Compromise and its discontents

It’s easy to complain about “purity politics”.  It’s easy to complain about “neoliberals” and “sellouts”.  But we live in hard times, and the easy route’s not going to get us anywhere.

Here are two things that are both generally true: you need to compromise sometimes and sometimes you need to stick to your principles.  This question is, which times are which?

I thought about this recently when I read, back to back, two stories.  The first was about Cyrus Vance, the corrupt Manhattan DA who recently ran unopposed as a Democrat.  “Get him out of office!” I thought, angrily.  “Even if he gets replaced by a Republican!”  Then, I read about the DFA withdrawing their endorsement of Ralph Northam because he came out against sanctuary cities.  “That’s terrible,” I thought, about both Northam and the DFA.  “I disagree with him on this issue but we’ve still got to get him elected.”

Whenever a Democrat does something wrong (or a Republican does something right) you will find people on the left arguing over whether or not we should support them.  There’s always someone saying we need to take our allies where we can get them, and someone saying that this or that is a bridge too far.

This dynamic is especially heated right now, thanks to the Republican party.  They’re fueling both groups.  The compromisers say, “Look, look at the other option.  We need to do all we can to resist these hateful, violent, reckless people.”  And the principle-stickers say, “Look, look at what happened to Republicans when they embraced that mindset.”

So how can we figure out when to compromise, and when to stick to principle?  We need to get better at articulating the specific context that’s driving our arguments, rather than falling back on statements like “We can’t sacrifice our principles!” or “We need to compromise sometimes!”  Not only are those statements obviously true, they read like an attack.  No one wants to be told they’re unprincipled or impractical.  No one needs to be told that, either.

In that spirit, here is just a starter list of things to consider when making a specific judgment call:

  1. What good/bad things will happen if we don’t compromise?  What good/bad things will happen if we do?
  2. Of the things that might happen, how much of them will affect us personally?  If most of them will affect other people, what do those people say about the dilemma we’re in?
  3. How set-in-stone is this decision?  Are we electing someone for a one year term or a six year term?  How hard will it be to roll back this legislation?
  4. Will our actions change the fundamental structure within which we act?  If we support someone who is corrupt, or who won’t enforce constitutional checks and freedoms, will we have the institutional tools to take them down if we change our minds, or is now our best or only chance?

A perfect circle

Chalk Corridor by fdecomite 6/25/2013 CC BY 2.0

Objective truth exists in the way that a perfect circle exists.  They’re both useful constructs, helpful for comparison and for motivation, but we must be careful in how we apply them.

Statements about truth that are unhelpful:

  • “What I’m saying is objectively true.”  (“What I’m drawing is perfectly circular.”)
  • “What you’re saying is not objectively true.”  (“What you’re drawing is not entirely perfect.”)
  • “Nothing is ever entirely objectively true, so we might as well give up caring about truth.”  (“No circle will ever be perfect, so we might as well give up trying to make circles.”)

Statements about truth that are helpful:

  • “This statement is as close to objectively true as I can get it.”  (“This circle is as perfect as I can draw it.”)
  • “Your statement would be closer to objective truth if you X.”  (“Your circle would be rounder if you fixed X.”)
  • “This statement is more true than that statement.”  (“This circle is more round than that circle.”)
  • “That’s not even trying to be true, that’s a damn lie.”  (“That’s… not a circle.  That’s a square, I think.”)

Go forth and draw, my friends.

 

A precedent of subjectivity

Mike Montiero recently posted an essay to Medium “One person’s history of Twitter, from beginning to end“. It’s a good piece, but what really struck me was this referenced Tweet from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone:

Tweet by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, reading: 'Mike, this is the hardest time to stick to principles. The easy way out would be to ban. That sets a precedence of subjectivity.'

This is one of the saddest tweets I’ve ever read.

Stone talks about setting “a precedent of subjectivity” as though subjectivity is something that can possibly be avoided. Everything is subjective; the relevant questions are how much and in what way.

Usually I give people a pass for over-simplifying things on Twitter, but if Stone has trouble expressing himself in 140 characters he has only himself to blame. More seriously, this over-simplification is the source of so many problems that sites like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have been having. They want to be content-neutral, a platform rather than a publisher, a (non-regulated!) utility – in other words, objective.

They know their platforms aren’t actually neutral or objective, not entirely. They know that their abuse teams are staffed by subjective humans and their algorithms are steered by subjective humans and learn from subjective, human-created data. It is impossible to design an open platform that does any kind of data filtering or prioritization without having to make judgment calls. Stone knows. They all know.

So why deny it? My guess is that it’s an avoidance mechanism. As long as we’re debating ‘Should social media sites make subjective decisions about content?’ we’re not getting to ‘What kinds of subjective decisions should social media sites make?’ and ‘To what degree should social media sites be subjective?’ And so the sites can continue to make their subjective decisions in private, without formal or informal oversight.

I want to be clear: there’s real value in the way Google and Facebook and Twitter have prioritized objectivity. I’m pretty sure platforms which didn’t even try for objectivity would be even more alienating and frustrating to use. But ‘better than terrible’ is not enough.  When your sites are changing the course of history you have a moral obligation to tackle the really hard stuff, and to do so openly and accountably.

The precedent of subjectivity was set a very long time ago. It’s about time we got into the details.

Science vs Software

Andrew Gelman has a brief post up on his blog comparing the way bug reports in open source software are received to the way many researchers respond to criticisms of their work.  The comments there are good, and cover my first reaction, which was, “Developers respond well to bug reports?”  But that’s a bit tongue in cheek.  I do think that, overall, developers are a bit more responsive to bug reports than scientists are to published criticisms of their work.  Here are my theories as to why that is:

  • Bug reports are not analogous to published criticisms. Bug reports are the primary way for people to give feedback to the maintainers of a project, while historically, much criticism of research has been through less formal mechanisms such as email, questions at conference or post talks, and face-to-face at lab meetings, conferences, etc.  I have never seen a scientist respond poorly to a critique at a lab meeting or a poster session, for instance.  If you factor in these other interactions, the average emotional response to criticism might be more equal.
  • Research careers are measured in papers.  The academy clings to its traditions, and that’s one of the big ones.  Papers are difficult to amend in significant ways, and they take a lot of work to produce.  If software developers could only push to production once every year or so, I bet we’d find receiving them much more stressful!
  • Most bug reports don’t existentially threaten software projects.  I mean, I’m sure it’s happened (and now I’m kind of curious when and how!).  But many critiques of published research are suggesting that reported effects may not exist, which is a much bigger blow than “hey your app keeps freezing”.  So long as researchers are lauded not for the quality of the work they do but the significance of the results they achieve, this kind of critique is going to feel like a threat, especially to non-tenured researchers and scientists in other types of precarious positions.

If I have one critique of the open science movement, which I otherwise endorse and consider myself a part of, it’s that we focus too much on the behavior of individual researchers and not enough on the systems which motivate that behavior.  It’s not that developers are better people than scientists.  It’s that the systems developers operate within are set up to reward and punish different things.