Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Grading Is Time-Consuming

I didn't have time to write something this week, mostly because I have too much grading, and grading is really, really, time-consuming. 

If you're in the mood for a fun and polemical post about why grading is time-consuming, and what that means for "scaling" education, why not go back and read the last thing I wrote when I had too much grading to do? It was "Grading and the Dreams of a Frictionless Pedagogy."

Otherwise, you'll have to be content with some photos. Regular readers remember that when I Bought An Official NFL Colin Kaepernick Jersey, I had to guess about the size.

Update: the size worked out well. Further update: on reflection, I decided it was stupid to buy an NFL Kaepernick shirt rather than an #IMWITHKAEP "Know Your Rights" T-shirt whose proceeds would benefit Kaepernick's Know Your Rights Camp. So I went ahead and got one of those as well. You can too!

Anyway, here are the shirts in action:



See y'all next week!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ethics in Tech and the Humanities Classroom

I don't know if you saw this piece in the Guardian the other day, about how part of the problem with modern technology and its role in our lives is that people in the tech industry tend to study computer science and math and not the humanities.

Of course it's a subject close to my heart, and I've always said that most of the world's difficult problems are social and political problems, not technology problems. But I was interested to see a certain number of apt comments challenging the idea that classes in the humanities or ethics would make people more ethical, more motivated to do the right thing, or even more perceptive about what the right thing is.

In certain ways, I think these comments are spot-on. For one thing, it's always strange when universities require cheating students to take an ethics course. In ethics class, we study ethical theories, debates in ethics, and how different ethical perspectives lead to different conclusions about practical issues. Not only doesn't that make you a better person, it might have the opposite effect, insofar as you might learn about all this debate and disagreement and think to yourself: "If the experts can't even agree, maybe this is all BS. Should I just do whatever I want?"

Furthermore, I agreed with this perceptive comment in the Guardian from a "tech insider." This commenter drew on experience working with kids to say that "the thing that makes the biggest difference in knocking adolescent heads is exposing kids to people that aren't like them." He said that if you take a group of rich white guys from rich families, and you put them in a room together to study Plato, that won't have much effect in terms of making them care about negative consequences of their actions for people "on the other side of the screen." But actually interacting with people from different backgrounds could make a difference.

This commenter also pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that if you really want change, you can't rely on the tech industry to change itself, through people having "ethics." In a world of venture capital and people relying on tech jobs for their income and well-being, the incentives are all on the other side. You need political will and structural change if you want things to be different. Regular readers will understand why this point resonates with me.

Indeed, another commenter replied to the first to express indignation at the way "elites" act like learning the truth about life and love requires learning Greek  and traveling to India, and then, only if you come back with the "right" opinions. Whatever the reality, if this is the perception, the humanities are in trouble.

But no one will be surprised to hear that I think that there are also many things to say about the importance of studying the humanities and how this study is relevant to issues, especially where there are societal consequences to be considered. There are lots of areas, but one of them is learning about how complicated things are, and thus how unlikely it is that you can find and use simple general statements about social facts to understand the world.

For example, when you first encounter the idea that the thing to do is the thing that will bring about the best consequences, it might sound like simple common sense. But then you might learn in a philosophy class that applying this theory can lead to the conclusion that it's OK to kill disabled infants, and you might start wondering about whether there are other important human norms. Or you might start out thinking that society being based on free choice and individualism is just how societies work, but then you might take a history class and learn that ideas about individual autonomy emerged through a contingent set of forces. You might think that preventing deaths of innocents abroad is a good thing, but then you might learn in political science class about the complex effects of using weapons to kill people in other countries, even when your aims are good.

I'm occasionally appalled by the simple statements expressed by people in the tech industry. When Mark Zuckerberg says that integrity requires acting the same in all contexts, or that he dreams of a fundamental law of human behavior, that increased sharing will lead to increased tolerance and openness in society or that the solution is just cracking down on "bad stuff" ... well, those things seem wildly wrong to me.

Maybe being in a humanities or social science classroom -- not just reading certain texts, but also having back and forth, seeing conflicting opinions, hearing from people who have the opposite point of view -- would at least shake someone's confidence about these things? Lend a little epistemic humility?

Also, if that first Guardian commenter is right when they say it's not individual responsibility but rather structural change that is needed, then it's not so much that "tech elites" need humanistic education as that the rest of us do.

If you want to understand why people spread misinformation online, why people seek out anti-vaccine evidence, and why people doubt climate change, you're going to get much further in a sociology and social epistemology class than anywhere else. That's not about "ethics," exactly, but it is about understanding why people do the things that they do -- not in the "fundamental law of human behavior" kind of way, but in the actual "why do people do the things that they do" kind of way. 


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Culture Theory Of Labor Economics

Given the role that the issue played in the US election last year, I've been really interested to follow the recent news about the coal mining industry. You may remember Clinton cheering about how they were going to put a lot of coal mining companies out of business, with the tone-deaf assumption that everyone would regard this as a Good Thing. I'm sure you remember Trump talking about bringing it back.

From one point of view, the issue might seem to be relatively simple. A shift to other energy forms would be good for the environment, and what the former coal miners then need is new jobs in other industries. As long as economic growth is happening, it can be a win-win. From this point of view, reluctance on the part of coal miners might be seen as irrational and obstreperous.

But it's interesting in this context to consider a few recent articles discussing the miner's point of view. This Reuters article describes miners who are resisting retraining and discusses their reasons. Among them: Mining pays well. Other industries are unfamiliar. There’s no income during retraining. Even if you put in all that effort to learn something new, there is no guarantee of a job afterward.

When it comes to replacements, they point out that coal jobs are seen as preferable to those in natural gas, because the mines are close to home, while pipeline work requires travel. One government official is quoted as hoping for "big companies like Amazon or Toyota."

These are all real reasons. And given what we know about working in an Amazon warehouse, it is any wonder people are resistant to that?

A deeper discussion of worker preferences and their implications for the economy is found in this New York Times piece about mining and environmentalism in Minnesota. It's complicated, but the basic story is that miners want mining jobs while environmentalists want to turn the area into a tourism location and beauty spot -- preserving the natural landscape and also providing new and different jobs.

I was struck both by the miners' calculations about their alternatives and by their cultural commitment to their way of life. For one thing, tourism jobs are really different from mining jobs. Tourism jobs are seasonal, and unreliable, and often not well-paid, while mining jobs -- at least so far -- have been solid and remunerative.

But it's not all cold calculation. Mining jobs are also seen as respectable and masculine, work you can take pride in, while tourism jobs are seen as subservient. One politician summed it up this way:

"[The miners] see it as fundamentally a question of dignity for families that have worked blue-collar jobs for generations ... 'I don’t want to be anybody’s Sherpa.'"

When I first read that I felt a little defensive. There's an implication that cooking, cleaning, and showing people around are somehow not "manly" -- the implication being that their OK work for women but that men are somehow above all that.

But I can also understand it. Especially in our society, where workers' rights and protections have been eroding, cooking, cleaning, and showing people around jobs often do have aspects associated with low status. Often you have to take orders, do things you otherwise wouldn't want to do, act nice, act happy to see people. Women in these jobs have had to put up with that kind of bullshit forever. It's not surprising that someone who hasn't had to doesn't want to have to start.

There are no easy answers, but I think one thing these articles show is that understanding the decisions of workers can't happen in a cultural vacuum. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that rational self-interested economic agents will do what seems to make "economic" sense. But even economics doesn't really tell us that. It tells us that people will maximize their own preference satisfaction.

As everyone has known forever, preferences are not just for things like "have more money" and "work fewer hours." They're also for amorphous things like respect, status, and community. Far from being squishy considerations that affect only the non-economic realm, these preferences affect the most starkly economic decisions there are.

So an analysis of labor has to include not only the obvious economic factors like money, but also cultural factors. I know "way of life" is not an easy variable to put into a quantitative analysis, but until we find a way to factor it in, we're just going to keep getting things wrong.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Opioid Epidemic As A Crisis Of System, Not Individuals

Like a lot of people I was gripped by this New Yorker story about the Purdue Pharma company and its role in creating and perpetuating the opioid epidemic. And, presumably like a lot of people, I was appalled by various aspects of the story -- like massive efforts to hide the addictive nature of the drug even in the face of massive harm.

But as I read along, I was also a bit weirded out by the focus on the individual family members who run Purdue Pharma. One reason this weirded me out is that a lot of the story seemed to involve examples of people doing everything they can to defend and preserve their company and their product. But isn't the way capitalism works in our society predicated on the idea that this is what people do?

We've known forever that if you create a system in which some of the methods you can use to get ahead will be collectively destructive, people will be incentivized to use those methods. And I would say recent history supports the idea that if you want that not to happen, you can't rely just on some vague notion like individual responsibility. You need systems in place.

That's why we have things like the FDA, and policies about conflicts of interest, and so on. Why wasn't more of this story about that?

The article describes various kinds of factors leading to the crisis. Sales reps were trained in "overcoming objections" from clinicians, sometimes with exaggerated or false information, where doctors were vulnerable because of "wishful thinking" -- they wanted a pill that would help their patients.  Purdue paid clinicians to attend medical conferences and give presentations about the merits of the drug -- in places like Boca Raton. The marketing thus involved a deadly circularity: "the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company." They "duped" the FDA into thinking the drug lasted 12 hours and wasn't addictive. They created a concept of "pseudo-addiction," which they said explained addiction-like symptoms in terms of under-treatment  of pain.

Yes -- there is a lot of bad behavior here. But what was supposed to prevent this from happening? Modern capitalism is a cut-throat business. In a society where American Airlines can be criticized for raising pay for pilots and flight attendants, there are huge incentives in place to do whatever's necessary to make your product sell. If other people are behaving badly, you may have to behave badly too, just to stay in business.

I had always thought that this is why we have rules and systems in place. Isn't the FDA supposed to work on principles that make it extra difficult for an individual company to "dupe" it? Didn't there used to be stronger rules about conflicts-of-interest? This is one reason in the past that advertising wasn't allows for drugs -- as the article says, "advertising has always entailed some degree of persuasive license." What happened to that idea?

The company -- and the family who run it -- have been sued in court, but have settled, often for sums said to be small compared to the cost of righting the wrongs in question. In some cases, they have been ordered to pay fines, but again, the amounts won't make a dent in their profits. The article quotes Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, remarking that such fines amounted to "expensive licenses for criminal misconduct."

These all reflect problems with the system. Regular readers may remember a previous post on this issue discussing Sam Quinones's excellent book Dreamland. One thing that Quinones says is how often the people mitigating disaster and finding solutions come from some kind of governmental or collective institution or agency: they are in the court system, or the health care system, or whatever. Yes, there are people doing bad things and good things but everyone is ultimately caught up in a web of conflicting societal needs and pressures. This is a very different -- and I think more enlightening -- perspective.

The article lambasts the individual family members who run Purdue Pharma, asking how they can possibly live with themselves. I get that. But so many of us are complicit in some kind of awfulness -- buying gadgets with conflict minerals, depositing carbon into the air for holidays, enjoying the fruits of energy from companies engaging in global exploitation. In our society, complicity in harm is not restricted to a few bad actors.

As we've said before in this space, blaming corporate "greed" is often naive and misplaced, because in our corporate world, if you're not as cut-throat as the next guy, you're going to fail. It's not an "individual responsibility" sort of thing. It's a system thing. Sometimes, the framing of individual actors as good or bad loses some of its usefulness. Modern capitalism may be one of those times.