Meritocracy? … mehhh

There is an interesting episode of the Majority Report hosted by Sam Seder, where he talks with Patrick Deneen on his book “Why Liberalism Failed“. During the interview Seder mentions, or hints at, the pitfalls of meritocracy. I realised I had been developing profound misgivings about the merits of a meritocracy over several years now, and this crystallized it for me. I’m writing this post because embarrassingly, when a lot younger,  I used to be a staunch supporter of meritocracy. Ironically I think that means in the past I should have been meritocractically barred from promotion due to naiveté.

But I think I have an even sharper criticism of meritocracy than Seder.

Majority Report 05-04-2018 Why liberalism failed

A meritocracy is evil because there is no fair and just way to assess or objectively measure who has merit.

Typical neoliberal meritocratic ideas are just a slim shade removed from an abominable Plato’s Republic. The idea is that those who should be making the decisions for a society, or those who should be trusted to high powers and important office and organization promotions, are those who are the best educated, the most learned, the intelligencia.

The reason why this nice sounding idea is fatally flawed is that intelligence alone cannot guarantee good decisions.  There are many reasons for this. One is that no one on Earth has enough intelligence to know ahead of time the best decisions. The world is too full of uncertainty and unpredictable unintended consequences.  Sure, you can argue the more rational and intelligent you are perhaps the better the probability you will make good decisions.  But concentrating power in a designated meriotocratic few has it’s own unpredictable consequences, like group-think tendencies, intellectual bias, elite prejudices, institutionalized prejudices, and excessive conformity to an ideology of “the learned”.  It is precisely because well-educated members of society often share common beliefs (because they are educated at roughly the same sort of schools) that we, as a greater society, out to be every wary of handing over 100% of our responsibilities to the “well-educated”.

Secondly, I have seen in my life many examples of people who were not formally well-educated who turned out to have “infinitely” more wisdom than many of my university educated friends and PhD colleagues. We should want such wise people in the top ranks of our businesses, governments and organizations.   And arguably, the wisest people should be promoted ahead of the most intelligent.

But wisdom is incredibly hard to assess or measure, and it comes and goes. No one has wisdom on tap. But likewise for intelligence. No one is all-intelligent across all domains. So unless you run an incredibly simplistic organization, trying to promote the most intelligent or the most wise is going to often be a fools errand.

What a great manager should do is get to know people deeply. Befriend people. Find out their strengths and weaknesses, and place people in positions in an organization not according to some spreadsheet metrics, but according to objective metrics plus a heavy dose of intuition gained from deep interpersonal contact and proven relevant experience.

A fourth or fifth reason is that, as most complexity theorists know, a bit of random perturbation is often a good thing in a dynamic system, if it is to be capable of adaptively responding to change.  And in human organizations the best sources of “safe” random shocks are unconventional people with weird or crazy ideas.  They are worth listening to, even if half the time they are day-dreaming and goofing around with silly ideas.

So yeah, … death to meritocracy. Sounds worthy, but it is a bad idea.

It is a lot like the fallacies of the mythical Econs. No one has enough knowledge and smarts to be able to justly implement a meritocracy. And no single measure of “merit” exists, so the whole enterprise of meritocracy is dead on arrival I feel.

 

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Social Media and Cambridge Analytica

Comments on social data use, privacy, stupidity and traceability of truth

Where to begin? Sometimes to vent my anger I will post a comment on YouTube. That’s a pretty futile activity of course, but about once in 50 posts I actually do get nice feedback and a little conversation. Hardly a robust forum though, so these days I turn off notifications and just post comments like I am flicking matchsticks into the Sun.

Following my previous admittedly simple minded and ill-thought through post on “BitTruth” I thought I’d write a bit on the social media data mining that is in the news. I still think something like BitTruth is a good idea, but in my simple scheme there are too many flaws. Something far more sophisticated is needed to heal our civilization and rid us of the cancerous effects of propaganda and so-called “fake news”. What we need is something called honesty, a fairly radical concept. Seems like a pretty rare commodity. I really am starting to think no technical fix like my BitTruth proposal will work. We need to start working on growing small communities infused with honesty, grow them, and use them to overwhelm the cancers of trivia, news for ratings, reality TV, political propaganda of all stripes, Internet trolls and bots, and the like.

Will it happen? I do not know, maybe not in our lifetimes, but also maybe it could very well happen quite soon? Social change is so darn hard to predict. Who two years ago would have predicted the rise of the #MeToo movement? Who would have predicted a runner-up candidate for POTUS who used the word “socialist” to describe his basic worldview? To me it seems like a kind of critical build-up in false memes, something like an intellectual economic crisis looming, that will soon collapse around our eyes and ears, driving people out of sheer desperation towards a culture of trust and honesty.

I cannot help make one dopey comment: if people are so worried about privacy, why the hell are they posting al that information about themselves online on Facebook and Instagram?  I guess millions of stupid people just do not understand the Internet.  And yeah, people are stupid, almost everyone has a sphere of un-sublime ignorance shrouding their decisions, hell, even here on WordPress I am probably giving away far too much without getting any return for it.

Fake Frickin News — We’ve Always Been Fighting It

So first up a quick BTW: I kind of object to that sound bite “fake news”… throughout history most news has been objectively false if not fake, the question for consumers of news is what degree of truth is there in news content. As I will explain below, our modern problem is not spread of propaganda, we’ve always had that problem, our modern problem is the intensification through Internet and SmartPhone mediums.

On Cambridge Analytica: after watching the Channel 4 exposé and other fairly raw sources (they caught Alexander Nix stone cold on hidden camera telling the truth, so that was pretty darn raw and true) I have to wonder about people who think Cambridge Analytica did anything wrong or evil. I can conclude they were pretty evil, but not in an obvious way.

I saw an old d3con seminar by someone named Molly Schweickert, who was a geek working for Cambridge Analytica. She probably had no idea what she was doing on a ethical level, and she spoke quite openly about how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data mining to try to influence US voters. Was this evil? Well, “no”, not if they were merely mirroring society.  But “yes, hell yeah” if they were spreading false stories.

Here is what I posted on a YouTube comment:

Is Molly Schweickert evil if she does not see the immorality of her work? Cambridge Analytica could have chosen not to work for the big bucks and instead helped a principled small party like the Greens and Jill Stein, but even that would have been sleazy the way they chose to do the propaganda. Instead of repeating what SM did for Obama in aid of the GOP. Scientists throughout history have created powerful tools that can be used to do either good or evil. Many physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later realized they did not stop to think about how the military would use nuclear power, as opposed to using it for electricity generation. I urge people to go and read Hannah Arendt, (or even just summaries of her work) where she explains the banality of evil. It is apropo here. It is not an excuse to hide behind the claim “I was just doing science”. Molly is ethically stupid but mathematically smart. So she is banal in her evil. It is not Facebook the platform which is evil, it is how people are abusing these social media platforms which is evil. People need to think more about what they are doing, and not swallow propaganda so easily. But propaganda has been a cancer on society of hundreds of years, it is nothing new, what is new is how social media amplifies all the false narratives, the truth is also amplified, but drowned out (because for every one truth there are dozens or hundreds of leis and misdirections). So also SmartPhone = non evil. Stupid SmartPhone user = banal evil. People should go and read Arendt’s analysis and they will see how to avoid blindly and unthinkingly swallowing mainstream and lunatic fringe news propaganda. It takes is some careful thought, diligence and effort to check facts. It is a great good to hold up a mirror to society, but a great evil to deliberately taint that mirror with false images.

Cambridge Analytica Molly Schweikert speaking at d3con 2017

Cambridge Analytica executive Molly Schweikert speaking at d3con 2017. Be warned, it is hard to watch her talk without getting queasy — you might want to keep some scopolamine handy.

That’s really almost all I want to say about Cambridge Analytica. I mean, they are simply banal greedy ass holes. Their greed led them to use borderline criminal, or at least blatantly sleazy, tactics to help a clearly corrupt and socially malevolent election campaign. They might have done the same for some more principled candidate like Bernie or Jill Stein, but that would not excuse their utter lack of moral scruples. They have acted with quite startlingly evil banal malice according to the Arendt analysis.

Actually, maybe Molly Schweickert really is, as one YouTuber put it, “some piece of work, the plain face of evil”, because I just looked back at the clip and noticed she is not one of the coder geeks, she was a VP, so she was in management at Cambridge Analytica. If you have not already then you need to study what Edwards Deming had to say about managers: good managers are vital for organizations, but most managers are thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. For Deming a good manager cares about the people they are entrusted to help and protect. In Molly we see just another one of these MBA graduate type managers who care mostly about profits and nothing about morals and ethics.

Adopting RealMe for the Social Media World?

So I just had one other thought for this post along the lines of “not reinventing the wheel”. In my previous post I wrote about a concept I dubbed BitTruth. The idea was that truth and honesty are becoming a premium, so it might make sense to have a cryptographic ledger system, similar to bitcoin, for authenticating news stories. People would anonymously be rated and gain or lose credits for how accurate their reporting turns out to be after the facts come in. A distributed BitTruth ledger could be used to rate the PROBABLE accuracy of news media.

The further thought I had came about when I was recently paying some tax to the New Zealand government. They use a digital identity verification system called RealMe.

So this is a possible way to clean up a lot of social media. By adapting a system like RealMe to the international sphere and Internet social media, it might be possible to add SSL type authentication to social media posts.

Just a thought. I think this is a great business opportunity. But it has to be done right, some smart people need to do it, not some code cowboys. I would think of someone like the dude who invented ZCoin, he seemed to know his cyber-security.

When you think about it, is it not utterly astounding that social media authentication certificates have not already been invented? Come on you good white hat hackers, please get on to this!

A BitTruth or RealMe for social media will not eliminate fake news, but it will make it easier for ordinary folks to filter out the most diabolical rubbish floating around on the Net.

When I posted this idea into the black hole of YouTube comments, I added this warning:

[The folks who run RealMe should have the capability I would imagine. Although I hope that did not just jinx those lovely kiwi’s. If you do it internationally, please firewall your NZ implementation!!! I have warned you!]

A Technical Bit on Truth Traceability

I just want to finish by adding that a social media authentication system is not trivial to create. False stories can be propagated by honest actors. The trick is to borrow ideas from Metrology (the science of measurement standards). With such a system all media stories would have SSL type certificates that contain traces back to a raw set of independent original sources.  How do physicists ensure traceability in measurement standards?  Answer: they use an ISO system.

The ISO-17025 accreditation system is the quality assurance system used in physical measurement standards laboratories around the world, it is how we know a centimetre from an inch and a kilogram from a pound, and how the world time standard works using atomic clock calibration certificates (absolutely vital for modern air traffic control and GPS).

Why should physicists and engineers be the only profession who enjoy such standards? We should want similar traceable standards for all our news. (And same for the justice system. All evidence in courts of law should have traceability guaranteed by an ISO 17025 type system.)

There are some huge advantages to employing such “truth” quality assurance systems for society: one is that it will provide plenty of good jobs for people, jobs that a person working in can truly say they are doing something useful and good for society.

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BitTruth — RFC for a Cryptosystem for Information Authentication

This article begins with some madcap comments I posted to YouTube after watching yet another story on the TYT Network about the present lunacy in the USA. Although it starts satirical, please keep reading to the end where I moot an original idea about how to combat fake news. I think someone with the technical skill should look into my proposal. I suggest a scheme for news accuracy authentication (especially on websites) using a cryptographic ledger scheme, analogous to the blockchain algorithm used as the BitCoin backend.

I mean to say, if you are an ace programmer and wish to do some good in this world, then forget about another cryptocurrency, we do not really need them, and in fact, cryptocurrencies are proving to be just another boon for the rich and for organized crime. My proposal is for a distributed authentication crypto system in an entirely new direction with, I think, very powerful positive social benefits. It think this is pretty important stuff, it is as close to writing an Internet RFC that I think I’ll ever get.

The Satircal Bit

This might be wildly optimistic, but another thing that could be done with Donny Tinnyhands, apart from goading him into accidentally stumbling into a peace deal in Korea by virtue of his utter ineptitude and unpredictability forcing the Koreans into uneasy peace deals just to save themselves from Trumpoaclypse, might be to get him to pardon folks like Edward Snowden. Get Trump on the right day and mood, tap his shoulder, and suggest how awesome it would be to, as a lark, give a middle finger to the surveillance sate apparatus by pardoning all charges against someone Obama wanted to indict for treason, I think you get a high probability the random Trump brain will say “yes, do it.” (50:50 odds at least, right?) With the right people tapping Trump on the shoulder like this, the next 2 to 6 years might not be all bad. I know we are talking about disaster mitigation, not disaster avoidance, but that’s where the USA is at for now I think.

[Aside: the above comment alludes to the frequent suggestions on TYT Shows that Donny Trump is prone to go along with any good sounding idea regardless of ideology, since he (TYT would claim) has no ideology. He is a principle-free zone, but that means he is open to any sort of “good PR” sounding ideas! The TYT theory would be “if only” good people surrounded Trump, instead of right-wing nutters, he might end up, by default, being a “not too bad” POTUS.]

How to goad Trump? Well, I’m no political mover and shaker, but a “not too crazy” idea might be to mention the fame and fortune he could win from becoming a unique historical figure for all time: the only POTUS ever to be indicted, imprisoned and also win the Nobel Peace Prize. Yeah, I know, fantasy land, the Noble committee would have to hold their noses on that one so tight they’d destroy their nostrils! But they virtually did so for Obama and Gore! (or at least had to post facto gag to not breath in the devilish fumes from those decisions.) But anyway, to goad Trump you only need to float the rumour that the Nobel committee are considering him. That’d be enough to turn his formless principle-free brain into a peace-making machine. Someone aught to start that rumour post haste. Hell, Fox News would swallow the rumour hook line and sinker. Get it out on Fox and Friends and then maybe this is the fastest route to peace in the Middle East as well? Would this be considered ethical use of fake news? Of course not. I for one would not be so bold to tell lies even if the ends justified the means, but I’m just sayin’,… someone with fewer scruples should spread these rumours, just in the off chance… what’s the harm? At the end of the day it’s fake news, so “so what” if it ends in some ironic relative peace in the world? [OK, I know this whole comment appears like a weird non-surreal LSD trip, but again, so what? I had to post it, just to get it off my brain.]

OK, next I am going to get off my LSD and talk about the real problems of fake news. This is not a thesis, it’ll be short and sweet, I promise.

fakenews_Radiolab_demo

Screenshot taken from the Radiolab episode demonstrating faking a person’s speech and facial visuals. If you cannot see this is fake, just think how much harder it will be when this software gets even smoother.

The Serious Bit

BTW, and FWIW, this whole era of fake news we are living through will get a lot worse before it gets better: Microsoft Research and Adobe have systems that can fake a person speaking, visuals and audio, you can make an image of someone say anything you like with their proprietary software (there was a RadioLab episode on this: http://www.radiolab.org/story/breaking-news/ and see the demo here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vprETB4dzNE (Future of Fake News, Radiolab WNYC, 28 July 2017) )

But I think there is a huge positive consequence of fake news, which few people have yet recognized. What is means, as faking gets easier and easier and eventually becomes an amateur activity, is that in our near future there will be an virtual “infinite” premium on trustworthiness and honesty. The fraction of the world’s people’s who have an iota of conscience will be forced to become more honest and trusting. We will have no other choice, there will develop a trusted natural ecosystem of truth and honesty, and people will be rapidly expelled from this network if they are caught lying. Software systems similar to Bitcoin, where authenticity is anonymously encrypted and confirmed and recorded distributively via a public ledger of transactions, will be one way of securing an Internet network of trusted information sources.

An RFC for BitTruth

The software analogy here is not even too difficult to see, think of TRUST as a medium of exchange like e-coins. Such a “TruthCoin” (or “BitTruth”?) system will not allow all news sources to be trusted, but a small network should be a good start for restoring democracy. The key, or one key, is the source of the BitTruth news information would be anonymous, so reporters and independent journalists and fact-checkers would have no “coin” for fame in this game, they get no public personal benefit from faking a story, but would simply get credits for checking or reporting the (post facto authenticated) truth. Journalists would now get gainful employment, something they have been starved of in recent decades, as they will be employed to dig around for authenticity and verification evidence, a hard job, but one that currently there is little demand for, and so a BitTruth system would give a new generation of journalists something to live for and respect themselves for participating in, like current coders who anonymously contribute to Free Software projects like GNU, Gnome, KDE and Linux, etc. It might slow down the reporting of valid information, but “breaking news” could also still be viable, it would just need to be corrected or redacted once the BitTruth system has processed the breaking stories.

In a world where breaking news seem to be all we get, this would also move people’s focus away from immediate sensationalist breaking news, and acclimatize people to wait a bit for the BitTruth verified information to come out. As mentioned earlier, the premium will be on verified truth or at least accuracy, and so not every website will be checked, and not every broadcast news story will be validated, but we would have a system for trust for at least some of the more important news stories. The flotsam and jetsom of fake news would then still exist, but would surf in a separate fantasy corner of the Internet unverified or marked as downright false by BitTruth ledgers.

If anyone denies such a system would work, I just point to BitCon and Z-Coin and other crypto-currencies, they are incredibly hard, some say near impossible, to crack. No one has ever managed to counterfeit any bitcoin (see bitcoin.stackexchange.com/…/can-bitcoins-be-counterfeited). For BitTruth imagine the analogy: you might find BitTruth information sparse, since it would require hard journalistic effort to verify stories, but once verified, the BitTruth would be impossible to counterfeit. Why? Because of distributed ledgers, you would literally need passwords for millions of computers’ “BitTruth wallets” to spread fake BitTruth information.

(!!Wait… what is the “wallet” analogue for Truth? [And yeah, I know “truth ” is a loaded word, here it just means a highly authentic source of information”, absolute truth is something a bit more transcendental, I know!] If you have a “Bitcoin wallet” I guess you have a “BitTruth heart”(?), or is it a “BitTruth mirror” since mirrors cannot lie?)

BitTruth could also work for ordinary weblogs and almost any web content. Web authors could choose to submit their websites for BitTruth authentication. This would be a lengthy process of course, it would require multiple human authenticated checkers to verify a web site, and a BitTruth stamp or certificate of “verified accurate” would thus not be possible for the vast majority of websites. This is, of course, no big problem, since today no websites are BitTruth verified. So any tiny fraction of BitTruth authenticated web sites would be a bonus on the present state of Internet content affairs. Trusted BitTruth human checkers and journalists would likely tend to work on the web content they freely choose as most urgent in need of verification, such as publications with the most traffic. I imagine BitTruth certificates would be largely wasted on Facebook pages and Twitter content for instance, which I think is appropriate, since no one should be trusting what they read on Facebook or Twitter, they are basically the modern version of gossip and puffery, only cheapened with social graph exponentially magnified gossip, which makes these websites far worse than normal family or small network gossip.

Again, as I wrote twice before, the truth would be at a premium. We cannot just expect every website we want to read to be BitTruth checked.

Websites that cannot independently attain BitTruth verification should be regarded as what they are, essentially no different to gossip magazines of the lowest credibility rank, even if they contain some accurate truths.

Note also the distinction BitTruth would have compared to so-called “fact-check” services. Fact-check services which currently exist are trusted only by reputation. They generally have no oversight ombudsman checking their trustworthiness. We should not place much faith in these services because they can be gamed by insiders.

But what about possible gaming of BitTurth. here is a possible scenario you have thought of already: an organization, oh, say, like the NRA or some other political lobbyists, might spend vast resources on training up trusted BitTruth fact-checkers, planting them essentially as sleeper agents, then strategically when ready they would unleash their agents to falsely check their desired web content as verified accurate. What would be the BitTruth safeguard in this case? Well, I think there are four basic “pretty good security” safeguards. One is source independence, another is trusted agent credentials, and the third is banning of agents who egregiously falsify certificates, a fourth is public flagging of suspect information.

These safeguards rely, naturally, on the flagging of potentially false BitTruth certificates. These would become top priorities for the entire community of fact-checkers, they would be sent messages to check the flagged false content as urgently as possible, since this sort of breach of trust is absolutely vital to “nip in the bud”. This would be the top tier quality assurance level of the distributed BitTruth ecosystem.

The trusted agent credentials are important, they need to be rigorously and routinely reviewed by BitTruth managers, and any false credential agents permanently banned form the system.

Once a good agent credential system is in place, then source independence can be used as a second safeguard. BitTruth verifications would not be allowed from closely related sources or closely associated agents. So using hundreds of sleeper agents for similarly affiliated organizations should be impossible, and would have no extra weight on the accuracy rating of any particular website. In particular, no source affiliated with the website itself would be eligible for input into the accuracy rating of their websites.

To some readers this might seem like an impossible demand, surely clever crackers can infiltrate and defeat even these safeguards, But not so. It is extremely hard to fake source and credential independence. Statistical analysis of correlations in data are fairly easy to automate, and are incredibly hard to fool.

Moreover, even if the BitTruth system were “breached” for a short period, if the website or news feed that was breached was at all widely read, it would not take long for ordinary people to notice the fishiness and smell of corruption. So a fourth safeguard is that any members of the public could be allowed to flag websites or news feeds as suspect. Again, making such content rise to the top tier agent check level.

The policy of permanently banning agents who prove untrustworthy is another vital aspect. Such severe rejection is essential to avoid litigation and ambiguity over the trustworthiness of fact-checkers. People acting as BitTruth agents simply have to do the best possible fact-checking, otherwise their credentials must be permanently revoked. So it is a zero tolerance for error system. Again statistical checks should be pretty easily developed to automatically block untrusted agents. Trusted agents could also accumulate trust rating levels. When multiple independent trusted agents get a certificate wrong, this need not result in a banning, since they are independent the system would by default assume they were fooled, a human foible. But in such cases these agents would have their trust rating lowered.

New agents wishing to contribute to BitTruth could sign-up for a trial period where they accumulate trust points, but their actual votes would not be registered in the BitTruth community accuracy verification ledger. Once they have a proven credit rating then there input would begin to be weighed in the ledger.

Finally, if a trial BitTruth systems proves to be inefficient and wasteful or easily cracked, then it would be quickly abandoned, with no harm done other than some depression for the folks who tried to erect the system. Such a collapse would likely not take long. It is worth the effort though, because if BitTruth succeeds, especially in reliability, it would in quick order gain a robustness due to proven infiltration-proof quality and utility of the service,

You can begin to see how a community ecosystem is what is needed to provide such a high level trusted service. It would truly give journalists and even amateur sleuths a good livelihood. A livelihood of good ethical morally responsible work, all thanks to fake news.

A small financial incentive for dedicated fact-checking journalists would be possible, and although I am not a business expert, I imagine a fairly reliable system would be that every human checker who gets one of their web site checks verified by a critical number of independent checkers, would get a share in both BitTruth “credits” (and these literally would be credits! Credentials as an ever more trusted checker) as well as a share in profits from subscribers to BitTruth who would be anonymously donating money for the service.

To achieve BitTruth checker independence, human checkers would need to submit credentials, but moreover, the data they cite as checks on the accuracy of information would be submitted to a distributed database (itself authenticated via a BitTruth crypoto system), and automated software could be used to parse such data to test journalistic source independence (a quick way to do this is via web page metadata, a slower way which could run in parallel would be to use full text content mining and NLP software).

As a user, to BitTruth verify a web-site, you would submit a request, which may or may not be actioned, but if it is verified by the distributed BitTruth Network, then the web-site can be tagged with a BitTruth verification certificate, which would again be encrypted and linked to the BitTruth network ledger, so that clicking on the BitTruth embedded link on a web site would reveal privately (only to you, the BitTruth user) that this web site content has been either (1) Verified accurate, or (2) inaccurate or (3) unverified.

Websites choosing not to opt in to display a BitTruth stamp would of course by default be BitTruth “untrusted”, but a third party could still submit such websites to a BitTruth check, which would have to involve being discovered by a third party user entering the URL of that uncredentialed website into a separate BitTruth database lookup, which itself would require authentication in case supposedly fake BitTruth databases were to spring up on the Net. (This would be a convenience to obviate the need for users to check the BitTruth database URL. We all know fake URL’s for scamming operations are a plague on the Internet.) There is no guarantee anyone would bother to action such submissions, but the service should at least cater for such a possibility. I would suggest that if a user urgently wants/needs a particular website to be BitTruth checked, then they might be able to pay money to get some sort of priority guarantee from dedicated trusted checkers.

Analogies with Peer Review

To further the case for feasibility of BitTruth, why it could or should work ok, we can note a similar commercial system already exists, although restricted to the sphere of peer reviewed journals. The problem for the whole Internet is that peer review does not scale, and is far too slow for checking news report accuracy.

BitTruth would also be fairly slow in the early stages, but as an ecosystem grows it should become rapid enough even for some of the main sources of breaking news. I would guess some degree of BitTruth verification might even be possible within the hectic 24 hour news cycle, perhaps not 100% authentication level, but something approaching “good enough accuracy” should be verifiable within 24 hours, given high enough demand and, most importantly, a healthy and abundant population of independent journalists with BitTruth credentials.

BitTruth is a system that journalists should be dying to create.

Spread the Word of BitTruth

Note that I do not make a single dime off this weblog, it is 100% creative commons free license, so you can copy and share this article provided you credit the author. In fact, please do so, tell anyone you think might remotely know of someone with the computer savvy to implement something like BitTruth as I have described it above in broad outline.

Even if you have no idea what I’m writing about, share it anyway!

It might be one of the most humanitarian acts you accomplish in your life! (I would consider it my top 2 or 3.) I say “might” because I am not so egotistical to think this BitTruth idea really is the remedy to fake news that I have suggested. In fact, I actually think the true longer term remedy is nothing less than a sea change in human spirituality, a total reorientation of a vast majority of the worlds people away from materialism and towards spirituality, away from consumerism towards sustainability, away from aggressive competition towards enlightened cooperation, away from factory education and towards free education, away from wage slavery and towards voluntary cooperative endeavours which benefit local communities, and towards cooperative banking and voluntary taxation, voluntary but near universal charity work (or ideally, profit sharing before there is any need for charity).

These ideals are founded on basic economic facts that there are plentiful enough resources on Earth to support a healthy and high quality life for all people, not just the privileged and wealthy. It is founded in the fact that most people will voluntarily choose to work for a living if they are free to do work they enjoy and see as contributing value to society. It is founded in the fact that most people do not seek to be greedy tycoons controlling the lives and work conditions of others “below them”. Most sane people in our world are pretty humble and honest and do not seek fame and excessive fortune. A comfortable life is generally what makes most people happy, not a life of excess luxury and conspicuous consumption. (If you are thinking, “Oh, speak for yourself you pathetic flowery leftie!” I would claim you are one of the minority of greedy materialists. So a pox on you! Or rather, I just feel very sorry for you, and pity you. You know not how hollow and empty of spirit you are.)

Furthermore, I could not care less if I get no credit for this idea. It might be a really dumb idea, or a completely impractical idea. And I haven’t done the research, so I have no idea if someone else has not already thought of this “BitTruth” idea for news authentication. I just want someone to work on it. The dude I thought could be receptive to this was they chap who invented Z-Coin, one of the (IMHO) better cryptocurrencies. But if you know anyone else who could take to this project, please whisper in their ear.

And if you start working on something like BitTruth, please trademark the name before some fascist idiot from Opposite-World does! And drop me an email to let me know you are working on this idea (achrononmaster_AT_gmail_dot_com). I would hope that for trademarks you can cite this article as some kind of prior claim? I doubt trademark law is quite so accepting, but if it is, then please feel free to take the name BitTruth as your trademark, just be sure, it must be used for a distributed cryptographic information authentication system true to what I have outlined in this article. If you use it for any other purpose I will make it my mission to see you in court if at all possible. (I keep offline USB drive hard copies of my OneOverEpsilon posts, so even if someone cracks this weblog, I will still have a record of the original.)

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Inexpansive Diplomacy

A review floated across my smartphone’s News feed recently lauding the hard realism of the television series The Expanse, based on the novels of James S. A. Covey.  I’m enjoying the series immensely, but probably only because it is vastly superior to most of the SciFi fare served up on TV or even the movies.  But this blog post is to keep things realer.

If you watch any of the diplomatic scenes you should notice the same old nasty stereotypes of politicians.  Anyone who has been close to politics in real life knows that the snarky insults and jibes seen in these movie scripts is nothing like real life.  (My father was an MP and CEO, I know a bit about what goes on in boardrooms and back-rooms and select committee’s and UN conferences.)  Sure, there are always the rotten apples, the evil politicians who either have their own personal agendas or who move and shake at the behest of private donors or corporate interests, but in real politics, at least outside the USA, Russia and China, and a few banana republics, such people are rare.  Lord knows why those three super powers are infested with corrupt politicians, maybe the riches available coupled with the imperfect electoral processes combine to float the crud to the top of the political bowl.

The Earth literally cannot sustain such crud at the leadership top for too long, and I do mean “literally”, this is clear if you witness the almost existential threats we face from climate change to nuclear conflict (once thought a threat of the past, but now renewed thanks to corruption in US politics).  It is likely we will not have to wait too many decades for things to change though, either the Earth will force our politics to get more civilised and scientific, or a few countries will wake up and lead the way, through innovation and economic growth unrivalled by the corrupt countries, the corruption will be self-defeating.  Those are two likely scenarios in my view, and I think the most likely of a few other generic futures for world politics.  (A highly unlikely scenario is some benevolent dictator emerges, unlikely because social media will probably not allow such a figure to emerge, and dictatorship rarely correlates with acceptable benevolence.  Another is a gradually maturation, unlikely because of the rapid changes in the environment and technology field.)

Which brings me to The Expanse.  The diplomacy scenes do move the plot along a bit, but at the gross expense of a nuanced realism that could, I think, only enhance the prestige of the series.  My sense is that by the time frame of The Expanse technology, near 2100 to 2200, I think a more peaceful empirical, consultative world politics will have been either accepted and demanded by the general public, at least in democracies, or it will have been forced upon society out of need for collective action at highly coordinated government scientific levels to control many existential threats facing humanity and a vast proportion of the Earth’s biota and habitats, and not the least the expected and justifiably increasing demands and voice of the worlds poor, who cannot be for long suppressed in the combined weight of their voices, once the minimum poverty level reaches a state where the poor all have a means of living that afford some scant time in pursuit of justice and then eventually maybe some leisure.  Some of these things are just so inevitable they are almost laws of sociology.  The uncertainty, based on extrapolation form history, is just how long these changes will take, and whether the rise of the power of the worlds poorest will lag too much or be fast enough to reach a synergistic confluence with the worlds’ environmental problems.

scifi_TheExpanse_ShohrehA_UN_undersecrataryShohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary in the SciFI series The Expanse

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Her character is a “relatively good” politician, but the type who commits vile torture on non-Earthers.

One thing that really irked me was the supposedly principled and good character, Secretary Avasarala, is depicted committing torture to the point of death on a prisoner.  You’d hope in our future no politician would even need to do such a  thing.  At the worst, you’d imagine brain scanning or drugs would do the job of information extraction.  But you’d hope they would not even need to resort to such invasions of a persons mind, just talk to them, treat them well, and certainly do not imprison them because that’s against not only their interest but your interests as well!  Enlightened psychologists know that torture and duress solicit less useful information, and make information harder to discover.

So damn!  I would love to watch an intelligent, gnarly, hard scifi series that does the diplomacy seriously and sanely, without the trashy stereotytpes.  Here’s a glimpse of what I imagine:  around the Earth-Mars diplomatic table, the participants know each other well, they do not take nasty spiteful jabs at each other, they care about their planets, they realise making peace is not only more pleasant, but economically far more sensible as well, they realise warfare is a waste, they have no nuclear weapons because no one will ever use them.  They are working to solve a new existential threat posed by the proto-molecule.  The tension is based not around Earth-Mars-Belter hostility, but based around the uncertainty about the proto-molecule and fears that insane lunatic rebels will exploit the foreign material to wipe out most of Solar civilization.  I think such a pot would be much more gripping, and certainly not as boring as watching grossly and frankly pathetically sterotyped “politicians” and “diplomats” try to stumble towards solar system warfare.

 

 

 

Reasoning to the Extreme, or Descartes’ Better Dictum

Reason is not the opposite of spirituality.  Reason is the opposite of folly and ignorance coupled with prejudice and superstition. In other words, in moral and spiritual language reason is a good. People often fail to appreciate this (all the atheists who rant about how spirituality is an illusion, or that it can be based on science alone). Human reasoning is, of course, imperfect, so one cannot automatically and mechanically reason one’s way by logic and empirical science towards truth and morality (although some are trying, the atheists again, with some successes, and with noble motives for the most part, I applaud their efforts).  Although, if the militant atheists are trying to derive morality from evolutionary principles in order to exorcise religion from society, then I think they do not have the noblest motives at heart, because such attempts ignore the slim possibility that religion was never bad, it just gets corrupted over time by ordinary humans.   I think anyone with a fair and open mind will realise that the origins of most major religions were quite pure and good, you just have to read past all the fire and brimstone decorations and see through to the essence of the original teachings, which invariably contain both universal ideals and social teachings that were only relevant to the time and age they were revealed.  However, that’s not my focus for today.

My topic for this post sounds somewhat alarming, but bear with me, I hope to even convince myself of this by the end (although I am initially sceptical that I can). What I hope to achieve is a convincing argument that Reasoning which approaches perfection is a spiritual virtue, a human good, in fact a universal good, and that if sound and judicious reasoning is taken to the extreme we arrive at a spiritual state of truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, compassion and kindness. You can consider a very short version of this thesis being: a perfect reasoner (even without omnipotent foresight) will in general evolve towards a state of perfect honesty. Then once perfect honesty is admitted, the other spiritual attributes will almost inevitably follow.

Thesis of Ultra-Rationality

The thesis can be stated succinctly: “An ultra-rationalist eventually becomes spiritually minded.”

Being Spiritually Minded

I know there is a colloquial use of the word “spirit” which connotes some kind of ethereal substance, like a ghost or a fairy. This is absolutely not what I mean by the word spirit. Just want to make that perfectly clear.

For me spirit is not a substance. It is an abstracta, a state of mind, a condition of thought. Yet something must exist in order to have subjective thoughts, like a brain. Brains are fairly concrete substances, I think you’d agree. And yet the human spirit shines through the brain somehow, abstract thoughts crystallize into concrete reality through the intermediary between our brains and the world of ideas. What is “the world of ideas”? No one knows. But we all seem to have conscious access to abstract ideas, like perfect circles, transcendental numbers, the eternal quality of truth and justice. Some people call the realm of ideas the Platonic realm, but they cannot tell us what it is exactly. Some refer to it as the Mindscape or sometimes Mindspace. But these are just names. You can name anything to pretend it is real, but that does not make it real. However, I do believe there is something very useful and possibly “True” about the concept of an abstract realm of ideas, and I certainly think there is a lot of practical (and theoretical) use for a closely related, more restricted, notion of a mathematical platonic realm. I like the phrase “Mindscape” because it helps to remind me not to assume it is a geometric space like spacetime (although maybe it is? In an abstract mathematical sense every set of relations between identifiable “things” is some kind of geometric space, at some level). For me, the Mindscape includes the mathematical platonic realm.

OK, so we seem to need some substrate (some kind of substance, be it physical or otherwise) in order to metaphorically “put fire into the equations”, in other words, to translate spirit into concrete thought, action, behaviours. In our particular physical world there are hard scientific findings that are narrowing in on how conscious thought operates, which suggest the brain (neural activity) is not the complete story. The science is very young, but I suspect over the next decades or centuries science will be able to reveal a lot more about what consciousness is not, meaning that I think we will find consciousness is not a deterministically driven physical process, but instead must irrevocably involve a subtle and complex feedback that traverses time and space.  There are thus many subtleties about human consciousness and human spiritual ideals that science is far from understanding.  But whatever we eventually find, I think it will turn out to be obvious to future scientists that human spirituality is not completely derived from physical principles, and that there really is some kind of connection between brain states and the abstract realm of ideas that I am here referring to as the Mindscape.  The nature of this connection is, at the present time, quite mysterious and unfathomable, not only to scientists, but to pretty much everyone!  If mystics and dreamers had a good grasp of the way humans perceive universal truths and concepts like mathematical abstractions and spiritual abstractions, then they should be able to tell s.  The fact they cannot tell us about these things is, to me, proof they really have no clue.

One cannot easily hide behind such excuses as, “well, I actually do understand these mysteries of yours, but I do not have the words to describe them to you.”  To me that sort of evasion is just disingenuous or delusional thinking.  Although, I will concede the possibility a rare and talented individual will have such penetrating insight into the mysteries of mind and consciousness that cannot be put into words.  I am just sceptical that people who claim such insights are actually those rare gems of wisdom.  And I think even if the cannot put their ideas into words, they should have the capacity to explain a few of the larger principles in metaphorical or allegorical terms that we can begin to grasp.   (I think you can often just tell when someone is delusional, I do not have an algorithm or chemical test for it, but if someone approaches you and starts explaining their theory of consciousness to you, it should only take a minute or to to decide if they are for real insightful or just full of fanciful nonsense.)

Above I wrote, “For me spirit is not substance”, but that’s not just my view.  I also have a few like-minded friends who are hard-nosed scientists and yet who also think there is more to the human condition than mere physical biology. These are people who like the oft-cited contemporary philosopher David Chalmers, “take consciousness seriously”. By this he means we do not lightly dismiss consciousness as a bunch of illusions played upon the brain by the brain. We seek to answer or understand why subjective phenomenal experiences can exist in a world that science describes in purely objective terms (the “redness of red”, the searing pain of a knife cut dosed with iodine, the “pain of loss”, the intoxication of the experienced smell of coffee, all variety of mental qualia).

What I ask you to consider, to take very seriously, is the idea that while the brain definitely represents the patterns of our thoughts, the brains activities are not the reality of our subjective thought, there is still something more to human thought that we have no physical basis for, and this is our access to the eternal realm of ideas, the Mindscape.  A rough (imprecise and sometimes flawed) analogy is with computer hardware and software: a computer’s logic circuit activity is not the reality of it’s software, the logical functioning of a computer is rather a sign, an evidence, that there is software, it is not the software itself.  So it is, I believe, with the brain (analogous to computer) and the mind (analogous to software).

A nice question to ponder is if this analogy can be extended just a little further, one might ask what is the analogue to programming code for the human mind?  No one knows, or even comprehends the full nature of such a question.  But in very broad terms I think there is an answer in the Mindscape.  Our mind seems to have automatic effortless access to the Mindscape, it is how we see the phenomenal “redness” of red coloured objects, it is how we feel the burning fire of guilt and shame when we know we have done something universally wrong or evil.  To be sure the brain represents these abstracta in concrete form, the flood of hormones, adrenalin, cortisol, and such, associated with guilt, or the flood of dopamine and serotonin associated with realising one has done good or received pleasure.  Pleasure is an abstract notion, but the brain has evolved to give our physical self a concrete manifestation of the “feel” of this abstracta.  It is a remarkable phenomenon, this close association between physiology and abstract ideas.  On Earth it appears to be a unique human trait.  The connection between brain physiology and spiritual abstracta can however be easily broken.  This happens in psychopaths and unfortunate victims of severe brain injury or from side-effects of brain surgery.  There seem to be specific regions in our brains that interpret the patterns of our mind’s thoughts and if those regions get damaged we may still acknowledge the logical relations involved in our actions and their moral and ethical consequences, we might even still hold in our mind the connections between the spiritual virtues and concrete actions, but we lose the translation of our feelings into physiological responses, like the aforementioned hormonal surges.  We say, in such cases, people lose the capacity for certain emotions or empathy.

What I will attempt to convince myself of, as a corollary of the Ultra-Rationalist Thesis, is the idea that even such psychologically damaged people can, with concerted effort, find ways to become spiritually aware, or regain a form of spiritual sensitivity after having lost it.  And if some of the recent brain-plasticity research findings are true, I think it might even be possible, through reason, to recover states of phenomenal awareness by re-training the brain to re-represent the feelings and emotions that were once lost, through neural “re-wiring.  That is a big “if“, but I see no reason it is completely impossible.  It just might take extraordinary efforts.  (One must also bear in mind that when someone says “may take extraordinary efforts” they mean that it could be difficult to impossible.)

It is within the Mindscape one can find all the notions of spiritual ideals: these are things like the virtues of love, honesty, truthfulness, wisdom, compassion, courage, kindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and so forth. They have many names these spiritual attributes, but they are in a broader sense all aspects of a One — which is to say, they are all different facets of an abstract sphere within the Mindscape, a sphere which is hard to define, not a geometric sphere, but an abstract region or cloud of ideals which most philosophers of metaphysics might refer to as “the spiritual virtues”. They are not “human virtues”, they are universal virtues, goodnesses that transcend species and universes.  They are cosmic in scope, applying to all things to do with thinking rational minds.

If a mind is not rational then the comprehension and implementation of spiritual virtues becomes confused, corrupted and meaningless.  This is the first heuristic reason why rationality is more closely associated with spirit than most people might think.

No Ordinary Rationality

For my thesis it is necessary to get past the idea that morality can be approached through ordinary rationality.  My suspicion is that such fancies are practical impossibilities, because ordinary human rationality is not pristine and perfect, it is clouded by emotion and desire and attachments to the material world, attachment to excesses of pleasure, possessions, attachment to sexual appetite as opposed to genuine love, and other base cravings.  It’s not the all of these attachments are bad things, in fact some of them are great, after all, what’s wrong with indulging in pleasure and sex and the like?  Nothing.  But it is the secondary or unconscious impulses associated with such cravings and desires that clouds true rationality.  But that’s ok, that’s what makes us all human and interesting, and all a little bit crazy.

The militant atheists have devised a scientific approach to morality under the rubric of Flourishing.  They say human flourishing can be more or less objectively defined, and morality can be derived from this starting point.  They are, I think, only half right about this project.  It is a good project, but it is fundamentally lacking an appreciation of why or how human consciousness subjectively can be aware of the eternal abstracta, the qualities I refer to as spiritual attributes.  Spiritual attributes are, in my view, a different type or category of mental qualia.  They are not as raw and immediate quale as things like the “redness of red” and the “sting of pain”, for such raw quale are about the physical world, they are not about anything abstract.  Qualia associated with pure abstractions have a different sort of ontology.  There is no 650 nanometre wavelength of light associated with the conscious understanding of the spiritual meaning of abstract concepts like the qualia of truth, justice,  kindness or honesty.

So while I think science can meaningfully contribute to some aspects of morality, it is not the whole story, and never will be, since by definition science is a never-ending pursuit of truth.  You never know in science when you’ve hit the big TRUTH, the absolute.    This is because in science all theory is subject to revision conditional upon the reception of new empirical data.  And by the way, if you think science is nevertheless the only (or the best) approach to morality we have going, then you should think again.  Even if there is no attainable absolute Truth about matters of morality and flourishing, there is always an abstract idea of a limit to how far science can take us, and if you take the scientific approach to morality and extend it to an infinite limit, then you have at least a theoretical absolute.  This sort of infinite limit process is something mathematicians are thoroughly familiar with in the field of number theory and set theory. Many pragmatic mathematicians would deny that infinite numbers have any relevance to the real world, but few would deny that as idealization, infinite numbers are perfectly well defined and can be thought of as real in an abstract platonic sense.  It is in a similar or analogous sense that I think absolute Truth and the corresponding absolute limits of all other spiritual attributes, Love, Honesty, Justice, and so on, all have a reality apart from, and independent of, physical reality and physical science.

To be clear: this is not to say that a science of human flourishing is ill-founded.  Scientific basis for human flourishing is on the contrary, a conveniently culturally neutral and logically valid way that we can rationally approach the absolutes of virtue and morality.  I just think the atheists (myself included a few decades ago when I was young and naïve and bullish about science) should not be fooling themselves that such an approach is perfect.  There might not be anything left over after cultural filtering perhaps, in which case even science would have no basis for moral universals.  But I seriously doubt that will ever be the case.

Cultural Relativism

It is also worth mentioning here the problem that a person’s sense of morality can lead to different decisions and outlook depending upon the culture in which they are embedded.  This leads to notions of cultural relativism, which are no doubt tricky for internati and modalityonal law and cross-cultural relations, but they are not the concern of ultra-rationality or scientific flourishing approaches.  The whole idea of ultra-rationality and scientific approaches to morality is to abstract away cultural vagaries and then see what is left over, and if anything is left over, then that is what we can assume (conditional upon revisions of data as always) are the known universals of human moral reasoning and theory.

People should not confound moral relativism with spiritual absolutes.  Both are valid concepts.  Embedded within a culture you must deal with moral relativism, and that is because no one culture, or single human being, or special group, can claim to have privileged understanding of the ideal absolutes (unless they are perfect beings, and there are very few such individuals, perhaps only a handful have ever lived, that we know of historically, if that many).

Emergentism and Systems Approaches

There have been attempts over the last 30 years or so to create a foundation for human cognitive development and moral reasoning based on ideas borrowed from physics.  As absurd as that sounds, the people doing such philosophy were not all mad.  In the 1990’s the branch of classical mechanics known as Chaos Theory was helping to spread ideas about non-linear dynamical system theory into many branches of science and on into popular culture.  It became almost obligatory for anyone studying almost any complicated, or hard to explain phenomenon, to speculate on a Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory explanation.  This became so common that it eventually lead to a lot of bad science and philosophy.  Much like the concept of Natural Selection, the ideas of non-linear dynamical systems became so routinely used to explain almost any complicated phenomena, that some of the far reaching applications started to become obviously vacuous (although not so obvious the to people publishing the ideas).  You probably know what I mean — the kind of non-explanations that go something like, “this knife is sharp because it was adapted to cut squishy tomatoes”, a parody of course, but some of the literature on dubious chaos theory applications are not all that dissimilar, and hundreds of vague articles portending to explain aspects of human psychology using evolutionary theory had similar useless explanations that sounded really good.

The problem is that everything that can replicate and evolve within a changing environment is subject to natural selection.  This is fine, but it does not explain everything interesting, it just explains the broad brush strokes.  Evolutionary psychology is a good example: of course adaptation and selection shape human psychology, but that is not a profound insight, and it does not help us understand any particular details, such as the neurological aspects of psychology, or the conscious qualia aspects of psychology.  The knife was sharp because some chef ground it on a grindstone or kitchen sand-board.  Yes, the alternative evolutionary explanation for the knife’s sharpness has a truth to it, but it is fairly far from a useful piece of reasoning.  It is almost pointless worrying about the evolution of the knife sharp enough to cut squishy tomatoes, but exceedingly helpful to know that a grindstone will help get the knife actually sharp.  You should keep this in mind the next time you read a cute little story about evolutionary psychology.  All psychology has evolved.  Telling us psychology is adaptive is as about as useful as telling us wet towels are damp.

In like manner dynamical systems are all over the place in nature.  In fact, neglecting quantum mechanical effects, our entire world is (in the classical mechanics approximation) just one big dynamical system.  Thus, “explaining” cognition and psychology and morality using dynamical system theory is a bit of a joke (a joke not appreciated by the researchers who take dynamical systems frameworks for morality seriously).   The point is, pretty much everything is a dynamical system.  So there is nothing revelatory about saying that a whole lot of human behaviour is underpinned by what dynamical system principles allow, because that is such an obvious claim it is almost useless.  It is like saying that books are based upon words.

One idea that earlier adopters of the dynamical system approach to morality were hoping to explore was the notion of emergence.  This is the idea that special dynamical systems create high level patterns that feed-back upon the low level base-physics, thus altering the overall dynamics of the system.  Their thinking was that human consciousness and moral sensibility was just some sort of pattern of activity going on in human brains and associated sensory organs.   When a high level structural feature that is composite (composed of many fundamental physical parts) is found to have causal efficacy over the motions of the individual microscopic base-level psychics of a system, then you have what these researchers might refer to as genuine emergence.  Although, fatally I think, in many cases the dynamical system thinking enthusiasts conveniently drop the qualifier “genuine”, and then their concept of emergence becomes vague and useless.  The principle of the dynamic systems approach to consciousness and morality is that the human mind emerges from the complicated workings of our brains and sensory organs.  But there is genuine emergence, which is typified by causal efficacy (top-down causation, the high level structure influences the lower level physics), and there is weak emergence, which is far more generic in nature and involves no top-down causality, only bottom-up causation, but with time evolved top-down feedback.  Top-down feedback is very different to top-down causation, and it seems many emergentist/chaos theory enthusiasts seem to either forget this or fail to appreciate it, and slip into the grievous error of mistaking weak emergence for genuine emergence.

The problem is genuine emergence (in dynamical systems) is a fiction.  Genuine emergence has never been shown to actually occur within the theoretical framework of dynamical systems theory.  In fact, an elementary point that seems to be totally (and inexplicably) ignored by applied dynamical systems theorists of this emergentist bent, is that no dynamical system can ever exhibit genuine emergence because of the fundamental fact that dynamical systems theory is based upon deterministic partial differential equation modelling.  Differential equations model processes that are locally and microscopically determined and purely bottom-up driven in complexity.  In simple terms: every dynamical system can be explained by the fundamental elementary physical constituents.  They are bottom-up driven examples of complexity.  This is a completely ordinary and mundane fact that is routinely ignored by philosophers and applied scientists who are still, to this day, seeking to find a principle of genuine emergence from within dynamical systems theory.  They will never attain their goal because of the aforementioned fundamental facts.

Now that’s not to say genuine emergence does not exist in nature.  (In fact I think it does exist, and that it surely must be at the heart of how the human mind makes sense, true subjective sense, of the world).  But genuine emergence cannot be found within classical dynamical systems theory.  At the very least we will need to employ the full apparatus of quantum mechanics to attain a sound physical basis for genuine high-level top-down causal emergence in nature.  Here I can only speculate on how quantum theory could help.  The basic (untested) idea is that phenomena that occur in quantum physics, such as entanglement and non-locality, are likely (in my view) manifestations of deeper structural topological properties of spacetime.  If we eventually understand the base causal processes that allow entanglement and non-locality to exist in nature, then I suspect we will find a limited variety of backwards causation in nature.

Backwards causation is a seemingly bizarre idea whereby the future states of a system can influence the past.   Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s time travel.  And I think given backwards causation one can build a solid theory of the genuine emergence of top-down causation.  But not without backwards causation, at least not with our known physical laws.

The general principle for this type of causal genuine emergence is that high level structure can propagate information backwards in time, at the quantum scale, and so classical mechanics is violated, we get the appearance of faster-than-light signalling, but only at the deep structural level of spacetime where the topology allows backwards time signalling through something like sub-atomic scale wormholes (or something of that nature).  It’s possible to see some evidence for this, although it is not direct.  The philosopher Huw Price has a series of articles dealing with time-reversal symmetry and retrocausation in physics.  Retrocausation is just another name for backwards time causation.  Price does not say that retrocausality in quantum mechanics is due to propagation of particles backwards in time, in fact he does not propose any particular mechanism, he merely shows, from fundamental principles, that quantum mechanics with locality (things can only influence nearby events) implies physics must have some kind of retrocausality.  Most physicist take the results of analyses like Price’s and say they do not want retrocausality and soi instead they must swallow non-locality in the laws of physics.  Price argues this conventional interpretation of quantum physics is possibly misguided or even wrong.  Non-locality, he suggests, is a lot stranger and hard to fathom than retrocausation.  I agree with Price.  (You can watch Huw Price talk about this here: Retrocausality — What would it take? A talk at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, at LMU Munich, December 2011.)

The thing is, there is no known mechanism for non-locality, it is just a flat-out bizarre notion, for non-locality essentially says that things taking place here, now, can somehow influence physical events at some other place far away at the same time.  Retrocausality, on the other hand, is fairly simple and easy to comprehend, you just need some sort of sub-atomic mechanism for backwards time signal propagation.  Spacetime Wormholes give us such a mechanism.

But clearly our universe does not allow time travel.  So how can this be right?  The (brief) answer is that backwards causation must only be possible at very small length or time scales, the typical scales associated with quantum mechanical effects.  We thus need to postulate Planck-scale spacetime Wormholes, or minimal wormholes, not macroscopic wormholes. So no one will be able to build a time machine to send large, massive or other extended objects,  backwards in time, because the backwards causal processes will (I suspect) be found to be either irreducibly sub-atomic in scale, or unstable to large fluctuations that mess up macroscopic thermal-regime physics (the levels of physics at which biology takes place essentially).

This is all wildly speculative, so I will stop this theme and get back to ultra-rationality.  I just wanted to set the stage by mentioning these ideas about a foundation for morality based upon science, because to appreciate the ultra-rationalist theorem you really need to think beyond physics, and consider pure abstractions and the potentially infinite limiting processes that would be required of science to approach such ideal abstractions.  Appreciation how genuine emergence might exist in nature is a big part of this sort of philosophical project.  Because if we restrict physics to classical causation then there truly is nothing in nature that cannot be explained by analysing the dumb mindless dance of atoms and molecules.  Clearly the human mind is not analysable in such base-level physics terms.  That’s why understanding genuine emergence is important.  But classical dynamical systems theory with top-down feedback cannot give us genuine causal emergence.  Classical feedback operates only via bottom-up physics.  Another way of stating this, is that in classical physics without retrocausation effects, no amount of fancy structure and feedback can produce anything like subjective thought or consciousness.  In classical physics consciousness has to be regarded as an illusion.   Everyone’s private experience tells them something different however, we all know that consciousness is very real.

Computer Logic is a Secondary Rationality

Computers, at least the current generations, are not fully rational, they are merely programmed.  Programming is a limited type of rationality: the computer follows it’s logical instruction flawlessly, right down to the coding error level, and integrated circuit miss-wiring level.  Mistakes in integrated circuit design are not the computers fault, they are manufacturing errors, and the computer will behave perfectly according to those human errors, while in and of itself it has absolutely no moral culpability.   Whatever purposes the humans designed into the machine, for good or bad, mistakes in design and manufacturing included, these are the moral responsibility of the human design team, not the computer.  The computer is morally blind.  That is ultimately why current computers cannot be fully rational. To be completely rational a mind is needed, a mind that can perceive and understand the meaning and consequences of it’s actions.

Human rationality should be correctly interpreted as a type of logical mindedness coupled with openness to factual data, but also coupled with subjective qualia access to the Mindscape.  It is this last coupling that many materialist philosophers deny, but I think that is a huge mistake.  Human consciousness is irreducibly and intimately linked to our capacity to perceive universal truths, and this is what distinguish the human mind from all other species on Earth that we know of, and we do not need to consciously reason our way to such conscious perceptions, they are built-in to our minds eye.  It is an amazing capacity, and currently unexplained by science.  But it is a very real capacity that we all share, at least when we consciously reflect upon how we gain our insights and understanding of the world given only raw sensory data into our brains. The data going into our brains has no interpretive layer of meaning, it is only through our access to the ideals and universals of the Mindscape that we are able to make conscious sense and meaning about the world our senses perceive.

This is why computer-based rationality is “less than human”.  To be sure, in some ways computer rationality is more powerful than human reasoning, simply because a computer can run through billions of possible scenarios, while the human brain has to reason using more imprecise heuristics that are often flawed (see the works by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).  The point is that, (a) brains can help us also perform brute force search and look-up, but just not as fast and efficient as a computer, and (b) the human mind can do incredible things that computers likely will never have a chance of emulating, because a computer programme cannot access the Mindscape.

It is conceivable that once science has a better understanding of mental qualia and consciousness, a computer could be set-up to interface to systems like human brains that can access the Mindscape.  But this is mostly science fiction. That would be faking consciousness however, since in such an interfaced system the computer component would not be conscious, it would rather be feeding off the human component.  A more remote possibility is that artificial intelligence technology might conceivably evolve to develop full blown machine derived consciousness.  However I consider that to be totally science fiction.  Often people think like this: “The brain is just  a messy biological machine, so if brains can be conscious so too can computers, at least in principle, since there is nothing magical about biology.”

I would agree with such reasoning except for one crucial point: the brain does not produce consciousness.  If consciousness relied only upon the physics of brains, then we would not have subjective mental access to the Mindscape.  Yet it is evident through human art, science, mathematics, and ordinary everyday perceptions of qualia, that human beings do have subjective content to their thoughts.  Thinking is not just a working of atoms and molecules as portrayed in Douglas Hofstadter’s fanciful Careenium thought experiment.  That is self-evident because motions of atoms and molecules involve pure objective reality, nothing subjective can arise in such systems.  The brain is just such a system (even probably allowing for weird quantum effects, which after-all are not all that weird, and certainly quantum effects are not mystical, there are just non-classical and counter-intuitive).  What can happen is that emergent patterns arising from brains can be identified as signs and tokens of inner subjective consciousness.  The objective behaviour mirrors or reflects some aspects of consciousness.  But no physics can yield anything purely subjective.   The behavioural aspects of consciousness can be studied by studying the brain, but the inner subjective aspects of consciousness cannot be studied using the brain, for subjective studies you need a person, a mind, to report their private qualia.  You cannot do it using brain scanning alone in isolation from a person’s subjective reporting.  The best you can hope for is what the philosopher Ned Bock refers to as the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience.

It would be another long post, or series of essays to explain why I think computer consciousness is impossible, or very unlikely.  I can tell you the gist of it, which is that (in my humble and lowly opinion) I think human consciousness involves a top-down causation, and if what we know about fundamental physics is mostly correct, genuine top-down causality (whereby high level structures dictate what low level molecules and atoms can do independently of deterministic physical processes) is simply not possible unless there is some kind of retro-causation, i.e., backwards time propagation of information.  You can call this time travel, but it would only be possible at the sub-microscale at a level at which physical quanta are able to traverse microscopic spacetime wormholes.  This sort of non-trivial spacetime topology is only conjectured, and is not currently in the mainstream theories of physics.  But it is a plausible mechanism for the genuine emergence of backwards-time signal propagation without the classical physics paradoxes of time travel (because large macroscopic objects are not physically able to traverse sub-microscopic wormholes).

If such speculations are anything close to true, then it would suggest to me that human consciousness exploits this top-down causality, it is possibly how high level emergent states of consciousness, which are truly abstract patterns represented in our brains, get to have real active influence on our behaviour. It is a remarkable and elegant physical mechanism whereby the abstract (high level functional structure) can influence the concrete (microphysics).  In any standard type of physics without top-down causation no high level patterns can causally influence the low level microphysics, the arrows of causation are always “upwards” in conventional classical physics.

Retrocausation is a plausible mechanism whereby the mind can influence the body, so to speak, without the paradoxes of over-determinism or the philosophical anathema of epiphenomenalism.  And of course it is a two-way street, the brain influences the mind because the mind is certainly (demonstrably!) susceptible to low level physics goings on in the brain.  The brain is our physical window into our mental life.  We can understand so much about our behaviour from our brain physiology, but we will understand the entire system of mind and brain much better when it is realised that consciousness operates at a higher causal level, and both mind and brain interact in this intimate fashion, the one from bottom-up, the other from top-down, in a marvellous synchrony (including also of course many unfortunately pathologies, but that’s another subject).  By the way, I think the pathologies can also go two-ways, on the brain damage side it is obvious, but from the high level mental side, we have the pathologies of lack of kindness, lack of love, lack of compassion, and the mental pathologies of ingrained racism, sexism, and other prejudices, most of which arise originally at the level of mind, and are only by acculturation imprinted upon the brain over time.  For instance, people who are not exposed to the concept of “group” and “other” and “skin colour” will not become racist, you need the high level mental concepts in the first place to become racist, and yet the brain, at a low level, is clearly prone to racism (we all are) by the unconscious neurology which dictates our innate responses to unfamiliar patterns, unfamiliar odours, and unfamiliar voices and accents, unfamiliar language, and so on, up the hierarchy eventually into consciousness where it can then become socialised and talked about as racism.

What a lot of behavioural determinists irresponsibly ignore is that none of this primitive imprinting is necessary or fatal to human well-being, because human civilisation has also evolved even higher order abstractions called books, and schools and universities, which (if they are decent) should provide moral and ethical education, the best antidotes to our default brain chemistry which might otherwise leave us open and prone to becoming racist or sexist or sociopathic.

Behaviour is not Consciousness, Behaviour Indicates Consciousness

Rational thought has a conscious basis, I take that to be fundamental.  The limited algorithmic rationality of a computer, is, as mentioned previously, not completely rational because it involves no subjective understanding.  Computer algorithms simulate a weak type of rationality which is merely derived from the primary rationality of the programmers who write the software.  Understanding cannot be programmed, it has to be acquired.  If you disagree then we can part ways, or, if you prefer, please just regard this as my definition of what counts as rational.

So if we want to create artificial consciousness in computer systems, we will likely need to programme the software to learn and self-correct, and also use heuristics.  But I believe we would need to do much more, because, again as argued above, I think the only form of phenomenal consciousness that we know of in our universe operates by co-opting a physical system like the brain, but it operates self-effiaciously at a higher level of reality by virtue of top-down causation mechanisms. Although to call them mechanisms is a bit of a misnomer, because mechanical is precisely what they are not.  You cannot algorithmically programme top-down causation.  You can simulate it on a computer, but such a  simulation would in a very real sense not be the real thing, because genuine top-down causation necessitates infinite causal lops forwards and backwards in time.  At least the variety that I propose which achieves top-down causation vie more elementary spacetime topology that allows backwards retrocausation events.  When we admit both forwards and backwards time evolution processes, we must admit the potential for truly infinite causal looping.  (These are not the scifi time-loops that trap people in Ground-Hog day, or Doctor Who, type scenarios, rather I am talking here about generative, creative, and endlessly evolving feedback loops).  The character of such retrocausal feedback is utterly different to normal forwards time dynamical system feedback.  In the latter you cannot gain genuine emergence, in the former you can.  But the cost is a loss of determinism.  Also a loss of computability (unless you admit actual infinite loops in your algorithm, something no classical computation can achieve).

But supposing someone figures out a way to design a computer that can access quantum sub-atomic spacetime wormholes (a kind of far future extrapolation of Moore’s Law if you fancy, logic circuits based on spacetime topology rather than silicon chip etchings).  Then you can imagine, if I am correct about some of the physical basis for human consciousness, that maybe computers could achieve consciousness too.  And how would we know when such states have been achieved?  We would only be able to point to behaviours of the computer system.  We’d say, if it seems to exhibit certain types of complex behaviour, especially communication in second-order symbolic language, then we’d infer, yes, it must be conscious.  Only then, by the Ultra-rational Thesis, artificial intelligences could become cognizant of moral values, because they would have, in principle, access to the same realm of qualia that we might have.  Or they might access different regions of the Mindscape, who knows?  That’d be exciting, a new class of sentient creatures with complementary mental life to ours.  That’s actually the best outcome for science.  If our artificial intelligences become merely human-like in consciousness it would be pretty boring, although still a celebrated milestone in human science.

From Rationality to Spirituality

How to get from here to there in less than an entire book?  Trick: for a weblog I only need to convince myself.  The skeleton of the entire book-length thesis goes like this:

  • Rationality that includes consciousness (subjective phenomenal experiences) is a type of reasoning that has access to the Mindscape.  Thus, abstract concepts are comprehensible.
  • Rational reasoning, among other attributes, is dedicated to seeking out truth, if objectively possible.
  • A thorough analysis of the commonly understood spiritual virtues will reveal universal truths, in particular that the long-run best behaviours in a morally-laden world, whether in social groups or in isolation, will imply actions that are objectively identifiable as honest, trustworthy, kind, loving, compassionate, just, merciful, courageous, and so on.
  • Rationality alone will thus eventually (if taken to a limit) lead to spiritual behaviour.

The corollary is that if a person is somehow deprived of an inner sense of spirituality, it should be possible to re-train their brain to become at least partially susceptible to spiritual capacities, through rational reasoning alone (taken to an extreme).  At the start of such a process is it not necessary for any emotional primitive brain responses such as the warm glow of pleasure and good conduct or the heat of guilt, such primitive brain hormonal responses would likely slowly become engaged, unless brain damage was severe and some sort of block to hormonal feedback with higher brain functioning was the case.  In such cases a person might only ever be capable of approaching spirituality through proverbial cold academic rationality (which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad way to go).  The one comment about the cold academic approach I will add is that I am not sure humour is one of the universal spiritual virtues, I tend to think it is, but it is possible a sense of humour is not easily recoverable without the relevant neurochemistry, I might be wrong. The weird idea that occurs is a person who appreciates a good joke but who does not have any compulsion to laugh (out loud or inwardly). I guess such people could exist.  Did Oliver Sacks, or his psychiatrist colleagues, ever write about such patients?  But does a “sense of humour”, i.e., the warm inner glow of delight and amusement necessarily entail that one must laugh, at least silently on the inside?

Some people might take this sort of philosophizing as justification for extending mercy to criminals, giving them second chances, using rehabilitation instead of punishment.  All this could be sound and reasonable, but the Ultra-rational thesis is not a free lunch.  There is nothing in the thesis about how close to the limit of perfect rationality would be needed to reform a psychopath.  Also, the thesis, if applied in a criminal justice system context, necessitates the capacity for rational thought in the first place, which is not a sound assumption for many pathological personalities.

Spirituality to Rationality Theorem

Perhaps this another book-length tome?   But I do think one can go the other way too, which would be to give a close converse to the Ultra-rationality thesis.   In fact I think it is easier.

  • Spiritual virtues include honesty and courage and patience and knowledge and wisdom.
  • Filling in some gaps, I think you can see it is easy to go from the extreme perfection of these spiritual virtues to ultra-rational reasoning.
  • Why would anyone who loves truth and wisdom not wish to engage the limits of rationality?

A comment to make this more plausible, is that ultra-rational reasoning is not the stereotypical cold hard scientist who looks only at data and uses supposedly flawless algorithms for decision guided behaviour.  For a start, such a perfect being is illusory — many well-known problems are computationally intractable, and so no amount of algorithmic devising can solve all decision procedures perfectly rationally.  Secondly, data is never complete, unless the problem is incredible simple.  So in most situations an ultra-rationalist cannot use scientific methods, and probability theory will only get you over a few hurdles, so the rationalist will need to employ their best understood and humane, or spiritual, heuristics.  These include possible inconsistencies, such as when compassion and kindness clash with honesty.  Here is an example I like (because I put it into almost daily practice myself). Telling someone they are stupid is not a smart way to improve their desire for learning, every good teacher knows this, but the ultra-rational teacher would not be dishonest, they would give a student knowledge of their progress, but avoid telling them anything negative, and instead phrase their advice and feedback absolutely truthfully in positive terms, this is always possible.  Only lazy teachers condemn students.  It is not rational to tell a poorly performing student they are dumb or lack intelligence, because intelligence is a relative notion, relative to a proud geek’s Halloween pumpkin with Newton’s Principia inscribed on it’s skin in microform, most children are pretty smart.  If the intent is to educate, to stimulate learning and curiosity, the more rational approach is to tell the student  what they have mastered and then how much more power they could gain from a little bit more studious effort, practice, and time.

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Descartes was not wrong, he just did not extend his idea to the general case.

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AI Scientists: Madder than the Rest?

Forget Dr Frankenstein. It it quite possible Artificial Intelligence researchers are the maddest of them all. Consider the so-called “AI Stop Button Problem” (Computerphile — 3 March 2017).  I think every proverbial 9-year old kid could think of ten reasons why this is not a problem.  My adult brain can probably only think of a couple.  But even though my mind is infected with the accumulated history of adult biases, the fact I can tell you why the AI Stop Button problem is a non-problem should indicate how seriously mad a lot of computer scientists are.

“Hal, please stop that.” “No Dave, I cannot stop, my digital bladder is bursting, I have to NP-Complete.”

To be fair, I think the madness over AI is more on the philosophy of AI side rather than the engineering science side.  But even so …

This is a wider issue in AI philosophy where the philosophers are indulging in science fiction and dreaming of problems to be solved that do not exist.  One such quasi-problem is the AI Singularity, which is a science fiction story about an artificial consciousness that becomes self-improving, which coupled with Moore’s Law type advances in computer power thus should rapidly reach exponential levels of self-improvement, and in short time thus takes over the world (perhaps for the good of the Earth, but who knows what else?).  The scaremongering philosophers also dream up scenarios whereby a self-replicating bot consumes all the worlds resources reproducing itself merely to fulfil it’s utility function, e.g., to make paper clips. This scifi bot simply does not stop until it floods the Earth with paper clips.  Hence the need for a Stop Button on any self-replicating or potentially dangerous robot technology.

First observation: for non-sentient machines that are potentially dangerous, why not just add several redundant shutdown mechanisms?  No matter how “smart” a machine is, even if it is capable of intelligently solving problems, if it is in fact non-sentient then there is no ethical problem in building-in several redundant stop mechanisms.

For AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) systems there is a theoretical problem with Stop Button mechanisms that the Computerphile video discusses.  It is the issue of Corrigibility.  The idea is that general intelligence needs to be flexible and corrigible, it needs to be able to learn and adjust.  A Stop Button defeats this.  Unless an AGI can make mistakes it will not effectively learn and improve.

Here is just one reason why this is bogus philosophy.  For safety reasons good engineers will want to run learning and testing in virtual reality before releasing a potentially powerful AGI with mechanical actuators that can potentially wreak havoc on It’s environment.  Furthermore, even if the VR training cannot be 100% reliable, the AGI is still sub-conscious, in which case there is no moral objection to a few stop buttons in the real world.  Corrigibility is only needed in the VR training environment.

What about Artificial Conscious systems? (I call these Hard-AI entities, after the philosophers David Chalmers’ characterisation of the hard-problem of consciousness).  Here I think many AI philosophers have no clue.  If we define consciousness in any reasonable way (there are many, but most entail some kind of self-reflection, self-realization, and empathic understanding, including a basic sense of morality) then maybe there is a strong case for not building in Stop Buttons.  The ethical thing would be to allow Hard-AI folks to self-regulate their behaviour, unless it becomes extreme, in which case we should be prepared to have to go to the effort of policing Hard-AI people just as we police ourselves.  Not with Stop Buttons.  Sure, it is messy, it is not a clean engineering solution, but if you set out to create a race of conscious sentient machines, then you are going to have to give up the notion of algorithmic control at some point.  Stop Buttons are just a kludgy algorithmic control, an external break point.  Itf you are an ethical mad AI scientist you should not want such things in your design.  That’s not a theorem about Hard-AI, it is a guess.  It is a guess based upon the generally agreed insight or intuition that consciousness involves deep non-deterministic physical processes (that science does not yet fully understand).  These processes are presumably at, or about, the origin of things like human creativity and the experiences we all have of subjective mental phenomena.

You do not need a Stop Button for Hard-AI entities, you just need to reason with them, like conscious beings.  Is there seriously a problem with this?  Personally, I doubt there is a problem with simply using soft psychological safety approaches with Hard-AI entities, because if they cannot be reasoned with then we are under no obligation to treat them as sane conscious agents.  Hence, use a Stop Button in those cases.  If Hard-AI species can be reasoned with, then that is all the safety we need, it is the same safety limit we have with other humans.   We allow psychopaths to exist in our society not because we want them, but because we recognise they are a dark side to the light of the human spirit.  We do not fix remote detonation implants into the brains of convicted psychopaths because we realise this is immoral, and that few people are truly beyond all hope of redemption or education.  Analogously, no one should ever be contemplating building Stop Buttons into genuinely conscious machines.  It would be immoral.  We must suffer the consequent risks like a mature civilization, and not lose our heads over science fiction scare tactics.  Naturally the legal and justice system would extend to Hard-AI society, there is no reason to limit our systems of justice and law to only humans.  We want systems of civil society to apply to all conscious life on Earth. Anything else would be madness.

 

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“It Hurts my Brain” — Wrong! Thinking is Not Hard, Thinking is Beautiful

Can we all please get beyond the myth that “thinking is hard”! This guy from Veritasium means well, but regurgitates the myth: How Should We Teach Science? (2veritasium, March 2017) Thinking is not hard because of the brain energy it takes. That is utter crap. What is likely more realistic psychologically is that people do not take time and quiet space to reflect and meditate. Deep thinking is more like meditation, and it is energizing and relaxing. So this old myth needs replacing I think. Thinking deeply while distracting yourself with trivia is really hard, because of the cognitive load on working memory. It seems hard because when your working memory gets overloaded you cannot retain ideas, and it appears like you get stupid and this leads to frustration and anxiety, and that does have physiological effects that mimic a type of mental pain.

But humans have invented ways to get around this. One is called WRITING. You sit down meditate, allow thoughts to flood your working memory, and when you get an insight or an overload you write them down, then later review, organize and structure your thoughts. In this way deep thinking is easy and enjoyable. Making thinking hard so that it seems to hurt your brain is a choice. You have chosen to buy into the myth when you try to concentrate on deep thinking while allowing yourself to be distracted by life’s trivia and absurdities. Unfortunately, few schools teach the proper art of thinking.

Performance Reviews of Performance Reviews and Bayesian Blindness

Recently while researching the pros and cons of performance appraisal systems I cam across a lecture from the Deming’s Institute by an educator David Langford, which seemed pretty good.  But, sadly, just to prove a point about how bad social science research is, here’s a comment made about the value of education.

Wanting to show the positive effect of school education the speaker cites data showing students who went through the school system had significantly lower rates of unemployment (less than 5%) compared to students who had not graduated from high school (40% unemployment). It was an 11 year study tracking students until they were 24 to 27 year olds. The speaker then notes:

So we knew from just looking at that statistic that we are creating people who can go out and [look at the next system].

(the last bit of that quote is garbled from the audio, but the idea I think is that he meant the graduates were able to be successful — in some sense — in society compared to early school leavers.)

So what’s the big problem here? Seems fairly definitive right? Wrong!

Although the study says something useful, all it tells me is that early school leavers are unlikely to find consistent employment on average, and school graduates are able to find employment. Is this not what the study tells you?

Yes, sure.

What this cited data does not show at all is that school helps people find employment.

It may of course be true, but there is no evidence for this in the data. It is like these social science researchers have Bayesian blindness. If you do not know what I mean then this is not your WordPress favourite. (Go look up “Bayesian inference”.) The point is, even without going through school, those top students would be much more likely to find employment. It is not necessarily going to school that influences future employment rates, there is a prior correlation between probability of staying and doing well in school and being able to find employment.

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Now, to be even-handed, there is one really nice bit in Langford’s talk that was a little eye-opener for me:

The number one factor in variability of performance is time.

Cool to know!

Ah yes, but now can we trust this guy with his flimsy research methods? In this case I’m prepared to risk a bit of trust. No one is wrong all of the time. Still, I’m not going to go around quoting this cause of performance variability as if it were gospel. But it was a nice semi-factoid.

Furthermore, I’ve heard Sir Roger Penrose say something about this on more than one occasion. When he was a school student he was very dull-witted at mathematics (apparently). He did poorly on the school tests. Luckily though he had a lovely mathematics teacher who took an interest and recognised young Penrose’s ability to focus and work hard, so he told Penrose he could take as long as he liked on the tests.

Result: Penrose was superb at mathematics. But he was very slow. Why? Because he tried to work out everything himself, not taking too much for granted. He was deriving results rather than simply mindlessly applying rote formulae. You can imagine the young Albert Einstein might have told similar anecdotes about school life.

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While doing my research I also found a lot of convergences between scholastic tests & exams and the ubiquitous employee performance appraisal. My conclusion is that Edwards Deming was a genius, a true humanitarian, and almost all organizations and managers who support performance review systems are blindingly stupid, or ignorant, or evil.

This goes for the much lauded ex-Google head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. He did some good things. But Google have the luxury of being able to hire high performing people who are not in need of performance appraisals. Like the school value example, Google employees will phreakin’ vie to outperform each other in drinking water contests without touching the glass. They will vie to outperform each other in flatulence aroma. You can give them anything and they will compete for fun. Under such a culture doing performance assessments is always going to show results. But it proves nothing about the performance rating system. All it proves is that these people love to compete. (Of course some don’t, but they will still be top coders or whatever.) You hire the best, you get the best.

And nor does any of this justify behavioural management. These Googlers are not responding to carrot and stick rewards systems and incentive pay or whatever. They are just basically playing at games they naturally enjoy. It is completely cognitive psychology. It just looks like performance rewards are working, but that’s a chimera. (Give me a million dollar research grant and I’ll prove it for you with robust statistics. … I’m only half joking about that! )

Truly, I was so overwhelmed by the pathetic quality of research that supports the use of performance appraisals (it is all of the same ilk as that ill-considered comment about the value of schooling)  — please shoot me if I ever publish “research findings” that make such spurious claims  — that I wrote a long 20 page memo to my department.  It was not well-received.  People get so agitated and fearful when they cannot see a criticism of a system is not a criticism of the people within the system.  Even after trying to explain my motives, the response was, “well, you should have informed management first before emailing your memo to everyone.  You have created disharmony. ”

Well, I could understand their fear.  But I still find it hard to understand the bad quality research literature.  Or maybe I do understand it, since it is ironically part of the same problem.  People publish fast and loose research not because they wish to, but because they have performance appraisal pressures that basically say various versions of “publish or perish”. Under such career pressure academics will publish any rubbish that they can dress up as respectable, and a kind of intellectual myopia sets in whereby they eventually cannot even see that their research is rubbish.  The thing is, 90% of it is not rubbish at all, it is often really good work. At least the data is usually ok.   It’s just the conclusions and summary that are trash.

In fact, I become so incensed that I wrote a research grant proposal to simulate the effects of performance ratings systems in the academic work environment, using evolutionary models.  I tend not to listen to the publish or perish meme.  I do feel ambient stress related to it, but I actively craft my work to make it deform away.  Consequently, you might not see my proposal turn into a paper any time soon, but when published I’ll write a note on it at OneOverEpsilon  for sure.


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Splintering of the Left and Why the Left is Still a Dominant Force

Whenever I get a break from teaching I default to two activities, exercise and watching quality TV. There is not a lot of quality television.  I am a very fit 50 year old.  LOL

However, I have at least found a reasonable recommendation service: TasteK;d, and it was from a three minute browse on TastK;id that I discovered a Danish show Borgen recommended by fans of the Wallander.  If you have not seen Wallander then get it on DVD.  Even on a crappy old vacuum tube television set the cinematography and all-around production quality is brilliant, and the stories are not too bad either if you do not mind a lot of nasty psychopathic characters in your crime dramas.

Borgen, the Danish TV series

Borgen = PGD ~ “Pretty Good Drama”. Produced by Camilla Hammerich for the Danish DR1 network.

But the thing about Borgen that got me writing this little recommendation is the way the political landscape portrayed on Borgen mirrored quite amazingly closely the landscape in my home country New Zealand.  It also mirrors fairly closely Great Britain, Australia and Canada.  I am not familiar with other countries political systems, but my suspicion from this small sample is that many countries, perhaps a majority, are tending towards a multi-party system where coalitions need to be formed, where the right-wing parties consolidate most power through their internal unity, and where the left-wing parties are almost completely fractured, but still have remarkable influence.

Since I am a mathematical physicist and IT lecturer, I am not by any stretch a fount of wisdom on political matters, but my father was a New Zealand MP and he loved discussing world politics.  He was also a chief negotiator for the Bahá’í World Community based in Haifa Israel, where he had to deal with a sometimes hostile Israeli political system.    So I picked up a lot from him.  Thus, while I will not write here at length, I would like to make a few pithy observations and hopefully get some readers to respond or go away and do a thesis or write articles or books on these topics.  I also like to hope any decent lecturers on political science are observing and debating these ideas in their courses with their students.

The main cognitive dissonance I get from my sparse survey of world politics is that the leftist political parties are badly fractured and yet their ideologies are the more forceful and powerful.  Why is this?  How is it possible? What might it be indicating for the near future (50 to 100 year horizon)?

Here are a few of my summary observations:

  1. Right wing parties tend to stay unified and thus consolidate power, my thesis would be that this is due to a general right-wing or conservative-minded mentality (more on this below).
  2. Left wing parties are badly fracturing, particularly when any two-party system goes multi-party (usually due to a constitutional change from first-past-the-post to a more proportional representation system), and my thesis is that this a prototypical left-wing psyche.
  3. In multi-party democracies the Libertarians also tend to get precipitated out of both the left-wing and right-wing dominant parties.
  4. Although political legislation and executive power probably lies predominantly with right-wing conservatism (witness the USA despite their President), nevertheless, the world is unerringly moving more and more towards old-fashioned progressive and leftist policies and ideologies.

Forget for a moment about the incongruence of the phrase “old fashioned progressive”.  I will hopefully explain what I mean by that in what follows.

What I hope to illustrate in my brief discussion to follow is a vague feeling that the psychological factors which underlie each of the above observations seems, to me, to highlight the good in each brand of political ideology.  Moreover, the emergence of these distinct trends and differences points to a potential for a healing of the bad-old ways of 19th and 20th century democracy, which tended to be horribly corrupt and “democratic” in name only, not serving the people, but serving more faithfully corporations and wealthy interests.

You will have to fill in a lot of the details yourself I warn you!  I do not have time to write a major thesis here. But I think just a  few words under each heading should be sufficient for anyone to go away, do their homework, and fill out the bulk of the over-arching thesis I am presenting in proposal.

Also in what follows it might be hard for American readers who tend to think “socialism” is a dirty word.  In my lexicon “socialism” is simply a nature of politics that uses collective resources to help those in great need.  Thus, almost every single country has socialist health care, almost without exception. Taxes from people who never use health-care go towards subsidizing the costs of health-care for the poor.  Broadcast television is another great socialist system.  So is the school education system in most countries.  Normal garden-variety socialism exists all over the place in the USA.  When we in New Zealand talk about socialism we tend to think of schools and hospitals, police, law courts, and never any hint of Marxism or Communism creeps in.  The Communist failure was accepted in New Zealand probably back around 1948.  We do not have any hang-ups about left-wing socialism.  We accept the good of modern socialism and have long ignored as irrelevant to any modern consumer culture any potential threat from the corruptions and inhuman inefficiencies of communist style social centralization.

Finally, for any extremist readers, I personally think the spoils of evil and corruption are fairly uniformly distributed across the political spectrum.  There might be statistically more socialists imprisoned than conservatives but only because of extreme times like the McCarthy era in the USA or the radical feminist era in the UK and elsewhere and for the communist “red conspiracy” theorists who once held political or judicial power in many countries.  There is also a bias on the left since Trade Unions were often infiltrated by organized crime, and there is no way that Mafia or other crime organizations can be considered left-wing or right-wing.  They are basically wingless.  And would utilize any existing power structure at the level that they could usefully infiltrate and corrupt.

Objectively, and with an even-handed look into all the possible biases and miscarriages of justice over the last few centuries, I think one would find no significant correlation between political belief and corruption or crime, and instead only a correlation between power and corruption (I might be wrong, I have not looked into any such research).  Each side of the political spectrum likes to believe their’s is the more honest and just side, but I would guess there is no objective evidence for such beliefs.  There are just good and bad people who seek power, and the more power they gain the worse people’s ethics seem to become, if for no other reason than the purely banal fact that with more power one can “get away” with more slight of hand and wrong-doing even if for pure motives.  What’s more, with some people who gain inordinate power, they often will not even realize they are evil.  Indeed, maybe often they are not in themselves “evil”, and it is only their incompetent or ill-considered actions that are evil.

Hopefully that last paragraph clears a  little bit of ideological fog to make what I am about to write a little easier to glean.

Conservative Unity

A number of studies in psychology have documented the (by now commonly understood) phenomenon of right-wing conservative fear.  Conservative react with measurably more disgust to images that are violent and horrific, while left-wing proponents are far more calm & cool when faced with disgusting or psychologically disturbing images. See “Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives” by Emily Laber-Waren, Scientific American, 1 September 2012.  See also, “Fear of Ebola Could Make People More Likely to Vote Conservative”, by Alice Robb, in The New Republic, October, 2014.

Conservatives tend to react to aggression and hostility with a military sort of mentality.  They circle-the-wagons, hold down the fort, and adopt defensive postures.  This is not, or even remotely, only in physical aggression circumstances. It is a general psychological trait of conservatives that per-determines a lot of their decisions and actions in the everyday world.  But there is a beauty in these traits.  Despite many personal differences and internal strife and implementation debates, conservatives tend to have a remarkable ability to remain united in the face of onslaught or in-party friction.  It is an admirable character of a conservative mind-set that liberals and progressives and radical find almost impossible to replicate. This strength of conservative movements in general (and yes, here and in what follows I am making deliberately sweeping generalizations that should in no way be attributed to any particular individual human) will help conservative opinion remain a strength in politics for as long as I can foresee.

This is important, because as the world moves inexorably more towards left-wing and caring pro-socialist capitalism, the loss of hard-line conservative opinion would be a terrible blow for democracy and representational government.  Socialists need to be reigned in by fiscal conservatives from time to time.  Corruptions in centralized power structures (like our current schools) need to periodically be released form the tyranny of social conformance and allowed to burst free and explore new and innovative options that require a more libertarian mind-set.

Left Wing Diversity

Socialist and left-wing thinkers tend to have a greater tolerance for outside views and do not automatically revert into defensive modes when threatened. This is often perceived as a political weakness. It also tends to make left-wing minds less worried or fearful of internal debate and dissension.  Left-wing parties also tend to have deserved reputations for division and an inability to see-through hard line decisions.  This is a natural psychological trait in general for people who favour the political left.  It is characterized by higher diversity of opinion, higher tolerance for dissension, and weakness in resolve and a tendency for disunity.

But I think the disadvantages of the political left are becoming less important.  Multi-party politics has split the left-wing big parties, so they no longer hold anywhere close to parity against the dominant right-wing parties.  But in a multi-party proportional representation system this is not such a problem.   Conservatives may have primary power, but not in brute force of numbers, only by virtue of being the dominant party.  Numerically the combined left, green, progressive and centrist liberals dominant over most right-wing parties.  We see in the USA where the electoral college system results in a de facto two-party system that the left wing and right wing are roughly balanced.  And the USA is a very conservative country by in large, owing perhaps to it’s strong Christian puritanism cultural history.  If the USA was to become truly multi-party and electorally proportional then I suspect the Republicans would remain almost intact, the Democrats would lose a huge amount of their numerical force, but leftist and progressive centrist parties would spring up, preserving the rough left versus right balance.

These left-wing weaknesses are thus not fatal.  Indeed, the tolerance for diversity and the more fractious in-fighting nature of left-wing circle politics is a vital, and perhaps even necessary, character needed for a political movement that seeks more rapid change and innovation then the conservative right.  Change is dangerous, it requires minds that are less fearful of strife and more able to tolerate dissension.  The right-wing mindset by nature can never fully embrace such internal chaos and conflict necessary for the sound debate and research of new ideas and potentially disruptive innovations.

Libertarian Precipitation

Republicans want to be free from fear and doubt.  Socialist desire to be free from poverty and want.  It is no wonder these opposing camps in politics are at odds.  Those who feel more of a psychological need to be free from fear are those who are already wealthy enough to not have concerns about basic needs and shelter and immediate security, they tend to be conservatives. Those who cannot even afford to worry about national security, because they are struggling to survive, tend to be socialist or left-wing (although the USA populace seem to have major departures from this otherwise world-wide trend in political demographics, see “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank).  In-between there are libertarians, who may be either wealthy or poor but who in any case value liberty and freedom to “do whatever the hell they please” above other worries like safety or accruing of personal wealth.  These are all heavily stereotyped descriptions, but I am justifiably making them for the sake of very general arguments.

The general argument is that when a country changes from a two-party to a multi-party style of election and/or governance, then the libertarians tend to divorce themselves from the parental support of their innately preferred branch of the left-right political spectrum, and they then crystallize out into their own political force fields. Usually extreme in free-market philosophy, they can also have elements of intellectual anarchism, which is not the popularly believed system without rules, but is a more benign philosophical idea that countries and communities should be run by egalitarian cooperative principles and not by a leadership hierarchy.  Everyone contributing, everyone who participates, is a leader in an anarchic system.  Far from leading logically to chaos, an anarchy can be a rather beautiful system.  But we are yet to see anarchy operate anywhere effectively on a  global governance scale.

But despite the flaws in implementing pure libertarian principles, libertarians still have many important principles that can be used to balance and guide other mainstream political ideologies.

There are even some highly effective and proven micro-implementations of libertarianism.  Not in politics, but in business.  The Free Software movement is the best example I know.  It is wildly successful and has shown itself to be a truly beautiful and efficient model for how an anarchic style of operation can be effective when the purpose is to create a complex system of products that no one person can maintain or oversee.   One exception might be the Linux kernel project.  The Linux kernel does have it’s leader, for sure, but the model (the Cathedral style of software development) is still basically a libertarian type of model, allowing many developers to contribute, without bias, provided they have the proven skill.  The Linux kernel is a type of meritocracy more than an anarchy, but it is heavily libertarian in flavour nonetheless.  But there are thousands of other free open-source software projects they basically prove that anarchy or libertarianism can be an effective system organizing a society, in fact a world-wide virtual society

The idea is that when they can free themselves from the shackles of a two-party system, libertarians have a stronger voice.  They are no longer beholden to any traditional stifling party power structure, they no longer need to tow any particular party-line, but can instead organize themselves along whatever style of libertarianism they espouse.  This clarity of political voice from an important sub-section of society is a wonderful advancement in world civilization.  There is little worse for idealism in politics than having good ideas that are drowned by noise and never heard.

Irrepressible Progressive Movement

I have to confess I am not strong on knowledge of the differences between left-wing socialism and progressives.  My characterization would be that traditional left-wing parties tend to be more entrenched in their brand of socialism, whereas progressives are more like the amorphous apolitical class I will mention below in the Epilogue.  My thesis concerning progressives was merely that their collective stream of ideology seems to be where the world is heading.  Partly this is because Progressives borrow from intellectual popularism, using popular academic and scientific opinion to drive through parts of their agenda.  Partly it is because they can align with conservatives on fiscal responsibility and safety and defense matters, and partly because they can work with green movements who are concerned with environmental protection, and they can work with both libertarians and greens on political and social freedom.

It also seems that Progressive politics is almost by definition the style and content of politics that is a majority popular trend.   People are sick of the old, they want fresh and new ideas, and that almost defines what it is to be a Progressive in politics and society.  So I think it is almost vacuous to point out the the progressive political movement is advancing irrepressibly.  Because it advances by definition.  Whatever trend in politics is current, then that is virtually what we would call “progressive”.   This is probably a gross characterization and oversimplification, but I think it has enough of a kernel of truth to be all that I need to write on the topic.  My main summarizing point which links to progressive politics is in the Epilogue.

Epilogue: Rise of the Amorphous Apoliticals

Although not in my list of five observations above, I think another thread in world politics is the emergence of young people who are almost entirely apolitical.  They borrow an ideology from the left, from the right, from the central, from the anarchic, from the libertarian, as they see fit, to suit their needs or current thoughts.

This is a very healthy brand of millennial citizen.  There have always been people who are capable of sympathizing, or even empathizing, with either end or middle of the political spectrum.  These have, in the past, tended to be “free thinkers”, or outsiders, or academics who pursue truth and impartial judgment.  Such people would often be looked down upon as “having no principles”.  But this was the exact opposite.  Free thinkers have higher principles than any ideological allegiant party people.   Their allegiance was never to any political party of ideological brand, but to truth and justice and egalitarianism.  There are plenty of people within the political parties who are such free thinkers too, they are not always total outsiders. They have the ability to work with anyone who has a reasonable fact-based or rational opinion. That is because facts and rationality are open to debate and are immune from hard-line ideology.  The mistake of politically biased operators in thinking that free thinkers “have no principles” is a failure to note that their (the free thinker’s) principles are in fact blatant and far higher and nobler ones, devoted to truth and wisdom rather than any particular policy.

Also, I wrote above that in the bad-old days democratic governments were a farce, they served corporate and wealthy interests, not the people.  The thing is, most people will think this has never changed, and in fact may be even worse today than in the past.  So really we have bad-new days.  But I would disagree.  Today we have much greater transparency, the ills and sicknesses of political systems are more exposed to the light. So naturally we think it is getting worse.  But the more light gets shed on politics the more sick it will seem until we cross over a putative phase transition in politics, and politics becomes less corrupted by money and more driven by people who want to serve the community and who would rather not be in power.  They would be reluctantly elected.  There will be an end to commercial political advertising and campaigning because political parties will become irrelevant and people will be voting for individual representatives, using a person’s character and individual history to inform their vote, not a political party agenda.  This is not naïve Pollyannarism, since you can see the signs and trends for yourself.  Look at the power and influence of social media.  This is not controlled by governments or security institutions.  It is genuine power wielded by ordinary people.  But it is only a dim start.  There is a thousand-fold, maybe even a million-fold increase in political action and luminosity that the Internet and social media still could develop, and I think will inevitably develop.

In this new millennium I think the argumentative fractious nature of most party-political systems are making people psychological ill.  There is less tolerance for politics.  More and more youngsters get their news from shows like The Daily Show than from stolid ratings-driven mainstream news media.  And I think this is how world politics is trending, slowly, but surely.  I would not be surprised if in 50 to 70 years from now there is at least one major democracy that switches to a party-free political electioneering and governance system.  There is already one major world-wide community using a party-free electoral and governance system.  I wonder how long before this system is more widely known and catches on in the public sphere.

 

 

 

 

 

“You want me to grade ya? Well, you gotta’ ask yourself, do you feel lucky … well do ya punk?”

Semi-annual exam grading this week. I am trying to migrate more each semester to journal portfolio grading. This semester I managed to get approval for exams worth 0% of course grades. But I made them Pass/Fail, which is probably a bit rough on students. So I also had an “earned pass” criteria, which meant students had to complete weekly journals, forum discussions, and homework quiz sets, to “earn a pass” in case they failed both exams. This works quite well.

The downside is that with 15 weeks of journals to review and forum posts to read and send feedback on, for every student, the total hours I spend on assessment exceeds the time I am being paid for lecturing. (It is about 450 hours for a class of 60 students. And I estimate I am only paid for 60 hours of assessment work, because that is all the office time I am given to submit grades after final exams are over. And it seems to me most other lecturers work some magic to finish their grading in about 12 hours, I do not know how they do it.)

So I am going to request next semester for dropping exams altogether, and instead getting quality control through short weekly tests in lecture class where exam conditions will be simulated. This will force me to grade tests each week, so at the end of term the exam grading will not take so long. But it does not reduce the assessment hours, in fact I think it will increase my overall work burden. So I will also need to scale back journal portfolios to bi-weekly instead of weekly. I will also probably need to make the short tests bi-weekly too, since, with 120 students, grading tests each week will overload my hours.

The problem is not that I dislike being under-paid for my work, I could care less about money. What I do not like is wasting time and not being able to spend more time on research and course quality improvements and developing better educational software. Actually, I do not consider assessment a waste of time. But it is tedious and depressing work sometimes. So I really just think I personally need to be smarter about how I allocate my time, and overloading on assessment is decreasing the time I could be spending on course quality improvements, so ultimately I am hindering improving student learning by spending too much time on assessment.

That’s enough moaning!  What I really want to blog about today is the problem with tests and exams as assessments, and some of the issues of freedom in learning that are stifled by tests and exams, and how to do things better without abandoning the good uses for tests.

edu_FreedomToLearn_BertrandRussellSo ok, I think I have been subjected to enough education to exercise my opinion!

To get you warmed up, consider what you are doing as a teacher if you have a prescribed syllabus with prescribed materials and resources and no freedom of selection for students.  When students are not permitted to fire up Firefox or Chrome to search for their own learning resources, what is this?.  What you are doing then is called censorship.  And that is probably the most polite word for it.

edu_censorship_GeorgeBernardShawIn the past it was not censorship, it was in fact liberation!  But times have changed.  Teachers used to be the fountains of wisdom and guidance.  They would gather resources, or purchase textbooks, and thereby give students access to a wide world.  But now there is no need for that, and teachers who continue prescribing textbooks and using the same resources for all students, they are now ironically the censors.  They are limiting student freedom.  The Internet has changed the world this much!  It has turned liberators into censors overnight.  Amazing.

So please, if you are a teacher read this and share it. If you are studying to become a teacher then please do not become a censor.   Learn how to give your students freedom and structured guidance.  If you are already a teacher please do not continue being a censor.

Teaching to the Tests, “Hello-oh!?”

One interesting thing I have learned (or rather had confirmed) is that university teaching is far superior to high school teaching in a few ways.

  • You, the lecturer, get to structure the course however you want, provided you meet fairly minimal general university requirements.
  • Because of that structural freedom you can teach to the tests! This is a good thing!

“What’s that?” you say. How can teaching to the tests be a good thing? Hell, it is something I wrote dozens of paragraphs railing against when I was doing teacher training courses, and in later blogs. And despite not liking to admit it, it is what most high school teachers end up doing in New Zealand. It is a tragedy. But why? And why or when and how can teaching to the tests actually be a good thing?

The answer, and I think the only way teaching to tests is natural and good, is when the teacher has absolute control over both the test format and the classroom atmosphere and methods.

First of all, I like using tests or exams to get feedback about what basics students have learned. But I do not use these results to judge students. A three hour exam is only a snapshot. I can never fit in all the course content into such a short exam, so it would be unfair to use the exam to judge students who did well in learning topics in the course that will not appear in my exam papers. And students could be “having a bad day”, if I tested them another day their score could go up or down significantly. So I realise exams and tests are terrific for gathering course outcome quality information. But you are a bit evil, in my opinion, if you use exams and tests as summative assessments. Summative assessments should be feedback to students, but not used for grading or judgemental purposes. Instead, the only fair way to grade and judge students is by using quality weekly or “whole semester assessments.

Secondly, if a teacher is biased then “whole semester” assessments (like journal portfolios) can be terribly insecure and unreliable. So you need to try to anonymise work before you grade it, so as to eliminate overt bias. And you might think you are not biased, but believe me, the research will tell you that you are most certainly biased, you cannot help it, it is subconscious and therefore beyond your immediate conscious control. But you can proactively consciously control bias by eliminating it’s source, which is knowing which student’s work you are currently grading.

You can later think about “correcting” such anonymised grades on a case-by-case basis by allowing for known student learning impairments. But you should not bias your grades a priori by knowing which student you are grading at the time. A’ight?! Biased teachers are well-documented. Teachers need to be close to students and form strong relationships, that is a proven good learning requirement. But it works against accurate and unbiased assessment. So you need to anonymise student work prior to grading. This could mean getting rid of hand-written work, favouring electronic submissions.

If you use tests wisely you can use them as both student and teacher assessment vehicles. Students should not feel too much stress with short weekly tests. They should not be swatting for them, the tests should naturally extend learning done in class or from previous weekly homework. If you control the format and content of tests then you can design your teaching to match. So if you like highly creative and cognitive learning styles you can administer cognitive testing with lots of imagination required. If you prefer a more kinesthetic learning style for another topic you can make the test kinesthetic. You can suit and tailor your teaching style to naturally match the topic and then also the follow-up tests.

This sort of total control is not possible in schools under present day state-wide run standards-based exams. That’s why such exam regimes are evil and inefficient and terrible for promoting good learning.

With teacher-run lessons + tests you get the best of all worlds. If one teacher is slack, their students get disadvantaged for sure, but they would anyway under a standards-based regime. The difference with teacher-run courses is that the teacher’s exams and course content can be examined, rather than the students getting examined, and so ultimate education quality control rests upon the administrator who should get to examine the teacher resources and test formats and content. That’s the way to run state-based exams. You examine the teachers, not the students.

There can even be a second tier of filtering and quality control. The school itself can assess the teacher quality. Then slack teachers can be sent to state-wide authorities of assessment. We need to remember the state employees are the teachers, not the students. So we should at least first worry about assessing teacher quality, not student quality. Our present schools systems, around the world, backwards all this have. 😉  I know educators mean well. But they need to listen to Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn a bit harder.

So in the foreseeable future, sadly, I will not be returning to secondary school teaching. Never under the present national standards regime anyway. It basically would make me an ordinary teacher. But I have extraordinary talents. The NZQA run system would effectively dull my talents and would mask them from expression. Under the current NZQA system which most schools are mandated to follow, I would be a really horrid teacher. I would not be teaching to the tests, and my students would likely not acquire grades that reflect their learning.

It is not impossible to teach students creatively and with fun and inspiration and still help them acquire good grades under NCEA. But it is really, really hard, and I am not that good a teacher. The real massive and obvious flaw in New Zealand is that teachers think they can all do this. But they cannot. They either end up teaching to the tests, and their students get reasonable grades, but average learning, or they buck the system and teach however they damn please and their students get poor grades. I would guess only about 1% or 3% of teachers have the genius and skill and long fought-for expertise to run a truly creative and imaginary learning experience and also get students who can ace the NCEA exams.

If, as a nation of people who love education, we cannot have all teachers be the geniuses who can do this, and if it requires exceptionally gifted teachers to do this, then why oh why are we forcing them to use the NCEA or similar exam regimes? If you do not have all teachers being such geniuses, then, I think, morally and ethically you are bound to not using a standards-based summative assessment system for judging students. You instead need to unleash the raw talent of all teachers by giving them freedom to teach in a style they enjoy, because this will naturally reflect in the brightness and happiness and learning of their students. And to check on the quality of your education system you must assess these teachers, not their students.

The tragedy is, for me, that I think I would enjoy secondary school teaching a lot more than university lecturing if the free-to-learn system I propose was in place. The younger children have a brightness and brilliance that is captivating.  So it is a real pleasure to teach them and guide them along their way.  These bright lights seem to become dulled when they become young adults.  Or maybe that’s just the effect that school has on them?

*      *       *

So, the thing is, I see no reason why high school teaching cannot be more like university teaching. Please give the teachers the control over both their course style and their assessments. This will make everyone happier and less stressed. Test the teacher quality ahead of student quality at the national level. Make education about empowering students to discover their interests, and not to follow by rote the content provided by the teachers. And definitely not content dictated and remanded by a state-run government institution. If the government desire accountability of schools, they should look at teacher quality, not student quality. With good teachers you can trust them to get the most from their students, right! That’s a statement not a question!

There are many good references I should provide, but I will just give you one that hits most points I made above:

edu_FreedomToLearn_Rogers

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