Linklist: March 18, 2023
a big one
Links (links with excerpts below):
Scientists Say Climate Change Contributed to the Bronze Age Collapse—One of History’s Biggest Riddles
A Tale of Two Deaths: Chronic Illness, Race, and the Medicalization of Suicide
The gaming of citation and authorship in academic journals: a warning from medicine
How a depression test devised by a Zoloft marketer became a crutch for a failing mental health system
“Something of the Climate”: Observing the Weather in Early Nineteenth-Century Madras
‘Biology trumps identity’: Law as the Ultimate Arbiter of Truth?
"Commentary that claims 'ChatGPT is here to stay and we just need to learn to live with it' are embracing the hopelessness of what I call 'AI Realism'. The compulsion to show 'balance' by always referring to AI's alleged potential for good should be dropped by acknowledging that the social benefits are still speculative while the harms have been empirically demonstrated. Saying, as the OpenAI CEO does, that we are all 'stochastic parrots' like large language models, statistical generators of learned patterns that express nothing deeper, is a form of nihilism. Of course, the elites don't apply that to themselves, just to the rest of us. The structural injustices and supremacist perspectives layered into AI put it firmly on the path of eugenicist solutions to social problems.
Instead of reactionary solutionism, let us ask where the technologies are that people really need. Let us reclaim the idea of socially useful production, of technological developments that start from community needs. The post-Covid 'new normal' has turned out to involve both the normalisation of neural networks and a rise in necropolitics. Transformer models and diffusion models are not creative but carceral - they and other forms of AI imprison our ability to imagine real alternatives. It's not so long ago that we all woke up to the identity of truly essential workers; the people carrying out the precaritised roles of nursing, teaching, caring, delivering and cleaning, the very professions who are being forced to reinvent the idea of the general strike simply to regain the conditions for survival. Instead of being complicit with expensive toys running in carbon emitting data centres, we can focus instead on centring activities of care."
"Most people have heard of open source software, maybe also of open source beer (Free beer for all!) or open source pharmaceutical research. The principle is the same: Someone developed the seeds — for cowpeas, corn, rye and more — and now offers the resource for everybody to share.
Just like software development has been co-opted by a few global companies like Microsoft and Apple, the international seed development and trade, too, is controlled by a few big giants like Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DuPont) and ChemChina (Syngenta). A 2012 Oxfam study found that four companies dominate more than 60 percent of the global trade with grains."
"As science evolves it is extremely important that the methods for disseminating scientific results evolve too. The trouble is that they aren’t. We remain obsessed with archaic modes of publication, partly because of innate conservatism and partly because the lucrative publishing industry benefits from the status quo. The system is clearly broken, but the scientific community carries on regardless. When there are so many brilliant minds engaged in this sort of research, why are so few willing to challenge an orthodoxy that has long outlived its usefulness.
In my view the real problem is not so much the question of authorship but the very idea of the paper. It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. The future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research"
⛆ Scientists Say Climate Change Contributed to the Bronze Age Collapse—One of History’s Biggest Riddles
"Known as the Bronze Age due to the significance the alloy of copper and tin played during that era, this time period birthed the Egyptian pyramids and marked some of humanity’s first-ever accounts in written language and “globalized” trade. So how, exactly, could so many great kingdoms such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, Mycenaeans and Hittites, which had stood for hundreds or thousands of years, suddenly topple?"
"On a Thursday morning in 1726, French colonial officials in Pondichéry – France’s principal colonial holding on India’s southeastern coast – received word that a dead body had been discovered at the bottom of a well. The governor of Pondichéry dispatched three officials to investigate the report. The officials quickly located the body and identified the dead man as the French soldier Le Bel, but it would take over three hours of interviewing witnesses before they began to make sense of his death.
Le Bel’s wife, Marie-Anne, stated that a loud splash in the home’s well had roused her early that morning. Realizing she was alone in bed, Marie-Anne went in search of her husband. She found herself in the courtyard, gazing into the family’s well, when she discovered her husband’s body. Marie-Anne began to scream, and two men nearby quickly arrived to help. When questioned by the officials, both men confirmed that they had seen Le Bel in the well and that, although they had retrieved him, he was already dead. The investigators returned to their questioning of Marie-Anne, asking her if she knew why her husband might have been in the courtyard. She replied that Le Bel had been sick for ten months with a “lung abscess.” The investigators confirmed Le Bel’s illness with the surgeon-major, Antoine Ferrier, who also testified that he found neither contusions nor wounds on the body that might indicate foul play. Thus, in Ferrier’s professional opinion, there could be but one cause of death: the illness from Le Bel’s lung had “transport au cerveau” – gone to his head – something Ferrier claimed had happened before. Ferrier concluded that Le Bel, during a delusion, had thrown himself into the well and drowned.
Just six weeks after Le Bel’s death, officials in Pondichéry investigated the death of a seventy-five-year-old local South Asian man named Canagesabay."
"The use of quantitative performance indicators to measure quality in academic publishing has undercut peer review’s qualitative assessment of articles submitted to journals. The two might have co-existed quite amicably were the most common indicator, citation, on which the journal impact factor is based, not been so susceptible to gaming. Gaming of citations is ubiquitous in academic publishing and referees are powerless to prevent it. The article gives some indication of how the citation game is played. It then moves on from academic publishing in general to look at academic publishing in medicine, a discipline in which authorship is also gamed. Many authors in medicine have made no meaningful contribution to the article that bears their names, and those who have contributed most are often not named as authors. Author slots are openly bought and sold. The problem is magnified by the academic publishing industry and by academic institutions, pleased to pretend that peer review is safeguarding scholarship. In complete contrast, the editors of medicine’s leading journals are scathing about just how ineffectual is peer review in medicine. Other disciplines should take note lest they fall into the mire in which medicine is sinking."
"But we think it entirely possible that Big Tech won’t win a throwdown with Big Teach—and not only because we have doctors, lawyers, teachers, Nick Cave, and many computer scientists and journalists on our side. Indeed, as unloved corporate behemoths try to pass off data-scraping statistical models as AI genies, the world’s humanists, composition instructors, and creative writers might just be the new MVPs in the struggle for the future of critical thinking."
🧠 How a depression test devised by a Zoloft marketer became a crutch for a failing mental health system
"This marketing origin story, revealed in detail here for the first time, is not merely a historical footnote. In an overstretched health care system warped by business interests, STAT’s investigation shows how this simple tool has become a crutch — used in place of, rather than as a gateway to, thoughtful mental health care. The PHQ-9 became a means for time-crunched primary care doctors, under pressure to see more and more patients in shorter appointments, to dole out prescriptions with barely a conversation. Despite its prevalence, data suggesting that PHQ-9 has actually improved outcomes is ambiguous at best. Meanwhile, mental health outcomes for patients are dismal and only getting worse, with depressive symptoms and suicide climbing ever higher."
"Norvig has been successful building AI systems that use statistical learning and statistical inferencing. He takes issue with Chomsky's claim that, essentially, what modern AI research is doing is not science.
Chomsky is (in)famous for hypothesizing and arguing that all humans have a tacit but unlearned knowledge of linguistic structure, a universal grammar. He believes the evidence for this hypothesis is that children cannot possibly learn all that they do about their first language just from what they hear. Rather, the structure of language is so deep and sophisticated that children must already have the mental structures needed, and do not learn these structures from experience. An important structure, for example, is the ability to understand recursive utterances, such as:
'My homework assignment, which is worth 100 points in my CSE 3521 class, which is not required for my major but I wanted to take it anyway, which has turned out to be quite interesting as it happens, is due Thursday.'
Although that sentence is a bit contrived, we can understand it (spoken or written). There are limits to how much recursive structure we can keep in our short-term memory, but there is clearly (or not?) a logic to it. How does a child learn this logic?
Another phenomenon that Chomsky points out is that adverbs, pronouns, and the like do not always modify or connect to the nearest candidate word, in a linear sense. Rather, they are related to the structurally closest word, which may not be closest in an utterance. He hypothesizes that the understanding of language in the brain does not take the same form as language as written or spoken (the structures in the brain are not linear, he believes). "
"As Vinita Damodaran and Vikram Bhatt explain, Madras can typically be divided into four seasons each governed by the wind and pressure changes related to the Monsoon system. These seasons consist of a cool dry season from mid- December to mid-February; a hot, dry season from mid-February to May; a rainy season from June to September; and a rainy season from October to mid-December. Elizabeth and Mary’s letters can help environmental historians and climatologists to discern variabilities and consistencies in these weather patterns during the years in which the sisters resided in Madras. For instance, in 1802, Elizabeth explained that from January to March, the weather was rather cool, April and May were pleasant, and from June onward, the weather was extremely hot with “land winds.” From Elizabeth’s letters, the first half of 1802 would appear to be rather mild year in comparison to Madras’ typical climate. Certainly, as Damodaran and Bhatt point out, the Gwillims were “encountering the calm after the storm.” Approximately 600,000 people had died in Madras from a devastating El Niño that occurred from 1783-1793, causing severe storms, droughts, and famine."
"Is AI art stealing inspiration from artists?
So, if the datasets of copyrighted materials were instead collected by the company itself for the purpose of making a commercial product, would they then need to compensate the creators of those images or videos? IOn the one hand, the use of copyrighted materials was essential to building the product. On the other hand, these generative models don’t directly use or store any of those copyrighted materials after they are trained.
If I decided to create Goku-like character after looking at DBZ, do I owe money to Akira Toriyama? Do all the anime creators pay royalties to their inspirations? No, to both. Should this be any different for large models, which are essentially just sampling a data pool of inspirations to create their outputs?
This question becomes murkier given that art has historically rewarded people that ‘steal’ from others."
"A growing chorus of academicians, public health officials, and other science communicators have warned of what they see as an ill-informed public making poor personal or electoral decisions. Misinformation is often seen as an urgent new problem, so some members of these communities have pushed for quick but untested solutions without carefully diagnosing ethical pitfalls of rushed interventions. This article argues that attempts to “cure” public opinion that are inconsistent with best available social science evidence not only leave the scientific community vulnerable to long-term reputational damage but also raise significant ethical questions. It also suggests strategies for communicating science and health information equitably, effectively, and ethically to audiences affected by it without undermining affected audiences’ agency over what to do with it."
"Showing two nested bodies, the pregnant and the gestated, the birth figure is an image of something that, to the early modern viewer, was not just invisible but saturated with secrecy, mystery, and power. It shows the hidden world of the bodily interior, the secrets of life before birth, and the unfathomable powers, both human and divine, of generation. The first birth figures to be printed — illustrations by Martin Caldenbach for Eucharius Rösslin’s 1513 midwifery manual, Der Swangern Frawen und Hebammen Roszengarten (The Pregnant Women’s and Midwives’ Rose Garden) — contributed to a project that had already been ongoing for centuries, of exploring, defining, controlling, and making safe the pregnant body.
In the Rösslin depictions, the womb is represented simply and schematically, as a transparent, flask-shaped container. By rendering the organ exposed, and see-through, the images promise knowledge of the mysterious body, a peek into the still-living interior. The fetus is represented as a cherubic toddler, with curly hair, big eyes, chubby cheeks, and a self-conscious expression. With his head slightly inclined toward us, he seems to acknowledge our presence, our looking at what, by rights, shouldn’t be seen. The images might be understood as an attempt to make known the mysterious generative womb; certainly they formed part of a text that had the aim of spreading knowledge about the body and regulating midwifery practice. But the simplicity of these compositions — the human figure encircled — gives them the capacity to mean in many ways. They point to the universal importance of generation to early modern culture, drawing a link between the fetus in utero and the human in the world, and they neatly encapsulate the origins of human life. From this starting point, the birth figure as an iconographic form could be read for significance within a multitude of different spheres of culture and knowledge: anatomy, alchemy, mechanical physiology, medical professionalism, prayer, magic, midwifery practice, haptic knowledge, and portraiture, to name but a few."
"In this conflict about whether minority identities can be seen as something one identifies as, disability is frequently cited as a ‘trump card’, in the sense that people assume self-identifying as disabled is inherently impossible. This can be seen for instance in the medical pushback against an increase in some diagnoses e.g. young people saying they have Tourette’sor are autistic. The most recent example of this was a psychology paper that suggested that the increase in diagnoses could well be due to a type of “social contagion” rather than reflecting an increase in awareness, diagnostic capabilities, and patient advocacy. In fact exactly the same term has been used to describe the increase of young people identifying as trans or non-binary. This suggests that there is a strong desire on part of some scientists, academics and sections of the public to use medical science and biology to distinguish between true, i.e. biologically grounded, and false, i.e. socially conditioned or even encouraged characteristics. The headline quote constitutes only the most recent example of this and is taken from a statement by Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, commenting on its forthcoming guidelines around the inclusion (or lack thereof) of trans and intersex athletes in sex-segregated sports. Coe argued that legal and policy decisions around this topic should be driven by biology and medical research, rather than a desire to make sports more inclusive or by following an athletes self-described identity. He further argued that “fairness” should always be the most important consideration, suggesting implicitly that excluding trans and intersex athletes from professional sports is likely the “fairer” choice."