All posts filed under: Science / Tech

The Tragic Vision: Making the Best of Things

“Life is tragic,” James Baldwin wrote, “simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.” Baldwin was expressing the tragic vision of human life. This vision has been a consistent feature of great art and literature throughout history, confronting universal themes of death, time, chaos, futility, the absurd, evil, unmitigated suffering, and the built-in constraints of the human condition from which any transcendent heroism must invariably proceed, and upon which all genuine religious experience is based. In the typical tragedy, the protagonist comes up against the cruel and indifferent forces of the universe and loses, but in the process discovers a deeper human capacity for resilience that can sustain a sense of meaning through future struggles. The tragic hero transcends limitation by accepting it and gaining knowledge of their own flaws and limitations in the process. In The Hero and the Blues, the novelist and critic Albert Murray compares Greek tragedy to the blues tradition …

Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence

It’s easy to decry cancel culture, but hard to turn it back. Thankfully, recent developments in my area of academic specialty—artificial intelligence (AI)—show that fighting cancel culture isn’t impossible. And as I explain below, the lessons that members of the AI community have learned in this regard can be generalized to other professional subcultures. To understand the flash point at issue, it’s necessary to delve briefly into how AI functions. In many cases, AI algorithms have partly replaced both formal and informal human decision-making systems that pick who gets hired or promoted within organizations. Financial institutions use AI to determine who gets a loan. And some police agencies use AI to anticipate which neighborhoods will be afflicted by crime. As such, there has been a great focus on ensuring that algorithms won’t replicate their coders’ implicit biases against, say, women or visible minorities. Citing evidence that, for instance, “commercial face recognition systems have much higher error rates for dark-skinned women while having minimal errors on light skinned men,” computer scientist Timnit Gebru, formerly the co-lead …

Wikipedia Turns Twenty

In April 1766, the final volumes of Encyclopédie rolled off a clandestine French printing press carrying the mark of a foreign printer. Subscribers, at this point, may have despaired of ever seeing them—in 1750 they had been promised 10 volumes over five years. The finished product consisted of 28 volumes of 71,818 articles from A (the letter) to Zzuéné (the Egyptian town of Aswan), totalling 20 million words and including 3,129 illustrations. It represented the work of over a hundred contributors led by editors Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste D’Alembert. The encyclopédists were criticised (fairly) for plagiarism. “One may harvest the way bees do… but the thievery of the ant, which walks off with the whole thing, ought never to be imitated” the first volume’s Jesuit reviewer wrote archly. The encyclopédists were inconsistent, and when wandering away from their areas of expertise made some odd claims. Readers of Diderot’s article on the Human Species learned that the Swedes live underground, call the devil with a drum, have never heard of God or religion, and offer their …

COVID-19’s Death Toll: A Historical Perspective

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, public discussion of the virus’s lethality has focussed on two metrics: the infection fatality rate (the percentage of those who become infected that go on to die), and the absolute number of deaths attributable to COVID-19. The latter quantity has been estimated in two different ways: (1) the number of deaths in which COVID-19 was a plausible contributing factor (“confirmed deaths”), and (2) the number of all-cause deaths in excess of the average over the last five years (“excess deaths”). Governments typically report confirmed deaths on the basis of whether the deceased recently tested positive for COVID-19, or whether COVID-19 is mentioned on the death certificate. Many national health authorities also report data on excess deaths, much of which is compiled on the Our World in Data website. There may be a significant discrepancy between confirmed deaths and excess deaths. If a country lacks testing infrastructure or many people die without being properly diagnosed, confirmed deaths are likely to be lower than excess deaths (false negatives). By contrast, if many …

Why ‘Just Follow the Science’ Won’t Solve All Our Problems

Science can be truly wondrous—as we’ve all come to appreciate now that scientists have developed a COVID-19 vaccine (several, in fact) less than a year into the pandemic. And even when it isn’t saving our lives, science moves our understanding of the world forward in a way that everyone can get behind. With rare exceptions, for instance, people of all political orientations, races, and nationalities can agree that water freezes at 0°C, gravity draws objects toward the ground, and the Earth rotates around the Sun and not vice versa. The wonders of science are so great that many philosophers and religious leaders predicted—with a sense of either hope or fear—that science would replace religion as the central organizing principle of our intellectual lives. Yet that hasn’t happened, despite the saturation of daily life with the fruits of science, from our tiny smartphones to the massive machines that power our globalized mass-market economy. When it comes to some of the most important ideological, political, and moral questions we face, the principles of scientific inquiry—including even basic …

Politics vs. Mental Health: How the Culture War Blocked My Healing Process

Donald Trump may be one of the most intensely psychoanalyzed figures in American history, with many critics casually labelling him “narcissistic,” “egomaniacal,” and “sociopathic.” Even if you disagree with these characterizations, it’s difficult to ignore how common they’ve become. Looking beyond politics, Trump’s legacy may serve to reinforce a specious connection between political preferences and mental health. As I’ve observed firsthand, even before Trump’s rise, some therapists took for granted a link between progressive ideas and good mental health. Trump’s ascendance, along with increasing overall levels of political polarization, and the well-known liberal bias that marks the fields of psychology and mental health, has helped popularize this linkage. I was raised in a socially conservative family, in which we were taught traditional values, including respect for one’s elders, loyalty to family, and the sanctity of the soul. For the most part, we also learned a creed of self-reliance, and were discouraged from attributing personal failings to societal influences. The idea of mental health wasn’t entirely unknown to us—but it tended to be discussed in a …

BirthStrike: The Movement to End All Movements

“I love my nine-year-old son very much but knowing what I know about the future of this planet and the environment he is going to inherit… I have to be honest… if I was making that decision again I’m not sure I would make the same one. I fear for my son’s future.” These were the words spoken during a debate about the BirthStrike movement at the Battle of Ideas Festival in October 2019. Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications for Population Matters and seemingly an otherwise kind and caring father, effectively informed a packed lecture theatre that he wished his son had never been born, and did so while never questioning his role as a virtuous protagonist in this fatalistic narrative. Disturbingly, this kind of sentiment has now filtered out into a wider cultural malaise of anti-natalism that is increasingly seen as progressive and in humanity’s best interest. Such anti-humanist ideas have become prevalent in modern environmentalism, seized by radical movements such as BirthStrike. The BirthStrike movement “We feel too afraid to have …

Big Tech and Regulation—A Response to the Quillette Editors

Donald Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter. And Facebook, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Snap, Stripe, Discord, and—most crushingly of all—Pinterest. This was swiftly followed by a swathe of account purges across various platforms, ostensibly on the grounds that terms of service had been violated. Bizarrely, conservatives reacted to this development by lamenting the lack of arbitrary government intervention in private enterprise, while their liberal opponents celebrated corporate squashing of individual expression. If you don’t like it, build your own app. Arguably more important, if less sensational, has been the coordinated nuking of the efforts of those Trump fans who did, in fact, build their own app. Google and Apple banned conservative social media aspirant Parler from their app stores, effectively throttling its only viable distribution channels. Amazon then went a step further and revoked Parler’s right to host its site on its web service, AWS. For good measure, authentication service Okta and internet-to-telecoms interface platform Twilio withdrew their infrastructure too. If you don’t like it, build your own internet. The fallout has been intense and …

Rise of the Coronavirus Cranks

I am no lockdown junkie. I’d like to get that straight before I explain why the most extreme variant of lockdown scepticism is rebarbative and destructive. I will never forgive the government for dragging out the first lockdown for 14 weeks, pointlessly exhausting the public’s patience and sowing the seeds of the non-compliance we see today. I think the second lockdown was an unnecessary overreaction to a surge in cases in the north-west that was being dealt with by local restrictions. I think the 10pm curfew was counter-productive and the tier system was clumsy and unfair. I always thought “circuit breakers” caused unnecessary hardship and had no chance of nipping the problem in the bud, as their advocates claimed. It was criminal to not reopen the schools in June and I’m not entirely convinced they should be closed now. I scorn the likes of Piers Morgan and “Independent” SAGE who would have had us in lockdown all year if they’d had a chance. No amount of comparing Sweden to its immediate neighbours will persuade me …

Britain Needs a New Approach to Homelessness

Author note: Some of the names in this essay have been changed in accordance with the wishes of those interviewed. “Out here, everyone’s taking something,” a man named Karl explains as he scratches his chest and tries to gather up the copies of the Big Issue he’s just dropped. Karl is standing in the middle of a busy high street, across from Norwich’s historic market. He is one of the estimated 40 men and women in the city who sleep rough every night. Originally from east London, the 45-year-old left the capital after a relationship broke down and headed northward and settled here. After a number of serious issues with alcohol and drugs, he lost his flat and has spent the last three years bedding down on concrete in and around Norwich. Homelessness is an extremely contentious and emotive issue. As a general rule, those on the Right view it as an employment problem, while those on the Left tend to see it as the result of austerity and cuts to social spending introduced by …