The ethics of educational experiments

Rebecca Watson had an interesting article/video about the ethics of A/B testing. A/B testing is a type of experiment often performed by tech companies on their users. The companies split users into two groups, and show two different versions of their software/website to each group, and measure the results. The problem is that when scientists perform experiments on human subjects, there’s a formal ethical review process. Should tech companies have an ethical review process too?

Of course, this question is being raised as a result of a specific experiment performed by a specific company. Pearson produces educational software, and performed an A/B test where some students were shown motivational messages. They presented results at a conference, and part of their conclusion was that this was a promising methodology for future research. But is it really, if they didn’t comply with the ethical standards in science? They certainly didn’t get consent from all those human test subjects.

Watson also brought up another case from 2014, when Facebook performed an experiment that changed the amount of positive/negative posts people saw in their news feeds. They published a study, and it was called “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. Sounds pretty bad, eh?

Watson seems to conclude that A/B tests should get consent, at least in the case of Pearson. But I think this is going too far. The thing is, A/B testing is absolutely ubiquitous. Watson says, “having worked in marketing and seen A/B tests, it’s just a normal thing that companies do,” but I think this understates it. My fiance and I were trying to figure out how many A/B tests Google has running at any time, and we thought it might be one per employee, implying tens of thousands of experiments. And most of them are for boring things like changing fonts or increasing the number of pixels of white space. If we judge A/B tests on the basis of just two tests that appear in the news, “cherry picking” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

[Read more…]

The construction of emotions

I recently read How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It explains the theory of constructed emotion and its implications. This is the best book of nonfiction I have ever read. Repeatedly throughout the book, I had to put it down because I was so blown away that I needed a moment to think through the implications. And since I’m a blogger, my thoughts would often drift towards how I might write about these ideas and share them. This post will be a bit of an introduction explaining the basic concepts as I understand them, and I hope to write more in the future.

Regular readers know that I believe in nominalism–I think there is a meaningful sense in which everything is socially constructed. I understand that a lot of readers disagree with this, and we may never persuade one another. But fortunately this is irrelevant. When we speak of the theory of constructed emotions, it isn’t a broad philosophical claim, it’s an empirical claim that is specific to human emotions.

When psychologists study emotions, they can record a number of objective measurements, such as facial configurations, positive/negative valence, high/low arousal, and activity in different parts of the brain. However, these objective measurements do not match up to emotional categories. A single emotional category could correspond to many different facial configurations, while a single facial configuration could correspond to any number of different emotions. Yes, there are many qualitatively distinct feelings we can feel. However, when we give a name to those feelings, and place those feelings in an emotional category, this categorization process is not purely based on the feelings themselves. It’s based on the emotional concepts that are available to us, it’s based on the context in which we have those feelings, and it’s based on what we think the purpose of those feelings are.

[Read more…]

What is an apology?

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.

There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, “Why don’t they just apologize?” or “Why don’t they apologize the right way?”  In the mean time I’ve often thought, “Why does anyone apologize ever?  What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?”

An apology is a sort of script.  Alice wrongs Bob.  Bob demands an apology from Alice.  Alice apologizes.  Bob forgives Alice.

OR

Alice refuses to apologize.  Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice.  He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.

But what’s in it for Alice?  What’s in it for Bob?  As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize.  As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value–why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?

[Read more…]

The Second Law and its misuses

An OrbitCon session brought to my attention to the fact that Steven Pinker spouts a lot of bullshit about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (The Second Law is, “entropy cannot decrease over time in a closed system.”) In Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, he begins by refuting the creationist argument that the Second Law contradicts the theory of evolution. This is easy to do, you just say that the earth isn’t a closed system, and dramatically point at the sun. But Pinker then proceeds to forget about the sun, and argues that the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains poverty. I don’t have the book available, but Pinker has written an essay along similar lines:

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth.

Here’s the thing: creationists are really really wrong about the Second Law. There’s plenty of room to be less wrong than creationists, but still really really wrong. For those of us who have taken an interest in fighting creationism, we know we can just point at the sun and be done with it. But just because you’re familiar with this argument, please don’t mistake that for an understanding of the Second Law. Don’t be like Steven Pinker.

Here I will state and explain a few basic principles about entropy, with the goal of going beyond a mere refutation of creationist arguments.

[Read more…]

Things I liked about grad school

To cap off my series on why grad school sucks, I’d like to talk about some of the things I did, after all, like about the experience. This will be more personally focused, and may describe aspects of grad school that other people would miss out on, or dislike.

I can read papers

I started out this series by talking about how physics talks are really bad.  Even now after finishing a PhD, I find that most talks are still incomprehensible. In contrast, I feel pretty good about my improved ability to read papers.

Note, the best way to understand more physics presentations, is to understand when a presentation is best skipped, and it’s the same way with papers. A lot of skill in reading technical papers comes from knowing when to skip a paper, or when to skip large sections of it. But also, as I got further in my Ph.D., there were fewer sections that I needed to skip, and I could return to old papers and understand them better. Some of my most satisfying experiences were going beyond mere reading, being able to critique papers in detail.

This ability extends beyond my own field of study, to other fields of physics, and to other disciplines entirely. I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read scholarly papers in math, psychology, sociology, gender studies, and law. Of course, some disciplines are more difficult than others.

[Read more…]

Is grad school doing what you love?

Many people place a special value on “doing what you love”. Should you become a corporate tool, or a real-life scientist? “You should do what you love” is the reply. And it’s a reply that is detached from any real cost-benefit analysis. Like, maybe you only sorta love being a real scientist, and maybe you don’t love the working conditions of a scientist, and maybe the salary of a corporate tool is so much higher that it enables you to do other things that you love. But you can’t make a snappy motto out of such considerations.

The problem with “doing what you love” is that it doesn’t come for free. If academic institutions need a certain number of grad students,* then they need to provide incentives for just enough people to apply. “Doing what you love” is one incentive, and it takes the place of other incentives that academic institutions could have offered instead. In other words, they don’t need to pay you well, or treat you well. However much grad students are willing to tolerate in order to do what they love–that’s how much they end up having to tolerate.

*I’m only talking about Ph.D. students and not Masters students. I’ve never heard anyone describe a Masters degree as doing what you love.

In economic terms, we can speak of the “marginal” grad student (a concept similar to the “swing voter”). For the marginal grad student, the expected costs and benefits are exactly equal, such that the decision to go to grad school could go either way. It may be that the marginal grad student thinks they would love being a scientist, but this is exactly offset by the costs. So for some people, grad school may be a good deal. But the deciding factor is not merely whether you love grad school, it’s whether you’d love it more than the marginal grad student.

Beyond that, I think even the marginal grad student is getting a bad deal. The marginal grad student expects they would love grad school, but ends up loving it less than they predicted.

[Read more…]

On work hours in academia

Since I’m looking for jobs, I need a little elevator speech for why I chose to leave academia. “The attitude in academia, is that you’re doing extremely important work, and it’s the passion of your life, and therefore you should be willing to accept terrible work conditions. I would rather have a less glamorous job about actually helping people in my immediate surroundings, instead of slaving towards a distant ideal.” How’s that sound? Eh, maybe.

Poor working conditions are hard to quantify, but one thing we can quantify are the work hours. How many hours do academics work? If the titles of news articles are to be believed, you do not need to work 80 hours a week. The title is hilarious because it suggests some people really do work 80 hours, but it’s just unnecessary. But yes, people tend to overestimate their work hours, and studies suggest that it’s really 50-60 hours a week on average for faculty. But how’s that for an absurd standard? Instead of arguing that we should be working only 40 hours like a normal job, people instead have to argue that the 80-hour week is a myth–or at the very least, unnecessary. This also tells me that even when people work 50-60 hours, they feel like they’re working 80, that everyone around them is working 80, and/or that their colleagues and students should be working 80.

Even when academics argue for a 40 hour work week, the main argument is that you can be just as productive in shorter hours. I appreciate that this is the argument people need to make. But now that I’m on the outside, I can finally say, fuck y’all. Forget productivity. How about being humane to your workers? I don’t know that much about the history of labor rights, but my understanding is that the 40-hour work week was a greater step forward for humanity than any of that stuff I did with superconductors.

[Read more…]