over time—training them to be more accurate

  • We can also hone our ability to communicate effectively with other people by focusing on their elephants. We can: respect their elephants (don’t criticize people or make them feel stupid); understand their elephants (learn about what other people care about and why); and appeal to their elephants (convey your thoughts in a language that will resonate with them).

Should justice be delivered by AI?

Interesting discussion. My understanding is that more legal research is being done by AI and my expectation is that more routine legal work could increasingly be done by AI.

For government, the obvious question is with respect to administrative decisions such as immigration, citizenship, social security etc in routine cases. As the article notes, AI would likely be more consistent than humans, but the algorithms would need to be carefully reviewed given possible programmer biases:

It is conventional wisdom, repeated by authoritative voices such as the former chief justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin, that Canadians face an access-to-justice (A2J) crisis. While artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithm-assisted automated decision-making could play a role in ameliorating the crisis, the contemporary consensus holds that the risks posed by AI mean its use in the justice system should be curtailed. The view is that the types of decisions that have historically been made by judges and state-sanctioned tribunals should be reserved exclusively to human adjudicators, or at the very least be subject to human oversight, although this would limit the advantages of speed and lowered cost that AI might deliver.

But we should be wary of prematurely precluding a role for AI in addressing at least some elements of the A2J crisis. Before we concede that robust deployment of AI in the civil and criminal justice systems is to be avoided, we need to take the public’s views into account. What they have to say may lead us to very different conclusions from those reached by lawyers, judges and scholars.

Though the prospect of walking into a courtroom and being confronted by a robot judge remains the stuff of science fiction, we have entered an era in which informed commentators confidently predict that the foreseeable future will include autonomous artificial intelligences passing bar exams, getting licensed to practice law and, in the words of Matthew and Jean-Gabriel Castel in their  2016 article “The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Canadian Law and the Legal Profession,” “perform[ing] most of the routine or ‘dull’ work done by justices of the peace, small claims courts and administrative boards and tribunals.” Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are affected by such work every year.

Influential voices in the AI conversation have strongly cautioned against AI being used in legal proceedings. Where the matter has been addressed by governments, such as in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation or France’s Loi informatique et libertés, that precautionary approach has been rendered as a right for there always to be a “human in the loop”: decisions that affect legal rights are prohibited from being made solely by means of the automated processing of data.

Concerns about the accountability of AI — both generally and specifically in the context of legal decisions — should not be lightly dismissed. There are significant and potentially deleterious implications to replacing human adjudicators with AI. The risks posed by the deployment of AI in the delivery of legal services include nontransparency and concerns about where to locate liability for harms, as well as various forms of bias latent in the data relied on, in the way that algorithms interact with those data and in the way that users interact with the algorithm. Having AI replace human adjudicators may not even be technically possible: some observers such as Frank Pasquale and Eric L. Talley have taken pains to point out that there is an irreducible complexity, dynamism and nonlinearity to law, legal reasoning and moral judgment, which means these matters may not lend themselves to automation.

Real as those technological constraints may be at the moment, they also may be real only forthe moment. Furthermore, while these constraints may apply to some (or even many) instances of adjudication, they don’t — or likely won’t — continue to apply to all of them. Law’s complexity runs along many axes, including applying to many areas of human endeavour and impacting many different aspects of our lives. This requires us to be careful not to treat all interactions with the justice system as equivalent for purposes of AI policy. We might use algorithms to expeditiously resolve, for example, consumer protection complaints or breach of contract disputes, but not matters relating to child custody or criminal offences.

Whether and when we deploy AI in the civil and criminal justice systems are questions that should be answered only after taking into account the views of the people who would be subject to those decisions. The answer to the question of judicial AI doesn’t belong to judges or lawyers, or at least not only to them — it belongs, in large part, to the public. Maintaining public confidence in the institution of the judiciary is a paramount concern for any liberal democratic society. If the courts are creaking under the strain of too many demands, if resolutions to disputes are hobbled by lengthy delays and exorbitant costs, we should be open to the possibility of using AI and algorithms to optimize judicial resources. If and to the extent we can preserve or enhance confidence in the administration of justice through the use of AI, policy-makers should be prepared to do so.

We can reframe the issue as an inquiry into what people look for from judicial decision-making processes. What are the criteria that lead people who are subject to justice system decisions to conclude that the process was “fair” or “just”? As Jay Thornton has noted , scholars in the social psychology of procedural justice, such as Gerald Leventhal and Tom Tyler, have done empirical work that provides exactly this insight into people’s subjective views. People want their justice system to feature such characteristics as consistency, accuracy, correctability, bias suppression, representativeness and ethicality. In Tyler’s formulation, people want a chance to present their side of the story and have it be considered; they want to be assured of the neutrality and trustworthiness of the decision-maker; and they want to be treated in a respectful and dignified manner.

It is not obvious that judicial AI fails to meet those criteria — it is almost certainly the case that on some of the relevant measures, such as consistency, judicial AI might fare better than human adjudicators. (Research has indicated, for example, that judges render more punitive decisions the longer they go without a meal — in other words, a hungry judge is a harsher judge. Whatever else might be said about robot judges, they won’t get hungry. When deciding between human adjudication and AI adjudication, we should also attend to the question of whether existing human-driven processes are performing adequately on the criteria identifiedby Leventhal and Tyler. That is not a theoretical inquiry but an empirical one: it should be assessed by reference to the subjective satisfaction of the parties who are involved in those processes.

There may be certain types or categories of judicial decisions that people would prefer be performed by AI if so doing would result in faster and cheaper decisions. We must also take fully into account the fact that we already calibrate adjudicative processes for solemnity, procedural rigour and cost to reflect conventional views of what kinds of claims or disputes “matter” and to what extent they do so. For example, the rules of evidence that apply in “regular” courts are significantly relaxed (or even obviated) in courts designated as “small claims” (which often aren’t so small: in Ontario, Small Claims Court applies to disputes under $25,000). Some tribunals that make important decisions about the legal rights of parties — such as the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board — do not require their adjudicators to have a law degree. We have been prepared to adjust judicial processes in an effort to make them more efficient, and where technology has been used to improve processes and facilitate dispute resolution, as has been the case with British Columbia’s online Civil Resolution Tribunal, the results appear to have been salutary. The use of AI in the judicial process should be viewed as a point farther down the road on that same journey.

The criminal and civil justice systems do not exist to provide jobs for judges or lawyers. They exist to deliver justice. If justice can be delivered by AI more quickly, at less cost and with no diminishment in public confidence, then the possibilities of judicial AI should be explored and implemented. It may ultimately be the case that confidence in the administration of justice would be compromised by the use of AI — but that is an empirical question, to be determined in consultation with the public. The questions of confidence in the justice system, and of whether to facilitate and deliver justice by means of AI (including the development of a taxonomy of the types of decisions that can or should be made using AI), can only be fully answered by those in whom that confidence resides: the public.

via Should justice be delivered by AI?

How to Prevent Smart People From Spreading Dumb Ideas – The New York Times

I really liked Socolow’s three rules, particularly relevant for Twitter:

  1. No link? Not news!
  2. I knew it!
  3. Why am I talking?

We have a serious problem, and it goes far beyond “fake news.” Too many Americans have no idea how to properly read a social media feed. As we’re coming to learn more and more, such ignorance seems to be plaguing almost everybody — regardless of educational attainment, economic class, age, race, political affiliation or gender.

Some very smart people are helping to spread some very dumb ideas.

We all know this is a problem. The recent federal indictment of a Russian company, the Internet Research Agency, lists the numerous ways Russian trolls and bots created phony events and leveraged social media to sow disruption throughout the 2016 presidential election. New revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s sophisticated use of Facebook data to target unsuspecting social media users reminds us how complex the issue has become. Even the pope has weighed in, using his bully pulpit to warn the world of this new global evil.

But there are some remarkably easy steps that each of us, on our own, can take to address this issue. By following these three simple guidelines, we can collaborate to help solve a problem that’s befuddling the geniuses who built Facebook and Twitter.

If the problem is crowdsourced, then it seems obvious the solution will have to be crowdsourced as well. With that in mind, here are three easy steps each of us can take to help build a better civic polity. This advice will also help each of us look a little less foolish.

1. No link? Not news! Every time somebody tweets “BREAKING” a little bell should go off in your head. Before you even read the rest of the news, look for the link. Average Americans almost never break news about big stories. Even most professional journalists lack the sources and experience to quickly verify sensational information. If news breaks on a truly important story, there should be a link to a credible news source. But I still regularly see tweets that have no connection to reality being retweeted thousands of times by people who should know better. Here’s but one example of completely fictional “news” that was retweeted over 46,000 times. It involved Haiti’s supposed reaction to President Trump’s recent insult:

It was retweeted by the Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. His retweet was retweeted over 2,000 times:

Yet there’s no evidence anywhere that Haiti’s “high court” did this. There was no “emergency” session and there was no “agreement to unseal & release documents.” The event is fabricated. Remember: No link? Not news!

2. I knew it! If breaking news on social media aligns perfectly with your carefully structured view of the world, then pause before liking it or retweeting it. Why? Because you — like most of us — have curated a personal news feed to confirm things you already suspected or “knew.” If you didn’t do this yourself (by unfriending people who dared argue politics with you on your feed), Facebook and Twitter are doing it for you. They structure your timeline to make it as agreeable as possible. Cambridge Analytica’s success was premised on building a distribution system tailored to precisely exploit the biases and preconceptions of specified Facebook users.

But Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement. George Orwell once noted that he became a writer because he possessed “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” There’s no place for “unpleasant facts” in our social media universe. Were Orwell alive today, he’d remind us of the terrible political costs caused by this devolution in our informational habits.

3. Why am I talking? My wife is a psychotherapist, and occasionally I skim her Psychotherapy Networker magazine. I read a piece by a therapist who realized his most effective communicative moments often occurred when he asked himself a simple question: “Why am I talking?” Inevitably this question shut him up and allowed him to absorb much more information. “Why am I talking” works out to a great acronym: WAIT. If we all just asked ourselves this simple question immediately before posting or retweeting, we’d all be better off. There are numerous reasons to participate in the public sphere, and everyone can contribute something valuable. But there’s also far too much noise out there, and we need to think more seriously and realistically about the added value of our own communication.

These are three simple rules. Of course, they contradict every mechanism Facebook and Twitter uses to encourage our behavior on social media. Being more skeptical, engaging more selectively and prioritizing links to information providers outside our social media silos will hurt the bottom line of the social media giants. Using social media in a more responsible manner might ultimately leave these companies to rot away as they cede their civic responsibilities to the Russian trolls and bots dedicated to polluting our discourse. If they won’t act, it’s up to us. If we’re collectively smarter and more skeptical about social media as an information delivery device, it will ultimately lessen the influence that these corporations and trolls have on our civic governance.

via How to Prevent Smart People From Spreading Dumb Ideas – The New York Times

Why we invited Jordan Peterson to discuss compelled speech: Daniel Woolf

Good principled and nuanced statement by the principal of Queen’s:

Freedom of speech and academic freedom on university campuses have been in the news a great deal. This issue has not escaped Queen’s University. Recently, the faculty of law hosted a lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson to discuss compelled speech, currently a very divisive subject within the Ontario law profession. The visit caused tensions on campus, with some individuals taking issue with the decision by one of the faculty members to invite him to speak. I took the position that the lecture should proceed and posted a blog explaining my own categorical support for academic freedom and civilized debate at Queen’s. The lecture went ahead, though not without a protest that at times pushed well beyond being respectful and peaceful.

I do not intend to address the protest, nor the particular beliefs and views of Dr. Peterson. Rather, I’d like to argue first, that freedom of speech and the goals of diversity and inclusion are entirely compatible and often mutually strengthening; and second, that those who challenge giving opponents the right and a platform on which to speak, are conflating two different issues and setting a dangerous precedent.

To my first point, one can promote any worthwhile goal through actions, including protest, while also supporting the aims and welfare of groups promoting a progressive agenda without challenging freedom of speech. The suggestion that by allowing a speaker who allegedly challenges aspects of inclusivity and diversity a platform, we are subverting the university’s own agenda is invalid. Both freedom of speech and the achievement of social goals are possible, and challenging one’s agenda should be viewed as an opportunity to strengthen and enrich this position, and when needed, change it.

Queen’s fully supports an inclusive and diverse campus and curriculum, and we continue to make important progress in pursuing these ideals. Diversity also extends to thought and opinion – it can’t simply be “diversity of the sort we happen to agree with today.” Universities should be physically safe spaces and diverse and inclusive. But protection from disagreeable ideas isn’t safety – it’s infantilization, and robs everyone of the opportunity to reflect and grow. Students: We are there to learn with you, to have our assumptions questioned and to question yours. We will not simply reinforce your beliefs and turn them into unexamined convictions.

However, even were these goals incompatible, I would still advocate for freedom of speech and open debate. They are the very foundation of democracy, even with all its faults and past and present failures of society. We are privileged to live in a country that protects the expression of views (with the exception of hate speech) regardless of ideology or affiliation. It permitted the lecture, as well as the protest outside it. It also permitted an open letter penned by faculty, students and alumni, criticizing the views I expressed in my blog. While I didn’t agree with many of their arguments, I respect the authors for exercising their rights to publish it and thank them for so doing.

For centuries, universities have been nurseries of intellect, shapers of society and more often than not, agents of social progress and economic mobility. The passion and energy of young people have played an enormous part in that. But passion made brittle by ideology that goes unexamined or unchallenged promotes hatred; it does not fight it. And so, faculty, students, staff and visiting speakers must continue to be allowed to articulate positions that will offend, challenge and even upset. It must be done safely and respectfully. Otherwise, in the long run, we are all the poorer and our fundamental shared values are at risk.

via Why we invited Jordan Peterson to discuss compelled speech – The Globe and Mail

YouTube, the Great Radicalizer – The New York Times

Good article on how social media reinforces echo chambers and tends towards more extreme views:

At one point during the 2016 presidential election campaign, I watched a bunch of videos of Donald Trump rallies on YouTube. I was writing an article about his appeal to his voter base and wanted to confirm a few quotations.

Soon I noticed something peculiar. YouTube started to recommend and “autoplay” videos for me that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.

Since I was not in the habit of watching extreme right-wing fare on YouTube, I was curious whether this was an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. So I created another YouTube account and started watching videos of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, letting YouTube’s recommender algorithm take me wherever it would.

Before long, I was being directed to videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast, including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11. As with the Trump videos, YouTube was recommending content that was more and more extreme than the mainstream political fare I had started with.

Intrigued, I experimented with nonpolitical topics. The same basic pattern emerged. Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons.

It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.

This is not because a cabal of YouTube engineers is plotting to drive the world off a cliff. A more likely explanation has to do with the nexus of artificial intelligence and Google’s business model. (YouTube is owned by Google.) For all its lofty rhetoric, Google is an advertising broker, selling our attention to companies that will pay for it. The longer people stay on YouTube, the more money Google makes.

What keeps people glued to YouTube? Its algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with — or to incendiary content in general.

Is this suspicion correct? Good data is hard to come by; Google is loath to share information with independent researchers. But we now have the first inklings of confirmation, thanks in part to a former Google engineer named Guillaume Chaslot.

Mr. Chaslot worked on the recommender algorithm while at YouTube. He grew alarmed at the tactics used to increase the time people spent on the site. Google fired him in 2013, citing his job performance. He maintains the real reason was that he pushed too hard for changes in how the company handles such issues.

The Wall Street Journal conducted an investigationof YouTube content with the help of Mr. Chaslot. It found that YouTube often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources,” and that such extremist tendencies were evident with a wide variety of material. If you searched for information on the flu vaccine, you were recommended anti-vaccination conspiracy videos.

It is also possible that YouTube’s recommender algorithm has a bias toward inflammatory content. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Mr. Chaslot created a program to keep track of YouTube’s most recommended videos as well as its patterns of recommendations. He discovered that whether you started with a pro-Clinton or pro-Trump video on YouTube, you were many times more likely to end up with a pro-Trump video recommended.

Combine this finding with other research showing that during the 2016 campaign, fake news, which tends toward the outrageous, included much more pro-Trump than pro-Clinton content, and YouTube’s tendency toward the incendiary seems evident.

YouTube has recently come under fire for recommending videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the outspoken survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are “crisis actors” masquerading as victims. Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia, recently “seeded” a YouTube account with a search for “crisis actor” and found that following the “up next” recommendations led to a network of some 9,000 videos promoting that and related conspiracy theories, including the claim that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax.

What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look “behind the curtain,” to dig deeper into something that engages us. As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.

Human beings have many natural tendencies that need to be vigilantly monitored in the context of modern life. For example, our craving for fat, salt and sugar, which served us well when food was scarce, can lead us astray in an environment in which fat, salt and sugar are all too plentiful and heavily marketed to us. So too our natural curiosity about the unknown can lead us astray on a website that leads us too much in the direction of lies, hoaxes and misinformation.

In effect, YouTube has created a restaurant that serves us increasingly sugary, fatty foods, loading up our plates as soon as we are finished with the last meal. Over time, our tastes adjust, and we seek even more sugary, fatty foods, which the restaurant dutifully provides. When confronted about this by the health department and concerned citizens, the restaurant managers reply that they are merely serving us what we want.

This situation is especially dangerous given how many people — especially young people — turn to YouTube for information. Google’s cheap and sturdy Chromebook laptops, which now make up more than 50 percent of the pre-college laptop education market in the United States, typically come loaded with ready access to YouTube.

This state of affairs is unacceptable but not inevitable. There is no reason to let a company make so much money while potentially helping to radicalize billions of people, reaping the financial benefits while asking society to bear so many of the costs.

via YouTube, the Great Radicalizer – The New York Times

Respect First, Then Gun Control: Brooks – The New York Times

An interesting approach to bringing people together, despite their ideological or other differences:

This has been an emotional week. We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage. The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die.

Many of us walked this emotional path. But we may end up doing more harm than good. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.

So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.

So I’ve been thinking about a group that’s in the trust and respect business. Better Angels is a nonprofit led by David Lapp, David Blankenhorn and a prominent family therapist, Bill Doherty. The team members travel from town to town finding members of the Red and Blue Tribes and bringing them together for long, humbling conversations.

My Times colleague April Lawson has gotten involved with Better Angels and has been reporting back on its techniques.

One of the most successful parts of the structured conversations is built around stereotypes. Doherty, the head moderator, asks the people at each gathering to name five major stereotypes that the other side throws at them. The Republicans invariably list “racist” first, followed by, say, “uncaring,” “uneducated,” “misogynistic” and “science deniers.”

In a session Lawson attended, a Trump supporter acknowledged that the G.O.P. has had a spotty record on racial matters, but it’s important to him that Blues know that’s not why he holds his opinions.

Doherty says that the Reds feel shamed by the Blues to a much greater degree than the Blues realize. Reds are very reluctant to enter into a conversation with Blues, for fear of further shaming, but they often come to the table when they are told that this will be a chance to “de-monsterize” themselves.

At that session one Blue said she was really grateful to hear a Red acknowledge the Republican history on race. When Blues are asked about the stereotypes thrown at them, they tend to list “against religion and morality,” “unpatriotic” and “against personal responsibility” among their responses. They, too, relish the chance to clear the air.

After the stereotypes are discussed, the room feels different. As one Red in Ohio told Lawson, “I think we are all pretty clear on one thing: Don’t tell us who we are and what we think.” Another Red was moved almost to tears by the damage categories do. “We’re not just cookie-cutter people; we’re individuals. Just because you don’t like something, you don’t have to ridicule it — you probably don’t understand it,” she said. “When someone’s heart is full up with something, and then you demean it without even listening to them — I hate that.”

The discussions reveal other sensitivities. Some Blues didn’t want to enter a venue that had a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on the wall. To Reds that was a neutral flag from American history, but to Blues it carried all sorts of nasty associations. Reds were offended by the lawn signs that said, “Hate Has No Home Here.” The implication: Hate has no home in my house, but it does in yours.

In another exercise, Reds and Blues ask each other honest, nonleading questions. Blues may ask Reds, “Name a safety-net program you can support.” Reds may ask Blues, “How do you balance having a heart with keeping health care costs under control?”

By the end of the conversations, the atmosphere has changed. Nearly always somebody will say that the discussion was easy because only moderates were in the room, not the people who post crazy stuff on Facebook. The staff tries not to smile, knowing that some of the people were selected precisely because of the intense stuff they posted on Facebook.

“This is not a civility organization,” Blankenhorn told Lawson. Better Angels is aiming to build a group of people whose personal bonds with their fellow citizens redefine how they engage in the political system.

We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.

via Respect First, Then Gun Control – The New York Times

Taking Back the Language | Noah Rothman

Nice reminder that language can but both ways by Rothman:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stumbled into controversy this week, although it was perhaps unwarranted. Trudeau became the subject of derision and mockery when he interrupted a woman at a town hall to correct her use of the term “mankind,” suggesting that she replace this dated designation with the more inclusive “peoplekind.” He only offered his proposal after enduring several minutes of a rambling new-age monologueregarding the chemical composition of “maternal love.” Trudeau’s interjection was probably flippant, but neither his interlocutor nor his critics seemed to notice. It’s hard to blame them.

When it comes to subservience to the many demands that identity politics makes on language and behavior, Canada’s prime minister takes a back seat to no one. It’s only prudent to assume Trudeau’s mawkishness is earnest. What’s more, the fact that “gendered” nouns and pronouns, including “mankind,” find themselves in the censors’ crosshairs isn’t exactly news. The popular grammar-checking program Grammarly flags “mankind” for “possible gender-biased language” and suggests more neutral substitutes like “humankind” or “humanity.” Learning to love unidiomatic expressions and consigning gender-specific language to history is a fixation of political activists posing as academicians, even if legitimate etymological scholars cannot support these arguments by citing linguistic corpora. Those who resent an increasingly overbroad definition of what constitutes offensive language are primed for a fight.

Language policing has been the stock-in-trade of a particular type of activist for decades, much to the consternation of both conservatives and liberals interested more in clarity than conformity. Recently, though, the intramural debate on the left over the limited utility of scrutinizing potentially objectionable speech rather than the ideas conveyed by that speech has been relegated to the back burner. That’s for a good reason.

Donald Trump’s presidency, much like his candidacy, is a brusque counterattack against “PC culture.” Often, what Trump and his supporters call “politically incorrect” language is just plain rudeness. The value of the kind of speech they find delightfully provocative isn’t its concision but its capacity to offend the right people. Thus, some self-styled arbiters of linguistic enlightenment might be tempted to dismiss Trump’s campaign against ambiguous semantics as nothing more than a brutish primal scream. If so, they would have failed to properly appreciate the threat Trump and the presidential pulpit he commands represent to their capacity to shape the terms of the debate through language. Trump isn’t limited to displays of rhetorical brute force. Sometimes, he and his speechwriters are capable of compelling eloquence.

Amid a blizzard of FBI texts, dueling intelligence committee memos, and legalisms regarding the oversight of America’s necessarily secretive espionage courts, the State of the Union address has all but been forgotten in Washington. It’s less likely, though, that a well-received speech watched by at least 46 million Americans will be so quickly forgotten across the country. And that should concern liberals because if there was any single line in that speech that won’t be overlooked, it was one that cuts at the heart of the Democratic Party’s ability to lay claim to the moral high ground. “My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream,” Trump said. “Because Americans are dreamers, too.” This was a masterful line. Its potency has been underestimated, and not just by those who resent the restrictive immigration policies it was designed to advance.

The name of the bipartisan 2001 “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act” transgressed a little in order to achieve a lot for the children of illegal immigrants brought into the U.S. as minors. Referring to this demographic as “alien” is taboo, and an offense against modern sensibilities. But to describe them as “DREAMers” yields a windfall of sympathy for this already deserving group of largely naturalized non-citizens. Trump’s turn of phrase spreads the dreaming around, thus diluting the designation DREAMer of much of its unique sympathy.

Democrats might have missed the significance of this expression amid their irritation over another set phrase in that speech: “chain migration.” Trump’s use of this term during the State of the Union Address to describe the process by which legal immigrants sponsor members of their extended family to become American citizens elicited boos from Democrats. Many implied the phrase is a new invention with racist connotations, but the term has been used by policymakers (including some of these same Democrats) for decades. Maybe it was the self-evident hypocrisy, or maybe it was the contrived effort to move the goalposts. For whatever reason, the Democrats’ campaign to label “chain migration” a racist term landed with a thud. Time was that the left could dictate the terms of a debate by controlling the language of its participants, but their grip on the national dialogue may be slipping. The power of the presidency—you’ll forgive the expression—trumps the braying of the pedantic opposition.

The energy expended by political activists on policing speech is not wasted; dictating the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable discourse is a profitable and productive enterprise. If the right is getting into the game, they’re only following a course forged by their political adversaries.

via Taking Back the Language | commentary

Pope Francis vs Donald Trump: Each one has a guide to fake news — and they couldn’t be more different

Pope Francis captures the essence of fake news:

So finally, here is the pope’s solution. “We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits,” he wrote, “whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.”

Full text below:

A writer in the New York Times once called Pope Francis “the anti-Trump,” which we guess would make President Donald Trump something like the antipope.

The essay’s premise was that the two often agreed on the same world problems but proposed antithetical solutions. Example: “Both pope and president are critics of a neoliberal globalism” – but while Francis wants people to help desperate migrants who are the victims of capitalist greed, Trump wants to wall out immigrants so Americans can get richer.

But that’s the New York Times, which Trump has accused of peddling “fake news.” Actually he’s applied that label to almost all mainstream outlets by now, and went so far as to rank them according to fakeness.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Francis released a papal message titled “Fake news and journalism for peace.” And while, like Trump, he think it’s a big problem, his take on it could hardly be more different.

Whereas the president would tell you what is fake news (CNN is, he says; Fox News is not), the pope would rather you figure it out. In fact, his message is more or less a how-to guide.

Francis gives only one example of fake news in his treatise. He is the pope, so no surprise, it’s from the Bible.

“This was the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news,” Francis wrote. He means the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tricked Eve and Adam into eating forbidden fruit by making up a story about how great it would turn out.

“The tempter approaches the woman by pretending to be her friend, concerned only for her welfare, and begins by saying something only partly true,” Francis wrote. ” ‘Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ ”

False premise. “In fact,” Francis wrote, “God never told Adam not to eat from any tree, but only from the one tree.”

Eve tries to correct the serpent, and in doing so, falls for his trap. It’s a bit like when you argue with a Facebook troll and get sucked into a long comment thread, eventually saying things you never meant to.

“Of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it nor touch it, under pain of death,’ ” Eve tells the serpent, very specifically.

“Her answer is couched in legalistic and negative terms,” Francis wrote, “After listening to the deceiver and letting herself be taken in by his version of the facts, the woman is misled. So she heeds his words of reassurance: ‘You will not die!’ ”

And then, like with a chain email, Eve shares the serpent’s news with Adam, who turns out to be just as gullible. And while they don’t die when they eat the fruit, they do get the human race kicked out of paradise forever.

That’s how fake news worked back in Genesis, Francis wrote, and it’s not much different and no less dangerous in the internet age.

So, he asked, “How can we recognize fake news?”

He listed a few characteristics of the genre: Fake news is malicious. It plays off rash emotions like anger and anxiety. “It grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices,” Francis wrote.

But in most respects, fake mimics truth. On the surface, they can be hard to tell apart. For example Trump once retweeted a video titled “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” The video was real, but police said the attacker wasn’t even a migrant.

So finally, here is the pope’s solution. “We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits,” he wrote, “whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.”

Fake news is as fake news does, in other words. It “leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred,” Francis wrote.

So if you’re feeling those things while browsing Facebook, or find yourself in a flame war, be especially wary of what you just read. Ask yourself if there might be another side. Listen to those who disagree with you, instead of yelling at them.

“The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people,” the pope wrote. “People who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.”

If you’re wondering, no, the pope does not mention Trump in this message. Not that Francis mentioned him by name either during the 2016 campaign, when he told reporters, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

But the contrast between these two men’s notions of fake news is glaring. If Trump’s appeals, you can find it on his Twitter account. If what Francis wrote makes sense to you, you might try it out the next time your scroll through Twitter.

Ask yourself if what you read makes you feel hateful, or like quarreling. Ask if the pope might find it fake.

And you could ask the same of everything you read, including this article, which brought Trump into the pope’s message, even though the pope did not.

Indeed, Francis wrote toward the end of his essay, “If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news.”

Just as everyone should check their emotions against the news, he wrote, the news should avoid inciting them.

Source: Pope Francis vs Donald Trump: Each one has a guide to fake news — and they couldn’t be more different