Sunday 4 September 2016

Big data and big lies...

How do we make decisions - political or otherwise - in a democracy?

Current trends point to rational, verifiable 'fact' as uncertain terrain:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and post-fact politics
Futures Forum: Brexit: and Clexit: or the links between Eurosceptics and climate change sceptics

Then there is the 'rise of data' and how this is nudging us in certain directions:
Futures Forum: The 'sharing economy', 'resilience' and 'nudging': Evgeny Morozov on "The rise of data and the death of politics"

Meanwhile, the rise of AI is unstoppable:
Futures Forum: Artificial Intelligence: is it humanity's greatest 'existential risk'?

Here are excerpts from a few pieces of late which explore these issues:

Yuval Noah Harari on big data, Google and the end of free will

August 26, 2016 Yuval Noah Harari

Forget about listening to ourselves. In the age of data, algorithms have the answer, writes the historian Yuval Noah Harari

For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed up this revolution in Emile, his 1762 treatise on education. When looking for the rules of conduct in life, Rousseau found them “in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface... 

Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data. This novel creed may be called “Dataism”. In its extreme form, proponents of the Dataist worldview perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system — and then merge into it...

Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.

When Michael Gove announced his shortlived candidacy to become Britain’s prime minister in the wake of June’s Brexit vote, he explained: “In every step in my political life I have asked myself one question, ‘What is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?’” That’s why, according to Gove, he had fought so hard for Brexit, and that’s why he felt compelled to backstab his erstwhile ally Boris Johnson and bid for the alpha-dog position himself — because his heart told him to do it.

Gove is not alone in listening to his heart in critical moments. For the past few centuries humanism has seen the human heart as the supreme source of authority not merely in politics but in every other field of activity. From infancy we are bombarded with a barrage of humanist slogans counselling us: “Listen to yourself, be true to yourself, trust yourself, follow your heart, do what feels good.”


The Dataist worldview is very attractive to politicians, business people and ordinary consumers because it offers groundbreaking technologies and immense new powers. For all the fear of missing our privacy and our free choice, when consumers have to choose between keeping their privacy and having access to far superior healthcare — most will choose health.

In the history of truth, a new chapter begins.

Ted Cruz’s campaign autobiography is called “A Time for Truth.” “This guy’s a liar,” Donald Trump said at a recent G.O.P. debate, pointing at Cruz. Trump thinks a lot of people are liars, especially politicians (Jeb Bush: “Lying on campaign trail!”) and reporters (“Too bad dopey @megynkelly lies!”). Not for nothing has he been called the Human Lie Detector. And not for nothing has he been called a big, fat Pinocchio with his pants on fire by the fact-checking teams at the Times, the Washington Post, and Politifact, whose careful reports apparently have little influence on the electorate, because, as a writer for Politico admitted, “Nobody but political fanatics pays much mind to them.” “You lied,” Marco Rubio said to Trump during the truth-for-tat February debate. Cruz tried to break in, noting that Rubio had called him a liar, too. Honestly, there was so much loudmouthed soothsaying that it was hard to tell who was saying what. A line from the transcript released by CNN reads:

Unidentified Male: I tell the truth, I tell the truth.

Eat your heart out, Samuel Beckett.


Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby proving that he did. Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought experiment: “Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain.” As thought experiments go, this one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,” Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it will just tell you the answer.”) Now imagine that, after living with these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation, inquiry, and reason. Then picture this: overnight, an environmental disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google, therefore I am not.


A “fact” is, etymologically, an act or a deed. It came to mean something established as true only after the Church effectively abolished trial by ordeal in 1215, the year that King John pledged, in Magna Carta, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned . . . save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” In England, the abolition of trial by ordeal led to the adoption of trial by jury for criminal cases. This required a new doctrine of evidence and a new method of inquiry, and led to what the historian Barbara Shapiro has called “the culture of fact”: the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing—the substance, the matter, of fact—is the basis of truth and the only kind of evidence that’s admissible not only in court but also in other realms where truth is arbitrated. Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism...

Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures.

Then came the Internet. The era of the fact is coming to an end: the place once held by “facts” is being taken over by “data.” This is making for more epistemological mayhem, not least because the collection and weighing of facts require investigation, discernment, and judgment, while the collection and analysis of data are outsourced to machines. “Most knowing now is Google-knowing—knowledge acquired online,” Lynch writes in “The Internet of Us” (his title is a riff on the ballyhooed and bewildering “Internet of Things”). We now only rarely discover facts, Lynch observes; instead, we download them. Of course, we also upload them: with each click and keystroke, we hack off tiny bits of ourselves and glom them on to a data Leviathan...

Lynch has been writing about this topic for a long time, and passionately. The root of the problem, as he sees it, is a well-known paradox: reason can’t defend itself without resort to reason. In his 2012 book, “In Praise of Reason,” Lynch identified three sources of skepticism about reason: the suspicion that all reasoning is rationalization, the idea that science is just another faith, and the notion that objectivity is an illusion. These ideas have a specific intellectual history, and none of them are on the wane. Their consequences, he believes, are dire: “Without a common background of standards against which we measure what counts as a reliable source of information, or a reliable method of inquiry, and what doesn’t, we won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values. Indeed, this is precisely the situation we seem to be headed toward in the United States.” Hence, truthiness. “I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books: they’re √©litist,” Stephen Colbert said in 2005, when he coined “truthiness” while lampooning George W. Bush. “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today.”


When we Google-know, Lynch argues, we no longer take responsibility for our own beliefs, and we lack the capacity to see how bits of facts fit into a larger whole. Essentially, we forfeit our reason and, in a republic, our citizenship. You can see how this works every time you try to get to the bottom of a story by reading the news on your smartphone. Or you can see it in the recent G.O.P. debate when Rubio said that Trump had hired Polish workers, undocumented immigrants, and Trump called him a liar:

Trump: That’s wrong. That’s wrong. Totally wrong.

Rubio: That’s a fact. People can look it up. I’m sure people are Googling it right now. Look it up. “Trump Polish workers,” you’ll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects.

In the hour after the debate, Google Trends reported a seven-hundred-per-cent spike in searches for “Polish workers.” “We rate Rubio’s claim Half True,” Politifact reported. But what you see when you Google “Polish workers” is a function of, among other things, your language, your location, and your personal Web history. Reason can’t defend itself. Neither can Google.

Trump doesn’t reason. He’s a lot like that kid who stole my bat. He wants combat. Cruz’s appeal is to the judgment of God. “Father God, please . . . awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from the abyss,” he preached on the campaign trail. Rubio’s appeal is to Google.

After the Fact - The New Yorker

Who needs facts? We appear to be in the Post-Information Age now

Evidence? Ha. That's for humanists, scientists and who knows what other dangerous–ists. It's all about how we feel now

Bob Garfield Friday 3 January 2014

Remember the Information Age? That was such an interesting period, when digital technology and the thirst for understanding converged to give the human race unprecedented access to heaps of revealing data, contemporaneous and historical. All you had to do was analyze the information without prejudice and the secrets of the world unfolded before you – from the human genome to weekend crime in your town, from the value of the two-out stolen base to the origin of the universe.

But nothing lasts forever. Objective analysis is just so 2013. Facts are over, replaced by feelings and free-floating certainty. Sure, so-called Big Data will get bigger still, but only in service of targeted diaper advertising and spying on citizens. For everything that matters, as of now, we are smack in the Post-Information Age.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 33% of Americans believe that evolution is a vicious rumor, opining that "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time". Genesis is their story and they're sticking to it.

Not insignificantly, rejection of science over religious mythology is distinctly partisan: 48% of Republicans, versus 27% of Democrats, "just say no" to Darwin. This explains a lot. The GOP failed four dozen times to undo Obamacare, but they're that close to repealing the Age of Enlightenment.

Evidence? Ha. That's for humanists, scientists and who knows what other dangerous–ists. Governance has become a faith-based initiative. When it comes to the most critical issues of our society – the economy, climate change, gun violence – it matters only what you believe in.

Who needs facts? We appear to be in the Post-Information Age now | Bob Garfield | Opinion | The Guardian

The Biggest Political Lie of 2016

Trump and Brexit have ushered us into an era of post-truth politics, pundits say. We rate the statement 'Pants on fire'.

By Sam Kriss August 31 2016

We are in very dangerous times, of mobs and meaninglessness. People aren’t swayed by facts anymore; they’re indifferent to reality and openly scornful of experts. All they want is to feel good, even if it’s only for an instant, even if it’s at the cost of an entire future. Vast crowds of the pleasure-hungry are being pulled along into increasingly destructive politics by cheap sound bites and tawdry emotion. We’re teetering over the edge, and people hardly even notice—it’s all become theater; society rips itself apart in real time before our eyes, but we approach it like an entertainment product. The question is no longer one of which politician actually has the best judgment and the best plans for the future, but which character is the most relatable, which post we want to hitch our self-identity against. This is madness, but it’s also what’s come to rule our world. You’ve probably heard the name for all this. We are in post-truth politics.

It’s not me saying this, though. This dire warning isn’t about Donald Trump, or Brexit, or the news media covering either, or the tiny reality bubbles of the internet. This is the oldest complaint in the history of political theory, screaming at us from the discipline’s frantic infancy. It’s Plato, writing in the 400s B.C. And he was wrong.


It’s not that facts aren’t good for anything, but a politics consisting of facts and nothing else isn’t politics, but management. This is what our politics are actually turning into: rule by experts and fatalism. There are hyperbolic versions: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s imagined country of “Rationalia,” for instance, where the primary constitutional principle is that all policy decisions are to be based on the collection of data and scientific standards of evidence, so that you’d have to run a trial on the arbitrary execution of dozens of innocent people before deciding that it’s a bad idea (or, a horrifying possibility, discovering that according to some emotionless utilitarian calculus it’s actually a good one). But stripped-back versions of Rationalia are all around us.

In the United States, Hillary Clinton proudly boasts of her friendship with Henry Kissinger, who is indeed a very experienced statesman with a great many facts at his disposal, which all sounds wonderful as long as you don’t remember what he used those factsfor. Until very recently, all the mainstream parties seemed to agree on a politics informed by plenty of data but that was making life worse for millions. Is it any wonder that people are trying to find a way out? When truth is all that matters, there’s no room for any vision of a better life. All you end up with is a system in which the rulers are the ones with the most information, who know the ins and outs of the machine, and are sporadically capable of keeping it running. And if it’s a machine for grinding up human bodies into a profitable paste, then that’s just the reality of things.

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