Monday, February 12, 2024

Questions, Engagement, and Democratic Institutions

Here is my question:  what is the relationship between our ability to ask good questions as a culture, our capacity for self-governance, and our democratic institutions? 

At the Right Question Institute (RQI), we know that when we formulate questions about anything, we organize our thinking about what we do not know.  That deceptively simple, self-conscious act of naming what you want to know is what creates an engaged learner, a curious individual. We believe that, though it’s been long neglected, it’s a fundamental critical thinking skill, as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Furthermore, in the course of three decades, we’ve discovered that asking good questions is not just an ability some people are born with but an innate potential that we all have.  And even more importantly, we’ve learned how to model, teach, facilitate, develop and strengthen that innate capacity. In an open society, it’s a good thing: better questions make us all better critical thinkers and more engaged, lifelong learners. And the more we learn, the better our questions become.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Storytelling about Public Health, Immigration and Power

Here is a headline for you to consider:
CDC Recommended that Migrants Receive Flu Vaccine, but CBP Rejected the Idea
With a different headline and presented in a different order, the same facts and even the same text would tell a different story.

This is how the story in the Washington Post by Robert Moore starts out:
As influenza spread through migrant detention facilities last winter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that U.S. Customs and Border Protection vaccinate detained migrants against the virus, a push that CBP rejected, according to a newly released letter to Congress.
In Washington, I guess that's what this story is about: a battle between agencies, political conflict, and, with any luck, a cover-up and a scandal.  It's about power.  And who will be blamed when the outbreak inevitably occurs.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Epitaph by Merrit Mallow at Frank Fisher's Funeral

I'd like to thank Frank Fisher for this poem.

Frank died on April 29th, 2019.  We went to his funeral today and the Rabbi read this poem by Merrit Mallow called "Epitaph."  It was beautiful.

I'd kind of like to know if Frank knew of this poem and appreciated it himself or not.  No matter, though -- I appreciated it either way.  Frank's funeral provided more than an opportunity to learn of this poem, however.  It also made it a lot more meaningful.  When the Rabbi read the poem, I had been thinking about Frank's life, his family and colleagues he left behind.  By living the life he did and drawing people to his funeral as he did -- people who spoke about their memories of Frank and his legacy -- Frank "framed" the poem for me.  Thank you, Frank.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Complex System Underlies Simple Story about GM Layoffs

I found this article in the Times yesterday about layoffs at GM.  It seemed pretty straightforward.
General Motors announced Monday that it planned to idle five factories in North America and cut roughly 14,000 jobs in a bid to trim costs. It was a jarring reflection of the auto industry’s adjustment to changing consumer tastes and sluggish sales.
It’s pretty remarkable because, as short as it is, it is directly or indirectly related to many dimensions of public policy I've devoted time and attention to in this blog, including inequality, taxes, interest rates, growth, trade, energy policy, climate change, globalization, immigration, and even automation and the future of work.

But then I thought about it and concluded I would have appreciated the article even more if Boudette, the author, had bothered to connect the elements in his article into a system.  As is, the story leaves the reader with a pretty clear victim (organized labor) and villain (GM management).  In this frame, the article appears to be a list of factors that help the reader understand why GM has decided to permanently close these plants.  It is, in effect, an apologia for GM management.  And relationships between public policy and poor socio-economic outcomes remain implicit if they are mentioned at all.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Trump, White Anger and the Paranoid Political Tradition

Just because you’re paranoid does not mean they’re not out to get you.

Maybe it's true:  immigration does exert a downward pressure on wages.  But maybe it's NOT TRUE.  Plenty of economists find that the incremental demand for goods and services created by immigrants -- and therefore economic growth -- more than offset the competition for wages.  These economists base their argument in evidence, not reason.  In fact, there is no correlation between cities with larger immigrant populations and lower wages.  And there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

But it's certainly true that the argument is an authentic expression of fear and anger of working class whites.  They BELIEVE that immigrants are taking their jobs for lower pay, thereby driving wages down.  And they BELIEVE that the system is rigged against them because to them it's self-evident:  low wages are good for employers, good for business, good for the establishment.  And whether they're true or not, these beliefs have an effect on our politics, our government and our history.

This essay by Lynn Vavreck in the New York Times is a classic summary of this dilemma and it's impact not only on electoral politics and public policy but also how we think of ourselves.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Artificial Intelligence is Out of Control at Facebook

Has anyone else been following this thread of alarmist articles in the media?  Facebook deployed some "virtual assistant" technology or "bots" that apparently developed their own "language" to communicate between themselves more effectively.  Oh no!  Next they'll be conspiring against us!

From Dave Gershgorn at Quartz:
Recent headlines and news articles have depicted research from Facebook’s artificial intelligence lab as the sci-fi beginnings of killer AI: one bot is learning to talk to another bot in a secret language so complex that it had to shut down. A BGR headline reads “Facebook engineers panic, pull plug on AI after bots develop their own language,” and Digital Journal claims in its article that “There’s not yet enough evidence to determine whether they present a threat that could enable machines to overrule their operators.” 
Most of the coverage has been ridiculous:  not just a waste of time or useless but actually misleading.  These writers and publishers are using words to amuse, alarm and provoke but not to explain.  Classic mystification.

But Dave does a decent job here, explaining that, in fact, there is nothing nefarious going on:
The bots did exactly what they were programmed to do: haggle over fake objects. They developed a new way of communicating with each other, because computers don’t speak English—just like we use x to stand in for a number in math, the bots were using other letters to stand in for longer words and ideas, like “iii” for “want” or “orange.”

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Media, Corporations and Democracy

Robert Reich has posted another excellent video, this one entitled "Trump and the Media." In it he outlines how Trump is using power, the law and public opinion to undermine the media and consolidate his own power. Many of my friends and colleagues have responded to this thoughtful analysis with a big "So what?!" They point out that the media has always been biased, that it's never been truly independent, that it's all owned by a couple of corporations and none of them can be trusted. So what's the big deal?

This is fallacious reasoning for three reasons.  First, no matter how bad the media gets, it doesn't make it any more or less important for our communities, our society and our Republic. And second, just because they are biased, not independent and privately owned, does not mean that they MUST be undeserving of our trust. And finally, by generalizing and giving up, we may actually be making matters worse for the few remaining journalists, editors and publishers out there who are still fulfilling their public mission. Cynicism about the media is not the same as skepticism.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Automation and the Future of Work

My mother sent me this TedX video of David Autor, an MIT Professor of Economics.  It's great.  I highly recommend it. Here is his paper on the subject offering even more detail.  

The impact of technology is all around us and just seems to accelerate leaving entire generations in lower-paid, less skilled jobs than they had only 30 years ago.  This chart clearly shows waves of losses and gains in US employment by sector between 1940 and 2010.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

More on the Facebook Fake News Story

Finally we have John Herrman's post from the Times that gets to the root of the "Fake News" story.   He gets it right and summarizes it better than I did in this previous post.  There are really three problems, the first of which is simply the nature of the World Wide Web and the Internet, which, like any truly global market, is practically unregulated in important ways.  Not much we can do about fake news here.  The second problem is user-generated content published on Facebook which are and will remain un-curated, the responsibility of Facebook users, much of it populated with ridiculous and unsubstantiated opinion and outright lies.  It'll be impossible for Facebook to be the arbiter of truth in this domain either.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Role of Facebook and Social Media in the Election of 2016 (edited)


This much is true:  "The post falsely claiming that the Pope endorsed Trump has more than 868,000 Facebook shares, while the story debunking it has 33,000.” And it may have had a significant effect in Trump's triumph, claims Cliff Kuang in this FastCoDesign post.  He's mistaken, however, when he asserts that this problem is a design flaw in Facebook specifically or social media in general.  Blaming Facebook for the impact of fake news on society is like blaming the effect of gossip transmitted via post or ATT on the post office or the phone company.  Unless, of course, we consider the scale of "sharing" afforded by social media...

Modern web and mobile experiences make it easier than ever to create and consume social content... but it makes it harder and harder to understand relationships between sources of information and virtually impossible to easily confirm the source and integrity of more and more content on the Internet.  While this is true in general, he's got it wrong in this case:  this is not really a Facebook or a Facebook design problem.  He's not thinking clearly about who actually creates social media and why.  If we understand more about what the web is, what Facebook is, who owns what and who pays for it all, it's pretty clear that everything functions rather well at least with respect to its design intent.  It's just that neither the web nor social media is actually DESIGNED to deliver reliable and verifiable content.  This is a publishing problem which happens to include design, not a design problem per se and certainly not a technology problem. (1)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reflections on the Passing of John Rassias

I got the email from Professor Nancy Vickers:  John was gone.  Deep breath…

So what was I to make of that, I wondered?  All that motion, but to what end?  Boundless passion, for sure.  So much heart.  Love.  But was there progress?  Or just a lot of heat?  The older I get the more I want to know: what was that all about?  What have we learned?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Race, Segregation, and Stories About Faceless Institutions, Families with Faces AND Evidence

I just finished reading this article in the Times today about a "broad yet little explored fact of American segregation.  I like that:  the FACT of segregation.  And the story of how even "affluent black families, freed from the restrictions of low income, often end up living in poor and segregated communities anyway."  I liked it a lot.  I learned something new about how laws and courts and the best of intentions of lots of people are simply not enough to change behaviors -- complex behaviors of almost ALL of us -- that perpetuate decades of segregation that disproportionately disadvantage another generation of Black Americans.  Sadly it IS still about race:  not class, not culture, not resources, but RACE.  The evidence is pretty clear.

I reflected for a minute and learned something else:  it is possible to tell a good story about complex systems and evidence that is also about individuals.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

On Generalizing and Stereotyping Illiberal Liberals

Of course the main point of this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is really about the illiberal intellectual climate in higher ed.  It's probably a pretty legitimate critique of the academy which, like everywhere else in our society, has been politicized and has become rather polarized.  In talking with our academic friends, it seems horribly stifling, actually, in dire need of reform.  It is really difficult to criticize many of the taboos, especially those which are racially charged, without being perceived as a bigot yourself, which is another legitimate point of the article.  

On the other hand, taking a broader view of history, we should probably admit that, while it might be hard to bring into question such taboos in academia at the moment, it is not impossible.  The cult of "political correctness" is not operating with equal force all disciplines and all schools.  But what really bothers me is that Boyers projects his complaints of American higher education to American society as a whole.  It seems to me a bit exaggerated to claim that "life of ideas is also increasingly compromised in precincts beyond the academy."  On the contrary, at the moment we're witnessing a very public moment where it's not only permissible to reject these taboos of political correctness, but it's also popular to deliberately single out and offend entire groups of people, even to the point of inciting violence, all in the name of being against "political correctness."  Isn't that evidence that the power of the so-called "liberal elite" -- which presumably controls American universities from coast to coast -- is not quite as absolute as Boyers claims?