What science can do for democracy: a complexity science approach


Paper by Tina Eliassi-Rad et al: “Political scientists have conventionally assumed that achieving democracy is a one-way ratchet. Only very recently has the question of “democratic backsliding” attracted any research attention. We argue that democratic instability is best understood with tools from complexity science. The explanatory power of complexity science arises from several features of complex systems. Their relevance in the context of democracy is discussed. Several policy recommendations are offered to help (re)stabilize current systems of representative democracy…(More)”.

Data Journeys in the Sciences


Book edited by Sabina Leonelli and Niccolò Tempini: “This groundbreaking, open access volume analyses and compares data practices across several fields through the analysis of specific cases of data journeys. It brings together leading scholars in the philosophy, history and social studies of science to achieve two goals: tracking the travel of data across different spaces, times and domains of research practice; and documenting how such journeys affect the use of data as evidence and the knowledge being produced. 

The volume captures the opportunities, challenges and concerns involved in making data move from the sites in which they are originally produced to sites where they can be integrated with other data, analysed and re-used for a variety of purposes. The in-depth study of data journeys provides the necessary ground to examine disciplinary, geographical and historical differences and similarities in data management, processing and interpretation, thus identifying the key conditions of possibility for the widespread data sharing associated with Big and Open Data. 

The chapters are ordered in sections that broadly correspond to different stages of the journeys of data, from their generation to the legitimisation of their use for specific purposes. Additionally, the preface to the volume provides a variety of alternative “roadmaps” aimed to serve the different interests and entry points of readers; and the introduction provides a substantive overview of what data journeys can teach about the methods and epistemology of research….(More)”.

Are Food Labels Good?


Paper by Cass Sunstein: “Do people from benefit from food labels? When? By how much? Public officials face persistent challenges in answering these questions. In various nations, they use four different approaches: they refuse to do so on the ground that quantification is not feasible; they engage in breakeven analysis; they project end-states, such as economic savings or health outcomes; and they estimate willingness-to-pay for the relevant information. Each of these approaches runs into strong objections. In principle, the willingness-to-pay question has important advantages. But for those who has that question, there is a serious problem. In practice, people often lack enough information to give a sensible answer to the question how much they would be willing to pay for (more) information. People might also suffer from behavioral biases (including present bias and optimistic bias). And when preferences are labile or endogenous, even an informed and unbiased answer to the willingness to pay question may fail to capture the welfare consequences, because people may develop new tastes and values as a result of information….(More)”.

Social Research in Times of Big Data: The Challenges of New Data Worlds and the Need for a Sociology of Social Research


Paper by Rainer Diaz-Bone et al: “The phenomenon of big data does not only deeply affect current societies but also poses crucial challenges to social research. This article argues for moving towards a sociology of social research in order to characterize the new qualities of big data and its deficiencies. We draw on the neopragmatist approach of economics of convention (EC) as a conceptual basis for such a sociological perspective.

This framework suggests investigating processes of quantification in their interplay with orders of justifications and logics of evaluation. Methodological issues such as the question of the “quality of big data” must accordingly be discussed in their deep entanglement with epistemic values, institutional forms, and historical contexts and as necessarily implying political issues such as who controls and has access to data infrastructures. On this conceptual basis, the article uses the example of health to discuss the challenges of big data analysis for social research.

Phenomena such as the rise of new and massive privately owned data infrastructures, the economic valuation of huge amounts of connected data, or the movement of “quantified self” are presented as indications of a profound transformation compared to established forms of doing social research. Methodological and epistemological, but also institutional and political, strategies are presented to face the risk of being “outperformed” and “replaced” by big data analysis as they are already done in big US American and Chinese Internet enterprises. In conclusion, we argue that the sketched developments have important implications both for research practices and methods teaching in the era of big data…(More)”.

AI+1: Shaping Our Integrated Future


Report edited by the Rockefeller Foundation: “As we speak—and browse, and post photos, and move about—artificial intelligence is transforming the fabric of our lives. It is making life easier, better informed, healthier, more convenient. It also threatens to crimp our freedoms, worsen social disparities, and gives inordinate powers to unseen forces.

Both AI’s virtues and risks have been on vivid display during this moment of global turmoil, forcing a deeper conversation around its responsible use and, more importantly, the rules and regulations needed to harness its power for good.

This is a vastly complex subject, with no easy conclusions. With no roadmap, however, we risk creating more problems instead of solving meaningful ones.

Last fall The Rockefeller Foundation convened a unique group of thinkers and doers at its Bellagio Center in Italy to weigh one of the great challenges of our time: How to harness the powers of machine learning for social good and minimize its harms. The resulting AI + 1 report includes diverse perspectives from top technologists, philosophers, economists, and artists at a critical moment during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The report’s authors present a mix of skepticism and hope centered on three themes:

  1. AI is more than a technology. It reflects the values in its system, suggesting that any ethical lapses simply mirror our own deficiencies. And yet, there’s hope: AI can also inspire us, augment us, and make us go deeper.
  2. AI’s goals need to be society’s goals. As opposed to the market-driven, profit-making ones that dominate its use today, applying AI responsibly is to use it to support systems that have human goals.
  3. We need a new rule-making system to guide its responsible development. Self-regulation simply isn’t enough. Cross-sector oversight must start with transparency and access to meaningful information, as well as an ability to expose harm.

AI itself is a slippery force, hard to pin down and define, much less regulate. We describe it using imprecise metaphors and deepen our understanding of it through nuanced conversation. This collection of essays provokes the kind of thoughtful consideration that will help us wrestle with AI’s complexity, develop a common language, create bridges between sectors and communities, and build practical solutions. We hope that you join us….(More)”.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate


Letter in Harpers Magazine signed by 153 prominent artists and intellectuals,: “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us….(More)”.

How urban design can make or break protests


Peter Schwartzstein in Smithsonian Magazine: “If protesters could plan a perfect stage to voice their grievances, it might look a lot like Athens, Greece. Its broad, yet not overly long, central boulevards are almost tailor-made for parading. Its large parliament-facing square, Syntagma, forms a natural focal point for marchers. With a warren of narrow streets surrounding the center, including the rebellious district of Exarcheia, it’s often remarkably easy for demonstrators to steal away if the going gets rough.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a disaster for protesters. It has no wholly recognizable center, few walkable distances, and little in the way of protest-friendly space. As far as longtime city activists are concerned, just amassing small crowds can be an achievement. “There’s really just no place to go, the city is structured in a way that you’re in a city but you’re not in a city,” says David Adler, general coordinator at the Progressive International, a new global political group. “While a protest is the coming together of a large group of people and that’s just counter to the idea of L.A.”

Among the complex medley of moving parts that guide protest movements, urban design might seem like a fairly peripheral concern. But try telling that to demonstrators from Houston to Beijing, two cities that have geographic characteristics that complicate public protest. Low urban density can thwart mass participation. Limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility and hence the momentum they need to sustain themselves. On those occasions when proceedings turn messy or violent, alleyways, parks, and labyrinthine apartment buildings can mean the difference between detention and escape….(More)”.

Trust and its determinants: Evidence from the Trustlab experiment


OECD Working Paper : This paper describes the results of an international initiative on trust (Trustlab) run in six OECD countries between November 2016 and November 2017 (France, Germany, Italy, Korea, Slovenia and the United States). Trustlab combines cutting-edge techniques drawn from behavioural science and experimental economics with an extensive survey on the policy and contextual determinants of trust in others and trust in institutions, administered to representative samples of participants.

The main results are as follows: 1) Self-reported measures of trust in institutions are validated experimentally, 2) Self-reported measures of trust in others capture a belief about trustworthiness (as well as altruistic preferences), whereas experimental measures rather capture willingness to cooperate and one’s own trustworthiness. Therefore, both measures are loosely related, and should be considered complementary rather than substitutes; 3) Perceptions of institutional performance strongly correlate with both trust in government and trust in others; 4) Perceived government integrity is the strongest determinant of trust in government; 5) In addition to indicators associated with social capital, such as neighbourhood connectedness and attitudes towards immigration, perceived satisfaction with public services, social preferences and expectations matter for trust in others; 6) There is a large scope for policy action, as an increase in all significant determinants of trust in government by one standard deviation may be conducive to an increase in trust by 30 to 60%….(More)”.

Harnessing the collective intelligence of stakeholders for conservation


Paper by Steven Gray et al: ” Incorporating relevant stakeholder input into conservation decision making is fundamentally challenging yet critical for understanding both the status of, and human pressures on, natural resources. Collective intelligence (CI ), defined as the ability of a group to accomplish difficult tasks more effectively than individuals, is a growing area of investigation, with implications for improving ecological decision making. However, many questions remain about the ways in which emerging internet technologies can be used to apply CI to natural resource management. We examined how synchronous social‐swarming technologies and asynchronous “wisdom of crowds” techniques can be used as potential conservation tools for estimating the status of natural resources exploited by humans.

Using an example from a recreational fishery, we show that the CI of a group of anglers can be harnessed through cyber‐enabled technologies. We demonstrate how such approaches – as compared against empirical data – could provide surprisingly accurate estimates that align with formal scientific estimates. Finally, we offer a practical approach for using resource stakeholders to assist in managing ecosystems, especially in data‐poor situations….(More)”.

COVID-19 from the Margins: What We Have Learned So Far


Blog by Silvia Masiero, Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré: “Since the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, narratives of the virus outbreak centred on counting and measuring have became dominant in public discourse. Enumerating and comparing cases and locations, victims or the progressive occupancy of intensive care units, policymakers and experts alike have turned data into the condition of existence of the first pandemic of the datafied society. However, many communities at the margins—from workers in the informal economy to low-income countries to victims of domestic violence—were left in the dark.

This is why our attention of researchers of datafication across the many Souths inhabiting the globe turned into the untold stories of the pandemic. We decided to make space for narratives from those individuals, communities, countries and regions that have thus far remained at the margins of global news reports and relief efforts. The multilingual blog COVID-19 from the Margins, launched on 4 May 2020, hosts stories of invisibility, including from migrants and communities living in countries and regions with limited statistical capacity or in cities and slums where pre-existing inequality and vulnerability have been augmented by the pandemic. In entering the third month of this initiative, a reflection on the main threads emerged from the 28 articles published so far is in order to devise our look to the future. In what follows, we identify four threads that have informed discussions on this blog so far, namely data visualisation, perpetuated vulnerabilities and inequalities, datafied social policies, and digital activism at the time of the pandemic…(More)”.