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.