Archive for the 'Talks' Category

Video from "The Great Climategate Debate" held at MIT December 10, 2009

This is an excellent panel discussion regarding the leaked East Anglia docs as well as standards in science and the meaning of the scientific method. It was recorded on Dec 10, 2009, and here’s the description from the MIT World website: “The hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia‚Äôs Climate Research Unit in November rocked the world of climate change science, energized global warming skeptics, and threatened to derail policy negotiations at Copenhagen. These panelists, who differ on the scientific implications of the released emails, generally agree that the episode will have long-term consequences for the larger scientific community.”

Moderator: Henry D. Jacoby, Professor of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Co-Director, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, MIT.

Kerry Emanuel, Breene M. Kerr Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric Science and Planetary Sciences, MIT;
Judith Layzer, Edward and Joyce Linde Career Development Associate Professor of Environmental Policy, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT;
Stephen Ansolabehere, Professor of Political Science, MIT, and
Professor of Government, Harvard University;
Ronald G. Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT Director, Center for Global Change Science; Co-Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change;
Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT.

Video, running at nearly 2 hours, is available at

What's New at Science Foo Camp 2009

SciFoo is a wonderful annual gathering of thinkers about science. It’s an unconference and people who choose to speak do so. Here’s my reaction to a couple of these talks.

In Pete Worden’s discussion of modeling future climate change, I wondered about the reliability of simulation results. Worden conceded that there are several models doing the same predictions he showed, and they can give wildly opposing results. We need to develop the machinery to quantify error in simulation models just as we routinely do for conventional statistical modeling: simulation is often the only empirical tool we have for guiding policy responses to some of our most pressing issues.

But the newest I saw was Bob Metcalfe’s call for us to imagine what to do with the coming overabundance of energy. Metcalfe likened solving energy scarcity to the early days of Internet development: because of the generative design of Internet technology, we now have things that were unimagined in the early discussions, such as YouTube and online video. According to Metcalfe, we need to envision our future as including a “squanderable abundance” of energy, and use Internet lessons such as standardization and distribution of power sources to get there, rather than building for energy conservation.

Cross posted on The Edge.

Bill Gates to Development Researchers: Create and Share Statistics

I was recently in Doha, Qatar, presenting my research on global communication technology use and democratic tendency at ICTD09. I spoke right before the keynote, Bill Gates, whose main point was that when you engage in a goal-oriented activity, such as development, progress can only be made when you measure the impact of your efforts.

Gates paints a positive picture, measured by deaths before age 5. In the 1880’s he says about 30% of children died before their 5th birthday in most countries, and this gradually moved to 20 million in 1960 and then 10 million in 2006. Gates postulates this is due to rising income levels (40% of decrease), and medical innovation such as vaccines (60% of decrease).

This is an example of Gates’ mantra: you can only improve what you can measure. For example, an outbreak of measles tells you your vaccine system isn’t functioning. In his example about childhood deaths, he says we are getting somewhere here because we are measuring the value for money spent on the problem.

Gates thinks the wealthy in the world need to be exposed to these problems ideally through intermingling, or since that is unlikely to happen, through statistics and data visualization. Collect data, then communicate it. In short, Gates advocates creating statistics through measuring development efforts, and changing the world by exposing people to these data.

Wolfram|Alpha Demoed at Harvard: Limits on Human Understanding?

Yesterday Stephen Wolfram gave the first demo of Wolfram|Alpha, coming in May, what he modestly describes as a system to make our stock of human knowledge computable. It includes not just facts, but also our algorithmic knowledge. He says, “Given all the methods, models ,and equations that have been created from science and analysis – take all that stuff and package it so that we can walk up to a website and ask it a question and have it generate the knowledge that we want. … like interacting with an expert.”

It’s ambitious, but so are Wolfram’s previous projects: Mathematica and Mathworld. I remember relying on Mathworld as a grad student – it was excellent, and so I remember when it suddenly disappeared when the content was to be published as a book. In 2002 he published A New Kind of Science, arguing that all processes, including thought, can be viewed as computations and a simple set of rules can describe a complex system. This thinking is clearly evident in Wolfram|Alpha and here are some key examples.
Continue reading ‘Wolfram|Alpha Demoed at Harvard: Limits on Human Understanding?’

Stuart Shieber and the Future of Open Access Publishing

Back in February Harvard adopted a mandate requiring its faculty member to make their research papers available within a year of publication. Stuart Shieber is a computer science professor at Harvard and responsible for proposing the policy. He has since been named director of Harvard’s new Office for Scholarly Comminication.

On November 12 Shieber gave a talk entitled “The Future of Open Access — and How to Stop It” to give an update on where things stand after the adoption of the open access mandate. Open access isn’t just something that makes sense from an ethical standpoint, as Shieber points out that (for-profit) journal subscription costs have risen out of proportion with inflation costs and out of proportion with the costs of nonprofit journals. He notes that the cost per published page in a commercial journal is six times that of the nonprofits. With the current library budget cuts, open access — meaning both access to articles directly on the web and shifting subscriptions away from for-profit journals — is something that appears financially unavoidable.

Here’s the business model for an Open Access (OA) journal: authors pay a fee upfront in order for their paper to be published. Then the issue of the journal appears on the web (possibly also in print) without an access fee. Conversely, traditional for-profit publishing doesn’t charge the author to publish, but keeps the journal closed and charges subscription fees for access.

Shieber recaps Harvard’s policy:

1. The faculty member grants permission to the University to make the article available through an OA repository.

2. There is a waiver for articles: a faculty member can opt out of the OA mandate at his or her sole discretion. For example, if you have a prior agreement with a publisher you can abide by it.

3. The author themselves deposits the article in the repository.

Shieber notes that the policy is also because it allows Harvard to make a collective statement of principle, systematically provide metadata about articles, it clarifies the rights accruing to the article, it allows the university to facilitate the article deposit process, it allows the university to negotiate collectively, and having the mandate be opt out rather than opt in might increase rights retention at the author level.

So the concern Shieber set up in his talk is whether standards for research quality and peer review will be weakened. Here’s how the dystopian argument runs:

1. all universities enact OA policies
2. all articles become OA
3. libraries cancel subscriptions
4. prices go up on remaining journals
5. these remaining journals can’t recoup their costs
6. publishers can’t adapt their business model
7. so the journals and the logistics of peer review they provide, disappear

Shieber counters this argument: 1 through 5 are good because journals will start to feel some competitive pressure. What would be bad is if publishers cannot change their way of doing business. Shieber thinks that even if this is so it will have the effect of pushing us towards OA journals, which provide the same services, including peer review, as the traditional commercial journals.

But does the process of getting there cause a race to the bottom? The argument goes like this: since OA journals are paid by the number of articles published they will just publish everything, thereby destroying standards. Shieber argues this won’t happen because there is price discrimination among journals – authors will pay more to publish in the more prestigious journals. For example, PLOS costs about $3k, Biomed Central about $1000, and Scientific Publishers International is $96 for an article. Shieber also makes an argument that Harvard should have a fund to support faculty who wish to publish in an OA journal and have no other way to pay the fee.

This seems to imply that researchers with sufficient grant funding or falling under his proposed Harvard publication fee subsidy, would then be immune to the fee pressure and simply submit to the most prestigious journal and work their way down the chain until their paper is accepted. This also means that editors/reviewers decide what constitutes the best scientific articles by determining acceptance.

But is democratic representation in science a goal of OA? Missing from Shieber’s described market for scientific publications is any kind of feedback from the readers. The content of these journals, and the determination of prestige, is defined solely by the editors and reviewers. Maybe this is a good thing. But maybe there’s an opportunity to open this by allowing readers a voice in the market. This could done through ads or a very tiny fee on articles – both would give OA publishers an incentive to respond to the preferences of the readers. Perhaps OA journals should be commercial in the sense of profit-maximizing: they might have a reason to listen to readers and might be more effective at maximizing their prestige level.

This vision of OA publishing still effectively excludes researchers who are unable to secure grants or are not affiliated with a university that offers a publication subsidy. The dream behind OA publishing is that everyone can read the articles, but to fully engage in the intellectual debate quality research must still find its way into print, and at the appropriate level of prestige, regardless of the affiliation of the researcher. This is the other side of OA that is very important for researchers from the developing world or thinkers whose research is not mainstream (see, for example, Garrett Lisi a high impact researcher who is unaffiliated with an institution).

The OA publishing model Shieber describes is a clear step forward from the current model where journals are only accessible by affiliates of universities who have paid the subscription fees. It might be worth continuing to move toward an OA system where, not only can anyone access publications, but any quality research is capable of being published, regardless of the author’s affiliation and wealth. To get around the financial constraints one approach might be to allow journals to fund themselves through ads, or provide subsidies to certain researchers. This also opens up the idea of who decides what is quality research.

Benkler: We are collaborators, not knaves

Yochai Benkler gave a talk today in reception of his appointment as the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. Jack Berkman (now deceased) is the father of Myles Berkman, whose family endowed both the Berkman Center (where I am a fellow) and Benkler’s professorial chair.

His talk was titled “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time” and he sets out to show that there is a sea change happening in the study of organizational systems that far better reflects how we actually interact, organize, and operate. He explains that the collaborative movements we generally characterize as belonging to the new internet age (free and open source software, wikipedia) are really just the instantiation of a wider and pervasive, in fact completely natural and longstanding, phenomena in human life.

This is due to how we can organize capital in the information and networked society: We own the core physical means of production as well as knowledge, insight, and creativity. Now we’re seeing longstanding society practices, such as non-hierarchical norm generation and collaboration more from the periphery of society to the center of our productive enterprises. Benkler’s key point in this talk is that this shift is not limited to Internet-based environments, but part of a broader change happening across society.

So how to we get people to produce good stuff? money? prizes? competition? Benkler notes the example of – contributors are not paid yet the community thrives. Benkler hypothesizes that the key is that people feel secure in their involvement with the community: not paying but creating a context where people feel secure in their collaboration in a system. Another example is Benkler attributes their success to ways they have found to assure contributors that when you produce you will be able to control what you produce. Cash doesn’t change hands. The challenge is to learn about human collaboration in general from these web-based examples. In Benkler’s words “replacing Leviathan with a collaborative system.”

Examples outside the web-based world include GM’s experience with it’s Fremont plant. This plant was among the worst performance in the company. GM shut it down for two years and brought it back 85% staffed by the previous workforce, the same union, but reorganized collaboratively to align incentives. This means there are no longer process engineers on the shop floor and direct control over experimentation and flow at the team level is gone. The plant did so well it forced the big three to copy although they did so in less purely collaborative ways, such as retaining competitive bidding. Benkler’s point is that there is a need for long term relationships based on trust. An emphasis on norms and trust, along with greater teamwork and autonomy for workers implies a more complex system with less perfect control than Hobbes’ Leviathan vision. The world changes too quickly for the old encumbered hierarchical model of economic production.

Benkler thinks this leads us to study social dynamics, an open field without many answers yet. He also relates this work to evolutionary biology: from group selection theory of the 50’s to the individualistic conception in Dawkins’ theory of the selfish gene in the 70’s, and now to multi-level selection and cooperation as a distinct driving force in evolution as opposed to the other way around. This opens a vein of research in empirical deviations from selfishness, as a pillar of homo economicus, just as Kahneman and Tversky challenged the twin pillar of rationality.

Benkler’s vision is to move away from the simple rigid hierarchical models toward ones that are richer and more complex and can capture more of our actual behavior, while still being tractable enough to produce predictions and a larger understanding of our world.

Justice Scalia: Populist

Justice Scalia (HLS 1960) is speaking at the inaugural Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture today at Harvard Law School. It’s packed – I arrived at 4pm for the 4:30 talk and joined the end of a long line…. then was immediately told the auditorium was full and was relegated to an overflow room with video. I’m lucky to have been early enough to even see it live.

The topic of the talk hasn’t been announced and we’re all waiting with palpable anticipation in the air. The din is deafening.

Scalia takes the podium. The title of his talk is “Methodology of Originalism.”

His subject is the intersection of constitutional law and history. He notes that the orthodox view of constitutional interpretation, up to the time of the Warren Court, was that the constitution is no different from any other legal text. That is, it bears a static meaning that doesn’t change from generation to generation, although it gets applied to new situations. The application to pre-existing phenomena doesn’t change over time, but these applications do provide the data upon which to decide the cases on the new phenomena.

Things changed when the Warren court permitted in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 376 U.S. 254 (1964) that good faith libel of public figures was good for democracy. Scalia says this might be so but that change should be made by statute and not by the court. He argues this is respectful of the democratic system in that the laws are reflections of people’s votes. This is the first, and perhaps the best known, of two ways Scalia comes across as populist in this talk. In a question at the end he says that the whole theory of democracy is that a justice is not supposed to be writing a constitution but just reflecting what the american people have decided. If you believe in democracy, he explains, you believe in majority rules. In liberal democracies like ours we have made exceptions and given protection to certain minorites such as religious or political minorities. But his key point is that the people made these exceptions, ie. they were adopted in a democratic fashion.

But doesn’t originalism require you to know the original meaning of a document? and isn’t history a science unto itself, and different from law? Scalia responds to this argument by saying first that history is central to the law, in the very least through the fact that the meanings of words change over time. So inquiry into the past certainly has to do with the law and vice versa. He notes that the only way to assign meaning to many of the phrases in the constitution is through historical understanding: for example “letters of mark and reprisal” and “habeas corpus” etc. Secondly, he gives a deeply non-elitist argument about the quality of expert vs nonexpert reasoning. This is the second way Scalia expresses a populist sentiment.

In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. ___ (2008), the petitioners contended that the term “bear arms” only meant a military interpretation, although there are previous cases that show this isn’t true. But this case was about more than the historical usage of words: the 2nd Amendment didn’t say “the people shall have the right to keep and bear arms,” for example, but that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” – as if this was a pre-existing right. So Scalia argues that here there was a place for historical inquiry here that showed there was such a pre-exsiting right: in the English bill of Rights of 1689 (found by Blackstone). So now it’s hard to see the 2nd Amendment as more than the right to join a militia. Which goes with the prologue of the 2nd Amendment: the right of a well regulated militia to keep arms. This goes much further than just lexicography.

So what can be expected of judges? Scalia argues, like Churchill’s argument for democracy, that all an originalist need show is that originalism beats the alternatives. He says this isn’t hard to do since inquiry into original meaning is not as difficult as what opponents suggest. He says one place to look when the framer’s intent is not clear is to look at states’ older interpretations. And in the vast majority of cases, including the most controversial ones, the originalist interpretation is clear. His examples of cases with clear original intent are abortion, a right to engage in homosexual sodomy, or assisted suicide, or prohibition of the death penalty (the death penalty was historically the only penalty for a felony) – these rights are not found in the constitution. Determining whether there should be (and hence is, for a non-originalist judge) a right to abortion or same sex marriage or whatnot, requires moral philosophy which Scalia says is harder than historical inquiry.

He also uses as evidence for the symbiotic relationship between law and history that history departments have legal historical scholars and law schools have historical experts.

Scalia gives the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma 487 U.S. 815 (1988) as an example of a situation in which historical reasoning played little part and he uses this as a baseline to argue that the role of historical reasoning in Supreme Court opinions is increasing. The briefs in Thompson were of no help with historical questions since they did not touch on the history of the 8th Amendment, but Scalia says this isn’t surprising since the history of the clause had been written out of the argument by previous thinking. Another case, Morrison v. Olsen 487 U.S. 654 (1988), considered a challenge to the statue creating the independent counsel. Scalia thinks these questions could benefit little from historical clarification, so the briefing in Morrison focused on historical questions such as what did the term “inferior officers” mean at the time of the founding. Two briefs authored by HLS faculty (Cox, Fried) provided useful historical material, but the historical referencing was sparse and none of these briefs were written by scholars of legal history.

In contrast, in 2007 in Heller there was again little historical context but in this case many amicus briefs focused on historical arguments and material. This is a very different situation to that of 20 years ago. There were several briefs from legal historical experts and each contained detailed discussions of the historical right to bear arms in England and here at the time of the founding. Such foci were the heart of the brief, and not relegated to a footnote as it likely would have been 20 years ago, and was in Morrison. Scalia thinks this reinforces the use of the originalist approach, by showing how easy it is compared to other approaches.

Scalia eschews amicus briefs in general, especially insofar as they repeat the arguments made by the parties because of their pretense to scholarly impartiality which may convince judges to sign on to briefs that are nothing but impartial. “Disinterested scholarship and advocacy do not mix well.”

Scalia takes on a second argument made against the use of history in the courts – that the history used is “law office history.” That is, the selection of data favorable to the position being advanced without regard or concern for contradictory data or relevance. Here the charge is not incompentance but tendentiousness: advocates cannot be trusted to present an unbiased view. But of course! says Scalia, since they are advocates. But insofar as the criticism is directed at the court, it is essential that the adjudicator is impartial. “Of course a judicial opinion can give a distorted picture of historical truth, but this would be an inadequate historical opinion and not that which is expected” from the Court. Scalia admonishes that one must review the historical evidence in detail rather than raise the “know nothing” cry.

This is Scalia’s second populist argument: it is deeply non-elitist since it seems to imply that nonprofessional historians are capable of coming up with good historical understanding. It provides an example that dovetails with the notion of opening knowledge and the respect for autonomy in allow individuals to evaluate reasoning and data and come to their own conclusions (and even be right sometimes). Scalia notes that he sees the role of the Court as finding conclusions from these facts, which is different from the role of the historians.

But he feels quite differently about the conclusions of experts in other fields. For example, in overruling Dr. Miles Medical Co. v. John D. Park and Sons, 220 U.S. 373 (1911), holding that resale price maintenance isn’t a per se violation of the Sherman Act, he didn’t feel uncomfortable since this is the almost uniform view of professional economists. Scalia seems to be saying that experts are probably right more often than nonexperts, but nonexperts can also contribute. He phrases this as an expert in judicial analysis – and he says there is a difference in historical analysis vs, say, the type of engineering analysis that might be required for patent cases. He makes a distinction between types of subject which are more susceptible to successful nonexpert analysis.

Scalia then advocates for submission of analysis to public scrutiny with data open, thus allowing suspect conclusions to be challenged. The originalist will reach substantive results he doesn’t personally favor and the reasoning process should be open. Scalia notes that this is more honest that judges who reason morally, who will never disagree with their own opinions.

There was a question that got the audience laughing at the end. The questioner claims to have approached a Raytheon manufacturing facility to buy a missile or tank, since in his view the 2nd Amendment is about keeping the government scared of the people, and somehow having a gun when the government has more advanced weaponry misses the point. Scalia thinks this is outside the scope of the 2nd Amendment because “You can’t bear a tank!”