All posts filed under: Science / Tech

The Flawed Reasoning of the Techlash and Progressive Movements

Around the globe, governments are looking for ways to tax, fine, regulate, or break up Big Tech—part of a reaction against companies like Google and Amazon that has become known as the “techlash.” This represents a huge shift in economic policy thinking, potentially the most significant in the West since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. Although they may seem unrelated, there are striking parallels between this techlash and progressive activism (so-called “woke” culture) that attempts to radically alter Western social norms. On their own terms, both movements rest on similar reasoning concerning moral responsibility, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable from the powerful. In other words, even though their proponents only partly overlap (the techlash has notably gained significant traction on the Right), similar underlying forces appear to be driving both movements. Tales of oppressors and oppressed Both progressive activism on the Left and the techlash on the Right view the world as one in which privileged individuals or corporations unfairly oppress an unfortunate minority (the works of Hegel and Marx loom large).  Consider the following self-descriptions. …

Why Do Progressives Support the Unfettered Use of Private Property?

In mid-October, Twitter took the unprecedented step of preventing its users from sharing a link to a New York Post story reporting allegations about the Biden family’s foreign financial interests. Whenever controversies about social media censorship arise, a mantra is repeated in their defence, usually by progressives: these are private companies and, as such, they can regulate speech on their platforms however they wish. Notice that this claim does not simply maintain that companies can restrict information in pursuit of specific policy aims (like thwarting criminal activity such as human trafficking efforts or combating terrorist networks). Instead, they can restrict expression on their platforms simply because those platforms are company property. Among the most familiar responses to this argument is the view that, even though these tech giants are private entities, they function like public forums in which free expression should be upheld. Here, I spell out a different approach: that while social media companies are indeed private entities, they should nevertheless be unable to regulate non-criminal activity on their platforms for a variety of moral …

The Apocalyptic Threat from Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Science Fiction

The person in the photo that sits to the left of this paragraph does not exist. It was generated using Artificial intelligence (AI), which can now generate pictures of imaginary people (and cats) that look real. While this technology may create a bit of social havoc, the truly massive disruption will occur when AIs can match or exceed the thinking power of the human brain. This is not a remote possibility: Variants of the machine-learning AIs that today generate fake pictures have a good chance of creating computer superintelligences before this century is out. These superior beings could be applied to wonderful purposes. Just this week, for instance, it was announced that the AI system AlphaFold has been recognized for providing a solution to the so-called “protein folding problem,” which holds implications for our fundamental understanding of the basic building blocks of human biology. If, however, mankind releases smarter-than-us AI before figuring out how to align their values with our own, we could bring forth an apocalypse instead. Even the Pope fears the destructive potential …

Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction

“You have continued to stand as an individual that seems to turn a blind eye to the stuff that’s going on, as a black woman that is in the [college] administration,” said the first-year Haverford College student. “I came to this institution”—and here she pauses for a moment, apparently fighting back tears—“I expected you, of any of us, to stand up and be the icon for black women on this campus… So, I’m not trying to hear anything that you have to say regarding that, due to the fact that you haven’t stood up for us—you never have, and I doubt that you ever will.” The school-wide November 5th Zoom call, a recording of which has been preserved, was hosted by Wendy Raymond, Haverford’s president. At the time, the elite Pennsylvania liberal arts college was a week into a student strike being staged, according to organizers, to protest “anti-blackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” During the two-hour-and-nine-minute discussion, viewed in real time by many of the school’s 1,350 students, Raymond presented herself as solemnly …

Relearning How to Read in the Age of Social Media

However amusing the meme or moving the pictures, reading—not gazing—remains the cornerstone of our civilisation. People who don’t actively seek out books or articles inevitably lead more restricted lives because extended prose remains the most effective means of communicating complex ideas. If your reading never strays beyond the demands of a colleague’s email or the brevity of a friend’s social media message, you live like a foreigner in your mother tongue, moving through the world partly sighted, a second-class citizen lacking a passport to ideas. That is why millions of pounds of international aid are spent on global initiatives to improve literacy. But the ubiquity of the computer chip has meant the whole business of reading, the physical experience of engaging with extended prose, has brought about dramatic changes that we are struggling to acknowledge, never mind understand. Meanwhile, our educational system behaves as though Fleet Street still existed and professional authors still used Tippex. The ubiquity of costly computers and infrastructure has not in itself done anything to change academic attitudes to reading or …

Desperation and the Quest for Control: The Dangers of Alternative Medicine

I am a skeptic and a curmudgeon, so I was surprised when a friend of 30 years asked if she could add me to her “Reiki Grid.” A Reiki Grid, I soon discovered, is a pattern made with crystals, allowing a Reiki practitioner to send “healing energy” to individuals whose names or pictures are placed on the grid. My friend is not a contemporary shaman. She is a hard-nosed, highly competent 37-year-old female attorney. She also has Stage IV breast cancer. Since her diagnosis, besides conventional cancer treatment, she has turned to alternative medicine and treatment modalities, including Reiki, which she credits for playing a large part in her health remaining stable at the moment. And what is Reiki? If I’m being diplomatic, I would describe it as “energy healing,” a sub-type of alternative medicine involving the practitioner placing their hands lightly on or just above the patient’s body in order to “transfer” energy. If I’m being truthful, I’d describe it as utter woo—a glaringly obvious pseudoscience. And yet it is a pseudoscience many women …

Retracting a Controversial Paper Won’t Help Female Scientists

Imagine yourself as a newly hired female assistant professor and the delight you feel when you learn that your article, examining over 222 million academic papers, has just been accepted at one of the top science journals. Now imagine your response when you discover that a fellow female academic is formally demanding your paper’s retraction,1 galvanized by a mob of outraged scientists on Twitter. This was the recent experience of Bedoor AlShebli, who published her large-scale research in Nature Communications.2 Open letter to the Editor-in-Chief of @NatureComms about the AlShebli paper, which claims that training with #WomenInSTEM damages the careers of young scientists pic.twitter.com/NvuBK3Z5T6 — Leslie Vosshall PhD (@pollyp1) November 19, 2020 In an analysis of over three million junior and senior co-author teams, AlShebli and her colleagues found that junior scholars with more female senior co-authors received fewer citations (up to 35 percent fewer) on their academic publications. Moreover, senior female academics who published with female junior scholars received 18 percent fewer citations than those who published with male junior scholars. No such citation …

Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion. How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students? Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about …

The Life and Death of Unus Annus

We live our lives taking each second for granted. But what would you do if you knew how much time you had left? Unus Annus. One year. This channel, much like all of you, has a limited amount of time. And every day we march ever closer to this channel’s inevitable doom. That means we’ll be uploading every single day until the clock strikes zero. And then, it’s game over. Bye, bye. Finito. Finished. Curtains. Gone, gone. Night, night. Dead. Forever. Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean that we’ll just stop uploading. When time runs out we will be deleting this channel and every single video on it. And you’ll never be able to see them again. Because much like death, you can’t take it with you. And all we’ll have is the memories that we make along the way… so the clock starts now. But the choice is yours. Will you join us? Or will you miss out on your one chance to be a part of Unus Annus? Because time is already running …

The Fragility of Modern Education in the Time of COVID-19

Modern education is arguably the most massive feat of social engineering ever attempted by humanity and one of the most important, when effective. Academic competencies at the end of schooling can have life-long influences on employability, wages, and the ability to advance in one’s career.1,2,3,4 These influences, of course, benefit the individual, but also shape the communities in which educated individuals reside and have wider effects on gross domestic product and rates of technological and other innovations.4, 5 It is not simply years of schooling or having a credential (e.g., high school diploma) that produce these effects, it is the actual reading, mathematics, and other academic skills and knowledge that students take with them as they head off for college or the work force.5 With this in mind, consider that the strategies designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the schooling of as many as three out of four of the world’s students,6 The long-term impacts of these disruptions will not be known for some time but there are well-founded reasons to believe …