In These Divided Times, Is Civility Under Siege?

Good discussion of civility, both its strengths and weaknesses, and how historically calls for greater civility have been used to reinforce the status quo (right to vote for women, civil rights movement).

But more respectful civil discussion and debate, with less name calling, labelling, insults etc, along with social media restraint, is needed more than ever.

And like an earlier posted article on the limits of good faith (The Utility and Futility of Good Faith in Campus Speech Controversies), there are some persons or groups whose positions and attitudes are anything but civil:

It’s a time of deepening political divisions in the United States, with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum not only disagreeing but many really disliking the other side. That dislike has been growing for decades.

In the midst of all that division and dislike, there are growing calls for civility. One poll shows that a majority of Americans say incivility is a major problem. And anNPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll says that the country’s civility crisis is deepening and that a majority of Americans fear it will lead to violence.

But what does civility actually mean? It’s sometimes defined as simply being polite. It comes from the Latin root civilis, meaning “befitting a citizen.” It’s a term that’s a comfort to some and repressive to others. And while, yes, it can refer to politeness, it’s much more than that.

“Civility is the baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life,” says Keith Bybee, the author of How Civility Works. “And when people talk about a crisis in civility, they usually are reporting their sense that there is not a shared understanding of what that baseline of respect ought to be.”

Right now that social contract — a common agreement on what appropriate public behavior looks like and who deserves respect — feels broken. No one can agree on the facts, let alone on how to argue or what to argue about. With a president who uses terms like “loser,” “dumb as a rock” and “fat pig” to describe his critics and “animals” to describe undocumented immigrants, it feels like the tone for nasty behavior that’s seeping into everyday life is being set in Washington.

Some blame the Democrats, others the media — and many blame President Trump.

For some, this deep sense of division and dislike spells out danger. What’s at stake?

“The success of the country,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “When we don’t trust each other, that means it’s very difficult for politicians to compromise. It’s very difficult to find win-win solutions or positive-sum games. And so there are so many problems that we could solve,” but we don’t.

“We become credulous, we become easily manipulated by our foreign enemies and our democracy becomes what? A beacon to the world as to what not to do,” he says.

The arrival of social media didn’t help, Haidt says. He sees it as an accelerant to spew outrage and anger faster and further into the world. It’s a tool that has empowered the powerless to topple dictators, but it’s also one that is used to manipulate, deceive and, well, be horrible to people online anonymously.

But the United States has survived even more divided times in the past — from the country’s founding to the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Not only did the country endure, but sometimes the outcome of all the so-called incivility was a rewriting of that social contract to make it more inclusive of people who were discounted and dismissed in the past.

At the time, those sit-ins were dismissed, he says, as an “affront to racial etiquette.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women seeking the right to vote were uncivil. Rosa Parks? Uncivil. AIDS activists with ACT UP protesting in dramatic and disruptive ways? Uncivil. Black Lives Matter? Uncivil.

“Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent,” says Lynn Itagaki, an associate professor at the University of Missouri who writes on what she calls civil racism. She defines it as maintaining civility at the expense of racial equality.

It’s a fraught term, she says. It carries the echoes of that historical and bigoted definition of the civilized versus the savage.

Maybe this moment feels like a crisis, Itagaki says, but when people call for a restoration of civility, who gets to define it? Who gets to rewrite the social contract?

Right now hate crimes and hate groups are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center blames the president for stirring fears about a country that is becoming less white and for sparking an immigration debate with racial overtones.

The calls for civility can feel like an effort to stifle people’s outrage over injustice or hate, because civility can be a tool to build or a weapon to silence.

“To what purpose is civility going to be used? Is it going to be more inclusive?” Itagaki asks. “Is it going to mean that you’re bringing more people’s voices into the political debates, or are you using civility as a way to go back to the old hierarchies and the status quo since the founding of the American republic, where you only had white male propertied free landowners who were able to vote?”

So for some, now is a time to take a step back and be civil to each other. For others, it’s imperative to be uncivil in a way that has led to social justice in the past.

Source: In These Divided Times, Is Civility Under Siege?

The Utility and Futility of Good Faith in Campus Speech Controversies

Good lengthy discussion by Jonathan Friedman (son of a friend of mine), covering both the potential and limits of good faith in engaging different perspectives in campus debates and discussion. While written for that context, it clearly applies more universally to political and other discussions:

Can dialogue grounded in good faith help deescalate some conflicts?

Campuses have become increasingly polarized in recent years, with the individuals and groups that populate them drawing firmer lines around their allies and enemies. Hardly a week seems to pass without a new conflict, controversy, or lawsuit. Groups from all points on the political spectrum have played some role in precipitating this state of affairs. Some right-leaning groups have waged a war on faculty members for expressing views critical of the Trump administration, while others have demanded that all speakers be welcomed to campus, even those who come to promote hate and provoke controversy. Some left-leaning groups, meanwhile, have become disaffected with the notion of free speech, concerned more with creating an inclusive environment than with protecting the expression of noxious ideas. Others have participated in protests—some silent, some violent—to try to shut down or disrupt talks by those whose ideas they find repugnant.

In the midst of a rise in hate crimes, racially motivated violence, and targeted efforts on campus to indoctrinate students into white supremacist ideology, the need to combat polarization and radicalization is more pressing than it has been in a generation. Abroad, tactics such as  facilitating person-to-person interactions and emphasizing common humanity have proven effective at deescalating social conflicts and have been used in efforts to combat terrorism, facilitate postconflict reconciliation, and support democracy. Now, various groups are trying to apply these lessons to college campuses, looking to dialogue as a way to move beyond our current polarization.

If these efforts are to be successful, the notion of “good faith” will be an essential precept. In diplomatic circles, good faith means believing that those with whom one is negotiating do not have duplicitous or malevolent motives. In school, in law, in business, and in relationships, the concept of good faith—believing that others are acting with good intentions and relaying information honestly—is essential for trust. Notions of civil society and liberal democracy rely on good faith too, as we expect elected leaders and various authorities to act ethically and earnestly. As legal scholar Frederick M. Lawrence has recently urged in a posting on the American Council on Education’s blog, good faith must be part of any effort at civil dialogue, as individuals should try to “assume the best in each other” and “not suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree.

But can good faith really save higher education from the throes of recent controversy around free speech and inclusion? Has good faith been lacking in debates concerning outside speakers, campus protests, safe spaces, and trigger warnings? Alternatively, what are the limits of good faith—the situations in which it might be counterproductive or even detrimental?

The Utility of Good Faith

Consider a familiar dynamic. An outside speaker invited to speak at a public university has made controversial comments in the past. Tensions run high as the group that invited the speaker hews to a robust defense of free speech, while those who are concerned about the speaker’s views express dismay at the harm the talk could cause. Campus leaders are in a bind. Much as they might agree with the concerned students, they have an obligation to support free speech. So, they can either grant the organizers permission to hold the event—despite expectations of protest—or seek an alternative reason for cancellation or postponement. No outcome of this situation will satisfy all of the parties involved.

Can good faith help mollify this situation? Let’s imagine that such an outlook was adopted by all involved. First, those objecting to the speaker would have to grant the person license to speak. Second, those who invited the speaker would have to view protesters as citizens exercising their democratic right to counterspeech. Third, administrators would support both sides, assuming they are both acting with the best intentions.

This is a rosy portrait, to be sure. But the point here is that there can be utility in suspending final judgment until a speaker—and those involved in counterspeech activities—have actually had the chance to express their views. This is a tried and true principle in diplomatic negotiations, which require the parties involved to suspend ill will and suspicion in the interest of finding middle ground. It does not mean that those instincts or feelings will dissipate but that they can—and should—be put on a back burner temporarily in the interest of allowing dialogue to move forward.

A good-faith outlook will not come easily to campus constituents involved in today’s free-speech disputes or to the wider circle of journalists, politicians, and commentators who routinely weigh in on these matters. The polarized nature of our digital lives—exemplified by the proliferation of echo chambers on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit—makes facilitating a common culture of good faith all the more challenging. But promoting good faith concerning controversial speakers on campus might help deescalate some of these conflicts.

Good faith could be productive in other instances, too. A good-faith approach to trigger warnings, for example, would consider the fact that professors often adopt them out of courteousness rather than to shield students from ideas that might offend. This is why trigger warnings are best left to the discretion of the professor. A good-faith approach to safe spaces would likewise recognize that students may have valid reasons for seeking out a community and an environment where they will not be harangued, but that it is unreasonable to expect that all spaces on a campus might be regulated and purged of all possible offenses.

Were there more good faith to go around, perhaps these would not have become such hot-button issues and those holding opposing views would not seem so misguided to one another. The same is true of numerous challenges surrounding outrage over language. Just as an effort a generation ago focused on rooting out the use of gay as a stand-in for something negative, today’s linguistic fervor has centered on purging the casual use of colloquialisms that have associations with mental illnesses, disabilities, and colonialism, as well as those lingering terms that have origins as ethnic slurs or racist insults or have sexist connotations. The challenge is that language is second nature, and many do not mean to offend in their everyday speech. For example, the professor who references the new frontiers of space exploration, or the student who reports being blindsided by a recent test, are both using terms that some have perceived as offensive. In today’s call-out culture, the use of such terms can be treated as infractions worthy of public shaming.

A good-faith interpretation can deescalate such incidents. Rather than assuming bad intent, campus constituents could be encouraged to exercise what might be called due patience and dispassionately explain the underlying meanings of the terms in question. In that millisecond between uttered speech and perceived offense, a good-faith outlook might promote cool-headedness and facilitate dialogue in which no parties ultimately feel accused or marginalized. The outcome could be greater conscientiousness by all parties, rather than greater frustration and outrage.

Of course, the impact of speech matters, but as PEN America chief executive officer Suzanne Nossel has argued, it is possible to reject the notion that individuals should, in all circumstances, be held strictly liable for their choices of words and the myriad ways in which they might be interpreted. A good-faith approach instead allows us to set the baseline expectation of others a little lower, asking that they be courteous and willing to listen rather than in the vanguard of every social cause or attuned to the latest linguistic shifts and taboos. Higher education institutions have long been known as sites of intergenerational tensions, and expecting everyone to be alert to fast-moving cultural shifts is a sure recipe for conflict. This does not necessarily require abandoning social change; it means adopting more diplomatic tactics.

Good faith might also lessen the fury against professors attacked for making controversial comments. Particularly in cases where faculty members have come under fire for posts on social media, their words have often been viewed in the worst possible light: statements have been taken out of context and interpreted literally rather than figuratively, and purported offenders have found little leeway to explain how their posts were meant to be ironic, hyperbolic, sarcastic, or satirical. Appeals to good faith may be unlikely to sway those bent on promoting negative scrutiny of higher education, but they could be useful in the vast public network of individuals who consume news about such controversies.

In these ways, good faith, due patience, and courteous listening all have much utility to recent debates and controversies surrounding free speech and inclusion in higher education. However, these frameworks are not without challenges and flaws, and they cannot be invoked in all situations.

The Futility of Good Faith

Despite clear cases in which a good-faith outlook would be helpful, the concept does have real limits. The first is that it must be reciprocated: the approach simply will not work if one side is exercising good faith but perceives the other as failing to match it. Campuses are traditionally marked by numerous conflicts—between students and faculty or faculty and administrators, or across disciplines, ideologies, or generations—but there are almost always opportunities to bridge these conflicts. The hope of reciprocal good faith can be the linchpin to get parties to the table.

Take recent debates over whether today’s generation of college students are too “coddled” and have little tolerance for those whose opinions they prejudge to be disagreeable. Conversations about this issue, if heated, will go in circles the minute either side shows disdain for the other. If terms like snowflakes and social justice warriors are lobbed, good faith will become unsustainable. This is in fact precisely how familiar debates about these issues have often proceeded, with each side distrusting that a show of good faith will be properly reciprocated and abandoning any efforts to find middle ground.

A second challenge is that the well of good faith can run dry. This is particularly relevant to various campaigns for racial justice, inclusivity, and equity that have convulsed campuses in recent years. Consider recent efforts by colleges and universities to reckon with their historic ties to slavery or the Confederacy. Early discussion of this issue might begin with reciprocal good faith between administrators and those who experience revulsion or marginalization every time they walk past certain statues or symbols on campus. If, over time, campus leaders fail to respond to those complaints, the offended parties will exhaust their appetite for negotiation. This was seen most recently at the University of North Carolina, where frustrations with the university’s response to complaints led to the toppling of the Silent Sam statue. As Jennifer Calfas documented in an article for Time, protests against the statue actually began during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and in 2017 the Democratic governor told university administrators that they could authorize its removal. But between inaction and perceived insensitivity, any good faith in the administration seems to have evaporated. Harassment, violence, or property damage should never be condoned; but this event illustrates how the window for good-faith dialogue can narrow over time.

Other circumstances will likely preclude the adoption of a good-faith approach at the outset. This is particularly so when historically marginalized populations that are the targets of racial epithets, denigrating slurs, or other offensive caricatures face demands to act with “civility.” For example, people of color might be asked to be patient with or courteous toward those who promote racism and deny their basic dignity as equal humans. It hardly seems reasonable to ask a transgender student to take a good-faith approach to the Trump administration’s memorandum on adopting a legally binding definition that would restrict gender to the biological sex assigned at birth. And it seems equally unreasonable to ask a Latina student to take a good-faith approach when her roommate builds a makeshift wall in the middle of their dorm room in the wake of a national debate about Latin American immigration laced with xenophobia and racism. In these circumstances, those who have been targeted have a right to be angry and uninterested in dialogue.

As polarization has heightened, the most troubling challenge stems from the fact that the battle lines have been drawn, and the actions and words of one’s opponents often preclude any possibility of dialogue, understanding, or empathy. Consider the platform adopted by the California College Republicans in 2018, which contained surprising invective against other student groups and campus actors. Among the claims of the platform was the proclamation that “ethnic, women’s, and sexually deviant ‘community centers’ and ‘theme dormitories’ that engender ethnic nationalism, racial animus and encourage degenerate behavior go against everything we believe as conservatives.” Invoking such denigrating language is a sure way to close off opportunities for dialogue. As Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, the group’s use of terms “like  ‘degenerate and murderous,’ ‘fascist-minded,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘mental illness masquerading as transgenderism,’ and so on may win them points on conservative media platforms…but will certainly not help their cause on college campuses.” The same challenge is evident in some provocations from groups on the Left, such as the inclusion in a “disorientation guide” at Vassar College of an admonition to “Slap a Zionist.” Even if meant in jest, that language can preclude any good faith in future engagements with its authors—just as labeling others’ behavior as “degenerate” is likely to preclude earnest dialogue rather than encourage it.

There is also a gaping chasm between honest debate and purposeful lies and slander. Cries of “fake news,” for example, which run contrary to facts that are readily accessible and widely acknowledged, do not merit a good-faith response. Nor do threats of violence or actions or speech with obvious racist intent demand fair engagement. In such instances, good faith will likely prove futile, for the actions of one side have escalated conflict to a point where such a response can no longer be reasonably maintained.

Temples of Good Faith

Sociologists have called universities “temples” of contemporary Western society, institutions that have attained a kind of sacred status. What they value, and how they uphold those values, matters a great deal to society writ large. But by design, they are also hardwired for conflict, commingling disciplines with different epistemologies; supporting diverse missions of research, teaching, and service; and bringing together individuals from different generations with varying ethnic, national, and racial backgrounds, religious beliefs, socioeconomic resources, cultural values, political leanings, and gender identities. To nurture a campus climate in which individuals from all these backgrounds are welcomed, in which inclusivity is realized as an institutional priority, and in which protections for free speech are robust, good faith will be a necessary virtue.

In this environment, disagreement, skepticism, and debate are all healthy. Not everyone will agree with every idea, policy, and term in circulation, but a diversity of viewpoints can be harnessed to foster critical thought and advance the academic mission. A good-faith approach can help soften potential conflicts, by fostering productive dialogue, underpinned by notions like due patience, courteous listening, curiosity, reflectiveness, openness to criticism, and leading with a charitable interpretation of others’ speech and actions. All of these are notions that faculty and staff could invest more time, energy, and resources in promoting. For if these strategies are not taught to the rising generation, we can hardly expect them to take root and flourish more widely.

Good faith is thus an important corollary to higher education’s fundamental missions of teaching, research, and service, and investing in it may pay particular dividends in our current moment of polarization and radicalization. Indeed, in other moments, this is exactly what good faith has accomplished, allowing intellectuals with fiercely opposing ideas to share a debate stage or warring rivals to broker peace. Given the legacies of racial discrimination and privilege that have intermingled and endured in higher education, good faith is bound to prove futile, inappropriate, and unsustainable in some circumstances. But if campuses could encourage their constituents to set a higher bar for outrage at their opponents—if they could aspire to be temples of good faith–then new opportunities for dialogue and understanding might appear, and new vistas for reconciling the recent tensions between free speech, diversity, and inclusion might materialize.

Source: https://www.aaup.org/article/utility-and-futility-good-faith-campus-speech-controversies#.XGXV9OhKiUk 

The robot revolution will be worse for men

Interesting long read and analysis:

Demographics will determine who gets hit worst by automation. Policy will help curb the damage.

The robots will someday take our jobs. But not all our jobs, and we don’t really know how many. Nor do we understand which jobs will be eliminated and which will be transitioned into what some say will be better, less tedious work.

What we do know is that automation and artificial intelligence will affect Americans unevenly, according to data from McKinsey and the 2016 US Census that was analyzed by the Brookings think tank.

Young people — especially those in rural areas or who are underrepresented minorities — will have a greater likelihood of having their jobs replaced by automation. Meanwhile, older, more educated white people living in big cities are more likely to maintain their coveted positions, either because their jobs are irreplaceable or because they’re needed in new jobs alongside our robot overlords.

The Brookings study also warns that automation will exacerbate existing social inequalities along certain geographic and demographic lines, because it will likely eliminate many lower- and middle-skill jobs considered stepping stones to more advanced careers. These jobs losses will be in concentrated in rural areas, particularly the swath of America between the coasts.

However, at least in the case of gender, it’s the men, for once, who will be getting the short end of the stick. Jobs traditionally held by men have a higher “average automation potential” than those held by women, meaning that a greater share of those tasks could be automated with current technology, according to Brookings. That’s because the occupations men are more likely to hold tend to be more manual and more easily replaced by machines and artificial intelligence.

Of course, the real point here is that people of all stripes face employment disruption as new technologies are able to do many of our tasks faster, more efficiently, and more precisely than mere mortals. The implications of this unemployment upheaval are far-reaching and raise many questions: How will people transition to the jobs of the future? What will those jobs be? Is it possible to mitigate the polarizing effects automation will have on our already-stratified society of haves and have-nots?

A recent McKinsey report estimated that by 2030, up to one-third of work activities could be displaced by automation, meaning a large portion of the populace will have to make changes in how they work and support themselves.

“This anger we see among many people across our country feeling like they’re being left behind from the American dream, this report highlights that many of these same people are in the crosshairs of the impact of automation,” said Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

“Without policy intervention, the problems we see in our economy in terms of wage stagnation, labor participation, alarming levels of growth in low-wage jobs — those problems are likely to get worse, not better,” Fitzpayne told Recode. “Tech has a history that isn’t only negative if you look over the last 150 years. It can improve economic growth, it can create new jobs, it can boost people’s incomes, but you have to make sure the mechanisms are in place for that growth to be inclusive.”

Before we look at potential solutions, here are six charts that break down which groups are going to be affected most by the oncoming automation — and which have a better chance of surviving the robot apocalypse:

Occupation

The type of job you have largely affects your likelihood of being replaced by a machine. Jobs that require precision and repetition — food prep and manufacturing, for example — can be automated much more easily. Jobs that require creativity and critical thinking, like analysts and teachers, can’t as easily be recreated by machines. You can drill down further into which jobs fall under each job type here.

Education

People’s level of education greatly affects the types of work they are eligible for, so education and occupation are closely linked. Less education will more likely land a person in a more automatable job, while more education means more job options.

Age

Younger people are less likely to have attained higher degrees than older people; they’re also more likely to be in entry-level jobs that don’t require as much variation or decision-making as they might have later in life. Therefore, young people are more likely to be employed in occupations that are at risk of automation.

Race

The robot revolution will also increase racial inequality, as underrepresented minorities are more likely to hold jobs with tasks that could be automated — like food service, office administration, and agriculture.

Gender

Men, who have always been more likely to have better jobs and pay than women, also might be the first to have their jobs usurped. That’s because men tend to over-index in production, transportation, and construction jobs — all occupational groups that have tasks with above-average automation exposure. Women, meanwhile, are overrepresented in occupations related to human interaction, like health care and education — jobs that largely require human labor. Women are also now more likely to attain higher education degrees than men, meaning their jobs could be somewhat safer from being usurped by automation.

Location

Heartland states and rural areas — places that have large shares of employment in routine-intensive occupations like those found in the manufacturing, transportation, and extraction industries — contain a disproportionate share of occupations whose tasks are highly automatable. Small metro areas are also highly susceptible to job automation, though places with universities tend to be an exception. Cities — especially ones that are tech-focused and contain a highly educated populace, like New York; San Jose, California; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina — have the lowest automation potential of all.

See how your county could fare on the map below — the darker purple colors represent higher potential for automation:

Note that in none of the charts above are the percentages of tasks that could be automated very small — in most cases, the Brookings study estimates, at least 20 percent of any given demographic will see changes to their tasks due to automation. Of course, none of this means the end of work for any one group, but rather a transition in the way we work that won’t be felt equally.

“The fact that some of the groups struggling most now are among the groups that may face most challenges is a sobering thought,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

In the worst-case scenario, automation will cause unemployment in the US to soar and exacerbate existing social divides. Depending on the estimate, anywhere from 3 million to 80 million people in the US could lose their jobs, so the implications could be dire.

“The Mad Max thing is possible, maybe not here but the impact on developing countries could be a lot worse as there was less stability to begin with,” said Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots and Architects of Intelligence. “Ultimately, it depends on the choices we make, what we do, how we can adapt.”

Fortunately, there are a number of potential solutions. The Brookings study and others lay out ways to mitigate job loss, and maybe even make the jobs of the future better and more attainable. The hardest part will be getting the government and private sector to agree on and pay for them. The Brookings policy recommendations include:

  • Create a universal adjustment benefit to laid-off workers. This involves offering career counseling, education, and training in new, relevant skills, and giving displaced workers financial support while they work on getting a new job. But as we know from the first manufacturing revolution, it’s difficult if not impossible to get government and corporations on board with aiding and reeducating displaced low-skilled workers. Indeed, many cities across the Rust Belt have yet to recover from the automation of car and steel plants in the last century. Government universal adjustment programs, which vary in cost based on their size and scope, provide a template but have had their own failings. Some suggest a carbon taxcould be a way to create billions of dollars in revenue for universal benefits or even universal basic income. Additionally, taxing income as opposed to labor — which could become scarcer with automation — provides other ways to fund universal benefits.
  • Maintain a full-employment economy. A focus on creating new jobs through subsidized employment programs will help create jobs for all who want them. Being employed will cushion some of the blow associated with transitioning jobs. Progressive Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal, which would create jobs geared toward lessening the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels, could be one way of getting to full employment. Brookings also recommends a federal monetary policy that prioritizes full employment over fighting inflation — a feasible action, but one that would require a meaningful change to the fed’s longstanding priorities.
  • Introduce portable benefits programs. This would give workers access to traditional employment benefits like health care, regardless of if or where they’re employed. If people are taken care of in the meantime, some of the stress of transitioning to new jobs would be lessened. These benefits also allow the possibility of part-time jobs or gig work — something that has lately become more of a necessity for many Americans. Currently, half of Americans get their health care through their jobs, and doctors and politicians have historically fought against government-run systems. The concept of portable benefits has recently been popular among freelance unions as well as among contract workers employed in gig economy jobs like Uber.
  • Pay special attention to communities that are hardest-hit. As we know from the charts above, some parts of America will have it way worse than others. But there are already a number of programs in place that provide regional protection for at-risk communities that could be expanded upon to deal with disruption from automation. The Department of Defense already does this on a smaller scale, with programs to help communities adjust after base closures or other program cancellations. Automation aid efforts would provide a variety of support, including grants and project management, as well as funding to convert facilities into new uses. Additionally, “Opportunity Zones” in the tax code — popular among the tech set — give companies tax breaks for investing in low-income areas. These investments in turn create jobs and stimulate spending in areas where it’s most needed.
  • Increased investment in AI, automation, and related technology. This may seem counterintuitive, seeing as automation is causing many of these problems in the first place, but Brookings believes that embracing this new tech — not erecting barriers to the inevitable — will generate the economic productivity needed to increase both standards of living and jobs outside of those that will be automated. “We are not vilifying these technologies; we are calling attention to positive side effects,” Brookings’s Muro said. “These technologies will be integral in boosting American productivity, which is dragging.”

None of these solutions, of course, is a silver bullet, but in conjunction, they could help mitigate some of the pain Americans will face from increased automation — if we act soon. Additionally, many of these ideas currently seem rather progressive, so they could be difficult to implement in a Republican-led government.

“I’m a long-run optimist. I think we will work it out. We have to — we have no choice,” Ford told Recode, emphasizing that humanity also stands to gain huge benefits from using AI and robotics to solve our biggest problems, like climate change and disease.

“The short term, though, could be tough — I worry about our ability to react in that time frame,” Ford said, especial given the current political climate. “But there comes a point when the cost of not adapting exceeds the cost of change.”

Source: The robot revolution will be worse for men

Stars of ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Scramble to Save Their Cash Cows

Of note:

Members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web are taking a financial beating and scrambling for funds because their followers are reluctant to continue pledging money on Patreon after the crowdfunding platform jettisoned another right-wing provocateur over hate speech.

Fans of the internet’s contrarian wing don’t want Patreon taking a cut of the money they send to their heroes for premium content and have stopped making pledges.

The boycott may be hurting Patreon’s bottom line, but it’s also hurting personalities like right-wing author Jordan Peterson, comedian Dave Rubin, and other big names—who have resorted to begging their acolytes to keep the cash coming or are looking for another way to raise money.

Peterson, for his part, in a video posted online Sunday, begged his fans to be “reasonably patient” and keep up the monthly payments they send him through the crowdfunding site.

“It’s not so good for me on the financial front,” said Peterson, who lost nearly 10 percent of his Patreon supporters over the past week.

“My business side is going: that’s not great,” Rubin added in the same video.

Peterson, Rubin, and other pillars of the Intellectual Dark Web, an amorphous group of conservative internet political personalities defined by their willingness to buck political correctness and tweak liberals, have seen their Patreon payments battered this month by a controversy starring one of their movement’s own members.

Now Intellectual Dark Webbers like Rubin and Peterson are faced with a tough choice.

They can follow their fans and leave Patreon, abandoning the platforms that earns them each hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in exchange for another crowdfunding platform that could be shut down at any moment. Or they can stay, and risk being branded as sellouts to their free speech-obsessed fanbases.

The Intellectual Dark Web’s Patreon gravy train is under threat over Patreon’s treatment of Carl Benjamin, a pugnacious right-wing personality who poses as ancient Mesopotamian ruler “Sargon of Akkad” online. On Dec. 7, Patreon banned Benjamin, who was making more than $12,000 a month on the platform.

Patreon kicked Benjamin off for “racist and homophobic slurs,” an apparent reference to a February rant in which Benjamin called his foes on the extreme right “niggers” and “faggots.”

Peterson, Benjamin, and Rubin, as well as Patreon’s press office, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Benjamin’s supporters on the right have mostly ignored his hate speech, framing him instead as just the latest right-wing figure to be kicked off a tech platform over his politics.

Despite his use of racial and homophobic slurs, Benjamin’s friends in the Intellectual Dark Web have cast him as a martyr to free speech. Peterson, who has been lauded in mainstream outlets like the New York Times, called Benjamin “a brave guy” and said he was “extremely upset” by the ban.

On Sunday night, “new atheist” author and Intellectual Dark Web figure Sam Harris, who had one of Patreon’s highest-earning accounts until Monday, said that he was quitting the fundraising platform over recent Patreon bans.

“These recent expulsions seem more readily explained by political bias,” Harris said in a statement.

Benjamin’s ouster left fans of the Intellectual Dark Web urging other personalities like Rubin and Peterson to quit Patreon, too. But their options are limited.

SubscribeStar, an upstart Russian crowdfunding site, initially offered to take in right-wing figures who were kicked off Patreon. But payments giant PayPal closedSuscribeStar’s account over the weekend, making it nearly impossible for the site to process credit card transactions.

That puts SubscribeStar in the same spot as other crowdfunding sites that have courted the extreme right, only to be banned from the major financial tech platforms. Over the weekend, SubscribeStar stopped accepting new members.

Other personalities are attempting to raise money through membership programs of their own. Some have urged their fans to just send them money directly through PayPal, while Harris has directed his thousands of Patreon subscribers to sign up to pay for his content through his own website.

Peterson, an idiosyncratic Canadian professor and bestselling author who subsists on an all-beef diet, isn’t about to go broke if he loses the Patreon money. Neither is Rubin, who has other income streams, including YouTube ads for his online talk show.

Still, Peterson and Rubin have a plan to save their fan payments: launching a Patreon-style website of their own. On Sunday, Peterson and Rubin urged their Patreon backers to hang tight as they work on the new site.

“We have not been sleeping on this front, man,” Peterson said in a video. “People are trying to figure out what to do so this stops happening.”

But Rubin and Peterson don’t have a launch date for their Patreon clone, and it’s not clear how many of their fans would follow them to a new, untested website. And they’ll have to contend with the biggest issue of all: keeping publicity-conscious payment processors like PayPal happy, while not alienating their hard-right fans.

Source: Stars of ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Scramble to Save Their Cash Cows

Netanyahu’s Negotiating With Neo-Fascists for a ‘Consensus View’ of the Holocaust

Seeing more commentary like this:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen an improbable way of celebrating the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding: He’s palling around with neo-fascists and coddling Holocaust revisionists.

The year 2018 has seen Netanyahu embracing a parade of such leaders and, in a no less perplexing twist, we’ve had the Jewish state blatantly dismissing the needs of Diaspora Jews as they face mounting antisemitism and insecurity in Western countries roiled by social unrest.

Consider the past week.

On Thursday, Netanyahu acknowledged that he is negotiating with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for an acceptable “consensus narrative” in which the Hungarian state’s part in the Nazi crimes that wiped out half a million Hungarian Jews during World War II will be minimized, if not erased, in a new revisionist Holocaust museum to be opened in Budapest.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was welcoming Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new, nationalist interior minister to Jerusalem.

Salvini, you guessed it, is a close European ally of Orbán. He acceded to his post last summer and has become Western Europe’s de facto leader of the populist anti-immigration movement since.

Italian Jews are not thrilled by the visit. A statement written by philosopher and painter Stefano Levi Della Torre and circulated among Italian Jewish communities says it is “alarming that Netanyahu is about to provide Salvini with a pro-Israel license [that would] exonerate him from the suspicions of anti-Semitism while he carries on with his xenophobic, racist campaign and with his alliances with anti-Semitic forces in Italy and Europe.”

A few hours ahead of his arrival, an irritated Salvini told Israel’s Foreign Press Association that “the growing anti-Semitism goes together with Islamic extremism, to which no one is paying attention.” Thus letting old-fashioned European fascist anti-Semitism off the hook. Salvini added, “I don’t have to justify myself every time I go to Israel.”

Protests were planned for Salvini’s visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, who opposes Netanyahu’s cozy rapport with neo-fascists, announced he would not be receiving Salvini.

If you scratch beneath the surface of Netanyahu’s new friendships, the picture becomes clear: Like Britain’s UKIP and possibly like U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu hopes to destabilize what has come to be known as “the international order.”

One way he is trying to do this is by encouraging European nations to break EU ranks and move their embassies to Jerusalem, as Trump has. Last month, Netanyahu welcomed Czech President Milos Zeman to Israel and accompanied him as Zeman opened a “Czech House” in the Israeli capital.

Jerusalem is burbling with rumors that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who visited Israel in October and hopes to defeat Israel’s boycott of his Freedom Party ministers who represent a onetime neo-Nazi movement, may move his embassy to Jerusalem.

In September, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was embraced by Netanyahu, even though he is a self-professed fan of Adolf Hitler who said he’d “be happy” to emulate Hitler by exterminating 3 million drug users and vendors.

Netanyahu recently announced his plans to attend the inauguration of Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, another figure on the nationalist far right who is dangling the possibility of moving his embassy to Jerusalem as an enticement for Netanyahu.

President Rivlin, who has become more vocal on the subject, told CNN last weekthat “you can’t say we admire the State of Israel and want ties with it, but we’re neo-fascists.”

In July it was Orbán’s turn for a whirl around Jerusalem, and that is when they may have discussed plans for the House of Fates, an institution intended to instill in the public a revisionist interpretation of Holocaust history, a “consensus narrative” in which the murder of more than half a million Hungarian Jews, enabled by the Nazi-allied government of Miklós Horthy, will be reconfigured.

The Israeli foreign ministry holds that any new Holocaust museum should stick to the historical record “as it is depicted in Yad Vashem and in Washington’s Holocaust Museum,” but was overruled by Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, and its representatives were shut out of talks between Orbán and Netanyahu officials last week in Jerusalem.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, and the son of a Holocaust survivor, described Netanyahu’s action as “appalling.”

Netanyahu’s agreement “to Hungary’s attempt to eliminate its part in the Holocaust is appalling,” he tweeted. “The Hungarians were deeply involved in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry as part of the murder machine. The only response to Orbán’s is that the museum should reflect the truth and nothing else. No negotiations, no consensus, just truth.”

Orbán has appointed Maria Schmidt, an historian and the leader of a movement to rewrite the Holocaust, to lead the House of Fates. Schmidt first made her name whitewashing history as the founder of Budapest’s House of Terror, a pseudo-museum advancing the theory that the suffering of eastern European nations who fell into the Soviet sphere of influence after WWII was worse than the suffering inflicted by the Nazi régime in Germany.

Schmidt, one of Orbán’s closest associates, was most recently associated with an overt act of political antisemitism Orbán has refused to condemn: last week’s cover of Figyelő, the “conservative Christian” business magazine owned by Schmidt, showed the face of Hungarian Jewish community president András Heisler surrounded by banknotes.

An Orbán spokesperson told World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder that any comment would “be contrary to freedom of the press.”

The Netanyahu high-wire act on Holocaust revisionism has reached an apex just as the European Union is grappling with a frightening upswing in European antisemitism.

On Thursday, rejecting several points Netanyahu had advanced, the EU adopted a new working definition of antisemitism.

Some EU states fear that the definition issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that has been adopted by over 20 countries and that Israel pushed for, could stifle criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The IHRA states that some criticism of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic, including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor, or by applying double standards to Israel not imposed upon other nations.”

The EU chose to use the IHRA definition merely as a “guidance tool.”

A second EU survey published Monday reported that an astonishing nine out of 10 European Jews believe anti-Semitism has worsened in their countries over the past five years and more than one third are considering emigration.

The report prepared by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) was based on a poll of 16,000 respondents in 12 member states.

Almost 30 percent of the respondents said they had experienced some form of anti-Semitic harassment in the past year, and 2 percent reported having been physically attacked, with a further 2 percent saying their property had been deliberately vandalized in the past year because they were Jewish.

In October, following the deadly attack against the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer said that whereas “Netanyahu wants the right to speak as the representative of all Jews, in America and Europe he’s abandoned all pretense of solidarity with them.”

In 2015, upon returning to Israel from a memorial ceremony for French Jews murdered in a terror attack, Netanyahu said, “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”

In fact, Pfeffer notes, “the elected leader of a country in which less than half the Jews of the world live (and only a quarter of them actually voted for him in the last election) wants the right to address the world as the representative of all Jews. And he won’t even check with them first.”

Source: Netanyahu’s Negotiating With Neo-Fascists for a ‘Consensus View’ of the Holocaust

Canadian public’s opinion of US at unprecedented low: Adams

Not surprising but revealing:

It’s rare for pollsters to be able to use the word “unprecedented” to describe survey results unless they’re releasing their first poll – or giving in to the temptation to use hyperbole to get attention. But a recent Environics Institute survey has indeed revealed some unprecedented results. We’ve been fielding our Focus Canada tracking survey since November 1976, and one of the trends we’ve kept an eye on for much of that time has been Canadian attitudes toward America and its president. We first measured these attitudes after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

When our measurements began, a substantial majority of Canadians – more than 7 in 10 – admired our southern neighbour. This feeling reached its apex in 1983, when 83 percent of Canadians expressed admiration for America. Nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) admired President Reagan.

Notably, admiration for the country at large cut across party lines. In the 1983 Focus Canada survey, Conservatives felt the most positive (87 percent), but solid majorities of Liberals (82 percent) and New Democrats (71 percent) also admired the US. America in 1983 gave the world “Billie Jean” and TheReturn of the Jedi. It also declared a national holiday to recognize the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, just 37 percent of Canadians admire the United States (figure 1). Not coincidentally, only 13 percent of us approve of President Donald Trump (figure 2). These are lows we’ve never seen before. (Unfortunately, we don’t have polling going back to the War of 1812; the proportions admiring the US and its leaders might have been lower then.)

https://e.infogram.com/050baca0-ba1c-4e66-a40f-60efcdcf7d56?src=embed#async_embed

https://e.infogram.com/9c20f3d7-13f8-44df-be9d-e525e4452c41?src=embed#async_embed

Historian Jack Granatstein has often argued that anti-Americanism is bred in the bone of people north of the 49th parallel. If so, the intensity of that sentiment has waxed and waned. It certainly softened in the period starting with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and running through that of John F. Kennedy. Canadians admired FDR’s leadership during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Feelings of loyalty and solidarity remained strong through the Cold War.

For many of us baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1966), John F. Kennedy represented a far more dashing figure than the dour John Diefenbaker, our prime minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kennedy and his brother Bobby seemed to embody the vitality and idealism of America while Diefenbaker was the lumbering avatar of our relatively drab dominion.

In this exceptional period, America was much more than the leader of the free world. It offered many of the things average Canadians aspired to (partly because they’d been told to aspire to them by American advertisers): a house in the suburbs, a new car every few years, modern appliances, a martini after a hard day’s work. When Americans moved on to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, Canadians wanted those things, too. America’s status as the materialistic and hedonistic capital of the world is durable; millions of would-be migrants around the globe still long for a piece of the rags-to-riches, log-cabin-to-the-White-House American Dream.

America has given us a lot since “Billie Jean.” Its cultural and technology leaders continue to shape our worlds. We snap up Apple products, binge on Netflix and use “Uber” as a verb for getting from A to B. But even with our admiration for things American and our dependence on America’s power and its huge market for our exports, Canadians’ attitudes toward the country indicate that they are troubled by the face their neighbours are now showing to the world.

The US president with his bullyish style and America-first policies is one factor. The nightmarish mixing of guns and bigotry (Charleston, Orlando, Pittsburgh) is another. (Canada has had its own recent hate-fuelled mass murders with the Quebec City mosque shooting and the Toronto van attack.) Some Canadians would still like to see their country be more, not less, like the United States. Some might even argue that gun violence, inequality vastly greater than our own and other obvious negatives are simply the price of a society that is on the whole richer, freer and more dynamic. But a majority of Canadians seem to feel that America’s advertisements for itself are not what they used to be.

Source: Canadian public’s opinion of US at unprecedented low

How Plato Foresaw Facebook’s Folly Technology promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard

Good reminder that technology reflects both the people who develop it and use it, and that informed and meaningful conversation and dialogue are hard:

In ancient Egypt there lived a wise king named Thamus. One day he was visited by a clever god called Theuth.

Theuth was an inventor of many useful things: arithmetic and geometry; astronomy and dice. But his greatest discovery, so he believed, “was the use of letters.” And it was this invention that Theuth was most eager to share with King Thamus.

The art of writing, Theuth said, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”

But Thamus rebuffed him. “O most ingenious Theuth,” he said, “the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them.”

The king continued: “For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.”

Written words, Thamus concluded, “give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Welcome to Facebook.

The tale I’m citing here comes from Plato’s “Phaedrus”; the words, attributed to Socrates, are about 2,400 years old. They are apposite again this week thanks to a lengthy investigation by The Times into Facebook’s cynical and self-serving calculations as it tried to brazen its way through a year of serial P.R. disasters: Russian dezinformatsiya, Cambridge Analytica, and a gargantuan security breach.

Now we learn that the company also sought to cover up the extent of Russian meddling on its platform — while quietly seeding invidious stories against its business rivals and critics like George Soros. Facebook disputes some of the claims made by The Times, but it’s fair to say the company’s reputation currently stands somewhere between that of Philip Morris and Purdue Pharma in the public toxicity department.

To which one can only say: About time.

The story of the wildly exaggerated promises and damaging unintended consequences of technology isn’t exactly a new one. The real marvel is that it constantly seems to surprise us. Why?

Part of the reason is that we tend to forget that technology is only as good as the people who use it. We want it to elevate us; we tend to degrade it. In a better world, Twitter might have been a digital billboard of ideas and conversation ennobling the public square. We’ve turned it into the open cesspool of the American mind. Facebook was supposed to serve as a platform for enhanced human interaction, not atool for the lonely to burrow more deeply into their own isolation.

It’s also true that Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants have sold themselves not so much as profit-seeking companies but as ideal-pursuing movements. Facebook’s mission is “to make the world more open and connected.” Tesla’s goal is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Google’s mantra was “Don’t Be Evil,” at least until it quietly dropped the slogan earlier this year.

But the deeper reason that technology so often disappoints and betrays us is that it promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard.

Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is hard. Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy. Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard. Swiping right on Tinder is easy. Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.

That’s what Socrates (or Thamus) means when he deprecates the written word: It gives us an out. It creates the illusion that we can remain informed, and connected, even as we are spared the burdens of attentiveness, presence of mind and memory. That may seem quaint today. But how many of our personal, professional or national problems might be solved if we desisted from depending on shortcuts?

To read The Times’s account of how Facebook dealt with its problems is to be struck by how desperately Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg sought to massage and finesse — with consultants, lobbyists and technological patches — what amounted to a daunting if simple crisis of trust. As with love and grammar, acquiring and maintaining trust is hard. There are no workarounds.

Start over, Facebook. Do the basics. Stop pretending that you’re about transforming the state of the world. Work harder to operate ethically, openly and responsibly. Accept that the work will take time. Log off Facebook for a weekend. Read an ancient book instead.

Stupid Is as Stupid Writes – Good writing advice

Not as concise as the classic Orwell piece, Politics and the English Language, but some good experiments that show the advantages in writing simply:

Most writing experts agree that “direct, declarative sentences with simple common words are usually best.”1 However, most undergraduates admit to intentionally using complex vocabulary to give the impression of intelligence to their readers. Does using complex vocabulary in writing actually increase the perception of higher author intelligence among readers? According to Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the answer is No.2 Oppenheimer’s 2006 article published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” effectively makes the case against needless complexity in writing. The paper includes five experiments: the first three show the negative influence of increased complexity on perceived author intelligence, and the latter two investigate the role of fluency (ease of reading) more generally on judgments about author intelligence.

Oppenheimer’s work provides valuable information on how to avoid the common pitfalls of trying to sound smart when writing. The research also provides an insightful framework to explore how needless complexity may be harming public perception at larger scales, such as the perception of academic journals and disciplines. In what follows, I will briefly outline the experiments and findings in Oppenheimer’s paper and apply them to academia to show how disciplines vary in the degree of unnecessary complexity. This complexity comes at a cost, and fields like gender studies are paying the price.

*     *     *

Experiment 1: Does Increasing the Complexity of Text Make the Author Appear More Intelligent?

In the first experiment, Oppenheimer showed that using longer words causes readers to view the text and its author more negatively. Six personal statements for graduate admission in English Literature were taken from writing improvement websites that varied greatly in quality and content. Excerpts were taken from the six essays and three versions of each were prepared. Highly complex versions were made by replacing every noun, verb, and adjective with their longest respective entry in the Microsoft Office thesaurus. Moderately complex versions were made by only altering every third eligible word, and an original was left unchanged. Each of the 71 participants read one excerpt and decided whether or not to accept the applicant and to rate both the confidence in their decision and how difficult the passage was to understand.

The more complex an essay was, the less likely students were to accept the applicant regardless of the quality of the original. Interestingly, controlling for difficulty of reading nearly eliminated the relationship between complexity and acceptance. The opposite is not true, however, suggesting that differences in fluency are what cause the negative relationship between complexity and acceptance. Complex texts are rated poorly because they are hard to read.

Experiment 2: Is the Perceived Intelligence of the Author Affected by the Complexity of the Translation Used?

Even geniuses sound unintelligent when they use big words. Concerns about the word replacement algorithm in experiment one hurting the quality of the text due to imperfectly matched meanings led the author to a second, more natural test. One of two different translations of the first paragraph of Rene Descartes Meditation IV were given to 39 participants. Two independent raters agreed that one of the translations was considerably more complex despite comparable word counts. Participants read the text and rated both the intelligence of the author and how difficult the passage was to understand. In order to investigate the effects of a prior expectation of intelligence, half were told the author was Descartes and half were told it was an anonymous author.

Readers rated the author intelligence higher in the simple translation, whether or not they knew the author was Descartes. As in experiment 1, loss of fluency appeared to be the cause of poor ratings for the complex translation, but statistical significance was not reached for its mediating influence in this case.

Experiment 3: Does Decreasing the Complexity of Text Make the Author Appear More Intelligent?

Have a big vocabulary? Dumbing it down with this method might improve your writing. A dissertation abstract from the Stanford sociology department with an unusual number of long words (nine or more letters) was selected for the experiment. A simplified version of the text was made by replacing every long word with its second shortest entry in the thesaurus. The 85 participants were instructed to read one of the abstracts and rate both the intelligence of the author and how difficult the passage was to understand.

Readers rated the author intelligence higher and the difficulty of understanding lower in the simplified version. Again, fluency had the predicted effect, but failed to reach statistical significance. This supports experiment 1 by showing that a word replacement algorithm does not necessarily impair the quality of work and make it harder to understand. The message is clear—complex texts are harder to read and get rated more poorly.

Experiment 4: Does Any Manipulation that Reduces Fluency Reduce Intelligence Ratings?

This experiment is a compelling argument against using silly fonts (I’m looking at you, Comic Sans). Presenting text in a hard to read font is an established way of reducing fluency. The unedited version of the highest quality essay from the first experiment was given to 51 participants in one of two fonts: italicized “Juice ITC” or normal “Times New Roman.” See below for a comparison:

The participants were instructed to read the text and rate the author’s intelligence. All of the instructions and rating scales were written in the corresponding text to prevent readers from assuming the author had chosen the font, which could be taken as a hint about their intelligence.

Readers who received the “Juice ITC” version rated the author as less intelligent than those who read it in “Times New Roman.” This establishes the effect of fluency independent of complexity, and supports the idea that complex texts are rated poorly because they reduce fluency.

Experiment 5: Do Manipulations of Fluency Have the Same Effect if the Source of the Decreased Fluency is Obvious?

People tend to discount the role of fluency when it has an obvious source. For example, Tversky and Kahneman found that although people typically use fluency as a cue for estimating surname frequency, if they are in the presence of obvious causes for fluency (personal relevance, famous name) they stop using fluency and even overcompensate.3 To test this, 27 participants were given an unedited essay from experiment one that was either printed normally, or with low toner in the printer making it light, streaky, and hard to read. Readers were asked to decide if they would accept the applicant as well as rate the confidence of their decision and the author’s intelligence.

Participants who read low toner texts were more likely to recommend acceptance than those who read the normal version. They also rated the intelligence of the author more highly in the low toner condition. When the source of fluency is obvious, people become aware of their bias and overcorrect.

*     *     *

The implications of the first four experiments can be neatly summarized: “Keep it simple, stupid.” As experts have long recommended, you should use short, common words and easy to read fonts. Someone who makes good points, but relies on complex words and jargon to do so, likely pays a price in terms of the perceived quality of their work and mind. Reading Oppenheimer’s paper made me wonder if the same rules hold true on the broader scale of academic disciplines. If a field tends to use needlessly complex language more than other fields, is it viewed as less credible?

To test this hypothesis I set out to compare the complexity of the top journals from various fields to their perceived credibility using average word length as a proxy for complexity and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) as a proxy for credibility. Specifically, I chose to compare the top journal in astrophysics, biochemistry, sociology, and gender studies. To estimate word length I sampled the first five full articles from the latest issue of each journal and divided the number of characters by the word count. Each journal’s complexity score reflects the average word length of the five selected papers.

There was no relationship between SJR and complexity score (names of the journals and papers used for the analysis, as well as results, can be found here.) This could be for a number of reasons: the top journal of a field is not necessarily reflective of the field as a whole, average word length could be a bad proxy for complexity, SJR could be a bad proxy for credibility, small sample size, etc.

Or, could it be that I was confusing complexity with needless complexity?

The complexity score is similar for Gender and Society (5.5) and Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics (5.3), but is the difficulty of understanding for the underlying content the same? Almost certainly not. Previous research has developed a Hierarchy of the Sciences that uses objective bibliometric criteria to assess the “softness” of an academic field.4 Unsurprisingly, the ranks are as follows, from hardest to softest science: physical (physics, mathematics), biological-hard (molecular biology, biochemistry), biological-soft (plant and animal sciences, ecology), social (psychology, economics), and humanities (archaeology, gender studies). The authors state that as you progress from mathematics to humanities there is “a proportional loss of cognitive structure and coherence in their literature background.” In other words, Gender and Society uses equally complex language to describe “softer” phenomena. Therefore, the degree of needlesscomplexity is higher than in similarly complex texts where the underlying difficulty of the concepts is greater.

The point is clarified by the following examples taken from papers analyzed for this article. Excerpt 1 comes from an abstract in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics,5excerpt 2 comes from an abstract in Gender and Society.6

  1. In our modern understanding of galaxy formation, every galaxy forms within a dark matter halo. The formation and growth of galaxies over time is connected to the growth of the halos in which they form. The advent of large galaxy surveys as well as high-resolution cosmological simulations has provided a new window into the statistical relationship between galaxies and halos and its evolution.
  2. In Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification, James Messerschmidt provides a comprehensive and nuanced explanation of hegemonic masculinity, including the sociohistorical context of its development, and an incisive analysis of research that has utilized the tricky concept.

I applied the methodology of experiment 3 from Oppenheimer’s paper to both (simplified long words). Let’s see how they change.

  1. In our modern understanding of galaxy creation, every galaxy forms within a dark matter halo. The creation and growth of galaxies over time is linked to the growth of the halos in which they form. The advent of large galaxy surveys as well as high-resolution cosmological models has provided a new window into the statistical link between galaxies and halos and its evolution.
  2. In Powerful Maleness: Design, Redesign, and Expansion, James Messerschmidt provides a full and nuanced account of powerful maleness, including the sociohistorical context of its development, and an incisive analysis of research that has utilized the tricky concept.

In the first excerpt there were nine words that had nine or more letters, and four could be replaced with a shorter word without distorting the meaning. In the second excerpt there were more long words, despite the fact that the passage is much shorter (38 vs. 64 words). Of the 12 words that met the criteria in excerpt 2, nine of them could be replaced without altering the meaning. Therefore, the density of both long words and needlessly long words is higher in the second excerpt.

Does this needless complexity harm the public perception of gender studies? Yes. Good luck convincing laymen about the oppression of women using terms like “subalterneity” and “phallogocentrism.” It will be difficult to understand, and therefore judged negatively. Take, for example, a passage from one of the most influential works from arguably the most influential gender theorist, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” by Judith Butler.7 

“When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project.”

The above is a reasonable argument for separate definitions of sex and gender that is totally obscured by jargon and wordiness. It could be reworded as follows without losing any meaning:

“According to Beauvoir, to be a woman is more than to be biologically female. It also involves behaving in the way women are expected to based on historical precedent.”

*     *     *

In summary, a lack of fluency (often caused by needlessly complex words) causes readers to negatively judge a text and its author. The degree of needless complexity varies across academic fields and this needless complexity likely harms public perceptions of the fields where it is most pronounced. All of this raises one last question: why do disciplines like gender studies insist on needless jargon? Three hypotheses seem most likely: historical coincidence, physics envy, and conscious deception.

The first two hypotheses suggest well-meaning authors. It is possible that the early writers of certain fields like gender studies set a bad precedent by coining long, unintuitive words that are now important to the field, while other disciplines were fortunate to have such tractable terms as black holes and dark matter. Alternatively, given the widespread attitude (at least in some circles) that the humanities and social sciences are softer, less challenging, or less valuable than other fields of inquiry, one could see academics in those fields internalizing a sense of inferiority. This attitude is known as physics envy. In order to prove their intelligence, to themselves and to others, they might be tempted to complicate simple ideas and use complex vocabulary to describe them—just like the Stanford undergraduates interviewed by Oppenheimer.

The third hypothesis, that they are consciously deceiving readers, brings us back to Oppenheimer’s fifth experiment. If you recall, participants in that experiment rated more highly the text quality and author intelligence of text printed with low toner. It was obvious to them that the low toner was biasing their judgements in a negative way, so they overcompensated. The question remains, what sources of poor fluency are obvious enough to hit the inflection point where instead of hurting perception they begin to help it? Does heavy use of complex academic jargon count as an obvious enough source and, if so, are writers incentivized to use it? If laymen are self-aware of the jargon reducing fluency, they may give the text and the author benefit of the doubt when it is undeserved.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question waiting to be answered. In the meantime, if the writers who are producing needlessly complex pieces are doing so to deceive the public, we can take solace in the fact that it isn’t working very well— there is only one sociology journal in the top 100 (Administrative Science Quarterly, #78), and one gender studies journal in the top 1,000 (Gender and Society, #975) of journals ranked by SJR.

Source: Stupid Is as Stupid Writes

Charlie Kirk’s Campus Battlefield—A Review

This is an amusing but pointed and scathing review of one the the young conservative entrepreneurs (could be applied to some others):

Charlie Kirk, founder and CEO of Turning Point USA, campus court jester, and pro-Trump parvenu, has a written a new book, Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can WIN the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters. As evinced by the title, Kirk purports to expose how colleges have become “leftist echo chambers” and explain what conservatives can do about it. It is a bad book, both in style and substance, failing as much on its own terms as any others. It’s not a book I expect too many to read, either, being a less-than-average offering in the already oversaturated, worse-than-average genre of nonfiction punditry.

Nevertheless, I do consider it a relatively useful book, at least insofar as what it augurs for conservatism, at present and going forward. Like it or not (and, I’ll disclose upfront, I do not), Charlie Kirk is a rising star within the GOP and American conservatism writ large. And he’s got the numbers to prove it: though only 25 years old last month, Kirk is a staple of right-wing nightly news and morning shows (“I’ve appeared on cable news shows more than five hundred times,” he brags in the book); boasts over 814,000 Twitter followers as of this writing (“I’m the second most powerful tweeter in conservative politics”); and, more importantly, he enjoys impressive access to the White House (“I have met with President Donald Trump more than fifteen times”) and first family—particularly Don Jr., who wrote the foreword to Campus Battlefield. Turning Point USA, the on-campus activism network Kirk founded in 2012, claims to reach over 130,000 students on more than 1,100 high school and college campuses and has raked in more than $30 million since its inception. Those curious about the next cohorts of conservatives—right-leaning students currently being reared in the age of Trump—should begin with Kirk and his organization.

What they find should concern them. Fundamentally unserious, unburdened with self-awareness, and gleefully engaged in stoking the fire of tribalism, Kirk is, above all things, a performer, peddling his own personal brand in the guise of training young conservatives and resisting liberal indoctrination on campus. It’s an act that’s had unsettling success in conference halls, on cable news, and on social media. But like most performances, it doesn’t work quite so well on paper. Campus Battlefield’s flaws are as apparent as they are numerous, and the book lays bare just how few clothes adorn Turning Point and its emperor.

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It should not come as a shock to those who follow him on Twitter when I say Kirk’s is a poorly written book. There are so many grammatical errors and incoherencies—never mind the logical or factual ones—that it would be kinder to assume the editing process was skipped entirely than that someone at Post Hill Press actually reviewed the manuscript. These errors begin immediately, with Kirk misusing “alliteration” in place of “rhyme” on the very first page of the introduction, and carry through to the end. Particularly notable, for instance, is the inconsistent formatting of “ex cathedra”: a Latin phrase meaning “from the chair,” which is italicized the second time it appears but not the first. One error among many, the scholastic Latin nevertheless stands out among Kirk’s otherwise prosaic diction.

Counting its brief introduction, the book runs only about 150 pages. No fewer than 19 of these prominently feature block-quotes pulled from Kirk’s Twitter account (all of which are helpfully sourced: “—@charliekirk11”), further reducing the already risible amount of effort evidently put into the work. That Kirk, proud as he is of his presumed online influence, included his tweets is largely unremarkable. More surprising, however, is that from the nearly 42,000 tweets he had to choose from, he selected for his book one widely mocked tweet wherein he quotes himself quoting a hoary proverb misattributed to George Orwell. Even so, it’s a revealing moment—combining intellectual laziness, unoriginality, and Kirk’s characteristic tendency to spout erroneous banalities as if they were philosophical profundities. It’s a tremendous, meta-textual “self-own,” something Kirk does with more frequency than perhaps any other public person, with the possible exception of Chris Cillizza.

Though short, Campus Battlefield is far from concise. Of persistent annoyance are the gratuitous interjections and rhetorical questions Kirk peppers throughout—sometimes both at once: “…a conservative faculty member (how rare is that?)…” Even some of his interruptions have interruptions: “Here I’ll break in to say that apparently, these college professors are so ignorant of history—not surprising these days—that they don’t know…” The incessant repetition is worse. Irony is an ever-present motif, for example, appearing nearly a dozen times in the slim volume. And like a poor comedian needing to explain his punchline, Kirk constantly reiterates lest the reader miss his insights: “How ironic that all those lectures about the desperate need for campus safe spaces and trigger warnings…come from the Left. It’s ironic because liberals are most often the aggressors.”

Habits like these would be easier to forgive, of course, if Kirk had anything to say. As he writes in his introduction, the nominal purpose of Campus Battlefield is twofold: to “examine how the Left has pulled…off” their institutional dominance of colleges and universities, and to explain “how we can resurrect the heart and soul of our universities as—yes—safe places for the teaching and expression of all ideas” (Kirk’s emphasis). Neither one of these goals is accomplished; in fact, the former is hardly even attempted. In place of causal analysis, Kirk offers perfunctory sentences like, “How this leftist escapism took root is lost in the fog of time.” Kirk prefers simply to list instances of “leftist intolerance” documented by others and to promote Turning Point and its websites. There is a whole chapter dedicated to extoling the virtues of TPUSA’s neo-Orwellian “Professor Watchlist,” for example, in addition to the book’s final chapter—dramatically titled “Join Us in Our Fight for America’s Soul”—which is the literary equivalent of exiting through the gift shop.

Indeed, contrary to aiding his argument, the continual asides, pleonasms, and nakedly self-referential marketing attempts all serve to illustrate Kirk’s lack of substance. To say this book even has arguments is itself being generous. What it has instead are statements—piled up, one on top of another, variously adorned with clichés, and presented as if the heap constituted something with persuasive force. Perhaps my favorite example of Kirkian tautology occurs early in Chapter 5, where a single thought is repeated in five successive sentences:

Notably absent from [colleges’] idea of inclusion, however, are conservatives. Inclusion for so many college does not mean tolerating or welcoming anything that does not pass the muster of the liberal inclusion patrols. Inclusion only admits to the sacred circle the products of liberal, progressive, or socialist thinking. Colleges claim the high ground of inclusion, but it’s only lip service. Only liberal views are worthy of being fostered and nurtured. It is high-level hypocrisy.

Assuming this point has been proven, he asks in the next sentence, “How has this happened?” In another book, written by another author, this would be a question worth raising; for Kirk, it’s throat clearing. His answer is not an explanation but a syllogism: “Because higher education administrators have allowed it to happen.” Well then, case closed.

This is Kirk in a nutshell: say a lot while saying nothing, turn the subject with a rhetorical question or non sequitur, and cap it off with a quip or platitude. Kirk fancies himself a debater; but while he’s cribbed Ben Shapiro’s style, he’s lifted none of the underlying intelligence. His Twitter account is filled with slick, branded clips of him “DESTROYING” an opponent—most often, a liberal college student or professor ignorant enough to think they could ask a question and get a straight response. Typically, what happens is that Kirk—perched on stage, armed with a microphone, headlining the event in question (not dissimilar to the “power relationship” between liberal professors and conservative students he decries in the book)—faces down some audience member and interrupts, pivots, or mocks until he’s able to deliver a line that plays well to his friendly crowd or on social media. A perfect example of this occurred last month in a “must watch!” videoposted to his Twitter account, wherein a Reconstructionist rabbi attempts to ask Kirk a question during a Turning Point event. I say attempts, because the rabbi never makes it to his query. Instead, Kirk tries first to feint with an obvious set-up question, and when the rabbi sidesteps the bait, Kirk proceeds to interrupt him with shouts, profanity, and mocking statements about his interlocutor’s religion—all to laughter and scattered applause. (“[A]t Turning Point USA,” Kirk writes in Campus Battlefield, “civility and respect are as much a part of our approach as is a command of facts.” Indeed.)

What the book makes clear, by virtue of its medium if nothing else, is just how few rhetorical tools Kirk has at his disposal—and how evidently they’re employed to distract from how little he knows. In a speech or question-and-answer exchange, the deflections, ripostes, and barrage of empty logic can be easy to miss if you’re not looking for them; written down, the patterns are obvious to the point of condescension. Even if you broadly agree with Kirk’s points (many of which I do, generally speaking), as a reader you can’t help but feel disrespected: Just how stupid does he think I am?

Quite, I’d wager. Or, at least, Kirk understands that his audience is not really paying attention. He’s probably right—or those who are don’t seem to care. Like the president whose wave he has ridden to national prominence, Kirk has a rather tenuous relationship with the truth. A quick scan through Kirk’s Twitter feed will manifest nearly as many factual errors as there are tweets, and Campus Battlefield is hardly an improvement on this front. Many of these are minor—Kirk anachronistically writes in Chapter 1 that the American founders “struggled to find a better way to govern than…the anarchy of [France’s] bloody Reign of Terror,” for instance. This error, like the apocryphal Orwell quote, could have been avoided with a simple Google search. Others—such as his unsourced claim in Chapter 3 that “professors have no problem with the standard practice of students grading their teachers on their colleges’ websites”—are perhaps less obviously wrong, but remain untrue nonetheless. What’s worse is how Kirk marshals these errors. For example, he ludicrously presents that last assertion as if it somehow invalidates academics’ criticism of TPUSA’s “Professor Watchlist” or justifies the list’s creation by an organization purporting to uphold “free speech” and the sanctity of the academic classroom, “the very heart of intellectual inquiry.”

Indeed, Kirk is repeatedly disingenuous to the point of mendacity. The most obvious example of this is his repeated obfuscation of TPUSA’s campus reach. He boasts in Chapter 2, for instance, that he hears often “from our more than one thousand Turning Point USA campus chapters”—only to clarify in Chapter 16 that, “We have launched more than 350 TPUSA chapters and provided 750 like-minded students groups with resources.” In reality, these “like-minded student groups” are not actually TPUSA groups at all, but rather independent campus organizations like the College Republicans and other student free-speech groups who simply accept TPUSA-provided products. Which is why Kirk is elsewhere careful to use dissembling phrases such as “having representation on over 1,100 high schools and college campuses” when describing TPUSA’s reach.

While he otherwise avoids telling outright lies, Kirk is as unreliable a narrator you’ll find. At one point, he chides the president of Marquette University for referring to a graduate student who taught classes as simply a “student,” calling it “disingenuous.” Fair enough. Yet, not four pages later, Kirk does the same thing in reverse—referring to a then-University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student who taught classes as a “faculty member” and “professor.” In the introduction, Kirk valiantly writes that cancelling an event in the face of protests “and letting down the students who came to hear me with open or supportive minds was not an option.” Naturally, he doesn’t tell you of the time in May when he and Candace Owens, TPUSA’s communications director, bailed out of an event hosted by the TPUSA student chapter at Virginia Tech at the last minute so the pair could hang out with Kanye West instead.

Examples abound. “How often do conservatives harass liberals as they try to recruit students to their causes?” Kirk asks in another passage. “Not often, if ever.” Except that on April 16, 2016, Kirk himself joyously announced on Twitter, “Next semester Turning Point USA will be doing a nationwide ‘violate a safe space’ day. Bring it campus liberals!” Similarly, Kirk writes of the “nastiness, dishonesty, and silliness that infects the campus left-wing establishment.” He’s right that those things exist within the campus Left, of course (something I have written about extensively). Nevertheless, it takes an impressive level of hypocrisy for Kirk to accuse someone else of “silliness” when one of his TPUSA chapters hosted a rally last October, at which members wore diapers to protest safe spaces—to say nothing of the “nastiness” and “dishonesty” that flows near-daily from Kirk’s and, particularly, Owens’s Twitter accounts.

An illustrative episode of Kirk’s self-serving facade occurred recently with DePaul University. Kirk and Owens were set to speak to the DePaul TPUSA chapter on October 16 as part of their “Campus Clash Tour” (a title just dripping with civility), but were prohibited by the university from holding the event on campus. On October 9, the pair criticized DePaul for the move, accusing the university on Twitter of cancelling the event over concerns of “potentially violent” language. “The Left hates the idea there are other ideas,” Kirk wrote. “Hey DePaul, your fascism is showing.” Owens went further, tweeting that “DePaul is enslaving black minds.”

According to DePaul’s student-run newspaper, The DePaulia, however, what actually happened is far less suitable to their narrative. While the official decision letter sent to DePaul’s TPUSA chapter did mention concerns over the potential use of “hate speech,” the event was primarily cancelled due to ticketing and marketing concerns. “There was nothing unfair in the [DePaul administration’s] processing or the deadlines or the timelines. I just want to make that clear,” DePaul TPUSA’s vice president Ema Gavrilovic told The DePaulia. “The primary concern was Turning Point’s headquarters started issuing tickets and advertising for an event that was never originally even confirmed.” In fact, Gavrilovic explained, her campus chapter “really had no control or no say for what headquarters at the national level was doing,” stating, “We understand the DePaul administration’s reasoning for this exclusion because this was a primary concern that was voiced in the rejection letter.” Further, The DePaulia’s reporting makes clear, “DePaul TPUSA was made aware of the event’s cancellation in mid-September,” despite the fact that Kirk and Owens’s statements about it were not until October 9. Campus Battlefield was released October 10.

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A favorite recent conceit among the more self-satisfied portions of the Left is that campus free speech, academic free inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and the like are simply McGuffins, and those trading in such issues nothing more than grifters. By and large, this notion is obtuse and scurrilous, often cynically employed by those wishing to avoid discussing the issues themselves. But those that do care about these issues—about free speech, the pursuit of truth, and the vitality of academe—would be wrong to ignore the evidence that gifters walk among us. For conservatives concerned about the decline of American education, doubly so.

Well-meaning or not—and I genuinely think he may be—Charlie Kirk is one such grifter. Leveraging his youth, talent for public speaking, and access to the White House, he’s fooled conservative donors into thinking he’s helping the cause of freedom on campus. Likewise, he’s fooled restless high school students and undergraduates into thinking performative victimhood and petty partisanship are epistemologically satisfying. Neither is true. Whether due to ignorance or indifference, Kirk and, by extension, his organization are hypocrites, and childish ones at that. And this petulant hypocrisy undermines not just legitimate indictments of higher education, but the intellectual development of young conservatives. The great irony of Campus Battlefield is how thoroughly Kirk paints this picture in his own words.

It’s evident that Kirk envisions himself as some grand general, leading his troops into the culture war. In reality, Kirk is a band director: his thoughts unoriginal and motions rehearsed, he trains his ensemble to play along to the tune of the day—currently, that of “owning the libs.” After all, the band’s job is to help cheer the team on to victory—a role Kirk performs with relish. And so he goes from campus to campus, conservatism’s fresh-faced Harold Hill, peddling his siren’s song to the kids in town until something better comes along.

In his brief, day-after review, the Weekly Standard’s Adam Rubenstein wrote sardonically, “the book may not be Kirk’s best work.” With respect to my friend Adam on this point, he could not be more wrong. On the contrary, I would contend that Campus Battlefield is Charlie Kirk’s best work, because it makes abundantly clear that this is the best he can do. More than that, however, it exemplifies just what it is that he is doing. Whether written by Kirk himself or an idiosyncratically talented ghostwriter, the monograph is a true expression of Kirk’s shtick—the shallow, facile affectation that lies at the heart of TPUSA’s most puerile ministrations. It’s an act to which conservatives—and their allies in the fight against academe’s decline—should no longer give any credence.

Source: Charlie Kirk’s Campus Battlefield—A Review

Andrew Coyne: Political parties — not Statistics Canada — are the real bad guys of privacy invasion

Valid critique of the double standard:

For the past week, question period has been dominated by accusations from Conservative MPs that a government agency has been spying on Canadians — improperly gathering sensitive personal information, it is suggested, on behalf of the ruling party.

That shadowy cabal? You guessed it: Statistics Canada.

The Conservatives have invested much effort in recent years attempting to persuade Canadians that StatCan is their enemy: witness the campaign against the long-form census. The current hysteria was kicked off by a letter from the agency requesting Canada’s banks make available to it personal financial data from 500,000 of their customers.

The program is not secret: the agency briefed reporters on it a month ago. Neither does it apply only to banks. StatCan is reaching out to a range of public and private organizations, hoping to tap the databases they maintain. The reason? People aren’t filling out the surveys the agency has traditionally used to keep track of consumer purchases and the like in anything like the numbers they used to: the data is increasingly unreliable. Without access to “administrative data” to replace it, the agency would be stumbling in the dark.

Privacy concerns are worth taking seriously, of course. Canadians would be right to worry if StatCan were proposing to set up personal files in their name, or to combine bits of data collected from a variety of sources into individual profiles. Needless to say, that is not what the agency is proposing. And while data security is increasingly a concern, StatCan’s record in this regard is unblemished.

Indeed, of all the organizations that now monitor, collect and compile your personal data, StatCan would seem among the least threatening. Your cellphone provider, to take one example, not only keeps tabs on who you called at what hour and for how long, but where you were at the time — in fact, where you are at all times. In the wrong hands, that sort of detailed personal information could be used to manipulate, intimidate and defraud. Whereas the broad aggregates StatCan extracts from it are essential to good public policy.

And of all the wrong hands it is possible to imagine, among the wrongest are those of the political parties — the same parties that are so quick to mount the privacy soapbox when it comes to other organizations. It’s StatCan this week, but it was the big social media companies before and it will be somebody else next – everyone, that is, but the parties themselves. Yet the scale of what the parties are up to, and the potential for abuse — no, the reality of abuse — is far greater than anything StatCan might propose.

All of the parties keep detailed personal files on literally millions of voters. Unlike last year’s scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s use, on behalf of its political clients, of information illegally scraped off of Facebook users’ pages, the data here is acquired legally, which is to say the law has been written in such a way as to allow it.

For example, the parties all have guaranteed access to Elections Canada’s voter lists, though there is no obvious reason why they should. Combined with data purchased from private market-research companies and their own proprietary data collected from interviews with individual voters, the parties are able to assemble quite fantastically “granular” profiles of the voters they are trying to reach, with which not merely to anticipate their responses to events but to shape them, via the sort of highly customized, micro-targeted messages that modern media make possible.

All of which would be objectionable enough — there is, again, no need for any of it, and much reason to object to all of it — if it were subject to even the barest regulatory safeguards. But while government agencies like StatCan are covered by the Privacy Act and private companies come under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), the parties have taken care to exempt themselves from federal privacy laws.

And, what is more, they seem determined to keep it that way. Federal and provincial privacy commissioners have called for bringing the parties within the law; so has the head of Elections Canada; so, too, has an all-party committee of MPs. Yet Bill C-76, the package of changes to the election laws currently before the House, makes no requirement of parties other than that they should publish their privacy policies on their websites, with no guarantee they will even abide by their own standards, let alone the kind they impose on others.

Asked to justify this, Liberal spokespeople burble on about the need to “engage” voters. “Understanding the interests and the priorities of Canadians,” Liberal adviser Michael Fenrick told the Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee last week, “helps us to speak to the issues that matter most to them and in turn mobilizes democratic participation in our country.” Those hot-button fund-raising emails and Facebook ads that cater to your worst fears? That’s what he’s talking about, behind all the high-falutin’ language.

A Conservative official said much the same, adding that of course his party was willing to live with whatever Parliament decides, which is how an opposition party traditionally hides behind the government’s skirts. Only the NDP and Greens have publicly expressed support for bringing the parties under the privacy laws — though since neither is likely to be in a position to put this into effect, this, too, seems awfully convenient.

We’ve been this way before. The parties thoughtfully exempted their own solicitations from the do-not-call rules that apply to other telemarketers. Third-party advocacy groups are subject to much tighter election spending limits than those the parties apply to themselves. Corporate advertisers must conform to truth in advertising laws; not so the parties.

And now privacy. It’s tempting to say there’s one law for the parties and another for everyone else but, in this case, there isn’t any.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Political parties — not Statistics Canada — are the real bad guys of privacy invasion