tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
Elsewhere, I wrote this bit of dialogue:

Skeptics: (also movement atheists) "Social science is stupid because it doesn't have the same evidentiary standards that physics does. Browbeating people about how they should learn more about physics and math will save us all."
Fascists: *quietly and skillfully use techniques from psychology, sociology, and political science to obliterate the trust most of the public used to have in scientists to collect and disseminate knowledge accurately*
Skeptics: "None of this would be a problem if people just understood science better."

It's hard to just leave it at that. The skeptic and atheist movements have failed to strengthen public trust in science because people who invest themselves in these movements (as opposed to skeptics and atheists, who are a diverse group) refuse to recognize that that trust is even necessary. They think they can browbeat or shame people into accepting the value of the scientific method. Calling people "stupid" may be satisfying, but it's ineffective: not because it hurts people's feelings, but because the people you're trying to reach literally don't care whether you think they're stupid. If you want to shame anybody, you need to understand what does and doesn't make them feel ashamed. People who lack basic confidence that scientific modes of thinking are useful for understanding the world don't care what scientists think about them.

At this point, people might ask a number of questions:

Why does it matter if people trust science? Science: it works, bitches, whether or not anybody believes in it.

It's true that science works whether or not anybody believes in it. However, as another xkcd comic points out, when there is no intersection between people who value science, and people who control the funding that scientists need in order to produce new research, the truth that "science just works" is of rather academic relevance. The military-industrial complex has always been very interested in funding computer science research because there's something in it for them: they like machines that make the process of killing people more efficient. That's convenient when you're working on robotics or artificial intelligence, but inconvenient when you're studying climate change, a truth whose recognition has little short-term economic value (and which poses a threat to many people's economic interests.)

Why do I need to persuade anybody? Isn't this tone policing? Aren't you always saying that telling people "you're alienating potential allies" is unproductive?

If you want people to give you power or money, you have two options: take it, or ask for it. Social movements for minority rights are (in my opinion) more effectively framed as "take it". You can't, indeed, convince someone that your life matters when they believe their socioeconomic position to depend on your life not mattering.

Scientists, however, are not a group marginalized based on identity. Scientists will be the first ones to tell you that it's in your interests to accept that vaccines, computers, cars, and other products of technology that would not be possible without basic scientific research are useful. Science has something to offer.

There is no counter-argument to "I don't believe you when you say you deserve to exist" -- you can't bargain without a bargaining chip. There is one for "I don't believe you when you say that you can use the scientific method to understand the world": show the results. Your kid not dying of polio is a pretty strong bargaining chip. How do you show people that it matters that scientific consensus says that the benefits of vaccines overwhelmingly outweigh the risks? That's where persuasion comes in.

But people should just know.

You feelings about what people should do, along with $6.99, will buy you a pour-over. If you like science so much, can't you observe what something actually is rather than how you think it should be?

To believe anything to be true that you did not learn through direct, empirical observation, you need to have confidence that someone else learned it through direct, empirical observation and that they are telling you the truth when they say that they did. It's only been a few centuries since science started gaining cognitive authority (that quality that causes people to recognize when people are operating based on the scientific method, and inclines people to believe those people are telling the truth) -- before that, only religion compelled people so. The cognitive authority that science has gained can also be lost. That's a social problem.

If we're truly becoming a world where every individual only believes what they've observed directly, we are on the road to ruin in the fast lane. No single individual can personally prove for themselves that humans are causing climate change. Even if you're a climate scientist, accepting that climate change is real requires trusting a body of work done by other people. Scientists trust each others' work because there are social processes in place (like peer review) that provide a basis for that trust. We are rapidly losing whatever confidence in scientific consensus previously existed outside the scientific community. The so-called "hard sciences" don't have the answers to how to make people believe science is real in the first place. To understand what went wrong and how to fix it, you need to look to philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology (start with the concept of dismediation and chase pointers from there.)

Well, if they don't understand science, fuck 'em, I'll be over here doing science.

Let's be real here, if you are active in the "skeptic movement" or "atheist movement", you're probably not a scientist so much as a science fanfic writer. Scientists generally don't have time for that kind of thing. So, if you are already in the business of social or political change, why not learn from people who have extensively studied social and political change, rather than reinventing the wheel with corners?

Sociology and psychology aren't real sciences. You can't do experiments or prove things the same way you can in physics.

It's true that the way evidence, hypotheses, theories, and experiments work in the social sciences isn't the same as the way those concepts work in physics or biology. It's also true that astronomy (usually considered a hard science), like social science, is based on observation and the ability to do controlled experiments is limited (ethics boards keep you from doing certain things to people, the laws of physics keep you from doing certain things to planets.) Modes of knowledge aren't automatically invalid because they're observational rather than experimental. Besides which, do you prefer not having any understanding of how people and cultures work over a flawed understanding of how they work? Sounds anti-intellectual, but ok.

Fascists have succeeded in taking over the US because a few people have studied hard and made use of the knowledge that the fields of sociology, psychology, political science, history, and philosophy have produced. They've used it to manipulate people into believing that bad things are good and good things are bad. Nonetheless, they've used that knowledge skillfully and effectively, whereas out of some misguided sense of purism, many people who strongly identify as skeptics, as rational, and/or as interested in hard science refuse to touch those fields at all for fear of contamination by science that is insufficiently hard. And they've succeeded at their goal of seizing power. Social science: it works, bitches.

This is, by the way, why fascists put a lot of effort into trying to corrupt or persuade intellectuals -- these days, especially intellectuals whose primary training is in science, technology, or engineering (such people easily fall for false equivalences like, "If you try to exclude fascists from the community, aren't you just as bigoted as people who try to exclude Black people?") -- to do the work of conferring legitimacy onto fascism. Whether you're speaking at a computer science conference or just trolling messageboards, the more intellectual types you can recruit to your side and the more communities you can infiltrate, the more cognitive authority you can steal and the more power you can grab.

Some intellectuals refuse to be persuaded, which is why fascist states like the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia murdered people who had more than a basic level of education. Intellectuals have only one use to fascists, because fascists only care about one thing: getting power by any means necessary. An intellectual who won't help fascists take power is an intellectual who is an obstacle to fascism and must be destroyed.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Language affects thought, and part of why science isn't objective is that communicating scientific knowledge relies on language, which is always imprecise and governed by politics and culture.

In "The Egg and the Sperm", Emily Martin wrote about how the language used to describe human reproduction distorted the truth. Scientists, mostly cis men, were biased towards seeing sperm as active penetrators as the passive egg. In fact, as Martin detailed, eggs do a lot of active work to reject weak sperm and entice strong sperm. (Of course, even the metaphor of "weak" or "strong" sperm reflects socially mediated beliefs.)

Another example from reproduction is the misunderstanding of the biological function of menstruation that also arose from sociopolitical biases about gender. In a 2012 journal article, Emera, Romero and Wagner posited that the function of menstruation has been misunderstood due to sexist beliefs that bodies coded as female are intrinsically nurturing: the endometrial lining was previously construed as the uterus creating a nurturing environment for a potential embryo, where in fact, it might be more accurate to view it as a hostile environment that only the strongest embryos can survive (there's that "strong/weak" political language again.) I'm not qualified to assess on the accuracy of Emera et al.'s idea, but I am qualified to observe that assessing its validity has been so far hindered by the misapplication of gender stereotypes to biology.

Yet another example is that of same-sex sexual behavior in non-human animals; Bruce Bagemihl's book Biological Exuberance details the history of (again, mostly heterosexual cis male) scientists getting itgrievously wrong about the nature and function of sexual behavior. It would be funny if it wasn't so harmful. Just one example is the publication of a paper, in 1981, entitled "Abnormal Sexual Behavior of Confined Female Hemichienus auritus syriacus [Long-eared Hedgehogs]". It's not objective, rational, or scientific to label hedgehog sex as "abnormal" -- rather, it reflects social and political biases. And in that case (and many similar cases), politics kept scientists from understanding animal behavior.

In all of these cases, bad metaphors kept us from seeing the truth. We used these metaphors not because they helped us understand reality, but because they were lazily borrowed from the society as it was at the time and its prejudices. This is why scientific research can never be fully understood outside the context of the people who produced it and the culture they lived in.

Master/Slave: a Case Study

In computer science and electrical engineering, the term "master/slave" has been used in a variety of loosely related ways. A representative example is that of distributed databases: if you want to implement a database system that can scale up to handling a lot of queries, it might occur to you to put many servers around the world that have copies of the same data, instead of relying on just one server (which could fail, or could become slow if a lot of people start querying it all at once) in one physical location. But then how do you make sure that the data on all of the servers are consistent? Imagine two different whiteboards, one in the computer science building at Berkeley and one in the computer science building at MIT: there's no reason to assume that whatever is written on the two whiteboards is going to be the same unless people adopt a mechanism for communicating with each other so that one whiteboard gets updated every time the other does. In the context of databases, one mechanism for consistency is the "master/slave" paradigm: one copy of the database gets designated as the authoritative one, and all the other copies -- "slaves" -- continuously ask the master for updates that they apply to themselves (or alternately, the master publishes changes to the slaves -- that's an implementation detail).

A lot of the historical background behind the use of "master/slave" in a technical context already got covered by Ron Eglash in his 2007 article "Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature". Unfortunately, you won't be able to read the article (easily) unless you have access to JSTOR. Eglash examined early uses of "master/slave" terminology carefully and pointed out that "master/slave" entered common use in engineering long after the abolition of slavery in the US. Thus it can't be defended as "a product of its time." He also points out that "master/slave" is also an inaccurate metaphor in many of the technical contexts where it's used: for example, for a system with multiple hard drives where the "master" and "slave" drives merely occupy different places in the boot sequence, rather than having a control or power relationships.

But I think the most interesting point Eglash makes is about the difference between power as embodied in mechanical systems versus electrical systems:

A second issue, closely related, is the difference that electrical signals make. Consider what it meant to drive a car before power steering. You wrestled with the wheel; the vehicle did not slavishly carry out your whims, and steering was more like a negotiation between manager and employee. Hence the appropriateness of terms such as "servo-motor" (coined in 1872) and "servomechanism" (1930s): both suggest "servant," someone subordinate but also in some sense autonomous. These precybernetic systems, often mechanically linked, did not highlight the division of control and power. But electrical systems did. Engineers found that by using an electromagnetic relay or vacuum tube, a powerful mechanical apparatus could be slaved to a tiny electronic signal. Here we have a much sharper disjunction between the informational and material domains. And with the introduction of the transistor in the 1950s and the integrated circuit in the 1960s, the split became even more stark.

This coupling of immense material power with a relatively feeble informational signal became a fundamental aspect of control mechanisms and automation at all scales...

In light of Eglash's observation, it's worth looking harder at why some engineers are so attached to the "master/slave" terminology, aside from fear of change. The "immense material power" of an electronic signal can't be observed directly. Do engineers in a white-male-dominated field like talking about their systems in terms of masters and slaves because they need to feel like they're somebody's master? Does it make them feel powerful? Given that engineering has become increasingly hostile to people who aren't white and male as it has become more dependent on leveraging smaller and smaller amounts of (physical) power to do more and more, I think it's worth asking what work metaphors like "master/slave" do to make white male engineers feel like they're doing a man's job.

Bad Metaphors

"Master/slave" both serves a psychological function and reflects authoritarian politics, even if the person using that term is not an authoritarian. No one needs to consciously be an authoritarian, though, for authoritarianism to distort our thinking. Language derived from societies organized around a few people controlling many others will affect how systems get designed.

A master/slave system has a single point of failure: what if the master fails? Then there's no longer any mechanism for the slaves to keep each other consistent. There are better solutions, which constitute an open research topic in distributed systems -- discussing them is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I just want to point out that the authoritarian imagination behind both societies organized around slavery (we still live in one of those societies, by the way, given the degree to which the economy depends on the prison industry and on labor performed by prisoners) impoverishes our thinking about systems design. It turns out that single points of failure are bad news for both computer systems, and societies.

I conjecture that the master-slave metaphor encourages us to design systems that have single points of failure, and that the metaphor is so compelling because of its relationship with the continued legacy of slavery. I don't claim to be certain. People who design decentralized, peer-to-peer systems may not be any more likely to have egalitarian politics, for all I know. So I'm asking a question, rather than answering one: do fascists, or people who haven't examined their latent fascism, build fragile systems?

Names are important. Lazy evaluation, for example, wasn't too popular when it was only known by the name of "cons should not allocate." So master/slave is worth abandoning not just because the words "master" and "slave" evoke trauma for Black Americans, but also because flawed thinking about societies and flawed thinking about technology are mutually self-reinforcing.

Good metaphors have the power to help us think better, just as bad ones can limit our imagination. Let's be aware of what shapes our imagination. It's not "only words" -- it's all words, and people who write software should understand that as well as anyone. Metaphors are powerful. Let's try to be aware of how they affect us, and not suppose that the power relationship between people and words only goes one way.


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tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)


Who doesn't love to make fun of homeopathy? It's important to differentiate yourself from other people, especially on the basis of perceived intelligence and on socially prestigious understanding of science. Most people know very little about science, especially scientists, since specialization means that nobody can deeply understand all that much. So making fun of pseudo-science is a useful way of raising yourself up by putting other people down.

But I wish skeptics would train some of their razor-sharp wit on another pseudo-scientific medical treatment that is widely believed to be effective: intentional weight loss. Sure, homeopathic cures can be found in any CVS, but if you actually talk to your pharmacist, they'll tell you those cures don't work (possibly while looking sort of embarrassed). Weight loss, on the other hand, gets recommended by almost every single medical professional you can find, for everything from tonsillitis to toenail fungus.

Losing weight in the short term is easy for most people, but the vast majority of people who lose weight through intentional means gain back all the weight, and more, within five years. This process begins a pattern of frequent weight cycling which has serious health consequences; fat people who lose weight end up in worse health than fat people who remain at their natural weight. So while intentional weight loss is more effective than homeopathy in that in a tiny minority of people, it does produce long-term results (whereas homeopathy does nothing), it should concern you more than homeopathy does since unlike homeopathy, it actually has harmful results. If you're bothered by non-evidence-based "cures", then intentional weight loss should bother you since there's no evidence that it's either possible (again, for almost everybody) or that it leads to improved health outcomes (for anybody).

Are skeptics afraid to take on a foe that's worthy of their intelligence and humor? Is it fun to make fun of those you believe to be stupid, uneducated, and dupes of the supplement industry? And is it not fun to make fun of medical doctors -- educated people who nevertheless recommend non-evidence-based interventions that do more harm than good? If so, why?
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
I find myself looking for this collection of links so often (and I just assembled it for a comment elsewhere) that I'm going to put it here in one place:



Insistence on the objective truth of the culturally mediated ideological construct called "biological sex" is anti-trans, anti-intellectual, and anti-science. It is indistinguishable from misgendering -- in fact, it's a form of misgendering clothed in ersatz scientific terminology -- and as such, it's violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people, but especially against trans women and other people who were coercively assigned male at birth but reject that designation.
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
Something that I hear a lot in my peer group is "homeopathic medicines are dangerous because people use them instead of effective medicines."

I have no doubt that there's a small sector of the population that thinks clouds are chemtrails and ignores effective medicine out of spite. There's probably not much we can do about that sector of the population.

For the most part, though, I suspect people turn to things like homeopathy for problems that they've already sought advice from a real doctor for, and not gotten effective treatment. So who is being harmed, exactly? I mean... we're living in a world where it's legal for "real" pharmaceutical manufacturers to sell generics that don't actually do anything, and the FDA doesn't do anything about it (source: my former psychiatrist, who said, "I complained to the FDA [about a medication I was taking that a pharmacy tried to hand me a placebo generic "equivalent" for], but I might as well go home and play video games, since it does as much good and is more fun.")

So if you want to improve access to health care, why not... you know, work for a single-payer system and stop making access contingent on having money? (If you live in the US, anyway; if you're in another country, maybe your priorities are fine :-) Somehow I suspect that that's stopping a hell of a lot more people from getting health care that would improve their lives than homeopathy is. Or would that be no fun because you wouldn't get to laugh at "stupid people" and feel smarter than them?

I mean, yeah, businesses (both non-drug makers and regular pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens) make plenty of money off selling homeopathic crap, and that's irritating and all, but you know who makes a lot more money doing everything except making sure people get health care? Health insurance companies.

(I feel like I've said all this before, but meh, there's nothing new under the sun anyway :-)

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Tim Chevalier

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