Should justice be delivered by AI?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

via Should justice be delivered by AI?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YouTube, the Great Radicalizer – The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

via YouTube, the Great Radicalizer – The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Back the Language | Noah Rothman

Nice reminder that language can but both ways by Rothman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

via Taking Back the Language | commentary

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

Pope Francis captures the essence of fake news:

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

Full text below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conservative Case for Identity Politics – The New York Times

Jon A. Shields, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, makes a convincing argument:

How should professors respond to the trend of identity politics that is now roiling American college campuses? Although I am a conservative professor, I recommend making a concession to it by explicitly assigning writers of different races and social backgrounds. Let me explain.

When I was in college, I took a class in logic. There I learned that one should never reject an argument because of the characteristics of the person making it. Instead, one should assess the argument itself on its rational merits. And while I agree that the power of an argument should not depend on the person making it, nonetheless, it does.

I learned that lesson during my first year as a visiting professor at Cornell University. I taught a course on American evangelicals, which attracted a mix of secular and religious students. When we discussed “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” a 1994 book by Mark A. Noll about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical tradition, my evangelical students were critical of it. But they were willing to take the book’s thesis seriously because the author was an evangelical.

Perhaps Mr. Noll’s identity shouldn’t have mattered. His historical evidence and the power of his arguments would be worth considering even if he were Catholic, Jewish or secular. But his identity did matter. It mattered because my evangelical students could not simply assume bad faith on the author’s part. They knew Mr. Noll cared about evangelicals as a group of people. Instead of dismissing Mr. Noll as a bigot, my students thoughtfully engaged with his work.

Since then, I have taken identity into account every time I have assigned new books for one of my courses. I currently teach a course called Black Intellectuals, which is focused on debates around racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. It tends to attract progressive students who, in analyzing racial inequality, are drawn to arguments that stress structural obstacles to equality and the enduring power of white racism, especially in our criminal justice system. The course features black authors who do defend that view, but I also teach the work of others who depart from it in some measure, including heterodox thinkers like Thomas Chatterton Williams and conservatives like Jason Riley. Much like my conservative evangelical students at Cornell, my progressive students at Claremont McKenna College are less likely to assume these contrarian black thinkers are acting in bad faith or are motivated by bigotry — even when the thinkers criticize hip-hop culture or defend white police officers. So the students engage the challenging arguments and ideas instead.

As conservatives have long observed and psychologists have since confirmed, human beings are hive-minded animals whose moral judgments are shaped more by sentiments than by reason. Thus, when we are confronted by arguments we disagree with, we can easily find reasons to reject them. The search for disconfirming evidence, however, can sometimes be short-circuited, especially when we feel close to the person making an argument we disagree with. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt concluded in his 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind,” if we have “affection, admiration, or desire to please” other people, we lean toward them and attempt to “find the truth” in their arguments. Social proximity matters.

If we want our students to consider the work of authors they’re inclined to disagree with, we professors must take the identity of those authors into account. This doesn’t mean scrubbing all white men from our syllabuses. But when we design an education for our students, we should remember that humans are partial, tribal beings — not rational automatons.

Some readers — especially those on the right — may suspect that embracing identity in this way will only embolden campus radicals. But that objection ignores an important truth: Practicing the new identity politics in the right way can subvert the dogmas that drive its excesses. When students read books by a broad intellectual range of evangelical or female or black authors, for example, they learn that there is no single evangelical or female or black perspective. Disagreements about ideas transcend these social categories.

The left has often placed too much faith in the power of human reason. Conservatives make the same error when they insist that the identities of intellectuals should never matter. The fact is, they do. And they would, even absent new movements on campus.

via A Conservative Case for Identity Politics – The New York Times

Stephen Gordon: Guess who’s got more credibility—professors, think tanks or…the CBC

Interesting piece by Gordon:

Think-tanks are an ever-present, yet somehow under-examined feature of the public policy landscape. Think-tanks get a lot of press, at least partly because they are adept at issuing press releases advertising their work to the media, complete with pullquotes and readily available experts for radio and TV hits. Academic studies — the sort of work written by professors for professors — pass almost unnoticed, mainly because most of it is not relevant to current policy debates, and because peer-reviewed publications are not so readily accessible. But is visibility the same thing as credibility?

It would seem not. Carey Doberstein, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, recently published a study in Canadian Public Policy on the credibility gap — he calls it a “credibility chasm” — between academic research and research published by think-tanks and advocacy organizations. Interestingly, his study is not carried out among the general population, but among policy analysts in the provincial governments of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Participants in the study were asked to read and evaluate the credibility of different studies in two areas of provincial competence — minimum wages and income-splitting. The analysts were asked to evaluate a set of five or six studies produced by academics, think-tanks and advocacy groups. Doberstein very sensibly does not draw inferences about credibility from these evaluations: one study is hardly enough to evaluate the credibility of one group, or even of one researcher. He focuses instead on how the source of a study affects policy analysts’ perceptions of its credibility.

Instead of sending the studies out to the analysts under their proper affiliations, Doberstein randomly altered them. For example, a study on the effects of an increase in the minimum wage written by researchers at the University of Toronto and published in a peer-reviewed journal was sent out with the correct affiliation to one group of analysts, under the name of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) to another group, and under the name of the Fraser Institute to yet another group. Similarly, in addition to being sent out under its own name to one group, a CCPA study would be sent out as a University of Toronto study to a different group, and represented as a Fraser Institute study to yet another set of analysts, and so on. Two advocacy groups, the Wellesley Institute and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, rounded out the minimum wage exercise, and a similar mix of academic, think-tank and advocacy groups was used for the income splitting case.

This randomisation strategy allows Doberstein to identify the reputation effects of the various sets of researchers: How is a study’s credibility affected by its affiliation? The answer is: pretty much in the way you’d expect. Adding a university affiliation to a think-tank or advocacy group study increases analysts’ perceptions of its credibility, while adding a think-tank or advocacy group’s name to an academic study makes it less credible. Generally, credibility among policy analysts declines as you move from university affiliations to think-tanks to advocacy groups.

These results aren’t hard to explain. Policy analysts know full well that advocacy groups cannot be expected to publish anything that does not fit their stated agendas, so a study showing (once again!) that the data supports their previously-held position is not a particularly strong signal. Doberstein finds a similar effect among think tanks: Think tanks with a more stridently ideological focus (CCPA, the Fraser Institute) are viewed as being less credible than the relatively neutral C.D Howe Institute.

Is this good news or bad? On the positive side, it shows that policy analysts are well aware of the incentives facing various sets of researchers, and know enough to put their work in context. On the downside, one might have hoped that analysts could set all that aside and evaluate the research on its own merits. Of course, that’s an ideal that almost no one can match: this is why so many academic journals use double-blind peer review, in which neither authors nor reviewers are identified to each other.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why advocacy groups and ideologically-driven think-tanks even bother to produce reports that are discounted so heavily by policy analysts. One answer might simply be that their reports aren’t written for the benefit of analysts; they’re written for the benefit of their donors. People like to have their beliefs confirmed, and they’re willing to pay to have someone tell them that they were (once again!) right.

This discussion also provides some insight into the challenges facing the media, particularly as it concerns the markets for news and opinion. Asking people to pay someone to tell them what they want to hear is a viable business model, and many digital outlets — from The Rebel through Canadaland to Rabble — are in the process of filling out that landscape. (It also raises the question of why the CBC would want to cut into this action with its CBC Opinion site. There’s no obvious market failure here that needs a public-sector fix.)

News, on the other hand, has the elements of a pure public good: everyone benefits from knowing the basic facts of what is going on, and technology has made it almost impossible to control access to news once it’s been published. Profits from advertising revenues can no longer finance news gathering to the same extent that they used to, but academic researchers can still fall back on teaching to cross-subsidize their research work. If you really want to make an academic researcher sweat, ask her to imagine trying to make a living from her research alone.

Source: Stephen Gordon: Guess who’s got more credibility—professors, think tanks or…the CBC

Professors owe their graduate students more than what Lindsay Shepherd got: Clifford Orwin

One of my better former professors on the Shepherd case:

With the stunning revelation that there never were student complainants against teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd – not even one – the reputation of Wilfrid Laurier University should hit rock bottom. Ms. Shepherd’s hectorers were lying to her, like cops trying to extract a confession from a suspect, and they knew they were lying to her.

Rather than complainants, there were merely students overheard discussing Ms. Shepherd’s class. Isn’t that what is supposed to happen at a university, students discussing their courses (hopefully with some animation)? Even taking strong stances pro and con about the teachers and their presentations? My dream of the perfect end to one of my lectures would be a vast crescendo of buzz, indicating that the students will carry the discussion far beyond the lecture hall. If that was Ms. Shepherd’s effect on her students, then some Canadian university should snap her up. One doubts that it will be Laurier.

That there were no student complainants is, as far as it goes, encouraging. Yes, there’s this culture of outrage on our campuses, and the multiplication of groups dedicated to squelching those who offend them. But only a tiny minority of students believes that to disagree with them is an affront (or even a threat) to them. Most are grateful to teachers who introduce them to opinions other than their own. They recognize this as an integral (even the most important) part of a true education. I’ve been disagreeing with students for 43 years now, and they have thanked me for it.

To confront Ms. Shepherd with these phantom complainants was indefensible. You hear a lot about vulnerable groups on campus; you can count graduate students among them. Begin with their material problems: They are faced with a declining job market and the rising costs of education.

This economic reality aggravates the predicament of graduate students in other ways, including their dependence on the opinions of their supervisors. The temptation is to play it safe in the hopes that the jobs will go to those who have done so. (This, too, was an anxiety on which Ms. Shepherd’s supervisors were playing: conform or find yourself professionally toxic.)

In these difficult times, professors are called more than ever to perform their duty of mentorship. Whether in supervising students’ theses or their teaching, we must put their intellectual development first.

In the case of teaching, that means both modelling best practices on the one hand and encouraging our teaching assistants (TAs) to find their own voices on the other. Here Ms. Shepherd’s teachers set bad examples in both regards. They sought to crush her budding intellectual and pedagogical independence; attempted to coerce her into agreement with them concerning both the substance and the methods of their course; banned her from bringing further videos into her classroom and required her to submit all future teaching materials for their prior review. This was an object lesson in how not to treat a graduate student. Did it not occur to them that a TA as engaged and lively as Ms. Shepherd was a blessing to their program?

Every large university course is a collaboration between the lecturer and the teaching assistants. Of course there must be co-ordination, and the TAs must avoid contradicting the lecturer in ways that might confuse the students. But the success of any large course depends on the TAs’ contribution as much as on the lecturer’s. That contribution should not be micromanaged. The lecturer should offer them advice where they solicit it, leave them to spread their wings where they don’t. Should an issue arise between a student and a TA, then of course I must look into it. Otherwise, the lectures are mine, the tutorials are theirs. The course will succeed only if they buy into this arrangement. If I treat them like Lindsay Shepherd was treated, they won’t.

via Professors owe their graduate students more than what Lindsay Shepherd got – The Globe and Mail