Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Prisoner: A Study In Everyday Mind Games

I have a weakness for old science fiction stories and television shows. I agree with Tom Paris (from Start Trek: Voyager), who enjoys old Flash Gordan-style entertainment because it shows us what the future used to be like. Now that we live in the future, it's interesting to see what they got right when they speculated about the world to come.

Recently, I've been enjoying old episodes of the classic British television series "The Prisoner", starring Patrick McGoohan, who is also largely responsible for developing the premise of the show. It aired from 1968 to 1969. Although it wasn't primarily science fiction, it did have a lot of science fiction elements. And what's interesting about this particular form of science fiction is that it was in the service of a social commentary about the evils of society and the downward trajectory that McGoohan thought society was on.

For those who aren't familiar with The Prisoner, here's a brief explanation of the plot. The story centers on an unnamed man who resigns his clandestine position with the British Government. In the opening credits, we see him angrily slamming his fist on a table in front of some unnamed British official and handing in his resignation letter. He drives back to his home and starts packing a suitcase. But as he's finishing packing, he is drugged and loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he's in an idyllic little town in an apartment that's an exact duplicate of his own home.

The town he finds himself in is simply called "The Village". It's a beautiful, colorful resort-style town with pleasing architecture in a warm and sunny climate. But of course, life in The Village is anything but idyllic for our unnamed protagonist. He soon learns that like everyone else, he will be referred to only by an assigned number -- in his case, he is known only as "Number Six". The Village is run by someone known as "Number Two", who soon informs him that they want to know why he resigned. Number Six refuses to tell him, and he demands to see the person who is truly in charge -- Number One. This sets up the plot for the entire series. Number Two wants Number Six to tell him why he resigned; Number Six wants to escape The Village, or at least get Number Two to introduce him to Number One. A series of labyrinthine mind games and manipulations ensues, which always end in Number Six stubbornly clinging to his individuality and refusing to give up any information. Number Two is always unsuccessful, and is frequently replaced by a different person in the role of Number Two.
In the future, we will pay for
things with "credit cards".

From the perspective of someone in the year 2014, it's easy to not even notice that the show is science fiction. There are such marvels as telephones without cords and automatic surveillance cameras. People have things called "credit cards", which they use to pay for goods and services. And there are lots of computers. Even physicians have computers in their offices. In fact, public telephones in The Village have computers attached to them.
In the future, we will all have
gigantic cordless telephones

The Prisoner is a dystopian parable about how society seeks to control the individual. But The Prisoner is far more novel than other dystopian works. In most other anti-utopian stories, individuals are forced to conform by being brainwashed and tortured (1984), threatened with violence and kept at the edge of starvation (Animal Farm), genetically engineered (Brave New World), drugged (This Perfect Day, THX-1138), lobotomized (We), or threatened with nuclear war (Colossus). Futuristic technology is usually (though not always) used in the support of clever ways of torturing, brainwashing, and monitoring people.

If The Prisoner had gone the traditional route, it would be totally unmemorable. To be sure, there are plenty of episodes involving attempts to brainwash Number Six, and plenty of threats that they'll use violence if he doesn't conform. But the overwhelming majority of the time, Number Two uses much "softer" ways of manipulating Number Six. Those "soft" methods of mind control are what's really novel about The Prisoner, and why the show has aged relatively well.

The Village is nothing like the Ministry of Love in which Winston Smith finds himself in 1984. The Ministry of Love is a dark, concrete structure with a labyrinthine underground complex in which prisoners are brutally tortured. The Village, on the other hand, is brightly-colored, idyllic, and it contains a charming cafe, well-appointed private residences, a very nice beach, and plenty of luxuries. It is a very happy and comfortable prison, which is probably why the residents of The Village tend to wear clothes that suggest striped prisoners' uniforms, but are brightly colored and very cheerful.
Prisoners' uniforms are bright
and cheerful in The Village

The strategy to "break" Number Six is simple. Make his life as pleasant and easy as possible, manipulate the environment so that it's just easier to conform, and most importantly, surround him with happy, satisfied people who've long since given in to Number Two's demands, and have forgotten that they ever compromised their values.

Number Two believes that if Number Six is surrounded by people who have internalized a particular set of values, then it will make him feel like he's insane if he doesn't agree. This is true regardless of how self-contradictory, inconsistent, immoral, or just plain stupid.

In several episodes, Number Two takes steps to make Number Six question his own sanity. The best one is "Schizoid Man", in which Number Six is drugged, he has a mole removed from his wrist, behaviorally reinforced to switch to being left-handed, and is given a mustache. Then he's treated as if he is someone else who has been brought in to impersonate Number Six. Someone else is actually impersonating Number Six, and that person is now more like Number Six than Number Six himself.

The whole point is to make Number Six believe that he's going insane. What's never explained in the show is why this sort of mind game would cause him to reveal his secrets to Number Two. But the strategy is actually pretty clear if you keep the larger context in mind. When you are actively resisting adopting the values of the people around you, it's very important to remain confident in your own beliefs and values. In short, you have to believe that you are more sane than the people around you. If you question your own sanity, then you have no psychological defense against other peoples' values infiltrating your mind. So if Number Six does believe that he's lost his mind, there will be no effective way for him to resist adopting the values and beliefs of everyone around him. Once that's happened, he'll happily comply with Number Two's demands because everyone else in The Village is so compliant. Being kept in isolation will break almost anyone. But being kept in constant contact with crazy people will also be effective.

Another quite clever trick in The Village is to make the residents believe that they're free to do as they wish. Number Two, in several episodes, likes to emphasize that the residents have a "democratically elected" body to govern them. And that's perfectly true. But of course, all of the people who are elected reflect the people who elect them, and they're insane. In fact, for the residents of The Village, their entire world consists of the small island they inhabit. In the first episode, Number Six asks for a map and is given a "local map" that only shows The Village. When he asks for a map showing a larger area, the shopkeeper's response is informative. He doesn't say that they're not allowed to have such maps. Instead, his response is that there's "no demand" for them. The people don't want a map that shows anything outside The Village, so there's no need to make those maps illegal.

Within the confines of The Village, there are very few rules. In fact, rules that we're used to obeying don't apply. Sometimes, people are actively encouraged to break traditional rules, as when we are shown a sign that says "Walk On The Grass". This clearly strikes Number Six as odd, because he's only seen signs that say "Don't Walk On The Grass". So there's a big show of how free the people in The Village are, so long as they don't try to leave.

Number Six never breaks. He never gives one inch to the demands of Number Two, even when there's every reason to believe that it's totally futile for him to keep fighting. Why? What is that makes Number Six so stubbornly persistent and seemingly immune to the subtle psychological tricks that are constantly being played on him?

The reason for Number Six's persistence, in a way, is easy to see -- and it has to do with the premise of the series. Number Six is in The Village because he's resigned an important position (presumably as some kind of spy) with the British government. Number Two sometimes explains their puzzlement with this resignation by citing the fact that Number Six had a stellar career and was very successful and well-respected. We never learn anything about his reason for resignation except that it was "a matter of principle" (Number Two says this in the first episode). So we learn a lot about Number Six's psychology by keeping these simple facts in mind. Presumably, he was indeed very successful. He was surrounded by people who shared a common set of values, and he was amply rewarded for his work. He seems well-off financially, he's healthy and comfortable, and so whoever he was working for had taken good care of him. So what kind of person resigns from such a lofty position of privilege? Considering all the things we don't learn about Number Six, we learn the most important fact about him in the opening credits of the show: he is a very stubbornly independent person who is not about to be lulled into accepting someone else's values merely because he's surrounded by people with those values and is well-rewarded and comfortable. In short, the fact that he resigned his position demonstrates that he's exactly the kind of person who can't be influenced by the psychological mind games of The Village.

And that's the clue to interpreting this odd show. Number Six's life before being taken to The Village is just like his life after being taken to The Village, and his response to both environments is the same. He rejects any attempt to have someone else push their values onto him. And of course, he's not unique in being subjected to these psychological influences in his "real world" job. We all are. Think, for example, about the methods that very manipulative people use -- they could be narcissists, sociopaths, abusive partners, tyrannical bosses, and so on. They isolate their target victims, prevent communication with others, and try to keep them from interacting with people who don't share the "right" set of values. And then, within the confines of this psychological prison, the target is given a lot of freedom and comfort. Manipulative people like to surround themselves with people who can be easily influenced, and this serves two totally distinct purposes. First, it makes the manipulator feel powerful. But second, it helps to ensure that the intended target of their manipulation will doubt their sanity if they start thinking too independently.

For example, I happen to know a very wealthy narcissist who is married to a highly intelligent and well-educated woman. She doesn't need to work, and has an extremely comfortable -- indeed, luxurious -- lifestyle. She can do whatever she likes, whenever she likes, on two conditions. First, she must be home when he gets home from work. Second, he has veto power over who her friends are. At the slightest hint that any of her friends might be trouble, he tells her that she's not to speak to them again; and he's exercised this power several times. The quickest way to be excommunicated from this pair is to question the husband's values or intentions. Interestingly, you are permitted to disagree about a wide range of opinions -- you can hold different political or religious views with no conflict at all. And yet, the wife is simply not allowed any contact with anyone who would deviate from the husband's professed values, or anyone who would question his good will.

Of course, this isn't uncommon at all. Employers, schools, social clubs, cliques, families, or virtually any other group can be its own Village. And there are Villages all around us. The value of The Prisoner is that it tries to reveal these "hidden" Villages by drawing attention to an obvious one.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Why I Believe in Artificial Intelligence

There have been a lot of articles lately about the resurgence of artificial intelligence. Some of it was stimulated by IBM's "Watson" computer, which had a spectacular win on Jeopardy. Another large chunk of this recent attention is probably the result of the large number of tech startups that have bet their existence on being able to design systems that might count as "artificial intelligence". For full disclosure, I happen to work for such a startup as a software engineer; so I've definitely got a dog in this fight.

Before joining this startup, I was a tenured philosophy professor. Before that, I worked for Argonne National Laboratory's Mathematics and Computer Science Division, where I worked on automated theorem-proving. And before that, I just liked to program as a hobby, starting with a Commodore PET computer when I was in the fourth grade. For those who are curious, I've put a picture of that kind of computer here.
The Commodore PET had 2K of memory -- that's one-eighth of one-millionth the memory of my cell phone. But learning how to program in BASIC was a powerful experience for me. I vividly remember one moment when I successfully ran my very first non-trivial program. It searched for prime numbers, and it was capable of finding all the prime numbers up to 100 in less than half an hour.

It was an epiphany, and I can say without any exaggeration whatsoever that it changed my life forever. I would watch the output slowly build up on the screen, and try to guess which number came next. It struck me that despite the fact that I had written that program, I couldn't predict what it would do -- even though it worked exactly the way I had intended it, and there was nothing random about it. The program could do something that I couldn't do, even though I had designed it. Amazing!

I was hooked. Eventually, I graduated to a TRS-80 Color Computer, which had a whopping 16K of memory and was less than a quarter the price of a Commodore PET. I gradually worked my way up to an Apple IIc, at which time I came across another piece of technology -- a game called "Zork" by a little-known software company called "Infocom". Zork was a text adventure game, a genre that basically doesn't exist anymore. The game would present you with a short description of a room, some objects in the room, and perhaps other pieces of information. The description was entirely written, with no graphics of any kind. The opening of Zork gives me chills to this day. Here it is, in all its glory:
West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
The amazing thing about this game was that you could type in a wide variety of full English sentences to tell it what you wanted to do next. You could type: "Open the mailbox." or "Open mailbox", or "Open the small mailbox", or "Open up the small mailbox". Then the game would respond appropriately, perhaps by telling you whether there is anything in the mailbox. The wonders never ceased. For instance, if you were to type "Open up the mailbox" and "climb up the ladder", you were using the same word "up" both times, but with totally different meanings. Astoundingly, the game understood the player's intentions and would never make a mistake in those sorts of cases.

To a modern gamer, the natural question is "what was the big deal?". Well, I'll tell you what the big deal was. Instead of having to learn some obscure language for entering commands in a way the computer could understand, the computer had been programmed to understand English speakers. Despite the fact that this was just a game, it was a major accomplishment. You could use the computer by interacting with it naturally, and without having to understand anything about how the computer worked. Amazing!

It seemed like the computer "understood" me. It had always been a painstaking effort to program the computer to do anything; and now (at least within the confines of the game) it felt like you could just "talk" to the computer and be understood. The leap between programming and playing Zork was greater than any other leap I have seen in computers since then. And of course, if this could be part of a game, nothing stood in the way of allowing the computer to "understand" the user in other applications. (Interestingly, Infocom saw this opportunity and tried to create a database system that used their technology. However, the business failed and Infocom went bankrupt because they'd bet everything on that single application.)

I think I was in sixth grade by this point. My prime number program could now give me all the primes from two to a few thousand in about the time the original Commodore PET program could go from two to one-hundred. Naturally, I wondered what this new level of computational power could enable. So I did as much research as I could on Infocom, and how they managed to create such an incredible game. I soon found out that the program that interprets the player's sentences was called a "parser". By the way, my research consisted of physically traveling to a place called a "library", and reading through huge stacks of things called "magazines". In particular, there was a magazine called "Byte", which was very helpful and always fascinating.

It was probably while reading Byte magazine that I first came across the term "artificial intelligence". Like a lot of terms of art, "artificial intelligence" sounds like it clearly describes a specific thing, but doesn't. A casual reader would say, "humans have intelligence. So artificial intelligence is just getting something artificial like a computer to have whatever-it-is that constitutes human intelligence." But of course, it's not really clear at all. This is clearly reflected in the writings of people who were skeptical about the prospects of artificial intelligence.

It's an interesting fact that when research or technology achieves something, we tend to immediately forget about all the people who had said that it was impossible. There were very smart, well-educated people who had devised clever arguments showing that it would be impossible for a computer to ever beat a competent amateur at chess. Computers would never be able to respond appropriately to human speech. We would never be able to use computers to help us understand anything about the human genome. Computers would never be able to prove mathematical theorems, or discern the grammar of English sentences.

All of these are now commonplace, and we don't think of them as "artificial intelligence" anymore. But we used to. In fact, the argument against artificial intelligence usually followed this form:

  1. Human intelligence enables us to do some really difficult, creative thing X.
  2. But computers will never be able to do even a much simpler thing Y.
  3. Therefore, computers will certainly never be able to do X.
  4. And so it follows that computers will never be intelligent.

For example, a skeptic would say, "Human intelligence enables us to write poetry; but computers will never be able to even play a decent game of chess. So how on Earth are computers supposed to ever develop intelligence?".

It was a powerful argument, for a while at least. Each new task that was supposed to be impossible for a computer would eventually be programmed by some group of clever programmers. Then, the goalposts would move. Obviously, the task turned out not to require intelligence after all, and so it's hardly a success for artificial intelligence if a computer could be programmed to do it.

For example, the standard view now is that chess doesn't require intelligence. It's really just a very complicated search problem, where the computer compares the outcomes of many millions of possible moves and selects the one with the highest score. That's not intelligence; it's just a very large search. And of course, computers excel at performing large searches. Ditto for parsing English sentences, deciphering speech, recognizing faces, analyzing the genome, and proving mathematical theorems. Success in programming computers to solve all these problems doesn't provide any evidence that artificial intelligence is possible, or so the skeptics say.

But that's just a particularly blatant example of moving the goalposts. Ironically, skepticism about artificial intelligence really relies upon a failure of the human mind, namely our inability to introspect on our own thought processes.

When I play a game of chess, work on a difficult math problem, listen to someone speaking, or recognize a friend's face, I can't really explain how I do it. Obviously, there's something going on when I perform these tasks, but I certainly don't know what it is. Maybe I can give a post-hoc explanation after the fact, but we all know that those sorts of explanations are frequently wrong.

And so skeptics of artificial intelligence have an easy, but highly flawed argument. They take our inability to explain what we're doing as evidence that there's something mysterious going on in our minds that couldn't possibly be reduced to a computational algorithm. According to this line of reasoning, because we're not aware of any computational search occurring when we (e.g.) recognize a friend's face, then there is no computational search going on at all. But two seconds' worth of reflection tells us that this is a very, very weak argument. We are just awful at introspection. Often, I can't even explain why I'm angry. How am I supposed to explain how I recognize faces or understand spoken sentences?

When someone says, "what's going on in the human mind when we do X is not computational", I hear that as, "I have no idea what's going on in the human mind when we do X." It's an argument from ignorance, pure and simple.

A more clever skeptical argument, but one that's just as flawed, says that although we can program a computer to perform lots of individual tasks that are "intelligent" in some sense, we'll never be able to program a computer to solve an arbitrary set of problems, or generalize the ability to reason intelligently to any domain. In other words, we'll never have "generalized artificial intelligence".

This is sort of crazy for a lot of reasons. The first is that it's pure hubris to think that humans have the ability to generalize their problem-solving skills to arbitrary domains. It only seems like we can do this because we've very cleverly constructed an environment that suits our capabilities. It would be miraculous to discover that the human mind can solve literally any possible problem, no matter the domain, and no matter how complex. There could easily be important classes of problems that the human mind is simply incapable of understanding. So if we demand more than this of our artificial intelligences, that's clearly unfair.

The flip side of this argument is that it's arbitrary to chop up "problem domains" in any particular way in the first place. For example, "playing chess" is supposed to be a single task -- the skills required to play chess don't generalize to other applications. But why is "playing chess" considered one thing? The skills required to play the opening, the middle game, and the end-game are quite different (and indeed, chess programs have different heuristics for those stages of the game). Why isn't chess considered a huge set of different problems, like "knowing when to move your pawn", "selecting an opening sequence", "checkmating with a knight and bishop", and so on? The answer is that calling chess "one problem" is arbitrary, and so there's no sense in claiming that we can't generalize a set reasoning skills from one domain to another.

And the reason why research into artificial intelligence is concerned mainly with particular problems is because we're not good at it yet. We don't have a unified theory of intelligence, and so the work we're doing is the best we can do. We don't criticize physicists by saying, "You're wasting your time looking for the Higgs boson because working on characterizing one particle isn't the same thing as constructing a unified theory of every force." But yet, we do criticize artificial intelligence research in exactly this way. And this research has only been around for a fraction of the time that physics has existed as a scientific research program.

To think that we won't be able to get to artificial intelligence because we've had so much success solving specific problems is perverse. Within my lifetime, I fully expect that just as the best chess players are computers, so too, the very best poets, writers, and musicians will also be computers. In fact, I fully expect computers to outperform humans at every intellectual and creative task within my lifetime. And I look forward to it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Clash of Clans From A Way Too Analytic Perspective

As a very obsessive person, I have to be quite careful about what games I try. When I was in graduate school, I had to quit playing speed chess cold turkey because it started to interfere with my work. I made a terrible mistake recently by trying "Clash of Clans", just to see what it was all about. Big mistake.

In my academic life, I was an academic philosopher specializing in game theory. I also had an interest in behavioral game theory and experimental economics. What these fields have in common is that they study strategy. Game theory (typically) does so from an idealized, mathematical perspective in which we assume that all the players are completely rational and self-interested at all times. Behavioral game theory, on the other hand, tries to study people as they are -- with all their stupidity and cognitive biases.

I think that one of the reasons Clash of Clans is so successful is that it combines both elements -- you're playing against other people online, but also trying to manage your resources in the most rational way possible. As a tower defense game, you have to simultaneously think about the other players' strategies as well as the computer's AI.

Because of this, as well as my own academic background, I can't help but be fascinated by players' behavior, and how they seem to think about strategy. So, for what it's worth, I offer some tips to playing Clash of Clans from someone who always looks at this sort of thing through the lens of game theory and behavioral game theory.

Tip 1: Don't anthropomorphize the AI

In Clash of Clans, whenever you attack, you drop your troops in whatever location you choose, and then you have no more control over them. They will tend to run from one target to the next closest target, with the exception that some kinds of troops are biased toward certain targets. Wall-breakers always attack walls; giants always attack defenses; goblins always target gold and elixir.

If you think your Roomba is sad or frustrated by its inability to get a particular clump of dirt out of your carpet, you're anthropomorphizing. Clearly, people tend to do this with their troops. If you were defending against real humans, you'd put out your bombs and spring traps along a perimeter around your walls, perhaps. Or you'd put them around a particularly valuable target, like your town hall.

But you shouldn't think about it this way -- don't think that your troops are going to storm your walls the way a human would. Instead, put your bombs and traps along the paths that the computer AI will travel. In other words, put them between the targets that the enemy troops are going to attack. Spread out your gold mines a tiny bit, for example, and put bombs between them, even though this looks like it doesn't make any sense; enemy goblins will definitely blow themselves to bits. Put bombs between your cannons if you want to kill enemy giants -- especially between the outermost cannon and the one closest to it (because the giants will likely travel in that path if they successfully destroy the first cannon).

When I get attacked, every single bomb and trap is set off, without exception. There's no reasonable way for an attacker to avoid it because the computer AI doesn't behave the way a human would.

Tip 2: You're probably about average, so act that way

People always think they're exceptional in some way. The vast majority of people think they're better than average in intelligence, discernment, or understanding others. Obviously, most of them are wrong.

You'll probably get attacked an average number of times, and you'll lose an average amount of gold and elixir each time. When you attack, you'll win about an average percentage of the time. Most of us won't break out of this pattern because we don't have any special advantage or strategic insight.

The amount of gold and elixir that's won in battles will tend to balance out the amount that's lost. So an average person will neither gain nor lose gold and elixir, relative to the average player. But that doesn't mean you can't come out ahead, because attacking and defending are different: when you attack, you get stuff, and when you defend, you lose stuff.

That's obvious, of course. But what you do have in your control is how often you attack. If someone has about an average success rate for attacking, but they attack more frequently than average, then they'll come out ahead. The one thing you can control in this equation is how often you attack relative to how often you get attacked. You must attack more frequently than the average player; and if you're about average, you should attack as frequently as possible.

This means that you shouldn't be lulled to sleep by receiving a shield. If you want to maximize your rate of resource acquisition, you should attack as much as possible, regardless of whether this will blow away your shield. Never keep a shield active. Attack, attack, attack.

Tip 3: When farming, it's all about the ratios

I've spent too long looking at strategy guides for Clash of Clans. One theme that keeps appearing is that people won't attack unless they could potentially get (for example) 100,000 in gold or elixir. This is just plain dumb.

People prefer spectacular events over more mundane events, and that applies to Clash of Clans. When you attack, you're spending elixir to gain gold and elixir. When deciding whether to attack someone, your calculation is the ratio of how much gold and elixir you could get, divided by the amount of elixir you're spending in the attack. That's it.

Think about it this way. If someone offered you a deal where they'd take a hundred dollars from you and immediately give you two hundred dollars, you should take the deal (assuming you know they're honest, etc). It would be silly to say, "Nah, I'm waiting for an opportunity to turn one thousand dollars into two thousand dollars". Of course, if you could take only one deal, and you thought that someone was going to offer you a better deal later on, then you should turn down the first offer. But Clash of Clans isn't like that. You can take both deals -- you can launch a very small attack and then turn around and launch a big attack right away.

My favorite wins are when I find someone who's put their gold mines very far away from their defenses. I drop one goblin next to them and wait patiently for the little guy to rake in a hundred times what I spent on him. Sure, it's only a few thousand in gold, but because I only spent one goblin in the attack, I can turn around and attack someone else right away. The rate of return on attacks like this is really, really high. Of course, most people are looking only for big wins, so if you keep your gold and elixir reserves low, you're usually safe from attack.

Of course, if you're just trying to have fun, then there's no reason to pay attention to this analytic stuff. But games aren't about fun. They're about winning.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

How Sexism Persists In Philosophy Departments

If you say something controversial about a subject, and the facts are complex, and supported by detailed and subtle chains of reasoning, you should expect a calm, rational response from someone who disagrees with you. But on the other hand, if you say something controversial that's totally obvious, supported by common sense and easily-verifiable, indisputable facts, you should expect a hysterical, panicked, angry response. The easier it is to argue for a claim, the more emotional the response from those who insist on disagreeing with it. The explanation for this strange behavior is pretty clear. If there's no available rational response, and no facts that can be mustered in favor of one's position, then the only available option is an angry outburst, combined with total hysteria and personal attacks.

The only way to avoid defending one's obviously false position by having a temper tantrum is by lowering one's standards of evidence so far that you need to dig a hole in order to find them. Then, if you're willing to advance a seemingly rational argument that you'd be ashamed to put forward in a different context, you can avoid screaming your head off like a crazed zealot.

Long, long ago, when I was a tenured philosophy professor (about three months ago), I got used to these jaw-dropping displays of intellectual hypocrisy and double-standards. You could expect them at any faculty meeting, on virtually any subject. But no subject would bring out an otherwise intelligent person's split personality more reliably than the issue of sexism.

The math, as Sally Haslanger clearly explains in her New York Times piece, is indisputable. I won't even bother getting into it here. Women are alarmingly underrepresented in philosophy departments (and I'm not even thinking here about people who aren't white -- that situation is even worse). On the face of it, the imbalance would point to some sort of systemic bias against women. Without knowing anything else about the status of women in philosophy, one would at least suspect that discrimination is playing a part in causing this imbalance.

But just as statisticians are the most highly qualified people for contriving misleading statistics, philosophers are eminently qualified to come up with misleading arguments against conclusions that are uncomfortable. And like any other human beings, philosophers are fully capable of astonishing feats of intellectual hypocrisy. Consider this example, which I have heard many times, from people who are otherwise highly intelligent. When asked to explain why there's such an imbalance between men and women in philosophy, they offer the following explanation. "Philosophy has a kind of rough-and-tumble environment of intellectual debate and confrontation. Disputes are quite pointed, and there's a lot of conflict. Women are typically averse to this sort of environment, which is why there are so few women in philosophy."

There's so much wrong with this pseudo-explanation that it's difficult to know where to begin. But the howler is that it seeks to deflect accusations of sexism by invoking highly sexist stereotypes! It would be like a mathematician explaining that most mathematicians are men because mathematics requires logical reasoning and women are naturally averse to fields that require logic. But although it's so obviously sexist, this is the sort of argument that one comes to expect when discussions of sexism arise among groups of philosophers.

I'm sure that almost anyone who's spent more than a few years in academic philosophy can come up with plenty of examples of incredibly ignorant and sexist statements made by philosophers without any trace of irony or self-reflection. For example, I've personally been told by the previous chair of my department that the reason my wife's undergraduate classes (she is also a faculty member in the Philosophy Department) have such excellent attendance and high evaluations is because she's attractive. And let me emphasize that this is an intelligent man saying this, who (I assume) sincerely believes that sexism is wrong.

What must happen in the mind of an intelligent, liberal, highly-educated professional philosopher in order for such a stupid and offensive comment to come out of his mouth? First of all, there must be an assumption that the explanation for her classes being so successful can't possibly be that she's an excellent teacher -- there simply must be some other dynamic at work, presumably because she's a woman and couldn't possibly be a competent professional. The "true" explanation must have something to do with the fact that she's a woman and therefore has some advantage that men don't possess. This can only be that she's attractive. But we still have some distance to go before it's possible to advance this ignorant explanation. You don't have to be a psychologist or an expert in human sexuality to realize that it's kind of nutty to suppose that twenty year-old men are attending a lecture taught by a forty year-old woman because they enjoy looking at her, even if she is attractive. So it's necessary to temporarily make oneself incredibly stupid in order to overlook this obvious fact. Only then is it possible to "explain" her excellent teaching record by citing her attractiveness.

If you offer the most simple and easily verifiable observations about differential treatment of women, you can expect violent opposition. Here's one example I witnessed in a faculty meeting. Our department had recently had several job candidates to campus for interviews and to give talks. Some were brought to campus on Wednesdays and others on Fridays. Because of our teaching schedules, most faculty couldn't participate fully on Wednesdays, but we could all participate on Fridays. This had the effect of making it advantageous for a candidate to be brought in on a Friday. It was pointed out that every male candidate was brought to campus on a Friday, and every female candidate was brought to campus on a Wednesday. The person who pointed this out was at pains to emphasize that she had no suspicion that this was done on purpose; she was just flagging the issue as something that we should be aware of in the future. The facts could have been checked in a few seconds by looking at a calendar, schedule of talks, or email. But nobody did -- instead, the person who pointed this out was immediately attacked and told that she was wrong and that she was being "ridiculous". Of course, she brought up a schedule on her laptop and demonstrated that she was right. But that took almost a full minute to accomplish, and by then, her point had been angrily dismissed.

Those examples are fairly blatant. Anyone who doesn't have a stake in the outcome of those disputes could see through the stupidity and hypocrisy immediately. A more subtle dynamic happens when statistics are brought into the debate. Philosophers are trained to question evidence, and that includes statistical evidence. So when confronted with statistics that support an uncomfortable conclusion, philosophers are well-prepared to respond. For example it's possible that it's merely a coincidence that women are so dramatically under-represented in academic philosophy. This would be an astounding coincidence, but it's possible, just as it's possible that I could get struck by a meteorite in the next ten minutes. The mere possibility that the statistics could be misleading is enough for a trained academic philosopher to dismiss them outright. But dismissing these statistics and deliberately overlooking the obvious explanation for them (namely, that there's systematic bias against women) is yet another feat of intellectual hypocrisy. To take only one example, the safety of the medications that we take is supported by statistical evidence that's often weaker than the evidence of bias in academic philosophy. But we don't apply outrageous evidential standards to our medical care, even though our lives depend on it. Defenders of the status quo in academic philosophy are comforted by the fact that we can't trace out the exact mechanisms by which this bias might operate. But they are not equally skeptical of (e.g.) the harmful effects of smoking, even though the exact mechanisms aren't fully understood.

Of course, when the statistics are not overwhelming, the responses are even more predictable. For example, in my former department, exactly three women have gone up for tenure over the past few decades. Two of them were denied tenure at the department level. No men were ever denied tenure, despite the fact that the vast majority of faculty have been men, and that some of those men had abysmal research and teaching records. The only reasonable evaluation of such statistics is that although they don't prove the existence of sexist double-standards in the tenure process, they do justify a deeper investigation. And if it turns out that other facts point in the same direction, then we need to take the issue seriously, perhaps by reviewing the standards that were applied in each case. But in this environment, it's not possible to evaluate the totality of evidence. Instead, each piece of evidence is isolated from every other piece of evidence and then dismissed because no isolated, single piece of evidence is ever enough to decisively establish beyond any doubt that there's systematic bias against women. It is impossible to support a claim of discrimination by considering all available evidence because the defenders of the status quo have preemptively dismissed every single piece of evidence taken in isolation, and then had the audacity to claim that it's no use to consider the total weight of all the evidence. This is like dismissing a series of scientific experiments that all independently point to the same conclusion, simply because no single experiment is sufficient on its own. In any other context, this defense would rightly be held up to ridicule. But not when the issue is sexism, and not among a group of intelligent, highly-educated philosophers.

How does bias against women persist in philosophy departments? Take a group of fallible human beings with a natural tendency toward hypocrisy and intellectual double-standards, then add highly specialized analytical training. Put those people in a male-dominated profession in which career advancement is dependent on the whims of one's colleagues, and the results are predictable.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Higher Education Death Spiral

One reason (among many) why I left my tenured position as a Professor of Philosophy is that I began to feel very strongly that the value of the education I was providing my students was deteriorating rapidly. Of course, I aways tried -- with mixed success -- to give my students the best education I could. But I kept having the sensation of trying to swim upstream in a current that was dragging me backwards.

Critiques of higher education in the United States are nothing new. We all know that funding is awful and getting worse, that public universities are becoming more like corporations, and that there's an ongoing assault on faculty rights and the institution of tenure -- an assault that bears an uncanny resemblance to union-busting techniques.

I believe that these critiques are all depressingly accurate. But they miss the underlying dynamic that's at the root of all these problems. It's a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle, which we might as well call the Higher Education Death Spiral. It's accelerating and driving higher education in the United States into the ground. In short, the Death Spiral is caused by two facts. The first fact is that the intrinsic value of a university education is going down; the second is that the extrinsic value of a university education is going up. Those facts have conspired to create a market failure that's dragging down the quality of higher education.

There are basically two reasons for getting a university education. The first is that it has intrinsic value. Increasing the breadth and depth of your knowledge, being exposed to new ideas and to people whose ideas and values are different from yours, and so on all have the potential to make us better people and improve the quality of our lives in ways that are difficult to quantify. The second reason is that a university education has tremendous extrinsic value. It helps you get a good job, increases your expected lifetime earnings, and so on. Both of these are very good things, and each of them is an excellent reason to go to college.

Frankly, I think it's obvious that universities are doing a worse job providing intrinsic value to students. Unfortunately, there are powerful emotional reasons why it's difficult to acknowledge this fact. When I was a professor, I once said in an offhand way that our students were getting a worse education than they did ten years ago. To be perfectly honest, I thought this was so obvious that it probably wasn't worth saying at all. After all, the facts are irrefutable. Class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer, students are increasingly taught by overworked, underpaid adjunct, non-tenure track faculty and graduate students, facilities are crumbling, and so on. Obviously, these facts will cause the quality of education to go down. But what I didn't realize when I made this comment is that it would elicit a fiercely defensive reaction. It's very difficult to say such a thing to a faculty member without coming across as criticizing him or her. Classes are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty, and so any critique of educational quality comes across as a personal criticism of those faculty. Naturally, they are often offended by any suggestion that the quality of their courses might be going down.

Nonetheless, I think the conclusion is unavoidable. In fact, it would be a miracle if those factors didn't hurt the quality of students' education. It would take a unified, herculean effort on the part of faculty and administration to overcome the problems that universities currently face. For example, at my former university -- the University of Missouri -- resources are so scarce that the library recently lost millions of dollars' worth of books to mold, and a university-owned apartment building suffered a collapse that tragically killed a firefighter (there was no fire -- the firefighter was there because a tenant noticed the structural degradation that caused the collapse). Those are symptoms of a lack of long-term thinking combined with scarcity of resources. And those deficits have conspired to damage educational quality throughout the university. Can it really be surprising that education has suffered in such an environment? (By the way, if you're concerned about the University of Missouri's athletic facilities, don't be. They're better than ever.)

Ironically, the same economy that has wrecked so much havoc in the university has also made a university education more extrinsically valuable than ever. Although college graduates do have an uphill battle to find a good job, their non-college educated counterparts have it much, much worse. In determining the extrinsic value of an education, the appropriate comparison isn't between education now and education ten years ago; rather, it's between the prospects now of a college-educated person and the prospects now of someone who has no college education. The difference is so dramatic that there's no reason for me to get into it here. More than ever, you need a college education in order to succeed in the economy.

This pair of facts is the cause of the Higher Education Death Spiral. It's a strange and unusual dynamic that I wish got more attention. Normally, as the quality of something goes down, and the price goes up, we don't expect the demand to increase. For example, suppose you prefer a particular brand of shoes. But you notice that the brand's quality has suffered -- the shoes have holes in them and are made out of lousy material. And you also notice that the price has doubled. The last thing you'd do is buy more of these shoes. But that's exactly what's happening with higher education all over the United States: quality is down, price is up, and demand is higher than ever!

But that's not the whole story of the Higher Education Death Spiral. The increased demand for a college education has the effect of masking the underlying cause of the Death Spiral by providing just enough revenue for the university to squeak by, but not nearly enough revenue to address the university's real problems. Universities are now addicted to increased enrollment at the cost of long-term planning that might increase the intrinsic quality of education. And like any drug addict, they'll make irrational sacrifices in order to get their next hit.

There's a tremendous irony in the current situation. A university education's value is increasingly economic -- the overriding reason to go to college is to succeed in the job market, and that's how educational quality is judged. But those who make the most crass economic arguments for how public resources are to be allocated, and who believe that it's perfectly appropriate to turn universities into credential mills to enable students to get jobs, are blind to the fact that we're in the grip of a textbook market failure. Market pressures have led to a situation in which resources are allocated inefficiently, and everyone would be better off if resources were spent not on buying short-term increases in enrollment, but on long-term investments that would actually increase the real quality of a university education. But the market won't let this happen. Hence, the Higher Education Death Spiral.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Asshole or Douchebag? A Very Important And Rigorous Study

In a world filled with unpleasant people, it's important to understand exactly what kind of unpleasant person you're dealing with. Sure, your co-worker, boss, rival, neighbor, or even your close friend may be some kind of jerk. But is he or she merely a jerk, or do they rise to the level of asshole or douchebag? Do they engage in "total asshole behavior", or is it more appropriate to think of their behavior as "douchebaggery"?

Obviously, assholes and douchebags are closely related. But they are not the same. Consider two kinds of behavior that unlucky people witness on a regular basis at work:

The first totally hypothetical person, who we will call "Mr. A", is a bully who enjoys power. He demeans his subordinates, he readily lies about people in order to misrepresent their abilities and accomplishments, and he seems to have no moral sense. He will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder at work, and he uses other people as means to that end. Mr. A is fairly predictable this way, and very few people trust him.

The second totally hypothetical person, who will will call "Mr. D", is also a bully. However, unlike Mr. A, he is more discriminating in choosing those he will lie about and demean. To those he does not dislike, he can seem quite friendly and even affable. But he can be extremely vicious to a select group of people. Unlike Mr. A, his selection of targets is more complex. He is sometimes perfectly decent and even generous to people who have no power; but sometimes he is quite vicious. Different people have vastly different opinions about Mr. D.

Mr. A is simply an asshole. He is greedy, selfish, and at least somewhat sadistic. He is simple and predictable. He may be decent enough to a select few (usually those who can give him something he wants), but those people are in the minority. Mr. D, however, is more complicated. He may be a douchebag; but whether he qualifies as a douchebag depends on his motivations and how he chooses his targets.

We can illustrate the qualifications for the title of "douchebag" by considering a colleague I once had the misfortune of working with. He was notoriously unproductive and at least mildly neurotic. The work he did produce was unoriginal and repetitious. And whatever success he had was due to his network of friends who were far more generous than he ever was. Of course, by itself, being ineffectual doesn't qualify you as a douchebag. But he had a nasty habit of attacking people who were more productive than he was. He would spread extremely nasty rumors about them, especially attacking their productivity and the quality of their work. Of course, he preferred attacking people who were powerless, but he'd occasionally get worked up enough to go after people who were not. And it should go without saying that this always took the form of a rumor-mongering whispering campaign.

As in this specific case, a douchebag is motivated by self-loathing, and the asshole-like behavior of the douchebag is mainly aimed at people who are better than him with respect to the qualities that he hates in himself. Needless to say, this requires a willingness to engage in some very hypocritical behavior, but that does not deter the douchebag in the slightest. Hypocrisy and self-loathing are at the core of douchebaggery.

This goes a long way toward explaining some of the other differences between assholes and douchebags:

  1. Douchebags are less overt than assholes. This is because they tend to be at least a little neurotic, and they're at least somewhat aware of their hypocrisy. They take a greater risk than assholes, because their behavior could backfire and cause people to recognize the douchebag's inadequacies. Thus, they are typically sneakier and "slimier" than their asshole cousins.
  2. An asshole's behavior usually has a specific goal: the acquisition of power, money or advancement. The only exception is when assholes are motivated purely by sadism. Douchebaggery, however, isn't directed at those goals. Douchebags are douchebags because it makes them feel better about themselves, even if it is ultimately self-destructive.
  3. These traits conspire to elevate the asshole in any organization, but to keep the douchebag relatively marginalized. Even a high-functioning douchebag is limited by their own neuroses. Thus, you're more likely to find assholes at the top of an organization, and more likely to encounter douchebags somewhere in the middle. Middle managers are more likely to be douchebags, and executives are more likely to be assholes.

It bothers me when people conflate assholes and douchebags, because there are so many important differences between them. And if we don't carefully distinguish between them, it becomes more difficult to defend against them. Treating a douchebag like an ordinary asshole will be counterproductive, and vice-versa. We'll never rid the world of assholes and douchebags, but if we can recognize them more quickly, we'll be better able to marginalize them and mitigate some of the damage they do.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Care and Feeding of Young Nerds

You may be responsible for the care and feeding of a young nerd. Maybe you're a parent and you are beginning to suspect that your child is developing into a nerd, or maybe you're a teacher, or even just an adult who is around young, impressionable nerds. If so, you are probably aware that your nerd has a lot of potential. But unfortunately, they are very sensitive, delicate creatures. You'll want your nerd to grow and develop into an intelligent, successful, eccentric adult while minimizing their lifetime cost in psychological therapy.

Young Nerds Often Feel Powerless

Nerds are often (but not always) socially awkward, and they usually feel lost in a large crowd of non-nerds. Non-nerds seem to behave in ways that are incomprehensible to nerds, especially when they are young. At bottom, nerds know that they're intelligent, which makes the behavior of non-nerds even more distressing. The fact that young nerds are unable to explain why the rest of the world behaves in such irrational ways makes them feel even more lost, and can even lead to a diminished sense of self-worth. They feel adrift most of the time, and this makes them feel very insecure.

For example, nerds don't understand why everyone else cheers for the sports team from their country, city, or town. It seems arbitrary -- why cheer for one team rather than another? Why are you happy and proud when your team wins? It wasn't you who scored the goal or the touchdown, so why do you care?

Thus, when nerds are expected to behave this way, they feel like there's some kind of big joke that they're not in on. They can't force themselves to blend into the crowd, and this causes a lot of stress for a young nerd. Being an outcast in so many situations makes them feel helpless. And this feeling of helplessness can cause a lot of psychological distress.

Powerful Nerds In Fiction

I am now forty-one years old, and I'm proud to be a total nerd. So I was once a young, vulnerable nerd. When I was young, like many nerds, I gravitated toward science fiction. It's not a coincidence that nerds often enjoy science fiction. It's because science fiction provides a large number of role models that appeal to nerds, because they provide a rough idea of how to take a person's most nerdy qualities and transform them into a powerful sense of mastery. And even the tiniest possibility that a nerd's quirks might be something positive is a powerful message to a young nerd. Such a message goes a long way toward alleviating some of the psychological distress.

It's easy to illustrate this with an example. When I was about ten years old, I stumbled across the cult television show, "Doctor Who". I did not know what the heck this was all about. It is a terribly confusing experience for a young, impressionable nerd. For those who aren't familiar with Doctor Who, it's a British television show that's been on the air for about fifty years. The title character -- who is known only as "The Doctor" -- is a time traveling human-like alien who travels all over space and time doing heroic things. The Doctor is the perfect example of a Hero Nerd. He virtually never resorts to violence, and he doesn't have any physically imposing characteristics. The Doctor has no obvious powers at all; he's not a traditional superhero. The source of his power is simply that he's much smarter and knows much more than anyone else around him. He does have some nifty gadgets, but they're harmless little tools.

The Doctor has great appeal to nerds for lots of reasons. First, he is an example of how to take nerd-like characteristics and turn them to one's own advantage. The tendency to be overly analytical, for example, is a deficit in the real world. But it saves The Doctor (and many planets) over and over again. Second, he is shamelessly eccentric and clueless about normal conventions. His clothes are usually outlandish, but The Doctor seems to think that (for example) having a sprig of celery on one's lapel, or wearing a twenty foot-long striped scarf is a reasonable fashion choice. And he's genuinely surprised when people imply that he's odd. Third, The Doctor is uncomfortable around most people. He has deliberately left his own planet because he didn't fit in, so (like any nerd) he feels like an outcast. Although he does seem to have sentimental feelings toward his planet, he usually can't bear the thought of going there. Lastly, The Doctor -- despite being awkward around most people -- does get lonely. He prefers to travel with people, but usually with just one person at a time. And he's quite picky about who he takes with him. This resonates with nerds because that's how they feel. Despite being awkward around people and sometimes behaving like they don't need anyone, nerds do get lonely. But their preferred way of being social is to have a very small number of close friends. No wonder The Doctor is such a popular figure among nerds of all ages.

Nerds Need A Path

Science fiction characters like The Doctor suggest to young nerds that there may be a way for them to actually benefit from the personality quirks that usually end up causing them to feel awkward and lost. But of course, they need more than a fictional character in order to chart a path through the terrible experiences of youth.

There is no shortcut to empowering a young nerd. They need to actually develop a skill or talent that genuinely gives them power, and not merely the illusion of it. To be powerful is to have the ability to do something that most people can't do. And so, if you want to help your nerd, you might try to expose him or her to activities that would not normally be appealing to non-nerds. For example, in my own case, I was lucky enough to have a fourth-grade teacher who started a computer club at school. For me, fourth grade was in 1981, so the vast majority of people had never used a computer. But to my surprise, I realized quickly that I was pretty good at these things (and at that time, using a computer meant programming -- commercial software was almost non-existent). This was very appealing. For literally the first time, I found something I was good at; and programming a computer had the additional bonus that virtually nobody else could do it at all. If you think that this isn't a genuine sense of power, just consider all the young nerds my age who went on to make fortunes and change the world because they understood computers long before the rest of the world was aware of them.

Of course, there's nothing special about computers. A powerful skill could be almost anything, so long as your young nerd enjoys it, and most people aren't any good at it. It could be art, music, chess, math, building things, or whatever else happens to be available. One thing that's nice about being a young nerd now (as opposed to being one in the 1980's) is that you can get information so easily. I would have done anything to have had access to (say) Wikipedia for an hour in the 1980's. We used to be severely limited by the lack of available information; but that limitation is a thing of the past. Eccentric hobbies nowadays are cheap to fund, and easy to learn about. This is good news for young nerds.

Basically, caring for nerds comes down to a few simple guidelines. First, find a way to suggest that the characteristics that make them feel helpless and awkward can be turned to their advantage. Second, expose them to activities that are examples of how their unique skills might confer unique abilities that most people won't understand. If your nerd can make it through the awful experience of youth, they will turn into an adult nerd; and then they'll realize the truth, which is that nerds rule the world.