Mar 292011
 

Both our brains and our political system tend to overly focus on short term pain/gain and ignore long term pain/gain. We put off going to the gym to instead have a burger; we postpone deficit reduction because legislators’ incentives aren’t aligned with the long term. This makes it hard to tackle issues like healthcare costs or Social Security. But could it be advantageous for just the same reason?

Social security’s fiscal troubles are years off, so legislators have less incentive to risk political pain to tackle them. But could the reverse be true? Couldn’t legislators tackle the program’s imbalance by slashing benefits far enough out in the future that the dynamic was reversed?* If you cut my future social security benefits, shouldn’t that long term pain be just the sort of thing I’m psychologically inclined not to care about? And if so, does our shortsightedness make it harder or easier overall to address Social Security?

*I’m not saying this is at all a good idea. I’m just theorizing about the politics involved.

[Quick disclaimer: Social Security has some budget issues. They're not that big. It's not in crisis. As a policy issue this is quite easy. Only the politics are hard. And when someone starts talking about "entitlements" you should insist they differentiate between Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.]

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Mar 292011
 

I finally got around to reading Evgeny Morozov’s Boston Review piece reviewing The Master Switch along with another [even more] academic book on net neutrality. It’s a great review and I highly recommend the whole thing. But this part gives the basic argument for net neutrality nicely:

Van Schewick argues that the pioneers of the Internet recognized the network’s revolutionary potential, so instead of optimizing for performance or cost at such an early stage, they decided to maximize long-term evolvability. And that meant keeping the network core as simple and unspecialized as possible.

It is possible that the trade-off made by computer scientists in the 1980s may no longer reflect the needs of today. “If we believe that all important applications have been realized,” Van Schewick writes, advocating on behalf of the devil, “there is no need to incur the costs of keeping the Internet open for new applications.” But given that there was no Kindle, iPad, or Twitter just five years ago, that belief is a foolish one. As Van Schewick puts it, “Leaving the evolution of the network to network providers will significantly reduce the Internet’s value to society.” In other words, a non-discriminatory—neutral—Internet is in all our interests.

Most provocatively, Van Schewick argues that even the presence of competition may not succeed in thwarting discriminatory practices. And here is where she undermines Wu’s claims about information empires.

In most industries, discriminatory behavior by a firm in a competitive market gets penalized by rivals who offer the excluded goods to disappointed customers. Why doesn’t this happen in the market for Internet services?

First, the initial act of discrimination by one network operator may strike such a severe blow to the providers of excluded goods that they would exit the market altogether. If Comcast or Verizon blocks access to Netflix, the ban might not kill the company immediately but it could contribute to its eventual downfall, even if others don’t block it.

Second, competing network operators may choose to block the same application, leaving users nowhere to turn. It seemed like Neelie Kroes—who is in charge of telecom policy for the European Commission—was on to something when she urged Europeans to vote with their feet and leave mobile providers that restrict Skype. But this is not an option in France, where, despite strong competition among providers, all of them restrict Skype.

Third, network providers may hide their discriminatory practices, slowing down rather than blocking the applications they don’t like. Since consumers don’t know whom to blame for their slow speeds—it could be a problem with the application, not the network—they may stick with their providers anyway.

I covered some of those arguments in two posts back in December, and from those I’d add a fourth: nascent services without strong user bases will be particularly vulnerable. If your ISP blocked Netflix maybe, just maybe you’d consider switching. But if it blocked some startup’s service you’d never heard of? You wouldn’t. As I put it then:

But what about Google vs. the next great search company?  If Google can reach into its deep pockets to ensure its searches are delivered faster, that makes it a lot harder for an emerging company/technology to compete for market share.  New entrants not only lack the deep pockets to pay ISPs, they lack the name recognition required to convince consumers to seek out neutral ISPs.  Even if I would switch ISPs to make sure Google isn’t disadvantaged relative to Yahoo, would I actively switch from an ISP that equally prioritized incumbents in order to access new entrants I’d never heard of?

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Mar 182011
 

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave a talk in February arguing that the social psychology field was a “moral community” by virtue of its political liberalism, and that this was compromising its ability to do good science. I want to use one piece of his argument as a jumping off point to discuss what I see as one of the biggest obstacles to productive public discussion. Haidt:

Sacredness is a central and subtle concept in sociology and anthropology, but we can get a simple working definition of it from Phil Tetlock [a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania]. Tetlock defines a sacred values as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance …” If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred…

…Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.

For the most part there’s nothing wrong with sacredness, per se. The problem arises when the sacred principle is challenged by someone outside the moral community. As Haidt notes, the result is that reasoning comes to the aid of justifying a principle, and that leads to sloppy arguments. If your commitment to the principle of nonviolence is challenged, for instance, you may start arguing about the ineffectiveness of military interventions. But what’s really driving that argument isn’t the facts; it’s the desire to defend a principle that in your moral vision really doesn’t even need defending. If you’re a pacifist, that’s fine. What’s not fine is marshalling weak arguments when a sacred view is challenged.

Now in practice my guess is that few things are held as entirely sacred, but many things are held nearly sacred. By that I mean that for most people, few beliefs are beyond any tradeoffs, but quite a few principles are sacred enough to require an exceptionally high bar be cleared before they’re willing to start trading it away.

There’s been some good back-and-forth in the libertarian blogosphere recently on the extent to which policy differences between liberals and libertarians are caused by different opinions on empirical matters, versus different values or principles. Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy is thinking along the same lines as I am, writing:

Within political philosophy, many scholars are either pure utilitarian consequentialists (thinkers who believe that we are justified in doing whatever it takes to maximize happiness) or pure deontologists (people who argue that we must respect certain rights absolutely, regardless of consequences)… Outside philosophy departments, however, few people endorse either of these positions.

So sacredness in practice is probably a matter of extent. But that does nothing to detract from its importance in public debate. If someone is arguing in favor of a principle they hold sacred I want to know. If you’ve written an op-ed detailing all the reasons military intervention in Libya would be ill-advised, the fact that you’re a pacifist – that nonviolence is a sacred principle for you – is extremely relevant.

I see the identification of sacredness as a crucial challenge in the public sphere, and therefore a crucial challenge within media. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s lots of talk about the importance of transparency in the brave new world of online media, and I’m in favor of that. But transparency means a lot of things (again, as I’ve discussed before). It’s easy to say “I’m a liberal, I generally favor x, y and z and am a fan of these thinkers or politicians. I voted for so-and-so for president.” That’s one kind of transparency. But it’s a very thin transparency. I’d love to see some media experiments that go further and try to identify sacred principles. Let’s play around with ways of telling me the author is a pacifist.

This is a hard problem because most of us have a rough time identifying what we consider sacred. As Haidt notes, it’s often something that is obvious only outsiders. And once extents are thrown into the mix things get even messier. In a way the blogosphere offers a really rudimentary partial fix just by removing word/page limits. When there’s no limit to length you can talk endlessly about the principles behind the authors, as the libertarian discussion makes clear. But I think we can do better. I don’t have many good specifics on how just yet, but it’s something I think about. Ideas?

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Mar 172011
 

The New York Times has finally released the details of their paywall, and they confirm that the model is not sustainable. I have a short post up at The Atlantic Tech saying as much. Here’s the basic point:

Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.This is tantamount to saying that if you’re a power-user, or even just someone heavily immersed in social media and the blogosphere, then the paywall won’t apply to you. Which is basically admitting that a paywall isn’t sustainable.

Go read the full post. And then go read 20 or more additional articles, since The Atlantic thankfully has no paywall!

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Mar 152011
 

Since the recent unrest began in the Middle East, Mother Jones has gotten attention for their invaluable explainer posts like this one on Egypt. These posts do more than report on events. They begin by asking and briefly answering questions like “How did this all start?” and “Why Are Egyptians Unhappy?” It’s a deceptively simple format, but the posts go a long way to providing some basic context prior to reporting what’s new. The Wall Street Journal has a similar feature today on “How Nuclear Reactors work… And the Dangers When They Don’t”.

There’s a lot of room to experiment with these sort of explainer features. (Jay Rosen at NYU is leading a project that explores the issue in depth at Explainer.net.) But context is arguably trickier than news reporting when it comes to providing some level of “objectivity.” There are often multiple reports of what happened, but even more of why it happened.

So explainers will need to think extra carefully about how to update “objectivity” – a thorny subject under the best circumstances – to fit these features.

The excellent analysis offered by Mother Jones and WSJ reminded of a post I wrote about back in August: the magazine-reporter ethos. The original post is by Jim Henley, and here are his key points:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

It’s relatively easy to come up with rough guidelines like these, or these ones by Factcheck.org:

1. Keep an open mind
2. Ask the right questions
3. Cross-check
4. Consider the source
5. Weigh the evidence

And explainers would do well to incorporate these guidelines into their efforts. But I’d argue they need to go even further, beyond rough guidelines, and develop more detailed rules and descriptions of their process. There are lots of advocates of transparency in future-of-news circles, often as a substitute for “objectivity.” But too often those calling for transparency focus on explaining the writer’s perspective – I’m liberal, this is my worldview, etc. – and less on transparency of process – we consider x to be a more reliable source than y and shaped our analysis accordingly, etc. Let’s see more process transparency. And keep up the great explainer experiments.

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject
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Mar 092011
 

I recently came across this 2003 interview of David Foster Wallace by Dave Eggers. It’s excellent and well worth a read. I’m mentioning it here because I don’t have a very good model for what role literature, or even art in general, plays or should play in the public sphere. It’s just not something I’ve spent much time thinking about. But DFW has an interesting take on it (emphasizing empathy), and on some other related matters. I’ll confess to not reading much fiction and never having read either author at length. Below I’ve copied a couple relevant quotes. The whole thing is worth your time. (BLVR = The Believer = Eggers.) All emphasis is mine.

BLVR: You covered John McCain for the 2000 election, and that piece, which was so fresh and honest and unvarnished, was made into a kind of book-on-demand. Do you keep up with politics, and if so, are there plans to do any more political writing? And do you have any comment on why, it seems, there are fewer young novelists around who also comment directly on the political world? Should novelists be offering their opinions on national affairs, politics, our current and future wars?

DFW: The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.

Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff (more accurately: I believe that I saw some stuff) about our current president, his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration. Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up (“speak out” is the current verb phrase of choice, rhetorically freighted as it is). But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me—there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.

My own plan for the coming fourteen months is to knock on doors and stuff envelopes. Maybe even to wear a button. To try to accrete with others into a demographically significant mass. To try extra hard to exercise patience, politeness, and imagination on those with whom I disagree. Also to floss more.

And I was fascinated by this bit on communicating technical topics. Though he is referring to science and math, for public sphere purposes, I’d add in economics. Eggers’ question on this one is about infinity being a potentially dangerous idea

BLVR: …[Infinity] as far as I can tell, it hasn’t had much relevance outside of a narrowly circumscribed math world, and hasn’t been particularly dangerous, or, if it has been relevant and/or dangerous, you don’t really go into what any of the extra-mathematical implications have been. Is there anything to say on this subject? Are there interesting infinity-related extra-mathematical implications of Cantor and his discoveries?

DFW: Probably the quickest, most efficient way to respond is to say that this question leads nicely into the whole reason why pop-tech books might have some kind of special utility in today’s culture. The big difference is that things are vastly more compartmentalized now than they were up through, say, the Renaissance. And more specialized, and more freighted with all kinds of special context. There’s no way we’d expect a world-class, cutting-edge mathematician now also to be doing world-class, cutting-edge philosophy, theology, etc. Not so for the Greeks—if only because math, philosophy, and theology weren’t coherently distinguishable for them. Same for the Neoplatonists and Scholastics, and etc. etc. (This is a very, very simple answer, of course, maybe right on the edge of simplistic.) By the time Cantor weighed in on ∞ in the 1870s, it was part of an extremely specialized technical discipline that took decades to master and be able to do advanced work in. For Cantor and R. Dedekind (and now this is all just condensed way down from the book (sort of the same way the question is)), the math of ∞ is derived as a way to solve certain thorny problems in post-calc analysis (viz., the expansions of trig functions and the rigorous definition of irrational numbers, respectively), which problems themselves derive from K. Weierstrass’s solutions to certain earlier problems, and so on. It’s all so abstract and specialized that large parts of E&M end up getting devoted to unpacking the problems clearly enough so that a general reader can get a halfway realistic idea of where set theory and the topology of the Real Line even come from, mathematically speaking. The real point, I think, has to do with something else that ends up mentioned only quickly in the book’s final draft. We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius—which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

If you promise to read the whole thing I’ll promise to go read some fiction.

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Mar 072011
 

I have a post up at The Atlantic Tech featuring an interview I did with Brooks Jackson, Director of Factcheck.org about determining reliable sources. Factcheck.org is a terrific resource, and Brooks’ insights are excellent. Please head over to The Atlantic and read the interview. Here’s a taste:

We tend to be more skeptical of assertions that run counter to our existing worldview. How can we adjust for this bias of “motivated skepticism“? In such situations, it seems our reasoning capabilities are coming to the service of our emotions, to ill effect. Is it ever the case that we ought to employ less critical thinking?

In unSpun, Kathleen Jamieson and I argue that to keep from being fooled by this common human tendency, its a good idea to keep asking yourself “Am I missing something? Does the other guy have a point here?” It also helps to be aware of this universal psychological tendency, and for teachers to point out examples of it.

Kathleen doesn’t like the term “critical thinking” because it implies to some that they should automatically be critical. We prefer “analytical thinking.” If you look at it that way, I think there’s no danger of being too analytical. I agree that there is a danger of automatically distrusting anything said by people in authority. In that sense, yes, there is a danger of too much “critical” thinking. It’s one thing to be skeptical, which is good. It’s another to be cynical, which is a sort of naive belief that everybody is lying.

For more on this from Factcheck.org, check out their Tools of the Trade:

A Process for Avoiding Deception

1. Keep an open mind. Most of us have biases, and we can easily fool ourselves if we don’t make a conscious effort to keep our minds open to new information. Psychologists have shown over and over again that humans naturally tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe, even if the information isn’t very reliable. And humans also naturally tend to reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if the information is solid. These predilections are powerful. Unless we make an active effort to listen to all sides we can become trapped into believing something that isn’t so, and won’t even know it.

2. Ask the right questions. Don’t accept claims at face value; test them by asking a few questions. Who is speaking, and where are they getting their information? How can I validate what they’re saying? What facts would prove this claim wrong? Does the evidence presented really back up what’s being said? If an ad says a product is “better,” for instance, what does that mean? Better than what?

3. Cross-check. Don’t rely on one source or one study, but look to see what others say. When two or three reliable sources independently report the same facts or conclusions, you can be more confident of them. But when two independent sources contradict each other, you know you need to dig more deeply to discover who’s right.

4. Consider the source. Not all sources are equal. As any CSI viewer knows, sometimes physical evidence is a better source than an eyewitness, whose memory can play tricks. And an eyewitness is more credible than somebody telling a story they heard from somebody else. By the same token, an Internet website that offers primary source material is more trustworthy than one that publishes information gained second- or third-hand. For example, official vote totals posted by a county clerk or state election board are more authoritative than election returns reported by a political blog or even a newspaper, which can be out of date or mistaken.

5. Weigh the evidence. Know the difference between random anecdotes and real scientific data from controlled studies. Know how to avoid common errors of reasoning, such as assuming that one thing causes another simply because the two happen one after the other. Does a rooster’s crowing cause the sun to rise? Only a rooster would think so.

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