Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Democracy And The Prisoner's Dilemma

A recent story that touched on motivations for voting one way or another has reminded me that elections can be seen through the lens of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma psychological game. In that game, two "criminals" are offered plea deals to turn in their partner but both will go free if neither confesses, and neither knows what the other will do.

It seems to me that there is a similar game people need to play when they vote because they do not know for sure how everyone else will vote--or how many people will vote. If someone wants to vote for the person they feel is the best choice but know their vote might be more strategically placed for someone who is less desirable but far more acceptable than someone who is completed unacceptable, what does one do? Do you take the "deal" and accept something less-than-perfect in order to be sure the worst choice doesn't win, or do you hope that the votes in the unknown block go with the best choice and give that person the win? How will those people answer this same question?

So, I'm left asking, is the democratic process as we know it doing the best it can do for us? If not, how can it be improved? Should we all get a chance to change our votes after an initial count is made public?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Happily Infecting Ourselves With Our Own Flaws

Story: After the Fact: In the history of truth, a new chapter begins

For a while now I have reached the opinion that humans are too flawed to retrieve facts and base our actions upon them. Part of the reason is that whatever we think are facts today are subject to being falsified because we made the original judgment based on imperfect information. We can never know what we don't know, and when that changes with new information we still won't know what we don't know and can't take it into account.

This article reminds me a little of something I read five years ago or so (in New Scientist, I think, but not sure) an article about how much Einstein was opposed (and still is in some circles). Before he came along, science was something considerably more tangible to the scientists of the time. The scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries were able to be easily grasped by anyone with even a moderate education. But Einstein told everyone that what they understood was in some ways an illusion and the universe couldn't be properly understood using the facts and discoveries made up to that time.

I do think empiricism is in error because we humans are involved in the process, forcing a result with flaws. We can minimize those flaws with time and taking steps to accommodate our contamination of what we do. But I'm not sure we'll ever be able to totally get out of our own way.

In the article it is suggested that everyone is after facts, which I don't thin is true at all. What a lot of people are after is a justification for their opinions in order to call them facts. If we were actually looking for facts, we would have a pretty large consensus on just about everything. But we haven't, which to me just shows how much we happily infect ourselves with our flaws.

Friday, March 18, 2016

America: Faux Democracy

Taken together, the refusal to let a SCOTUS nominee come to a vote in the U.S. Senate, the various voter suppression laws that continue to be passed, the delegate system used by the major parties to choose presidential candidates, the electoral college, gerrymandering, and more all add up to a faux democracy. We are pretending that we have a We The People-based system in the U.S. that is so valuable we go to war against countries to impose it. But all the evidence shows we're faking it for the sake of those who think it would be awful to let We The People get anywhere close to actually participating in a system where they matter.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Era Of Each News Story Being A Profit Center

The following is from a recent job announcement for a reporter for a Gannett newspaper:

We're a Gannett newsroom, which means we're online first, reporters produce video on their company iPhone, and we watch our analytics the way a beagle watches rabbits. We know what people read, so people read what we write.

This might seem innocuous at first, but this attitude is why we don't get enough quality news. What this tells us is that news sources are treating each story as an independent profit center, meaning the writers and editors are going to be looking to provide what gets attention, not what's truthful or necessary. News, in order to serve its purpose, is to inform with as little bias as possible. It's also a good thing to ignore what the majority of people think they want to read  a good deal of the time.

The movement toward stand-alone online articles since online access as grown is hurting the overall quality of what we are given by those supposed to inform us. When news came in a package with other more "juicy" items in a newspaper, magazine, TV show or radio station, the news was usually subsidized by them, where the income from entertainment shows and other items helped fund news programs. But this move toward the smallest unit of media needing to fund itself is forcing more of what we read to be based on the money each item brings in, not the value of the information being delivered so that we can at least try to maintain an informed public.

News by itself will never be a way to make a lot of money. If we don't realize that and take steps to provide high quality news in large quantities, even if it doesn't make money, our future is not going to be based on what matters.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Common Sense Is A Liar

Story: Most Popular Theories of Consciousness Are Worse Than Wrong

This is one of very few mainstream articles that talks about this in a framework that I think actually makes sense. Leaving aside the problem of a concrete definition of consciousness, the issues is almost always approached as if it's something largely non-physical. By looking at it this way, we start off with a falsehood meaning any conclusions will be untenable. Remember GIGO?

In order for us to find out truths about anything, we need to remove ourselves as much as possible from the investigative process. I know that's hard to fathom, but we are getting-it-wrong machines when left on our own to figure things out. We need processes that pull us away from how we search for what we're looking for.

As this article's author writes, we are often basing our pursuit on what makes intuitive empirical sense to us, which is a path to failure. Human "common sense" is not our friend. It is a deceiver that lies to us constantly.

Friday, March 4, 2016

MIchael Shermer Outs Himself As A Conservative Ideolog

Story: Is Social Science Politically Biased?

Michael Shermer has just outed himself as a conservative ideolog. In a recent essay posted online by Scientific American, Shermer tries to make the claim that social science itself is biased against political conservatives. His attempt contains the bullshit claims that liberals have "a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naive belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence from behavior genetics that culture and environment exclusively determine one's lot in life."

He would probably claim that this is a statement of stereotypes rather than his own mindset, but that would be false. He seems to be trying to get away with making these claims without having to take responsibility for holding these ideas himself. If he wanted to distance himself from these groundless stereotypes, he would have included language that directly states they are invalid ideas. But he didn't. He's being as slimy as a politician, not a style a scientist should emulate.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Electronic Voting Machines Are Not Exempt From Human Mischief

Story: Austin radio station flooded with reports of voting machines switching votes
(Similar electronic voting fraud stories here, here, here, and here.)

I have always been afraid of electronic voting machines. From my experience (and probably the experience of anyone else who has worked in IT for any length of time) people will exploit holes in programming in any electronic device wherever they exist. And if one can't be found, it will be created. There is no way voting machines would somehow be exempt from this human proclivity. It's simply nuts to think otherwise.

In order for any democratic process to be as close to valid as possible, it needs to be the expensive and messy way--hand-written ballots counted by multiple people. There is simply too much temptation for fraud to remain free from it by handing over the reigns to people and a process with a proven track record of mischief.