Tag Archives: Facebook

Fake News IV: The Role of the State

While there has been considerable speculation about the impact of fake news on the election, the recent incident at Comet Ping Pong Pizza shows that fake news can cause real harm. Since one duty of the state is to protect citizens from harm, this leads to the matter of the proper role of the state in regards to fake news.

While people typically base their beliefs about a policy on how they feel, such matters need to be approached based on the consistent application of a principle about what the state should or should not do. “The state should do what I want and not do what I do not want” is no more adequate as a principle of policy than it would be as a principle of law. As such, a proper principle is needed.

Starting with the assumption that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from harm, it follows that a key part of the principle would be based on this responsibility. The challenge is sorting out whether the harms inflicted by fake news fall under this responsibility.

One reasonable way to approach this is to consider the significance of the harms. As a practical matter, the state cannot afford to expend its resources protecting citizens from all the minor harms. As such, the harms caused by fake news would need to be significant enough to cross this practical threshold. There are two clear points of dispute here. One is the threshold for state involvement in protecting citizens. The other is whether fake news meets that threshold.

As noted above, some claim the fake news impacted the election, perhaps causing Trump’s victory. The manipulation of voters through lies does seem like a significant harm to the citizens who were robbed of an honest decision. The easy counter to this is that politicians often win by lying and these lies are not regarded as falling under the compulsive power of the state. This could be objected to by saying that such lies should be forbidden, but this goes beyond the scope of this short essay.

The Comet Ping Pong Pizza incident does serve as single example of the harm fake news can do—a person who believes a fake story might decide to engage in criminal activity based on that fake news. The easy counter to this is that one incident, even if it is vivid, does not suffice to show that there is a threat of significant harm. It could be countered that even one incident is too many and that the state must step in to protect the citizens.

The response to this is that the incident does not seem serious enough to warrant general state action against fake news and there is the obvious concern about whether there will even be other incidents. The state should only use its coercive power to the degree the harms are significant and likely to occur.

The fact that this matter involves the freedom of expression also complicates things. If the state were to create the machinery to control fake news, this would set a precedent for the gradual expansion of this power. After all, the state tends to expand its powers rather than curtail them. It is easy enough to imagine the control of fake news expanding outward from factual untruths to include matters of ideology. While this slide is not guaranteed, such expansions of power into the realm of basic liberty need to be regarded with due concern. While I am worried about fake news, I do not think it is yet significant enough to justify using the coercive power of the state. There are some obvious exceptions, such as when fake news breaks existing laws (such as libel or slander laws).

But, suppose that the harms of fake news are significant enough to warrant the attention of the state even in the face of the freedom of expression. While this would be a step towards justifying the use of the coercive power of the state, there is still another point of consideration. This is the matter of whether citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to effectively address the problem. If citizens can adequately address the harms without the state using its coercive power, then it is preferable to have the state remain uninvolved. For example, a couple that is involved in an emotional disaster of a relationship can be suffering considerable harm, but that should be handled by the couple or other people whose help they request (if it does not escalate to actual violence).

Fake news, I contend, can be adequately handled by citizens and non-government organizations. Individuals can take some basic efforts to be more critical of the news, thus protecting themselves from the harms without the state getting involved. Fake news is not like a foreign invader or deadly disease that is beyond the power of the citizens to defend themselves—it is well within their power to do so, if only they would take a little effort to be informed and critical.

Non-government organizations can also counter fake news (and are already doing so).  For example, the real news companies and the fact checkers have been fighting fake news. Companies like Facebook and Google that enable the monetization of fake news can also do a great deal to combat it. While there are clearly concerns about such control of the news, policing of the news is something that the existing networks do. As such, expecting Facebook to accept some basic responsibility for what it profits from is not unreasonable and is already standard practice in traditional news media. This is not to say that concerns about the policies of media companies are irrelevant, just that the fake news does not really create a new situation—all media companies already have policies regarding the news.

In light of the above discussion, the state should not use its coercive power to control fake news. My position is contingent on the facts—should fake news prove to be a significant harm that citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to counter, then the state could be justified in stepping in.

 

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Fake News II: Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

While a thorough analysis of the impact of fake news on the 2016 election will be an ongoing project, there are excellent reasons to believe that it was a real factor. For example, BuzzFeed’s analysis showed how the fake news stories outperformed real news stories. When confronted with the claim that fake news on Facebook influenced the election results, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction was denial. However, as critics have pointed out, to say that Facebook does not influence people is to tell advertisers that they are wasting their money on Facebook. While this might be the case, Zuckerberg cannot consistently pitch the influence of Facebook to his customers while denying that it has such influence. One of these claims must be mistaken.

While my own observations do not constitute a proper study, I routinely observed people on Facebook treating fake news stories as if they were real.  In some cases, these errors were humorous—people had mistaken satire for real news. In other cases, they were not so funny—people were enraged over things that had not actually happened. There is also the fact that public figures (such as Trump) and pundits repeat fake news stories acquired from Facebook (and other sources). As such, fake news does seem to be a real problem on Facebook.

It could be claimed that the surge in fake news is an anomaly, that it was the result of a combination of factors that will probably not align again. One factor would be having presidential candidates so disliked that people would find even fake stories plausible. A second factor would be Trump’s relentless spewing of untruths, thus creating an environment friendly to fake news. A third factor would be Trump ratcheting the Republican attack on the mainstream news media to 11, thus pushing people towards other news sources and undercutting fact checking and critical reporting. Provided that these and similar factors change, fake news could decline significantly.

While this could happen, it seems that some of these factors will continue. As president elect, Trump has continued to spew untruths and the attacks on the mainstream media continue. The ecosystem thus seems ideal for fake news to thrive. As such, it seems likely that while the fake news will decline to some degree, it will remain a factor as long as it is influential or profitable. This is where Facebook comes in—while fake news sites can always have their own web pages, Facebook serves up the fake news to a huge customer base and thus drives the click based profits (thanks to things like Google advertising) of these sites. This powerful role of Facebook gives rise to moral concerns about its accountability.

One obvious approach is to claim that Facebook has no moral responsibility in regards to policing fake news. This could be argued by drawing an analogy between Facebook and a delivery company like UPS or Fedex. Rather than delivering physical packages, Facebook is delivering news.

A delivery company is responsible for delivering a package intact and within the specified time. However, it does not have a moral responsibility regarding what is shipped. Suppose, for example, that businesses arose selling “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” and purport that it is real pudding. But, in fact, it is a blend of sugar and shit that looks like pudding. Some customers fail to recognize it for what it is and happily shovel it into their pudding port; probably getting sick—but still loving the taste. If the delivery company were criticized for delivering the pudding, they would be right to say that they are not responsible for the “pudding”—they merely deliver packages. The responsibility lies with the “pudding” companies. And the customers for not recognizing sugary shit as shit. If the analogy holds, then Facebook is just delivering fake news as the delivery company delivers “Macedonian Pudding” and is not morally responsible for the contents of the packages.

A possible counter to this is that once Facebook knows that a site is a fake news site, then they are morally responsible for continuing to deliver the fake news. Going with the delivery analogy, once the delivery company is aware that “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” is sugar and shit, they have a moral obligation to cease their business with those making this dangerous product. This could be countered by arguing that as long as the customer wants the package of “pudding”, then it is morally fine for the delivery company to provide it. However, this would seem to require that the customer knows they are getting sugar and shit—otherwise the delivery company is knowingly participating in a deceit and the distribution of a harmful product. This would seem to be morally wrong.

Another approach to countering this argument is to use a different analogy: Facebook is not like a delivery company, it is like a restaurant selling the product. Going back to the “pudding”, a restaurant that knowingly purchased and served sugar and shit as pudding would be morally accountable for this misdeed. By this analogy, once Facebook knows they are profiting from selling fake news, they are morally accountable and in the wrong if they fail to address this. A possible response to this is to contend that Facebook is not selling the fake news; but this leads to the question of what Facebook is doing.

One way to look at Facebook is that the fake news is just like advertising in any other media. In this case, the company selling the ad is not morally accountable for the content of the ad of the quality of the product. Going back to the “pudding”, if one company is selling sugar and shit as pudding, the company running the advertising is not morally responsible. The easy counter to this is that once the company selling the ads knows that the “pudding” is sugar and shit, then they would be morally wrong to be a party to this harmful deception. Likewise for Facebook treating fake news as advertising.

Another way to look at Facebook is that it is serving as a news media company and is in the business of providing the news.  Going back to the pudding analogy, Facebook would be in the pudding business as a re-seller, selling sugar and shit as real pudding. This would seem to obligate Facebook to ensure that the news it provides is accurate and to not distribute news it knows it is fake. This assumes a view of journalistic ethics that is obviously not universally accepted, but a commitment to the truth seems to be a necessary bedrock of any worthwhile media ethics.

 

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Fake News I: Critical Thinking

While fake news presumably dates to the origin of news, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery. While some of it arose from partisan maneuvering, the majority seems to have been driven by the profit motive: fake news drives revenue generating clicks. While the motive might have been money, there has been serious speculation that the fake news (especially on Facebook) helped Trump win the election. While those who backed Trump would presumably be pleased by this outcome, the plague of fake news should be worrisome to anyone who values the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging in regards to the truth and is worth combating.

While it is often claimed that most people simply do not have the time to be informed about the world, if someone has the time to read fake news, then they have the time to think critically about it. This critical thinking should, of course, go beyond just fake news and should extend to all important information. Fortunately, thinking critically about claims is surprisingly quick and easy.

I have been teaching students to be critical about claims in general and the news in particular for over two decades and what follows is based on what I teach in class (drawn, in part, from the text I have used: Critical Thinking by Moore & Parker). I would recommend this book for general readers if it was not, like most text books, absurdly expensive. But, to the critical thinking process that should be applied to claims in general and news in particular.

While many claims are not worth the bother of checking, others are important enough to subject to scrutiny. When applying critical thinking to a claim, the goal is to determine whether you should rationally accept it as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment. There can be varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, so it is also worth considering how confident you should be in your judgment.

The first step in assessing a claim is to match it against your own observations, should you have relevant observations. While observations are not infallible, if a claim goes against what you have directly observed, then that is a strike against accepting the claim. This standard is not commonly used in the case of fake news because most of what is reported is not something that would be observed directly by the typical person. That said, sometimes this does apply. For example, if a news story claims that a major riot occurred near where you live and you saw nothing happen there, then that would indicate the story is in error.

The second step in assessment is to judge the claim against your background information—this is all your relevant beliefs and knowledge about the matter. The application is fairly straightforward and just involves asking yourself if the claim seems plausible when you give it some thought. For example, if a news story claims that Hillary Clinton plans to start an armed rebellion against Trump, then this should be regarded as wildly implausible by anyone with true background knowledge about Clinton.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with using background information as a test. One is that the quality of background information varies greatly and depends on the person’s experiences and education (this is not limited to formal education). Roughly put, being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in your mind. All of us have many beliefs that are false; the problem is that we generally do not know they are false. If we did, then we would no longer believe them.

A second point of concern is the influence of wishful thinking. This is a fallacy (an error in reasoning) in which a person concludes that a claim is true because they really want it to be true. Alternatively, a person can fallaciously infer that a claim is false because they really want it to be false. This is poor reasoning because wanting a claim to be true or false does not make it so. Psychologically, people tend to disengage their critical faculties when they really want something to be true (or false).

For example, someone who really hates Hillary Clinton would want to believe that negative claims about her are true, so they would tend to accept them. As another example, someone who really likes Hillary would want positive claims about her to be true, so they would accept them.

The defense against wishful thinking of this sort is to be on guard against yourself by being aware of your biases. If you really want something to be true (or false), ask yourself if you have any reason to believe it beyond just wanting it to be true (or false). For example, I am not a fan of Trump and thus would tend to want negative claims about him to be true—so I must consider that when assessing such claims.

A third point of concern is related to wishful thinking and could be called the fallacy of fearful/hateful thinking. While people tend to believe what they want to believe, they also tend to believe claims that match their hates and fears. That is, they believe what they do not want to believe. Fear and hate impact people in a very predictable way: they make people stupid when it comes to assessing claims.

For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. While they would presumably wish that claims about it being imposed were false, they will often believe such claims because it corresponds with their hate and fear. Ironically, their great desire that it not be true motivates them to feel that it is true, even when it is not.

The defense against this is to consider how a claim makes you feel—if you feel hatred or fear, you should be very careful in assessing the claim. If a news claims seems tailored to push your buttons, then there is a decent chance that it is fake news. This is not to say that it must be fake, just that it is important to be extra vigilant about claims that are extremely appealing to your hates and fears. This is a very hard thing to do since it is easy to be ruled by hate and fear.

The third step involves assessing the source of the claim. While the source of a claim does not guarantee the claim is true (or false), reliable sources are obviously more likely to get things right than unreliable sources. When you believe a claim based on its source, you are making use of what philosophers call an argument from authority. The gist of this reasoning is that the claim being made is true because the source is a legitimate authority on the matter. While people tend to regard as credible sources those that match their own ideology, the rational way to assess a source involves considering the following factors.

First, the source needs to have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that the specific author or news source has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether a person (or the organization in general) has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions. In general, professional news agencies have such experts. While people tend to dismiss Fox, CNN, and MSNBC depending on their own ideology, their actual news (as opposed to editorial pieces or opinion masquerading as news) tends to be factually accurate. Unknown sources tend to be lacking in these areas. It is also wise to be on guard against fake news sources pretending to be real sources—this can be countered by checking the site address against the official and confirmed address of professional news sources.

Second, the claim made needs to be within the source’s area(s) of expertise. While a person might be very capable in one area, expertise is not universal. So, for example, a businessman talking about her business would be an expert, but if she is regarded as a reliable source for political or scientific claims, then that would be an error (unless she also has expertise in these areas).

Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field. In the case of news, using this standard involves checking multiple reliable sources to confirm the claim. While people tend to pick their news sources based on their ideology, the basic facts of major and significant events would be quickly picked up and reported by all professional news agencies such as Fox News, NPR and CNN. If a seemingly major story does not show up in the professional news sources, there is a good chance it is fake news.

It is also useful to check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes. While no source is perfect, they do a good job assessing claims—something that does not make liars very happy. If a claim is flagged by these reliable sources, there is an excellent chance it is not true.

Fourth, the source must not be significantly biased. Bias can include such factors as having a very strong ideological slant (such as MSNBC and Fox News) as well as having a financial interest in the matter. Fake news is typically crafted to feed into ideological biases, so if an alleged news story seems to fit an ideology too well, there is a decent chance that it is fake. However, this is not a guarantee that a story is fake—reality sometimes matches ideological slants. This sort of bias can lead real news sources to present fake news; you should be critical even of professional sources-especially when they match your ideology.

While these methods are not flawless, they are very useful in sorting out the fake from the true. While I have said this before, it is worth repeating that we should be even more critical of news that matches our views—this is because when we want to believe, we tend to do so too easily.

 

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Gender Identification & Races

At a recent race, a runner entered with a sex of “other” which caused a bit of a problem with the race results. After all, in such competitions people are divided between male and female. They are also divided by age. Because of this, experienced runners tend to check out the competition before the start of the race, looking to see who is present and mentally gauging their chances of being “a have” (runner slang for getting an award).

Since awards tend to be divided into categories of sex and age, runners also try to estimate the age of those they do not recognize. While it is far less common, runners sometimes do need to estimate the sex of the competition. While some people advocate avoiding all concerns about age and sex by only having awards for overall top finishers, there are good reasons to have such categories.

One obvious reason is that awards are intended to increase attendance at the race—people are more inclined to participate when they know they have more chances of winning. If awards were limited to top overall finishers, there would be some decline in participation since people who were not the very top runners would know they had no chance of winning anything.

Another reason is to provide people with a chance to compete in ways that offset advantages. Naturally, almost every race allows people to compete in the overall results, so there is still a very broad competition.

Age has a dramatic negative impact on performance. One major factor is that older athletes do not recover as fast, hence it becomes harder to maintain rigorous training while avoiding injury and being well-rested for the competition. People also get weaker as they age, though diligent maintenance can slow this setting of the sun. Because of this, most races have 5 or 10-year age groups for awards to provide runners with a chance to compete against people with comparable temporal challenges. There are, of course, many older runners can still beat many younger runners, but the general advantage lies with the youth. For most races, runners are on the honor system—they provide their age when they sign up. Some races do, however, require proof of age to avoid people cheating by lying.

While there are female runners who can easily defeat almost any male on the planet in a race, males have various biological advantages when it comes to running, such as greater strength. As such, dividing the awards by sex is a way to account for this difference. There are, of course, some races that do not take this approach, but these are very rare and tend to be small races put on by people not familiar with the usual practices of awards.

As with age, runners are on the honor system in regards to providing their biological sex when they sign up. While a male would generally have an advantage if he could pass a female, this could be challenging given the nature of running attire and various other factors. There are, however, some controversial cases. Perhaps the most famous is that of runner Caster Semenya. Semenya is believed to have an intersex condition which causes the production of high levels of testosterone. High testosterone levels are believed to provide an athletic advantage. It must be noted that while testosterone is associated most with males, females also produce testosterone. In the past, some sporting authorities tested female athletes for high testosterone levels, but this practice has largely changed because female athletes, like male athletes, naturally vary a great deal in their testosterone levels.

While sex-changes are not common, they do occur often enough that the matter has been addressed in sports. Because the division of the sexes in sports is justified on the grounds of relative advantages, females who transition to male can generally compete without restrictions. The easy and obvious justification for this is that such a male would not have any advantage over other males. In fact, they would probably tend to have some disadvantage relative to people who were born male. A male who transitions to female would potentially have an advantage. Because of this, a transitioned athlete need not have surgery, but she is typically required to have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy. This prevents male athletes from simply claiming to be female and competing with an advantage.

There are also people who want to change their gender identification but do not want to undergo surgery or hormone therapy. Some might wonder what would prevent unscrupulous male athletes from gender identifying as females to win races. The easy and obvious answer is that sex divisions in sports are not gender divisions. They are a matter of physical factors and not a matter of social construction. As such, a male athlete who gender identified as a female would still compete against males. They are still a male in regards to the factors that matter in competition.

It could be objected that a person who gender identifies as a man or a woman should be able to compete in accord with their preferred identity. That person might, for example, want their race medal or trophy to reflect this identity—being second female in the 20-24 age group, for example. An easy counter to this is to use an analogy to age—a person might identify as “young at heart” or “and old soul”, but this does not impact their actual chronological age. In the case of athletic competition, this is what matters. If people could pick their age identity for races, this would presumably be used to gain an unfair advantage. So, a 26-year-old person who identified as a 40-year-old would not thus be eligible to win the master’s award (for people 40+).

The next to the last matter to be considered is that which started this discussion; a person who wants to identify as “other.” Resolving this would require determining the basis of the claim of otherness. If the person has a biological identity that falls within established rules for competition (being intersex, for example) then those rules would be applied. If the person has a biological identity that falls outside of the existing rules, then there would seem to be two likely approaches. One would be to match the person with the closest biological sex. The other would be to create a new category for sports and establish standards for being in that category. If the person is electing to select other as a gender identity while having a biological sex, then the person would compete in the category of that biological sex, for the reasons given above.

In closing, there is also a practical matter regarding possible legal troubles. Years ago, I would often see race entry forms with “gender” instead of “sex” because the terms were used interchangeably. These days, “sex” is the standard. If an entry form has “gender” rather than “sex”, then a person could presumably use whatever gender they wish to identify with. This would be rather problematic for the awards budget, since Facebook recognizes over fifty genders. As such, race entry forms should go with “sex.” The form might need to include a brief explanation of the difference between sex and gender to help avoid misunderstandings.

 

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Facebase

While you are most likely not a criminal, it is likely that the police have a digital version of your face on file. This is because most states put driver’s license photos into a database accessible to the police—and, one would assume, the federal government. The system works in conjunction with facial recognition software (like Facebook uses to identify people in your photos) to identify suspects. For example, if someone robs a convenience store and the police do not recognize them, the image from the surveillance camera can be matched against the database that could contain your face. Ideally, the software would generate a short list that includes the perpetrator. Problematically, the software could generate a list of innocent people who might then end up in unpleasant interactions with the state.

There are, of course, some practical issues with the current technology. One is that the photos the police have of suspects tend to be of low quality, thus making false matches more likely. Another is that in such a large database there will be many people who look alike, thus the chance of false matches will be high even with good photos. As anyone familiar with the DMV knows, driver’s license photos also tend to vary greatly in quality and consistency, thus making false matches likely.

The current software also has problems with people who have darker skin, thus making false matches more likely for people of color than white people. While some might suspect racism or bias at work, it has been claimed that this occurs because darker skin has less contrast than lighter skin, making accurate matches more difficult. If this technical issue cannot be solved, then it is almost certain that there will be charges of racism and bias as more dark skinned people are subject to false matches than lighter people. Even if this is purely a technical issue with no actual bias, it would certainly create the impression of bias and feed into the view that policing is biased in America. It also raises a moral concern about the use of such software in terms of its consequences: while it might have the benefit of assisting the police in finding actual criminals, it could have the harm of fanning the existing flames of mistrust and worries about police bias against people of color. These factors would need to be balanced against each other, at least until the recognition disparity is solved.

In addition to specific concerns about the recognition of darker skinned people, there is the general concern about the accuracy of the software in identifying people. Since most people with driver’s licenses will be in the database, innocent people will end up being investigated by the police because the software pegs them as adequately resembling a suspect. While most interactions with the police would presumably be quick and harmless, interactions with the state can go very badly indeed—even for innocent people. As such, due moral consideration should be paid to this fact.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about privacy and intrusion of the state. While some citizens are terrified of the idea of a national database of guns, what is being constructed is an even more invasive database—a database of our faces. A “facebase”, if you will. As such, those who are dedicated to Second Amendment rights should be worried about this “facebase.” Others who are concerned about privacy and the overreach of big government should also be worried and insist that proper controls and limitations are in place to protect the rights of citizens.

It could be countered that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear—but this slogan fails to address the legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, no one who is worried about a national database of guns would be content with being told that if they have their guns legally, then they have nothing to fear from such a database.

A better counter is to appeal to the positive consequences. That is, by giving up privacy rights and becoming part of a “perpetual lineup” we will be safer from criminals and terrorists. This argument does have considerable appeal—but it must be assessed properly in terms of what the approach yields in benefits and what it costs in terms of intrusion and other harms. Americans have, in general, been far too quick to give away real rights and suffer real harms in return for the illusion of safety. We should stop doing this. One useful approach would be to imagine that what is being given up is a right a person has a strong emotional attachment to—this would help offset the emotional appeal to fear of criminals and terrorists. For example, a pro-gun person could imagine that the system was creating a database of his guns to match up against guns supposedly used by terrorists or criminals. This tactic obviously has no logical weight—it is merely intended as counter to emotional manipulation by means of an analogy.

A final concern, as with all such gather of data, is worry about the various potential misuses of the information. I would assume that these databases have already been hacked and the information is now being examined by foreign governments, criminals and terrorists. Because of this, we should consider the consequences of maintaining or expanding the program. After all, whatever ends up in our databases inevitably ends up around the world. There are also concerns that the data would be made available to the private sector for use in advertising, political campaigning and other purposes. This is not a concern unique to the “facebase” but it is still a matter of concern.

In closing, that bad DMV photo might prove to be a blessing or a curse. On the positive side, it might be so bad that the police will not be able to match you should you commit a crime. On the negative side, that bad photo might get you matched up often and thus subject to friendly inquiries from the police. But, you might make new friends or get to see how a taser works.

 

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The University as a Money Funnel


One serious problem with American higher education is that the cost of a four-year degree is higher than ever—even when adjusting for inflation. The causes of this increase are well known and well understood—there is no mystery about this. One contributing factor is that universities tend to spend considerable money on facilities that are not connected to education. Critics like to, for example, point out that some universities spend millions on luxurious fitness facilities. These sort of expenditures are ironic (and stupid) given that education funding has been consistently reduced across the United States. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like a family putting in a pool, spa, and exercise room when they do not have enough money to pay for their actual necessities.

What seems to be the major factor contributing to costs is the ever-expanding administrative class at universities. This expansion occurs in terms of both individual salaries and overall numbers. From 2000 to 2010 the median salary for the top public university administrators increased by 39%. The top administrators, the university presidents, enjoyed a 75% increase. In stark contrast, the salaries for full-time professors increased by almost 19%.

The money for these salary increases has to come from somewhere and an obvious source is students. My alma mater Ohio State University is leading the way in milking students to pay administrators. Between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average.

While some might be tempted to attribute this salary bloating as the result of the usual alleged wastefulness and growth of the public sector, private colleges and universities topped their public counterparts. From 2000 to 2010 private schools saw salary increases of about 97% for their top administrators and their presidents enjoyed a 171% increase. Full time professors also partook of the increases—their salaries increased by 50%.

What is even more striking than the salary increases are the increase in the number of positions and their nature. From 1978 to 2014 administrative positions skyrocketed 369%. This time period also marked a major shift in the nature of faculty. The number of part-time faculty (the analogues of temp workers in the corporate world) increased by 286%. The use of adjuncts is justified on the grounds that doing so saves money. While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000.

However, the money saved does not translate to a lower cost of education—rather, it “saves” money from going to faculty so that it can go to administrators. Since the average salary of a university president is $478,896 and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing, it should be obvious what is helping to drive up the cost of college. Hint: it is not adjunct pay.

There was also a push to reduce (and eliminate) tenured positions which resulted in an increase in full time, non-tenure earning positions by 259%. Full time tenure and tenure-track positions increased by only 23%. Ohio State University provides an excellent (or awful) example of this A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by OSU were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

Interestingly enough, the Republicans who run many state legislatures rail against wasteful spending, impose micromanagement and inflict draconian measures on state universities yet never seem to address the real causes of tuition increase and the problems in the education system. Someone more cynical than I might note that the university seems to no longer have education as its primary function. Rather, it is crafted to funnel money from the “customer” and the tax payer (in the form of federal student aid) to the top while minimizing pay for those who do the actual work.

Tenure has been a target in recent years because tenure provides faculty with protection against being fired without cause (tenured faculty can be fired—it is not a magic shield). This is regarded by some as a problem for a variety of reasons. One is that tenured faculty cannot be let go simply to replace them with vastly lower paid adjuncts. This, obviously enough, means less money flowing from students and the state to administrators. Another is that the protection provided by tenure allows a faculty member to be critical of what is happening to the university system of the United States without running a high risk of simply being let go as a trouble maker. As you might guess, I am a tenured full-professor. So, I can use my freedom of speech with rather less fear of being fired. I also enjoy the dubious protection afforded by the fact that people rarely take philosophers seriously.

 

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Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.

 

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

 

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For Better or Worse Reasoning Free on Amazon 2/23/2015-2/27/2015

For-Better-Cover-Cover

The Kindle version of my book about the arguments against same sex-marriage will be free on Amazon (all countries) from February 23, 2015 to February 27, 2015.

Here is the link to the Amazon.com (USA) version.

Here is the link to the UK version.

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Symbols & Truth

After the murderous attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan an image of a child’s blood-stained shoe began appearing in the social media. While the image certainly fit the carnage, the photo was not taken in Peshawar. It had, instead, been taken in May of 2008 in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Such “re-use” of images is common, especially in social media.

As might be imagined, some took issue with people claiming (wrongly) that the picture was from Peshawar. Others took the view that it did not matter since the image was an appropriate symbol of the situation.

A somewhat analogous situation to the “re-use” of photos is the reference of incidents in protests that some regard as not being “suitable” for the protest. For example, in response to the protests about the deaths of Brown and Garner some critics have asserted that the protesters have the facts wrong and that Garner and Brown were not exactly innocent angels. The idea seems to be that the protests can be invalidated by disputing the facts of a specific case or by questioning the suitability of the people used as focal points for the protests.

In response to such criticisms, some defenders of the protesters assert that they do have the facts right and contend that even if Garner and Brown were not innocent angels, injustice still occurred.

The general issue in both sorts of cases is the importance of the truth and purity of the symbols used—be the symbol a photo of a shoe or a black man killed by the police.

As a philosopher, I am initially inclined to come out in favor of the strict truth. Even if the shoe image fit the situation, it is not a picture from the actual event and knowingly using it would be an act of deception. This would certainly seem to be morally wrong. In the case of symbols used in protests, the same reasoning should apply. If the symbols represent the situation incorrectly and those using them know this, then they are engaged in deceit. This would, on the face of it, be wrong.

The “purity” of the people used as symbols is somewhat more complicated. In the case of Brown and Garner, the protesters do not (in general) dispute that these men had broken the law and they do not claim that they were innocent angels. Those critical of the protests sometimes claim that the use of these “impure” symbols somehow invalidates the protest to some degree. Looked at from a purely propaganda viewpoint, innocent angels as victims would be “better”, but injustice does not require that the victim be such an angel. It just requires that a wrong occurs. There is still, however, the moral question of whether or not Garner and Brown were victims of injustice. If they were not, then the protests would be legitimately undermined—after all, a protest about an alleged injustice requires that the injustice be real. If they were victims of injustice, then the protests would obviously have a valid foundation—even though the men were not angels.

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics, I am willing to consider the possibility that the “factual truth” of a symbol might not be as important as its “symbolic truth.” This, obviously enough, opens the door wide to numerous accusations about my integrity and commitment to the truth. Despite this risk, this is certainly an avenue worth strolling down—though I might not wish to take up residence there.

The reason that I mention aesthetics is that one of the most plausible lines of justification for the use of such “untrue” symbols can be found in the realm of art. As philosophers have long noted, art is a beautiful untrue thing. As such, factual veracity is usually not of critical importance in art. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, works of art can present general truths through what might be regarded as specific untruths. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a factual documentary on slavery, Lord of the Flies is not a report of real events, nor is Romeo & Juliet a factual account of a real tragedy. Despite this, these and so many other works convey general truths or make moral points using untrue things.

Assuming that works of art can legitimately use untrue things, it can be argued that the same can be said of symbols, such as the image of the shoe. While the picture of the shoe was, in fact, taken in 2008 in Israel and not in Pakistan, it still serves as a true symbol of the event. That is, it powerfully conveys a general truth about the slaughter of children that goes beyond the specific facts. To dismiss the symbol by saying “why, that is not a picture from the event” is to miss the point of its use as a symbol. As a symbol it is not being presented as a factual representation of the events. Rather, it is being presented as standing for a general truth. Thus, while the symbol is an untrue thing in one sense (it is not a photo of that actual event) it is true in other senses. It symbolizes the killing of children in political struggles and captures the horror of the slaughter of innocents.

Naturally, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that such symbols are not accurate reporting of the event. It is thus completely legitimate to claim that such images should not be used in news reports (except, of course, to report that they are being used, etc.). After all, the true business of news is (or should be) reporting the cold facts. However, there are contexts (such as expressing how one feels on social media) when symbols are appropriate. As long as these are kept properly distinct, then both seem to be legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that clips from fictional films should not be used in news stories does not entail that fictional films have no place or use in making statements.

Turning to the matter of protests, the matter is somewhat different from that of the image. An image, such as the shoe, can be taken as expressing a general truth. Though the shoe belonged to an Israeli child, it can stand in for the shoe of any child who has been the victim of a terrible attack and it expressed the general horror of such violence. Saying “that picture is not from Pakistan” does not show that the wounding or slaughter of children is not horrible.

However, the truth of the symbolic cases used in protests does seem to matter. As argued above, if the symbolic cases used by protestors turn out to be factually untrue (that is, the narrative of the protesters does not match reality), then that is a problem. For example, if protesters use the killing of a specific black man as a symbol of injustice, but it turns out that the shooting was morally justified, then the protest is undermined. After all, if there was no injustice in a case, then there is no injustice to protest.

One counter to this is that even if a specific symbolic case has been exposed as untrue, this does not discredit the other symbolic cases. For example, the revelation that the Rolling Stone rape article contained numerous untrue claims does discredit that symbolic case, but does not disprove the other cases—they stand or fall on their own merits or defects. This is quite reasonable: the fact that one example is not true does not prove that the other examples are untrue (though it can, of course, raise concerns). So, even if a symbolic case embraced by protesters turns out to not fit, this does not show that the protest is rendered invalid. Using the specific example of campus rape, the fact that the Rolling Stone story unraveled under investigation does not, by itself, show that sexual assault is not a problem on campuses.

But, of course, a claim can be undermined by properly discrediting the supporting examples, be they symbolic or not. So, for example, if it is claimed that the police treat black citizens differently than white citizens and it turns out that this is not generally true, then protests based on this would be undermined. Facts, obviously enough, do matter. However, the weight of each fact must be properly considered: as noted above, showing that one symbolic case is untrue does not discredit all the supporting examples. So, for example, if it is shown that a specific symbolic case does not match the facts, this does not show that the protest is unwarranted.

 

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Tech, Wages & Profits

Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...

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Despite the Great Recession, the profits for corporations have doubled since 2000. In contrast, the median household income in the United States has fallen from $55,986 to $51,017 (dollars adjusted for inflation, of course). Not surprisingly, corporate profits have gone from 5% to 11% of the GDP while wages of employee have dropped from 47% to 43%. While these numbers can be interpreted in various ways, one obvious implication is that corporations are making more money with fewer employees. It is also evident that corporations are doing better than most people (although some would say that corporations are people).

One plausible explanation for this is automation that increases productivity without increasing employment and employee income—a claim put forth by the authors of The Second Machine Age. Historically automation and other technological advances have increased productivity and eliminated jobs—but these have also consistently resulted in higher incomes in general (often by creating new and better jobs). That is, as some folks like to say, the rising tide of advancement lifted all boats. What is different about the current situation is that the rising tide of advancement has lifted the corporate yachts while causing the rowboats of the common folks to flounder (and some to sink).

If Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are right, recent advances are destroying jobs at a rate that exceeds the creation of jobs. This does have a certain plausibility since it is well-established that technological advances do eliminate jobs. The obvious example is how factory automation has reduced the number of factory workers. It certainly would not be shocking or amazing if the elimination of jobs exceeded the creation of jobs—even if the past has been different. One reason for this could be a matter of the nature of the advances. Another reason could be a matter of choice: employers elect to stick with the lower number of employees rather than creating more jobs and employing those whose jobs have been eliminated.

It also seems worth considering the impact of the “internet economy” on these numbers. To be specific, this economy features highly (over) valued companies that have relatively few employees. Consider, for example, companies like Facebook. Facebook was valued at $192 billion in July. 2014. IBM was valued at $198 billion. Facebook has about 7,000 employees while IBM has over 400,000. By way of comparison, Walmart has 2.2 million employees (making it the largest private sector employer in the United States). Behind Walmart are the fast food empires of Yum! Brands (523,000 employees) and McDonalds (440,000).

Having such highly (over) valued companies with relatively low numbers of employees would result in a high concentration of profits and wealth. Adding in the fact that the largest employers are in low paying industries (retail and fast food), it would certainly seem to help explain why corporations are doing much better relative to 2000, while most people are doing worse in terms of income.

If there is merit to this explanation, then there are some obvious concerns regarding the sort of economy in which the biggest employers are in low-paying sectors and big profits are made by companies that employee few people (and seem to profit from being excessively overvalued). Some are already suggesting there is a new class system emerging based on this new economy while others point to past bubbles and are waiting for companies like Facebook and Twitter to pop like digital balloons.

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