Diversity: Science March Edition

Yesterday I attended the March for Science in Washington, DC. It was a good time, and I think it was a worthwhile event matched by numerous other marches worldwide. For those who followed the march’s organization on Twitter and in other media, one of the most visible controversies surrounded diversity and inclusion in the march. Some tweeters are still criticizing the involvement of Bill Nye as a major figurehead in the march. They don’t like him because he’s a white male and they’d rather see more non-white/non-male role models promoted as figureheads in the march. Or they don’t like him because he said something wrong about gender or race at some point. He said some wrong things about science too. He’s not even a “real” scientist. He’s an imperfect and overprivileged white man — he’s the status quo. Isn’t he the sort of thing that protests are against? 

Me at the US Capitol Building during the March for Science

Diversity/inclusion in STEM is a complex subject, and I’m going to have to address it across several posts. For this post, I don’t have time to justify my background or expertise in the subject; I just want to talk about Bill Nye for a minute. I have two little girls, and I would love it if they take an interest in STEM. My oldest has already identified paleontology and entomology as potential careers (she’s also picked “snowman” so take that with a grain of salt). We’re lucky to live in a college town where she has met dozens of female STEM professionals. We have female STEM role models in the family. Check, check and check.

But role models only demonstrate possibilities to a kid. “I could be a blahblahlogist like so-and-so I guess.” The mere existence of a role model is not enough to inspire interest or to perceive that role as desirable. That’s because there’s a distinction between identity and efficacy. One day my daughter, age five, found Bill Nye’s show on Netflix and proceeded to binge watch it for weeks. That’s the missing piece of inspiration. Now she can get back to those role models with a little more context. Now she can maybe have conversations and ask questions. I have no doubt that a non-white/non-male celebrity could be what Bill Nye is, but for right here and right now, he’s a celebrity that people recognize, who has influenced kids across multiple generations to see science as more than nap-inspiring, and hopefully some of those kids are not just the status quo of white males. I just don’t think there is another science celebrity who has the kind of popular reach and recognition that he does. A successful popular movement needs to put celebrities out in front, or else it’s just a bunch of nerds rehearsing their complaints to each other.

Civility in the Age of Trump

Fake news. Alternative facts. Fictitious terrorism. Conspiracy theories about paid protestors. We are suddenly in a time of indifference to truth, and many are pointing the finger at President Trump, a man who has demonstrated a total disregard for reality if it interferes with his own plans and preferences. But Trump is just the inevitable result of Republicans’ long slide into alt-reality. During Trump’s campaign, many Republicans were depicted as shocked and appalled by Trump’s abuses, but on closer inspection it is clear that they embrace the fundamentals of Trumpism: deny, distract, and delegitimize the opposition by whatever means available. Plant conspiracies and reverse the burden of proof. Best of all, project these abusive intentions onto others. Insist that it’s really Democrats or “the media” or even your own constituents who are the ones really doing these things. It’s been a Republican strategy for a long time. Remember when Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” years ago? It was in reference to this kind of spin. 

Just this week congressman Jason Chaffetz, from my home state of Utah, faced hostile constituents at a town hall meeting. He deflected most questions and offered canned non-specific responses, which further upset the crowd. His response was to de-legitimize, alleging (without any evidence) that they were “paid agitators from out of state”. When questioned by the local media (who are usually reliably conservative), Chaffetz attempted to reverse the burden of proof, saying “do some reporting,” as though “the media” has some responsibility to prove his fantasies for him. Then he projected his own bad faith onto his constituents, accusing them collectively of “bullying and intimidation,” somehow forgetting his own rise to prominence as part of the rowdy Tea Party movement that unseated the previous Republican establishment. In short, Chaffetz exploits the rudimentary tools of Trumpism. He’s made it clear that he answers to no one — not the reliable Republican voters in his district who support him no matter what he does, and certainly not the Democratic voters who will never support him. He’s in it for himself, he does what he wants and he basically tells us so.

Last week Marco Rubio delivered a rousing speech to the US Senate on the subject of civility. It did not make a huge splash in the news, but was steadily spread and shared by liberals and conservatives alike. Rubio’ call for civilized debate resonated with many who are aghast at our current state of discourse. There’s just one problem: his speech was delivered with an Orwellian intent to defend the pathological distortions of the Trump administration and his cabinet appointments. I’m of the opinion that there is no civility in lies, and it is a false civility that shields a lie while censoring the truth

Rubio’s speech was made just after Elizabeth Warren was removed from the Senate floor, aimed at her. Her crime was to read aloud letters by Corretta Scott King and Ted Kennedy attesting to the character of a cabinet nominee, Jeff Sessions.  Senate Republicans exploited a rule on civility — a senator may not “impugne” the character of another senator — and since the cabinet nominee happens to be a senator, no one is allowed to question his character. But since the whole point of senate hearings is to asserts the qualifications and character of cabinet nominees, this rule forces Democrats to sit silently while Republicans rubber-stamp the nomination, all in the name of “civility.” The rule, applied in this context, is a distortion, a lie. And Rubio wallowed in it while pretending to follow the high road.

I’m an academic working in the hard sciences, and we have a clear process for dealing with deliberate lies and distortion: the offender gets to walk the plank (professionally speaking). There is no need for civility; once a person is proven to have committed fraud, they should be whisked out of their career so fast that it leaves no time for any discourse, civil or otherwise. But recent events have shown that politics is startlingly different. Trump is a pathological liar who wants everyone to know he is lying. He wants us to know he doesn’t answer to us, he doesn’t need to concern himself with what’s true or false. He’s above truth, above us. That is perhaps the single greatest abuse of power in a republic — for an elected official to demonstrate no accountability to the citizens, to deny us an honest reporting of basic government functions.

Getting back to  Jason Chaffetz: he is perceived as having a unique responsibility to check presidential abuse. I lived in Chaffetz’s district for much of my life (I’m now in an adjacent district). Before the election, Chaffetz promised to be “like a kid in a candy store” investigating conflicts of interest and any misdeeds done by Trump and his administration. But post-election Chaffetz has turned out to be more of a cheerleading lapdog. For his own part, Chaffetz is busy pursuing his own fringe ideology, trying to abolish federal agencies like the Dept of Education, propositions which have the support of less than 20% of the general public. That’s an extraordinary abuse of a representative office: pushing the limits of one’s personal fringe ideology against massive public disapproval. So what’s the moral difference between Chaffetz and Trump? I don’t see one.

And what about the remaining Republican senators and representatives? What moral high ground can they take after so forcefully collaborating with a president who disregards his accountability to the American people? After rubber-stamping cabinet approvals for unqualified and questionable appointees? After crying obstruction when the record shows — to anyone interested in simply looking things up — that Trump’s appointments are proceeding faster than previous administrations.  Rubio’s call for civility is a slander against civility itself. It’s time for all of us to call a spade a spade, and to concern ourselves more with the substance of discussion than with the superficial facade of civility.   

The “Ugly Americans” are the ones at home

800px-ConstantinoAriasUglyAmericanSorry to poop the party, but it’s starting to sound like Lochte was in fact robbed, and Brazilian officials fabricated a story to retaliate against media embarrassment.

This morning I listened to yet another roast of US Olympian swimmers Lochte, Conger, Bentz, and Feigen over their alleged drunken shenanigans in Rio. “Why are we still talking about Lochte?” they ask, and then proceed to rehash the worst version of allegations against him. It’s not clear what the four are actually, officially, accused of, but the public story is that Lochte “fabricated” a robbery story, and most articles claim that he “could be” charged with filing a false police report.

But there are huge problems with the quasi-official story, starting with the fact that Lochte never reported anything to the police. He did not file a police report, let alone a false one. He did not make any formal accusations in the Brazilian justice system. He — Lochte — spoke to American media and related a story that is now mostly corroborated. The story embarrassed Brazilian authorities, and in retaliation for that embarrassment they fabricated the story that Lochte fabricated his story. Then Brazilian officials detained three of Lochte’s companions, and demanded that Feigen — who up to this point is not evidently accused of anythingpay $47,000 to leave the country (they eventually accepted $11,000).

An anonymous police source initially claimed that Lochte had vandalized a bathroom, and that he and his companions amicably compensated the store manager for the damage. Later, the official (leaked) story was revised to include multiple armed off-duty police officers working private security. Later, the story was revised with the detail that one of the officers brandished a firearm and demanded an unspecified amount of money, and the athletes handed over most of their cash and perhaps wallets. That sounds like a robbery. After a few days of public outrage, an actual investigation by USA Today cast doubt on the official story and mostly corroborated the swimmers’ version. Witnesses and surveillance video back up the story that the swimmers were removed from their taxi, detained at gun point, and coerced to pay money before they were permitted to leave. There appears to be no evidence that they vandalized the bathroom, or that anyone damaged the bathroom at all.

What it does sound like is a robbery perpetrated by police, and that’s not such a shocking idea. Even if they vandalized something, neither police nor private citizens are entitled to forcibly collect payment at gunpoint. In Brazil, the laws are not somehow exotically different from US law on this point. If you threaten physical harm in order to coerce payment, unless its part of established due process, it’s robbery. Foreign tourists are especially easy targets for police who briefly detain them, quote some imaginary charges, and demand an on-the-spot fine that can be rounded down to however much you have in your wallet. Officers were accused of doing this right here in Utah, although there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it (they were collecting on-the-spot fines without recording copies of the citations, so there’s no way to know if they were pocketing the cash). What makes it more plausible in Rio is that the police there are already known to do this a lot.

So with all the outrage over Lochte’s lies and reckless behavior, what did he actually do? What are people so mad about? First, he embellished the story with a dramatic flourish: a cocked gun “to his forehead”. Evidently the gun was not put to his forehead. Oh and he forgot to tell us that he was there to pee. That monster. Honestly, who goes to a foreign country and pees there!? (Oh, right, organisms. Lochte must be some kind of organism that  needs to pee.) And somehow he “damaged” or “knocked down” a “sign” or “framed poster” or “loosely attached canvas advertisement”; the authorities can’t keep their story straight about that either. Were they really so upset over a poster? Were games moved to North Korea or something?

All of America is falling over itself to condemn these few bits of distortion or omission, but what’s most amazing to me is that people are so eager to disregard the true parts of his story (which seems to be almost all of it), and nobody seems to care that the Brazilian police, government officials and Olympic organizers have indulged in much bigger fabrications in order to punish Lochte for speech that they find embarrassing. They apparently have no sense of due process, and they haphazardly target Lochte’s friends for actions allegedly done by Lochte.

I’ve heard numerous people indulge in the bigotry of low expectations, casting Brazil as a poor defenseless third world country that’s just trying to protect its dignity after the outrageous and insulting actions of some privileged rich white “ugly Americans” trampling over local customs. I call bullshit. Brazil has the world’s 7th highest GDP and elected to host the Olympic Games, which are notorious for stimulating some of the worst official corruption and police excesses in host countries (something we Utahns have some experience with; it’s hard to find news records from that era, but this article paints a picture of the style of riot-squad crackdowns that were commonplace in Salt Lake City during 1997 to 2002). I’ll bet Brazilians also need to pee sometimes.

And it’s nonsense to argue that those pious Brazilians were upset by some rowdy hard-partying Americans. I’ve seen how Brazilians party. This can’t be that shocking to them. And, most importantly of all, these were not “offended locals,” they were police working in an unofficial capacity. They were the authorities, and that matters in a big way. When a notoriously flaky athlete revises a few details in his story, it’s annoying; but when a nation’s justice system changes its story after already detaining people, collecting large sums of money, and throwing world opinion into a flurry of outrage against mostly innocent people, that’s fucking serious. Let me be clear: I don’t care one bit about swimmers or really about sports in general, but I have no stomach for false accusations, abuse of power, or mob justice.

So why are Americans in such a hurry to join the Lochte hate party?

A lot of Lochte’s critics attack him and his friends for “drinking all night.” It’s conspicuous to me that nobody has attacked the French athletes who hosted the party. Nobody is asking what other countries were represented at that party. Maybe we expect that kind of behavior from “the world,” but we Americans are supposed to be shining puritanical beacons on a holy hill, right? That’s so hypocritical of us. About 27% of American business travelers engage in binge drinking while on official business. About 50% of American college students “drink more alcohol” while studying abroad than they do at home, and 11% of them get “black out drunk.” Even if frowned upon, this is not really unusual behavior, especially when people are placed into intense situations in new contexts, and especially in competitive atmospheres where they might have something to celebrate.

Maybe the real reason for this outrage is that people love to see the mighty brought low. Deep down, a lot of Olympic viewers are watching because they are hoping to see some dramatic failure. Perhaps a horrifying injury or a tantrum. Under the surface, they resent the great talent and extraordinary dedication of Olympic athletes, and they’re hoping to see some evidence that they’re not so great after all. “You may swim fast but you’re not better than me.” This resentment is easily concealed in the excess baggage of moral expectations routinely placed on Olympians. We love to draw oppressively tight lines around athletes, and when they step outside those little boxes it gives us an excuse to completely destroy them. It’s an especially sickening pattern considering that many of these athletes will have nothing else of note in their entire lives. They have completely devoted themselves to honing skills with little economic value other than their potential sponsorships or endorsement deals, and most of them will not get very substantial endorsement opportunities.

Maybe another reason is that we Americans secretly don’t like each other very much. Maybe we don’t like ourselves very much. That could explain why, at seemingly every Olympics, people find an excuse to start talking about the “Ugly American” — a stereotype from the fucking 1940s — before beatniks, hippies, the civil rights era, before the cold war, around the time when Hillary Clinton was born — about how we privileged Americans plod carelessly around the world, mocking and offending the locals, carrying our entitled belligerence wherever we go. It’s why “the world hates us”. But it’s a steaming crock of shit. Everyone who’s traveled internationally seems to have a story of how they observed or encountered some “ugly Americans” in their travels (I do too). And maybe they’re also in someone else’s story. But this stereotype is not really based on anything.

But there are simple explanations for the “ugly American” perceptions: First, the Americans you encounter while traveling are usually just randomly selected upper middle class persons from anywhere. The odds are pretty good that you won’t make fast friends with a randomly selected upper middle class American from anywhere. Go to any airport, pick a random person in expensive clothes. I bet you won’t like them very much.  In my experience this trend is quite robust. Second, Americans stand out to you because you understand their language. Unless you’re proficient in a lot of other languages, you probably have no idea what other travelers are saying or doing or the ways they might be insulting to the local culture. But your ears hone in on those American voices, and perhaps your instinctive reaction is to think “please, please don’t embarrass me here.”

I might add that, almost everywhere I’ve traveled, from San Diego to Vancouver to New York to Fort Lauderdale; from Australia to Japan to France and Sweden; in nearly every place I’ve observed someone peeing outside. It’s an epidemic, almost as though people have developed an urgent physiological dependence on it.

So, yeah. This story, everything about it, is triggering my spidey sense. I could easily be wrong, but a lot of things aren’t adding up. In fact, the one thing in all this that adds up best is Lochte’s story, the one for which he’s being crucified.

Math: from Anxiety to Hostility

There’s a dustup happening between science writer John Horgan and several popular authors in the Skeptical (with a capital-S) community. Horgan’s arguments are pretty dull, but one point caught my eye: he argues that grand cosmological theories are pseudoscience, no better than psychoanalysis or transhumanism. The alleged reason is because they are “untestable.” But lurking beneath this inch-deep argument is an implied hostility to mathematical theory. Math hostility is extremely widespread, even among scientists and engineers. I think it’s a form of xenophobia; people fear what they don’t understand.

But here’s the thing: mathematical theories are built for the sole purpose of thinking precisely and avoiding contradictions. If you believe a set of physical laws are true, then you have to accept the mathematical system that is built from those laws; otherwise you commit a contradiction. In some cases, as with string theory, it may be necessary to insert some untested propositions in order to complete the theory’s mathematical structure (disclaimer: I’m no string theorist, but I’ll do my best with what I’ve gleaned about it from popular literature). By doing this, a hypothesis is born. It’s not arbitrary — it’s constrained by the mathematics inherited from known physical laws. If you can’t think of any way to test the hypothesis, that’s no reason to stop working on it. This is what we call “reasoning”, you keep doing the math until you figure out some way to test it.

That’s what science is: thinking really hard about the world, devising explanations that help us understand things, expunging contradictions, and (where possible) connecting independent lines of evidence. Folks like Horgan tend to get stuck on simplified explanations of science, like the falsifiability criterion, and mistake those explanations for prescriptive rules of “the game”. But the practice of science is a phenomenon, and the falsifiability criterion is just one of many post hoc theories developed to explain that phenomenon. Like a lot of science spectators, Horgan doesn’t get that. He looks at sophisticated modern theories and says something I’ve seen many times before:

Some string and multiverse true believers, like Sean Carroll, have argued that falsifiability should be discarded as a method for distinguishing science from pseudo-science. You’re losing the game, so you try to change the rules.

I’m tempted to codify this phrasing and name it the “Crank’s Gambit”: the claim that a well established branch of science has gone rogue, has abandoned the true principles of scientific method, and now they want to retroactively change definitions in order to cover up their fraud. This pattern of argument is well represented among science deniers; I recently addressed it in my response to “memristor skeptics” in my own research field.

Apparently Horgan has held this view for a long time. Krauss (quoted by Coyne) describes the gist of Horgan’s book, the End of Science, as

John Horgan was a respected science writer years ago up until he wrote a book entitled The End of Science, which essentially argued that much of physics had departed from its noble traditions and now had ventured off into esoterica which had no relevance to the real world, and would result in no new important discoveries—of course, this was before the discovery of an accelerating universe, the Higgs Boson, and the recent exciting discovery of gravitational waves!

That description, “esoterica with no relevance to the real world,” is the most common complaint against highly abstract or mathematical theories. It echoes the sentiment from one comment made on my memristor post: “Who the hell is still believing that the ‘memristor’ – the so-called fourth basic component of electronic circuits – exists in physical reality? …the ‘memristor’ is nothing else but a mathematical curiosity.” These comments betray an underlying suspicion that mathematics cannot describe the real world. In my previous post I quoted Tesla, who said something similar in reaction to general relativity:

Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality…. The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.

For the past week I’ve been at a conference where mathematicians mingle with circuit engineers, and several conversations have turned toward the deep seated mistrust of mathematics that we encounter in our own professional fields. There are many who genuinely believe that if you aren’t building and measuring something, then what you are doing is fake. But this view is so dysfunctional. For one thing, it’s often prohibitively expensive to build and measure interesting things. For another thing, it’s impossible to know what would be interesting to build and measure, unless you’ve invested a lot of rigorous thought beforehand. That’s what theory is for. As for those who are so skeptical of it, my best guess is that they simply don’t get the math, and they resent what they don’t understand.

Tesla vs Edison: just the facts

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 2.53.47 PMEvery year around this time I deliver a short lecture on the history of electronics. The timing of this lecture happens to roughly coincide with the anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s death, when the internet is abuzz with pop science articles, posts and tweets about the magical wizardry of Tesla. These stories are frequently accompanied by stories of Edison’s depravity as Tesla’s alleged arch-nemesis. The story alleges that Edison was obstinately fixated on a doomed technology (DC power distribution), and did everything in his power to block the arrival of the better option (AC power distribution), championed by Tesla. (Of course, nothing is so simple, and even today there is vigorous debate over the comparative advantages of DC vs AC power grids).

This tale of moral conflict among legendary inventors has been going on for decades; I recall enthusiastically reading Tesla: Man out of Time as a first year undergraduate student. More recently, the story was re-popularized by The Oatmeal in a cartoon titled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.”  The story is fun. I get it; I even have an Oatmeal T-shirt that says “Tesla > Edison”. Pop-science culture is virtually saturated with Tesla; he’s even featured as a super-hero in a Kickstarter-funded cartoon called “Super Science Friends.”  In spite of all this fandom, we still hear statements like this one, from one of the creators of Super Science Friends:

when you here about Tesla and Edison and all the drama, how Tesla is responsible for a lot of the things we use today but isn’t given any credit.

It’s very strange to say Tesla received no credit; he was nominated for the Nobel prize and his name was selected as the standard international unit for magnetic flux density. The story is a classic revisionist tale: the secret story of the suppressed or forgotten savior of the world. It feels like a subversive, almost conspiratorial counter-history. Only the initiated know the truth… except it’s not really accurate. Not remotely. And while Tesla is a great figure in the history of technology, the story is not very fair to Edison, who completely deserves the credit history has given him. It also is not fair to the many other contributors in the history of electricity and electronics. Tesla is simply not the “father” of electricity or of AC; he was one of many important men and women who made numerous incremental contributions. And Edison is simply not a murderous villain who nearly robbed the world of its future; you can find character flaws and moral failings in every person, including both Tesla and Edison.

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Only America has this problem.

Guard bear threatens pedestrians. [Image by Gillfoto, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Guard bear threatens pedestrians. [Image by Gillfoto, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

A few days ago, we saw yet another tragic massacre in which a frustrated young man blocked the doors of a classroom and released a pride of lions to attack the defenseless people trapped inside. A day later, a tragic story of a child eaten by a negligent neighbor’s animal. And on Friday, two more school maulings in a single day. The rapid succession of violent events has left Americans struggling to understand the cause of all these injuries and deaths from large predators. Many wonder if America’s unique habit of collecting exotic large predators might be the underlying cause for all these people being eaten by exotic large predators.

But conservative pundits are skeptical, and argue that deeper causes, not lions and bears, are more likely to blame for the epidemic of people being eaten by lions and bears. “These things happen,” said presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested that similar tragedies could be avoided if professors had predators of their own. Some experts respond by noting instances where professors have used their animals to attack colleagues, and other cases where large cats or bears were inadvertently left unattended in student restrooms.

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Free will and guilty machines

Do machines have moral responsibility?

Do machines have moral responsibility?

Do we have free will to determine our own choices, or are we merely sophisticated machines? Can a machine be morally responsible for its actions? Do the words “guilt” and “innocence” even apply? A lot of popular authors in science and skepticism would answer no, but I believe they do.

A number of scientists have been in a philosophical mood lately, and some have decided to fix their
attention on the ancient problem of free will: Do we really have deep freedom to determine our choices and actions, or are we automata (machines) whose thoughts and actions are fully determined by physical laws? Recent scientific discoveries show new details of what kinds of automata we might be. These discoveries are not exactly shocking, since scientists and philosophers have already spent centuries working out what it means to be both a person and an automaton. But the “new” determinists, which include popular authors Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, argue for major changes in our social and moral understanding based on the alleged logical implications of determinism.

In this post, I summarize some of their arguments along with major problems I see in them. In short, my view is that we cannot dispose of guilt without also disposing of innocence. While I agree with the conclusion that we should seek more empathic approaches to retributive punishment, we cannot entirely dispose of retributive ideas. And whatever we conclude about morality, justice and punishment, it should probably not be deduced from metaphysics.
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