Saturday, July 15, 2017

Sinners In The Hands Of A Calculating god - The Injustice That Results From Turning People Into Integers

In the preface of his enormously influential book, The Principles of Psychology, William James started by insisting that the study of human minds was to be treated as a physical science, holding up the physics of 1890 as the quintessential model of a properly scientific study of "finite individual minds"* when there was certainly scant evidence that minds are susceptible to the same methods of treatment as physical objects in motion.  That assumption which he certainly shared with his other academic colleagues who were trying to get their very new subject into a university setting seemed sensible to them based on the rudest of studies available to them.

Latching onto the hegemony of physical science was the fastest way to academic respectability, even then.  But the decision to base the study of something insusceptible to more than the most remote of inferential implications, incapable of direct observation, dependent on the otherwise unverifiable reports of the individuals who experienced their own minds and mental states,  and, especially, the decision to just jump to the conclusion that such a non-thing was susceptible to the mathematical analysis whose application to even perceived objects was beginning to strain the methods of classical physics,  could hardly have been based in any kind of secure knowledge.   His statement, "I have therefore treated our passing thoughts as integers,  and regarded the mere laws of their coexistence with brain-states as the ultimate laws for our science," was and has proven to be an audacious but scarcely warranted leap of faith.  I think the chaotic history of psychology, as a science and as a producer of reliable knowledge gives people a good reason to doubt that such an approach will yield reliable knowledge outside of, perhaps, some of the simpler mental states.

I think the beginning of the academic study of psychology, coming as it did, may have lacked a different framing of its study.  Its model was the ground which George Ellis mentioned as controlling Einstein's conception of human minds as the product of and existing within the limits of physical causation.  That is the same assumption that James made.  But there are other possible models for conceiving of minds.  Thinking of the brain (on which James founded his conceptual model) as a radio, an apparatus that receives and transmits information but doesn't generate that information or contain it or use it, is another one I've seen people use.  Such a thing wasn't available to James in 1890 and wouldn't have been available to Einstein during the period when he formed his framing for dealing with the world.   Later on as they were able to develop mathematical descriptions of games and processes, those became framings available for doing the same thing.  Though all of those are merely descriptions by drawing analogies, they don't reproduce the actual phenomena of minds, they merely provide a partial and, by choice, exclusionary means of trying to contain something they really can't address.

You would think, though, that Einstein, the man who participated in the demonstration that even James' quintessential science, physics, was dependent on the minds of the people and inseparable from those minds, that their observations of things couldn't be divorced from the fact that everything they could think of about the things they observed determined what they could say about them, would have realized that trying to insist that the thoughts were the product of the things they observed was bound to lead to insoluble paradoxes and banal tautologies. In the end, the entire enterprise of psychology as it grew up in the imaginations of people, all of the various proposed studies of minds as science, was based on a a choice made to exclude any treatment which wasn't framed by and limited by the merely conventional agreed to rules.


When the law, judges trained in the same universities under the hegemonic influence of the physical sciences, adopt the claims of scientists that people, their minds and their lives are treatable "as integers", the results can be extremely bad and produce the opposite of justice.  This recent study by by Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner, published by Pro Publica, is as good a demonstration as possible of the dangers of coming up with algorithms which judges, in their naivete, adopt and apply to the lives of those who they have power over.  The focus of Pro Public is in the obvious racial bias that such a treatment produces, even when its possible the authors and sellers of the algorithm don't have that intent.  It is a long, rather disturbing - to a Black reader justifiably horrifying - article about how the algorithmic treatment of the lives of Black people by the courts institutionalizes discrimination against them, the history of economic disadvantage, social stigma and other long ingrained and established biases in the general society can be imposed on them by the same kind of scientific framing that has the greatest respectability but which is entirely unwarranted.

The study starts with an excellent example of how one of the most widely used of computer-based predictions of future criminality proves to be wrong, quite quickly and how a selection of data based on operational efficency can carry obvious biases that gurantee a skewing of results:

ON A SPRING AFTERNOON IN 2014, Brisha Borden was running late to pick up her god-sister from school when she spotted an unlocked kid’s blue Huffy bicycle and a silver Razor scooter. Borden and a friend grabbed the bike and scooter and tried to ride them down the street in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs.

Just as the 18-year-old girls were realizing they were too big for the tiny conveyances — which belonged to a 6-year-old boy — a woman came running after them saying, “That’s my kid’s stuff.” Borden and her friend immediately dropped the bike and scooter and walked away.
But it was too late — a neighbor who witnessed the heist had already called the police. Borden and her friend were arrested and charged with burglary and petty theft for the items, which were valued at a total of $80.

Compare their crime with a similar one: The previous summer, 41-year-old Vernon Prater was picked up for shoplifting $86.35 worth of tools from a nearby Home Depot store.
Prater was the more seasoned criminal. He had already been convicted of armed robbery and attempted armed robbery, for which he served five years in prison, in addition to another armed robbery charge. Borden had a record, too, but it was for misdemeanors committed when she was a juvenile.

Yet something odd happened when Borden and Prater were booked into jail: A computer program spat out a score predicting the likelihood of each committing a future crime. Borden — who is black — was rated a high risk. Prater — who is white — was rated a low risk.

Two years later, we know the computer algorithm got it exactly backward. Borden has not been charged with any new crimes. Prater is serving an eight-year prison term for subsequently breaking into a warehouse and stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics.

And that is just the first of many examples taken from real life with the less reductionistic, more inclusive,  methods of journalism instead of the natural sciences, which demolishes the assumption that the administration of justice by sciency algorithm produces justice instead of merely putting a more respectable buffer between the judge's ruling and the generalized racism of the society.  By a pantomime of the methods of physics, the thing gains an entirely deceptive assumption of reliability that was unwarranted from the start.**

The belief of judges, of others with the power to mandate the use of such computer programs in the administration of justice (you have to wonder what part lobbying by those with a financial interest in selling the program play in that) that their use of such a mathematical approach produces justice is made more reliable by the trappings of science.  Reading the article at one point I couldn't stop thinking of the speech by the judge, Danforth, in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in which another algorithm, without the trappings of mathematics or physics but of legal expediency led to him answering a plea for reconsideration,

Danforth: Now hear me, and beguile yourselves no more. I will not receive a single plea for pardon or postponement. Them that will not confess will hang. Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven are given out, and the village expects to see them die this morning. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering. If retaliation is your fear, know this - I should hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law, and an ocean of salt tears could not melt the resolution of the statutes. Now draw yourselves up like men and help me, as you are bound by Heaven to do. Have you spoken with them all, Mr. Hale?

Being a man of the 20th century, Miller used the framing of the infamous Salem Witch trials in a theocracy as an understood quintessence of judicial depravity for an analogue to the red scare he wanted people to hold in similar infamy.  But it would have been much more timely and accurate to point to the elevation of science to the position of a god and scientists as the expression of the reliable truth, their methods relied on.  The framing used in the courts in the 1690s in Massachusetts was more likely to produce eventual repentance than the current one, we can't even get educated people to see through IQ testing when it is an obvious and biased fraud.  Such is the potence of a belief in the ultimate dependability of anything given the trappings of science.  It would have been a more accurate analogy but it would not have resonated, the faith in such social science being assumed.  You have to wonder if he'd written a play making a similar point in the 1690s what analogy he would have used to make a similar point about the witch trials, one which would have used the existing cultural framing to make people see what was happening right before their eyes, reduced by their framing to a deceptive view of reality.***

*  Being a far greater philosopher than he was a scientist, William James made an admission as to what he was up to, including the fact that he knew he was making some pretty enormous assumptions based on his decision to present his study as a physical science.

I have kept close to the point of view of natural science throughout the book.  Every natural science assumes certain  data uncritically, and declines to challenge the elements between which its own 'laws' obtain, and from which its own deductions are carried on. Psychology, the science of finite individual minds, assumes as its data (1) thoughts and feelings, and (2) a physical world in time and space with which they coexist and which (3) they know.  Of course these data themselves are discussable; but the discussion of them (as of other elements) is called metaphysics and falls outside the province of this book.  This book, assuming that thoughts and feelings exist and are vehicles of knowledge, thereupon contends that psychology when she has ascertained the empirical correlation of the various sorts of thought or feeling with definite conditions of the brain, can go no farther -- can go no farther, that is, as a, natural science. If she goes farther she becomes metaphysical.  All attempts to explain our phenomenally given thoughts  as  products of deeper-lying entities (whether the latter be named 'Soul,' 'Transcendental Ego,' 'Ideas,' or 'Elementary Units of Consciousness') are metaphysical.  This book consequently rejects both the associationist and the spiritualist theories; and in this strictly positivistic point of view consists the only feature of it for which I feel tempted to claim originality.  Of course this point of view is anything but ultimate.  Men must keep thinking; and the data assumed by psychology, just like those assumed by physics and the other natural sciences, must some time be overhauled.   The effort to overhaul them clearly and thoroughly is metaphysics; but metaphysics can only perform her task well when distinctly conscious of its great extent.  Metaphysics fragmentary, irresponsible, and half-awake, and unconscious that she is metaphysical, spoils two good things when she injects herself into a natural science.  And it seems to me that the theories both of a spiritual agent and of associated 'ideas' are, as they figure in the psychology-books, just such metaphysics as this. Even if their results be true, it would be as well to keep them, as thus presented, out of psychology as it is to keep the results of idealism out of physics.

I have therefore treated our passing thoughts as integers,  and regarded the mere laws of their coexistence with brain-states as the ultimate laws for our science.   The reader will in vain seek for any closed system in the book. It is mainly a mess of descriptive details, running out into queries which only a metaphysics alive to the weight of her task can hope successfully to deal with.  That will perhaps be centuries hence; and meanwhile the best mark of health that a science can show is this unfinished-seeming front.

**  A similar thing can be seen when people as presumably disinclined to racism as Kevin Drum takes IQ testing and the entirely similar expression of societal racism and the resultant economic and cultural inequalities it produces as demonstration of racial differences in intelligence, seriously enough to not point out that its validity is entirely dodgy.   IQ has also figured in court cases and is certainly used by those who can administer things like school admissions, employment, etc. which can have as much of an impact on lives and which certainly includes racial biases in its means of turning people into integers.   Kevin Drum, though I like him and like a lot of what he writes, is a good example of someone whose better intentions and journalistic practice are influenced by an unwarranted faith in the reality of something asserted in mathematical terms.

Unless you start by realizing what you're doing when you do that, that the results are determined by your choices at ever step of the way, what you exclude and include in your data gathering, your belief in the results as an absolute picture of reality is perhaps even more grotesquely superstitious than what informed the Salem witch trials.

***  This has already gotten to be long or I would go into the outrageous judicial use of expert psychologist testimony and the judicial algorithm of settled decision in cases, in the words of the disgusting Chief Justice Charles Fried, the desireability of "the community's interest in finality" over justice, decency and the truth, used by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts in repeatedly allowing the entirely unjust and disgusting - and pseudo-scientifically informed - conviction of the Amirault family during the largely TV incited ritual child abuse scare of the 1980s and 90s to stand.

The history of that trial and the actions of its official participants from start to finish are one of the most outrageous of injustices in recent American legal history.  It happening in Eastern Massachusetts, William James' Harvard played an oversized role in providing the personae dramatis. Only, it wasn't a play,  it was real lives which were ruined by judicial scientistic superstition and indifference.  The putrid Charles Fried went back to Harvard after he left the Supreme Judicial court. If I had more time I'd go into his other disgusting activities.

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