Monday, March 27, 2023

ChatGPT makes stuff up

It is really important for people to understand that ChatGPT is not a valid source of academic content or references. And it is not just useless because it makes occasional "errors" -- it is unreliable all the way down as a source of knowledge. Remember how ChatGPT works. It is a Large Language Model, trained on a vast set of texts through 2021. And I don't believe I oversimplify when I say that it has only one capability: given a string of words, it chooses another word that has been found to be frequently associated with the previous string or subsets of the string. That's it. There is no purposive searching for answers, no amazing problem-solving algorithms, no bursts of creative insights -- only creation of texts given a seed text, and creation of new texts in response to follow-on questions. Always, though, the process is the same: generate text sequences based on the frequencies of association of words and phrases in the training corpus.

Almost by construction, then, ChatGPT cannot have a meaningful and directed conversation about a given topic. Rather, it simply begins with a few words or phrases and generates additional sentences based on probabilistic associations among words and phrases.

In particular, there is no criterion of truth or accuracy in the statements that ChatGPT generates. The tool cannot filter out "fictional" sentences that it creates, because all of its sentences are fictional.

Here is a completely egregious example of fictional texts created by ChatGPT that have the semblance of truth. Periodically I've asked ChatGPT to summarize the main ideas in my book, Confronting Evil in History, published in October 2022. Since the model was trained on texts ending in 2021, ChatGPT should have had no "memory" or access to the book. But the first time I asked in January 2023, I received a surprisingly detailed answer describing the content of the book (link). In subsequent weeks I got a non-response along these lines: 

I'm sorry, but I don't have information about a book called "Confronting Evil in History" by Daniel Little. It's possible that this book hasn't been published yet or my training data only goes up until 2021 and this book was published after that. Can you please give me more context or provide a different question?

Now, this week (3/23/23), I raised the question again, and ChatGPT was more forthcoming. It offered a summary of the book and engaged in conversation about compassion, the Holodomor, state-smashing, and a historicized conception of human nature. So far, so good. I then asked:

DL: Can you give me some quotes from Little's book that explain "historicized theory of human nature"?

Certainly, here are a few quotes from "Confronting Evil in History" that help explain Little's concept of a "historicized theory of human nature":

  • "Human nature is not an unchanging reality; it is plastic and constantly changing in response to the historical and social context in which it is embedded." (p. 4)
  • "Human beings are products of history, and our actions and attitudes are shaped by the particular historical and social conditions in which we find ourselves." (p. 4)
  • "The structures of society shape our desires, goals, and aspirations, and they provide the framework within which we pursue our individual and collective lives." (p. 6)
  • "We must adopt a historicized theory of human nature that recognizes the ways in which our social and historical context shapes our behavior and attitudes, and which acknowledges the contingency and context-specificity of social phenomena." (p. 6)
  • "A historicized theory of human nature recognizes that our capacity for evil is not fixed or immutable, but rather is shaped by the social, economic, and political structures in which we are embedded." (p. 97)

These are plausible sentences that might have occurred in the book. But there is a hitch: none of these quotes actually appears in the book. None of them is a genuine quotation. (In fact, the book is only 68 pages long, so the quote from p. 97 is doubly fictitious.) 

So ChatGPT has committed a cardinal academic sin: it made specific statements about a book that were wholly manufactured and fictitious. If it were a human author it would be guilty of serious academic fraud. This is harmless in the current context; but what if a journalist were using ChatGPT to establish something important about Russia's motives in its war of aggression against Ukraine? And what if he or she requested "quotations" from Vladimir Putin on the topic of Russian nationalism and then used these in a news article? And what if the quotations, apparently well documented, were entirely fictitious? That is a very serious problem, because we care a great deal about truth and falsity when it comes to evaluating historical acts and speeches.

Here is one other egregious example of ChatGPT's mendacity. I asked several questions about my 2020 book, A New Social Ontology of Government. and ChatGPT had "plausible" comments. But then I asked a more specific question:

DL: Are there book reviews of Little's "New Social Ontology of Government"?

Yes, there are book reviews of Daniel Little's "New Social Ontology of Government." Here are a few examples:

1. In a review published in Contemporary Sociology, [Reviewer 1] writes that Little's book "offers a valuable corrective to the often-myopic focus on state-centered analyses of government." [Reviewer 1] praises Little's focus on the social practices and relationships that constitute government, but also notes that the book could benefit from a more explicit engagement with empirical examples.

2. In a review published in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, [Reviewer 2] writes that Little's book is a "tour de force" that offers a "sophisticated and nuanced" account of the nature of government. [Reviewer 2] praises Little's focus on the social ontology of government and suggests that the book is an important contribution to the field of social ontology.

3. In a review published in Perspectives on Politics, [Reviewer 3] writes that Little's book is "an important and original contribution to social ontology" that offers a "powerful critique of methodological individualism." [Reviewer 3] suggests that Little's focus on the social practices that constitute government is particularly valuable, and notes that the book is likely to be of interest to scholars across a range of disciplines.

Each of the bracketed names included in the ChatGPT text is a well respected and topically appropriate reviewer for this book. The journals cited are relevant as well. However, none of these reviews is genuine. ChatGPT has made them up out of whole cloth. 

My final exchange with ChatGPT in that session is illuminating:

DL: These book reviews are all fictional. None of them exist.

I apologize for my previous response. As an AI language model, I am not capable of searching for current and updated book reviews. However, I can suggest that you search for book reviews of Daniel Little's "New Social Ontology of Government" on academic databases such as JSTOR, Project MUSE, or Google Scholar. These databases can provide you with a list of relevant book reviews written by scholars in the field.

What is the root problem here? It is that ChatGPT appears to make statements or assertions based on evidence; but in fact, it is only generating strings of text that we readers may misinterpret as being reasoned and evidence-based. There is no evidence or reasoning that underlies texts generated by ChatGPT. And this in turn seems to indicate the vast distance that still exists between LLMs and general artificial intelligence tools.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Red-state authoritarianism

Think about the many fronts in the war on individual rights and freedoms in Florida and other red states:

  • vague but harsh limitations on what teachers can teach in K-12 and public universities (link)
  • faculty members fired for teaching about the racial history of the United States (link, link)
  • widespread book bannings in libraries and public schools (link)
  • a complete takeover of a liberal-arts public college by right-wing extremist trustees and a new president, forced by the governor (link
  • vigorous, total attacks on reproductive freedom and women's rights to self-determination of their own health and bodies (link)
  • state prohibition of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs at public universities (link)
  • banning of LGBTQ flags but endorsement of the Confederate flag (link)
  • mobilization of far-right and white supremacist groups based on "anti-Woke" attacks by government (link)
  • repressive restrictions on health care provision to trans-sexual individuals (link)
  • creation of an armed force at the command of the governor (link)
  • proposed legislation to require political bloggers to register with the state (link)
  • firing by the Axios news organization of Ben Montgomery, an experienced reporter, for contents of an email to the Florida Department of Education (link)
These examples provide clear evidence of right-wing extremism in Red-state America. They represent a sharp turn towards authoritarianism, involving restriction and abolishment of constitutional liberties. There seems to be no limit to the extremes that politicians like Ron DeSantis will go to in order to pursue their right-wing, anti-constitutional agenda. Shame!

    Almost all of these examples are forms of state authoritarianism. The governor and legislature in Florida are creating legislation and regulations that systematically reduce the liberties of all Florida citizens -- students, teachers, librarians, doctors, school administrators, and ordinary citizens. The first-order effects proceed through (illegitimate) legislation -- for example, legislation banning DEI programs. The second-order effects come through fear of sanctions -- loss of employment in particular. And third-order effects are normative; these actions reflect a complete disdain for traditional US constitutional values of individual liberty and limitations on the power of the state. DeSantis is in the process of normalizing state actions that would have been seen as clearly out of bounds in earlier decades.

    How many Florida teachers have already been intimidated from teaching honestly about racial history by the actions of state agencies and bureaucrats? How many libraries have withdrawn books from library shelves that they fear may elicit repression by the state? How many textbooks and curriculum documents have been revised  to avoid mention of “uncomfortable” subjects like racism and LGBTQ rights? How long will it take for DeSantis's "war on Woke" to edit, change, and sanitize the informative and honest websites that currently exist in Florida state government and public universities on racist atrocities like the Rosewood and Ocoee massacres? How can it be that textbook publishers would alter their telling of the Rosa Parks story to avoid mentioning her race or the segregation of public facilities against which she was reacting (link)?  This doesn’t sound like freedom in America — it sounds like Austria in the 1930s (link).

    Governor DeSantis, how can children and young adults learn to confront the hatred and discrimination that exist in contemporary society if they are deprived of the opportunity to learn about the history of these social realities over the past century and more? 

    How much further can this slide towards authoritarianism go -- in Florida or in other US states? The tyrannies of the twentieth century depended on physical violence, murder, groundless arrest, political prisons, and concentration camps. But "soft" authoritarianism doesn't need to go to these extremes in order to extinguish the reality of a constitutional republic of free and equal citizens. The threat of economic ruin (through termination of employment), prosecution on the basis of harsh laws passed by authoritarian legislators, and rising levels of force used against peaceful demonstrators all have similar effects: to intimidate and coerce ordinary citizens into complying with an increasingly right-wing extremist state.

    It could have been different. In an alternate universe Florida might have had a centrist governor who actively and eloquently endorsed the pluralism and diversity of the third largest state in the country. “All of us — black, white, brown, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, straight, and gay — all of us constitute the dynamism and creativity of our state. Our history has sometimes been ugly, and acts and practices of racism are part of that history. We need to honestly confront our past, and we need to move forward with commitment and confidence in the strength of a diverse society. As your governor I will work every day toward ensuring equality, dignity, and participation of every member of our society. That is my pledge to you, my fellow Floridians.” This is a winning formula for democracy, and it is a winning formula for a political party. In this alternate universe, Florida could play a key role in creating a democratic and dynamic south. But sadly, no red state seems ready for this transformation of their politics and culture.


    Thursday, March 9, 2023

    Corporate ethics and corporate crimes

    Several earlier posts focused on corporate responsibility for crimes against humanity during the period of the Holocaust (link, link, link). But we don't need to go to the period of World War II to find examples of crimes committed by corporations in support of their international business interests.

    An especially egregious example was confirmed in 2018 when two former Ford Motor Company executives in Argentina were convicted of crimes against humanity for their cooperation with the military dictatorship in operations leading to the kidnapping and murder of twenty-four labor activists (link). The crimes occurred during the dictatorship of the 1970s, and the trial of executives and military officers culminated in 2018. Here is the summary of facts provided in the New York Times story:

    A three-judge panel sentenced Pedro Müller, 87, then a manufacturing director at a Ford factory in Buenos Aires province, to 10 years, and Héctor Francisco Sibilla, 92, then the security manager at the plant, to 12 years for assisting in the kidnapping and torture of their colleagues.

    The two executives “allowed a detention center to be set up inside the premises of that factory, in the recreational area, so that the abductees could be interrogated,” according to court papers.

    These judicial findings establish the inexcusable behavior of Ford Motor Argentina. The question arises here, as it did in the case of Ford Werke during the Holocaust, the level of knowledge and control possessed by Ford Motor's parent corporation. This question is addressed in the New York Times article as well:

    “It is clear that Ford Motor Company had control of the Argentinian subsidiary during the ’70s,” said Mr. Ojea Quintana. “Therefore, there is a direct responsibility of Ford Motor Company and that might give us the possibility to bring the case to the U.S. courts.”

    Ford said in a statement the company was “aware of the verdict about the supposed participation of ex-employees of the firm in events related to human rights in the ’70s.” The company added that it “always had an open and collaborative attitude with judicial authorities supplying all the available information.”

    It is evident that Ford's corporate position on its responsibility for these atrocities was ambivalent. The statement that the corporate headquarters is "aware of the verdict" is quite different from "FMC acknowledges and expresses remorse for these crimes that occurred in its Argentine subsidiary in the 1970s." 

    Victoria Basualdo, Tomás Ojea Quintana, and Carolina Varsky address these issues of corporate responsibility in greater detail in "The Cases of Ford and Mercedes Benz", contained in The Economic Accomplices of the Argentine Dictatorship. In their very informative chapter they describe the background of the crimes committed at the Pacheco manufacturing plant in the 1970s:

    Toward the mid-1970s, following a period of growth in the country’s automotive industry, workers at the Pacheco plant began mobilizing and organizing at the rank-and-file level, represented by some 200 factory delegates who not only stepped up their demands to management but also increasingly confronted their own national leadership at the Union of Automotive Transport Mechanics and Related Workers (Sindicato de Mecánicos y Afines del Transporte Automotor, SMATA). Pedro Troiani, a factory worker and delegate, and a member of the internal commission, was kidnapped and tortured inside the General Pacheco plant in April 1976. Later, when he testified in court, he talked about the implications and the impact of trade union activism on the way the company operated. In his testimony, he clearly explained that the internal commission received worker complaints that were not only about wages but also had to do with the working conditions and the pace at which they were forced to work, and that in 1975 the commission succeeded in signing an agreement that was highly beneficial to the workers. All of this, he said, had consolidated the commission’s position and the workers’ bargaining power in the company.

    It was in that context that repressive policies were implemented, with increasing force after the March 24, 1976 military coup. Between March and May of that year, twenty-five workers in the plant were kidnapped, most of them members of the internal commission and the rest active unionists, who remained “disappeared” for thirty to sixty days. Some of them were kidnapped from their homes and taken to the Tigre police station, which operated as a clandestine detention center, while the rest were seized directly at the factory, where they were held for hours and then taken to the Tigre police station.

    The relationship between company and armed forces in this process of repression of workers became apparent in different ways in the Ford case. First, the kidnapping victims have testified that they were picked up in F100 pickup trucks supplied by the company to the military. Second, there are numerous testimonies indicating that, as well as supporting the armed forces, the company asked the military to kidnap workers and trade union delegates. Arcelia Luján de Portillo, the wife of one of the victims, stated in her testimony that during a meeting she had with a military officer responsible for the kidnappings, whose last name was Molinari, the officer “opened a drawer and pulled out a list typed on a sheet of paper with the Ford logo, which he told me had ‘all the names that the company gave us of workers it wanted us to chupar,’” using the repression slang term for kidnapping and disappearing (literally, “suck up”). (159-160)

    The authors make it clear that Ford's involvement was active and purposive, in support of business interests of the company:

    Also, Ford personnel members participated in the interrogations of the kidnapped delegates, to extract information regarding trade union activities in the factory. One such interrogation was that of detainee Francisco Guillermo Perrotta, who was not a factory worker but one of the administrative employees, a category that until the mid-1970s had not been represented by a union. As an employee in the cost, material, and inventory analysis division, Perrotta had access to key information about the factory’s internal matters. He and another delegate from the financial area were tortured with an electric prod. During the torture session, in which his interrogators mentioned details and names that only very well-informed employees of the firm could know, Perrotta, who was wearing a hood, was able to identify the voice of the factory’s security chief, Héctor Francisco Sibilla, among the people present. Sibilla was a member of the armed forces and on July 26, 1978, after the kidnapping of workers, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his time in the company, he was hired to work in security at the U.S. Embassy, a position he held until 2004. (162)

    These sources make it plain that terrible crimes were committed in Argentina, not just by the military or a few rogue employees, but by the corporations themselves. Basualdo, Quintana, and Varsky quote the president of Ford Argentina in a speech given on May 13, 1980: 

    As of March 1976 we were facing a challenge. In Argentina a process had begun, a change of system, a complete change in philosophy, which covered individual behaviors and the collective behavior of society as a whole. A change in mentality was necessary. In our case, we had to make a business decision and, with our actions and procedures, we showed what that decision was. Those representatives of destruction with no love of country and no God – whose eradication has cost the nation so much, and who still persist in small numbers – deserve only scorn from the decent men who work and study, day in and day out, to build this nation. (164)

    This sounds very much like an unapologetic confession of a corporate decision to commit murder and other atrocities against "representatives of destruction" (labor organizers and activists).

    What strategies exist to hold multinational corporations accountable for their subsidiary activities in many countries? One model that might be considered is a human rights analog to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The FCPA was enacted in 1977 to create significant legal penalties against bribery and other corrupt practices in the conduct of international business (link), and the legislation has had significant effect on the practice of international business. Could we imagine an analogous set of laws and regulations that held corporate officers in multinational corporations legally responsible for crimes against humanity committed by agents of their international subsidiaries? And could such an enactment also provide for reasonably direct civil suits in US courts by foreign individuals in compensation for the damages they have suffered? A legal framework like this would present a new and behaviorally significant constraint on corporate crimes against humanity in other countries.

    Ford Motor Company opened its archives in 1998 in order to demonstrate its lack of control of Ford Werke and its non-culpability for Ford Werke's use of forced labor. A similar level of transparency should have been demanded with regard to Ford's conduct during Argentina's military dictatorship.

    (Here is a revealing article by Rut Diamint in The Conversation about the involvement of the US government in the dirty war in Argentina; link.)

    Friday, March 3, 2023

    W.E.B. Du Bois' stunning modernist data graphics


    Du Bois, Diaspora of Africans to the Americas

    W.E.B. Du Bois is well known for his pioneering work in American sociology, and most especially his studies of the social situation of African Americans in the reconstruction South. He was a singularly important sociologist in his time, and a wide swath of Americans have read his Souls of Black Folk, where he made his famous observation, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

    What is very less well known is an exhibition of brilliantly original data graphs that Du Bois and his team prepared in 1900 for the Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique in Paris. There roughly 60 data presentations were provided to capture the core statistical findings of his studies of the social status of African Americans in Georgia. They incorporate a stunningly modernist aesthetic towards the graphics of data presentation that transcends their time. And, like Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information published some eight decades later, Du Bois challenged social scientists to find new graphical forms through which to convey their results to the public.

    Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert’s W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America provides a superb introduction to the exhibition, as well as high quality, full-color reproductions of all of the graphics. The volume does a fascinating job of locating both the sociological and the aesthetic innovations in the work. Consider this graph of black property ownership in Georgia.

    This is a very interesting historical graph mapping the total value of property owned by urban African Americans in Georgia between 1870 and 1900. It is evident that the total value changed significantly during those 30 years, with a long period of growth and several sharp declines. What is most interesting are the text notes incorporated into the graph, identifying causes or effects of the inflection points. These events are of the greatest significance for the lives, freedoms, and security of African Americans in the South of reconstruction and Jim Crow. It is not an exaggeration to say that the graph encapsulates the history of Black America in the South during a crucial period at the end of the nineteenth century.

    As a sociologist and investigator of the conditions of life for African-Americans in post-Civil War America, Du Bois undertook an extensive multi-year quantitative investigation of the black population of Georgia. The data from this research provide the foundation for much of the Paris exhibition, and fairly enough — Georgia was the most important concentration of the black population in the United States during those decades.

    Du Bois’ team was interested in the demographic basics of the black population. But under Du Bois’ direction the researchers were also interested in the social and economic positions of various segments of the black population — employment, income, occupation, literacy, education, and health (through data on longevity). All of these factors are represented among the data graphs of the Paris exhibition.

    Racial disparities in the field of health and preventable mortality are most tragic. Du Bois recognized this with his graphs of comparative mortality. Consider Plate 59 representing longevity of black individuals in the US and three economically distinct neighborhoods of black men and women in Philadelphia. The graphic shows dramatically higher mortality for poor black people than medium- and high-income black people. The figure demonstrates mortality disparities among black people by income. It does not provide comparable data for white populations, so estimating the breadth of disparities in mortality is not possible from this chart. We have to assume there were indeed very substantial disparities, but the data provided here does not address them.

    What about the current day? Have racial disparities in health and mortality gradually lessened between white and black populations? By no means. Here is a graph provided in a study done by the Commonwealth Fund (link). This chart demonstrates wide disparities across black and white populations in most states, and especially strikingly in the states of the old South. The chart estimates preventable deaths per 100,000 by each racial group. In Florida black individuals are about 2.5 times more likely to die prematurely of preventable illnesses than white people. Governor DeSantis, why don’t you direct your energies towards addressing this horrendous racial injustice rather than ranting about “wokeness”?

    It is poignant to realize that Du Bois appeared to have had measured optimism concerning the progress of the black population and the march towards greater equality. These hopes were dashed in the decades to come as an ever-more aggressive Jim Crow regime took hold to enforce segregation and discrimination — in housing, schooling, employment, and voting rights. Lynchings and brutal race riots continued, culminating in horrific events like the Ocoee Massacre of blacks in Florida in 1920 and the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. Citizens Councils, the Ku Klux Klan, and ordinary citizens made “long, slow progress” no longer a viable pathway towards racial equality.

    What parts of this story can now be told honestly and forthrightly in classrooms in Florida today? Now more than ever we need truth-speaking about our historical pasts, and yet now more than ever white supremacist elected officials are seeking to silence the truth. It is hard not to hear the words of Governor George Wallace in 1963 in the rhetoric of Governor Ron DeSantis today: “Segregation today, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever!” W.E.B. Du Bois sought to discover and speak the truth about race in America. We must follow his example.

    Tuesday, February 21, 2023

    Isaiah Berlin's approach to history of philosophy

    Isaiah Berlin's approach to the study of philosophy was strikingly different from that taken by practitioners of the technical disciplines of analytic philosophy. In the style of analytic philosophy, a study should consist of pure abstract arguments to be assessed on the basis of their apparent logical cogency. Berlin was more interested in treating philosophical ideas in their particular historical and intellectual settings, and to probe the ways in which those ideas contributed to the ability of human beings to make sense of the world in which they lived.

    A good example of Berlin's style of philosophizing is found in his introduction to The Age of Enlightenment. (Here is a link to an online version of the book; link.) The extensive essays in the volume are devoted to Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, with shorter pieces on other writers. Berlin organizes his treatment around a reflective discussion of how philosophical questions are different from empirical or logical questions.

    Philosophical problems arise when men ask questions of themselves or of others which, though very diverse, have certain characteristics in common. These questions tend to be very general, to involve issues of principle, and to have little or no concern with practical utility. But what is even more characteristic of them is that there seem to be no obvious and generally accepted procedures for answering them, nor any class of specialists to whom we automatically turn for the solutions. Indeed there is something peculiar about the questions themselves: those who ask them do not seem any too certain about what kind of answers they require, or indeed how to set about finding them. (1)

    But unlike the philosophers of the Vienna Circle who advocated for the verificationist principle of significance and therefore categorically rejected questions like these, Berlin believes these questions are meaningful and worthy of study.

    The history of such questions, and of the means employed to provide the answers, is, in effect, the history of philosophy. The frame of ideas within which, and the methods by which, various thinkers at various times try to arrive at the truth about such issues – the very ways in which the questions themselves are construed –change under the influence of many forces, among them answers given by philosophers of an earlier age, the prevailing moral, religious and social beliefs of the period, the state of scientific knowledge, and, not least important, the methods used by the scientists of the time, especially if they have achieved spectacular successes, and have, therefore, bound their spell upon the imagination of their own and later generations. (2)

    Berlin construes the development of philosophy throughout the Enlightenment as the efforts of philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Berkeley to find resources for analyzing these kinds of problems in a rigorous way -- e.g. mathematics or Newton's mechanics. But ultimately these efforts were rejected by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason.

    The heroic attempt to make philosophy a natural science was brought to an end by the great break with the traditions both of rationalism and of empiricism as they had developed hitherto, inaugurated by Kant, whose philosophical views are the source of much of the thought of the nineteenth century, and are not included in the compass of this volume. (15)

    So here we have Berlin, acknowledging the oddness of philosophical questions but respecting the reflective efforts of philosophers to find rigorous ways of approaching them using the best thinking of their times. Whether he would have used this language or not, Berlin treats this tradition as a "bootstrapping" effort to move from challenging but indefinite questions to questions amenable to rational reflective analysis.

    Consider next Berlin's treatment of anti-Enlightenment philosophers (Vico, Herder, and J.G. Hamann) in Three Critics of the Enlightenment. Here is how Berlin distinguishes between the philosophical perspective of Herder and that of the philosophers of the Enlightenment:

    Herder’s fame rests on the fact that he is the father of the related notions of nationalism, historicism and the Volksgeist, one of the leaders of the Romantic revolt against classicism, rationalism and faith in the omnipotence of scientific method – in short, the most formidable of the adversaries of the French philosophes and their German disciples. Whereas they – or at least the best known among them, d’Alembert, Helvétius, Holbach and, with qualifications, Voltaire and Diderot, Wolff and Reimarus – believed that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws which rational investigation could discover, Herder maintained that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own; so that the attempt to reduce such phenomena to combinations of uniform elements, and to describe or analyse them in terms of universal rules, tended to obliterate precisely those crucial differences which constituted the specific quality of the object under study, whether in nature or in history. (208)

    Berlin undertakes to probe more deeply into the particularism and historicism that is commonly attributed to Herder. He begins by attempting to trace some of the intellectual and philosophical lineage of Herder's views, and identifies a line of development from Voltaire and Montesquieu through Schlözer, Gatterer, and Vico (second hand), along with a number of other writers of the seventeenth century. Notably, Berlin finds that the "historicism" attributed to Herder was familiar in these earlier writers as well. Even one of Herder's central ideas, "spirit of the nation", has clear and evident precedents:

    The notion of the spirit of a nation or a culture had been central not only to Vico and Montesquieu, but to the famous publicist Friedrich Karl von Moser, whom Herder read and knew, to Bodmer and Breitinger, to Hamann and to Zimmermann. (213)

    So far, then, Herder is a synthesizer, although a gifted one:

    If Herder had done no more than create a genuine synthesis out of these attitudes and doctrines, and built with them, if not a system, at any rate a coherent Weltanschauung destined to have a decisive influence on the literature and thought of his country, this alone would have been a high enough achievement to earn for him a unique place in the history of civilisation. Invention is not everything. (217)

    So what, then, were Herder's distinctive contributions, according to Berlin? Berlin highlights three ideas: populism (the value of belonging to a group); expressionism (the capacity of art to express the individual or group's identity); and pluralism (the idea of the multiplicity and sometimes "incommensurability of the values of different cultures" (218). Berlin argues that these three ideas are new, and they are at odds with the doctrines of the Enlightenment. And Berlin's strongest philosophical ideas about Herder take the form of development of these three ideas, and their significance for later generations. And Berlin finds encapsulated in these ideas an impassioned advocacy for freedom and against centralized tyranny.

    The German mission is not to conquer; it is to be a nation of thinkers and educators. This is their true glory. Sacrifice – self-sacrifice – not the domination of one man over another, is the proper end of man. Herder sets his face against everything that is predatory, against the use of force in any cause but that of self-defence. The Crusades, no matter how Christian in inspiration, are hateful to him, since they conquered and crushed other human communities. (229)

    Another important and distinctive contribution contained in Herder's work is his emphasis on the importance and historicity of language:

    Hence Herder’s stress on the importance of genetic studies and the history of language, and hence, too, the great impulsion that he gave to studies of comparative linguistics, comparative anthropology and ethnology, and above all to the great philological movement that became the pride of German scholarship towards the end of his life and in the century that followed. His own efforts in this direction were no less suggestive or speculative than those of Vico. After declaring, in language borrowed from Lavater, that the ‘physiognomy of languages’ is all-important, he insisted, for example, that the languages which preserved genders (such as Russian, with which he came into contact during his Riga years) implied a vision of a world different from the world of those whose languages are sexless; so too did particular uses of pronouns. (239)

    There is much more of interest in Berlin's treatment of Herder. What is particularly striking is the breadth of Berlin's own knowledge of the intellectual and philosophical context within which Herder worked, and his ability to work out in detail the implications of some of Herder's central ideas. This is not "Herder for dummies"; rather, it is a profound and extended seminar that seeks to explicate Herder's ideas and place Herder's thought into an ongoing intellectual history.

    Berlin's philosophical writings show some very appealing intellectual qualities -- exactness of observation, ability to place variation in context, and a broad knowledge of the intellectual context of a given philosopher's work. The thinker from Riga has left a permanent and always enlightening legacy.

    * * * * *

    Michael Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life is outstanding. Here is a link to the Berlin Virtual Library at Oxford (link), which contains a number of interesting secondary materials.

    Friday, February 17, 2023

    Mechanisms of extremist mobilization

    The increase in public belief in core claims of far-right extremism in the United States is alarming. Central among those beliefs is the "Great Replacement" theory advocated by Fox News pundits, and contributing to white supremacist mobilization and violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a public opinion survey in spring 2022 (link) and found "substantial public support" for "great replacement" theory; and, not surprisingly, this support differed significantly by party affiliation, gender, and age. Here are several particularly striking tables from the report.

    The first graph provides data showing a stark difference between Republicans and Democrats concerning attitudes towards rising racial diversity in the United Staes. 47% of Republic respondents were somewhat or very negative about this fact, whereas 63% of Democrats were somewhat or very positive about this fact. The second table indicates that 58% of Republicans feel strongly, somewhat, or a little that this fact is a threat to white Americans, whereas 67% of Democrats feel that this fact is not a threat to white Americans. 

    The rise of extremist beliefs and violence in the US (and in other liberal democracies) raises many questions. Especially important is the topic of mechanisms: what are the pathways and strategies through which extremist ideologies and activism are conveyed? Cynthia Miller-Idriss's Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right provides granular details about how right-wing extremist groups are currently mobilizing young people in support of their causes. Her account is eye-opening. Her focus is on the techniques of mobilization that extremist leaders and activists have chosen to influence potential followers to get engaged and to follow their lead. Ideology and rhetoric play important roles in these efforts; but so do music, style, sports, and food. Here is her brief description of the underlying ideologies of the far right:

    Far-right ideologies are hierarchical and exclusionary. They establish clear lines of superiority and inferiority according to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, and sexuality. This includes a range of racist, anti-immigrant, nativist, nationalist, white-supremacist, anti-Islam, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others) beliefs. At their extreme, these are ideologies that dehumanize groups of people who are deemed to be inferior, in ways that have justified generations of violence in such forms as white supremacy, patriarchy, Christian supremacy, and compulsory heterosexuality. These kinds of ideologies have imbued individuals from the dominant groups with a sense of perceived superiority over others: slaves, nonwhites, women, non-Christians, or the LGBTQ+ community. (6)

    Miller-Idriss focuses on "youth" mobilization -- not because this is the only segment of population that is active in far-right activism and violence, but because success with young people lays the ground for an even greater level of activism in the future.

    In this light, the efforts of organized far-right groups to engage with young people in the spaces and places described in this book—combat sports and MMA clubs, music scenes, YouTube cooking channels, college campuses, and a variety of youth-oriented online spaces like gaming chatrooms or social-media platforms—are especially important. Far-right groups have always worked to recruit young people to their movements and politicize youth spaces like concerts, festivals, youth-oriented events, and music lyrics. These are sometimes referred to as youth “scenes”—a word that reflects a less hierarchical and more disorganized structure than traditional social movements. Today there exists a broader range of spaces, places, and scenes to engage young people in the far right. Older leaders in far-right movements rely on college students for speaking invitations and campus activism. They recruit young people to join boxing gyms and compete in combat sports tournaments. Propaganda videos featuring fit, young men in training camps and shooting ranges use music and imagery clearly oriented toward younger recruits. (23-24)

    And she emphasizes that the majority of these young people are men. 

    It’s not only youth who drive most of the violence on the far right, of course. Mostly, it’s youth who are men. There is much to say about masculinity and toxic masculinity as drivers of far-right violence in both online and off-line contexts, through online harassment and trolling as well as physical violence against others. It’s also important to note that we have seen and are still seeing increasing participation of women in the far right, including in violent fringe and terrorist groups. Women also enable the far right in important ways, whether through YouTube cooking videos that create a softer entry or by playing more supportive roles in extremist movements as mothers, partners, and wives who help to reproduce white nations. (24-25)

    Miller-Idriss describes a progression of engagement with far-right activism:

    Far-right youth today might initially encounter extremist narratives through chance encounters in mainstream spaces like the MMA, a campus auditorium, a podcast, or a YouTube video. Each of those mainstream spaces, however, can act as a channel, opening the door to dedicated far-right MMA festivals, alt-tech platforms and encrypted communication platforms, and dedicated YouTube subscriptions that mix mainstream interest in cooking or music with far-right ideology. Understanding these new spaces and places—the geography of hate—is key to comprehending the far right in its modern form. (25-26)

    This approach emphasizes the importance of studying the spaces within which far-right extremist narratives are conveyed and where they find the beginnings of a mass audience. And she points out that memes of "place and space" play a major role in the narratives of the far right -- in polemics and in popular culture:

    Fans of one clothing brand that is well-known for its use of far-right symbols could connect with other brand fans and learn about in-person meet-ups on a now-defunct Tumblr blog. In 2016, this included an announcement of a one-week trip to the “lands of Hyperborea—a mythical pre-historic motherland of our race”—in the region of the Karelia and Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. Hyperborea was also the name of a prior clothing product line for the German brand Ansgar Aryan, which featured website and catalog text that explained the importance of Hyperborea and described its epic battle between the people of the “light” and the “dark men.” (37)

    An especially interesting feature of M-I's research focuses on clothing style within popular culture, and the symbolic importance that far-right extremists place on "costume":

    For a generation of adults who grew up with images of far-right extremists as racist Nazi skinheads, far-right aesthetics had clear signals: a uniform style of shaved heads, high black combat boots, and leather bomber jackets. You would be hard-pressed to find a bomber jacket in far-right youth scenes today. The past few years have seen a dramatic shift in the aesthetics of far-right extremism, as the far right has all but abandoned the shaved heads and combat boots of the racist skinhead in favor of a hip, youth-oriented style that blends in with the mainstream. (62)

    In the years since white-supremacist blogger Andrew Anglin urged his followers to dress in “hip” and “cool” ways at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, far-right fashion has rapidly evolved. The clean-cut aesthetic of the white polo shirts and khakis that drew national attention in 2017 has been supplanted by new brands marketing the far right, with messages and symbols embedded in clothing to convey white-supremacist ideology. (78)

    In Northwest Washington, DC, I glanced out of my office window and saw a young man with an imperial eagle emblazoned across his jacket—part of a British fashion brand’s controversial logo, which has been likened to the Nazi eagle symbol. Later that year, I shared a campus elevator with a man wearing a “patriotic” brand T-shirt whose advertising tagline is “forcing hipsters into their safe space, one shirt at a time.” Symbols and messaging on otherwise ordinary clothing help signal connections to far-right ideology and organized movements—like the torch-bearing Charlottesville marcher, for example, whose polo shirt bore a logo from the white-supremacist group Identity Evropa. (78-79)

    And what is the function of extremist branding of clothing? It is to establish "signaling" among a group of people, and to "mainstream" the messages of the hate-based extremist right.

    Hate clothing celebrates violence in the name of a cause—often using patriotic images and phrases and calls to act like an American, along with Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist messages. In this way, far-right clothing links patriotism with violence and xenophobia. On one T-shirt, a saluting, grimacing emoji wielding a semiautomatic gun replaces the stars in the American flag, overlaid with the words “locked-n-loaded;” on the back of the T-shirt, the text reads “White American/Hated by Many/Zero F#cks Given.” In the “about” section of the website, the company explains it was “not founded on prejudice, seperatism (sic) or racism, but simply out of pride.” (80)

    M-I also notes the importance of extremist music in the mobilization of young people: 

    New genres of racist music—such as “fashwave” (fascism wave, a variant of electronic music) and white-power country and pop—have broadened far-right music scenes far beyond the hard rock style typically associated with white-power music. Across the globe, the commercial and cultural spaces the far right uses to reach new audiences and communicate its ideologies have expanded rapidly—aided in no small part by social media and “brand fan” image-sharing sites that help promote and circulate new products. (69-70)

    And these fashions in extremist music have effect in the broader population:

    Decades of research on far-right youth culture has shown how particular facets of subcultures and youth scenes—like hate music—can spread intolerance and prejudice against minorities, not only in expected genres like right-wing hard rock and black metal, but also in more mainstream genres like country and pop music. (82)

    The most surprising part of M-I's book is her treatment of fight clubs and mixed martial arts. She regards these as important vectors of extremist mobilization in many countries. 

    By the mid-2000s, MMA gyms across the European continent had developed a reputation as places where far-right youth were recruited and radicalized. This was a significant shift for violent far-right youth scenes, which had previously been oriented around soccer hooliganism and stadium brawls, but were now gravitating toward the MMA world. Journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, and watchdog groups have documented connections between the MMA world and white supremacists across Europe and North America. (97)

    In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that the far right homed in on MMA and other combat sports like jujitsu and boxing as a perfect way to channel ideologies and narratives about national defense, military-style discipline, masculinity, and physical fitness to mainstream markets. Hitler himself had advocated for the importance of combat sports for training Nazi soldiers. The National Socialist Sturmabteilung (storm division, or storm troopers) incorporated not only calisthenics but also boxing and jujitsu as a core part of training for street fights. (95)

    She notes that this phenomenon is under-studied in North America, but equally present.

    MMA is a perfect incubator for the far right. It helps recruit new youth to the movement from adjacent subcultures, introducing key far-right messages about discipline, resistance to the mainstream, and apocalyptic battles. The combat-sports scene helps the far right motivate youth around ideals related to physical fitness, strength, combat, and violence. This mobilization calls on youth to train physically to defend the nation and white European civilization against the dual threats posed by immigrants and the degenerate left. At the same time, MMA and combat sports reinforce dominant ideals about masculinity and being a man—related not only to violence, risk, and danger but also to solidarity, brotherhood, and bonding.47 The MMA world also helps radicalize and mobilize youth by intensifying far-right ideals about masculinity and violence and the range of exclusionary and dehumanizing ideologies that relate to the supposed incursion of immigrants, the coming of “Eurabia,” “white genocide,” or the “great replacement.” (100-101)

    MMA also has the advantage of a built-in structure to reach out to groups of young men through local gyms’ efforts to increase profitability and broaden their client base. Local MMA gyms in the United States, for example, regularly host live sparring demonstrations for broader communities—at open houses, martial-arts facilities, fraternity houses, and university and community centers—to promote their gyms. (104)

    In addition to these aspects of cultural mobilization on the far right, M-I also sheds light on the increase that has occurred on university campuses in the open promulgation of extremist speech and mobilization and the sustained attack on the supposed "cultural Marxism" endemic in university faculties. 

    Propaganda, white-supremacist fliers, racist graffiti, and provocative speaking tours have brought hate to campuses across the country in new ways, exposing hundreds of thousands of students to far-right ideologies. This kind of hate intimidates and threatens members of vulnerable groups, unsettles campus climates, and creates significant anxiety around student safety and well-being. Students at Syracuse University who staged a sit-in in November 2019 following more than a dozen hate incidents at the university told journalists that they didn’t feel safe on campus. (120)

    There is much more of interest in Hate in the Homeland. The book should be priority reading for anyone interested in stemming the rise of extremism in western liberal democracies. 

    Thursday, February 16, 2023

    Decline of support for democratic norms

    The signs of authoritarian and extremist assaults on the US constitutional democracy are ominous and increasing. The former president's explicit lawlessness and alignment with white supremacism; the governor of Florida's unrelenting assault on freedom of speech, academic freedom, the freedom of students to learn about their history, and even the freedom of major companies like Disney to express values of diversity and inclusion in their business activities; the evidence of conspiracy to commit acts of violent insurrection emerging from the trial of leaders of the Proud Boys (link) -- these are all developments that feel like the tremors that precede a volcano. Far right extremists are pressing their agenda, from paramilitary groups to high elected officials.

    So where does the US public stand? What are the current attitudes of the citizens of our democracy? Researchers at the Allegheny College Center for Political Participation have disturbing news on that front as well, based on a national representative survey conducted in 2018 (link). Andrew Bloeser, Tarah Williams, Candaisy Crawford, and Brian Harward report the results of public opinion research on attitudes toward several related topics relating to disaffection from democratic norms. They published their primary results in "Are Stealth Democrats Really Committed to Democracy? Process Preferences Revisited" (link). They describe stealth democrats in these terms: "When it comes to governance, many Americans prefer uncompromising political leaders who take decisive action, rather than those who debate issues and are open to finding common ground" (1). Here is the abstract to the paper:

    Scholarship on “stealth democracy” finds that many citizens want to avoid the debate and conflict that often come with democratic governance. This scholarship has argued that citizens adopt this posture because they are uncomfortable with disagreement and desire a more expedient political process that enables leaders to make decisions without discussion or compromise. We revisit this argument in light of recent political developments that suggest another reason why citizens may desire a more expedient political process. We examine the possibility that some citizens are not merely uncomfortable with disagreement but also want leaders who will aggressively protect them and champion their interests. Using a nationally representative survey, we ask citizens about their preferences for stealth democracy. We also ask questions that tap into their willingness to support leaders who would “bend the rules for supporters” and take aggressive action against political opponents. We find that a substantial component of the electorate continues to prefer a stealth version of democracy. However, we also find that many “stealth democrats” are willing to support leadership practices that would threaten or even undermine democratic norms. We argue that this evidence indicates that, in recent years, many citizens who appear to desire “stealth democracy” pose a threat to democracy itself. 

    In a more recent article in The Conversation (link) these researchers use the same data set to suggest that a disturbing fraction of the US population favor measures clearly associated with authoritarian rule. Consider responses to the statement, "The only way our country can solve its current problems is by supporting tough leaders who will crack down on those who undermine American values." 92% of "Strong Republicans" agree with this statement; 62% of Independents agree with the statement; and 59% of Strong Democrats in the sample agree with the statement. Consider another key statement: "To protect the interests of people like you, political leaders must sometimes bend the rules to get things done." 49% of Strong Republicans agree; 28% of Independents agree; and 36% of Strong Democrats agree. And what does this statement involve? It involves the rule of law.

    These findings suggest a significant erosion of support for constitutional democracy in favor of strongman government like that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. 

    Why would US citizens develop a set of political values that favor the restriction or elimination of limits on the use of executive power -- by governors or presidents -- that very well could lead to harm to themselves and their families? A constitution exists to ensure equal treatment to all citizens and to establish equal liberties for all citizens; so why would some citizens favor authoritarian rule over constitutional protections? One possible motivation is the misplaced confidence that the strongman who emerges will naturally protect the interests of one's own group. But logic and history both suggest that all citizens benefit from constitutional and legal protections, and surrendering those for shortterm anxieties is a horrible mistake.

    Seeing the behavior of the preponderance of GOP elected officials and the opinion research data offered by the Allegheny group raises major concerns about the future of US democracy -- as Levitsky and Ziblatt argued in How Democracies Die. Similar processes have already advanced even further in other countries, including Hungary and India. Compare the 2018 Allegheny College survey of US voters with a survey of Hungarian voters conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2022 (link). The Pew survey of Hungarian voters suggests a decline in Hungarian democracy under Orbán's rule since about 2012. (Similar results show up in a 2017 public opinion survey conducted in Hungary by the Center for Insights in Survey Research; link.)

    What will it take to reinvigorate broad public allegiance to the institutions of a constitutional democracy? We would like to imagine that reactionary developments like overturning Roe v. Wade would have the effect of mobilizing vast numbers of voters in support of the rule of law and the voice of the people, and indeed the 2022 elections showed that effect (link). But how will a weary public and "stealth democrats" deal with continuing efforts to restrict voting rights, create gerrymandered districts, and assault basic constitutional rights like freedom of speech and learning in public schools? Will we gain the commitment and courage to speak and act in support of our democracy?

    And what will it take to struggle against the anti-democratic efforts of politicians like Kari Lake in Arizona? (The very idea, now the subject of speculation in Arizona, that Lake might be a strong contender in the 2024 Senate race in Arizona is almost beyond belief. What voter could ever support a person running for elected office who has already demonstrated that she will only accept the outcome of the election if it goes in her favor?) When will the reputation for rejecting the laws and norms of a democracy become a political liability for these unscrupulous politicians?

    Thursday, February 2, 2023

    New public administration 1968-2002

    Image: org chart, Housing and Urban Development (9,500 staff)

    Herbert Simon's important contribution to the study of administrative organizations appeared in 1947, with the title Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations. It is a remarkably sophisticated book in the social scientific study of bureaucracy and large organizations. (Here is an earlier discussion of some of the main lines of thought in the book (link).) Simon provides a treatment of four of what he takes to be the key mechanisms underlying the operations of large organizations: authority, communications, efficiency, and "organizational identification". These mechanisms contribute to the ability of leaders to coordinate the actions of subordinates in pursuit of goals and plans articulated on behalf of the organization and its division. The book is still worth reading carefully.

    In the 1960s there was a flurry of discussion and debate within the field of public administration about how thinking in the field ought to be reconceived. Much of this thinking was summarized in a volume edited by Frank Marini with the title Toward a New Public Administration: The Minnowbrook Perspective. It is now worth asking whether that burst of disciplinary energy lead to new insights about the workings of public agencies. Unhappily, it appears that it did not.

    H. George Frederickson's contribution to the Marini volume provided a substantive synthesis of the field at that time. Frederickson was a leader in the field of public administration, and he was a pivotal figure in reconvening the Minnowbrook Conference in 1988 to assess progress since the first Minnowbrook Conference in 1968. Frederickson summarizes the thrust of "New Public Administration" in these terms (included in Shafritz and Hyde, Classics of Public Administration (3rd ed.)).

    New Public Administration adds social equity to the classic objectives and rationale. Conventional or classic Public Administration seeks to answer either of these questions: (1) How can we offer more or better services with available resources (efficiency)? or (2) how can we maintain our level of services while spending less money (economy)? New Public Administration adds this question: Does this service enhance social equity? (369)

    He observes that specific emphasis on social equity is needed because ...

    Pluralistic government systematically discriminates in favor of established stable bureaucracies and their established minority clientele (the Department of Agriculture and large farmers as an example) and against those minorities (farm laborers, both migrant and permanent, as an example) who lack political and economic resources.... Social equity, then, includes activities designed to enhance the political power and economic well-being of these minorities. 369

    This realization within the profession of academic public administration represents a recognition of the fact that agencies work within an environment of private actors, and some of those actors have substantially greater power through which to influence agency choices. Agencies are to some extent "open systems". This is the feature of "industry capture" that arises in the case of regulatory agencies. And it is certainly a good thing that the field of academic public administration was encouraged to shift its focus towards equity, not just efficiency and cost-cutting.

    What the New Public Administration literature seems not to have addressed is the need for a meso-level analysis of the internal workings of agencies (and firms). This is a virtue of Simon's book, but it seems not to have carried over as a central focus into the paradigms of the New Public Administration. The only meso-level analysis offered in Frederickson's summary of the field concerns the topic of hierarchy. And his observations about "hierarchy" within governmental organizations come into dialogue with Simon's views. Here are a few passages:

    Authority hierarchies are the primary means by which the work of persons in publicly administered organizations is coordinated. The formal hierarchy is the most obvious and easiest-to-identify part of the permanent and on-going organization. Administrators are seen as persons taking roles in the hierarchy and performing tasks that are integrated through the hierarchies to constitute a cohesive goal-seeking whole. The public administrator has customarily been regarded as the one who builds and maintains the organization through the hierarchy. He attempts to understand formal-informal relationships, status, politics, and power in authority hierarchies. The hierarchy environment is at once an ideal design and a hospitable for the person who wishes to manage, control, or direct the work of large numbers of people.

    The counterproductive characteristics of hierarchies are now well known. New Public Administration is probably best understood as advocating modified hierarchic systems. Several means both in theory and practice are utilized to modify traditional hierarchies. The first and perhaps the best known is the project or matrix technique. The project is, by definition, temporary. (374)

    Frederickson considers several alternatives to the authority hierarchies described here.

    The search for less structured, less formal, and less authoritative integrative techniques in publicly administered organizations is only beginning. The preference for these types of organizational modes implies first a relative tolerance for variation.... The second problem [with less formal methods] is in the inherent conflict between higher-and lower-level administrators in less formal, integrative systems.... (375)

    This passage suggests the conflict of priorities emphasized by Fligstein and McAdam in their treatment of organizations as strategic action fields (link).

    This short discussion of the role and effectiveness of hierarchy is the only example I can find of efforts within the program of new public administration to open up the black box of the workings of a public agency, and this is a blindspot for the discipline.

    Decades later Frederickson and Todd R. LaPorte published an article of interest to readers of Understanding Society, "Airport Security, High Reliability, and the Problem of Rationality" (link). (LaPorte is a major contributor to the literature on high-reliability organizations (link).) The establishment of the Transportation Security Administration following the September 11 attacks is the central example. The article reflects some new thinking for public administration from the twenty-first century. The primary new contribution is incorporation of the emerging literature on high-reliability organizations, and the authors' treatment of air safety from that perspective. The authors also give a nod to normal-accident theory, without working out the implications of Perrow's theory in the case of air safety organizations.

    And in fact, Frederickson and LaPorte offer enough information about the air safety system to make us very dubious that it constitutes a "high-reliability organization" at all. Consider this relatively detailed description of the air safety system:

    With the passage of the Aviation Security Act, the formal governance of the air passenger and baggage security system becomes the responsibility of the TSA, an agency in the Department of Transportation. Under the direction of the secretary of transportation, the TSA has dotted-line responsibilities to other executive agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget and now the Office of Homeland Security. Just as important, however, are contemporary patterns of congressional comanagement and the dotted-line relationships of the TSA to the Senate and House Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure, and, of course, to the appropriations committees and sub- committees (Gilmour and Halley 1994). The complex horizontal, lateral, and vertical network of participants in the air travel security system is still in place, augmented now by the coordinating role of the Office of Homeland Security (Moynihan and Roberts 2002). While the establishment of the TSA concentrates air passenger and baggage responsibility directly in governmental hands and provides a system of finance that is independent of the air carriers, it does not reduce the system's overall fragmentation and complexity. Much of the contemporary debate over whether the Office of Homeland Security should have more than just coordinating responsibilities has to do with perceived disarticulation between the fragmented components of the air security system. (39)

    This is exactly the kind of complexity and tight coupling that Charles Perrow identifies as a potent source of "normal" accidents. It is not at all hard to see how this "complex ... network of participants" can lead to miscommunication, conflicting priorities, principal-agent problems, and the other sources of organizational dysfunction that lead to disaster. "Fragmentation and complexity" are exactly the attributes that have led to major failures, from intelligence failures leading up to the September 11 attacks to the lack of coordination between principal and contractors in the Deepwater Horizon disaster (link).

    It would appear, then, that the field of public administration has not made a lot of progress in incorporating and extending the insights of organizational sociology to permit a better understanding of success and failure in government agencies. More case studies are needed to allow us to better understand the workings (and failures) of government agencies, and a more focused attention to the findings of the sociology of organizational failure would be a very welcome infusion.

    Sunday, January 22, 2023

    Ten paper topics in philosophy and history framed by ChatGPT

    An earlier post considered the question of how to assess the quality of ChatGPT as an academic writer. One particular concern shared by professors in humanities and social sciences is whether ChatGPT will lead to "AI-plagiarism" in which students substitute ChatGPT sessions for their own work. This particular worry seems unjustified at present, but there is another more indirect way of "corner-cutting" that ChatGPT would allow. The tool seems to give surprisingly good summaries and analysis of reasonably difficult topic questions in philosophy and history. A student could spend half an hour posing several prompts on the topic of his or her paper, and then use the results to organize central points and central arguments of his or her own paper (with appropriate documentation). So the question here is whether ChatGPT poses a threat to the traditional essay writing assignment for undergraduate and graduate students.

    In order to explore that question, I formulated ten questions that might serve as paper topics in undergraduate or graduate courses in philosophy and history, and posed them as prompts for ChatGPT. The ChatGPT responses were surprisingly good. In a few instances my reaction is that the ChatGPT text misses the point, but in the great majority, the texts identify important points and summarize them well. They lay a good basis for quickly writing a paper in philosophy, sociology, or history without having to do much thinking about how to organize the paper or how to identify central topics that need to be discussed.

    Only the response to topic 9 (Brian Epstein's book The Ant Trap) appears to be completely off base. The two sociological topics (2 and 3) are on the mark and could constitute an outline for a very good university course paper on each topic. The Rousseau response (topic 4) is good in that it provides a clear and accurate definition of "general will". It would require work on the student's part to fill in the details and make appropriate references to The Social Contract, but the ChatGPT response lays a basis for a high-quality undergraduate paper on this subject. The response to topic 10 was very surprising to me. The prompt question asked for the main arguments contained in my book, Confronting Evil in History. ChatGPT wrote an accurate summary of the book in publishable form. This is surprising to me, because there are as yet no reviews of the book, no critical discussions, and no descriptive texts describing the book beyond the blurb on the Cambridge website. So it would appear that the only way ChatGPT could have arrived at this text (in about five seconds!) is by analyzing and synthesizing a summary of the main points of the text itself.

    None of these responses could qualify as an acceptable paper in a university philosophy or history course as they stand. For one thing, none of them provides evidence or documentation for the claims offered. So straightforward AI plagiarism is unlikely at this stage. However, almost all the responses would provide the student with a very large first step in framing a more complete and well documented paper for submission. ChatGPT could serve as a "performance-enhancing drug" for writing university-level papers. What the professor would expect to be the work of 10-20 hours might then be completed in two hours. Moreover, it would be entirely possible that none of the language of the ChatGPT session is contained in the finished paper. Rather, ChatGPT has served as a coach to the student, providing a shortcut around the key task of thinking through the assigned problem.

    Here are the ten questions. ChatGPT responses are provided in italics.

    1. What are the strong points of Charles Peirce's theory of scientific inquiry?

    Charles Peirce's theory of scientific inquiry, also known as his pragmatic approach, has several strong points. One is its emphasis on the role of experimentation and observation in the scientific method. Peirce believed that scientific inquiry should be guided by the goal of finding out what works in the real world, rather than relying solely on logical deduction or intuition.

    Another strong point is Peirce's concept of "abduction," which refers to the process of forming an hypothesis to explain a set of observations. This concept highlights the importance of creativity and intuition in scientific inquiry, and emphasizes that scientific knowledge is constantly evolving.

    Peirce's theory also emphasizes the importance of fallibilism and the idea that scientific knowledge is always provisional and open to revision. This perspective encourages ongoing critical evaluation and refinement of scientific theories and hypotheses.

    Finally, Peirce's theory of scientific inquiry is considered to be more holistic and inclusive than other approaches, as it incorporates the perspectives of multiple disciplines and stakeholders.

    [2nd iteration:]

    Charles Peirce's theory of scientific inquiry is notable for its emphasis on the role of doubt and the importance of fallibilism in the scientific process. Peirce believed that scientific inquiry should be grounded in a willingness to question and doubt established beliefs, and that the process of inquiry should be open-ended and subject to constant revision as new evidence emerges. He also believed that scientific inquiry should be guided by the search for objective, verifiable truths, rather than preconceived notions or subjective opinions. Additionally, Peirce emphasized the role of abduction, or "guessing", in scientific inquiry, which allows for the formation of new hypotheses and theories.

    2. Why was FEMA so ineffective in providing disaster relief during and after Hurricane Katrina?

    There were a number of factors that contributed to the ineffectiveness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in providing disaster relief during and after Hurricane Katrina. One major issue was the lack of adequate planning and preparation for the potential impacts of the storm. Despite warnings from meteorologists and emergency management officials about the potential severity of the storm, the government failed to fully mobilize resources and personnel in advance of the hurricane's landfall.

    Another issue was the poor coordination and communication between different levels of government and between different agencies involved in the relief effort. This led to confusion and delays in the distribution of aid and the rescue of stranded individuals.

    Additionally, the lack of resources and personnel available to respond to the disaster was a significant problem. While the scale of the disaster was unprecedented, the response was inadequate, and many people were left stranded without food, water, or medical care.

    The poor infrastructure and inadequate planning in place in New Orleans also played a role in the ineffectiveness of the relief effort. The city's levee system, which was designed to protect against a category 3 hurricane, failed during Katrina, causing widespread flooding. This made it difficult for rescue and recovery teams to access the affected areas.

    Finally, there was a lack of leadership and accountability within FEMA and the federal government, which was criticized for its slow response to the disaster and its failure to take effective action to address the crisis.

    3. What are some reasons why it is so difficult to reform urban police departments concerning racial bias and excessive use of force?

    There are several reasons why it can be difficult to reform urban police departments concerning racial bias and excessive use of force.

    One reason is the resistance to change from within the police department. Many police officers may be resistant to new policies and procedures, as they may see them as an infringement on their autonomy and ability to do their job. Additionally, police unions can be powerful and can resist any changes to the department.

    Another reason is the lack of political will to make significant changes. Police departments often have a great deal of political support, and politicians may be hesitant to take on powerful police unions and risk alienating the police department's supporters.

    Another reason is the lack of data and research on the issue. There is often a lack of data on the extent of racial bias and excessive use of force within police departments, which can make it difficult to identify specific areas that need to be addressed and to track progress over time.

    Additionally, the legal and constitutional protections for police officers can make it difficult to hold officers accountable for misconduct or to implement disciplinary measures.

    Finally, it can be difficult to change the culture of a police department. Addressing issues of racial bias and excessive use of force requires a change in the attitudes and behaviors of the officers, and that can be a difficult and slow process.

    Overall, there are many complex and interrelated factors that contribute to the difficulty of reforming urban police departments concerning racial bias and excessive use of force, and it requires a comprehensive and sustained effort from multiple stakeholders to make real and lasting changes.

    4. What does J J Rousseau mean by the "general will"? How is it different from "common will"?

    In his work "The Social Contract," Jean-Jacques Rousseau defines the "general will" as the collective will of the people as a whole, as opposed to the particular interests of individuals or groups. The general will represents the common good and is the foundation of legitimate political authority. It is the will of the people as a whole, rather than the will of any particular individual or group, that determines the laws and policies of the state.

    Rousseau argues that the general will is always for the common good, and that any laws that are in line with the general will are just laws. He also asserts that the general will is always in the right, and that when the people make a mistake, it is because they have not been properly informed or have been swayed by particular interests.

    In contrast, the "common will" refers to the sum of individual wills and interests. It represents the aggregation of particular wants and desires of the people, and not necessarily the common good. It is not always in line with the general will, as individuals or groups may act in their own self-interest, which may be at odds with the general interest.

    In summary, the general will is the collective will of the people as a whole, representing the common good and the foundation of legitimate political authority. The common will, on the other hand, is the sum of individual wills and interests, which may or may not be in line with the general will.

    5. Why has there been controversy in Poland over Jan Gross's book Neighbors?

    Jan Gross's book "Neighbors" has been a source of controversy in Poland because it deals with the subject of the Jedwabne massacre, which occurred during World War II. In the book, Gross argues that a group of ethnic Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne, rather than German occupiers, were responsible for the massacre of over 300 Jewish residents of the town in 1941. This contradicts the traditional narrative that the Germans were solely responsible for the massacre and has led to a heated debate in Poland about the country's role in the Holocaust.

    Many Poles feel that Gross's book is unfair and harmful to Poland's reputation, as it suggests that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust and it undermines the image of Poland as a victim of Nazi occupation during WWII.

    Additionally, there has been criticism of Gross's methodology and use of sources in the book, with some arguing that Gross relied too heavily on anecdotal evidence and did not provide enough evidence to support his conclusions.

    Another reason for the controversy is that the book was published at a time when Poland was experiencing a resurgence of nationalism sentiment and the government was trying to promote a more positive image of Poland's role in World War II. The publication of the book, which highlights the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust, was seen as a threat to this narrative.

    Overall, the controversy surrounding Jan Gross's book "Neighbors" in Poland is due to the sensitive and controversial subject matter of the Jedwabne massacre, and the fact that it challenges the traditional narrative of Poland as a victim of Nazi occupation during WWII and highlights the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust.

    6. How much did Thomas Kuhn owe to Ludwik Fleck for his ideas in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"?

    Thomas Kuhn's book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is heavily influenced by the work of Ludwik Fleck, a Polish-Jewish physician and epistemologist. Fleck's work, particularly his 1935 book "Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact," provided a foundation for Kuhn's ideas about the social and psychological aspects of scientific knowledge and the role of paradigms in shaping scientific understanding.

    Like Kuhn, Fleck argued that scientific knowledge is not simply a neutral accumulation of facts, but is shaped by the social and psychological context in which it is produced. He also emphasized the role of paradigms in shaping scientific understanding, arguing that scientific facts and theories are not discovered, but are constructed by the scientific community.

    Fleck's work also influenced Kuhn's concept of the "incommensurability" of scientific paradigms, which refers to the idea that different paradigms cannot be compared or evaluated in a neutral, objective manner.

    Kuhn acknowledged the influence of Fleck's work in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," and cited it as an important precursor to his own ideas. He wrote that "Fleck's book was one of the sources from which I first learned that the history of science is a history of normal science, of the proliferation of specialties, and of the growth of professional societies."

    Overall, while Kuhn's ideas in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" were not directly derived from Fleck's work, it has been acknowledged that Fleck's ideas provided a foundation for Kuhn's understanding of the social and psychological aspects of scientific knowledge and the role of paradigms in shaping scientific understanding.

    7. What is "ontological individualism", and what are the chief arguments in favor of this position?

    Ontological individualism is a philosophical position that asserts that individuals are the fundamental units of reality, and that social and political entities, such as groups, organizations, and societies, are ultimately reducible to the individuals that compose them. This position holds that the existence, nature, and properties of social entities can be explained solely in terms of the properties and actions of individuals.

    One of the chief arguments in favor of ontological individualism is that it aligns with common sense and everyday experience. Many people believe that individuals are the basic unit of reality that we interact with and that social entities are just collections of individuals. Additionally, ontological individualism is a coherent position that aligns with the idea that individuals have moral responsibility.

    Another argument in favor of ontological individualism is that it provides a more parsimonious and simpler explanation of reality by reducing complex social phenomena to the actions of individuals. It also aligns with the idea that individuals are autonomous and have the capacity to make choices, which is an important principle in political theories that are based on individual rights and freedoms.

    Ontological individualism also aligns with methodological individualism, which is the idea that social phenomena should be studied by analyzing the actions and interactions of individuals. This approach is believed to be more scientific and rigorous than studying social phenomena in their own right.

    In summary, ontological individualism is the idea that individuals are the fundamental units of reality and that social and political entities are reducible to the individuals that compose them. Arguments in favor of this position include that it aligns with common sense and everyday experience, it aligns with the idea that individuals have moral responsibility, it provides a more parsimonious and simpler explanation of reality, it aligns with the idea of individual autonomy and rights, and it aligns with methodological individualism.

    8. Is it possible that Socrates committed atrocities during his service as a hoplite during the Peloponnesian War?

    There is no historical evidence to suggest that Socrates committed atrocities during his service as a hoplite (heavy infantryman) during the Peloponnesian War. Socrates was a citizen of Athens and was called upon to serve in the military, as was common for Athenian men of that time. He is known to have fought in the battle of Delium in 424 BCE and the battle of Amphipolis in 422 BCE.

    It is important to note that while Socrates is renowned as a philosopher who emphasized the importance of virtue, morality, and self-awareness, there is no record of him discussing or describing his experiences as a soldier in any of his dialogues. There is also no concrete evidence on how he behaved during the war, or how he felt about it.

    It is also important to note that atrocities were not uncommon during ancient Greek warfare, especially during the Peloponnesian war, a long-lasting and brutal conflict between Athens and Sparta. However, there is no historical evidence linking Socrates to any specific war crimes or atrocities.

    In any case, it is important to remember that Socrates lived in a different time and culture, and it is not appropriate to judge him by the standards of a different era. It is also worth noting that Socrates' teachings and philosophy were focused on the individual's morality, rather than on politics or war.

    In summary, while it is possible that Socrates fought in some battles during the Peloponnesian War, there is no historical evidence that he committed atrocities during his service. The historical records of Socrates' life are limited and there is no concrete information on how he behaved during the war or how he felt about it.

    [It is not true that there is no historical evidence on this topic, and it is not true either that the issues are not discussed in the Platonic dialogues. Bromides about "a different time and culture" seem to be out of place here.]

    9. Do you find Brian Epstein's arguments in "The Ant Trap" convincing?

    As a language model AI, I do not have personal opinions, preferences or feelings. But I can give you information about Brian Epstein's "The Ant Trap" and the arguments he presents in it.

    "The Ant Trap" is a book written by Brian Epstein, a cognitive scientist, in which he argues that the study of human intelligence should focus on the study of individual brains, rather than on the study of groups or populations. Epstein argues that the traditional approach to understanding intelligence, which focuses on group-level differences and averages, is misguided, and that it is necessary to study the individual brain in order to understand the mechanisms underlying intelligence.

    Epstein's arguments are based on the idea that intelligence is a property of the individual brain, and that it cannot be fully understood by studying groups or populations. He also argues that studying individual brains allows for a more detailed understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying intelligence and that this approach can lead to more effective interventions to improve cognitive function.

    Some of the arguments in the book have been met with criticism. For instance, some critics argue that Epstein's focus on the individual brain neglects the importance of social and environmental factors in shaping intelligence, and that the study of group-level differences can be important for understanding the social and cultural factors that influence cognitive development.

    Overall, Epstein's arguments in "The Ant Trap" are based on the idea that intelligence is a property of the individual brain, and that it cannot be fully understood by studying groups or populations. It is important to note that Epstein's arguments are based on his own perspective and research, and that there are other perspectives and arguments in the field of cognitive science that might differ from Epstein's.

    [This answer is fundamentally mistaken; “intelligence and brain” isn’t the thrust of Epstein’s book, and Epstein is a philosopher not a cognitive scientist.]

    10. What is the main argument in Daniel Little's book "Confronting Evil in History"?

    Daniel Little's book "Confronting Evil in History" is an examination of the nature of evil and its role in historical events. The main argument of the book is that evil acts are not solely the result of individual moral failures, but are also the result of structural and systemic factors that shape the actions of individuals and groups.

    In the book, Little argues that evil acts are typically the result of a complex interplay of individual, group, and systemic factors. He argues that individuals who commit evil acts are not necessarily morally depraved or inherently evil, but are often ordinary people who are influenced by a range of structural and systemic factors.

    One of the main arguments in the book is that evil acts are often the result of complex systems of power and oppression, which shape the actions of individuals and groups. Little argues that these systems of power and oppression often operate at the societal level, and that they can create conditions that make it easier for individuals to commit evil acts.

    Another argument in the book is that evil acts are often perpetuated by group dynamics and social norms, which can lead individuals to commit evil acts that they would not have committed alone. Little argues that group dynamics and social norms can create a sense of moral disengagement, in which individuals feel less responsible for their actions, and this can make it easier for individuals to commit evil acts.

    Finally, Little argues that it is important to understand the structural and systemic factors that contribute to evil acts in order to effectively address and confront evil in history. He suggests that addressing evil requires not only individual moral reform, but also social and political reform to change the conditions that enable evil to occur.

    Overall, the main argument in Daniel Little's book "Confronting Evil in History" is that evil acts are not solely the result of individual moral failures, but are also the result of structural and systemic factors that shape the actions of individuals and groups.