Educational Examples

Biased science.

Science is always biased. Yeah, even if there’s a lot of math in it. I’m not anti-math or anti-science…quite the opposite, really. And while I don’t really care to go into my personal background too much here, suffice to say I have a lot of experience in scientific research and mathematical modeling. And while I’m opposed to professionalization barring people from discussing science (why will likely be made clear by the end of this essay), my point is that I am what most would consider to be a professional scientist and/or mathematician. Getting to that point was difficult: my family’s never had enough money, and they’ve never put much weight on academic achievement. That’s not to say they weren’t supportive, more that it was often pretty blurry to them what they were even supporting me to do. I mean, it was blurry even to me. It still feels like I stumbled through schooling, all just to wind up poorer than my high school dropout older brother. But I kept doing it, not because I’m a high-achiever or a hard worker. I’m not, which was a real fucking disappointment to a lot of project advisors and professors, honestly. I just liked it. And despite my chronic disinterest in attaining any sort of official marker of success, I’d make myself push through all sorts of bullshit if it meant I got to keep doing research. 

However, I take issue with a lot of this sort of “mythos” around scientific research, tech development, and modeling. It’s not objective and unbiased. I don’t even mean that it’s sometimes biased, I’m saying it’s always biased. It just is. In the words of Ben Shapiro, noted opinion-haver, facts don’t care about your feelings. You can’t avoid it.  

All scientific research, and all mathematical models require assumptions. And the prevailing ideology of the culture you live in is going to influence what assumptions you make. This isn’t necessarily bad, it simply is. However, science, models, and tech-development tend to go bad when we decide that those assumptions don’t matter, when they do, or when we insist there is no value-judgement motivating the assumptions (e.g. that these assumptions are universal, rather than relative to some sort of ideology/value system). This can be as seemingly-mundane as the assumption that knowing what a molecular bond structure looks like matters. If it didn’t matter, then why bother to create the electron microscope? Why bother to use an electron microscope when you’re studying a molecular compound? Why assume zooming-in on the substance will be more useful than, say, eating it? Why do we even care about the substance? Do we think it can be useful to medicine, and want to improve medical treatments? Do we think this knowledge is intellectually valuable independent of application? You can’t begin a research project without making value judgements on what matters. 

Consider a more specific example: painkillers. Deciding that treating physical pain matters, even if it doesn’t address physical damage, is highly motivated by ideology. It’s only logical to pursue pain treatment if you’ve already made the value judgement: does it matter if someone’s in physical pain? Keep in mind that saying no doesn’t mean you’re more objective. Deciding that it doesn’t matter is still a value-judgement. There’s no objective answer, and if you’re in search of one…buddy, that’s ideology (1) making you think such objectivity is valuable, and (2) masking what subjective values are actually driving your decision-making process. If you ask me, it’s bad to blind yourself from your own system of values. And my saying that is, itself, a value judgement. 

This may seem pedantic until you realize how much these assumptions can impact actual people. For example, consider the concept of “predictive policing.” In the city of Chicago, violent crime and limited police officers motivated the Chicago Police to invest in crime-predicting software:

The Chicago police will use data and computer analysis to identify neighborhoods that are more likely to experience violent crime, assigning additional police patrols in those areas.

How Big Bad Data Could Make Policing Worse, Fast Company

This may sound all well and good to a lot of people; however, an algorithm like this requires the assumption that the data we have on violent crime in Chicago is representative of all violent crime in Chicago. Further, patrolling could be based on violent crime data, but police would still be capable of arresting people for, say, underage drinking, once they’re there patrolling the area…are we assuming more run-ins with police at a young age will have no influence on a person later in life? Are we assuming it doesn’t matter if it does? Also, what counts as violent crime? According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime includes “murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault.” Rape is considered to be the most underreported of all violent crime, so data would almost certainly underrepresent acts of sexual assault. Does that matter? Whatever your answer is, that is a value-judgement. Further, wealth will often mean you have the means to (1) not get caught, and (2) argue the severity of the charges down in court, or even have them completely dropped. On (1), if you murder someone on your private estate, you’re less likely to be caught than if you do it on the streets. On (2), consider Jeffrey Epstein (deceased), the financier arrested for sex trafficking in 2019. 

Epstein’s arrest has brought his many high-level connections into scrutiny. Epstein counts many famous figures in his social circle, including President Donald Trump—who once referred to him as a “terrific guy” —Prince Andrew and former President Bill Clinton, who took trips on his private jet. 

Here’s What to Know About the Sex Trafficking Case Against Jeffrey Epstein, Time

There is credible rape allegations against high-profile people (like Joe Biden and Donald Trump), and more often than not, these people are never convicted. Even ignoring the role of corruption, this is unsurprising. A private jet isn’t going to have witnesses, surveillance footage, or police patrolling capable of catching criminals in the act. If we don’t acknowledge what assumptions go into this model, “predictive policing” can quickly turn into the over-policing of poor, black neighborhoods under the guise of “math.” It could also lead us to severely underestimate violence done by the very wealthy. Which, really bold assumption to deem that insignificant.

Algorithms like this have actually been proposed for non-violent crime-prediction (see the book Weapons of Math Destruction). This requires even more ideological value-assumptions. For instance, do we want police cracking down more on drug usage? A homeless person doing drugs is far more likely to have a run-in with police than someone doing drugs inside their own home, and this would skew police drug-usage data. Should homeless people be subjected to more policing than the wealthy? Should we invest in more police, or housing? Should we do neither? How do we invest? Do we tax the rich? Or do we prohibit the rich from profiting off wage labor entirely? 

Are capitalists valuable to society? 

Ideology influences how you observe something. If you believe racial differences play a fundamental role in behavior, this is going to change how you interpret both the present and the past. If you believe achievement is primarily based on merit, then you may ignore other factors leading to someone’s accomplishments. Ideology is deeply-ingrained, and often only subconsciously influences how we see the world. And just as you can’t set up a scientific experiment without making assumptions, you can’t navigate through the world without some sort of ideology…you can’t overcome ideological thinking.

But you can and (based on my own value judgement) should aim to be aware of what assumptions/values go into your own ideology, as well as the ideology motivating others (especially at the societal-level). For instance, do you think it’s bad to be angry? Is it good to be happy? Is it your responsibility to be happy, so as to not interfere with someone else’s happiness? Do you think people always act in self-interest? Do people even know what they want? What do you mean when you say someone is optimistic? Does civility matter? Are evictions inherently violent? What does it mean to be patriotic? 

Is Harry Potter cool? The answer is no. Who imagines a world where magic is real, and everything is still regulated by bureaucrats. That’s fucking lame as shit.

For a look at how ideology relates to our response to the COVID-19 crisis, check out the following articles:

Isolating COVID-19: alienated crises, and the crisis of alienation

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ― Helen Keller Neoliberalism largely functions via alienation, and crisis is not excluded from this. The inherent instability of capitalism inevitably leads to crisis; however, the experience of crisis is very often isolatedㅡby geographical region, time, or type. For example, economic expansion requires […]

Educational Examples

The undead: alienation and ad hominem addiction research.

If you feel alienated from other people, you may feel as if people don’t understand you. If you feel alienated from yourself, you likely feel as if you’re just sort of watching your life unfold without participating. While many seem to pretty intuitively understand these forms of alienation, they have difficulty seeing the connection between the two, and they have difficulty understanding other forms of alienation. For example, feeling alienated from your labor or from your environment (nature) are rarely given much genuine thought. Yet these are very, very often the root causes of alienation from yourself and from others. It’s also worth noting that if you feel alienated in one aspect of your life…you’re very likely experiencing alienation in other parts of your life, even if you don’t recognize that this is happening. 

“By alienation I project an experience, which potentially is in me, to an object over there. I alienate myself from my own human experience and project this experience on something or somebody outside, and then try to get in touch with my own human being, by being in touch with the object to which I have projected my humanity. That holds for alienation and idolatry. The two terms refer exactly to the same phenomenon. The one term is used by Hegel and Marx and the other is used by the prophets of the Old Testament.”

— Erich Fromm, Beyond Freud: From Individual to Social Psychoanalysis

To clarify this definition of alienation, let’s look at a concrete example: alcoholism. The alcoholic’s feelings of alienation drives her to drink, while her over-drinking pushes the people in her life away, further alienating her. A community like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) disrupts this positive feedback loop. 

NOTE: A positive feedback is when both behaviors encourage/exacerbate the other, e.g. alienation drives one to drink, while drinking exacerbates feelings of alienation. The word positive here does not indicate that the feedback is a good one. While a positive feedback could be good, the terminology itself is value-neutral. 

People often discuss AA as if it is a medication that either works or doesn’t, but this framing is deceptive. AA can disrupt the drinking-alienation cycle, but the other positive feedbacks in the alcoholic’s life making her feel alienated (besides alcohol consumption, e.g. a deadend job, excessively alienating media propaganda, a narcissistic family member), can outweigh this…this isn’t a closed system. Assuming it is may be a reasonable assumption in some cases, but in others, such an assumption will lead to you ignoring the most significant forces (mechanisms) acting on the system. This is one way a mathematical model can be biased! This is also, more broadly, how scientific research can be biased.

Comic from xkcd.

That is, we must make assumptions about what factors matter. Do we consider that the alcoholic has difficulty making rent each month or do we deem that to be irrelevant? What about if she feels disconnected from her labor, where she only produces one component of a product, making her feel detached from the final product? What if her boss frequently talks down to her, telling her she can be replaced at any time? What if she has few opportunities to connect with her other coworkers? What if she feels that she is alone in her financial struggles, and so turns her anger inward at herself? What if she feels alienated from herself; that is, she feels as if she doesn’t even know what she herself wants from life? What if she believes her boss that she has no value? What if she doesn’t recognize herself? What if she feels trapped in her own life? Why would the living dead care about alcohol poisoning? 

“By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. He has become, one might say, estranged from himself. He does not experience himself as the center of his world, as the creator of his own acts – but his acts and their consequences have become his masters, whom he obeys, or whom he may even worship. The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside productively.” 

— Erich Fromm, The Sane Society

I feel like a rat in a cage.

It’s often thought that drug and alcohol addiction are either purely biological (hereditary), or entirely due to a lack of willpower. However, there’s compelling reasons to believe that addiction is largely a response to alienation and poor material conditions. 

While the argument that addiction is a willpower issue likely stems from the myth of American individualism (see Isolating COVID-19), the biological argument (at least in part) stems from a misinterpretation of an experiment looking into morphine usage in rats. A researcher observed rats kept in individual cages, each given unlimited access to morphine (there’s often a sort of “anything goes” vibe to scientific research…there is at least some truth in the notion of bourgeois science [paper in link is not in English]). He found that the rats would consume the drugs until intervention (removing access or overdose), and made the “discovery” that drug addiction is essentially a biological response that will take over once you’ve started using. This sort of conclusion based merely on observation of these rats is an example of a context-free ideology intervening in scientific inferences. The idea that these results were highly dependent on environmental context would go unaddressed for a while, allowing time for this “fact” to permeate general knowledge as a settled matter, “proven” with science. 

Consider if you were placed in a cage by yourself, with nothing to do, and no reason to believe you would ever be getting out of the cage. Why the fuck wouldn’t you take morphine if you happened upon some in your otherwise empty cage? Why would you give a shit about it killing you? Are you not already dead?