“Some down-to-earth blue sky thinking”

“… a dangerous convergence proceeds apace 

as human beings confer life on machines and

in so doing diminish themselves. 

Your calculus may be greater than his calculus 

but will it pass the Sullenberger Hudson river test?”

from “Insulting Machines”, Mike Cooley

(Published in AI and Society 28 373 (2013))


Last week, I listened to some of the most thought-provoking — and occasionally unsettling — presentations and discussions that I’ve encountered throughout my academic career. On Tuesday, I attended, and participated in, the 2019 Responsible Research and Innovation Conference (organised by Nottingham’s Graduate School and the Institute for Science and Society), while on Wednesday the School of Physics and Astronomy hosted the British Pugwash Ethical Science half-day conference:

More on both of these soon. But before I describe just why I found those conferences as affecting as I did, I wanted to highlight last Monday’s session for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (PPP) module. This was the first of this year’s PPP sessions where the students were given free rein to contribute via debate and discussion, and both Omar Almaini (the co-convenor of PPP) and myself were exceptionally impressed by their thoughtful and spirited contributions. (The first three sessions of PPP are in the traditional lecture format. Sessions 4 – 11 are much more akin to the seminar style that is common in arts and humanities disciplines but is very much not the norm in physics courses.)

I have always found the clichés surrounding the STEM vs arts & humanities divide extremely tiresome, and it’s a delight when our students demolish the lazy stereotypes regarding the supposed lack of communication skills of physicists. (Similarly, one of the invited speakers for PPP this year, the sociologist Harry Collins, has shown that social scientists can perform comparably to – or even better than — physicists when it comes to answering physics questions. See “Sociologist Fools Physics Judges” (Nature, 2006) for compelling evidence. More from (and about) Prof. Collins in future posts…)

The title of last Monday’s PPP session was “The Appliance (and non-applicance) of Science” and the slides are embedded below. (Those of you who, like myself, are of a certain vintage might recognise the tag line of the title.)

 

The students drove an hour-long discussion that initially focussed on the two questions given on Slide #3 of the PowerPoint file above but rapidly diverged to cover key related points such as science comms, public engagement, hostility to expertise, and political polarisation. The discussion could have extended much beyond an hour — there were still hands being raised after we’d been in the seminar room for 90 minutes. As is traditional for PPP, I noted down students’ points and questions on the whiteboard as the discussion proceeded. Here are just two of the eight whiteboards’ worth of material…

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(The remainder of the slides are available at the PPP website.)

In case you can’t read my appalling hand-writing, one of the first points raised by the students was the following:

“Curiosity is more than a valid reason to fund research” 

This view kicked off a lot of discussion, culminating in the polar opposite view expressed at the bottom of the whiteboard summary below: “What’s the point of funding anything other than global warming research?”

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“Humanity came and destroyed the world”

The theme of the PPP session last Monday was chosen to align with the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI2019) and Ethical Science conferences on the following days. This post would be 10,000 words long if I attempted to cover all of the key messages stemming from these conferences so I’ll focus on just a few highlights (out of very many). This story, by Dimitris Papadopoulos‘ daughter, was a sobering introduction to the motivations and agenda of RRI2019…

Dimitris was a driving force behind the organisation of RRI2019 (alongside colleagues in the Graduate School) and in his presentation he highlighted key aspects of the RRI framework that would recur time and again throughout the day: generational responsibility; designing for the future;  the realisation that what we create often has a lifespan far beyond our own; “the burden is not on the individual researcher” but we are collectively changing the planet.

He also stressed that, in his view, the primary task of science is not just to understand.

In the context of RRI I have a great deal of sympathy with Dimitris’ stance on this latter point. But I also found it rather unsettling because science that is as disinterested as possible and focussed solely on understanding the nature of the world/universe around us has to be a component of the research “landscape”, not least because, time and again throughout history, curiosity-driven science has led to truly disruptive innovations. (Some to the immense benefit of humanity; others less so, admittedly.) Moreover, we need to be exceptionally careful to retain the disinterested character of pure scientific research when it comes to ensuring public trust in just what we do — an issue to which I returned in another RRI2019 session (see below).

Prof. Sarah Sharples, PVC for Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, was next to speak and made powerful and pointed arguments that senior university (and, indeed, University) management, politicians, and funding bodies of all stripes need to take on board: look beyond simplistic metrics and league tables when it comes to assessing what it means for research to be successful. Sarah highlighted the importance of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to the ironies of automation; clinical care, in particular, is not just about recording numbers and data.

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Pete Licence, Professor of Chemistry and Director of The GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory, continued on the theme of being wary and cognisant of the possibility and potential of unintended consequences, but stressed that sometimes those consequences can be much more positive than we could have ever anticipated. Pete described his collaboration with a number of Ethiopian scientists, which has radically changed both his and their approach to not just the science but the economics associated with green chemistry. He also echoed Sarah Sharples’ key point on the matter of ensuring that we never lose sight of the humanity behind the metrics and tick-boxes: too many lenses mean that, paradoxically, we can often lose focus…

Maybe, Minister?

The RRI conference then split into parallel sessions. This unfortunately meant that I couldn’t go along to the Society and Responsibility discussion — which I was keen to attend (not least because my friend and colleague Brigitte Nerlich was a member of the panel) – as I was participating in the Responsibility in Research and Policy session happening at the same time, alongside Chris Sims (Head of Global Policy Impact at UoN and the Chair and organiser of the session), Steven Hill (Director of Research at Research England, and formerly Head of Policy at HEFCE), and Richard Masterman, UoN’s Associate PVC for Research Strategy and Performance. (All-male panels are never a good look but, in the organisers’ defence, the panel was not initially male only — the original speaker, Dr. Karen Salt (Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at UoN), unfortunately couldn’t make it — and the parallel Society and Responsibility session involved an all-female panel.)

Steven and I have debated and discussed the issues surrounding HEFCE’s, and the research councils’, approach to research impact on a number of occasions — some more heated than others — over the years. (I was very pleased to find that we seem to have converged (give or take) on the middle ground after all these years.) After Chris framed the key themes of the panel discussion, we each had approximately ten mins to make our case. Steven’s ccontribution focussed on the core issue of just how research should (or should not) inform policy and just what RRI should look like in that “space”.

The trade-offs and tensions between researchers and politicians were a core theme of Steven’s argument. To a scientist, the answer to any question is invariably “More research is needed”; a politican, on the other hand, ideally has to make a decision, sometimes urgently, on the basis of the evidence at hand. And the last thing they want to be told is that more research is needed. This was also the resounding message I got at Westminster when I participated (along with my Physics & Astronomy colleague Clare Burrage) in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist scheme back in 2013: science really is not as far up the pecking order as we scientists might like. For this reason, I enthusiastically recommend Chris Tyler‘s illuminating “Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making” to the PPP class every year.

Steven mentioned Roger Pielke Jr’s “honest broker” concept — whereby scientists should be entirely disinterested, fully objective reporters of “The Truth” (however that might be defined) when interacting with politicians and policy. In other words, any tendency towards activism — i.e. promoting a particular (geo)political standpoint — should be avoided entirely. I have major qualms with Pielke’s thesis but Ken Rice (aka “…And Then There’s Physics“) has dealt with these much more comprehensively and eloquently than I could ever manage.

I was also put in mind, on more than one occasion during Steven’s presentation, of “The Thick Of It” clip below (which also features in the PPP course each year. Apologies for the audio quality.)

Richard then outlined the University of Nottingham’s views on the policy-research interface, before I presented the following [1]:

 

The ensuing discussion amongst the panel members, with a lively Q&A from the floor, touched on many of the same points that had been raised during the PPP session the day before: the disinterestedness of research, basic vs applied science, polarisation in politics, trust in scientists (and other professions), the commercialisation of academic research (which was the subject of a particularly pointed question from Jane Calvert in the audience – more on whom below), and balancing public, political, academic, and commercial drivers.

Synthetic Aesthetics and The Wickedness of Global Challenges

In the first session after lunch, the aforementioned Prof. Calvert, of the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh, presented an enthralling keynote lecture entitled Responsible Innovation and Experimental Collaboration, in which se described her adventures in synthetic biology, with a particular focus on cross-disciplinary interactions between artists, scientists (of both the social and life variety), and designers.

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A particularly fascinating aspect of Prof. Calvert’s talk was the description of her work on the Synthetic Aesthetics project, from which a book (among many other “outputs”) has stemmed. I’ll quote directly from the blurb for the book because it captures the core message of Jane’s talk:

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to ‘design nature.’ These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

I have a long-standing interest in the interface between the arts and the sciences — see, for example, The Silent Poetry of Paint Drying, and these posts — so was fascinated by the interweaving of function, form, and, errmm, fungi in the Synthetic Aesthetics project…

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The second post-lunch keynote was from Prof. Phil McNaghten (Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Netherlands), whose work with Matthew Kearnes and James Wilsdon on the ESRC-funded “Governing At The Nanoscale: People, Policies, and Emerging Technologies” project (published in this Demos pamphlet) was more than partly responsible for sparking my nascent interest in the sociology of (nano)science and technology more than a decade ago. Phil’s talk at RRI2019 focussed on how RRI was embedded in practice and policy at the local (WUR), national (EPSRC), and international (Brazil, which is enduring vicious cuts to its science budget) levels.

The Sounds of (Responsible) Salesmen…

I unfortunately only caught the last fifteen minutes or so of the Molecules and Microbes parallel session — chaired by Pete Licence and featuring Prof Steve Howdle (Chemistry, Nottingham), Prof Liz Sockett & Dr Jess Tyson (Life Sciences, Nottingham), and Prof Panos Soultanas (Chemistry, Nottingham) — and so can’t really comment in detail. Panos’ impassioned plea for support for basic, curiosity-driven science certainly resonated, although I can’t say I entirely agreed with his suggestion that irresponsible research wasn’t an issue. (I may have misinterpreted what he meant, however — I didn’t catch all of his presentation.)

The closing plenary was expertly chaired by Dr. Alison Mohr, who introduced, in turn, Dr. Eleanor Kershaw (Synthetic Biology Centre, UoN), Prof. Richard Jones (Physics, University of Sheffield (and erstwhile PVC for Research and Innovation there), and Prof. Martyn Poliakoff. I have known Richard for over fifteen years and have always enjoyed his informed and engaging takes on everything from nanotechnology to transhumanism to the UK’s productivity crisis, via a variety of talks I’ve attended and his blog, Soft Machines. (I also had the pleasure of spending a week at an EPSRC sandpit back in 2007 that was coordinated and steered — in so far as it’s possible to steer a room-full of academics — by Prof. Jones.)

In his plenary, Richard stressed the “scientist as responsible salesman” theme that he has put forward previously (as one of many dimensions of responsibility.) For a characteristically comprehensive analysis of responsible innovation (and irresponsible stagnation), I thoroughly recommend this Soft Machines post.

Martyn Poliakoff brought the conference to a close in his ever-engaging and inimitable style, with a compelling vision of what he and his colleagues have described as a Moore’s law for chemistry,

… namely that over a given period, say five years, sustainable chemists should strive to reduce the amount of a chemical needed to produce a given effect by a factor of two and this process should be repeated for a number of cycles. The key will be to make the whole concept, especially the economics, work for everyone which will require a change in business model for the chemicals market.

[Quote taken from A New Approach to Sustainability: A Moore’s Law for Chemistry, M. Poliakoff, P. Licence, and M. George, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 57 12590 (2018)]

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Although the word Pugwash has an alternative “resonance” for many of us kids of the sixties/seventies, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and the subsequent International Student/Young Pugwash movement, take their name from the town in Nova Scotia, Canada where Joseph Roblat and Bertrand Russell established, in 1957, the international organisation to bring together scientists and public figures to address global security, armed conflict, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction (including, in particular, nuclear warfare). The Pugwash conferences were initiated two years after the Russell-Einstein manifesto was issued, which in turn stemmed from Russell’s deep fears about atomic weapons:

The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

Jo(seph) Roblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 “for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.” 

I have organised a number of joint events with British Pugwash — more specifically, with Andrew Gibson, the British Pugwash Student Manager — over the last few years, including a PPP seminar given back in Nov. 2016 by Prof. John Finney (UCL), Pugwash Trustee, and a tireless advocate for the organisation. Alongside Peter Jenkins, Chair of British Pugwash, John kicked off the Ethical Science conference at Nottingham last Wednesday with a fascinating account of the history of Pugwash and, in particular, Jo Rotblat’s inspiring life.

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Dr. Ian Crossland then discussed the ethics and intergenerational issues surrounding nuclear power, followed by a stirring presentation by Sam Harris, climate activist and Nottingham Trent Labour Society’s campaigns officer, on Labour’s Green New Deal.

LauraNolan.pngA  particular highlight of not just the Pugwash conference but of all of last weeks’ events was Laura Nolan‘s remarkable presentation, delivered with tons of energy and passion. (I try to avoid the p-word, given that it’s an obnoxiously lazy cliche, but in this case it is more than justified.) Laura, a Trinity College Dublin computer science graduate, resigned from Google, where she was a software engineer, in 2017 after she was asked to work on a project whose focus was the enhancement of US miltary drone technology. Laura’s story is recounted in this important Guardian article. (See also this interview.) The quote below, from that article, captures the issues that Laura covered in her talk at the Pugwash conference.

“If you are testing a machine that is making its own decisions about the world around it then it has to be in real time. Besides, how do you train a system that runs solely on software how to detect subtle human behaviour or discern the difference between hunters and insurgents? How does the killing machine out there on its own flying about distinguish between the 18-year-old combatant and the 18-year-old who is hunting for rabbits?

Anuradha Damale — currently of Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, and a fellow physicist — had a tough act to follow but she delivered a great talk with quite some aplomb, despite having lost her voice! Anuradha covered the troublesome issue of nuclear weapons verification programmes, and despite the lack of vocal volume, participated in a lively Q&A session with Laura following their talks.

I’m going to close this post with the source of its title: “Down-to-earth blue sky thinking”. The inspiring video embedded below was shown by Tony Simpson — who also discussed Mike Cooley’s pioneering work on the influence of technology on society (and whose prose poem, “Insulting Machines“, is quoted above) — during the closing presentation of the Pugwash conference.

I’ve waffled on for much too long at this point. Let’s hear instead from those whose actions spoke so much louder than words…

 


 

[1] It’s unfortunately not clear from the embedded SlideShare widget of the slides but I cited (and quoted from) this influential blog post when crediting Gemma Derrick and Paul Benneworth with coining the “grimpact” term.

La Tristesse Durera (Sigh To A Scream)*

Just a few short lines on today’s post from the always-worth-reading And Then There’s Physics… ATTP’s exasperation is clear from the title of his post: “Sigh. You should, of course, read the entire piece but the lines that particularly resonated with me, following my own recent cri de coeur on the subject of online factions, were these:

Unfortunately, I think this is becoming all too common. My impression is that we’re now in a position where people who probably mostly agree about the issues, are in conflict over details that probably don’t really matter.

I really do wish it were possible to have these nuanced discussions without it turning contentious; that it were possible to have a discussion where maybe people didn’t end agreeing, but still learned something.

sigh, indeed.

*With all due credit to Mr. James Dean Bradfield and colleagues.

Online Othering: The Other Side

One opportunity I bitterly regret passing up last year was the offer to contribute a chapter (with Mark Carrigan) to this engrossing and influential book…

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The blurb for Online Othering reads as follows:

This book explores the discrimination encountered and propagated by individuals in online environments. The editors develop the concept of ‘online othering’ as a tool through which to analyse and make sense of the myriad toxic and harmful behaviours which are being created through, or perpetuated via, the use of communication-technologies such as the internet, social media, and ‘the internet of things’. The book problematises the dichotomy assumed between real and virtual spaces by exploring the construction of online abuse, victims’ experiences, resistance to online othering, and the policing of interpersonal cyber-crime. The relationship between various socio-political institutions and experiences of online hate speech are also explored.

I thoroughly recommend you get hold of a copy, by hook or by crook. (I am also delighted that one of the editors of Online Othering, Dr. Karen Lumsden, took up an Assistant Professor in Criminology position here at the University of Nottingham at the start of the week. Welcome to Nottingham, Karen!)

Mark and I had planned to submit a chapter on the “SJW vs anti-SJW” culture wars but we were both swamped with other commitments at the time and just couldn’t deliver. A year on, however, and after reading Online Othering in its entirety on a recent flight to the US, I think I’d take a slightly different, and somewhat less strident, tack if I were writing a chapter for the book right now. There’s a whole other side to othering that I’d like to explore.

The term “othering” is helpfully defined by Karen and her co-author/co-editor Dr. Emily Harmer in Chapter 1 as follows,

The practices and processes through which the ‘outsider’ is constructed are encapsulated via the notion of ‘othering’. According to Lister, othering is a ‘process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between “us” and “them” – between the more and the less powerful – and through which social distance is established and maintained’ [Lister, R. (2004). Poverty. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 101]. It involves constructions of the self or ‘in-group’, and the other or ‘out-group’, through identification of what the former has and what the latter lacks in relation to the former [Brons, L. (2015). Othering, an analysis. Transcience, 6(1), 69 90]. It is the means of defining into existence a group perceived to be ‘inferior’ [Schwalbe, M., et al. (2000). Generic processes in reproduction of inequality: An interactionist analysis. Social Forces, 79(2), 419–452.]

“The Other” is subsequently placed in the context of Simone de Beauvoir‘s “The Second Sex”,

 [Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. [De Beauvoir, S. (1976 [1949]). The Second Sex. Paris: Gallimard.]

but de Beauvoir herself substanitally broadened that definition later (p.52) in The Second Sex

No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself … [T]o the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.

“Online Othering: Exploring Digital Discrimination and Violence on the Web” focuses on othering perpetrated by a variety of right-leaning and (far-)right wing, reactionary, and conservative groups, viz. the alt-right, Mens’ Rights Activists (MRAs), anti-feminists, anti-trans-rights pundits, white nationalists/supermacists, and anti-social-justice warriors. The title of Chapter 4 tells you all you need to know about the extent of the sickening online abuse* discussed in the book: ‘ “I Want to Kill You in Front of Your Children” Is Not a Threat. It’s an Expression of a Desire’: Discourses of Online Abuse, Trolling and Violence on r/MensRights’

As outlined in the excerpts from the book above, however, “othering” is a much broader concept and involves social settings where those outside our “tribe” can be identified and discriminated against. Some who would traditionally describe themselves as “of the left” (or at least left-leaning) are more than capable of online othering, even when it is entirely counter-productive and ultimately slows progress in furthering diversity and equality.  At best, there’s an exceptionally irksome tendency towards holier-than-thou “purity testing” (and the associated “People’s Front of Judea” in-fighting and backbiting); at worst, others are demonised and/or cast out simply because they’re not sufficiently well-aligned with the values of our tribe. Most depressingly, even when “The Other” recognises and admits to their mistakes, this is not enough. They still have to be avoided like the plague.

Here’s a topical example of what I have in mind:

Great, one might think. A careful and nuanced admission from an ideological opponent that his political party is enabling white supremacy; a clear attack on Trump from behind enemy lines. What could be better? Isn’t this to be loudly applauded? Shouldn’t Senator McCollister receive plaudits from “our side” for calling out the far-from-covert racism of Mr. Trump and his allies?

Scroll down that thread and you’ll find those who are indeed willing to give credit where it’s due, who get beyond the tribalism, and who realise that if we want to make real progress then we have to be willing to accept that those with whom we have political, religious, and/or ideological differences are not invariably evil incarnate.

But then you also find those who will never see Senator McCollister (and, indeed, all Republicans) as anything other than The Other…

This type of ideological puritanism is both bloody exhausting and worse than useless. What does it get us, other than a few more “likes” or “retweets” from similarly-minded members of our tribe? To make real progress, and as Dave Fowler expressed so well in a previous post, occasionally we need to break the rules of the game and step outside the conventions of our tribe.

I’m writing this post from Castleblaney in Co. Monaghan, where I’m on holiday with my son, and which is very close to where I grew up in the seventies and eighties — a time of H-blocks, hunger strikes, Bobby Sands fervour, and regular bombings in the North and the mainland. Monaghan is a border county and also rather Republican — albeit in a rather different sense than for our US cousins — in its outlook. The Northern Ireland peace process, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, did not come about by one side othering the other; those deeply polarised, sectarian divisions were not bridged by the type of tribal mentality that underpins modern online political (and apolitical) debate. It was instead a triumph of compromise, and of recognising the humanity of The Other.


* As the editors deftly point out in their introduction, the offline and the online are, of course, not disconnected, orthogonal spheres of activity: “Moreover, despite the inclusion of the term ‘online ’, we, like others, believe it is important to acknowledge that these behaviours do not occur in a ‘virtual vacuum’—they are part and parcel of everyday life and have real consequences in what some have chosen to call the ‘real’ (versus the ‘virtual’) world. We must throw out the well-worn dichotomies of ‘online versus offline’, and ‘virtual world’ versus ‘real world’, and instead acknowledge the interconnected and fluid nature of our everyday use of information and communication technologies.”

Rules of Engagement

This is a guest post by my friend and fellow physics enthusiast, David Domminney Fowler, previously published at http://www.frontbenchpolitics.co.uk. (Dave’s personal website is http://www.daviddomminney.com/ ). What Dave says below resonates very strongly with me, and as the “rules of engagement” problem is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the last while, I was keen to re-blog his post here at “Symptoms…”

Dave and I have enjoyed the occasional ever-so-brief discussion on the central theme of his post, and I would say our views are very closely aligned. (Indeed, I think the only very minor point on which Dave and I are perhaps not in complete agreement is with regard to the intellectual clout and substance, or lack thereof, of a certain JB Peterson.) The game theory parallel outlined by Dave below is a compelling argument.

Over to you, Dave…


I’ve been struggling for a while now with a question.

How is it that seemingly intelligent, and in some cases extremely intelligent people, seem to draw wildly different conclusions and disagree to the point of being illogical?

For example, take Steve Bannon, Stephen Fry, Ezra Kline, Nigel Farage, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Eric & Bret Weinstein, Ben Shapiro, Bill Maher, the list could go on.

They have many differences of opinion on a range of topics, which is to be expected, but why is this to be expected?

Why is it that Steve Bannon and Stephen Fry, both of which are extremely intelligent can disagree about so much when they no doubt have a lot of the same data to draw their conclusions from?

How can Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, two of the world’s leading public intellectuals disagree on so many fundamental issues, even on the nature of truth?

I think some of this can be explained by thinking about games.

Take chess for example. A player wins when the other player either gets checkmated or resigns.

They are the rules.

If one player doesn’t agree that they are in checkmate then they haven’t accepted the rules.

Now with chess that’s easy to argue as there are set rules, but when you are talking about the complexity of 7 billion people all trying to construct society with only the laws of physics as a boundary things aren’t quite so simple.

There are no physical rules, well no man made physical rules.

People then tend to act based on the rules they think are appropriate, they dream up, or they’re too scared to break.

This is where game theory comes in, or at least the origins of it.

Game theory was originally a study focused on zero sum games, written by mathematician John Nash. You may have heard of him, he had a film made about him called “A Beautiful Mind”. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Anyway, a zero sum game is basically one that means if one side gains a few points, the other side lose a few. Every win or loss is a cost or benefit to the opponents.

Imagine a mile long beach. There are 2 drink sellers that have an informal agreement to sell to half the beach each, so they each set up a quarter of a mile from an end.

On day two, one edges slightly closer to the centre. This creates an advantage as one seller covers more beach than the other.

So on day 3 the other also edges to the centre, but predicting that this was a likely reaction they both end up edging closer to the centre.

How many days do you think it will take before they are both back to back in the centre?

This position is called the “Nash Equilibrium”. Neither side has an advantageous move.

A non zero sum game is something where all participants end up receiving a benefit, like a well written trade agreement or falling in love.

Imagine a world where things are so complex that you have 7 billion people with 7 billion different ideas on what the rules of the game are.

Imagine a world where some people are seeing situations as zero sum games and others are not.

I think that is partly why we have so much confusion and seemingly contradictory ideas coming from some of the finest minds.

At this point one has to take into consideration individual skill sets. Everybody looks at problems with their own lenses focused using their experiences.

It’s not surprising that Elon Musk sees the world as potentially a computer simulation, from his perspective there is evidence everywhere, but that’s because he sees things through a computing, engineering and physics lens.

It’s also not surprising that people without any significant science or maths training tend to see the world in a much more analogue and in some cases romantic way.

Using Steve Bannon as an example. Love him or hate him or in-between, he’s an incredibly clever guy.

If you don’t know who he is, he’s by many considered the real brain behind the Trump movement and many other nationalist movements around the world.

Let’s look at his main careers pre Trump.

He was a military man, then worked for Goldman Sachs before co founding media company, Breitbart News.

In the military most things are zero sum games. If one side wins the other loses. Yes this is an over simplification but in general it’s true.

Anyone that has degrees in economics or business studies game theory. It’s essential for all modern day bankers, and he holds masters degrees in these areas.

Media is also mostly a zero sum game. Time spent reading the Guardian or watching CNN is time not spent reading the Times or watching FOX.

So it’s no wonder that Bannon views everything through the lens of his zero sum game training, it’s probably his best skill.

Unfortunately this sometimes leads very clever people to inaccurately draw conclusions because they mistake a non zero sum game for a zero sum game.

Whilst away on a break thinking about writing this I happened to catch part of “The Boss Baby”, a movie that summed up game theory and the dangers of perceiving non zero sum games as zero sum games.

It’s a kids film but it’s lesson is no less accurate. The Boss Baby tries to argue that there is a finite amount of parental love and if more things (like puppies) need love they’ll be less for the children. Obviously it ends well with the lesson not to misidentify such games. A great lesson for kids.

If you think that for your nation, to do well, others have to do less well, then you probably see such things as a zero sum game.

If you think that for your nation to succeed every nation has to succeed and we can all improve our standards of living by working as a team, then you probably don’t see things as a zero sum game.

If you see all global and national power and influence structures as a combined force, a hidden hand steering the world without revealing their true identity then you probably see a lot of zero sum games.

So next time you are in an argument or debate with someone that vehemently oppose what you are saying, yet you know they are indeed a rational and intelligent person and you question how they cannot see what you see, think about it in terms of rule differences.

Do you know the rules of the game?

Do they?

Are there set rules?

Is it a zero sum game?

What are the consequences of misidentifying the rules?

My personal opinion is whatever debate we engage in, the rules are fluid and it’s very easy to be disorientated by the complexity. This is why sometimes different voices with different outcomes are important to create balance, as no one group or person can calculate their position based on every rule, but a collection of people lensing problems through their own skill sets can be a great thing.

Where this goes wrong is when an influential person or group misidentifies the game, either through their own lens bias or for personal gain, then they influence others to see their rules as the game and ignore the possibility of other better fitting rule sets.

Do games become different depending on the lenses of the participants? I’m sure they do.

Life is not chess, there are no set rules, it’s possible for one person to hail an individual as a hero and another to see the same person as evil.

Let’s spend less time thinking opponents are crazy and more time discussing how they reached their rules of the game.

“We don’t need no education…”

(…or Why It Sometimes Might Be Better For Us Academics to Shut The F**k Up Occasionally.)

Boost Public Engagement to Beat Pseudoscience, says Jim Al-Khalili” goes the headline on p.19 of this week’s Times Higher Education, my traditional Saturday teatime read. The brief article, a summary of points Jim made during his talk at the Young Universities Summit, continues…

Universities must provide more opportunities for academics to engage with the public or risk allowing pseudoscience to “fill the vacuum”, according to Jim Al-Khalili.

Prof. Al-Khalili is an exceptionally talented and wonderfully engaging science communicator. I enjoy, and very regularly recommend (to students and science enthusiasts of all stripes), his books and his TV programmes. But the idea that education and academic engagement are enough to counter pseudoscience is, at the very best, misleading and, at worst, a dangerous and counter-productive message to propagate.

The academic mantra of “education, education, education” as the unqualified panacea for every socioeconomic ill, although comforting, is almost always a much too simplistic — and, for some who don’t share our ideological leanings, irritatingly condescending — approach. I’ve written enthusiastically before about Tom Nichols’ powerful “The Death of Expertise”, and I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve referred to David McRaney’s The Backfire Effect in previous posts and articles I’ve written. It does no harm to quote McRaney one more time…

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

Perhaps you’ve been more fortunate than McRaney (and me.) But somehow I doubt it.

As just one example from McRaney’s list, there is strong and consistent evidence that, in the U.S., Democrats are much more inclined to accept the evidence for anthropogenic climate change than Republicans. That’s bad enough, but the problem of political skew in motivated rejection of science is much broader. A very similar and very distinct right-left asymmetry exists across the board, as discussed in Lewandowsky and Oberauer’s influential paper, Motivated Rejection Of Science. I’ll quote from their abstract, where they make the same argument as McRaney but in rather more academic, though no less compelling, terms [1]:

Rejection of scientific findings is mostly driven by motivated cognition: People tend to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview. At present, rejection of scientific findings by the U.S. public is more prevalent on the political right than the left. Yet the cognitive mechanisms driving rejection of science, such as the superficial processing of evidence toward the desired interpretation, are found regardless of political orientation. General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.

Let me repeat and bolden that last line for emphasis. It’s exceptionally important.


General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.


If we blithely assume that the rejection of well-accepted scientific findings — and the potential subsequent descent into the cosy embrace of pseudoscience — is simply a matter of a lack of education and engagement, we fail to recognise the complex and multi-facetted sociology and psychology at play here. Yes, we academics need to get out there and talk about the research we and others do — and I’m rather keen on doing this myself (as discussed here, here, and here) — but let’s not make the mistake that there’s always a willing audience waiting with bated breath for the experts to come and correct them on what they’re getting wrong.

I spend a lot of time on public engagement, both online and off — although not, admittedly, as much as Jim — and I’ve encountered the “motivated rejection” effect time and time again over the years. Here’s just one example of what I mean — a comment posted under the most recent Computerphile video I did with Sean Riley:

ZeroCred

The “zero credibility” comment stems not from the science presented in the video but from a reaction to my particular ideological and political leanings. For reasons I’ve discussed at length previously, I’ve been labelled as an “SJW” — a badge I’m happy to wear with quite some pride. (If you’ve not encountered the SJW perjorative previously, lucky you. Here’s a primer.) Because of my SJW leanings, the science I present, regardless of its accuracy (and level of supporting evidence/research), is immediately rejected by a subset of aggrieved individuals who do not share my political outlook. They outright dismiss the credibility or validity of the science not on the basis of the content or the strength of the data/evidence but solely on their ideological, emotional, and knee-jerk reaction to me…

Downvoting

(That screenshot above is taken from the comments section for this video.)

It’s worth noting that the small hardcore of viewers who regularly downvote and leave comments about the ostensible lack of credibility of the science I present are very often precisely those who would claim to be ever-so-rational and whose clarion call is “Facts over feels” [1]. Yet they are so opposed to my “SJW-ism” that they reject everything I say, on any topic, as untrustworthy; they cannot get beyond their gut-level emotional reaction to me.

My dedicated following of haters is a microcosm of the deep political polarisation we’re seeing online, with science caught in the slip-stream and accepted/rejected on the basis of how it appeals to a given worldview, rather than on the strength of the scientific evidence itself. (And it’s always fun to be told exactly how science works by those who have never carried out an experiment, published a paper, been a member of a peer-review panel, reviewed a grant etc.) This then begs the question: Am I, as a left-leaning academic with clearly diabolical SJW tendencies, in any position at all to educate this particular audience on any topic? Of course not. No matter how much scientific data and evidence I provide it will be dismissed out of hand because I am not of their tribe.[3]

Jim Al-Khalili’s argument at the Young Universities Summit that what’s required is ever-more education and academic engagement is, in essence, what sociologists and Science and Technology Studies (STS) experts would describe as the deficit model. The deficit model has been widely discredited because it simply does not accurately describe how we modify our views (or not) in the light of more information. (At the risk of making …And Then There’s Physics  scream, I encourage you to read their informative and entertaining posts on the theme of the deficit model.)

Prof. Al-Khalili is further reported as stating that “…to some extent, you do have to stand up and you do have to bang on about evidence and rationalism, because if we don’t, we will make the same mistakes of the past where the vacuum will be filled with people talking pseudoscience or nonsense.” 

Banging on about evidence and rationalism will have close to zero effect on ideologically opoosed audiences because they already see themselves as rational and driven by evidence [3]; they won’t admit to being biased and irrational because their bias is unconscious. And we are all guilty of succumbing to unconscious bias, to a greater or lesser extent. Force-feeding  more data and evidence to those with whom we disagree is not only unlikely to change their minds, it’s much more likely to entrench them further in their views. (McRaney, passim.)

Let me make a radical suggestion. What if we academics decided to engage rather less sometimes? After all, who is best placed to sway the position — on climate change, vaccination, healthcare, social welfare, or just about any topic — of a deeply anti-establishment Trump supporter who has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the “universities are hotbeds of cultural Marxism” meme? A liberal academic who can trot out chapter and verse from the literature, and present watertight quantitative (and qualitative) arguments ?

Of course not.

We need to connect, somehow, beyond the level of raw data and evidence. We need to appeal to that individual’s biases and psychology. And that means thinking more cannily, and more politically, about how we influence a community. Barking, or even gently reciting, facts and figures is not going to work. This is uncomfortable for any scientist, I know. But you don’t need to take my word for it — review the evidence for yourself.

The strength of the data used to support a scientific argument almost certainly won’t make a damn bit of difference when a worldview or ideology is challenged. And that’s not because our audience is uneducated. Nor are they unintelligent. They are behaving exactly as we do. They are protecting their worldview via the backfire effect.

 


[1] One might credibly argue that the rejection skew could lean the other way on certain topics such as the anti-vaccination debate, where anecdotal, and other, evidence might suggest that there is a stronger liberal/left bias. It turns out that even when it comes to anti-vaxxers, there is quite a considerable amount of data to support that it’s the right that has a higher degree of anti-science bias [2]. Here’s one key example: Trust In Scientists On Climate Change and Vaccines, LC Hamilton, J Hartter, and K Saito,  SAGE Open, July – Sept 2015, 1 – 13. See also Beyond Misinformation, S. Lewandowsky, U. K. H. Ecker, and J. Cook, J. Appl. Res. Memory. Cogn. 6 353 (2017) for a brief review of some of the more important literature on this topic.

[2] …but then it’s all lefty, liberal academics writing these papers, right? They would say that.

[3] Here’s an amusing recent example of numerological nonsense being passed off as scientific reasoning. Note that Peter Coles’ correspondent claims that the science is on his side. How persuasive do you think he’ll find Peter’s watertight, evidence-based reasoning to be? How should he be further persauded? Will more scientific evidence and data do the trick?

 

Bursting Ben’s Bubble: Shapiro meets the rabid lefty Andrew Neil

I thoroughly recommend that you take sixteen minutes of your time today to watch just what happens when a leading Conservative pundit is required to leave his YouTube and Fox News safe space and respond to reasonable, rational questions put to him in a far-from-confrontational yet critical tone…

Shapiro, who throws around the “snowflake” epithet with wild abandon and regularly whines about the over-sensitivity of his political opponents, walked out of the interview because he thought that Andrew “Brillo” Neil was too much of a lefty. Yep, this Andrew Neil. That renowned darling of the left. As those wags at Private Eye — who have taken every available opportunity to highlight Mr. Neil over the years —  would put it, shurely shome mistake?

Shapiro’s tantrum was followed by the amusing meltdown of his hypersensitive fans who whined about Neil’s “rudeness” during the interview…

Watch the interview. Make up your own mind as to how Shapiro performed outside the echo chamber of his YouTube subscriber base. But make sure you watch right to the end. Andrew Neil’s closing line is delicious.