New Fables


Regional parochialism and the production of knowledge in universities

“Scholarly understanding of how universities transform money and intellect into knowledge remains limited. At present we have only rudimentary measures of knowledge production’s inputs: tuition and fees, government subsidies, philanthropic gifts, and the academic credentials of students and faculty. Output measures are equally coarse: counts of degrees conferred; dissertations, articles and books completed; patents secured; dollars returned on particular inventions. As for the black box of knowledge production in between: very little.”

From the introduction to a new book on American social science research that aims to uncover the institutional pathways that produce (and favor) certain areas of research.

It continues:

“The rise of ‘global’ discourse in the US academy has coevolved with fundamental changes in academic patronage, university prestige systems, and the international political economy. America’s great research institutions are now only partly servants of the US nation-state. This fact has very large implications for those who make their careers producing scholarly knowledge.”

Link to the introduction.

  • A short interview with co-authors Mitchell L. Stevens and Cynthia Miller-Idris. “Sociology department chairs said frankly that they deliberately steer graduate students away from international study because such projects on non-U.S. topics are less likely to have purchase on the tenure-line job market.… The tenure process is largely mediated by disciplines, and because those disciplines prioritize their own theoretical abstractions, contextual knowledge loses out.” Link.
  • A paper examines previous attempts to map the parochialism of a discipline, finding that “conventional measures based on nation-state affiliation capture only part of the spatial structures of inequality.” Employed therein: novel visualizations and mapping the social network structures of authorship and citation. Link. Relatedly, a September 2017 post by Samuel Moyn on parochialism in international law. Link.
  • And a link we sent last fall, by Michael Kennedy, on interdisciplinarity and global knowledge cultures. Link.


A framework for Algorithmic Impact Assessments

As New York City’s “Automated Decision Systems” task force gears up, the AI Now Institute recommends four goals for the task force’s consideration.

  1. Respect the public’s right to know which systems impact their lives and how they do so by publicly listing and describing algorithmic systems used to make significant decisions affecting identifiable individuals or groups, including their purpose, reach, and potential public impact;
  2. Ensure greater accountability of algorithmic systems by providing a meaningful and ongoing opportunity for external researchers to review, audit, and assess these systems using methods that allow them to identify and detect problems;
  3. Increase public agencies’ internal expertise and capacity to evaluate the systems they procure, so that they can anticipate issues that might raise concerns, such as disparate impacts or due process violations; and
  4. Ensure that the public has a meaningful opportunity to respond to and, if necessary, dispute an agency’s approach to algorithmic accountability. Instilling public trust in government agencies is crucial — if the AIA doesn’t adequately address public concerns, then the agency must be challenged to do better.

Full post, with more details on each of the four goals, here. ht Michael

  • The text of the bill on the Automated Decision Systems task force, and committee notes from the New York City Council. Link.
  • From a paper titled “Algorithmic Transparency for the Smart City” by Robert Brauneis and Ellen P. Goodman: “We set out to test the limits of transparency around governmental deployment of big data analytics, focusing our investigation on local and state government use of predictive algorithms. It is here, in local government, that algorithmically-determined decisions can be most directly impactful. And it is here that stretched agencies are most likely to hand over the analytics to private vendors, which may make design and policy choices out of the sight of the client agencies, the public, or both.” Link. ht Will
  • More about the Brauneis/Goodman paper, from Wired. Link.


Slate Star Codex on the future (or demise) of work

Scott Alexander’s lengthy post highlights the confusion in the automation debate among professional economists:

“Economists very strongly believe automation has not historically reduced employment. But they do believe automation is making wages stagnate right now. I don’t really understand what’s going on here. Are they saying that automation can depress wages, but not reduce employment? Surely (given the existence of a minimum wage) that doesn’t make sense. Or are they saying that automation never caused any problems before, but it is causing problems now?

“The site offers some of the economists the chance to explain what they meant, and a lot of them seem to be saying that automation has temporarily caused problems in the past, but they always resolved with time as new industries open up. Maybe we’re just in a temporary bad period? Likewise, one economist who agrees that automation caused wage stagnation says that “it may have a short-run impact but there is no reason to believe that it is permanent.”

“All of this is a mess. But the impression I get from this mess is that there is little sign of technological unemployment happening today in a historically unique way, or even picking up pace. I get this from a few sources.”

Full post here.

  • Alexander follows up with reader comments. Link.
  • On Twitter, Noah Smith responds.

+ + +

  • “Our results suggest that the assumption of full network knowledge (i) may serve as a poor approximation to the real world and (ii) is not innocuous: allowing for incomplete network knowledge may have first-order implications for a range of qualitative and quantitative results in various contexts.” Link.
  • In a spotlight on RCTs two weeks ago, we noted a (then upcoming) presentation by Lant Pritchett at NYU’s Development Research Institute. The slides from his presentation are now online. “While right about the methodological claims about the superiority of randomization to produce cleaner estimates of the LATE (local average treatment effect) of projects and programs, this, in and of itself, does not change development practice.” Link.
  • “The basis of his argument is that the state and nation of Sudan arose out of the British colonial administrators’ desire to define a self-contained economic entity that could both supply metropolitan markets in a period where Britain needed sterling markets to save on dollars, but also one that could pay its own way.” Link.
  • From a brand new blog focusing on non-western economic history, a post on Chile and the relationship between totalitarianism and economic development. Link.
  • Adam Tooze in the New York Review on Yanis Varoufakis’ memoirs. Link. Further commentary on his blog. Link.
  • On metrics and sustainability: “[Our research] shows that meeting the basic needs of all people on the planet would result in humanity transgressing multiple environmental limits, based on current relationships between resource use and human well-being.” Link. ht Sidhya
  • “State and local governments give away millions in tax abatements, credits, exemptions, and infrastructure assistance to lure Amazon warehouses but don’t get a commensurate ‘return’ on that investment.” Link.
  • From the Prison Policy Initiative, a new report on Youth Confinement in the United States. Link.
  • A study of gender attitudes in Norwegian military boot camps: “We find that living and working with women for 8 weeks causes men to adopt more egalitarian attitudes… an 8 percentage point increase in men who think household work should be shared equally and a 14 percentage point increase in men who do not completely disavow feminine traits.” Link.
  • From OpenAI, a new paper on “Malicious Uses of AI”: “Like our work on concrete problems in AI safety, we’ve grounded some of the problems motivated by the malicious use of AI in concrete scenarios, such as: persuasive ads generated by AI systems being used to target the administrator of a security systems; cybercriminals using neural networks and “fuzzing” techniques to create computer viruses with automatic exploit generation capabilities; malicious actors hacking a cleaning robot so that it delivers an explosives payload to a VIP; and rogue states using omniprescient AI-augmented surveillance systems to pre-emptively arrest people who fit a predictive risk profile.” Link.
  • “No matter how you look at them, Russia’s Facebook ads were almost certainly less consequential than the Trump campaign’s mastery of two critical parts of the Facebook advertising infrastructure: The ads auction, and a benign-sounding but actually Orwellian product called Custom Audiences (and its diabolical little brother, Lookalike Audiences). Both of which sound incredibly dull, until you realize that the fate of our 242-year-old experiment in democracy once depended on them, and surely will again.” Link.
  • Raj Chetty is partnering with Facebook: “Facebook and Chetty declined to talk about the full scope of the research, but veterans of Washington’s domestic policy debates say the social network’s involvement could turbo-charge efforts to map out how geography and social connections play into economic inequality.” Link. ht Will
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced a RFP for ways to measure the “collective health” of Twitter discourse, a response to the ongoing issue of harassment and abuse on the platform. Link to the RFP. Link to the thread with the announcement.
  • First “very long term” study of the effect of conditional cash transfers, from a study in Mexico: “We find significant and positive impacts of the program on the likelihood and quality of employment.” Link. ht Sidhya

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