Thursday, November 05, 2015

What Else can Work at Scale? and Techniques from Social Media

My contribution to the Networked Learning Conference 'Hot Seat' discussion. You can read the whole discussion here.

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Anything that can be automated works at scale. Anything that cannot be automated must be distributed, and if so, works at scale. Only centralized non-automated things do not work at scale.

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This is a good question:

"Humans scale, and have scaled before any automation existed, so what made us scale? Localized transmission of knowledge (oral tradition), the automated cell/gene replication in combination with adaptations? "

And I think that the answer is inherent in the nature of life: that we are autonomous, and interactive, so we create a distributed network of diverse activities, adapting to local conditions, and scaling naturally.

Life seeks conditions of success. Humans, crickets, birds, plants - we migrate to the places where we flourish and avoid the places we don't, each making our decisions one by one.

Too dense a network and society fails. Too sparse a network and society fails. Autonomy is productive; eliminate it and society fails. But where autonomy is extended to point where it disrupts the network, society fails. (These aren't truisms; they are empirical observations, and subject to verification.)

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Also, comments from the thread titled 'Educational Designers and Techniques from Social Media'.

I have argued that the design for MOOCs should take more from games than from social media (though there are some pretty strong overlaps), including in a talk just last week3. My point was that instead of trying to design learning, which is focused on content, we should create environments in which people can practice.

Social media is a bit like an environment. It is a space (mostly) not bounded by structured presentation of material or decision trees (Facebook's stream is an oft-criticized exception). People are able to try out new ideas and new personals. The problem with social media is that the interaction is (mostly) limited to conversation. I would much rather see people interact by solving problems, figuring out puzzles, playing games, and creating things.

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Again, I have not clearly stated my point.

I use games as a metaphor to talk about MOOCs:

There are two types of games:
- those that depend on programmed design and memorization, and
- that create an environment.where players and objects interact

In the same way, there are two types of MOOC:
- those that depend on programmed design and memorization - xMOOC
- that create an environment.where participants and objects interact - cMOOC

The first type of game was a failure. They could be defeated by mere memorization and were not interesting. They disappeared from the market.

The second type of game was a success, and should be used as a model for MOOCs (and indeed, were a part of the model George and I used when we developed cMOOCs).

So this second type of games is the type of games I am talking about.

When comparing this second type of games and social networks, I agree with you that there are many elements in common. They are both environments, they are based on the interaction between participants, and they can be used to solve problems, negotiate and communicate.

But there are also some important differences:
  • games are inherently about solving problems or responding to challenges, while social networks can be much more passive.
  • games typically involve a wide range of different types of objects (even objects in the physical world) while social networks involve conversational elements only.
This not to say that we must choose between either games or social networks. Both inform the theory of environmentally-based learning, where participants interact in a common space with objects and with each other.

But it is to say that a model based on social networks alone will be insufficient to inform the design of successful MOOCs. The elements of a successful networking environment need to be taken into account.

Because, yes, the connections are of the utmost importance. We cannot learn from each other without connections.

But the manner, organization and structure of those connections must be designed with the intent of creating the most interesting and accessible environment. People will learn from each other, not from the MOOC.

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I don't agree with this: "It's important what the discussion is about, what the goal of the discussion is..." I think there is too much desire on the part of educators to shape the learning of individuals. We should see our function as more supportive than directive.

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You say: "The content - or the concrete problem - should be the center in dialogue for learning." And yet: "not that this should be determined by the instructor/teacher/facilitator."

Two things:
  • First, I don't think both things can be true. If you are going to say something should be the case in learning, then you cannot say that it should not be determined by the instructor/teacher/facilitator.
  • Second, there are many cases wher this need not be the case. Where someone is learning merely for pleasure, for example (which explains how I acquired a knowledge of the Roman Empire). Or where different people are working on different problems, not a common problem.


Analysis and Support of MOOCs

My contributions to the Network Learning 'Hot Seat' addressing the question, "How do we analyse and support the networked interactions of thousands of people learning together?" View the whole discussion here.

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These are two very different questions and I'm not sure it's useful (or even appropriate) to ask them together.

With respect to the analysis of the networked interactions, it's not clear to me that we should even be doing this, at least, not in the sense suggested by the question. If someone had said "how do we analyze the conversations of university students one to another" or "how do we analyze the thousands of phone calls between people" we would quite rightly question the breach of confidence required to undertake such a task, beyond very gross calculations about the numbers of calls and conversations (and even then, we're treading on dangerous grounds). One of the differences between mass courses (at least the way I see them) and more traditional forms of online learning is that students discussions are not automatically located in the LMS not subject to ownership and use by the institution.

I'll leave discussion of the second point until later.

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@jonathanbishop I would be more inclined to say that Etienne Wenger was drawing some the same foundational concepts as George Siemens and I, though I was aware of Wenger's work as far bacl as 2004 (you can hear me mispronounce his name through this entire presentation, the first I ever recorded, from 2004 )

The ideas of connectivism, communities of practice, etc., are derived from a network view of the world, and are rooted in ideas of network theory, 'small pieces loosely joined', the computational theory of connectionism, and the work of people like Francisco Varela, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Stephen Kosslyn and J.J. Gibson.

It has been occasionally suggested that MOOCs have their origin in the work of Ivan Illich. I'm sympathetic with his view, but his work has no influence on the development and design of either connectivism nor the MOOC. If people must credit someone writing specifically in the educational domain, then I would say I was far more influenced by John Holt's How Children Fail. But for me, the origins are from the scientific and philosophical domain, not from educational theorists or social scientists.
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No it isn't. Wellman is interested in the formation and definition of community, and social network theory. This work is interesting, but is not the same as connectivism, which is a theory about knowledge and learning.

What you'll find in connectivism, but not in Wellman:

- 'to know' is to be organized in a certain way, as in a set of connections (such that 'to know x' is to recognize x)
- 'to learn' is to to grow, adapt and change that organizations, ie., to grow and shape connections

Contrast with Wellman, who when he talks about knowledge, talks in information-theoretic terms, such as 'knowledge transfer' or 'knowledge mobilization'. He depicts networks as conduits of knowledge, rather than as instances of knowledge.

Finally, though I am indeed the person who coined and described e-learning 2.0 (based on the earlier concept of web 2.0) I am not trying to "sell" it, or MOOCs, or connectivism. People can decide for themselves, based on the evidence, whether any of these concepts has any merit.

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I see MOOCs as "Closed Educational Resources" for the reason that they
are stand alone, unlike say SCORM packaged learning objects.
This may be true for xMOOCs. It is certainly not true for the cMOOCs George Siemens and I created. Indeed, you could attend one of our MOOCs from beginning to end without even visiting the platform, solely through the use of syndication technologies like RSS. Moreover, our MOOCs were not in one place, like an xMOOC, but were distributed across a web of connections linking students resources, OERs from multiple locations, groups and conferences, and more.


Role for Educators in MOOCs

My comments to the Networked Learning Conference 'hot seat' on the role of educators in MOOCs. Read the full discussion here. 

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At the risk of self-reference, I'd like to contribute to this discussion by pointing to something I wrote on the role of the educator a few years ago - The Role of the Educator - which was based on a few talks, including We Don't Need No Educator.

The point of these presentations is to say two things: first, that as the learning environment is reshaped by technology, it doesn't make sense to think of it as being provided by a single artisan manually performing a wide (and increasing) range of professional tasks; and second, that the role of the educator(s) is far more varied than one might think, even in the age of the MOOC.

After all, it's not as though the one task of the educator was to present content, and it's not as though the educator disappears once a person begins to be able to manage their own learning and find and view resources for themselves. Rather, it means that the same number of professionals (probably more) can now begin to offer specialized services to a much larger number of people.
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@hsp writes, "I have no issue with social constructivism per se, but I do have an issue with the relative and subjective knowledge that it can generate. It leaves room for groups of people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts."

We've digressed a lot from the topic of 'the role for educators' but in an interesting and necessary way. And indeed, many of my discussions of MOOCs begin with a discussion of the nature of knowledge.

Allow me to begin, though, by dividing the discussion into a practical thread and a theoretical thead:
  • the practical matter of whether educators ought to see themselves as conveyors of authoritative knowledge, whether or not such knowledge actually exists, and
  • the nature of truth, and whether there are truths that can be known in an absolute sense, as opposed to the relativism described by @Zerove
With respect to the second matter, I think that the net result of some 2600 years of philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and truth is that knowledge and truth are at best relative to a community, a symbol system, a model, a perceiver, or some such non-global entity.

It does not matter that "a further dialectic process towards a global understanding of facts" is hampered by this. [x] Arguably, this is beyond our reach - we could engage in the process forever, but never know whether we are even getting closer to a conclusion.

We could discuss the state of knowledge and truth at length, but that might best be a separate thread.
The practical question is whether, despite this, and for more pragmatic reasons, teachers out to be seen as conveyors of authoritative facts and knowledge.

Several reasons have been advanced in the discussion this far:
  • it may be the case that students are unable to learn unless facts and knowledge are presented in this way, ie., there are pedagogical reasons
  • it may be the case that there are cultural reasons for presenting knowledge and information this way, ie., there are cultural reasons
  • it may be that the stability and prosperity of society as a whole may depend on a common understanding (or, if you read Rawls, agreement) on certain propositions, ie., there are social reasons
Against these arguments I offer my own proposition that social, pedagogical and cultural issues are better addressed by encouraging learner autonomy than by encouraging teachers to act as sources of authoritative facts and knowledge.
  • first, it is arguable that students learn better if they are able to understand and reconstitute the knowledge for themselves, rather than having it distributed to them as already known and authoritative. There have been some recent discussions1 around the Common Core approach to mathematics that are illustrative of this.
  • second, it is arguable that culture, rather than being harmed by a decline of authority, is actually strengthened by it. This is a long digression which I won't explore here, but a significant topic worthy of discussion.
  • third, society as a whole is more stable if the ondividuals in it are viewed as autonomous, pursuing (as Mill says) "their own good in their own way". There has been a lot of recent discussion showing the quality of decisions and stability of social systems are increased when organized as networks of diverse autonomous members.
One final note. We will not doubt touch on the distinction between 'authority' and 'expert'. The two are very different. The former represents a perspective that is imposed on the learner. The latter represents a perspective that is given weight by being recognized as such by the learner.

Contrary to the perspective of cMOOCs offered in the paper cited by @Vivian below, the position of connectivists (or, at least, of me) is that while teachers should not take on an authoritative role, they can and certainly should function as experts.

Their role is not merely to facilitate - that is a conflation of connectivism with constructivism. Their role is, to put in slogan form, to model and demonstrate.

[x] In the same way the assertion that "we do not have wings" hampers our ability to fly. But no much it hampers our ability to fly, it does not follow that we have wings.

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@Fleur_Prinsen I guess I would ask first of all why it is wrong for people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts. This is a very common phenomenon, and it is indeed this diversity of opinion that strengthens our own cognitive processes and the cognitive processes of a society as a whole.

But also, secondly, I challenge the presupposition that there is such a thing as the "same facts". To my knowledge everybody experiences the world in different ways, and while there may be social and linguistic conventions concerning our shared experiences (eg., the sentence "Paris is the capital of France") even these are experiences by different people in different ways.

What we call 'facts' are theory-laden representations of the world and experience, and are literally different depending on whether one believes in spiritual entities or not, on whether one believes in an underlying reality or not, on whether one interprets the perceptions as particles or waves. They vary from perspective and point of view, in significant and importance and relevance, in salience, and with reference to background knowledge, context or understanding.

So I do not think that it is an objection that people come to different conclusions. I think it is a strength.

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@jeffreykeefer Most of the research on 'theory-laden data' was actually done on research in the hard sciences. This slide show3 outlines some of the foundational work by people like Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend to establish this. Even the nature of observations themselves, much less theoretical statements, are interpreted differently depending on one's theoretical perspective.

This is important not because it puts astronomy and astrology on the same level - it doesn't - but because it corrects a persistent misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge and scientific theory.

There is no 'foundation', there are no 'basic truths', no particular 'facts of the matter' carry a special status over and above the rest. Knowledge is not an edifice, construct, or canonical representation of the world. It is far more complex (and far more interesting) than that.

A couple of examples, one from Lakatos, and one from my own writing:
  • the Millikan oil drop experiment1 was one of the foundational moments in chemistry and physics. It involved dropping oil drops between two charge plates, measuring the effect of the plates, and deducing the value of the charge of a single electron. Previous efforts had attempted the same with water, but because the results were so fickle, Millikan employed oil instead. "The Millikan–Ehrenhaft contro-versy can open a new window for students, demonstrating how two well-trained scientists can interpretthe same set of data in two different ways."
  • 'basic' mathematics. It has long been held that children should learn 'basic arithmetic', such as addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. But the selection of these as 'foundational' is completely arbitrary (and are not surprisingly challenegd by Collon Core). Mathematics itself may be thought to be based on a foundational set of axioms, such as are represented by Peano arithmetic1, based in the concepts of set theory, identity, and succession. Or perhaps we could employ Mill's methods1, which derive mathematics from as a set operations on a series of pebbles. In view of modern computation (and to help in their later understanding of modal logic) perhaps the core concepts taught ought to be transitivity, substitutivity, and symmetry.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

That Old Canard

In yesterday's New York Times the Arthur C. Brooks argues that there is systemic bias against conservatives in academia. This is my response. 

It must be coming around to election time again, as this old canard (complete with a 1975 study) makes the rounds again.

First of all, it should be no surprise to find more left-leaning people in a public service industry, just as it is no surprise to find that the boardrooms of banks and corporations are staffed almost entirely by people from the right wing.

It should also be no surprise to see people from the left in occupations with a focus on reason and intellect, as generally the more educated a person is, the more left wing they tend to become.

Third, it should be no surprise to see people in academia adopting aa more liberal stance because, as they say, "reality leans left." The right is known for its support for creationism, climate change denialism, anti-vaxxing, an apocalyptic would view, and a host of non-reality-dfriendly positions.

Finally, it's not even clear that the data brought forward by the right actually supports the contention that there is a right wing bias in academic. The cases are carefully selected, picking from research in sociology rather than, say, schools of business or medicine. And they compare apples and oranges; the same data set might *not* lead to the same conclusion when studying poverty and skin rashes, as these are very different phenomena.

This sort of reasoning is reflective of differences in the way the left and the right regard science, just as we saw here in Canada under ten years of conservative rule. On the right, science follows policy. It follows politics. It is manageed to show support for conclusions (and for industries) that have already won political support. But on the left, policy is derived from science. The political positions supported are those, typically, which are supported by evidence and research in the field.

Indeed, the idea that diversity is a virtue in society is a left-wing idea, not typically supported by conservatives. The great movements that created and shaped a more inclusive society - from feminism to anti-racism to aboriginal rights to GLBTQ-friendly policy - are left-wing movements.

It is typical of the right that it would view diversity not as a policy end in itself, but a piece of 'science' that can be taken out of context and used to prop up and rationalize the unsubstantiated conclusion that academia is out to get them. Why would they reason the left would work this way? Because that's what they, the right, would do in a similar position.

I have no objection to the existence of academics and professionals who can articulate and advance the right-wing argument. I personally do not believe such arguments can be sustained. But I don't think that 'diversity' means that we should promote conservatives to positions of academic responsibility simply on the ground that they are conservative. That's not how diversity works. And if the right were concerned with *understanding* diversity, rather than using it to promote their own self-interests, they would understand this.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scaling the Heights of Language, its Learning, and its Teaching

This is a summary of a talk by Diane Larsen-Freeman at TESL 2015. It was a treat to listen to. Errors and omissions are entirely my own.

This is a beautiful location - and I hear that Canadians are fond of nature. And you'll hear a lot today about econogy and nature.

Complex dynamic systems. The have captured my attention. I've been talking about it for 21 years. I will start there, but the central focus of my remarks will be about fractals.

I'm going to try to make the case than language is a fractal - and if that is true, what does that tell us about language learning and teaching?

Complexity theory - scientists seek patterns and relations within systems. Complex is not the same as complicated - an automobile is complicated, but not complex. In complex systems you have systems made up of components which interact, and give rise to patterns at other levels of complexity. The example of a murmuration is an example of complexity.

I think of language that way. The interactions of people communicating creates patterns.

The perturbation - addition of an element to a system around which organization occurs. Eg. puppies forming a pinwheel around a bowl of milk. 'Emergence' is the arising of these patterns our of a complex system.

Mandelbrot described the inability of traditional geometry to describe natural phenomena - clouds, mountains, coastlines, bark, lightning. (Photos of fractals in nature). The term is from the Latin 'fractus'.

Anuradha Matur and Dilip de Cunha were asked to devise a strategy to build resiliance in the face of rising sea levels in Norfolk, VA. They thought, think of the coastline not as a line but as discontinuous 'fingers of high ground'. They augmented the coast with similarly shaped engineered landforms.

Controlling or imposing from the top down does not work with natural systems.

Fractals are self-similar at every level of scale. If you look at the whole thing and see a certain design, as you look at each smaller piece you see the same (similar) pattern repeating.

These patterns are generated as a result of iteration. Eg. the Koch snowflake. See also the animated fractal mountain. Also, I've been told that the paintings of Jackson Pollack are fractals. Also, rhythm in nature. Christopher Joyce, Feb 21, 2012.

Fractals are modeled with differential equations - the output of one iteration becomes the input of the next. Eg. Mandelbrot set, sample zoom. Algar 2005 p. 20 - structure of patterns from the repeated applications of a single algorithm.

Nature uses fractals - they are a very efficient means of squeezing a lot of material into a small amount of space. Eg. the lungs have an enormous surface area.Eg. the brain is a fractal.


Language is n o different from other natural phenomena in that form follows functions. For example, Zipf's power law - the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. The most frequent word occurs twice as often as the second, which occurs twice as often as the next, and so on. Eg., in the Brown corpus, the words the, if, etc. The other half is composed of the hapax legomena - words that only occur once.

Why is this? Zipf argues for the conservation of speaker effort, which would prefer that there only be one word, contrasted with conservation of listener effort, in which each word has a specific meaning. This is a trade-off. So here is where the fractal effect is clearest. Zipf's law accounts not only for a large corpus as well as for specific writers - the 10 highest-frequency words account for 24 percent of a text (Schroder, 1995).

Zipf's law is not controversial. Fractals follow a power law as they reduce in size by a fixed ratio. See eg. the words of Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick.

Fractals emerge from dynamic processes that are recurrent. In similar fashion, patterns in language emerge from meaningful recurrent interaction among language users.

Language learning:

Humans are senssitive to the frequency of linguistic features they are exposed to which is reflected in their language drvelopment. So structures latent in language usage make language usable.

Eg. Goldberg (2004) L1 - mothers (% of tokens) proportional to children (% of tokens). Eg verb locative. ('go') Verb object locative ('put'). VOO ('give').(MacWhinney 1995). It's not behaviousism - it's not a 100% match - but clearly the mother's use is leading the child's use.

Second language acquisition (or development). Language processing in all domains is sensitive to frequency of usage. But exposure is not enough. Learners need to experience language as a dynamic system, molding and using it to adapt to the current situation.

But language emerges 'upwards' in the sense that innovative language-using patterns emerge from a person using the language interactively. It's a socio-cognitive process. Think of the phenomenon of 'emergence from exemplars' Eg. examples of fuzzy images of Tiananmen Square, Brandenburg Gate, Mt. Fuji, or the great Pagoda. Corinne Vionnet - compiles them from many different photos. The image, the view, etc., is 'socially negotiated' - we are around that spot, but no two people are in the same spot.

We all have our own language resources, they're overlapping, but they're ann unique as well.

Larsen-Freeman  and Cameron (2008) - the cognitive process are inextricably interwoven with their experiences in the sopcial and physical world. The context of language is socially constructed and negotiated on a moment to moment basis.

This counters the tendency to portray learner language as being an incomplete and deficient version of the native speaker language.

But is is also important that this implicit process be accompanied by explicit guidance in noticing and practicing features of the target language, especially where L1 operates differently from L2. But how can we cooperate with the natural processes as defined by nature, just as we don't want to build a wall against the rising tides?

If we think about fractal patterns, we're going to think about iterations. So how about designing activities where language-using patterns as defined by context of use, in keeping with learners' goals, are iteracted - not repeated, not the same thing, but similar.

Eg. as a model - 36 views of Mt. Fuji - under the wave off Kanagawa. Sanjurokkei.

Complex systems are built up through iterations. They encounter and use the patterns repeatedly. But not repetition. navigating the tension between convention and iteration. Eg. a text. read. Then do a cloze analysis. Remove a few words.

And teach adaptation. What is learned in one context needs to be used in another. Take what they know and (not 'transfer') transform it. How can we teach adaptation? Take their present system and mold it to a new context. Maybe Earl Stevick's idea of technemes. Change the conditions slightly for completing a task - eg. change the time allowed, etc. Same task, use the 4-3-2 technique. (Tell a story in 4 minutes, in 3  minutes, in 2 minutes - forces them to be more fluent, they extend their usage of lexical items, etc).

Also - bilinguals' languages are nit separate and complete, but create a repertoire emerging out of local practices. Use bilibgualism as a resource. We are, after all, teachers of learners, not only teachers of language. Eg: allow a student to read a text in their own language first, or provide many opportunities for low-stakes writing in any language they wish. Eg June 2015 - Juan Pelipe Herrera - mixture of english and spanish.

Also, create multilingual spaces (Helot, 2014), where students are not silences because they cannot use their L1.

And finally, assess earners' progress in a self-referential way, not against some idealized target, but looking at what the learner is doing over time.

It's not about conformity to uniformity. Through iteration and adaptation learners find the balance, and heelp all of us along the way.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Why I'm Voting NDP

I am voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election and I think you should too. In this post I'd like to offer some reasons why.

Why I support the NDP?  

Because the NDP stands for something, and it mostly stands for the things I stand for. The NDP, when it's at its best, offers a blend of support for personal freedom and empowerment alongside social support and public infrastructure.

The niqab issue is a case in point. The NDP stands for the right of women to choose to wear the niqab if they wish when swearing their Canadian citizenship oath. The Conservatives have declared their opposition, and are in court arguing women must be forced to bare their faces when swearing the oath. The issue is apparently costing the NDP support in Quebec.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair knew the position was unpopular and took it anyways. Quebeckers should take note of his willingness to take a principled stance in order to support the rights and personal freedoms of a minority. Mulcair has already taken stances in support of Quebec that were unpopular in the rest of Canada. He won't sell out a minority just to pander to a population's baser instincts, not even yours.

The NDP is supports personal freedom in other areas. Again taking a stand that was unpopular at the time, Tom Mulcair opposed the Conservatives' Bill C-51, which greatly extended the powers of surveillance and enforcement of Canada secret services. The NDP voted against the bill, while the Liberals and Conservatives voted in favour.

It is important to understand the sweeping nature of Bill C-51. It allows the government to monitor all aspects of a person's life and share this information with a wide range of security agencies, including those in the United States, revealing personal income tax details, credit histories, travel and vacation plans,  and more. The government can monitor and act against 'terrorist propaganda', which is anything that disrupts the normal functioning of the state - effectively lumping in environmental activists and labour unions with al Qaeda and ISIL. The bill removes most requirements for CSIS to obtain warrants and grants it "'disruptive' powers, meaning it would allow the spy agency to do things above and beyond mere observation."

Of the three major parties, only the NDP was willing to stand up and oppose this legislation when it was politically unpopular to do so.

The NDP is well-known for its stance on personal empowerment. Again, this isn't always popular; as my own brother pointed out, the NDP's support for students caters to a demographic that doesn't really vote. Maybe not. But when Rachel Notley took over in Alberta, students and universities there noted her immediate action to reverse cuts to the education system and to freeze tuition fees. This is because education is important to society as a whole, even if students don't vote.

Personal empowerment also means a living wage. True, people living on the minimum wage are also not very likely to vote (or they may be blocked from voting by one of the new voter registration laws) but the NDP has nonetheless advocated a federal minimum wage increase to $15/hour. This directly affects a hundred thousand people, and puts pressure on the provincial governments to increase their own minimum wage.

The Liberals have criticized the minimum wage promise, arguing that it only supports 135,000 people. This is true. That's all the NDP can change directly; provincial governments must do the rest. But 135,000 people is still a lot of people, and it's way better than zero, which is how many people the Liberals would help. 

And personal empowerment extends to basic respect for people. The NDP will protect pensions and roll back the retirement age to its original setting (it was extended from 65 to 67 under the Conservatives).

 It will restore benefits to veterans. It will restore the money looted from Employment Insurance, and pass on the benefits of the EI surplus back to the people who paid into it, freezing EI rates and restoring eligibility for EI benefits to people cut under the Harper government.

The NDP is also noted for its support for social programs. Though there are many, there are three that I would highlight: first, its longstanding support for public health care, with support for a national pharmacare plan. Second, it will restore funding to the CBC, which has been starved for decades. And third, it will restore funding to the network of environmental and scientific organizations that have been denuded by the Tories.

The NDP position on the environment is of significant importance. Canada's environmental agencies were slashed to the bone by the Harper government, and independent agencies called "terrorists" and subject to harassment. This will change under an NDP government, with a return to stringent emission standards and support for renewable energy.

This matters to me. And I see the impact of an NDP government every time I drive to Sackville. On the Nova Scotia side or the border, under an NDP government, dozens of windmills have taken root. On the New Brunswick side, in the same windy area, neither the Conservative nor Liberal governments have built even one windmill. It's one thing to express support for alternative energy. It's quite another to actually do something about it.

I could actually go on for some while describing the positive measures the NDP will undertake, but you get the idea.

Why I Do Not Support the Liberals

In a word, I don't trust them. The Liberals have a long history of adopting politically expedient positions during an election campaign, and then reneging on their promises once elected

For example, just days after being elected in New Brunswick, the Liberal Party reneged on two key planks in its election platform, including daycare subsidies and child care tax credits. It also announced plans to tax seniors' assets despite a campaign pledge not to tax seniors assets (it has since rescinded the tax).

This is the norm for the Liberal Party. It's an approach that dates back as far back as Pierre Trudeau's stance against wage and price controls in the 1970s. "Zap, you're frozen," said Trudeau, mockingly. Once in power, however, he very quickly instituted wage and price controls.

More recently, after Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney introduced the hated Goods and Services Tax (GST), Liberal Jean Chretien campaigned saying he would eliminate the tax if elected. Of course, he did no such thing, and we have the tax to this day.

This time around, we have Justin Trudeau suggesting the party will introduce a national child care program. They attack the NDP plan.  We know that if it's at all possible, he NDP will do it. The Liberals? Well, they've made this promise before, and never followed through. Why should we think this time is any different?

It's the same story for pharmacare. Canadians have heard this promise many times before, especially from Liberals, in successive campaigns dating back to the 1990s. And although Liberals have been in power for most of that time, they've never implemented such a plan.

Historically, the Liberals talk a good game on pharmacare, but when push comes to shove, they side with the pharmaceutical companies. That's why the extended patent [protections granted to the companies by the Mulroney conservatives were never rescinded by the Liberals, despite their vocal criticism of them while they were in opposition.
Why should we trust Justin Trudeau?

For example, he says he would legalize marijuana. Fine - I support that. But I don't trust the person who voted to impose mandatory sentences for marijuana possession to actually legalize it.

And Trudeau is announcing that he will fundd his spending promises with a series of deficits. I can understand this, and I imagine most people would respect his honesty. But back in July, when the word 'deficit' was risky politically, Trudueau was announcing that he supported a balanced budget. So after the October election, which version of Trudeau would we see making budget decisions?

If history is any indication, the Liberals will promise to support education, health care, the CBC, and all the rest of it, and dramatically decrease funding to all of these programs. We see this provincially. We see it federally.

Why should we believe him when he says he will "amend" Bill C-51? 

The Liberals sound like change, and oh! I would be so happy to see it. But the Liberal record is very clear on this point. No change. More of the same. And all the regressive measures implemented by the Conservatives over the last eight years left in place.

You can see this in action if you look in the right places. For example, in The Norther Miner, we see the Liberals attacking "the New Democratic Party’s job-killing corporate tax hike" and saying "A Liberal government will maintain the current corporate tax rates." But the Liberals know full well that there is no evidence whatsoever that lower corporate tax rates result in more jobs.

The Liberals are counting on disaffected Conservatives to remember this, and to keep the status quo by voting Liberal in this election. People seeking change should take note that they are in alliance with Conservatives opposing change should they vote Liberal. 

Why I Do Not Support the Conservatives

It turns out that when the Conservatives said they did not have a "hidden agenda" for Canada, they in fact had a hidden agenda for Canada. And over the last eight years they've destroyed much of what Canada stands for and much of what made it such a great place to live and call home.

There are so many reasons to oppose Harper it's hard to know where to start.

He's not a particularly good financial manager, having run a series of deficits during his tenure, despite not spending money on various programs that he had promised to spend (indeed, he has made the fake spending announcement a new art).

And he is an incompetent manager. This becomes especially clear in the botched military procurements, from the multi-billion dollar F-35 account, which is essentially a series of lies from beginning to end, to the botched replacement of Canada's naval forces.

He shows contempt for Parliament, for elections, for the courts, and for the people of Canada in general. His new 'fair elections act' seeks to disenfranchise voters, while his operatives have actually been found guilty of election fraud in previous elections. His current candidates won't respond to media enquiries or appear in candidates' forums. Harper himself refused to debate the other leaders in a national forum.

He is anti-data. As the Post notes, he "defunded medical and scientific research; the muzzling of government scientists; a bizarre, almost universally decried debasement of Canada’s census."

He ran on a campaign to reform the Senate and eliminate corruption, but his slew of Senate appointments have set a new standard for political corruption in Canada. And he continues to defend a position of innocence in the whole matter that defies belief and insults Canadians.

He continues to run a war in Syria that makes no sense whatsoever, believing somehow that Canada's bombing raids will somehow stop ISIL and bring peace to the Middle East. His response to the refugee crisis is not the traditionally Canadian open arms - indeed, he has basically blocked any Syrians from entering Canada at all - and instead has called on more war to solve what he says are the 'root causes'.

But this anti-refugee stance reflects a deep dislike and distrust of people who are not (as he says) "old stock" Canadians. We know what he means. It's the same distrust of brown people that causes him to impose visa requirements on people traveling to Canada from places like Brazil and Mexico. It's what led him to destroy CIDA and turn it into a branch of Business Development.

Harper's government is essentially designed to transfer wealth into multi-national corporations and to stay in power through the politics of race and division, and where necessary, media and voter manipulation.

It is a sad state of affairs that we have such a government in this country, and I sincerely hope the Liberals and NDP can agree on a system of proportional representation so that it never happens again (I'm sure the NDP will do this, but as for the Liberals, well, see above).

Why I Will Not Support the Greens

I love the Greens, I really do. But they're too small and too easily co-opted.

I don't mind small. I've participated in small campaigns in the past.

But the co-option is serious and never too far from the surface. It was most apparent with Elizabeth May was making deals with Liberal Stephane Dion.

I don't think the party is large enough and has a wide enough base of support to ensure that its candidates are not really operatives from another party seeking to undermine the progressive vote. Proportional representation will help address this, as it will ensure that the Greens obtain a fair representation in Parliament and a proper degree of funding support. Until then, I think people who are voting Green are often actually hurting their own cause.

A Note on the Balanced Budget

Frankly, I don't care whether the budget is $10 billion over or under. It's a rounding error on a spreadsheet that totals almost $300 billion. So a lot of the discussion about Trudeau's deficit or Mulcair's balanced budget is political posturing.

But I will say this:

When Harper said he balanced the budget, he lied. We're of course used to this from the Conservatives. And it is sad that he had to raid the premiums paid by Canadian workers into EI to sustain this lie.

More to the point, the record on fiscal responsibility in Canada is clear. The New Democratic Party is far more likely to be fiscally responsible, based on the evidence of federal and provincial governments over the years. The Liberals are better than the Conservatives (which isn't hard, frankly) but not as good as the NDP.

I think it is unfortunate that Mulcair has to say he will balance the budget in order to counter a deluge of misleading and downright false reporting about the so-called "tax and spend" NDP.

In the end, if you are looking for the government that will produce the best fiscal results - if the economy is your thing, if profits are what get you going, if take-home pay matters to you - then the NDP is head and shoulders your party of choice.

Right now, after decades of Liberal and Conservative governments, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This doesn't change no matter which of them is in power. The only time this ever changes is when the NDP are able to exert their influence.

These days Mulcair is attacking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It's not nearly as headline-grabbing as Trudeau's attacks on Harper. But it matters a lot more to your wallet. The deal is being kept secret, and for very good reason:

"'[C]ompanies and investors would be empowered to challenge regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings -- federal, state or local -- before tribunals....' And they can collect not just for lost property or seized assets; they can collect if laws or regulations interfere with these giant companies' ability to collect what they claim are 'expected future profits.'"

Think about that for a second.

What's the Liberal position on the deal? As usual we don't know - but as this article notes, it's the sort of deal they'd support. It's the sort of deal they've supported in the past.

Think about whether you want corporations to control regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings in Canada. Think hard.

And that - all in all - is why I'm voting NDP.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Experts and Authority

In an article last year (and soon-to-be book) Tom Nichols complained about the new relativism brought about by Wikipedia and Google and bemoaning the declining authority of the expert. I encountered his article today via Facebook; I'm not sure whether the source of this information had any impact on its veracity.

"Today," he writes, "any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious 'appeals to authority,' sure signs of dreadful 'elitism,' and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a 'real' democracy."

To be sure, the three things he cites here are all things to be avoided:
  • 'Appeal to Authority' is an actual fallacy; it occurs when an authority is cited in cases where (a) the authorities disagree among themselves, or (b) where the authority is speaking outside the area of his or her expertise.
  • Elitism is a structural defect in society, representing a state of affairs where those who are in power and authority manipulate the rules in order to maintain their (or their children's) position in society.
  • Stifling the dialogue, as we are seeing in Canadian society today, is a breakdown of communications that prevents society as a whole from learning about its mistakes, exposing sources of corruption, or uncovering injustice.
How do I know all this? Well, I too am an expert - or, more accurately, I am called an expert by people who are in a position to know, or to recognize, that I am an expert. And the relation between democracy, expertise and authority is, I would say, much less straightforward than described in Nichols's column.

Let's take democracy as an example. Here's what Nichols says about democracy:
But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. 
It is true that it does not follow that because we are governed by democracy that we attain an actual state of equality. But it does mean, as Nichols suggests, that we are all equal before the law. But what does that mean? A naive interpretation would suggest that the law treats each of us the same. But experts know (having read Rawls) that democracy means something like "justice as fairness". That is, even though we are not all equal, in a democracy, the law should tend toward helping us all become equal.

It's a complex idea but simple enough in practice. It means that society should help improve the talents of the untalented, that it should seek to increase the skills of those with lesser abilities, and to expand the knowledge of those with less knowledge. Yes, there is the presumption that there should be equality before the law (this is the famous dictate of Solon) but what it means in practice is that people in positions of power and authority should not bend the law to their own advantage. There's nothing wrong with using the law to enhance the standing of the poor and disempowered. Or as Plutarch says:
Thinking it his duty to make still further provision for the weakness of the multitude, he (Solon) gave every citizen the privilege of entering suit in behalf of one who had suffered wrong. If a man was assaulted, and suffered violence or injury, it was the privilege of any one who had the ability and the inclination, to indict the wrong-doer and prosecute him. (Life of Solon, 18.5)
So when Nichols says this:
It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense...
he is wrong. In a court of law everyone's opinions are as good as everyone else's. Indeed, we even make allowances to the favour of those who are not in a position of authority or high social standing.  The facts and justice stand independently of anyone's opinions. That is what Solon enshrined, and that is the rule that forms the basis of democracy. And it is the foundational principle of reason, science and enquiry to this day.

As have numerous pedants before him, Nichols appears to be far more concerned about the source of knowledge and information than about its veracity (that is, its truth or fair representation).  "I fear we are witnessing the 'death of expertise': a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers," he writes. Google-fueled indeed; that's how I found the references to Rawls and Plutarch.

Yes, experts make mistakes, he concedes. "But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours," he writes. This is true, just as it is true that a rich person has more money than you. But we shouldn't so lightly accept the moral authority of either.

But let's acknowledge this, and agree that "experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice." Quite so.

But notice that it is in a democractic society, where experts are far more likely to be challenged, that experts hold the most sway. Before the widespread rise of public information, people were much more likely to purchase snake oil. Old wives tales, in an enlightened society, are exactly that: tales. It is when experts are beyond challenged by both the informed and uninformed that the true value of expertise can take hold.

Nichols ought to pause for a moment to consider why this is the case.

He writes, "The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself."

This to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how science and rationality work. The world of the expert - of any expert - is obliged to be subjected to the widest possible criticism. This applies equally to practitioners of snake oil and anti-cancer vaccinations. That is how we are able to distinguish between the reasonable and the irrational. And it does not matter whether the criticism comes from within the domain of enquiry or from an authoritative source. Because rationality isn't about getting things right, it's about getting the right things right.

Look at his examples: "'Western civilization': that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations." These make my case far better than they make his case.

First of all, those experts who also happen to be paternalistic, racist, and ethnocentric can be questioned on that basis. We know that facts do not exist in isolation, but rather, they are a product of a perspective or a point of view (even an expert's, most especially is he or she is paternalistic, racist, or  ethnocentric). We should question whether modern physics embodies a western perspective of time. We ought to ask whether a biological thesis is informed by racism. Shielding the authority from uninformed questioning is more likely to shield the authority from these questions, which come from outside the field.

The Edsel is a really good example of getting the right things wrong. It featured many advances in automotive technology, including engine warning lights, seat belts, and child-proof rear door locks. But it failed on non-technical features such as aesthetics and price. It's the sort of failure experts could have avoided with non-expert opinion  (and it's why companies use devices such as focus groups to ensure they don't make similar mistakes in the future).

Not trusting the expert is dangerous, writes Nichols. "We live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids."

Well yes. But the reason people like Jenny McCarthy jumped on the anti-vaxxer bandwagon was that an expert, British physician Andrew Wakefield, "published a paper in The Lancet that purported to identify a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the appearance of autism in children." And history is such that sometimes the lone expert is more trustworthy: witness the case of Frances Oldham Kelsey, who protected the United States from the horror of Thalidomide poisoning.

Had Jenny McCarthy been right, she would today be hailed as 'an expert'. But she was wrong; Wakefield's paper was revealed as a hoax, and there is no link between vaccines and autism. But in the same breath, we would be dismissing Kelsey as a crank had Thalidomide turned out to be same. One of the features of expertise is that it is typically revealed only after the fact, when it is too late to be of any use. Before that time, we have to make use of argument, evidence and statistics, and not credentials.

Nichols displays an increasing impatience with the rigour of disproving the Kelseys of the world. "You will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of 'proof' or 'evidence' for your case," he writes, "even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes 'evidence' or to know it when it’s presented."

But Nichols confuses between making the case generically, and making the case to the satisfaction of a particular individual. As an expert with a long history of engaging in arguments with people, I can say with assurance that it will not be possible to convince everybody of anything. People - experts and non-experts alike - have their own 'riverbed propositions' from which they will not budge no matter how reasonable the evidence. When an expert responds to an argument, it should be done publicly, as the intent is to demonstration to the public as a whole, not the individual in question. As a society, we decide.

And we need to be clear about the nature of the two assertions Nichols is making. First, he is arguing that there are things that count as evidence and things that do not. And second, he is arguing that non-experts are incapable of drawing this distinction. I think that on both counts he is wrong.

Sure, people may make unreasonable demands of science. For example, they may criticize evolution on the grounds that it is "only a theory", or demand "proof" of human-caused climate change. This does not mean these are not forms of evidence; it merely means they are unattainable (scientists would love to be able to refer to the law of evolution, or point to proof of global warming, but it's just not forthcoming).

And things like Biblical references, the missing link, the little ice age, and other such non-evidence are not non-evidence: they are anomalies that the theory must explain. The coincident increase in diagnosis of autism with vaccination is a real thing, and it needs to be shown that this is the result of the better diagnosis of autism over time, not the needle. This is what Carnap calls the principle of total evidence, and recognizes that new evidence, even seemingly unrelated, might impact whether something being considered is true or not.

And when Nichols argues that non-experts are incapable of making that distinction, he must explain the countervailing fact that society as a whole, which consists mostly of non-experts, has made that distinction, and that our medical system, our code of justice, and social infrastructure in general are built around the fact that vaccines are helpful and thalidomide is dangerous. And Nichols has to explain why societies where experts are more likely to be questioned and challenged are societies which are more likely to make this distinction.

And he can't just argue that these counterexamples are coming from a non-expert, that the evidence here cited does not count as the right evidence, and that this is only a blog. Such responses would quite rightly be dismissed as fallacies by both experts and non-experts alike (and it is indeed the prevalence of fallacies in non-expert responses that is one of the major ways non-experts can spot frauds in the ranks of experts).

And what of those people who are not even able to distinguish between a valid argument and a non-sequiter? Nichols has no time for them and finds them exhausting. I find them exhausting too, but I make my case for all to see, and have taken the time and effort to make the basis for argumentation and reason available to all. Because I value the contributions of non-experts, and would like to help them formulate their objections in the most effective manner possible. This is called the principle of charity, and is a fundamental rule in logic and reasoning.

To get to the point of Nichols's argument, he wants a return of the gatekeepers:
the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs. There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper. Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.
Yes. Anybody can publish whatever they want. This has resulted in a lot of clutter. But it has also resulted in Assange, Snowden and Manning, among many other notable examples.

To understand why this is important, it is necessary to understand the role of gatekeepers. And - frankly - it was never the role of the gatekeepers to keep out the cranks. A brief look at the letters sections of most any newspaper before the days of the internet is evidence of that. It was to protect the newspaper from retribution from the rich and powerful should seriously damaging evidence or allegations be published.

Let us be clear: the time before the internet was a time when the elite entrenched and protected each other. Even Nichols makes this point (though it is not clear he knows he is making it):
There was once a time when presidents would win elections and then scour universities and think-tanks for a brain trust; that’s how Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others ended up in government service while moving between places like Harvard and Columbia.
Yes. There was pretty much a closed walkway between positions of power and authority and the elite institutions like Harvard and Columbia. And when Nichols writes that "I have a hard time, for example, imagining that I would be called to Washington today in the way I was back in 1990" he fails to understand that this is a good thing, and that calling people like George Siemens (an itinerant blogger born in Mexico, former restaurant owner, and self-made PhD in education) instead is far far better.

And consider how Nichols regards those other gatekeepers, teachers and university professors:
One of the greatest teachers I ever had, James Schall, once wrote many years ago that 'students have obligations to teachers,' including 'trust, docility, effort, and thinking,' an assertion that would produce howls of outrage from the entitled generations roaming campuses today.
And despite the lupine ad hominem, students should indeed protest such instructions. Nobody has an obligation to produce trust and docility. Far better to be a nation of wolves than a nation of sheep! There are good reasons to eschew docility; women especially understand the need to challenge the orthodoxy of thinking emanating from the professorial pulpit. A requirement of trust and docility is in itself a betrayal of trust.

But what Nichols is really worried about is that the experts might become servants of the people. This shows up in a number of ways near the end of his article. Consider this language:
The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help
 Or this:
many academic departments are boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets.  
But the argument is a bit more subtle than that. It's that we would be happy serving the people, but the people are not good enough to be masters.
When citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default.
And so this is a "terrible" thing, he will oh so reluctantly take his position as expert, and step into his natural place as the ruler of society. Or so he thinks.

But he's wrong, and worse, he is dishonestly wrong. He is disappointed he is no longer getting calls from the White House, he yearns for the days when professors demanded docility and respect, and he would much rather return to the days when the only public discourse was that vetted by the editorial guardians of society. He does not actually want the non-expert to contribute to the governance of society, for if he did, this column would be a call or education and empowerment, and not a declaration to the effect that the masses are revolting.

His kind just is the kind that brought us the excesses of the 20th century, and more recently the debacle in Iraq. He most properly should be ashamed of himself for setting himself above the likes of you and me. But as is so common among the realm of the self-declared expert, he feels no shame.