Category: Sociology of Law

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FAN 163 (First Amendment News) Sanford Ungar Heads New Free Speech Project at Georgetown University

At the heart of this project is how universities and American society at large can uphold the First Amendment while also protecting people from harassment and threats of violence. We will study the condition of free speech in America today, both in higher education and in civil society, in an attempt to create frameworks that promote public discussion about divisive issues in a civil manner. — Sanford J. Ungar

Some know him as the president emeritus of Goucher College. Others know him as a vetran journalist with UPI, or as a former Washington editor of The Atlantic, or as a past director of the Voice of America.  Still others know him as the former dean of the School of Communication at American University. And yet others know him as the author of The Papers & The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers (1973). Now Sandy Ungar has a new job title: director of The Free Speech Project (Georgetown University), with funding from the Knight Foundation.

Sanford Ungar (credit: Lumina Foundation)

Here is the focus of The Project: “Pitched battles in the streets of Berkeley, California, as rival factions fight over who should be allowed to speak at one of America’s great public universities.  A faculty member seriously injured on the idyllic campus of Middlebury College in Vermont as violence erupts at a talk by a controversial visitor that she attempted to moderate.  Bedlam on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives with pistol-packing legislators threatening to kill each other.  A Princeton professor receives death threats and goes into hiding after cellphone videos of a commencement speech she gave in New England, in which she criticized President Trump, go viral. A massive replica of the Ten Commandments erected near the Arkansas State Capitol, but bulldozed into smithereens hours later by an angry citizen. A neighborhood pizza parlor in the nation’s capital hurled into the spotlight after a “fake news” conspiracy report inspires a North Carolina man to open fire in the restaurant. One of America’s great newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, reduced to recruiting subscribers by promising ‘We publish what’s REAL.'”

“What is happening to Free Speech in America?  The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, launched with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, aspires to find out and to analyze the condition of First Amendment values.”

Here is how The Project is described: “The project’s Free Speech Tracker, perhaps the first of its kind, documents incidents across the country over the past two years and going forward, as well as monitoring activity in state legislatures seeking to curb or calm public protest.”

“‘Our theory,’ says Ungar, a distinguished scholar-in-residence at Georgetown since 2014, ‘is that these incidents and various legislative initiatives are all related.'”

“‘When you have stark and deadly confrontations in Charlottesville and brawls and death threats on the floor of the Texas legislature, you cannot expect college and university campuses to be islands of civility and peaceful debate,’ he adds. ‘We have to understand and deal with the fact that some young people may try to shut down speech they find offensive because they are worried that they won’t have their own opportunity to speak up and be heard.'”

“‘Our nation was founded on the principles of free debate and dissent as enshrined in the First Amendment,’ said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. ‘At various times in history these rights have been challenged and are now being tested in an America where trust in institutions, in news and in each other grows more tenuous. To preserve the First Amendment, we must examine and better understand the forces that might jeopardize its future.’

“Ungar says the independent and nonpartisan Free Speech Project will address such concerns by looking more deeply into volatile incidents and emerging legislation around the country.”

Website, video & archives 

“The website eventually will include videos of one-on-one interviews by Ungar with key thinkers in the free speech debate, and currently contains an archive of commentary and analysis from newspapers and other sources concerning freedom of speech and other First Amendment rights.”

“The archive covers five areas – legal jurisprudence, campus incidents, legislative developments, freedom of the press and government secrecy, and civil society.”

“‘Free Speech is debated and analyzed at a dizzying pace by leading thinkers and journalists around the country and throughout the world,’ Ungar says. ‘We can’t compile every article related to free speech, but we do hope to offer commentary across the political spectrum to show the wide-ranging perspectives and viewpoints on this issue.'”

Project to host programs

“Operating out of Georgetown but independent of the university, the project will also sponsor public programs – on campus in its first year and later in other venues – where various constituencies can contribute ideas about how to reestablish national respect for fundamental First Amendment values while also promoting civility and inclusiveness.”

“‘We need to focus on how better to preserve and protect free speech, but also get buy-in from all the people and groups that believe in free expression and are in a position to promote it,’ Ungar explains. ‘This is fundamental to the survival of American democracy, especially in these turbulent times.'”

Sanford J. Ungar, Bannon called the media the ‘opposition.’ He’s right, and it’s a good thing, Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2017

Just In: ** David Shortell, Sessions to wade into divisive campus free speech debate, CNN, Sept. 26, 2017 **

Coming: Major Conference on Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten

Title of Event: A Decision for the Ages: A Symposium Marking the Centenary of Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten

Co-hosted by:

  • New York University School of Law
  • Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

Date, Time & Location: The symposium will be held at New York University School of Law on Friday, October 20, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in Greenberg Lounge.  A reception will follow.

Program:

Historical and Cultural Background

  • Amy Adler, Emily Kempin Professor of Law, New York University School of Law
  • Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School
  • David Rabban, Dahr Jamail, Randall Hage Jamail and Robert Lee Jamail Regents Chair and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Texas School of Law

The Masses Case: Dramatis Personae and Decision

  • Edward A. Purcell, Jr., Joseph Solomon Distinguished Professor of Law, New York Law School
  • Eric Easton, Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law
  • Vincent Blasi, Corliss Lamont Professor of Civil Liberties, Columbia Law School

 Aftermath of the Masses Decision

  • Thomas Healy, Professor of Law, Seton Hall Law School
  • Mark Graber, University System of Maryland Regents Professor, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
  • Paul Bender, Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University (via videoconference)

The Influence of Masses on Modern First Amendment Doctrine

  • Burt Neuborne, Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties, New York University School of Law
  • James Weinstein, Dan Cracchiolo Chair in Constitutional Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University
  • Martha Field, Langdell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Replay: Podcast — Judge Richard Posner on the First Amendment

  • On the retirment of Judge Richard Posner, Nico Perrino over at FIRE’s So to Speak replayed a First Amendment Salon interview Professor Geoffrey Stone did with Judge Posner back in May of 2016.

→ See also: Nico Perrino, The British free speech invasion, So to Speak, Sept. 21, 2017

Video: Cato Constitution Day Panel: “First Amendment Challenges” Read More

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An Introduction to “Rural-Proofing,” and Why We’re Unlikely to Implement It in the U.S.

I learned about the concept and practice of “rural-proofing” on my first trip down under, in 2010. It’s a term Aussie law- and policy-makers use regularly–especially at places like the Rural and Regional Law and Justice Conference, which I keynoted that year. Rural-proofing refers to the process of vetting proposed laws and policies to determine whether and how they will “work” in rural communities, a way of avoiding unintended consequences that might leave rural places worse off than they previously were–or (substantially) worse off than urban places.  You might think of it as an environmental impact statement, but with the focus on rural livelihoods rather than on the wider environment.  It uses rurality as a the critical lens in relation to a purposeful investigation into the consequences of a proposed law, policy or funding scheme.

Turns out it’s not just Aussies who do this rural-proofing thing.  You can find discussions of rural proofing in New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, too.  Here’s an academic paper that compares the process in the U.K. to that in Australia.  I especially like this New Zealand statement about the foundational tenets that support rural-proofing:

  • All people, no matter where they live, should have a reasonable ability to live, work, and to contribute to and be part of New Zealand society.
  • Rural people should have the same health outcomes as people living in urban areas.
  • Rural people should have access to services that are equivalent to primary health services in urban centres.
  • Primary care services in rural areas should be comprehensive, sustainable, provide continuity of care by the right person, at the right time, in the right place.
  • Rural communities should be resourced at a level that enables providers to provide the services required.
  • Rural people should have access to primary care services that will be accessible into the future.

The New Zealand document also address the “why” rural matters:

• 70% of merchandise exports

• Rural based tourism

• Rural access to healthcare

• Sustainable health services

• Maintaining quality services

I find the first two bullet points especially interesting because in my many years of studying rural people and places, I have often circled back to the conclusion that rural America will not get its due–by which I mean what its people need to flourish in light of its struggles to achieve economies of scale–unless and until it/we/they are able to convince urban America that rural people and places matter, that they are worthy and worth something, that rural and urban are actually interdependent.  (Think Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence theory).

What rurality is “worth,” of course, typically boils down to what rural folks produce:  food, products of extraction, rural recreation/tourism revenue.  These are pretty big deals, of course, but they are shockingly easy to lose sight of in contemporary political discourse.  This is a huge topic, and I won’t dig in further here except to note that I always chuckle at images of skyscrapers covered in gardens as the future of how we will feed cities.  We may be able to grow more food closer to cities and thus reduce the carbon footprint associated with agriculture, but the U.S. will not continue to play the role it now plays in feeding the world without vast acreage devoted to food production. Most of that acreage will continue to be in places pejoratively referred to as flyover states, in places which are by some definition rural.

Further, the thought of rural America “getting its due”( in the sense I assume is appropriate) increasingly looks like a pipe dream.  First, in spite of the fact that Trump played to rural America during his campaign, many are pointing out that he is now not only neglecting rural America, he is seriously and even actively undermining it.  Read Paul Krugman’s column focusing on the consequences of Trump’s budget for West Virginia.  Other analyses focused on agriculture and rural infrastructure under Trump are here, here and here.

But it is not only Trump and Republican neglect of rural America that concerns me.  Nearly as frightening these days is liberal/Democratic disdain for rural people and places.  Indeed, it’s a bi-partisan endeavor these days.  Bear in mind that Michael Katz, an economist for the FCC, said back in 2009:

Other people don’t like to say bad things about rural areas.  So I will.

The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided, from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.

As for the political economy of rural America in 2017, take this story from today’s Wall Street Journal:  Janet Adamy and  Paul Overberg report under the rather dramatic (but apparently justified) headline, “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’.”  The story recounts some seriously bleak data:

In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).

As discouraging as these data are many readers’ responses to the story.  I’ve taken some screenshots from Janet Adamy’s Twitter very lengthy feed about the piece:

 

These screen shots are nearly impossible to read, so let me highlight a few comments (other than some rural dwellers saying they didn’t vote for Trump):

Is anyone telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and lock up their addicts, or is that response for city dwellers only?

My response:  why, yes, that is exactly what I read J.D. Vance to suggest should happen in his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy.  I’m assuming lots of folks agree with him because the book has sold nearly a million copies and is still on the NYTimes bestseller list after nearly a year.  (My thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy are here, with links embedded to three others posts in the series here on Concurring Opinions).

This comment is representative of another thread in response to the WSJ story:

they all vote consistently against their own interests while demonizing progressives of all stripes. I can’t bring myself to care.

I see a lot of this “their own damned fault” rhetoric on social media (also applies to the white working class, with which rural populations have significant overlap, not least in the national imaginary).  I saw plenty of badmouthing rural folks and their livelihoods before the 2016 election (I wrote a whole darn law review article about it in 2011), but I’m convinced it is far more widespread now.  Indeed, a colleague asked me this spring why I was advocating for poor rural white folks in relation to environmental injustice episode.  The colleague explained his/her question:

 Some of these people were quite powerful in some domains, even exercising electoral power over California (and me) in the last election.

I understand the annoyance and agitation, but I’m not willing to give up on rural dwellers or the white working class–not yet anyway (huge topic; read my other work; more to follow…).

These comments suggest that liberals are not very sympathetic to rural folks and that a particular backlash against them is not only permissible, but may even be in fashion now.  All of this raises the question whether a critical mass of folks/leaders give a damn about rural Americans, never mind food production, extraction and (even!) our next foray into the rural and remote recesses for a wilderness experience (Yellowstone, anyone?  maybe the Great Smoky Mountains or the Shenandoah National Park if you are back east).

Nevertheless, assuming for a moment that we might care enough about rural America to engage in rural-proofing, let’s return to the New Zealand statement I quoted above.  This NZ policy document points up the fact that rural proofing is often discussed and done in relation to rural health initiatives (and here’s a tool for that purpose; read more here).  Yet the concept and practice need not be so limited.  Indeed, some of my earlier work, while not using the term “rural-proofing,” has illustrated the mis-match between federal law- and policy-making on the one hand and rural realities on the other.  In Missing the Mark:  Welfare Reform and Rural Poverty, I argued that “welfare reform” in 1996 didn’t “work” in rural places because of rural differences–in particular, limited job markets, lack of child care, and lack of transportation infrastructure/public transit that could actually get people to the jobs they were required to have in order to continue to receive welfare.

This is a topic that Adamy and Overberg pick up in their story today (quoting me, I’m pleased to report), and it’s one to which I’ll return in my next post, which will focus on rural labor markets in relation to this practice of rural-proofing.

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On Donald Trump, J.D. Vance, and the white working class

Thanks for the opportunity to guest blog here at Concurring Opinions. Though I am a law professor on a law faculty, I plan to spend much of the time and space afforded by this blogging invitation to write more about politics and culture than about “law” in a narrow sense. Indeed, a great deal of my scholarship over the past decade has drawn heavily on politics and culture, and I’ve even had the opportunity to engage in some political punditry post-Election 2016.  I plan to write some posts about rurality, yes, but I’m also going to write a series of posts about low-income, low-education whites, a population with which we as a nation have a newfound fascination following the election of Donald Trump, who drew considerable support from this demographic segment. I hope readers will provide some feedback on these musings, as I am engaged in ongoing, more substantial writing about this population as a critical race project, exploring what is at the particular intersection of white skin privilege with socioeconomic disadvantage and distress.

I’m going to begin with some musings on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins 2016), a book that has been widely reviewed—and nearly as universally praised—since its publication early last summer. If you think you’ve read all you need to know (or all you can stand!) about this bestseller, bear with me.  I’m not going to join the resounding chorus of praise you’ve you already consumed regarding Hillbilly Elegy.  Further, what I find interesting about the book is less its content than the elite, coastal reaction to it. (Yes, fellow law professors, when I say “elite,” I’m talking about us, you and me, along with the media and other privileged institutions of the narrating classes/interest public.)

Let me preface my comments by outing myself as a class migrant and a hillbilly. Vance grew up in Appalachia; I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, both high and/or persistent poverty white regions. I’m a first generation college graduate (and, as a law graduate, a first generation professional), and I’m not sure if Vance also is, given that his mother was a nurse.  Nevertheless, we’ve both migrated from being low-income, low-status whites to being higher status whites, largely by virtue of access to and consumption of a great deal of higher education.

Shortly after Hillbilly Elegy was published, one of my former law professors asked me, only partly tongue in cheek, if I had written the book—then quickly added, maybe “you should have written it.” (This makes for an interesting reminder that I was apparently not class passing very effectively back in law school). You get the idea: my own life story shares many similarities with Vance’s (though I’m two decades older, and upward mobility for po’ folk has declined over the 20 years that separate me from J.D.), sans the elite law degree (my J.D. is from the University of Arkansas, Vance’s from Yale).  This latter distinction may be quite significant in any number of regards, and I hope to return to that point in a subsequent post.

While I have reflected on my own class migration in some law review articles (here and here), I did not reach for the brass ring of a popular press book contract. So, alas, J.D. Vance is a millionaire, best-selling author who appears regularly on television as everyone’s  favorite “white trash ‘splainer” and I continue to toil away in the obscurity of my Ivory Tower.  All of this means, among other things, that if you think I’m too hard on Hillbilly Elegy, you can write it off as sour grapes.

Let me begin, though, by telling you what I liked about Hillbilly Elegy. First and foremost, before I started reading it, I loved the fact that someone had written a book about this milieu—my people, too, I assumed—and that the media outlets I consume (mostly liberal, all elite) were paying attention to it. I sent lots of affirming Tweets, cheering on the new book.  Second, once I finally started reading the book, I found that the memoir parts (as opposed to the social science blurbs and policy suggestions) of the book rang authentic, so much so that I found myself both laughing and crying at the tales of Mamaw and Papaw. I, too, grew up in a family of straight-talking folks who often expressed themselves in colorful language, delivered at high volume, sometimes with guns. Many of the vignettes resonated strongly with me based on my own hillbilly upbringing.

Third, I thought Vance provided an occasional insight into his people, who seem closely akin to “my people.”  For example, Vance talked about their attitudes toward Obama, noting, among other things, that “[h]is accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive they’re frightening…he conducts himself with the confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was meant for him.” With this passage Vance contrasts the knowledge in his Ohio community—a realization that hit at about the time “Obama came on the scene”—that “the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.” (p. 191).  Ah, yes, meritocracy, shmeritocracy.  Guinier refers to The Tyranny of Meritocracy, a title that speaks volumes.  “Meritocracy” has actually come to be for only a select few, and they are not by and large the children of Appalachia and the Ozarks.  Read more here.

My read is that Vance is opining that the disaffection of the white working class is not so much about race as the mainstream media seem to have concluded. It is more about a growing sense that working class whites’ prospects are declining, and this has happened more dramatically as elites have come to dominate both the Democratic and Republican parties.  I also give Vance credit for calling our attention to white working class distrust of the mainstream media—even before the election made it an undeniable force. Indeed, Vance notes–months before the election of 2016–the significance among hillbillies of Alex Jones and others who perpetuate what we now call “fake news.” (p. 192)

Yet contrary to many reviewers’ opinions, I did not find Hillbilly Elegy especially well written—even acknowledging that it would take extraordinary skill to write about a life permeated by such sensitive and stigmatized matters, e.g., domestic violence, drug abuse, gun toting grandmothers. Nevertheless, a much stronger memoir of a low-income, dysfunctional white family and the author’s escape from it is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ (1998). A much more compassionate depiction and far more incisive commentary about this milieu can be found in Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007). Among tales of class migration, Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (2005) is superb. I don’t recall those books garnering nearly as much media attention as Hillbilly Elegy, but that may be because the one thing Vance got most “right” was his timing.

So why have so many reviewers been complimentary of Vance’s writing? I have two theories. First, reviewers may be surprised that anyone who grew up with so much childhood and adolescent trauma—in Appalachia no less—is capable of writing a solid sentence, let alone a solid paragraph.  (Yes, I’m suggesting a best selling memoir should require more than that).  Alternatively, reviewers may give any graduate of Yale Law School a free pass—that is, Vance may enjoy a presumption that he is a good writer because he earned a law degree at Yale. Vance does in the book’s latter chapters acknowledge the extraordinariness of his elite education and the doors it opens (chapters 12-13).

Hillbilly Elegy is also made less readable by Vance’s distracting practice of peppering policy prescriptions (e.g., food stamps (SNAP) are bad because poor white folks abuse them (p. 139); unregulated payday lending is good because it gives poor folks choices (p. 185)) awkwardly amidst his first-person narrative. Sometimes these are accompanied by social science or other evidence to bolster a point, or to explain the psychology of a phenomenon he has experienced by virtue of his traumatic upbringing. Sarah Jones, writing in the New Republic, called the book mostly “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” (Indeed, I recently published an essay arguing that our nation increasingly views these two populations similarly, showing no more sympathy (or empathy) for poor whites than for poor blacks.) Even more problematic, to my mind, is Vance’s use of those myths to advance a regressive policy agenda.

In my next post, I’ll return with a more substantive critique of Hillbilly Elegy–and, implicitly, a commentary on the book’s fans.

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Developmental Equality

We live in a time where we can accurately predict the risks and opportunities for many children.  As surely as if we marked them at birth (or even before), we can identify who will likely succeed and who will likely fail by adulthood.  Race and gender, alone and in combination, generate clear odds.  Disparate risk generates a hierarchy of children, and we know who will be at the bottom.  Children’s inequalities are linked to developmental supports for some children, coupled with not only the lack of support for others, but also the presence of barriers and challenges, designed for children to fail, not to succeed.

Children’s inequalities, by race and gender, are particularly evident in the life course of Black boys.  Their patterns from birth to 18 are an example of similar patterns for other children at the bottom.  I do not mean to suggest here a hierarchy of inequalities, but rather to use their life course to adulthood as an example of the marked outcomes for certain children.  At birth, a Black baby boy has more than a one in three risk of being born into poverty.  He has a one in two risk of never graduating from high school.  And he has a one in three risk of being incarcerated in his lifetime, in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system.  His risk of incarceration doubles if he is born at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.  While he may transcend these risks, the trajectory funnels him toward failure and subordination, to the low end of what is a hierarchy of opportunity for kids.

These disparate negative risks to development are linked to systems that fail him:  systems that do little to support, and much to undermine, his growth to his full potential.  These are systems constructed and perpetuated by the state, at federal, state, and local levels, by the choice of policies despite the evidence of disparate, unequal outcomes along known, identifiable identity lines. Those systems include the poverty system (the clutch of policies that perpetuate poverty, and income inequality by race, rather than provide pathways out of poverty); the education system (highly segregated by race, disparate in resources and outcomes school-to-school, and especially negative in outcomes for Black boys), and the juvenile justice system (a largely boys’ system designed to punish and disadvantage for life rather than rehabilitate; and a sharply disparate system in every negative way for boys of color, particularly Black boys).  In combination, these systems and others directly impact the lives of Black boys, their families, and their communities in negative ways that replicate inequality.  The pattern is not merely one of insufficiency or inadequacy, but of barriers and harms.

The inequalities of Black boys are not unique.  There are other children who are predictably at the bottom, that we expect to be there.  And unequal hierarchies are not unique to American children.  In many countries, data reveal which children are marked for failure.  So, for example, in all countries in Europe in which they are present, Roma children are disproportionately poor, minimally educated, and jobless; the most unequal are Roma girls.  Muslim children similarly are targeted in many European countries, as are migrant and refugee children.

How can we address these inequalities, and those of other identifiable groups of children who reach adulthood lacking in opportunity due to failed outcomes and barriers placed in their way?   I propose that we have to think about these blatant inequalities differently, in order to craft meaningful change, by embracing a model I call “Developmental Equality.”

Read More

The Black Box Society: Interviews

My book, The Black Box Society, is finally out! In addition to the interview Lawrence Joseph conducted in the fall, I’ve been fortunate to complete some radio and magazine interviews on the book. They include:

New Books in Law

Stanford Center for Internet & Society: Hearsay Culture

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: The Spark

Texas Public Radio: The Source

WNYC: Brian Lehrer Show.

Fleishman-Hillard’s True.

I hope to be back to posting soon, on some of the constitutional and politico-economic themes in the book.

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Cognitive Biases, the Legal Academy, and the Judiciary

It’s a pleasure to be here at Concurring Opinions.  I would like to thank Dan, Sarah, and Ron for inviting me.  During my visit, I hope to talk a bit about my core research areas of land use and local government law (including why you, who are statistically unlikely to be interested in either land use or local government law, should be interested), but also about other issues such as the current state of the legal academy and the legal profession, often using land use or local government law to examine these broader issues.

On Cognitive Biases

On that last note, Slate.com recently ran a great piece by Katy Waldman regarding how the human brain processes information, observing that people have a predilection to believe factual claims that we find easy to process.  Waldman synthesizes the results of several interesting studies, including one eye-opening study that identifies three persistent cognitive biases that humans possess.  As Waldman summarizes these biases: “First, we reflexively attribute people’s behavior to their character rather than their circumstances.” Second, “we learn more easily when knowledge is arranged hierarchically, so in a pinch we may be inclined to accept fixed status and gender roles.” And third, “we tend to assume that persisting and long-standing states are good and desirable, which stirs our faith in the status quo absent any kind of deep reflection.” The studygreen-lizard-1427838-s attributes these biases to the basic human need, rooted in the primitive recesses of our lizard brain (pictured), to manage uncertainty and risk.

While Waldman argues that there is some relationship between these biases and conservative political beliefs, what struck me about these findings is how well the biases describe judicial behavior.

Read More

Social Science in an Era of Corporate Big Data

IsaacWorkingIn my last post, I explored the characteristics of Facebook’s model (i.e., exemplary) users. Today, I want to discuss the model users in the company–i.e., the data scientists who try to build stylized versions of reality (models) based on certain data points and theories. The Facebook emotion experiment is part of a much larger reshaping of social science. To what extent will academics study data driven firms like Facebook, and to what extent will they try to join forces with its own researchers to study others?

Present incentives are clear: collaborate with (rather than develop a critical theory of) big data firms.  As Zeynep Tufekci puts it, “the most valuable datasets have become corporate and proprietary [and] top journals love publishing from them.”  “Big data” has an aura of scientific validity simply because of the velocity, volume, and variety of the phenomena it encompasses. Psychologists certainly must have learned *something* from looking at over 600,000 accounts’ activity, right?

The problem, though is that the corporate “science” of manipulation is a far cry from academic science’s ethics of openness and reproducibility.* That’s already led to some embarrassments in the crossover from corporate to academic modeling (such as Google’s flu trends failures). Researchers within Facebook worried about multiple experiments being performed at once on individual users, which might compromise the results of any one study. Standardized review could have prevented that. But, true to the Silicon Valley ethic of “move fast and break things,” speed was paramount: “There’s no review process. Anyone…could run a test…trying to alter peoples’ behavior,” said one former Facebook data scientist.

Grant Getters and Committee Men

Why are journals so interested in this form of research? Why are academics jumping on board? Fortunately, social science has matured to the point that we now have a robust, insightful literature about the nature of social science itself. I know, this probably sounds awfully meta–exactly the type of navel-gazing Senator Coburn would excommunicate from the church of science. But it actually provides a much-needed historical perspective on how power and money shape knowledge. Consider, for instance, the opening of Joel Isaac’s article Tangled Loops, on Cold War social science:

During the first two decades of the Cold War, a new kind of academic figure became prominent in American public life: the credentialed social scientist or expert in the sciences of administration who was also, to use the parlance of the time, a “man of affairs.” Some were academic high-fliers conscripted into government roles in which their intellectual and organizational talents could be exploited. McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara are the archetypes of such persons. An overlapping group of scholars became policymakers and political advisers on issues ranging from social welfare provision to nation-building in emerging postcolonial states.

Postwar leaders of the social and administrative sciences such as Talcott Parsons and Herbert Simon were skilled scientific brokers of just this sort: good “committee men,” grant-getters, proponents of interdisciplinary inquiry, and institution-builders. This hard-nosed, suit-wearing, business-like persona was connected to new, technologically refined forms of social science. . . . Antediluvian “social science” was eschewed in favour of mathematical, behavioural, and systems-based approaches to “human relations” such as operations research, behavioral science, game theory, systems theory, and cognitive science.

One of Isaac’s major contributions in that piece is to interpret the social science coming out of the academy (and entities like RAND) as a cultural practice: “Insofar as theories involve certain forms of practice, they are caught up in worldly, quotidian matters: performances, comportments, training regimes, and so on.” Government leveraged funding to mobilize research to specific ends. To maintain university patronage systems and research centers, leaders had to be on good terms with the grantors. The common goal of strengthening the US economy (and defeating the communist threat) cemented an ideological alliance.

Government still exerts influence in American social and behavioral sciences. But private industry controls critical data sets for the most glamorous, data-driven research. In the Cold War era, “grant getting” may have been the key to economic security, and to securing one’s voice in the university. Today, “exit” options are more important than voice, and what better place to exit to than an internet platform? Thus academic/corporate “flexians” shuttle between the two worlds. Their research cannot be too venal, lest the academy disdain it. But neither can it indulge in, say, critical theory (what would nonprofit social networks look like), just as Cold War social scientists were ill-advised to, say, develop Myrdal’s or Leontief’s theories. There was a lot more money available for the Friedmanite direction economics would, eventually, take.

Intensifying academic precarity also makes the blandishments of corporate data science an “offer one can’t refuse.” Tenured jobs are growing scarcer. As MOOCmongers aspire to deskill and commoditize the academy, industry’s benefits and flexibility grow ever more alluring. Academic IRBs can impose a heavy bureaucratic burden; the corporate world is far more flexible. (Consider all the defenses of the Facebook authored last week which emphasized how little review corporate research has to go through: satisfy the boss, and you’re basically done, no matter how troubling your aims or methods may be in a purely academic context.)

Creating Kinds

So why does all this matter, other than to the quantitatively gifted individuals at the cutting edge of data science? It matters because, in Isaac’s words:

Theories and classifications in the human sciences do not “discover” an independently existing reality; they help, in part, to create it. Much of this comes down to the publicity of knowledge. Insofar as scientific descriptions of people are made available to the public, they may “change how we can think of ourselves, [and] change our sense of self-worth, even how we remember our own past.

It is very hard to develop categories and kinds for internet firms, because they are so secretive about most of their operations. (And make no mistake about the current PR kerfuffle for Facebook: it will lead the company to become ever more secretive about its data science, just as Target started camouflaging its pregnancy-related ads and not talking to reporters after people appeared creeped out by the uncanny accuracy of its natal predictions.) But the data collection of the firms is creating whole new kinds of people—for marketers, for the NSA, and for anyone with the money or connections to access the information.

More likely than not, encoded in Facebook’s database is some new, milder DSM, with categories like the slightly stingy (who need to be induced to buy more); the profligate, who need frugality prompts; the creepy, who need to be hidden in newsfeeds lest they bum out the cool. Our new “Science Mart” creates these new human kinds, but also alters them, as “new sorting and theorizing induces changes in self-conception and in behavior of the people classified.” Perhaps in the future, upon being classified as “slightly depressed” by Facebook, users will see more happy posts. Perhaps the hypomanic will be brought down a bit. Or, perhaps if their state is better for business, it will be cultivated and promoted.

You may think that last possibility unfair, or a mischaracterization of the power of Facebook. But shouldn’t children have been excluded from its emotion experiment? Shouldn’t those whom it suspects may be clinically depressed? Shouldn’t some independent reviewer have asked about those possibilities? Journalists try to reassure us that Facebook is better now than it was 2 years ago. But the power imbalances in social science remain as funding cuts threaten researchers’ autonomy. Until research in general is properly valued, we can expect more psychologists, anthropologists, and data scientists to attune themselves to corporate research agendas, rather than questioning why data about users is so much more available than data about company practices.

Image Note: I’ve inserted a picture of Isaac’s book, which I highly recommend to readers interested in the history of social science.

*I suggested this was a problem in 2010.

Facebook’s Model Users

DontAnthropomorphizePeopleFacebook’s recent pscyhology experiment has raised difficult questions about the ethical standards of data-driven companies, and the universities that collaborate with them. We are still learning exactly who did what before publication. Some are wisely calling for a “People’s Terms of Service” agreement to curb further abuses. Others are more focused on the responsibility to protect research subjects. As Jack Balkin has suggested, we need these massive internet platforms to act as fiduciaries.

The experiment fiasco is just the latest in a long history of ethically troubling decisions at that firm, and several others like it. And the time is long past for serious, international action to impose some basic ethical limits on the business practices these behemoths pursue.

Unfortunately, many in Silicon Valley still barely get what the fuss is about. For them, A/B testing is simply a way of life. Using it to make people feel better or worse is a far cry from, say, manipulating video poker machines to squeeze a few extra dollars out of desperate consumers. “Casino owners do that all the time!”, one can almost hear them rejoin.

Yet there are some revealing similarities between casinos and major internet platforms. Consider this analogy from Rob Horning:

Social media platforms are engineered to be sticky — that is, addictive, as Alexis Madrigal details in [a] post about the “machine zone.” . . . Like video slots, which incite extended periods of “time-on-machine” to assure “continuous gaming productivity” (i.e. money extraction from players), social-media sites are designed to maximize time-on-site, to make their users more valuable to advertisers (Instagram, incidentally, is adding advertising) and to ratchet up user productivity in the form of data sharing and processing that social-media sites reserve the rights to.
 

That’s one reason we get headlines like “Teens Can’t Stop Using Facebook Even Though They Hate It.” There are sociobiological routes to conditioning action. The platforms are constantly shaping us, based on sophisticated psychological profiles.

For Facebook to continue to meet Wall Street’s demands for growth, its user base must grow and/or individual users must become more “productive.” Predictive analytics demands standardization: forecastable estimates of revenue-per-user. The more a person clicks on ads and buys products, the better. Secondarily, the more a person draws other potential ad-clickers in–via clicked-on content, catalyzing discussions, crying for help, whatever–the more valuable they become to the platform. The “model users” gain visibility, subtly instructing by example how to act on the network. They’ll probably never attain the notoriety of a Lei Feng, but the Republic of Facebookistan gladly pays them the currency of attention, as long as the investment pays off for top managers and shareholders.

As more people understand the implications of enjoying Facebook “for free“–i.e., that they are the product of the service–they also see that its real paying customers are advertisers. As Katherine Hayles has stated, the critical question here is: “will ubiquitous computing be coopted as a stalking horse for predatory capitalism, or can we seize the opportunity” to deploy more emancipatory uses of it?  I have expressed faith in the latter possibility, but Facebook continually validates Julie Cohen’s critique of a surveillance-innovation complex.

8

Methods of Execution and the Search for Perfection

113px-The_deathThe recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma raises a point that I often discuss with my Torts students.  The evolution of capital punishment is largely a futile search for a humane way of killing people.  I say futile because every execution method can go wrong or become stigmatized in a serious way.

Back in the day, executions were supposed to be horrible.  (Consider the Cross, burning at the stake, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, etc.)  Once people decided that this was torture, then society moved through different options, each of which was considered as a progressive or liberal improvement at the time.

1.  Beheading:  The condemned does not see the ax falling on his head, and it was all over after one blow.  Except when it took several blows because the executioner was a klutz.  That was then a really painful death.

2.  Hanging:  No need to cut anything or shed blood.  Except if the rope was too short (then the head got ripped off).  Or if the rope was too long, people took a long time to die in agony.

3.  Firing Squad:  The condemned can wear a blindfold and it should be over quickly.  Unless the firing squad does a poor job.

4.  The Guillotine:  This was a big improvement over an ax.  It makes far fewer mistakes and is relatively painless.  Once it got associated with the Terror of the French Revolution, though, that was off the table.

5.  The Electric Chair:  When it was introduced, “Old Sparky” was supposed to be a great improvement.  After all, it was a machine and did not involve cutting.  Except when the voltage was too high and burned people, or too low and didn’t kill.

6.  The Gas Chamber:  Hitler’s Germany made this technique impossible to use again.

7.  Lethal Injection:  That was supposed to be painless and foolproof.  Except when the IV is not done correctly or the chemicals are administered in the wrong proportions.

Industrial Policy for Big Data

If you are childless, shop for clothing online, spend a lot on cable TV, and drive a minivan, data brokers are probably going to assume you’re heavier than average. We know that drug companies may use that data to recruit research subjects.  Marketers could utilize the data to target ads for diet aids, or for types of food that research reveals to be particularly favored by people who are childless, shop for clothing online, spend a lot on cable TV, and drive a minivan.

We may also reasonably assume that the data can be put to darker purposes: for example, to offer credit on worse terms to the obese (stereotype-driven assessment of looks and abilities reigns from Silicon Valley to experimental labs).  And perhaps some day it will be put to higher purposes: for example, identifying “obesity clusters” that might be linked to overexposure to some contaminant

To summarize: let’s roughly rank these biosurveillance goals as: 

1) Curing illness or precursors to illness (identifying the obesity cluster; clinical trial recruitment)

2) Helping match those offering products to those wanting them (food marketing)

3) Promoting the classification and de facto punishment of certain groups (identifying a certain class as worse credit risks)

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