All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Why ‘Just Follow the Science’ Won’t Solve All Our Problems

Science can be truly wondrous—as we’ve all come to appreciate now that scientists have developed a COVID-19 vaccine (several, in fact) less than a year into the pandemic. And even when it isn’t saving our lives, science moves our understanding of the world forward in a way that everyone can get behind. With rare exceptions, for instance, people of all political orientations, races, and nationalities can agree that water freezes at 0°C, gravity draws objects toward the ground, and the Earth rotates around the Sun and not vice versa. The wonders of science are so great that many philosophers and religious leaders predicted—with a sense of either hope or fear—that science would replace religion as the central organizing principle of our intellectual lives. Yet that hasn’t happened, despite the saturation of daily life with the fruits of science, from our tiny smartphones to the massive machines that power our globalized mass-market economy. When it comes to some of the most important ideological, political, and moral questions we face, the principles of scientific inquiry—including even basic …

Big Tech and Regulation—A Response to the Quillette Editors

Donald Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter. And Facebook, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Snap, Stripe, Discord, and—most crushingly of all—Pinterest. This was swiftly followed by a swathe of account purges across various platforms, ostensibly on the grounds that terms of service had been violated. Bizarrely, conservatives reacted to this development by lamenting the lack of arbitrary government intervention in private enterprise, while their liberal opponents celebrated corporate squashing of individual expression. If you don’t like it, build your own app. Arguably more important, if less sensational, has been the coordinated nuking of the efforts of those Trump fans who did, in fact, build their own app. Google and Apple banned conservative social media aspirant Parler from their app stores, effectively throttling its only viable distribution channels. Amazon then went a step further and revoked Parler’s right to host its site on its web service, AWS. For good measure, authentication service Okta and internet-to-telecoms interface platform Twilio withdrew their infrastructure too. If you don’t like it, build your own internet. The fallout has been intense and …

Social-Media Oligopolists Are the New Railroad Barons. It’s Time for Washington to Treat Them Accordingly

In 1964, an Ohio Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg told a Cincinnati-based reporter that his hate group would soon be holding a rally in a rural area of Hamilton County. In the filmed portions of that rally, which later became the focus of legal prosecution, robed men, some with guns, could be seen burning a cross and making speeches, infamously demanding “revengeance” against blacks (they used another word, of course), Jews, and the white politicians who were supposedly betraying their own “caucasian race.” They also revealed a plan for an imminent march on Washington, DC. In American First-Amendment jurisprudence, Brandenburg’s name is now a byword for the test that is used in assessing the validity of laws against inflammatory speech—especially speech that can lead to the sort of hateful mob activity that played out at the US Capitol last Wednesday. When details of the Hamilton County rally were made public, prosecutors successfully charged Brandenburg under Ohio’s criminal syndicalism statute, a 1919 law that, in the spirit of the first Red Scare, criminalized anyone …

The Future Is Already Here

There are not many ways to cause a stir in the classroom as an engineering professor, but one of them is surely to stand in front of a room full of bright-eyed, up-and-coming engineering students and inform them that “innovation, as we popularly understood it, is essentially dead.” Nevertheless, that is what I’ve taken to doing each year. Yes, I always put qualifiers on that statement (which you can perhaps catch a whiff of in the statement itself). I have been delivering “the talk” to students for several years now, outlining exactly what I mean by it, and encouraging them to push back and generate rebuttals. I always frame it as a challenge, rather than as a pronouncement from up on the stage. I am usually unmoved by the returns. It begins like this—I will ask students what inventions have been discovered in their 20-odd-year lifetimes that they feel have fundamentally changed how humans live. They get some space to think, but inevitably offer up their smartphones, at which point I nod, having begrudgingly accepted …

On Sex and Gender, The New England Journal of Medicine Has Abandoned Its Scientific Mission

Two years ago, “Titania McGrath,” whose satirical Twitter account regularly skewers the ideological excesses of social-justice culture, suggested that “we should remove biological sex from birth certificates altogether to prevent any more mistakes.” The joke (obvious to those who follow the culture wars closely, but perhaps obscure to those who don’t) was directed at gender activists who insist that male and female designations “assigned at birth” are misleading (and even dangerous), since they may misrepresent a person’s true “gender identity”—that internally felt soul-like quality that supposedly transcends such superficial physical indicia as gonads and genitalia. But the line between satire and sincerity has become blurry on this issue. Last Thursday, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious medical journal, published an article entitled Failed Assignments—Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates, arguing that (in the words of the abstract) “sex designations on birth certificates offer no clinical utility, and they can be harmful for intersex and transgender people.” The resemblance to Titania McGrath’s 2018-era Twitter feed is uncanny. …

The Flawed Reasoning of the Techlash and Progressive Movements

Around the globe, governments are looking for ways to tax, fine, regulate, or break up Big Tech—part of a reaction against companies like Google and Amazon that has become known as the “techlash.” This represents a huge shift in economic policy thinking, potentially the most significant in the West since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. Although they may seem unrelated, there are striking parallels between this techlash and progressive activism (so-called “woke” culture) that attempts to radically alter Western social norms. On their own terms, both movements rest on similar reasoning concerning moral responsibility, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable from the powerful. In other words, even though their proponents only partly overlap (the techlash has notably gained significant traction on the Right), similar underlying forces appear to be driving both movements. Tales of oppressors and oppressed Both progressive activism on the Left and the techlash on the Right view the world as one in which privileged individuals or corporations unfairly oppress an unfortunate minority (the works of Hegel and Marx loom large).  Consider the following self-descriptions. …

Why Do Progressives Support the Unfettered Use of Private Property?

In mid-October, Twitter took the unprecedented step of preventing its users from sharing a link to a New York Post story reporting allegations about the Biden family’s foreign financial interests. Whenever controversies about social media censorship arise, a mantra is repeated in their defence, usually by progressives: these are private companies and, as such, they can regulate speech on their platforms however they wish. Notice that this claim does not simply maintain that companies can restrict information in pursuit of specific policy aims (like thwarting criminal activity such as human trafficking efforts or combating terrorist networks). Instead, they can restrict expression on their platforms simply because those platforms are company property. Among the most familiar responses to this argument is the view that, even though these tech giants are private entities, they function like public forums in which free expression should be upheld. Here, I spell out a different approach: that while social media companies are indeed private entities, they should nevertheless be unable to regulate non-criminal activity on their platforms for a variety of moral …

The Apocalyptic Threat from Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Science Fiction

The person in the photo that sits to the left of this paragraph does not exist. It was generated using Artificial intelligence (AI), which can now generate pictures of imaginary people (and cats) that look real. While this technology may create a bit of social havoc, the truly massive disruption will occur when AIs can match or exceed the thinking power of the human brain. This is not a remote possibility: Variants of the machine-learning AIs that today generate fake pictures have a good chance of creating computer superintelligences before this century is out. These superior beings could be applied to wonderful purposes. Just this week, for instance, it was announced that the AI system AlphaFold has been recognized for providing a solution to the so-called “protein folding problem,” which holds implications for our fundamental understanding of the basic building blocks of human biology. If, however, mankind releases smarter-than-us AI before figuring out how to align their values with our own, we could bring forth an apocalypse instead. Even the Pope fears the destructive potential …

Desperation and the Quest for Control: The Dangers of Alternative Medicine

I am a skeptic and a curmudgeon, so I was surprised when a friend of 30 years asked if she could add me to her “Reiki Grid.” A Reiki Grid, I soon discovered, is a pattern made with crystals, allowing a Reiki practitioner to send “healing energy” to individuals whose names or pictures are placed on the grid. My friend is not a contemporary shaman. She is a hard-nosed, highly competent 37-year-old female attorney. She also has Stage IV breast cancer. Since her diagnosis, besides conventional cancer treatment, she has turned to alternative medicine and treatment modalities, including Reiki, which she credits for playing a large part in her health remaining stable at the moment. And what is Reiki? If I’m being diplomatic, I would describe it as “energy healing,” a sub-type of alternative medicine involving the practitioner placing their hands lightly on or just above the patient’s body in order to “transfer” energy. If I’m being truthful, I’d describe it as utter woo—a glaringly obvious pseudoscience. And yet it is a pseudoscience many women …

Retracting a Controversial Paper Won’t Help Female Scientists

Imagine yourself as a newly hired female assistant professor and the delight you feel when you learn that your article, examining over 222 million academic papers, has just been accepted at one of the top science journals. Now imagine your response when you discover that a fellow female academic is formally demanding your paper’s retraction,1 galvanized by a mob of outraged scientists on Twitter. This was the recent experience of Bedoor AlShebli, who published her large-scale research in Nature Communications.2 Open letter to the Editor-in-Chief of @NatureComms about the AlShebli paper, which claims that training with #WomenInSTEM damages the careers of young scientists pic.twitter.com/NvuBK3Z5T6 — Leslie Vosshall PhD (@pollyp1) November 19, 2020 In an analysis of over three million junior and senior co-author teams, AlShebli and her colleagues found that junior scholars with more female senior co-authors received fewer citations (up to 35 percent fewer) on their academic publications. Moreover, senior female academics who published with female junior scholars received 18 percent fewer citations than those who published with male junior scholars. No such citation …