Thursday, 27 February 2014

An Idle Thought on Fighting Plagiarism

This afternoon CBC interviewed a professor about the steps he'd taken to curtail cheating among his students, particularly with respect to multiple choice exams. The solution he described was simple and elegant, and wildly effective: each exam is printed with the questions in a different order, so that copying your neighbour's answer sheet is of no benefit; her question #1 might be your question #9.

This wouldn't have been economical back in the days before computers became widespread. Exams were all the same because that's how photocopiers work. Now, of course, it's a relatively simple matter to set up a program to churn out large numbers of unique exams for a class.

That works fine for multiple choice exams, but what do we do about term papers and essay questions? There are commercial programs available which compare submitted papers against a huge database of older documents, to identify portions that may have been copied from elsewhere. However, these programs are expensive, in large part because they need to maintain large databases of papers, and that's slowed their implementation in many universities. Many instructors instead rely on occasionally googling for a sentence or turn of phrase that catches their eye as suspicious. (I've done so myself.)

Which just got me to thinking: why not just have students publish every paper they submit on the internet as a part of the submission process? What if every student, upon enrolling, were set up with a web page on the university server, specifically for posting completed essays, not just for the instructor to grade but for anyone with web access anywhere to peruse? Classmates, other professors, parents, future employers, political rivals -- everyone.

Under the traditional approach, dating from the days when papers were all hand-written or typed, there was usually only one copy of the text. The teacher gets it for a while, and then returns with a grade marked on it, keeping her own record of the grade but usually not the essay itself. It's always been a reasonably safe assumption that if you submit a paper, the only other person who will ever see it is the person who grades it; fool the instructor, and you're home free once you get the paper back to destroy the evidence.

But with published papers, you don't have such a narrow window. Probably no one else will bother to read your paper, any more than they'll read your blog, but it'll be there for years getting the occasional search engine hit. And maybe, when you apply for a job or run for office, someone will want to dig up some dirt on you, like maybe you plagiarized a paper in college.

My first thought here was that maybe this would violate a right to privacy, but is this reasonable expectation of privacy in fact warranted? Does the student have a legitimate privacy right in the content of an assignment? I would argue no, not if the paper is being written as part of an attempt to earn a degree or other academic credential that the student will rely upon later. All of society relies upon the trustworthiness of that credential, and so all of society has a right to some transparency here. 

To be sure, people change, and there are lots of essays I wrote 20 years ago that I'd really not want to be judged on today. At the same time, however, that's something that should be understood by anyone about anything anyone writes, and old papers written by callow youths only say so much about the mature candidate decades later. Although I'm not particularly proud of some of my younger writings, I'd be prepared to discuss them and how my opinions have changed, what I've learned since then, and be judged on that basis. 

I do think there's a place for privacy. But a lot of the time, there's something to be said for transparency.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Quantum Morality

     You may be familiar with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more precisely you know a particle's position, the less you can know about its momentum, and vice versa. The two values, position and momentum, are what mathematicians call conjugate variables. You can have a pretty good idea of each, or know a whole lot about one and very little about the other, or everything about one and have no clue about the other whatsoever. A full understanding of a particle requires both variables, but each variable precludes the other.
      I've always suspected that there's some connection between this concept and the wave/particle duality, the strange quality of light (well, matter and energy generally, too) that it can display properties of a wave or a particle, but not both simultaneously. Similarly, the two leading theories of physics, General Relativity and the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics, have both been spectacularly successful at predicting what they're supposed to predict, but they appear by all accounts to be incompatible with each other. Neither alone is sufficient to explain all of the universe, but each seems to contradict important elements of the other.
     I have wondered on occasion if there might be a connection between these dualities and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. I first learned about this theorem, as many did, from Douglas R. Hofstadter's famous classic, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book that has had an enormous influence on me. The upshot of it is this: a logical system will be either unsound (it will be able to prove falsehoods) or incomplete (it will be unable to prove some true statements); it cannot be both sound and complete. You can understand roughly how the proof works by considering this statement: "This statement cannot be proved." If you can prove that statement, then it's false and your system allows the proof of falsehoods, but if it's a true statement, then there exists at least one true statement that your system cannot prove.

     Of course, I have no formal training in mathematics or physics (beyond a couple of first year university courses), and so I'm probably grossly oversimplifying these things or worse. I do have some background in philosophy, however, so I can talk about theories of ethics with a little more confidence, and I've always been struck by the way these exclusive choices between knowing momentum and position, or observing a wave or a particle, or explaining the universe at tiny or vast scales, have a parallel in the two main theories of ethics, deontology and consequentialism.
     Consequentialism's best known incarnation is the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, which evaluates the good or evil of an action by its consequences; an action is good if it leads to greater happiness than its alternatives, while an action that leads to greater unhappiness is evil. (An oversimplification, but it'll do.) Deontology, most associated with Immanuel Kant, explicitly denies that actual consequences have anything to do with the moral character of the choice. After all, we praise the moral character of someone who tries and fails to save someone from drowning, and condemn someone whose failed attempt at murder inadvertently saves a life.
     I find both theories extremely persuasive, but of course, they are incompatible with one another: Mill says you must consider consequences, and Kant says you must not consider consequences. Yet it's my feeling that either system alone can only give a partial understanding of what morality is really all about; you need to understand both to have any hope of properly analyzing ethical problems. And unavoidably there will remain some questions that may not be answerable.

Friday, 21 February 2014

One Dollar, One Vote?

     You may have read about the wealthy financier Tom Perkins' recent controversial remarks. I'll leave the hyperbolic nonsense about persecution of the rich for another post, but I wanted to address the suggestion he made that voting rights should be contingent on paying taxes. Originally he said that paying a million dollars in taxes should entitle one to a million votes, but when people objected to that he claimed he was joking, and really just meant that you should have to pay at least some taxes in order to vote.
     I suppose to some, particularly those in the business world, that sounds reasonable. After all, not just anybody can vote for the board of directors of a corporation; you have to be a shareholder. And among shareholders, you actually do get more votes for having invested more money in the company. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this principle, so why not apply it to national as well as corporate governance?
     In fact, I agree. But the model needs to be applied correctly, and clearly identify who the shareholders are, and what it is they invest in the enterprise of the State. So here's the way I look at it.

    First let's talk about what a nation state is. It's a sovereign entity with the power to enact and enforce laws, to tell the people within its borders what they can and cannot do. It's not possible to have a state unless you have a sufficient number of people willing to recognize that state's authority over them, and who agree to be bound by its laws. So, in essence, the capital stock of the state is the liberty of its citizens; that's what we are investing.
    And we don't invest it out of patriotic fervor, any more than shareholders give money to a company because they are feeling generous. No, it's an investment; just as the shareholder expects to realize a return, to get more money out of the deal than she puts into it, so too does the citizen legitimately expect to get more a liberty dividend that makes the investment profitable.
     To that end, we elect a Board of Directors (the government) to manage that liberty investment on our behalf. The government expends some of that liberty by enacting laws that limit some of our freedoms (say, the freedom to commit murder) but pay off with enhanced freedom overall (being murdered curtails all freedoms). Since each of us invests essentially the same liberty capital, each of us has one share and is entitled to one vote.

     What, then, of taxpayers? Well, there are several ways to approach this question, but the important point to make here is simply that paying taxes is not and never has been anything like buying equity in a company. In my view, the taxpayer is best understood as a customer of the state, and taxes are its income. It is the government who decides, on behalf of the citizens, what to do with the money so raised, whether to reinvest it in providing government services to maintain the whole system, to hang onto it as retained earnings, or even to declare a dividend payable to the shareholder/citizens. The taxpayers qua taxpayers have no say in this, though they do have a say in their capacity as citizens.

     (I will leave the question of what the value the taxpayers/customers receive for their money to another post. Suffice for now to say that it depends on the nature of the tax, and there are many kinds of taxes: property tax, income tax, sales tax, etc.)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Good Old Days Fallacy

     I've recently read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, a fascinating book about the decline of violence in the world. He spends a few chapters simply trying to establish that violence is declining, historically, because to most people, that sounds patently false. How can the world be getting less violent, when every day we hear on the news about some fresh new atrocity? It wasn't like this when I was a kid!
     Well, no, it wasn't. It was actually worse, what with higher crime rates, various local wars and genocides, all against the backdrop of two superpowers threatening each other with nuclear weapons. And of course, it was still worse, going back a generation to the World Wars. The pattern breaks here and there, but over centuries it's consistent and undeniable. But why do we so consistently have the opposite impression? Why do I have this sense that the world is more dangerous today than it was when I was young?
     One obvious explanation is that our world is much more interconnected today. Whether or not violence is more rare, we have almost instant live reporting of it now, so we are drawing our experience from a much larger field.
     I think this is probably a big part of it, but it seems to me there may be another even simpler explanation: the cumulative nature of history.
     Consider: when you're born, you have no history. Nothing has happened to you yet. And the odds are, you probably won't be affected by crime or violence for some time yet. Even in violent times, parents tend to try to shield their children from exposure to such things.

     So when I was little, sure I knew there was such a thing as violence. But murder was just something that  people did in carefully calculated schemes that were almost but never quite clever enough to prevent Columbo from figuring out who did it in time for the closing credits. War similarly was known only from toys and historical dramas. I suppose I had heard mention of the Vietnam War, but it felt no more immediate to me as a child than the Boer War. The only actual violence I encountered then was the occasional spanking. The world I lived in was peaceful and free of crime.
     Of course, it wasn't actually. As distant from my consciousness as Vietnam was, I did not know at the time that there had been a real possibility of my father being drafted to go fight there before moving to Canada. And in 1965, the year I was born, there was a terrorist bombing at the downtown airport, which I only learned about just now as I was writing this post by googling for "Edmonton murder 1965" to get some idea of what the actual crime rate was. I had never heard of this! How many other noteworthy crimes and acts of violence took place while I was growing up, that never impinged upon my consciousness?
     In the sixth grade, I got into my first actual fistfight. The fifth grade bully had, I suppose, established his dominance over all the fifth graders, and as one of the meeker sixth grade boys, I was the next rung on the ladder. Unfamiliar with schoolyard fight protocol, I didn't realize I was supposed to wrestle him to the ground and claim victory by pushing his face in the dirt, so knocked him down with a punch to the jaw. So shocked at this exposure to genuine violence, and affronted at having been forced to harm someone, I was the one who was crying, which I vaguely remember him trying to cite as proof he had beaten me. But the world had become, for me, a more violent place, because the sixth-grade me had been in a fight, while the younger version thought such things the stuff of fiction.
     Around that time, I'd suffered other blows to my innocence. One night, someone in a truck had made the rounds, stealing almost every bicycle in the neighbourhood. Another day, someone walked off with my cheap plastic sled from the toboggan hill. So I could point to examples of how the world was nastier than when I was younger: I'd been a victim of two thefts and an assault.

     And the list just keeps on growing as I get older. I met my first murderer in university, though I didn't find out he was a murderer until he disappeared from our social scene. A few months later, a friend reported having seen in the paper that this fellow had lost his appeal and been sentence to life in prison for killing his wife! None of us had even known that he'd been married. (A few years later, it just so happened that my crim instructor in first year law was the same lawyer who'd defended him.) Several years ago, there was a fatal stabbing in the parking lot of my local supermarket, three blocks from my house. Two years ago, a shooting just down the street. And of course, with live reporting of breaking news, events that happen far away now register on my consciousness with greater immediacy than when TV was young.

     The point I'm making is this: every single experience of violence is like a scar in memory, and we tend to judge how violent the world is by how many such scars we have. My 5 year old self had no scars. My 10 year old self had two or three minor scrapes. My  20 year old self had those two or three minor scrapes, plus another 10 years worth of randomness. My 25 year old self had all of that, plus the scar of having known an actual murderer. My 30 year old self had all that, plus having watched O.J. Simpson's white Blazer in real-time fleeing the police. The actual rate of new scars has been declining, but since the old ones don't disappear, my memory is much more full of nasty incidents today than even five years ago, and so I sense the illusion that the world today is more dangerous than it was.

    What I like about this explanation is that it holds true in any age. If you look through writings of a hundred or a thousand years ago, you can almost always find someone complaining about how the world is getting worse, and kids today are disrespectful and unruly and society is going to hell blah blah blah. If that were so, this'd have to be the worst time in all human history to live. Somehow, though, I don't think that's a viable claim to make.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Response to Government's Public Consultation on Prostitution.

    Years ago, I wrote my MA thesis on a principle of effective rule enforcement I stumbled upon while designing rules for a live action roleplaying game. I devoted much of one chapter to the question of prostitution, and how our current criminalization regime is largely responsible for making prostitution as nasty and exploitative a business as it is. (This nastiness, of course, is what we point to to justify criminalizing it. The argument is viciously circular, and not because it's about vice.)
    Well, today, a friend linked to a government web page soliciting public input on what to do about the recent Bedford decision, which struck down most of three sections of the Criminal Code dealing with prostitution. I thought I would share the government's questions, and my responses to them, here.

Absolutely not. While I wouldn't feel comfortable about purchasing such services myself, there is no legitimate reason for the state to interfere with consensual transactions between informed adults. The basic principles of contract law are largely effective in reducing abuse and exploitation in other areas, and it is perverse to deny such protection to sexual transactions.

Of course not, for the same reasons outlined in question 1. Commerce including can and should be regulated through zoning and other rules, but the criminal law is absolutely the wrong tool to use.

The very same limitations that we apply to all other transactions: abuse, coercion, fraud must not be allowed, and, if appropriate, health, safety and environmental protocols. For commercial establishments, health inspections and business licenses are appropriate, and perhaps there could be some sort or trademark or certification scheme, but casual transactions are nobody else's business.

Absolutely not. If we make it a criminal offence for people to benefit from someone's exploitation, most of our economy will grind to a halt. It is not the BENEFIT which is the bad thing, but the harm it may induce someone to inflict. Let us ensure that people are free and uncoerced in their various transactions, but I should think that in general we would WANT people to benefit from things.

Prostitution triggers a powerful ICK! response from most people, myself included. But government's duty is to protect our liberties, not to enforce our personal preferences, even if a majority happens to share them. As immoral and distasteful as we may find prostitution, our attempts to stamp it out with the criminal law only serve to make it more abusive, more dangerous, and more in need of stamping out. Not only is this an injustice for those involved, but it is fiscally irresponsible: we are actively spending money to enforce laws which make the problem of prostitution worse and more costly.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Imagine No Religion

     Months ago, I made what I thought was a good-natured jest about the so-called Wiccan Rule of Three, which posits that every good deed is returned threefold upon the doer, and how it implies an instability incompatible with a law of conservation of good/evil. That is, even if good and evil are both returned threefold, any inequality in the amount of good and evil in the universe would quickly multiply to the extinguishment of the lesser.  While I meant this to provoke some playful thought and analysis, the person I was talking to instead took offence at my making fun of her religion.

     I have been reminded of this episode recently by a couple of recent Canadian human rights controversies and also a bill before the Kansas state legislature, purportedly aimed at protecting the religious freedom of people to discriminate against same-sex couples. From the bill itself:

Section 1. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender:
(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement;
(b) solemnize any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement; or
(c) treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.
     Now, I should acknowledge that the bill is badly drafted, in that it seems to say that one can withhold ANY services, when the stated intent of the bill's sponsor was that it was really meant only to apply to services etc. related to the marriage or the celebration of marriage. However, the modifying clause comes after the semicolon, which kind of implies that the modifying clause is only meant to apply to employment or employment benefits. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and suppose they really only meant to protect wedding photographers, caterers, and justices of the peace from having to be exposed to Teh Gay. (And who can blame them for being afraid of that? Certainly not me!) Surely they didn't mean to allow paramedics to refuse to provide first aid at an accident scene where both occupants of a vehicle with a "JUST MARRIED" sign were female.
     And also, while the motive of the bill's authors almost certainly was to grant an exception to that subset of Christians who oppose same sex marriage, obviously specifying Christian beliefs would run afoul of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, so no no no no of COURSE it isn't only about Christians. It equally protects Jews, Muslims and Scientologists from being forced to tolerate homosexuality, as well. In principle, it could also protect religious polygamists from being forced to recognize monogamous marriages, or, I don't know, latter-day followers of the Sacred Band of Thebes from having to recognize heterosexual marriages, even.
     Fine, it's a silly law on so many levels, but the particular bit of silliness I want to address is this: why does it have to be a religious belief that justifies violating what would otherwise be a legal duty? It isn't just the Kansas bill. In the U.S., various employers are seeking exemptions from having provide health insurance if such insurance covers contraception, on the basis that contraception is against the employers' religion. In Canada, it's well-established that employers must make "reasonable accommodation" for the religious beliefs of their employers, dating back to a case involving a Seventh Day Adventist wanting shifts that didn't involve working on the Sabbath. Last month there was a big controversy about York University ordering a professor to accommodate a Muslim student's wish not to have to work on a group project with female classmates.

      I have no problem allowing for exemptions from legal obligations for various reasons, because it is unjust to impose obligations without consideration of the circumstances, but when considering the circumstances, why should religious belief be treated differently from other beliefs? Is it okay for a Christian to refuse to cater a gay wedding, but not for an agnostic?
      I suppose one possible rationale for extending special protection to religious belief is that, at least in certain forms of Judeo-Christian belief, there is an overriding extenuating coercion involved. That is, however much one might like to obey the law, one faces infinitely more severe consequences for disobeying divine commands. This is the same rationale for why the courts had trouble with allowing atheists as witnesses; they worried that atheists, not fearing any divine retribution for perjury, would lie with impunity.
     But upon closer inspection, this doesn't really support making a special distinction for religious beliefs. A more robust approach would be to apply a general principle that evaluates the reasonableness of the decision under the circumstances, sort of like we do when someone pleads self-defense or duress. We try not to punish people for things they do when they have no realistic alternative. And the belief that they face some much worse fate for obeying the law than for breaking it does not even have to be objectively true; it just has to be reasonable.
     I'm not choosing this reasonableness standard as a sly way of ruling out religious beliefs; it can be reasonable to believe what everyone around you has taught you since birth, however ridiculous others outside of the tradition might consider it. What I'm objecting to, rather, is the special exemption we give beliefs that call themselves religious from the standards of reasonableness we expect from everyone else.
     In fact, I'm not even demanding that everyone should be held to a standard of reasonableness. There are all sorts of things we can be unreasonable about, but which are our own business. I, for example, utterly refuse to eat mushrooms. There's no rational reason I can cite for my mycophobia; I'm not allergic to them, and I can't even say I just don't like them since even as a child I refused to even try one. I just don't ever want to eat a mushroom, to the point that I've developed a strong personal taboo about it.
     But my personal refusal to eat mushrooms is my choice, regardless of its reasons or lack thereof, and I expect my autonomy in this area to be respected, just as we respect the right of a Jew or Muslim to abstain from pork. The only difference is that I do not believe some supernatural being has commanded me to avoid fungus. I take no position on the reasonableness of avoiding pork, because it's none of my business why someone else feels obliged to do something.
     And that should be our general principle for law, to respect individual autonomy as much as possible. We ought to try to schedule work shifts to accommodate people who want a particular day of the week off, regardless of whether it's to attend church or to take their kids to the museum, not because churches or museums are important but because individuals should be treated with respect, as "ends in themselves" as Kant put it.
     Yes, there will be times when we need to impose an enforceable legal duty that overrides the right to personal autonomy, but we should limit such impositions to where they are necessary to protect human safety and autonomy. We have laws against murder, for example, because the loss of freedom to murder is less than the loss of freedom to do everything else that being murdered prevents. It doesn't matter why one might want to murder someone, even if your god demands human sacrifice; our law-abiding society is still entitled to prevent that. That someone's reasons are "religious" should give them no special weight.
     Sometimes, this means people are going to be caught in difficult moral dilemmas. Their religion demands what the law prohibits, or vice versa. I'm sympathetic to that plight, of course. But it's not a special problem that only the devoutly religious face. Atheist and agnostics, too, are often caught between the demands of conscience and those of law. The hard truth of this world is that morality is often very difficult, and there isn't always an easy answer. That's the curse of free will. Is it unfair that Christians may have to choose between defying their god and defying the state? Sure. In exactly the same way it's unfair to everyone else that the law sometimes demands things of us that we don't want to give. The demands of conscience should not be respected more just because they're given the name of religion.

     Neither, though, should religious reasons be treated with less respect, which is the mistake the Quebec secular charter makes in trying to ban public employees from wearing religious symbols. Identifying symbols as "religious" in order to ban them is just as silly as doing so in order to promote them, and just as much an affront to human autonomy. It should make no difference why someone wants to wear a crucifix or a hijab or an ankh or a swastika; their decision to wear a symbol or not should only be reviewable if it is demonstrably harms a legitimate public interest.
     There might well be good reasons for prohibiting or requiring certain symbols. Government employees are sometimes required to wear badges or uniforms, which perform a valid function in identifying them to the public. They may also be obliged not to wear certain symbols, as the swastika example demonstrates. It doesn't matter why you might want to wear a swastika, and maybe you have perfectly valid personal reasons, but wearing one will almost certainly be interpreted as a hostile sign by most members of the public, however kind and tolerant your actual intent. Likewise, the fact that you were joking or being ironic when you called in a bomb threat isn't a defense agains the criminal charges that will rightly follow.
     But the fact that someone's reasons for wanting to do something are religious should be completely irrelevant to the decision to prohibit or require it.

     So I'm not advocating the abolishment of religious belief. Rather, I'm just saying that we should abandon "religion" as any kind of special category of belief. With respect to informing human choice, the belief that there's an infinitely powerful and morally authoritative God who really hates it when men marry men is no more and no less privileged than the belief that no such God exists.