On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

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Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

I’ve never bought meth or heroin, but apparently it’s easier now than ever.  Prices dropped over the last decade, drugs became easier to find, and more people, from broader swaths of society, began using.  Or so I’ve been told by several long-term users.

This is capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  People want something, others make money by providing it.

And the reason why demand for drugs has increased over the past decade can also be attributed to capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  It takes a combination of capital (stuff) and labor (people) to provide any service, but the ratio of these isn’t fixed.  If you want to sell cans of soda, you could hire a human to stand behind a counter and hand sodas to customers, or you could install a vending machine.

Vending_machines_at_hospitalThe vending machine requires labor, too.  Somebody has to fill it when it’s empty.  Someone has to fix it when it breaks.  But the total time that humans spend working per soda is lower.  In theory, the humans working with the vending machine are paid higher wages.  After all, it’s more difficult to repair a machine than to hand somebody a soda.

As our world’s stuff became more productive, fewer people were needed.  Among ancient hunter gatherers, the effort of one person was needed to feed one person.  Everyone had to find food.  Among early farmers, the effort of one person could feed barely more than one person.  To attain a life of leisure, a ruler would have to tax many, many peasants.

By the twentieth century, the effort of one person could feed four.  Now, the effort of one person can feed well over a hundred.

With tractors, reapers, refrigerators, etc., one human can accomplish more.  Which is good – it can provide a higher standard of living for all.  But it also means that not everyone’s effort is needed.

At the extreme, not anyone’s effort is needed.

1024px-Sophia_(robot)_2There’s no type of human work that a robot with sufficiently advanced AI couldn’t do.  Our brains and bodies are the product of haphazard evolution.  We could design something better, like a humanoid creature whose eyes registered more the electromagnetic spectrum and had no blind spots (due to an octopus-like optic nerve).

If one person patented all the necessary technologies to build an army of robots that could feed the world, then we’d have a future where the effort of one could feed many billions.  Robots can write newspaper articles, they can do legal work, they’ll be able to perform surgery and medical diagnosis.  Theoretically, they could design robots.

Among those billions of unnecessary humans, many would likely develop addictions to stupefying drugs.  It’s easier lapse into despair when you’re idle or feel no a sense of purpose.

glasshouseIn Glass House, Brian Alexander writes about a Midwestern town that fell into ruin.  It was once a relatively prosperous place; cheap energy led to a major glass company that provided many jobs.  But then came “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ “  Wall street executives purchased the glass company and ran it into the ground to boost short-term gains, which let them re-sell the leached husk at a profit.

Instead of working at the glass company, many young people moved away.  Those who stayed often slid into drug use.

In Alexander’s words:

Even Judge David Trimmer, an adherent of a strict interpretation of the personal-responsibility gospel, had to acknowledge that having no job, or a lousy job, was not going to give a thirty-five-year-old man much purpose in life.  So many times, people wandered through his courtroom like nomads.  “I always tell them, ‘You’re like a leaf blowing from a tree.  Which direction do you go?  It depends on where the wind is going.’  That’s how most of them live their lives.  I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘You don’t even love yourself, do you?’  ‘No.’ “

Trimmer and the doctor still believed in a world with an intact social contract.  But the social contract was shattered long ago.  They wanted Lancaster to uphold its end of a bargain that had been made obsolete by over three decades of greed.

Monomoy Capital Partners, Carl Icahn, Cerberus Capital Management, Newell, Wexford, Barington, Clinton [all Wall Street corporations that bought Lancaster’s glass company, sold off equipment or delayed repairs to funnel money toward management salaries, then passed it along to the next set of speculative owners] – none of them bore any personal responsibility. 

A & M and $1,200-per-hour lawyers didn’t bear any personal responsibility.  They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence: They got rich.  The politicians – from both parties – who enabled their behavior and that of the payday- and car-title-loan vultures, and the voters of Lancaster who refused to invest in the future of their town as previous generations had done (even as they cheered Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who took $6.1 million per year in public money), didn’t bear any personal responsibility.

With the fracturing of the social contract, trust and social cohesion fractured, too.  Even Brad Hutchinson, a man who had millions of reasons to believe in The System [he grew up poor, started a business, became rich], had no faith in politicians or big business. 

I think that most politicians, if not all politicians, are crooked as they day is long,” Hutchinson said.  “They don’t have on their minds what’s best for the people.”  Business leaders had no ethics, either.  “There’s disconnect everywhere.  On every level of society.  Everybody’s out for number one.  Take care of yourself.  Zero respect for anybody else.”

So it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality.  The whole culture had changed.

America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.

Instead of treating people as stakeholders – employees and neighbors worthy of moral concern – the distant owners considered them to be simply sources of revenue.  Many once-successful businesses were restructured this way.  Soon, schools will be too.  In “The Michigan Experiment,” Mark Binelli writes that:

In theory, at least, public-school districts have superintendents tasked with evaluating teachers and facilities.  Carver [a charter school in Highland Park, a sovereign municipality in the center of Detroit], on the other hand, is accountable to more ambiguous entities – like, for example, Oak Ridge Financial, the Minnesota-based financial-services firm that sent a team of former educators to visit the school.  They had come not in service of the children but on behalf of shareholders expecting a thorough vetting of a long-term investment.

carver.JPG

This is all legal, of course.  This is capitalism working as intended.  Those who have wealth, no matter what historical violence might have produced it, have power of those without.

This is explained succinctly by a child in William Gaddis’s novel J R:

I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

220px-JRnovel.JPGFor many years, Gaddis pondered the ways that automation was destroying our world.  In J R (which is written in a style similar to the recent film Birdman, the focus moving fluidly from character to character without breaks), a middle schooler becomes a Wall Street tycoon.  Because the limited moral compass of a middle schooler is a virtue in this world, he’s wildly successful, with his misspelling of the name Alaska (“Alsaka project”) discussed in full seriousness by adults.

Meanwhile, a failed writer obsesses over player pianos.  This narrative is continued in Agape Agape, with a terminal cancer patient rooting through his notes on player pianos, certain that these pianos explain the devastation of the world.

You can play better by roll than many who play by hand.”

220px-AgapeAgape.jpgThe characters in J R and Agape Agape think it’s clear that someone playing by roll isn’t playing the piano.  And yet, ironically, the player piano shows a way for increasing automation to not destroy the world.

A good robot works efficiently.  But a player piano is intentionally inefficient.  Even though it could produce music on its own, it requires someone to sit in front of it and work the foot pumps.  The design creates a need for human labor.

There’s still room for pessimism here – Gaddis is right to feel aggrieved that the player piano devalues skilled human labor – but a world with someone working the foot pumps seems less bad than one where idle people watch the skies for Jeff Bezos’s delivery drones.

By now, a lot of work can be done cheaply by machines.  But if we want to keep our world livable, it’s worth paying more for things made by human hands.

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.

Gps-304842.svg

When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?

Paperclip-01_(xndr)

A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On Sci-Hub, the Napster of science.

On Sci-Hub, the Napster of science.

Here’s a story you’ve probably heard: the music industry was great until Napster came along and complete strangers could “share” their collections online and profits tanked.  Metallica went berserk suing their fans.  It was too late.  The industry has never been the same.napster

Sci-Hub has been called a Napster equivalent for scientific research papers, and the major publishing companies are suing to shut it down.  The neuroscience grad student who created it faces financial ruin.  The original website was quickly shuttered by a legal injunction, but the internet is a slippery place.  Now the same service is hosted outside U.S. jurisdiction.

[Note: between writing and posting this essay, Sci-Hub has lost another lawsuit requesting all such sites to be blocked by internet service providers.]

The outcomes of these lawsuits are a big deal.  Not just for the idealistic Kazakhstani grad student charged with millions in damages.  Academic publishers will do all they can to accentuate the parallels between Sci-Hub and Napster – and, look, nearly a quarter of my living relatives are professional musicians, so I realize how much damage was wrought by Napster’s culture of theft – but comparing research papers to pop songs is a rotten analogy.  Even if you’ve never wanted to read original research yet … even if you think – reasonably – that content producers should be paid, you should care about the open access movement.  Of which Sci-Hub is the most dramatic foray.

My own perspective changed after I did some ghostwriting for a pop medicine book.  Maybe you know the type: “Do you have SCARY DISEASE X?  It’ll get better if you take these nutritional supplements and do this type of yoga and buy these experimental home-use medical devices!”  Total hokum.  And yet, people buy these books.  So there I was, unhelpfully – quite possibly unethically – collaborating with a friend who’d been hired to ghostwrite a new one.

Central_core_disease_NADH_stainI read huge numbers of research papers and wrote chapters about treating this particular SCARY DISEASE with different foods, nutritional supplements, and off-label pharmaceuticals.  My sentences were riddled with un-truths.  The foods and drugs I described are exceedingly unlikely to benefit patients in any way.

Still, I found research papers purporting to have found benefits.  I dutifully described the results.  I focused on the sort of semi-farcical study that concludes, for instance, that cancer patients who drink sufficient quantities of green tea have reduced tumor growth, at which point newspapers announce that green tea is a “superfood” that cures cancer, at which point spurious claims get slathered all over the packaging.

Maybe nobody has written a paper (yet!) claiming that green tea ameliorates your particular SCARY DISEASE.  But there’s also turmeric, kale, fish oil, bittermelon, cranberries… I’m not sure any ingredient is so mundane that it won’t eventually be declared a superfood.  Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to schizophrenia, but low-level schizophrenia has been linked to creativity: will it be long before cat excrement is marketed as a superfood for budding artists?

cat-shit-2-flat-1.jpgAs it happens, enough people suffer from our book’s SCARY DISEASE that many low-quality studies exist.  I was able to write those chapters.  And then felt grim.  The things I’d written about food weren’t so bad, because although turmeric, coconut oil, and carpaccio won’t cure anybody, they won’t cause much harm either.  But the drugs?  They won’t help, and most have nasty side effects.

My words might mislead people into wasting money on unnecessary dietary supplements or, worse, causing serious damage with self-prescribed pharmaceuticals.  Patients might follow the book’s rotten advice instead of consulting with a trained medical professional.  I’d like to think that nobody would be foolish enough to trust that book – the ostensible author is probably even less qualified to have written that book than I am, because at least I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford – but, based on the money being thrown around, somebody thinks it’ll sell.

And I helped.

Whoops.  Mea culpa, and all of that.

But I didn’t perpetrate my sins alone.  And I’m not just blaming the book’s publishers here.  After all, the spurious results I described came from real research papers, often written by professors at major universities, often published in legitimate scientific journals.

It’s crummy to concentrate all that slop in a slim pop medicine book, I agree, but isn’t it also crummy for all those spurious research papers to exist at all?

Maybe you’ve heard that various scientific fields suffer from a “replication crisis.”  There’s been coverage on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and in the New York Times about major failures in psychology and medicine.  Scientists write a paper claiming something happens, but that thing doesn’t happen in anyone else’s hands.  That’s if anyone even bothers to check.  Most of the time, nobody does.  Verifying someone else’s results won’t help researchers win grants, so it’s generally seen as a waste of time and money.

Still, the news coverage I’ve seen hasn’t stated the problem sufficiently bluntly.  Modern academic science is designed to be false.

This is tragic.  It’s part of why I chose not to stop working in the field.  I became a writer.  Of course, this led to my stint of ghostwriting, which… well, whoops.

Here’s how modern science works: most research is publishable only if it is “statistically significant.”  This means comparing any result to a “null hypothesis” – if you’re investigating the effect of green tea on cancer, the null hypothesis is simply “green tea does nothing” – then throwing out your results if you had more than a one in twenty chance to see what you did if the null hypothesis were true.

If you have a hundred patients, some of their tumors will shrink no matter what you do.  If you give everybody buckets of green tea and see the usual number of people improve, you shouldn’t claim that green tea saved them.

Here’s a graphic from Wikipedia to help:

pvalue1pvalue2

Logical enough.  But bad.  Why?  Because cancer is a SCARY DISEASE.  Far more than twenty people are studying it.  If twenty scientists each decide to test whether green tea reduces tumors, the “one in twenty” statistical test means that somebody from that set of scientists will probably see an above-average number of patients improve.  When you’re dealing with random chance, there are always flukes.  If twenty researchers all decided to flip four coins in a row, somebody would probably see all four come up heads – doesn’t mean that researcher did anything special.

Or, did you hear the news that high folate might be correlated with autism?  This study probably sounds legitimate – the lead scientist is a professor at Johns Hopkins, after all – but the result is quite unlikely to be real.  That scientist hasn’t written about folate previously, so my best guess (this new study is currently unpublished) is that pregnant women were tested for many different biomarkers, things like folate, iron, testosterone, and more, and then tracked to see whose children would develop autism.  If the researchers tested the concentrations of twenty different nutrients and hormones, of course they’d see one that appeared to correlate with autism.

[Edit: these findings were recently published.  Indeed, the data appear rather unconvincing, and the measurements for folate were made after the fact, using blood samples – it’s quite possible that other data was gathered but excluded from the published version of the study.]

This is not science.  But if you neglect to mention how many biomarkers you studied, and you retroactively concoct a conspiracy theory-esque narrative explaining why you were concerned about folate, it can do a fine job of masquerading as science.  At least long enough to win the next grant.

Which means that, even though the results of many of these studies are false, they get published.  When somebody checks twenty nutrients, one might appear to cause autism.  When twenty scientists study green tea and cancer, somebody might get results suggesting green tea does work.  Even if it doesn’t do a thing.

In our current system, though, only the mistaken researcher’s results get published.  Nobody knows that there were twenty tests.  The nineteen other biomarkers that were measured get left out of the final paper.  The nineteen researchers who found that green tea does nothing don’t publish anything.  Showing that a food doesn’t cure cancer?  How mundane.  Nobody wants to read that; publishers don’t want it in their journals.  But the single spurious result showing that green tea is a tumor-busting superfood?  That is exciting.  That study lands in a fancy journal and gets described in even briefer, more flattering language in the popular press.  Soon big-name computer CEOs are guzzling green tea instead of risking surgery or chemo.

I generally assume that the conclusions of research studies using this type of statistical testing are false.  And there’s more.  Data are often presented misleadingly.  Plenty of scientists are willing to test a pet theory many ways and report only the approach that “works,” not necessarily because they want to lie to people, but because it’s so easy to rationalize why the test you tried first (and second, and third…) was not quite right.  I worked in many laboratories over a decade and there were often results that everybody in the lab knew weren’t true.  Both professors I worked under at Stanford published studies that I know weren’t done correctly.  Sadly, they know it too.

This subterfuge can be hard for outsiders to notice.  But sometimes the flaws are things that anybody could be taught to identify.  With just a little bit of guidance, anybody foolish enough to purchase the pop medicine book I worked on would be able to look up the original research papers and read them and realize that they’re garbage.

There’s a catch: most of those papers cost between twenty and thirty dollars a pop.  The chapters I wrote cite nearly a hundred articles.  I’d describe a few studies about the off-label use of this drug, a few about that one, on and on, “so that our readers feel empowered to make their own decisions instead of being held at the paternalistic mercy of their healthcare professionals.”  A noble goal.  But I’m not sure that recommending patients dabble with ineffectual, oft-risky alternative medicines is the best way to pursue it.  Especially when the book publisher was discussing revenue sharing agreements with sellers of some of the weird stuff we shilled.

So, those hundred citations?  You could spend three thousand dollars figuring out that the chapters I wrote are crap.  The situation is slowly getting better – the National Institute of Health has mandated that taxpayer-funded studies be made available after a year, but this doesn’t apply to anything published before 2008, and I’m not sure how keen sick patients will be to twiddle their thumbs for a year before learning the latest information about their diseases.  Plus, there are many granting organizations out there.  Researchers who get their money elsewhere aren’t bound by this requirement.  If somebody asks you, “Would you like to donate money to fight childhood cancer?” and you chip in a buck, you’re actually contributing to the problem.

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Photo by diylibrarian on Flickr.

I was only able to write my chapters of that book because I live next to a big university.  I could stroll to the library and use their permissions to access the papers I’d need.  Sometimes, though, that wasn’t enough.  Each obscure journal, of which there are legion, can cost a university several thousand dollars a year for a subscription.  A few studies I cited were published in specialty journals too narrowly focused for Indiana University to subscribe, so I’d send an email to a buddy still working at Stanford and ask him to send me a copy.

If you get sick and worry yourself into looking for the truth, you’ll probably be out of luck.  Even doing your research at a big state university library might not be enough.

That’s if you keep your research legal.

Or you could search for the papers you need on Sci-Hub.  Then you’d just type the title, complete a CAPTCHA on a page with instructions in Cyrillic (on what was until recently http://www.sci-hub.cc, at least), and, bam!  You have it!  You can spend your thirty dollars on something else.  Food, maybe, or rent.

Of course, this means you are a thief.  The publisher didn’t get the thirty dollars they charge for access to a paper.  And those academic publishers would like for you to feel the same ethical qualms that we’re retraining people to feel when they pirate music or movies.  If you steal, content producers won’t be paid, they’ll starve, and we’ll staunch the flow of beautiful art to which we’ve become accustomed.

The comparison between Napster and Sci-Hub is a false analogy.  Slate correspondent Justin Peters described the perverse economics of academic publishing, in particular the inelastic demand – nobody reads research journals for fun.

With music and movies, purchasing legitimate access funds creators.  Not so in academia.  My laboratory had to pay a journal to publish my thesis work; this is standard practice.  It costs the authors a lot of money to publish a research article, and “content producers” only do it, as opposed to slapping their work up on a personal website for everyone to read free, because they need publication credits on their CVs to keep winning grants.

With music and movies, stealing electronic copies makes content producers sad.  With research articles, it makes them happy.

In fact, almost everyone believes research articles should be free.  At the European Union’s recent Competitiveness Council, the member states agreed that all scientific papers should be freely available by 2020 – these  are the governments whose enforcement is necessary to maintain the current copyright system!  The only people making statements in favor of the status quo are employed by the academic publishers themselves.  Their ideological positions may be swayed somewhat by the $2 billion plus profit margins major publishers are able to extract from their current racket.

Academic publishers would argue that they serve an important role as curators of the myriad discoveries made daily.  This doesn’t persuade me.  The “referees” they rely on to assess whether each study is sound are all unpaid volunteers.  Plus, if the journals were curating well, wouldn’t it have been harder for me to fill that pop medicine book with so much legitimate-looking crap?

Most importantly, by availing yourself of Sci-Hub’s pirated material, you the thief no longer live in ignorance.  With our current healthcare model, ignorance is deadly.  The United States is moving toward an a la carte method of delivering treatment, where sick people are expected to be knowledgeable, price-sensitive consumers rather than patients who place their trust in a physician.  Most sick people no longer have a primary care physician who knows much about their personal lives – instead, doctors are forced for financial reasons to join large corporate conglomerates.  Doctors try their best moment by moment, but they might never see someone a second time.  It’s more important than ever for patients to stay well-informed.

Unless Sci-Hub wins its lawsuit, you probably can’t afford to.

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

There are many forms of intelligence.  A runner on our cross country team was a jittery kid with mediocre grades, but he was one of the most kinesthetically gifted people I’ve met.  He was good at construction, auto repairs, skateboarding, climbing, running, jumping …

Our society holds these skills in low regard.  We shower money and adulation onto klutzy math whizzes, whereas tactile learners are told they have “disabilities” like ADHD and are given potent psychoactive drugs to get them through each day at schools ill-designed for them.

I’m a klutzy math whiz, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But, if this kid had been born fifteen- or twenty-thousand years earlier, he could have been a king.  During most of human evolution, his talents would have been more valuable than my own.

I found myself thinking about the distinction between different types of intelligence while reading Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin.  The protagonist – who went by Ross Ulbricht in real life and “the Dread Pirate Roberts” online – was clever but un-wise.  And I don’t mean “un-wise” in the sense of antagonistically luring the wrath of government agents the world over – that’s ambitious, perhaps foolhardy, but it’s reasonable for an intelligent person to take risks while pushing back against oppression.  Attacking the Death Star is never as easy as it looks in movies; it’s still worth doing.

Ross_UlbrichtRoss Ulbricht was un-wise in that he dogmatically clung to his philosophical stances without regard for new evidence.  Ulbricht disliked the War on Drugs without considering that abetting the transfer of certain drugs could be as immoral as attempting to staunch their flow.  Our world is incredibly complicated, full of moral quandaries and shades of gray.  But Ulbricht treated real life like an undergraduate debate.

From Bilton’s American Kingpin:

9781591848141[A man going by the username “Variety Jones”] was a loyal servant and companion.  He had even talked about buying a helicopter company to break [Ulbricht] out of jail if he was ever caught.  “Remember that one day when you’re in the exercise yard, I’ll be the dude in the helicopter coming in low and fast, I promise,” he had written.  “With the amount of $ we’re generating, I could hire a small country to come get you.”

But even with that bond, fundamental disagreements over the direction of the site would crop up, and Variety Jones was trying desperately to steer [Ulbricht] in a new direction on a particular topic.

It wasn’t even up for debate in VJ’s mind that the Dread Pirate Roberts was as libertarian as they came and that he believed the Silk Road should be a place to buy and sell anything.  There were no rules and no regulations, and as a result there was something illegal for sale on the site for literally every letter of the alphabet.  Acid, benzos, coke, DMT, ecstasy, fizzies, GHB … but it was the letter H that had Variety Jones in a very difficult quandary.  He was fine with everything before and after that letter, but heroin – he hated it.

“I don’t even have a problem with coke,” VJ wrote to DPR, but “H, man – in prison I’ve seen guys – I wish that shit would go away.”

Variety Jones was open about the time he had spent in jail.  He told long and funny stories about people he had met behind bars and explained the ins and outs of getting around the system, including how cans of “mackerel” were the currency of choice in the British prison he had been confined to years earlier.

Instead of mackerel, many transactions in U.S. jails seem to be priced in terms of “Honey Buns,” shelf-stable sweet rolls often sold by commissaries for about a dollar each.  In class one day my co-teacher J.M. mentioned that in Richmond, Virginia, two honey buns could buy you a roll of toilet paper or a blowjob.

The guys in our class were incredulous.  “Two honeybuns for a blowjob?  That’s extortion right there.  Here it’s gonna run you one.”

“If that,” somebody added.

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But they thought the price of toilet paper sounded fair.  Apparently the guards are allowed to give out extra rolls, “but they’re not gonna give it to you unless you walk up to them with literally shit dripping down your arm.”  J.M. and I once walked by a pregnant woman in the tank pleading with a male guard to bring her an extra roll.

And many of the men in jail in Bloomington – especially the ones whose actions would make you think they loved H – wish there was less heroin around.  It seeps into every corner of their lives.

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“My kid wanted some cereal, okay?  A bowl of cereal for breakfast.  So I got it for him, poured the cereal, poured the milk.  I went to get him a spoon.  First spoon I picked up, it had this big burn in the bottom.  I threw it in the trash.  And the next spoon too.  I went through … every spoon I took out of that drawer was burned.  I threw them all away.  My kid ate his cereal with a fork.”

He was trying.  But he slipped again and landed back in jail.

From American Kingpin:

Morally, though, Jones told Dread, “I don’t think I could make money off importing H.  If you want to, I’ll offer all the help and advice you need, but I don’t want to profit off of it.”

. . .

Ross had never seen the effects of heroin in person it still didn’t deter him from his belief system.  “I’ve got this separation between personal and business morality,” DPR explained to VJ.  “I would be there for a friend to help him break a drug dependency, and encourage him not to start, but I would never physically bar him from it if he didn’t ask me to.”

And yet, as harmful as addiction is, you could argue that the War on Drugs is worse.  After all, the War on Drugs pushes transactions underground; makes drug concentrations so variable that it’s hard not to overdose; makes harm reduction therapies borderline illegal.

If Ulbricht had been incarcerated simply for creating the Silk Road website, I’d have a lot of sympathy for him.

But, as a devout libertarian, Ulbricht thought it was okay to murder people.  Eventually, the FBI caught a computer programmer who’d been helping with the website.  During the bust, a rogue FBI agent used that programmer’s credentials to steal a bunch of money.

How could [Ulbricht] let someone steal [$350,000] from DPR and get away with a measly beating?  The conundrum lay in the reality that violence was not something Ross was used to, though it was something he believed in when absolutely necessary.

Finally, Variety Jones rang the final death knell.  “So, you’ve had your time to think,” he said.  “You’re sitting in the big chair, and you need to make a decision.”

I would have no problem wasting this guy,” DPR replied.

And so Ulbricht paid another rogue government agent to murder the innocent programmer.  He’d go on to pay for the murders of several more people.  And felt justified all the while – in his opinion, lethal violence was acceptable when used to protect his property rights.

By the same reasoning, anyone would be justified in murdering Ulbricht when his actions caused someone else’s property to lose value.  Because his website increased the availability of guns and addictive drugs, he had crossed that line.

This is the problem with libertarianism and anarchy – without a coalition government to monopolize violence, individuals take violence into their own hands.  Bad governments are terrifying, but unhinged individuals are pretty scary, too.  Ulbricht paid for murder and felt righteous the whole time.

Despite the juvenile, unreflective protagonist, American Kingpin is a charming read.  Ulbricht was clever.  Singlehandedly, surreptitiously, he did the work of a billion-dollar start-up company.

But he was wrecked by his success.  If he was intelligent enough to build the Silk Road, he thought, wasn’t he also qualified to decide who should live or die?

On prosecution.

On prosecution.

Most people know the standard story why mass incarceration spiraled out of control in this country.  In response to the civil rights movement, we accelerated the War on Drugs and started locking up a lot of low-level, non-violent drug offenders.  We also passed laws making sentences outlandishly long – people might go to prison for a decade for minor slips.  After the three-strikes laws, people might be shut away for life.

41U2y6n5hgL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_In Locked In, economist & law professor John Pfaff presents data suggesting that the story everyone knows is incorrect.  According to the data he found, “Although the share of the prison population serving time for drugs rose during the 1980s, the share was 22 percent at its peak in 1990.  By 2013 it had fallen to under 16 percent.”  Instead, most people in prison are incarcerated for violent crimes.

Of course, it is still possible that the War on Drugs led to mass incarceration.  If someone is locked up for 10 years for drugs, and then, after getting out of prison, does something violent and is locked up for an additional 40 years, you’d find that only 20% of the prison population was due to drugs.  But the first incarceration might’ve caused the second, by fraying the person’s social network and exposing him to violence inside.  This might explain what happened to my mother-in-law.

And a War on Drugs can make entire communities more violent.  The main benefit of state violence is that it suppressed violence from individuals.  Police officers reduce theft and assault because they represent the threat of violent reprisal from the state.  But the War on Drugs causes entire communities of supposed “criminals” to lose police protection – without the help of the state, they have to rely on individual violence to enforce property rights.

These alternative narratives do not contradict Pfaff’s central message: the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States did not originate the way many people assume.  Instead, Pfaff’s data suggest one major cause: prosecutors.

Samjain_warrantAfter someone is arrested, prosecutors decide what charges to file.  Even if the police have collected a lot of evidence, the prosecutor may choose to go easy on someone, perhaps even dropping the case entirely.  Alternatively, the prosecutor may file many extra charges that aren’t supported by the police report at all.  No explanation needs to be given, and there won’t be any official record documenting the prosecutor’s decisions.

Myriad county-level prosecutors across the U.S. decided to get tough on crime, and that caused mass incarceration to spiral out of control.  According to Pfaff:

The crime decline since 1991 has been dramatic.  Nationwide, between 1991 and 2008 violent crime fell by 36 percent and property crime by 31 percent.

While crime rates fell, police “clearance” rates – the percentage of each type of crime that results in an arrest by the police – remained relatively flat, and in some cases declined.  As a result, as violent and property crimes fell, so too did arrests for those offenses.

Yet while arrests fell, the number of felony cases rose, and steeply.  Fewer and fewer people were entering the criminal justice system, but more and more were facing the risk of felony conviction – and thus prison.

In short, between 1994 and 2008, the number of people admitted to prison rose by about 40 percent, from 360,000 to 505,000, and almost all of that increase was due to prosecutors bringing more and more felony cases against a diminishing pool of arrestees.

Decisions made by a prosecutor typically receive no oversight.  Because the vast majority of cases end with a plea, the prosecutor is effectively judge and jury as well.  Using the threat of an egregiously long sentence if someone is found guilty in a jury trial (someone in our writing class was recently facing 32 years for burglary), a prosecutor can easily coerce people into signing away five or ten years.  Even innocent people plead guilty – if you’re told that you will have to sit in jail another six months waiting for a trial, or you could enter a plea and be released today for time served, would you stick it out?  What if you had young kids who needed you home?

Because prosecutors have so much power, Pfaff argues that in many ways there is not a criminal justice system in the U.S., but rather 3,000 idiosyncratic county-level criminal justice systems.  Equivalent actions reap very different consequences depending on which county they are prosecuted in.

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This discretion has the unfortunate consequence of letting one county drive another into bankruptcy … especially in a state like Indiana, which tried to combat the perverse economic incentives of mass incarceration (cities have to pay for crime deterrence by hiring police officers, but they foist the cost of crime punishment onto the state, which hires the COs who staff prisons) by forcing counties to hold low-level offenders in their own jails instead of shipping people off to state prisons.  This benefits counties that can displace crime to their neighbors, instead of preventing it.

Education is both cheaper and more effective than punishment … but deciding not to educate children and then convincing the troublemakers to move to a new county is cheaper still.

The city council of Bloomington is struggling with this now.  A friend of mine has been riding with police officers for a writing project – he was told that, for drug busts, the police surreptitiously track suspects until they cross county lines.  Bloomington is in Monroe County, where prosecutors are viewed as “soft” on drug crimes, offering treatment, therapy, and second chances (note that this supposedly “kinder & gentler” approach is still brutal, with huge numbers of people lolling in jail for months or years on end).  The police would rather make arrests in neighboring counties, where the prosecutors seek steep sentences for drug offenders.

This gives drug users, and many others who need services, an incentive to move to Bloomington.  If you need opiates to stave off withdrawal, you are better off living in an area with a needle exchange, proposed methadone clinic, and treatment options.

By establishing a reputation for excessive punishment, prosecutors can pressure the most expensive citizens to move away … the same way charter schools force out the most expensive students to fraudulently boost their success ratings compared to public schools.  The poor saps who think we have a moral duty to help everyone will have to spend more for outcomes that appear worse (since they’re working with a different population).

Mayhaps it’s not that the U.S. has a mass incarceration problem … rather, the majority of our 3,000 counties have mass incarceration problems.  Each operates independently, and, often, antagonistically.  We won’t fix it until we realize that we’re all in this together.