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.   

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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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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Escaping the traps of Facebook, Google and other centralized data hordes

A furor erupted this week over a research project conducted by Facebook in which they manipulated the feeds of over 600,000 users in order to measure their emotional responses. To many, this sounds like a trivial intrusion, perhaps on par with the insertion of advertising content. But several scientists have argued that it constitutes a serious breech in established research ethics — namely the requirement for informed consent. In the world of scientific research, the bar for informed consent is quite high. Facebook chose to rely on their Terms of Use as a proxy for informed consent, but that is unacceptable and would establish a dangerous precedent for eroding the rights of future study participants. An author at the Skepchik network contributed this critique of Facebook’s behavior:

What’s unethical about this research is that it doesn’t appear that Facebook actually obtained informed consent. The claim in the paper is that the very vague blanket data use policy constitutes informed consent, but if we look at the typical requirements for obtaining informed consent, it becomes very clear that their policy falls way short. The typical requirements for informed consent include:

  • Respect for the autonomy of individual research participants
  • Fully explain the purposes of the research that people are agreeing to participate in in clear, jargonless language that is easy to understand
  • Explain the expected duration of the study
  • Describe the procedures that will happen during the study
  • Identify any experimental protocols that may be used
  • Describe any potential risks and benefits for participation
  • Describe how confidentiality will be maintained
  • A statement acknowledging that participation is completely voluntary, that a participant may withdraw participation at any time for any or no reason, and that any decision not to continue participating will incur no loss of benefits or other penalty.

Of course this level of detail cannot be covered by blanket “Terms of Use” that apply to all users of a general-purpose communication platform. Slate’s Katy Waldman agrees that Facebook’s study was unethical:

Here is the only mention of “informed consent” in the paper: The research “was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.”

That is not how most social scientists define informed consent.

Here is the relevant section of Facebook’s data use policy: “For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

So there is a vague mention of “research” in the fine print that one agrees to by signing up for Facebook. As bioethicist Arthur Caplan told me, however, it is worth asking whether this lawyerly disclosure is really sufficient to warn people that “their Facebook accounts may be fair game for every social scientist on the planet.”

Of course Facebook is no stranger to deceptive and unethical behavior. We may recall their 2012 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which charged “that Facebook deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

The problem is simple: Facebook is a centralized service that aggregates intimate data on millions of users. They need to find ways to profit from that data — our data — and we have little control over how their activity might disadvantage or manipulate the users. Their monetization strategies go beyond their already troubling project to facilitate targeted ads from third party apps, apps that you might assume have no relationship to your Facebook activities. Facebook also manages the identity and contact networks of those users, making it difficult to leave the platform without becoming disconnected from your social network. It is a trap. Last week a Metro editorial claimed that it’s getting worse, and recommends that we all quit “cold turkey.” Some users have migrated over to Google services as an escape, but Google has faced similar FTC charges that reveal isn’t any better. So Google is just another mask on the same fundamental problems.

So what is the fix? I’m putting my money on The Red Matrix, a solution that supports distributed identity, decentralized social networking, content rights management and cloud data services.


The core idea behind the Red Matrix is to provide an open specification and protocol for delivering contemporary internet services in a portable way, so that users are not tied to a single content provider. The underlying protocol, called “zot,” is designed to support a mix of public and privately shared content, providing encryption and separating a user’s identity from their service provider.

While still in its early stages, the Red Matrix provides core features comparable to WordPress, Drupal, Dropbox, Evernote and of course social networking capabilities. It is hard to summarize the possibilities of this emerging platform. I’m still discovering new ways to leverage the platform for things ranging from personal note management to blogging. Although the Red Matrix is small, it is an open source project with a fanatical base of users and developers, which makes it likely to endure and grow.

This seems like a good time to announce the Red Matrix companion channel for this site: This channel acts as a “stream of consciousness” for material related to this blog, containing supplemental information, technical posts, short comments, reposts of news items, and other miscellanea. The primary WordPress site will be reserved for more detailed posts. Any readers are welcome to comment or otherwise interact by joining the Red Matrix at my server or one of the other public servers in the Red Matrix network.

Migrating to a new site

I’ve decided to migrate my blog content from to this new location. I apologize for any broken links this may have created. I made this change because was starting to dominate search engine results for my name, and I wanted to direct people to my professional pages before they get lost in my personal opinions. By choosing a less personally-identifying blog name, I hope to avoid representing myself mainly through my most opinionated or controversial posts. I chose the unimaginatively mathy name “fair coin toss” because it is a ubiquitous technical phrase that no one has claimed for a blog name. I’m grateful for any readers who find their way here after the transition.