Science is always biased. Yeah, even if there’s a lot of math in it. I’m not anti-math or anti-science…quite the opposite, really. And while I don’t really care to go into my personal background too much here, suffice to say I have a lot of experience in scientific research and mathematical modeling. And while I’m opposed to professionalization barring people from discussing science (why will likely be made clear by the end of this essay), my point is that I am what most would consider to be a professional scientist and/or mathematician. Getting to that point was difficult: my family’s never had enough money, and they’ve never put much weight on academic achievement. That’s not to say they weren’t supportive, more that it was often pretty blurry to them what they were even supporting me to do. I mean, it was blurry even to me. It still feels like I stumbled through schooling, all just to wind up poorer than my high school dropout older brother. But I kept doing it, not because I’m a high-achiever or a hard worker. I’m not, which was a real fucking disappointment to a lot of project advisors and professors, honestly. I just liked it. And despite my chronic disinterest in attaining any sort of official marker of success, I’d make myself push through all sorts of bullshit if it meant I got to keep doing research.
However, I take issue with a lot of this sort of “mythos” around scientific research, tech development, and modeling. It’s not objective and unbiased. I don’t even mean that it’s sometimes biased, I’m saying it’s always biased. It just is. In the words of Ben Shapiro, noted opinion-haver, facts don’t care about your feelings. You can’t avoid it.
All scientific research, and all mathematical models require assumptions. And the prevailing ideology of the culture you live in is going to influence what assumptions you make. This isn’t necessarily bad, it simply is. However, science, models, and tech-development tend to go bad when we decide that those assumptions don’t matter, when they do, or when we insist there is no value-judgement motivating the assumptions (e.g. that these assumptions are universal, rather than relative to some sort of ideology/value system). This can be as seemingly-mundane as the assumption that knowing what a molecular bond structure looks like matters. If it didn’t matter, then why bother to create the electron microscope? Why bother to use an electron microscope when you’re studying a molecular compound? Why assume zooming-in on the substance will be more useful than, say, eating it? Why do we even care about the substance? Do we think it can be useful to medicine, and want to improve medical treatments? Do we think this knowledge is intellectually valuable independent of application? You can’t begin a research project without making value judgements on what matters.
Consider a more specific example: painkillers. Deciding that treating physical pain matters, even if it doesn’t address physical damage, is highly motivated by ideology. It’s only logical to pursue pain treatment if you’ve already made the value judgement: does it matter if someone’s in physical pain? Keep in mind that saying no doesn’t mean you’re more objective. Deciding that it doesn’t matter is still a value-judgement. There’s no objective answer, and if you’re in search of one…buddy, that’s ideology (1) making you think such objectivity is valuable, and (2) masking what subjective values are actually driving your decision-making process. If you ask me, it’s bad to blind yourself from your own system of values. And my saying that is, itself, a value judgement.
This may seem pedantic until you realize how much these assumptions can impact actual people. For example, consider the concept of “predictive policing.” In the city of Chicago, violent crime and limited police officers motivated the Chicago Police to invest in crime-predicting software:
The Chicago police will use data and computer analysis to identify neighborhoods that are more likely to experience violent crime, assigning additional police patrols in those areas.— How Big Bad Data Could Make Policing Worse, Fast Company
This may sound all well and good to a lot of people; however, an algorithm like this requires the assumption that the data we have on violent crime in Chicago is representative of all violent crime in Chicago. Further, patrolling could be based on violent crime data, but police would still be capable of arresting people for, say, underage drinking, once they’re there patrolling the area…are we assuming more run-ins with police at a young age will have no influence on a person later in life? Are we assuming it doesn’t matter if it does? Also, what counts as violent crime? According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime includes “murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault.” Rape is considered to be the most underreported of all violent crime, so data would almost certainly underrepresent acts of sexual assault. Does that matter? Whatever your answer is, that is a value-judgement. Further, wealth will often mean you have the means to (1) not get caught, and (2) argue the severity of the charges down in court, or even have them completely dropped. On (1), if you murder someone on your private estate, you’re less likely to be caught than if you do it on the streets. On (2), consider Jeffrey Epstein (deceased), the financier arrested for sex trafficking in 2019.
Epstein’s arrest has brought his many high-level connections into scrutiny. Epstein counts many famous figures in his social circle, including President Donald Trump—who once referred to him as a “terrific guy” —Prince Andrew and former President Bill Clinton, who took trips on his private jet.— Here’s What to Know About the Sex Trafficking Case Against Jeffrey Epstein, Time
There is credible rape allegations against high-profile people (like Joe Biden and Donald Trump), and more often than not, these people are never convicted. Even ignoring the role of corruption, this is unsurprising. A private jet isn’t going to have witnesses, surveillance footage, or police patrolling capable of catching criminals in the act. If we don’t acknowledge what assumptions go into this model, “predictive policing” can quickly turn into the over-policing of poor, black neighborhoods under the guise of “math.” It could also lead us to severely underestimate violence done by the very wealthy. Which, really bold assumption to deem that insignificant.
Algorithms like this have actually been proposed for non-violent crime-prediction (see the book Weapons of Math Destruction). This requires even more ideological value-assumptions. For instance, do we want police cracking down more on drug usage? A homeless person doing drugs is far more likely to have a run-in with police than someone doing drugs inside their own home, and this would skew police drug-usage data. Should homeless people be subjected to more policing than the wealthy? Should we invest in more police, or housing? Should we do neither? How do we invest? Do we tax the rich? Or do we prohibit the rich from profiting off wage labor entirely?
Are capitalists valuable to society?
Ideology influences how you observe something. If you believe racial differences play a fundamental role in behavior, this is going to change how you interpret both the present and the past. If you believe achievement is primarily based on merit, then you may ignore other factors leading to someone’s accomplishments. Ideology is deeply-ingrained, and often only subconsciously influences how we see the world. And just as you can’t set up a scientific experiment without making assumptions, you can’t navigate through the world without some sort of ideology…you can’t overcome ideological thinking.
But you can and (based on my own value judgement) should aim to be aware of what assumptions/values go into your own ideology, as well as the ideology motivating others (especially at the societal-level). For instance, do you think it’s bad to be angry? Is it good to be happy? Is it your responsibility to be happy, so as to not interfere with someone else’s happiness? Do you think people always act in self-interest? Do people even know what they want? What do you mean when you say someone is optimistic? Does civility matter? Are evictions inherently violent? What does it mean to be patriotic?
Is Harry Potter cool? The answer is no. Who imagines a world where magic is real, and everything is still regulated by bureaucrats. That’s fucking lame as shit.
For a look at how ideology relates to our response to the COVID-19 crisis, check out the following articles:
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ― Helen Keller Neoliberalism largely functions via alienation, … More
Pictures added by Regina Larsen. In the past few months, the pandemic has laid bare the horrors of our global … More
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the near shutdown of the service industry. This has similarly led to mass unemployment … More