Speer: Let’s not prolong this pandemic for the sake of the expert class

An uncomfortable insight and a reminder how we all need to be aware of the incentives and motivations that affect our behaviour and positions:

I saw a fascinating tweet last week that reflected something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. University of Waterloo labour economist Mikal Skuterud wondered aloud whether the experts whose influence and profile have risen over the past twenty-four months or so may be consciously or subconsciously inclined to prolong the pandemic. 

Skuterud’s question doesn’t attribute malice or ill-intent. He’s not questioning whether academics or public servants would purposefully manipulate data or intentionally provide misleading advice. He’s making a far more subtle yet important point.  

He’s asking if our pandemic-induced emphasis on expertise may inadvertently create a powerful set of incentives in which these same experts may eventually find it challenging to surrender the sense of power and purpose that they’ve been given over the past two years. It’s a question worth asking.

As he rightly notes, the pandemic has necessarily elevated certain experts in our society. We’ve seen doctors, epidemiologists, and other public health experts come to have unprecedented influence over government policymaking and uncharacteristic prominence in the mainstream media and on social media. 

That’s somewhat natural in light of the circumstances. It’s to be expected that policymakers, the media, and the general population would come to value infectious disease experts in the face of a novel coronavirus. 

The result though is that a number of hitherto obscure academics and bureaucrats have never mattered this much before and probably never will again. It’s not normal for them to appear on television each day or increase their Twitter followings tenfold. 

Such a surge of influence and profile can bring with it a powerful set of incentives. It can contribute to a loss of perspective and an inflation of one’s ego. It can encourage individuals who may usually be scholarly and taciturn to be more quarrelsome and vehement. It can preference 280 characters over nuance. It can turn little-known academics into political actors. 

Skuterud’s question is therefore a good and honest one. How might this extraordinary yet temporary increase in the role of certain experts influence how they think about the pandemic and advise on pandemic-related policies including the continuation of public-health restrictions?   

The answer may lie in Public Choice theory, which the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan famously defined as “politics without romance.” Public Choice came about in the second half of the twentieth century under the intellectual influence of Buchanan, his regular collaborator, Gordon Tullock, political economist Mancur Olson, and various others. 

The basic idea is that our understanding of one’s motivations in the private economy ought to extend to his or her involvement in government, politics, and public policy. As economist Pierre Lemieux has succinctly put it: “He does not metamorphose into an altruist angel.” 

Most economic analysis starts with a basic premise: the market is comprised of rational actors pursuing their own self-interest. Yet these same assumptions about human behaviour aren’t always applied in the political sphere. The underlying presumption can be that activists, bureaucrats, and politicians are somehow beyond self-interest and are instead capable of making judgments about government policy without accounting for their own personal interests. 

Public Choice theory challenges this notion. It uses modern economics to analyse politics and political decision-making. It starts from the premise that different actors in the political process are self-interested agents who will seek to maximize their own utility function just like individuals do in the marketplace. 

In practice, it means that politicians may offer voters popular measures to get elected, public servants might conceive of new programs to obtain more funding and greater resources for their departments, and special interest groups—including unions and corporations—invariably lobby government to obtain new benefits such as tariffs to protect their businesses or laws or regulations that advance their own interests. 

This hardly seems like a revolutionary idea now. Public Choice theory has become a well-respected school of economic thought with a number of prolific exponents and a wide range of applications. But, at its infancy, it was seen as a radical proposition that brought into question the capacity of government to make collective decisions in the public interest.  

The consequence of Public Choice isn’t to challenge government’s basic legitimacy or reject it altogether. It’s instead a call for a clear-eyed assessment of the impulses and motivations behind different actors involved in politics and public administration. This extends to the experts and journalists who form part of the overall system and must be similarly understood as influenced by a broadly defined notion of self-interest. It’s not narrowly about monetary reward either—though financial gain may be a factor for some. It can extend to other rewards including influence, profile, or the sense of meaning and purpose that the pandemic’s emphasis on expertise has granted. 

It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t a description of moral failing. Recognizing the pull of self-interest isn’t a judgement of particular people in positions of authority. It’s an observation about human nature and the fact that government and politics are fundamentally comprised of humans and their inherent fallibilities. 

Which brings us back to Skuterud’s question. There’s no reason to think that most experts haven’t acted in good faith during the pandemic and sought to make a positive contribution to solving the extraordinary public health crisis. But, as Public Choice tells us, it’s also quite possible that at some level these incentives are shaping the questions that they’re asking, the data that they’re collecting, the analysis that they’re bringing to bear, or how they’re engaging in the public sphere.

The risk, of course, is that these forces come to obtrude collective decision-making and in turn prolong the pandemic. It’s hard to know the magnitude of the risk. But it’s presumably not zero. It must be something that we are cognizant of—especially as the policy choices become more complex and the subject of greater debate. 

The ultimate solution to the COVID-19 pandemic is imperfect: it will require a combination of critical thinking and judgement calls without any altruistic angels. This pandemic’s end will necessarily involve a series of trade-offs, calculated choices, and second-best options. It must in short be an exercise in a politics without romance. 

Source: https://thehub.ca/2022-01-20/lets-not-prolong-this-pandemic-for-the-sake-of-the-expert-class/?utm_source=The%20Hub&utm_campaign=dd5b5eb714-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2022_01_19_06_47&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_429d51ea5d-dd5b5eb714-475403886&mc_cid=dd5b5eb714&mc_eid=7832dd2817

Falling birth rates are not an existential crisis for Central and Eastern Europe, but an opportunity

Of note:

A growing number of countries – including two in Central and Eastern Europe – are adopting coercive pronatal policies in a bid to make women have more children, a new report has found.

The report, Welcome to Gilead, raises serious concerns about the abuse of reproductive rights by nationalistic governments, echoing the pronatal dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The report, produced by UK charity Population Matters, details how right-wing, populist and/or nationalist administrations are stigmatising women who choose to have smaller families as unpatriotic and describes how policies intended to limit women’s reproductive choices are linked to population goals.

“Coercive pronatalism is not simply a manifestation of patriarchy or misogyny but can be a product of political and economic forces entirely indifferent to women, for whom they exist simply as productive or non-productive wombs,” says Population Matters Director Robin Maynard.

“These regimes are instrumentalising women’s bodies to serve nationalistic, economic and patriarchal interests. Violating sexual and reproductive health and rights is never justified. It is imperative we all defend them, wherever they are threatened, and for whatever reason.”

In many countries, leaders fear the impact on their economic and political goals of women choosing to have fewer children.

As a result, the percentage of countries with pronatal policies grew from 10 per cent in 1976 to 28 per cent in 2015, according to the UN’s most recent data.

Not all such policies abuse reproductive rights, but increasing numbers are doing so.

The report examines examples of such restrictions in China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, as well as the emerging Europe states of Hungary and Poland.

It identifies how politicians in the US and Germany are starting to promote the same agenda and policies.

It details in particular how pronatalism is often linked to a restrictive, patriarchal “pro-family” agenda and the promotion of ethnic nationalism, based frequently on religious orthodoxy and hostility to multiculturalism and immigration.

These motivations include subscription at the highest political level to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that Christian and European culture and civilisation will be extinguished by immigration from Muslim countries and high birth rates among immigrants.

Population Matters Policy Adviser Monica Scigliano, who wrote the report, says: “When people think of coercive population policy, their minds often go to examples like China and India, in which leaders wanted to limit population growth by forcing women to have fewer children.

“Now, however, with birth rates declining and in some cases emigration reversing population trends, that has changed.

“As people continue to choose smaller families, more governments across the world are resorting to coercive tactics, depriving people of their reproductive rights in order to increase their populations.

“In particular, nationalistic agendas can lead to a toxic brand of pronatalism that represents an almost inevitable threat to sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

Hungary and Poland

In Hungary, the right-wing populist government of Viktor Orbán is now inching towards a total abortion ban. Orbán states, “we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender”.

Earlier this year, former US Vice President Mike Pence told a summit in the Hungarian capital Budapest that “plummeting birth rates” represent “a crisis that strikes at the very heart of civilisation”, adding that he hoped the US Supreme Court would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.

In Poland meanwhile, the ruling populist and pronatalist Law and Justice party recently increased abortion restrictions, banning abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormalities, which had been the reason for 98 per cent of all abortions in the country. Its law has recently claimed its first victim, a pregnant woman named Izabela who died after being denied an emergency operation because doctors insisted on waiting until they could no longer detect her baby’s heartbeat.

Polish reproductive rights campaigner Antonina Lewandowska, who wrote the foreword to the report, says:

“The Polish pronatalist movement drove doctors into such a state of fear that they would rather let Izabela go into septic shock than terminate the pregnancy earlier and save her life. They are terrified of prosecution and stigma, as the pro-natalist/anti-choice movements would probably eat them alive.

“On the other hand, there is a group of medical professionals that are rather comfortable with the current situation, as it lets them argue that medical negligence happens due to that ‘freezing effect’ of an abhorrent law rather then their own incompetence, mistake or deliberate choice to not provide their patients with necessary medical care – an abortion – due to their personal beliefs.

“In both cases, it is clear – aggressive, fundamentalist pronatalism paved the way for violating human rights in Poland.”

The economic value of older people

Central and Eastern Europe’s demographic decline has until now been presented as an existential problem. But have we been looking at the issue from the wrong perspective?

Even relatively poor countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are currently placing more demands on the renewable resources of their land than it can provide, and lower populations reduce that demand, as well as relieving pressure on biodiversity.

“Romania is one of Europe’s more biodiverse countries, for instance, with great forest cover and wetlands in the Danube Delta – both of value to the world, not just Romania,” Alistair Currie, head of campaigns and communications at Population Matters tells Emerging Europe.

“As it becomes more affluent, it has an opportunity to manage that land and natural environment more sustainably. Agriculture is the primary driver of habitat loss, and where countries aren’t scrambling to feed their populations through intensive agriculture and monocultures, that can give nature a break.”

Fears of labour shortages are often exaggerated because of continued population growth and automation, but Currie suggests that any shortages which do arise can be addressed through measures such as increasing labour force participation, judicious immigration policies, further automation and increasing retirement age.

“Fiscal challenges presented by ageing populations can be solved by pension reform, increasing the productivity of older workers, later retirement, investment in preventative health to reduce associated health care costs, and, where appropriate, equitable increases in tax,” he says.

“One thing that really came out strongly in our research is the economic value of older people. That means things like potentially increasing retirement age – low across much of Central and Eastern Europe. To do that, you do need healthy populations, however, which requires investment in preventative health care.

“Pronatal policies, meanwhile, are not productive. They’re often costly, in the short term they increase the number of dependent children, and in the longer term, they drive up consumption and resource use.”

Source: Falling birth rates are not an existential crisis for Central and Eastern Europe, but an opportunity

Saudi Arabia and China are accused of using sports to cover up human rights abuse


What do China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in common? The answer might not be as obvious as you think. But all three countries are accused of human rights violations, and all three are also playing host to some of the largest and most lucrative sporting events in the world.

China is hosting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Qatar is putting on next year’s soccer World Cup and Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in staging high-profile, international sporting events.

But human rights organizations and others have been voicing concerns that behind this seemingly innocuous trend is a concerted effort by these and other nations to use sports as a way to cover up their poor human rights records.

“They are using and increasingly seeing sport as an opportunity to launder their image,” Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, told NPR.

The human rights group even uses a recent term to describe this practice: “sportswashing.”

“It’s the process whereby a country or regime with a particularly poor human rights record uses sport as a way of creating positive headlines, positive spin about their countries,” Jakens explained.

Saudi Arabia dabbles in English soccer and Formula One racing

Last month, the rights group criticized Saudi Arabia’s takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United. According to news reports, the Saudi government-owned Public Investment Fund purchased an 80% stake in the English soccer club for 300 million pounds ($400 million).

“Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” Amnesty International UK’s CEO Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement.

The Newcastle United buyout is just the latest sports-related investment by Saudi authorities. In recent years, the kingdom has spent more than $1.5 billion to stage elite sporting events, according to a report by Grant Liberty. This includes staging the annual Spanish Super Cup soccer match, international men’s and women’s golf tournaments and professional wrestling, among many others.

Next month, global racing series Formula One will host its race in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The Grand Prix event will take place on Dec. 5 at a brand-new racetrack in the port city of Jiddah. F1 — which is owned by U.S.-based Liberty Media Corp. — signed a 10-year deal with the kingdom worth a reported $650 million.

The Saudi F1 event will also feature a number of musical performances. Pop star Justin Bieber, who is headlining the off-track entertainment program, is facing growing calls to cancel his show.

In an open letter published by The Washington Post, Hatice Cengiz — the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — urged the Canadian singer to “send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics.”

The kingdom says it’s reforming

The Saudi government rejects all accusations of sportswashing. Fahad Nazer, the spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., says that those investments are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to diversify the country’s economy, which depends heavily on oil and gas.

“The notion that the transformative reforms currently underway in the kingdom are simply an attempt to improve the kingdom’s image are widely off the mark,” Nazer told NPR.

He said that the country aims to establish a sports industry under its Vision 2030 plan, which not only calls for a more diverse economy but also a vibrant society.

But the 2018 killing of the journalist Khashoggi, the imprisonment of rights activists and the ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen cast doubt over how transformational those reforms really are.

Despite ushering in some limited newfound freedoms for Saudi citizens, the crown prince has made the country more autocratic than before, says Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“There are more freedoms for women, just to pick a very important example. But there is less tolerance even of limited political dissension,” he says.

A spokesperson for Formula One, which has been accused of enabling sportswashing in the past, did not directly respond to the question of whether the series considers a country’s human rights record in its decision to host a race there.

“We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence,” the spokesperson said.

This past weekend, F1 made its debut in Qatar — another country with a less-than-stellar track record. Seven-time world champion and race winner Lewis Hamilton raised the issue of human rights and equality in a news conference ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix.

“As sports go to these places, they are duty-bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue,” said the British driver, who wore a rainbow-colored race helmet in a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

China faces an Olympics boycott

China has also been accused of using sports to polish its public image. With the 2022 Winter Olympics only a couple of months away, the Biden administration is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games over the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims living in the country’s Xinjiang region.

The issue of sportswashing has even reached the halls of Congress. Last year, Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida introduced a resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to strip China of its Olympic hosting rights.

“I don’t believe a country that is committing genocide against its own citizens, that’s building a military to dominate the world, that steals jobs and technology from all over the world, denies basic rights to its own citizens should be hosting an Olympics,” Scott told NPR in a recent interview.

China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

He further criticized U.S. Olympic broadcast partner NBC and Olympic sponsors for not being more vocal about China’s alleged human rights violations.

His Democratic colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, argues that sports leagues need to take more responsibility when it comes to rights issues. He says they are “selling out their integrity for profits,” effectively helping to rehabilitate the reputations of human rights abusers.

Using sports for spin goes way back

The practice of countries using sports as a smoke screen is not new. Many nations, including Great Britain, saw sports as a way to distract from oppression during colonial times. Nazi Germany used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to show off its alleged racial superiority and, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used sports as a soft power.

But the word sportswashing came into use later. By one account, according to British sports journalist Sam Cunningham, the term emerged in 2015 when Azerbaijan hosted the European Games, and Amnesty International brought it back to the spotlight a few years later.

Whatever the origins, whether sportswashing can have a lasting effect remains unclear. But according to Simon Chadwick, a sports industry expert at Emlyon Business School in France, it can provide temporary relief.

“If we look at the 2018 World Cup, there was widespread criticism of Russia,” he says. “But what we saw upon people’s return from the Russian World Cup is that now their view of Russia was much changed, they saw the country in a much more positive fashion.”

With Western democracies increasingly scrutinizing the value of hosting large-scale sporting events, he believes countries with questionable human rights records will continue to use sports to boost their public image.

“What we will see is the likes of Saudi Arabia, China and others continuing to bid for these events, being awarded the rights to stage them and then leaving those in the West to deal with the kind of moral and ideological fallout that we have as a result of their hosting,” Chadwick says.

Most sports organizations defend their decision to stage events in these countries by claiming to be a catalyst for change. But that change has yet to materialize.

University of Ottawa must protect academic freedom, says report

Trying to thread the needle…:

A report on academic freedom at the University of Ottawa prompted in part by the outcry over a professor’s use of a racial slur in class says the university must make clear its commitment to intellectual inquiry and free expression, and oppose the exclusion of words, works or ideas.

But although the report, authored by a committee chaired by retired Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache and released on Thursday, concludes that academic freedom should be protected, it cautions that this must not happen “at the expense of silencing marginalized people and groups.”

The report says controversial speech should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. It recommends the university create a committee to review complaints and concerns related to freedom of expression or academic freedom. The committee would be empowered to investigate and impose penalties when necessary.

The report also calls for training for faculty on equity and diversity, and stronger protections against cyberbullying. And it recommends the university create an action plan to fight racism and discrimination.

University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont told The Globe and Mail on Thursday he is committed to implementing the report’s recommendations.

The university was thrust into the spotlight a year ago when Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, a professor with expertise in art, was suspended for saying the n-word in class while explaining how some social groups had reappropriated words considered slurs. She said the word out loud in its entirety, and a student later objected. The case became a focal point, particularly in Quebec, for debates about whether it’s appropriate to impose limits on speech, particularly in a classroom.

Students and faculty were divided over whether the university had reacted appropriately. Some defended the professor because she did not appear to have intended harm, while others said she should not have used the word. Academic associations defended her on the grounds that her words were germane to the subject she was teaching, uttered in a class context and intended to instruct. The university soon lifted Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s suspension.

“The campus was in turmoil, and rightly so, because people were wondering what the rules were, and what are the boundaries, and how should such cases be dealt with,” Mr. Frémont said. “The report equips us with more concrete means of dealing with similar issues involving academic freedom and human dignity, equality, diversity and inclusion.”

Mr. Frémont said he could not comment on the incident involving Prof. Lieutenant-Duval, because it is the subject of a workplace grievance. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In the report, Mr. Bastarache says he received submissions from people at the university who said they feel they must censor themselves to avoid public backlash.

Mr. Frémont said self-censorship is probably happening in some cases, and he called for it to end.

“Our faculty members should not self-censor. That’s crystal clear. Academic freedom is the basic soul, the foundation of universities. If we don’t have that, we’re dead,” he said.

But he added that professors should think carefully about how best to deal with sensitive topics. He said a university owes that much to its students.

In March, 2021, another controversy erupted at the university when law professor Amir Attaran made comments on Twitter criticizing racism in Quebec. Quebec Premier François Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were eventually drawn into the resulting political firestorm, and there were calls from Quebec politicians for Mr. Frémont to discipline Prof. Attaran.

At the time, Mr. Frémont said he deplored the kind of highly polarizing public statements that had sparked the controversy, but he defended Prof. Attaran’s right to free expression.

Prof. Attaran on Thursday said Mr. Bastarache did not reach out to him for input.

But he said he was alarmed by one statement in the report.

Mr. Bastarache writes that several people consulted for the report argued that bilingualism should be considered a fundamental value of the university. The report says attacks on the university’s “linguistic makeup or the moral value of its Francophone or Anglophone components cannot, under current circumstances, be protected by freedom of expression.”

Prof. Attaran called that notion shocking.

“To somehow say that freedom of expression does not include offering a negative comment on the linguistic makeup [of the university], or moral value of these languages. This is grotesque. This is anti-intellectual,” he said.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-university-of-ottawa-must-protect-academic-freedom-says-report/

Dowd: A.I. Is Not A-OK

Interesting conversation with Schmidt:

The first time I interviewed Eric Schmidt, a dozen years ago when he was the C.E.O. of Google, I had a simple question about the technology that has grown capable of spying on and monetizing all our movements, opinions, relationships and tastes.

“Friend or foe?” I asked.

“We claim we’re friends,” Schmidt replied coolly.

Now that the former Google executive has a book out Tuesday on “The Age of AI,” written with Henry Kissinger and Daniel Huttenlocher, I wanted to ask him the same question about A.I.: “Friend or foe?”

“A.I. is imprecise, which means that it can be unreliable as a partner,” he said when we met at his Chelsea office. “It’s dynamic in the sense that it’s changing all the time. It’s emergent and does things that you don’t expect. And, most importantly, it’s capable of learning.

“It will be everywhere. What does an A.I.-enabled best friend look like, especially to a child? What does A.I.-enabled war look like? Does A.I. perceive aspects of reality that we don’t? Is it possible that A.I. will see things that humans cannot comprehend?”

I agree with Elon Musk that when we build A.I. without a kill switch, we are “summoning the demon” and that humans could end up, as Steve Wozniak said, as the family pets. (If we’re lucky.)

Talking about the alarms raised by the likes of Musk and Stephen Hawking, Schmidt said that “they think that by unleashing A.I., eventually, you’ll end up with a robot overlord that’s 10 or 100 or 1,000 times smarter than the humans. My answer is different. I think all the evidence is that these A.I. systems are going to think, not like humans, but they’re going to be very smart. We’re going to have to coexist.”

You don’t think Siri and Alexa are going to kill us one night?

“No,” he said. “But they might become your child’s best friend.”

Opinions on A.I. are wildly divergent. Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, rolls his eyes at the digerati in Silicon Valley obsessed with the “science-fiction fantasy” of A.I.

“It can sometimes become a giant, false god,” he told me. “You’ve got these nerdy guys who have an awful reputation for how they treat women, who get to be the life creators. ‘You women with your petty little biological wombs can’t stand up to us. We’re making the big life here. We’re the supergods of the future.’”

We have known for a while that Silicon Valley is taking us down the drain. Preposterous claims that once could not have gotten traction — on everything from Democratic pedophilia rings to rigged elections to vaccine conspiracy theories — now spread at the speed of light. Teenage girls can be sent spiraling into depression by the glossy, deceptive world of Instagram, owned by the manipulative and greedy company formerly known as Facebook.

Schmidt said an Oxford student told him, about social media poison, “The union of boredom and anonymity is dangerous.” Especially at the intersection of addiction and envy.

The question of whether we will lose control to A.I. may be passé. Technology is already manipulating us.

Schmidt admits that the lack of foresight among the lords of the cloud about where technology was headed was “foolish.”

“I’ll say, 10 years ago, when I worked really hard on these social networks, maybe this is just naïveté, but we never thought that governments would use them against citizens, like in 2016, with interference from the Russians.

“We didn’t think it would then stitch these special interest groups together with these violently strong belief systems. No one ever discussed it. I don’t want to make the same mistake again with a new foundational technology.”

He said that the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which he chaired earlier this year, concluded that America is still “a little bit ahead of China” in the technology race but China is “overinvesting against us.” The authors write that they are most worried about other countries developing A.I.-facilitated weapons with “substantial destructive potential” that “may be able to adapt and learn well beyond their intended targets.”

“The first thing for us to look at between the U.S. and China is to make sure that there’s no ‘Dr. Strangelove’ scenario, a launch on a warning, to make sure there’s time for human decision making,” he said. “Let’s imagine you’re on a ship in the future and the little computer system says to the captain, ‘You have 24 seconds before you’re dead because the hypersonic missile is coming at you. You need to press this button now.’ You want to trust the A.I., but because of its imprecise nature, what if it makes a mistake?”

I asked if he thought Facebook could leave its troubles behind by changing its name to Meta.

“The problem is, what do you now call FAANG stocks? MAANG?” he said of the biggest tech stocks — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. “Google changed its name to Alphabet, and yet, Google was still Google.”

And what’s with that creepy metaverse Zuckerberg is trying to lure us into?

“All of the people who talk about metaverses are talking about worlds that are more satisfying than the current world — you’re richer, more handsome, more beautiful, more powerful, faster. So, in some years, people will choose to spend more time with their goggles on in the metaverse. And who gets to set the rules? The world will become more digital than physical. And that’s not necessarily the best thing for human society.”

Schmidt said that his book poses questions that cannot yet be answered.

Unfortunately for us, we won’t know the answers until it is too late.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/30/opinion/eric-schmidt-ai.html

Data science education lacks a much-needed focus on ethics

Of note:

Undergraduate training for data scientists – dubbed the sexiest job of the 21st century by Harvard Business Review – falls short in preparing students for the ethical use of data science, our new study found.

Data science lies at the nexus of statistics and computer science applied to a particular field such as astronomy, linguistics, medicine, psychology or sociology. The idea behind this data crunching is to use big data to address otherwise unsolvable problems, such as how health care providers can create personalized medicine based on a patient’s genes and how businesses can make purchase predictions based on customers’ behavior

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15% growth in data science careers over the period of 2019-2029, corresponding with an increased demand for data science training. Universities and colleges have responded to the demand by creating new programs or revamping existing ones. The number of undergraduate data science programs in the U.S. jumped from 13 in 2014 to at least 50 as of September 2020. 

As educators and practitioners in data science, we were prompted by the growth in programs to investigate what is covered, and what is not covered, in data science undergraduate education.

In our study, we compared undergraduate data science curricula with the expectations for undergraduate data science training put forth by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Those expectations include training in ethics. We found most programs dedicated considerable coursework to mathematics, statistics and computer science, but little training in ethical considerations such as privacy and systemic bias. Only 50% of the degree programs we investigated required any coursework in ethics.

Why it matters

As with any powerful tool, the responsible application of data science requires training in how to use data science and to understand its impacts. Our results align with prior work that found little attention is paid to ethics in data science degree programs. This suggests that undergraduate data science degree programs may produce a workforce without the training and judgment to apply data science methods responsibly. This primer on data science ethics covers real-world harms.

It isn’t hard to find examples of irresponsible use of data science. For instance, policing models that have a built-in data bias can lead to an elevated police presence in historically over-policed neighborhoods. In another example, algorithms used by the U.S. health care system are biased in a way that causes Black patients to receive less care than white patients with similar needs. 

We believe explicit training in ethical practices would better prepare a socially responsible data science workforce.

What still isn’t known

While data science is a relatively new field – still being defined as a discipline – guidelines exist for training undergraduate students in data science. These guidelines prompt the question: How much training can we expect in an undergraduate degree? 

The National Academies recommend training in 10 areas, including ethical problem solving, communication and data management.

Our work focused on undergraduate data science degrees at schools classified as R1, meaning they engage in high levels of research activity. Further research could examine the amount of training and preparation in various aspects of data science at the Masters and Ph.D. levels and the nature of undergraduate data science training at schools of different research levels.

Given that many data science programs are new, there is considerable opportunity to compare the training that students receive with the expectations of employers. 

What’s next

We plan to expand on our findings by investigating the pressures that might be driving curriculum development for degrees in other disciplines that are seeing similar job market growth.

Source: https://theconversation.com/data-science-education-lacks-a-much-needed-focus-on-ethics-164372

McParland: Renaming Ryerson University to appease the delicate is probably harmless, if pointless

Valid critique of single-minded blinkers:

The only reason I knew anything about Egerton Ryerson, before he ran afoul of the forces of statue reclamation, was because, for a brief period, I attended the Toronto school that took his name.

That was a long time ago. Ryerson was a mere polytechincal institute at the time and no one cared much who it was named after. Given I was to spend time there, I checked out the man whose name was on the building. Turned out he was a key figure in the staid, grey, ultra-respectable clique that ran the Toronto in the early and middle decades of the 19th century. Most of them were rigid, unbending figures, steeped in their self-regard, but Ryerson was an education maven: arguing that education should be mandatory, schools should be free, teachers should be professionally trained, textbooks should include Canadian authors, schools should be run independently and freed of the monopolistic hands of the priests. For that he won wide plaudits and remained a respected and admired figure well into the current century, until history was suddenly revised and he became a reviled character accused of plotting to demean and degrade Canada’s Indigenous people.

His sin was that, approached for advice on a means of educating Aboriginal children, he advocated for teaching in English in boarding schools away from families. While he could hardly be blamed for the horror show the system later became, his presence at the birth of the concept has seen him seized on by revisionist extremists intent on denouncing the dead for failing to adopt 21st century processes in a 19th century world.

The old-timey Ryerson Polytechnical Institute I attended has since grown considerably, sprawling over a network of streets and byways all over central Toronto and proudly re-branding itself as a fully-fledged university. Now it is to have a new name, because any association with Egerton Ryerson is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs for the ultra-woke, easily offended young people who make up the student body or the timid functionaries who populate the administration.

The decision was announced Thursday after approval by the university’s board of governors, based on the recommendations of a report commissioned last November. In addition to designating Ryerson an unperson, the board agreed the university “will not reinstall, restore or replace” a statue that had been pulled down and disfigured, and will issue “an open call for proposals for the rehoming of the remaining pieces … to promote educational initiatives.” Anyone looking for an extra kneecap or a spare left hand as a conversation piece or garden ornament should presumably apply at the bursar’s office.

Ceremonies to promote “healing and closure” will be held at the spot the statue once occupied. Board members agreed something will also have to be done about “Eggy,” a school mascot that will obviously no longer do unless the faculty redirects its interests towards the reproductive habits of chickens.

If a new name makes the delicate daisies at Ryerson happy it seems kind of harmless. And maybe it’s just as well. Parts of the university border on Dundas Street, a main thoroughfare christened after another long-dead figure who got himself mixed up with the wrong side of history. Since the city had already decided to rename the offending stretches of pavement, the university was going to have to order up new letterhead anyway, so why not go for the full magillah? Next on the list could be Yonge St., which also skirts the campus and honours a figure far more objectionable than either Dundas or Ryerson, but who has somehow escaped the roving hordes of Puritans now dictating the acceptable limits of nomenclature to a crushed and cowering city. By this time next year whole swaths of the city core could find itself operating under new identities, confusing the tourists and playing havoc with street maps.

It’s possible trouble still lies ahead, however. Among findings in the task force report was a potentially troubling recommendation that some recognition of Ryerson’s existence be allowed to continue. Specifically, “the establishment of a physical and interactive display that provides comprehensive and accessible information about the legacy of Egerton Ryerson and the period in which he was commemorated by the university,” and  “the creation of a website that disseminates the Task Force’s historical research findings about Egerton Ryerson’s life and legacy.”

Given that the man was hardly the ogre imagined by his statue-bashing accusers, and bears much credit for the early development of an advanced education system in what was then a remote and underpopulated province, it’s possible an honest assessment of his life won’t be as dark and discreditable as today’s student body obviously hopes.

What happens then? Will they tear down the display and banish the web site? Probably. Truth can never be allowed to spoil the prejudices of historical ignorance. Especially at an institution of higher education.

Source: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/kelly-mcparland-renaming-ryerson-university-to-appease-the-delicate-is-probably-harmless-if-pointless/wcm/9cdcaa08-96aa-44ea-b856-6e13345e8373

Picard: The troubling Nazi-fication of COVID-19 discourse

Good commentary:

If you spend any amount of time on social media engaging about COVID-19, you will know discussions tend to get personal and ugly pretty fast.

Encourage vaccination of young people, and you’re labelled a pedophile.

Support masking in indoor settings? You’re a goose-stepping fascist.

Laud vaccination as a way out of the pandemic, and you are Joseph Goebbels and should brace yourself to be on trial for crimes against humanity at the fictional Nuremberg 2 tribunal.

Acknowledge that lockdowns are sometimes necessary to control the spread of a pandemic virus, and brace yourself for the onslaught of Hitler images.

These types of responses are predictable to a certain degree.

Godwin’s law (coined by U.S. lawyer Mike Godwin in 1990) holds that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler becomes more likely.

These days, debates go from zero to Hitler in about a nanosecond.

Some may want to dismiss this kind of over-the-top rhetoric as laughable, the work of a tiny minority of extremists and their bots.

But it’s obscene, and obscenely commonplace.

The Nazi-fication of public discourse is no longer the sole purview of pathetic man-boys holed up in their basements.

Enabled by social-media giants hiding behind freedom-of-speech arguments, trolls can now spread their misogynist, racist and anti-social views readily and mercilessly.

The goal here is to muddy the waters between fact and fiction, between truth and lies, and to undermine democratic institutions.

The grunts of a few can be turned into shouts that unfortunately have a growing audience, especially among the disgruntled and disenfranchised.

Playing the victim card appeals to them.

The ragtag collection of conspiracy theorists who gather at anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown rallies is fascinating – a stinking potpourri of grievances, with denunciations of everything from vaccines to “fake news,” to 5G, to the so-called “deep state.”

These rallies – which are getting bigger as pandemic frustrations grow – have more than their fair share of Hitler talk and imagery. They also include people wearing the yellow Star of David, implying that being told to wear a mask or get a jab is a level of persecution comparable to Jews who were rounded up and shipped in cattle cars to death camps.

Clearly some people have lost the plot.

Yet, they are being encouraged by politicians who embrace rhetoric suggesting that a position is invalid because the same view was held by Hitler.

A case in point is odious Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, who claims that lockdowns, mask rules and vaccine mandates are forms of Nazi-like tyranny.

His perverse version of freedom holds that individual rights are absolute, and that, for example, unvaccinated people have a God-given right to do as they please up to and including infecting others with the coronavirus.

Mr. Hillier and his acolytes have made a habit of casually tossing around Nazi analogies and Hitler images.

This mainstreaming of hateful images and thinly veiled hate speech should alarm us on a number of levels.

First of all, it betrays a profound ignorance of the Holocaust.

There can be no comparisons made between the state-sponsored mass murder of six million people and the temporary shutdown of the local mall.

Those who have the unmitigated gall to wear yellow stars to anti-mask rallies offend the memory of the victims of the Shoah and their descendants.

It is worth noting that Mr. Godwin, when he fashioned his adage, actually wanted people to think harder about the Holocaust and why Nazi comparisons should not be casually tossed into conversation.

Thinking is certainly not what’s happening here.

What we’re seeing is a lot of projection, the psychological impulse to project on other people what you’re actually feeling.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump, sometimes called the “Projection President,” was the embodiment of this phenomenon.

Mr. Trump, a chronic liar who wallowed in corruption, routinely attacked his opponents as corrupt liars. He also frequently described his opponents in a derogatory fashion, a lynchpin strategy of hate-mongers, and now a mainstay of social media.

Next time you hear the claims of Nazi-like tyranny and oppression, think about what is really being said.

Those who don’t want masks under any circumstances – those who not only want to refuse vaccines but prevent others from getting them – are actually the tyrants.

Their use of Hitler images and analogies are not a caution, but an embrace, one we should call out, not dismiss casually.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-troubling-nazi-fication-of-covid-19-discourse/

Stephens: What Should Conservatives Conserve?

Of interest and relevance even if the conclusion is likely over-optimistic:

In 1990, V.S. Naipaul delivered a celebrated lecture on the subject of “Our Universal Civilization.” The Berlin Wall had fallen, liberal democracy was ascendant, and Naipaul wanted to reflect on what the universal civilization — by which he meant the West — meant for someone like him, a Hindu son of colonial Trinidad who had made his way “from the periphery to the center” to become one of the great novelists of his time.

Naipaul intended his lecture as a celebration of the West. But he sensed an undercurrent of disquiet, which he found expressed in Nahid Rachlin’s 1978 novel, “Foreigner.” The book is about an Iranian woman who works in Boston as a biologist and seems well assimilated to American life. But on a return visit to Tehran she loses her mental balance and falls ill. The cure, it turns out, is religion.

“We can see that the young woman was not prepared for the movement between civilizations,” Naipaul observed, “the movement out of the shut-in Iranian world, where the faith was the complete way, filled everything, left no spare corner of the mind or will or soul, to the other world, where it was necessary to be an individual and responsible.”

I’ve been thinking of Naipaul and Rachlin while reading Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, “The Unbroken Thread.” Ahmari, now the op-ed editor of The New York Post, is a friend and former colleague with whom I’ve had a political falling out. About three years ago, he made an abrupt switch from being a NeverTrump conservative, railing against the new illiberalism, to being something of a new illiberal himself, railing against “nice” conservatives who, he believes, fail to appreciate that rights-based liberalism is a sucker’s game that only the left can win.

Ahmari’s elegantly written book matters because it seeks to give moral voice to what so far has mainly been a populist scream against the values of elite liberalism, above all its disdain for limits, from moral taboos to national borders to religious rituals. His device is a series of capsule biographies of important thinkers — Confucius, Seneca, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Andrea Dworkin, among others — who led richer lives by observing and celebrating the limits.

There’s much to admire here, particularly in the fact that many of Ahmari’s exemplars chose the lives they did, swimming against the current of their times.

The same might be said of Ahmari himself, an immigrant from Iran who arrived in America in impoverished circumstances, rose swiftly up the ranks of conservative intelligentsia, bounced between Seattle, Boston, London and New York, converted to Catholicism and switched from neoconservatism to paleoconservatism — all by his mid-30s.

It’s a trajectory that resembles Naipaul’s. But Ahmari has a political purpose at odds with the personal one. He’s grown disenchanted with the society that has provided him with such a bounty of choice.

He frets that his son will grow up to become a member of a ruthlessly meritocratic but spiritually vacuous Western elite. He mourns North Dakota’s decision to abandon its blue law against doing business on Sundays. He laments that the “American order enshrines very few substantive ideals I would want to transmit to my son.”

In short, Ahmari, rather like the protagonist in Rachlin’s novel, thinks it would be better to put some limits on choice, not just for himself but for others as well.

There’s a charge of hypocrisy to be made here, to which Ahmari partially owns up. What he doesn’t mention is that his admiration for the unflinching high-mindedness of a Heschel or an Aquinas somehow didn’t stop him from becoming a late but enthusiastic convert to the cult of Donald Trump — that is, of the hedonistic bully.

But the larger charge against Ahmari’s book is its failure of moral and political imagination. Choice is no enemy of morality. It’s a precondition for it. It’s why, theologically speaking, temptation must exist. It’s why America, for all of its flaws, tends toward a certain kind of easygoing decency. It’s also why virtue-obsessed countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia tend to be so publicly brutal and so privately corrupt.

Ahmari’s larger falsehood is that the American order transmits few substantive ideals. “This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery,” Naipaul said in that speech.

“So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism.”

Today, what remains of conservative intelligentsia is split. On one side are those who think that what conservatism should revert to is a kind of anti-liberalism, in the reactionary 19th-century European tradition. On the other, there are those who believe that the purpose of American conservatism is to conserve the substantive principles of 1776 — that is, of the open mind and the ever more open society.

Naipaul could have set Ahmari straight: The universal civilization “is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/03/opinion/what-should-conservatives-conserve.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Why A.I. Should Be Afraid of Us: Because benevolent bots are suckers.

Of significance as AI becomes more prevalent. “Road rage” as the new Turing test!

Artificial intelligence is gradually catching up to ours. A.I. algorithms can now consistently beat us at chesspoker and multiplayer video games, generate images of human faces indistinguishable from real oneswrite news articles (not this one!) and even love stories, and drive cars better than most teenagers do.

But A.I. isn’t perfect, yet, if Woebot is any indicator. Woebot, as Karen Brown wrote this week in Science Times, is an A.I.-powered smartphone app that aims to provide low-cost counseling, using dialogue to guide users through the basic techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy. But many psychologists doubt whether an A.I. algorithm can ever express the kind of empathy required to make interpersonal therapy work.

“These apps really shortchange the essential ingredient that — mounds of evidence show — is what helps in therapy, which is the therapeutic relationship,” Linda Michaels, a Chicago-based therapist who is co-chair of the Psychotherapy Action Network, a professional group, told The Times.

Empathy, of course, is a two-way street, and we humans don’t exhibit a whole lot more of it for bots than bots do for us. Numerous studies have found that when people are placed in a situation where they can cooperate with a benevolent A.I., they are less likely to do so than if the bot were an actual person.

“There seems to be something missing regarding reciprocity,” Ophelia Deroy, a philosopher at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, told me. “We basically would treat a perfect stranger better than A.I.”

In a recent study, Dr. Deroy and her neuroscientist colleagues set out to understand why that is. The researchers paired human subjects with unseen partners, sometimes human and sometimes A.I.; each pair then played a series of classic economic games — Trust, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken and Stag Hunt, as well as one they created called Reciprocity — designed to gauge and reward cooperativeness.

Our lack of reciprocity toward A.I. is commonly assumed to reflect a lack of trust. It’s hyper-rational and unfeeling, after all, surely just out for itself, unlikely to cooperate, so why should we? Dr. Deroy and her colleagues reached a different and perhaps less comforting conclusion. Their study found that people were less likely to cooperate with a bot even when the bot was keen to cooperate. It’s not that we don’t trust the bot, it’s that we do: The bot is guaranteed benevolent, a capital-S sucker, so we exploit it.

That conclusion was borne out by conversations afterward with the study’s participants. “Not only did they tend to not reciprocate the cooperative intentions of the artificial agents,” Dr. Deroy said, “but when they basically betrayed the trust of the bot, they didn’t report guilt, whereas with humans they did.” She added, “You can just ignore the bot and there is no feeling that you have broken any mutual obligation.”

This could have real-world implications. When we think about A.I., we tend to think about the Alexas and Siris of our future world, with whom we might form some sort of faux-intimate relationship. But most of our interactions will be one-time, often wordless encounters. Imagine driving on the highway, and a car wants to merge in front of you. If you notice that the car is driverless, you’ll be far less likely to let it in. And if the A.I. doesn’t account for your bad behavior, an accident could ensue.

“What sustains cooperation in society at any scale is the establishment of certain norms,” Dr. Deroy said. “The social function of guilt is exactly to make people follow social norms that lead them to make compromises, to cooperate with others. And we have not evolved to have social or moral norms for non-sentient creatures and bots.”

That, of course, is half the premise of “Westworld.” (To my surprise Dr. Deroy had not heard of the HBO series.) But a landscape free of guilt could have consequences, she noted: “We are creatures of habit. So what guarantees that the behavior that gets repeated, and where you show less politeness, less moral obligation, less cooperativeness, will not color and contaminate the rest of your behavior when you interact with another human?”

There are similar consequences for A.I., too. “If people treat them badly, they’re programed to learn from what they experience,” she said. “An A.I. that was put on the road and programmed to be benevolent should start to be not that kind to humans, because otherwise it will be stuck in traffic forever.” (That’s the other half of the premise of “Westworld,” basically.)

There we have it: The true Turing test is road rage. When a self-driving car starts honking wildly from behind because you cut it off, you’ll know that humanity has reached the pinnacle of achievement. By then, hopefully, A.I therapy will be sophisticated enough to help driverless cars solve their anger-management issues.