Google demonstrates people dismiss philosophy when they don’t understand it

This is pretty much how I generally feel about the trolley problem. (Comic by xkcd.)

This is pretty much how I generally feel about the trolley problem, and it makes me cranky to end up defending it so often. (Comic by xkcd.)


Earlier this week, Chris Urmson, chief of Google’s self-driving cars project, made a pretty big mistake for someone so high up at Google: he dismissed philosophers and the trolley problem as irrelevant to self-driving cars.

Now, people dismissing philosophers as irrelevant isn’t terribly unusual (see: Pinker, deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins, et al). But it is a bit unusual to see Google make such a novice mistake, especially a representative so highly (and publicly) placed in the company. Speaking at Volpe, National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Urmson said:

It’s a fun problem for philosophers to think about, but in real time, humans don’t do that. There’s some kind of reaction that happens. It may be the one that they look back on and say I was proud of, or it may just be what happened in the moment.

It’s pretty rare to see someone so clearly make a mistake like this, but I’m not one to make light of gift horses. So yes, technically, Urmson is right: no one (not even those useless philosophers) think that your mother is carefully evaluating all options when she slams on her brakes and throws her arm across your chest, pinning you to your seat, even though you’re 32 years old. No one actually thinks a driver is thinking “hmm, that moose is headed right for me, but there are a bunch of kids waiting for the bus stop where I’d normally veer, so should I go ahead and hit that moose and avoid the kids, or should I swerve towards the kids and hope I can miss them all? and then weighing out costs, risks, benefits, and so on. That’s just silly.

Furthermore, as Ernesto Guevara noted on Twitter, while Urmson is quick to dismiss philosophy and ethical decision-making, he goes on to discuss the engineered decisions on who a Google car will try to avoid hitting: vulnerable road users (think pedestrians and cyclists), then other vehicles on the road, and lastly things that don’t move. Hmm. A hierarchy of decisions about who a car will or will not hit… sounds an awful lot like moral decision-making to me.

Which brings us to what the trolley problem is: it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that people make these decisions, it’s not an example of how people make these decisions. By trying to figure out how people react to choosing to hit one person vs five, or pushing a person to their death vs pulling a lever[note]One of the things these thought experiments look at is the distinction we draw between doing and allowing harm.[/note], and other permutations of the thought experiment,[note]You can find a good overview of the trolley problem and the thought experiments built on it here.[/note] philosophers are trying to detangle the instantanious “some kind of reaction” that Urmson just vaguely dismisses.

Yes, drivers just react in the moment, but those reactions a driver makes–and how we think about them when faced with thought experiments–are reflections of values, culture, society. Trying to discern the nuances of those values and how we get to them is at the heart of the trolley problem, and in the case of those who are building self-driving cars, it seems like it would be a pretty good idea to understand why a mother might throw her arm over her child and swerve to the right (in order to protect her child and take the impact of an oncoming car herself) vs a teenager swerving to avoid hitting a dog that darts into the street but ends up hitting or endangering people playing on the sidewalk, instead.

That Urmson thinks philosophers believe people make these kinds of decisions on the fly, and that’s what the trolley problem is about, highlights his lack of familiarity with the idea of not just the trolley problem, but applied philosophy–which should worry anyone who is watching not only the development of self-driving cars, but Google’s continued branching out into all aspects of our increasingly wired lives.


Amazon’s “Toxic Culture” Doesn’t Come from My Needs as a Customer

Oh Internet, I tire. I really, really tire of reading rapidly tossed off think pieces that want to make broadly declarative statements as if they were the first to ever encounter such an idea. For example, did you know “we like-we really, really like-to get things cheap”? Annalisa Merelli wasn’t sure you were aware of this, so she–along with too many other think pieces to name–decided that the New York Times’ article about Amazon’s toxic work culture was the perfect time to place the blame of that culture squarely where it belongs: on the consumer. Which is a bit of an interesting claim, since, as the Seattle Times noted–and they’re a good paper to note this, given their proximity to the tech industry in the last forever–pretending that Amazon’s “toxic culture” is something new and unique to Amazon is ignoring the history of the tech industry as a whole, which has long been noted for a toxic culture that grinds up and spits out contractors and employees as fast as it can hire them. The toxic culture at Amazon isn’t because of the people buying Method cleaner and cat food, Mr Clean Magic Erasers, razors, the occasional bed sheet set, or Dutch oven–it’s from the tech industry as a whole.

amazonprimeIt fascinates me that people want to jump on the Blame Prime Members bandwagon in their think pieces, rather than look at what it is Prime is offering people: dependable, rapid access to a wide variety of goods and services. I mean, I can’t imagine why a perfectly able-bodied society where everyone has a car and access and a well-paying job and plenty of time, and can buy completely ethical, fair-trade food and clothes and goods and whatever else they need or want whenever they want would find a service like Amazon Prime useful.

…was the sarcasm too thick there? It’s been a bit of a morning.

It’s not that it surprises me that a gaggle of able-bodied writers would overlook the ease and convenience and accessibility of Amazon Prime for those who have physical disabilities; I think those of us who are disabled are rather accustomed to society erasing us. It does, however, surprise me that they’re so quick to overlook other members of society: working parents, single parents, folks who live far away from shopping centers where they can find both clothes and hardware and home goods. Not everyone lives in a suburban landscape where Target is 15 minutes in one way and Home Depot 10 the other; even those who do often don’t have the time to run to every single individual store. Maybe their commute takes hours every day; maybe they have children and the sorts of schedules that are full of soccer practice and school and camp and who knows what else, because I’m not a parent but I certainly remember being a kid and having siblings and the “go go go okay everyone collapse and sleep” aspect of a full household. Some folks live an hour or more from services, either because they’re in the middle of a mega-city and these big boxes are on the outskirts and difficult to reach, or because they’re in the middle of a rural area and there isn’t enough population density to support many stores. Maybe they live in that perfect suburban area with a perfect suburban life and car and they’re foiled by working non-standard shifts.

Of course, all that presumes we’re talking about people with cars, and a lot of folks don’t have cars, for reasons as diverse as being unable to drive to being unable to afford the costs of owning a car. For these folks, public transit–not the best thing even in the best cities with public transit–limits their options even further. That’s extra time commuting, time on the weekends, time you could be spending doing laundry or working or being with family or resting or fill in this blank here. Relying on feet, bikes, and public transit is possible for many things, and people do it in cities around the world-and in those same cities around the world, the people who can afford it have their laundry taken out and their food brought in. Amazon merely offers an equalizing aspect to at least some of that (it’s not doing my laundry yet, anyhow).

And yes, for those of us with disabilities, Amazon, and Prime in particular, can be a life-saver. Or at least a life-enricher. There’s no fighting mobility issues in a store, no navigating canes and walkers and chairs around clueless people, no having to figure out how to get a disabled body to the store (especially if your disability doesn’t allow driving). There’s no worry about lifting things that are too heavy, no calculus around what you can carry and what you need and whether it’s worth it to hurt yourself in the short term so that you don’t have to go out again two days later.

For everyone, whether they’re a stay-at-home mother juggling triplets and exhaustion or a busy professional or a disabled lawyer or any other combination of Person you can hodgepodge together from the mass options available, Amazon offers convenience and dependability: you can order what you need and get a dependable timeframe for when you’ll get it.

All of this? Not the fault of Amazon. It’s the fault of a culture and society that isn’t set up to include the different, the ultra-busy, those on different shifts or without flexible schedules, or yes, the disabled. So by all means, yes, take Amazon and society to task for not taking care of people, be they employees or customers or citizens. But don’t take people to task for utilizing the services offered to them–services often available to folks in mega-cities with the income to support said secondary delivery services–so that they too can maximize their time and priorities. And key to this is letting the individual decide what’s important to them: for example, over at USA Today, Amazon Prime member Jefferson Graham decides that

after reading this piece, I can wait. I don’t care if a new lens for my camera takes two or three days, or even a week to get to me. I don’t need a drone to whisk out a package from a warehouse and get it to me pronto. I want the company I’m dealing with to treat the human beings who work there with respect, not force them into a climate of fear.

Cool beans. Immediacy doesn’t mean much to him, and from all accounts he is able-bodied and able to patronize other shops when he does have an immediate need, so he can decide that this is not a participatory system he’s okay with, so he’ll opt out. But you cannot hold everyone to a standard set by an able-bodied, well-employed white man. Ability-and responsibility to a broader ethos-is going to look different to different people; the priorities of an able-bodied driver who lives in a small city will be different than a disabled person living in a mega-city.

Folks want to dovetail this into arguments about conscious consumption and ethical purchasing, which is a good conversation to have: but also a brutal one, because as Emily Finke noted, this practice often takes free time, significant money, and mobility for accessibility–and we’re back to leaving a lot of people out with that equation. We’re also left with at the conundrum that many people simply do not want to face: if you’re living in America, your entire existence is pretty much predicated upon exploitation: your food, from produce to protein; clothing; electronics; oil. It is a culture built upon the exploitation of others.

Means&AbilitiesOnce you understand that, you can start taking steps that work within your life to minimize exploitation of others while meeting your basic needs: consume less, buy with mindful awareness, decide where your priority is. Do you want to focus on avoiding sweatshop-sourced clothing? Do you want to eat locally and ethically? Does something else float your boat? Okay then–go for it. But again, this is a matter of balance and individual preference, and the vast majority of us do not earn the money that would be necessary to make ALL the changes, from non-sweatshop-sourced clothes to perfectly ethical and humane and local food to renewable energy and more. So we look at our circumstances, and we decide.

I am disabled, and my mobility limited. I don’t drive because of this. And for me, I balance ethically sourcing my food with my desire to have a life that’s about more than trekking via transit and foot to different stores to procure what my cats, my husband, and I need to live a healthy life. Amazon, and Amazon Prime, thus suits a necessary need that no one else in society has met.

Rather than cast aspersions on the consumer within the culture, start looking to the culture itself for change–and demand those changes come from those most, rather than least, able.


Note: this post is based on a casual series of tweets this morning that blew up like whoa. You can read the thread and chaos starting here.

Is Science Online a Con or a Conference?

As is inevitable in a situation like this, the dialog around Bora Zivkovic’s harassment of women has moved beyond his actions and resignations, and is now looking at the larger community and what sort of operational changes need to be made. This is clearly a more opaque process at Scientific American, since they have remained mostly silent–one presumes on the advice of lawyers. For Science Online, it’s a debate that’s happening out in public, on blogs and Twitter. Over the weekend, Chad Orzel saw comments I made on Twitter, and it motivated him to put forth his own specific take on the core issue affecting Science Online right now. Orzel’s post is well worth the read, both for the history of this particular blogging group and the Science Online conference. Orzel’s summary of the problem is this:

Science Online has been trying to split the difference between functioning as a kind of professional society for science communicators and a party of a bunch of like-minded friends.

It was in talking to someone over the weekend–and my apologies, there were a lot of conversations and they’ve gotten more than a bit blurry–where I realized that for me (and I want to stress, as always, that this is my, and only my, opinion), the difference that Orzel points out, and that I was commenting about on Twitter, boils down to this: does Science Online want to be a con or a conference?
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SciAm Doesn’t Think Sexism in Science is “An Issue”–Will They Think Boycotts Are?

There has been a lot of talk this year about supporting women in science and related tech fields, about how it’s not okay to sexually harass a graduate student or colleague, about how rape jokes aren’t okay, and in general, how hostile academia, science, and technology can still be for women.

Yesterday, a Biology Online editor gave a pretty stunning example of this: he called biologist DNLee an urban whore for refusing to write for the Biology Online for free. We know about this because she blogged about it over at her Scientific American blogs column, Urban Scientist. And this was important for several reasons. First, many other biologists had casually agreed to work with Biology Online without being aware of the sexism of at least one of their editors (and many have now pulled posts due to it). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, DNLee’s experience is a data point that shows why the on-going discussion of sexism and harassment of women in science needs to happen. It’s an insight into what women in science face–and why science has a woman problem.

Naturally, Scientific American was proud to be a part of the on-going conversation about how women in science are treated, and the importance of shining a light on the ways women are harassed in science, in order to help prevent such a thing from happening again, right?

Oh. No. Instead, Scientific American pulled DNLee’s blog post without comment. Other people stayed calm, saying it must be a technical error, and I admire them for their ability to give the benefit of the doubt.

sciam-responseMy cynicism was rewarded this morning. Mariette DiChristina, the EIC and Senior VP of Scientific American, confirmed that DNLee’s post was removed on purpose. For apparently not being “about science.” Even though that was not the Scientific American blogs editor’s position (as seen here). In fact, Bora (said blog editor) and I have actually had some very specific arguments about the role of the Scientific American blogs, recounted by Nicholas over here. In short, Bora has explained that his view of the blogs is that people can and should write what they are interested in and about, even if they are not experts in the topic, and that it’s okay if they’re wrong, because the commenters can come in and correct them. As you can probably imagine, I don’t agree with this, and in fact had a several hour long Twitter argument with Bora about it. I do think that if you are blogging under the Scientific American banner, you are being extended authority and thus should write responsibly about what you know.

But in this case, I am 100% convinced that DNLee knows about the sexism women face in science, just as I am 100% positive that this is an important–necessary–conversation to be having. And I would like to think that even were she wrong, Bora’s policy, as outlined in his argument with me and his comments about Christie Wilcox’s blog being “her space,” would support an on-going discussion in her blog rather than outright removal.

Right now, to paraphrase what Crip Dyke so eloquently noted on Dr. Isis’s blog, DiChristina has made it very clear, through her actions, that Scientific American finds “fighting racism & sexism is unscientific.” Especially if it involves someone in their partner network. As such, and until such a time that DiChristina and the rest of those involved with this decision at Scientific American apologize to DNLee for their actions, as well as to those fighting to end sexism in academia, I will be joining Dr. Isis in her boycott of Scientific American.

You can read DNLee’s account of what happened at many blogs, at this point; Rebecca Watson reposted the blog, with permission, at Skepchick.

edited to add
DiChristina released a statement to Buzzfeed after they picked up the story, saying

“I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down. Dr. Lee’s post is out extensively in the blogosphere, which is appropriate. Dr. Lee is a valued member of the Scientific American blog network. In a related matter, Biology Online has an ad network relationship, and not an editorial one. Obviously, Scientific American does not want to be associated with activities that are detrimental to the productive communication of science. We are pursuing next steps.”

Of course, as Kate Clancy, Janet D. Stemwedel, Christie Wilcox and Melanie Tannenbaum note, science and science blogging is personal. People–women–discuss their bodies, their rapes, sexual assaults, and miscarriages, all topics I have seen covered on the SciAm Blogs.

By supporting, via their lack of removal, these personal blog posts (for example, Drs Clancy and Stemwedel both highlight several of their own “non-discovering science” blog posts within the SciAm blogs network) by other women and men, DiChristina is making it hard to excuse SciAm from the single thing that it seemed they had going for them that Biology Online didn’t: racism. Because what seems to separate Dr. Lee from the other bloggers, in the “verging in to the personal”, is that Dr. Lee is a woman of colour.

The implications here are incredibly ugly, and bear examination by everyone who write for or reads anything within the Scientific American publication sphere. (Personally, I have a digital membership which I will be canceling posthaste.) It’s not a significant sum of money, but it’s money I don’t want supporting sexism or racism.