Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, July 7, 2014

worse and worse

Another candidate for Worst Defense of Facebook, this one from Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research:

Yes, the arrival of new ways to understand the world can be unsettling. But as social science starts going through the kind of revolution that astronomy and chemistry went through 200 years ago, we should resist the urge to attack the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Just as in the Romantic era, advances in technology are now allowing us to measure the previously unmeasurable – then distant galaxies, now networks of millions of people. Just as then, the scientific method is being promoted as an improvement over traditional practices based on intuition and personal experience. And just as then, defenders of the status quo object that data and experiments are inherently untrustworthy, or are simply incapable of capturing what really matters.

We need to have these debates, and let reasonable people disagree. But it's unreasonable to insist that the behavior of humans and societies is somehow an illegitimate subject for the scientific method. Now that the choice between ignorance and understanding is within our power to make, we should follow the lead of the Romantics and choose understanding.

Get that? If you are opposed to the Facebook experiment, you are “attack[ing] the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake” — because, as we know, the people who work at Facebook care nothing for filthy lucre: they are perfectly disinterested apostles of Knowledge! So why do you hate knowledge?

Moreover, Why do you think “data and experiments are inherently untrustworthy”? — yes, all data, all experiments, because clearly it is impossible to criticize Facebook without criticizing “data and experiments” tout court. If you criticize the Facebook experiment, you thereby “insist that the behavior of humans and societies is somehow an illegitimate subject for the scientific method.”

There’s more of this garbage — far more:

Remember: the initial trigger for the outrage over the Facebook study was that it manipulated the emotions of users. But we are being manipulated without our knowledge or consent all the time – by advertisers, marketers, politicians – and we all just accept that as a part of life. The only difference between the Facebook study and everyday life is that the researchers were trying to understand the effect of that manipulation.

Of course. No one has ever complained about being manipulated or lied to by politicians or marketers. And note once more the purity of Facebook’s motives: they’re just trying to “understand,” that’s all. Why do you hate understanding? (Later on Watts talks about “the decisions they're already making on our behalf”: on our behalf. Facebook may be a publicly-traded, for-profit corporation, but all they really care about is helping their users. Why are you so ungrateful?)

If that still sounds creepy, ask yourself this: Would you prefer a world in which we are having our emotions manipulated, but where the manipulators ignore the consequences of their own actions? What about if the manipulators know exactly what they're doing ... but don't tell anyone about it? Is that really a world you want to live in?

As I suggested in a comment on an earlier post, if you live by A/B thinking, you end up dying (intellectually) by A/B thinking. Watts is trying pretty desperately here to tell us that we can only choose a world in which we’re manipulated without knowing it or in which we are knowingly manipulated. The one thing he doesn't want any of his readers to think is that it’s possible to try to reduce the manipulation.

At the end of this absurd screed Watts writes,

Yes, all research needs to be conducted ethically, and social scientists have an obligation to earn and keep the public trust. But unless the public truly prefers a world in which nobody knows anything, more and better science is the best answer we have.

Why do you prefer a world in which nobody knows anything? But wait — there’s a little glimmer of light here ... hard to see, but ... here it is: “social scientists have an obligation to earn and keep the public trust.” Right. And the ones from Facebook haven’t. And they’re not going to get it back by accusing everyone who’s unhappy with them of seeking darkness and ignorance.


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