“The needs of the many,” privilege, and power

There’s a certain set of sentiments which undergird a lot of thinking in engineering, and especially engineering about data. You want a method which has good performance “on average” over the population. The other extreme is worst-case, but there are things you can only do in the average case. By focusing on average-case gain, you get a kind of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” way of thinking about the world.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one... or the few?

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one… or the few?

Now in the abstract land of mathematical models and algorithms, this might seem like a reasonable principle — if you have to cram everything into a single population utility function you might as well then optimize that. However, this gets messier when you start implementing it in the real world (unless of course you’re an economist of a certain stripe). The needs of the many are often the needs of the more powerful or dominant groups in society. The needs of the few are perhaps those who have been historically marginalized or victimized. Extolling the benefits to the many is often taking a stand for the powerful against the weak. It’s at best deeply insensitive.

Two instances of this have appeared on the blogosphere recently. Scott Aaronson blogged recently about MIT’s decision to take down Walter Lewin’s online videos after Lewin was found to have sexually harassed students in connection with the course. Scott believes that depriving students of Lewin’s materials is a terrible outcome, even (possibly) if he were a murderer. Ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege — because he is not hurt by it, he values the “the good of the many” trumping the “good of the few.”

The whole downplaying of sexual harassment as being somehow “not serious” enough to warrant a serious response (or that the response “makes the most dramatic possible statement about a broader social issue”) in fact trivializes the whole experience of sexual violence. Indeed, by this line of argument, because the content created by Lewin is so valuable, it may be ok to keep online even “had [he] gone on a murder spree.” The subtext of this is “as opposed to merely harassed some women.” I recommend reading Priya Phadnis on this case — she comes to a very different conclusion, namely that special pedestal that we put Walter Lewin on is itself the problem. Being able to downplay the female victims’ claims is exercising the sort of privilege that members of the male professoriat (myself included) indulge in overtly, covertly, and inadvertently. If STEM has a gender problem, it’s in a large part because we do not pay attention to the ways in which our words and actions reinforce existing tropes.

The second post was by Lance Fornow on dying languages in response to an op-ed by John McWhorter on why we should care about language diversity. Lance thinks that speaking a common language is a good thing:

I understand the desire of linguists and social scientists to want to keep these languages active, but to do so may make it harder for them to take advantage of our networked society. Linguists should study languages but they shouldn’t interfere with the natural progression. Every time a language dies, the world gets more connected and that’s not a bad thing.

I guess those poor bleeding-heart social scientists don’t understand that those languages are dying for a good reason. The good of the many — everyone speaking English, the dominant language — outweighs the good of the few. This attitude again speaks from a place of privilege and power, and it reinforces a kind cultural superiority (although I am sure Lance doesn’t think of it that way). Indeed, in many parts of the world, there is and continues to be “a strong reason to learn multiple languages.” By casually (and incorrectly) dismissing the importance of linguistic diversity, such a statement reinforces a chauvinist view of the relationship between language and technology.

We start with desirable outcomes: free quality educational materials that lower the barrier to access or speaking a common language to help facilitate communication and cooperation. By choosing to focus on those outcomes and their benefits to the many, we value their well-being and delegitimize the harm done to others. If we furthermore are speaking from a position of power, our privilege reinforces stigmas, casting a value judgement on the rights, experiences, and beliefs of the few. It’s something to be careful about.

A quote for these times

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Climate Confidential and new journalism

There’s a lot of talk about how the journalism industry is suffering and soon we’re going to be piled under an avalanche of Buzzfeed lists, reblogs of reblogs, doges.

My friend Celeste LeCompte and her friends have started a new venture called Climate Confidential — they are a collective of journalists and writers who will focus on environmental issues. They’re running a crowdfunding campaign on Beacon, a writer-focused site, to get started. I heartily encourage you lurking blog readers out there to support them.

Non-tenure track faculty at Rutgers get a contract

At Rutgers the faculty are unionized. Recently, the union reached a tentative agreement with the University regarding non-tenure track (NTT) faculty. The full text of the agreement is available now.

In the sciences and engineering, especially at research-focused universities, one often thinks of adjunct faculty as industry folks who come in and teach a class a semester or year. This stands in stark contrast to most departments in the humanities, where adjunct positions are (often) a way to dramatically underpay PhDs by paying them a mere $5k per course without benefits or even office space, sometimes. In the Boston area, the SEIU estimate is that “67 percent of the teaching faculty are not on the tenure track”. I don’t know how they estimated that number, and obviously the SEIU is a bit biased, but the number is certainly large.

Given the way the whole tenure system is going, any steps to provide more stability to adjunct contracts should be welcome. I think the short-term goal is to create more full-time instructional positions with benefits but without tenure. This agreement does something to address that. From an email I received:

Non-grant-funded NTT faculty who are successfully reappointed after six years of full-time service will have appointments of at least two years’ duration thereafter. Departments and decanal units will be required to develop, promulgate and post on their web sites clear criteria for appointment, reappointment, and promotion, and will also be required to provide all non-tenure track faculty with regular performance review and feedback.

Essentially, adjunct contracts were a bit of no-rules scenario before, and this is definitely a better situation.

The other big thing in the contract is to make the job titles more in line with other institutions. There are now 5 classes of non-tenure track faculty: Teaching, Professional Practice, Librarian, Clinical and Research. The first three are new. I’m not sure how the NTT body as a whole feels about this, and in a sense this approach is a capitulation to the trend of having fewer tenure-track faculty, but I think it’s much better than what we have now.


I’m in the process of moving to New Jersey for my new gig at Rutgers. Before I start teaching I have to go help run the the Mystery Hunt, so I am a little frazzled and unable to write “real” blog posts. Maybe later. In the meantime, here are some links.

The folks at Puzzazz have put out a bevy of links for the 200th anniversary of the crossword puzzle.

The UK has issued a pardon to Alan Turing, for, you know, more or less killing him. It’s a pretty weasely piece of writing though.

An important essay on women’s work: “…women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value.”. (h/t AW)

Of late we seem to be learning quite a bit about early hominins and hominids (I had no idea that hominini was a thing, nor that chimps are in the panini tribe, nor that “tribe” is between subfamily and genus). For example,
they have sequenced some old bones in Spain. Extracting sequenceable mitochondrial DNA is pretty tough — I am sure there are some interesting statistical questions in terms of detection and contamination. We’ve also learned that some neanderthals were pretty inbred.

Kenji searches for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe.


My cousin Supriya has started a blog, wading through soup, on green parenting and desi things. Her recent post, Pretty in Pink: Can Boys Wear Pink? made it to HuffPo.

Larry Wasserman is quitting blogging.

Maybe I should get a real chef knife.

If you have a stomach for horrible things, here are some images from the Nauru immigration center, where hundreds of (mostly Iranian) asylum-seekers are kept by the Australian government (via mefi).

At Rutgers, I am going to be in a union. Recent grad student union actions have come under fire from peeved faculty at UChicago (a place with horrendous institutional politics if I have ever seen one). Corey Robin breaks it down.


The English version of the Japanese cooking site Cookpad was launched recently. The launch means more lunch for me!

In case you wanted to listen to old African vinyl albums, you’re in luck.

I have a burning-hot hatred of payday loan places, so this Pro Publica piece just stoked the fire.

Talking robots… in spaaaaaaaaace!

A tumblr on how we make progress in research.

My friend Amrys worked on the Serendip-o-matic, a tool that may be more useful for those in the humanities than us engineer types, but is pretty darn cool.