Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Public Bias Against the Press

Roy Peter Clark's article is very well written and can be seen, despite its negative undertones, to be a passionate defense of the traditional media. But his attribution of the source of the problem, "a public that has been conditioned, like rats in a Skinnerian dystopia, to hate us," is mistaken.

The scepticism which now greets the traditional media is not the creation of bloggers, humour shows, or any of the other of the range of critics Clark alludes to in his article. The traditional media is the author of its own misfortune. Those of us who have studied the bias in media, in such works as Chomsky's 'Manufacturing Consent' or Klein's 'No Logo' can array an arsenal of evidence to indict the media. Those who haven't need look no further than Clark's own column.

The evidence of bias (or of incompetence) is the commission of errors of reason, of the commission of logical fallacies and other misrepresentations. Some of these are simply bad habits the media have fallen into over the years, whiloe others are persistent reminders of the media's efforts to convince us that the false is true. Let us example Clark's column for this evidence:

- Two Wrongs Fallacy
Example: "The public bias against the press is a more serious problem for American democracy than the bias (real or perceived) of the press itself."
The very foundation of Clark's argument is based on a fallacy. His intent is to exonerate the traditional media. But he does so by pointing fingers and saying, in effect, "but they're worse!" They may well indeed be worse. But the fact remains that the bias of the press is a serious problem for democracy.

- Reporting Polls as News, and Unsupported Inference (Non Sequiter)
Example: "That is one reasonable conclusion to a study of media credibility conducted by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn."
These two errors of reasoning, found within the same sentence, are very common in news reporting. We are all familia with the lazy practice of seizing upon one isolated study or poll and representing it as though it were conclusive evidence of some trend in society. Real research does not work that way and journalists should know better; only a series of similar studies, conducted over a period of time, can tell us anything. Reporting a study in isolation like this is misrepresentative of what the study tells us. The second error, meanwhile, is a howler. No such conclusion can be drawn from the study in question. The evidence simply does not lead to the conclusion. Clark may as well tell us that Americans don't believe in santa Clause (based on their mistrust of the media conjoined with the media's annual reports of his existence and flights from the north pole); that would be more strongly warranted.

- Citing People Without Attrubution, or, Making Up Points of View
Example: "As a good Catholic boy growing up in the 1950s, I was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But no such devotion can I feel to the prejudiced conclusions some scholars and politicians have drawn from this survey."
Really? What scholars and politicians? The article names example zero sources. So far as we know, Clark is simply making this up. So far as we know, all he did is look at the press release from the study and then chat with one of his friends. In any case, no matter what the depth of Clark's research (if any), we are unable to verify in any way whatsoever whether he has correctly represented the commentators. We can't ask them if they were accurately quoted, we can't read their comments and criticisms for ourselves. From our perspective, this sentence is a complete fabrication.

- False Analogy, and Straw Man
Example: "Let me begin my argument with an analogy. If my first daughter says I'm a bad parent one year, and the next year two daughters say I'm bad, and the following year all three of them say I'm bad, does that make me bad? It is not a good sign, I'll admit, but is it possible that the perception of my daughters has been influenced by factors other than the character of my decisions and actions as a dad? Maybe all their friends insist I'm too strict."
This analogy is intended to show that we should not, on the basis of the poll results, infer that the media is biased. This is a straw man because media critics do not use such poll data to show that the media is biased; they use the ample evidence found in the media reports themselves. Even were this the argument they use, the analogy presented is scarcely convincing. First of all, the opinions of the daughters, even if influenced by their friends, actually do count as evidence for bad parenting. But secondly, the analogy is misleading because the daughters are minors who are not in a position to judge, while the father is an authority figure over them. These would critically influence the reliability of their inference, but neither is the case in the case of the media and the public (though the astute observer would note that the analogy serves to infantilize the readership and illegitimately promote the media to the position of authority held by the father).

Should I continue? In this article literally every sentence contains a allacy of one sort or another. Let me speed progress by focusing on only the most blatant fallacies from here on in.

- Personification of an Aggregate, Hasty generalization, and Straw Man
Example: "In spite of any firewall created between departments of news and of opinion, the audience will assume -- without countervailing evidence -- that one sides bleeds over to the other. "
'The audience' doesn't assume anything. Individuals in the audience will assume things, and typically, they assume different things. At best, it could be said that amajority of the audience members share a similar assumption. But this is a far cry from the attribution of an assumption to the audience as a whole. This very common tactic by the media - to represent specific groups as having specific features (especially cognitive features, such as beliefs) - is misrepresentative, and indeed, causes great harm through the promotion of stereotypes.

Moreover, on the basis of what evidence does Clark offer the suggestion that the audience assumes one thing or another? The study he is describing contains no such statement. At best, Clark is working from isolated statements that he himself has heard - a very unrepresentative sample of the audience and in any case an insufficient number of samples to warrant any generalization at all. This is a very commpin tactic in traditional media, the unwarranted attribution of a belief or attitude to a population as a whole.

And finally, the straw man: those people in 'the audience' who believe that there is lekage between 'news' and 'opinion' do not believe that there is leakage from one to the other. Rather, they believe that these have a common origin: specifically, the influence of advertisers, who pay for the costs of publication, and of the owners, who often have political axes to grind. These influences play themselves out glaringly and with obvious repetition through the newspaper and on the TV screen. The examples are innumerate, and many readers will be able to recite them from memory. No polls are needed to see evidence of these biases.

- False Explanation
"Example: The story choice of an editor -- or story play -- may be seen as an expression of bias, even when no slant is intended."
The suggestion here is that there is a better explanation of story choice when 'no slant is intended'. The presumption here is that there is a fact - that no slant is intended - that needs explanation. This is a very common tactic of columnists, who which to show that P is true, and do so by offering an 'explanation' of why P is true. This, of course, simply presumes as true the very thing that is in doubt.

- Representing Journalists as Experts; Interviewing Journalists and Reporting It As News

Example: "My colleague Rick Edmonds reminds me that many people who come to the press without prejudice form their biases after failing to recognize themselves or their values in the news. That can be true for the young or the old, for evangelical conservatives, for members of minority groups, etc."

Who cares what Clark's colleague thinks? Has he conducted studies on this issue? Is he representing his own point of view, or someone else's? Or is he just making this stuff up? We have no way of knowing - and because a journalist is cited as a news source, we are effectively screened from any evidence for this, one way or another, if there is any evidence to be had.

We could also question whether people are so shallow as to form biases simply based on their failure to recognize themselves in the news. This is the suggestion that the news media ought to be demographically representative of the population, and there is no reason to believe that this is true, and no reason to believe that this is a majority opinion of the readership. Again, this is an infantilization of the readership - it suggests that they are unable to believe anyone expcept for people who are demographically like themselves.

Oh, I'm tired, and I have to go to work. This type of criticism could be applied to the rest of the article. And - sadly - this sort of criticism could be applied to almost everything that appears in the traditional media. Pundits like Jon Stweat have very very easy pickings.

When Clark ponders the cause of the public's mistrust of the media, he should look in the mirror. Whether it is as a reselt of incompetence, or as a result of a deliberate attempt to deceive, the media comes across as terribly unreliable, dishonest, and misrepresentative. Because we see the so obvious signs of media manipulation, and because we know that members of the media are mostly educated professionals, we conclude that at least some of this is deliberate.

Sadly, because in the long run, the corruption of media does undermine democracy - and the bloggers who are critical of media are only too aware that they will not by themselves be able to make up the difference.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Failure of Completely Open Networks?

Responding to Scott Karp, who writes:

Digg’s struggle with gaming is so extreme that they had no choice but to band certain forms of collaboration in a system that is defined by its collaborative nature.

What this proves is something that has been known (and resolutely ignored by pundits) for quite some time: that the network effect is not cumulative.

People keep portraying ‘the wisdom of crowds’ as though it were some sort of democracy - people vote, and whomever has the most votes wins. That’s how Digg operated.

But the failure of Digg is analagous to the failure of democracy. The ‘wisdom of crowds’ is not obtained by mere voting. What is required - as the new Digg algorithm explicitly recognizes - is diversity.


I think it may be worth considering what constitutes 'completely open' and/or 'regulated' in a network.

All networks - including Digg - are constructed. All networks are therefore regulated, that is, the manner of their construction impacts their conduct.

Perhaps we should say that to 'regulate' is to manage transactions in a network on a case by case basis, as opposed to 'design', which is the creation (or one-time adjustment) of network parameters.

As for what constitutes 'completely open' in a network that has been designed, I am at a bit of a loss.

Strictly speaking, 'completely open' would entail no design whatsoever, but that would also entail no network at all.

We could say that 'completely open' means that any person may participate as fuly as anyone else. But if so, then the recent change by Digg does not change its status as 'completely open'.

I don't have any faith in the press to actually comprehend any of these subtleties. But I think it would be nice were the press to move beyond empty slogans.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cosmology and Economics

Responding to Lanny Arvan.

Interesting ramble covering (as usual) a lot of ground.

People who have studied the foundations of probability and the foundations of logic recognize a certain arbitrariness to those disciplines.

Probability, in particular, can be interpreted three major ways (charaterized by Reichenbach, Carnap and Ramsay) resulting in three different semantics. When one says 'the world is improbable', does one mean, (a) as compared to all previous worlds, (b) as compared to all logically possible worlds, or (c) as compared to all the worlds we are willing to place money on?

My own perspective, in both cosmology and economics, that research (properly so-called), calculation and measurement will only take you so far. A significant proportion of the cosmologists' or the economists' output is based, not on measurement, but on recognition. Sometimes we see this acknowledged with code-phrases ("this year's economy is similar to what we say in 1992") but more often is not explicitly acknowledged at all.

The thing with recognition is, there are no rules regarding domain. Everything is relevant, because the variables are so intertwined, there is no real saying what is salient and what is coincidental. The person who first noticed a sine wave (properly a property of electricity and oceans) in economic data was operating on the principle of recognition, as was Pascal when he said (with no real knowledge of the alternatives) that this is the "best of all possible worlds".

Teaching, I think, is more an art of recognition than of measurement, which is why the best teachers can identify the students with the most potential before even the first exam result comes in, and why teachers can learn more and more about their discipline even without doing 'research'. The acquisition of a capacity to 'recognize' is a function of the accumulation of experience, preferably as diverse and as difficult as possible.

Recognition, properly so-called, is a logical process, not magic or intuition. When you pick out the face of your spouse from a crowd of people at an airport, this is not some random event or happenstance, but a knowable and identifiable process of human cognition. We can understand that *some* process is taking place, even if we cannot measure that phenomenon except by the grossest indicators.

I think that what we'll find, after enough investigation, is that measurement in both economics and education has been employment more for political purposes than for research purposes.

Which, of course, is what people with enough experience in both fields have long since recognized.

The Village on Stilts

Yesterday morning (or what seems like yesterday, though the calendar says it was 48 hours ago) I got on a train, and then a boat, and within two hours of Kuala Lumpur, found myself at Palau Ketam, a fishing village on a mudflat island in the Strait of Maleka, between Malaysia and Sumatra.

It is only with reluctance that my managers will allow such indulgences, and thus only infrequently I am able to take the opportunity. And there are days that I will confess that I feel that I am the only person who understands what I am about when I visit such places.

I have always said that experience is the best teacher, and that to truly learn, we must leave the classroom and go out into the world. I have always felt that the benefit of online learning would be to free us from the more traditional order that keeps us in the classroom, in the office, and away from the world, away from the benefits of true experience.

Ewan McIntosh is engaging in debate in the traditional Oxford style under the auspices of the staid and world-wary officials of the Economist. This while I walk along the sidewalks among the screaming children riding their bicycles at breakneck speed on their elevated concrete and wooden sidewalks.

I suspect he does not even understand my objections to his participation, though I don't think I can say it more clearly: that the Economist is stage-managing these debates in order to distract from what can be genuinely learned.

I am not going to glamorize Malaysia - the country is far too complicated for that. Like Colombia, and like Lesotho, there is poverty. People struggle to make a living, even as glass and steel towers rise in the cities, even as the malls sell MacBooks and mobile phones. Perhaps my most enduring memory of Palau Ketam is not the old man weaving reeds around the shell of a chair or the women preparing seafood products on the floor of their house, but the sight of a flat-screen colour TV through the window of one of these houses. Poverty exists side by side with plenty, sometimes even in the same room.

The economist would have us believe that it is the free market that makes these advances possible in such poor nations, but I know better. What advances there are in places like Malaysia - and I have seen the pattern repeated elsewhere - are as a result of government services and supports. From the subsidies on fuel and food that keep the people out of abject poverty, to the housing that supports them, to the concrete pillars and concrete walkways of Palau Ketam that make life there just a little less precarious.

Yes, there is the attractive side of the free market in Malaysia. I would much rather shop in the technology mall, choosing from a hundred different vendors, than I would walk the sterile aisles of the Future Shop. I saw more 'authorized Mac vendors' in Malaysia than anywhere else I've been, as it is apparent the Monopoly has been broken there. And I would much rather wander the bazaars and the night markets than to shop at WalMart. But equally, I was cautious (to say the least) about food I knew would make me sick, and careful where I stepped on the uneven (and often dirty) sidewalks.

Many of the lessons from Malaysia will wait weeks before rising to the surface of my memories. Can you believe that I have never been in a mosque before now? What will I make of the calls of the mullahs to prayer, which I will now forever associate with sunrise and sunset, an aching and haunting call that is beautiful and meaningful? What will I make of the gangs of youths, using motorcycle helmets as weapons, fighting at the bus stop in the Brickfields?

When I think of the Economist I think of people like Thomas Friedman writing that 'the world is flat', and I certainly see why he makes such a claim. When I compare cities like Bogota and Kuala Lumpur to my own home in New Brunswick, I see clearly not how far these countries have come (and in many ways surpassed us), I am equally aware of the fragility of our hold on the advantages of a modern technological society. We are very smug in our quiet and clean towns, almost completely unaware that we are rapidly becoming irrelevant.

This should be clear: that the policies of people like those who run the Economist kept for many years the citizens of these nations living in abject poverty, and it is only through enormous force of will that governments, like the Islamic government of Malaysia, are overturning the dictates of agencies like the World Bank and the rule of the multinational corporations.

And living in New Brunswick, I perhaps better than others know how easily and quickly these agencies will switch allegiances, casting ourselves in the role of impoverished producers of commodities, eking a living with fewer and fewer of the social supports to which we have become accustomed.

I will attempt in the future to express some of these sentiments more articulately than I can today. But I want at least to capture the emotion and the feeling.

Because, you know, people like those who run the Economist always come appearing to have the most benign of attentions and carrying with them the promise of riches. They come with riches, they come with what it is you want. If you crave money, they will pay you. If you crave attention, they will give you an audience.

They can, as they have so many times before, promise to make you the king in your own country, the representative of your people, the one who carries the standard. And it is far easier to accept this, than to ask, by what right do they offer this?

Just as we know that the Americans will never allow the mullahs to rule in Iraq, we know that the Economist will never appoint the Frieres or the Illichs of our own community to speak on behalf of educators, or even on one side of a so-called 'debate'.

Just as, in our so-called democracy, the national media will never run advertisements questioning the role of multinationals in world development, or advocating socially responsible events like 'buy nothing' day.

I want also to comment on Olli Answers, who asks, appropriately, "What then is the value an expert opinion and who decides what makes an expert an expert?

Appropriate, because he also comments, "I find it rather ironic that Downes complains about the Economist’s “cult of ‘experts’” when, until now, I always presumed Downes to be a member of the cult of education experts. Isn’t Downes one of the academic elite in education?"

Whether or not I am one of the 'elite' - and I hasten to add, that I have always resisted this characterization - I would like to point to the distinction between one who has become an expert and one who has been appointed one.

If you toe the line, if you are ready to say the right things, to appeal to the right demographic, to have a certain popular appear, then you can become 'published'.

Like it or not, no matter how much you may protest your autonomy and independence, when you accept Caesar's crown, you become Caesar's king.

As for me, well, I turn my back on Rome.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

The discussion of 'necessary and sufficient conditions' is well understood in philosophy, and as a result, I sometimes make the mistake of assuming it is commonly understood in the wider community. This post redresses this by sketching the concept and why it is important.


To say that one thing is a condition for another is to say that the one thing is involved in making the second thing happen.

The most common example of a condition is a cause. For example, striking a billiard ball with a cue causes the ball to move. Thus, the striking of the ball is a 'condition' of the movement of the ball.

But conditions need not be causes. Giving permission is another type of condition. For example, a driver's license gives you permission to drive. This, having a driver's license is a 'condition' for driving.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

There are two ways to express conditions:

B if A (alternatively: if A then B)
B only if A

The first is called a sufficient condition. The second is a necessary condition.

The idea of a sufficient condition is that it is enough to make something happen. For example, in most cases, pushing on the gas is enough to make the car go forward. It's not the only thing that would do it; you could make the car go forward by pushing it, for example.

The idea of a necessary condition is that something will not happen unless the condition happens. For example, we might say that the car will not go forward unless we have turned off the parking brake. Turning off the brake is thus a necessary condition to the car going forward.

Necessary and sufficient conditions are typically used to explain why something happens. "Why did the car go forward?" we ask. The brake was turned off; that was necessary for the motion to happen. And then somebody pressed on the gas; that was sufficient to make it move forward.

The Logic of Conditions

The logical structures of necessary and sufficient conditions do a dance around each other.

The simplest statement of a sufficient condition is as follows:

If A then B

This is equivalent to:

If not B then not A, and

It is not equivalent to:

If B then A

Meanwhile, the simplest statement of a necessary condition is as follows:

If B then A

And we often use special words to indicate this special status:

B only if A
Not B unless A

This is also equivalent to:

If not A then not B

And it is not equivalent to:

If not B then not A

The Conditional Fallacy

Why is this important? Because it points to what is probably the most common fallacy involving conditions: not sufficient means not necessary.

For example, we often hear this kind of argument:
Studies show that simply spending money will not improve test scores in schools. So we should be looking at something else, like quality teachers.
What makes this a bit tricky is that the conclusion is often implicit. The conclusion, if spelled out, is that we should be doing something instead of throwing money at the problem.

Here's an example of the fallacy being committed. Ewan McIntosh writes, "In 2006 there was $2 trillion spent on education by the world's governments. But money alone is not the reason we see improvement, not always." He then recommends "Getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors (and) ensuring that the system is able to offer the best possible instruction for every child ." Presumably, instead of spending money on the problem - after all, Singapore didn't have to.

Here is Tom Hoffman identfying the fallacy in McIntosh's reasoning: "I don't have the slightest idea what school budgets look like in Scotland, so maybe over there it is appropriate to put across the message that more funding isn't necessary to improve education, but on this side of the pond, even this study makes it clear that improving American education requires spending more money."

The stiuation is represented thus: spending money is necessary but not sufficient to improve educational outcomes.

What this means is that simply spending money won't solve the problem. There are many ways to spend money that are not effective, as evidenced by many actual spendings of money that are not effective. Purchasing each mathematics class a Lear jet, for example, would certainly spend money. But it would not be very effective.

The response to this fallacy is to say, as Tom Hoffman did, that spending money is necessary in order to solve the problem. What this means is that, while the mere spending of money is no guarantee, nonetheless, the problem will not be solved unless money is spent. The supposition that the problem can be solved without spending money is a fallacy.


As you may imagine, with the logic of conditions being so entwined, it is very easy to get tangled in a mess of necessary and sufficient conditions. This is especially the case when attempting to state whether one thing will cause another to happen.

Many people mistake a cause as the sufficient condition for something to happen (sometimes thought of as the 'efficient cause' or the 'causal agent'). But formally, we should think of a 'cause' as 'a necessary and sufficient condition for an effect'.

That is to say, the description of a cause needs to include, not only the sufficient conditions, but also the necessary conditions, for an effect.

So if we sat that 'A' is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then when we say that 'A causes B' we mean that:
'If A then B' and 'If not A then not B'
You need both parts to ascribe a cause. You need to show that when A happens, that B also happens, but also, that it is not a coincidence, that is, when A does not happen, B does not happen either.

Some people at this point may argue that only a correlation, and not a cause, has been established. They argue that, in addition to a correlation, a causal argument must also appeal to a general principle or law of nature. This may be the case; if so, then we can simply say here that showing that 'If A then B' and 'If not A then not B' is necessary, but not sufficient, to show that A causes B.

Ceteris Paribus

The phrase ceteris paribus is Latin for 'all other things being equal' and is an important principle for understanding the concept of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Strictly speaking, the description of a cause for any event would be endless. For example, if I wanted to say that 'the car caused the accident' then I would need to say that the car exists and that the accident happened and that the earth exists and that the laws of nature are as we understand and that the accident was not a sub-temporal sentient being and that Merlin did not intervene and... well, you get the idea.

Usually, when we say that one thing is a cause for another, or that one thing is a condition for another, we assume a certain background state of affairs, which continues as it always has. This is especially important when talking about sufficient conditions, but will also come into play when talking about necessary conditions

When I said 'pressing on the gas was sufficient to move the car', I assumed that, as usual, the parking brake was not engaged. Because, after all, were the parking brake engaged, pressing on the gas might not be sufficient to move the car. Really, I should say, 'Releasing the parking brake and pressing on the gas is sufficient to move the car'. But since the parking brake is almost never engaged, it is not usually necessary to say this; I just assume it.

Similarly, when I said that 'releasing the parking brake is necessary to move the car', the presumption was that the parking brake was engaged. But most of the time, releasing the brake is not necessary because the brake was not engaged in the first place. I do not need to state the necessary condition.

This is why the concept of 'control' is so important in scientific experimentation. If you say 'all else being equal', then if you are measuring for results, then you need to know that all else was, in fact, equal.


When you say 'all else being equal', you are assuming that a certain state of affairs holds, described in shorthand as 'all else'. But, of course, something changes, for otherwise causation would be impossible.

When you say 'all else' you mean 'everything not affected by the cause'. But this is essentially a statement of expectations. When you say 'A caused B' what you mean, in full, is that 'A caused B instead of C', where C denotes the alternative that would have been the case, all else being equal, has A not occurred.

Bas van Fraassen explains this at length. When you plant sunflower seeds beside the house and they grow to be six feet tall, someone may ask, "Why did the sunflowers grow here?" What they mean is, 'what caused them to grow (instead of to not grow)?' and not 'what caused sunflowers to grow instead of rutabagas?'.

When Tom Hoffman writes, sarcastically, "I don't get Ewan's Scottish spin on this McKinsey (i.e., American) study of educational systems around the globe," he is speaking of expectations. He is suggesting the production of a given effect involves spending more money in one context, where in the other the production fo the same effect, it is implied, does not mean the spending of more money.

Tricks Involving Ceteris Paribus

This is where ceteris paribus gets tricky. Very often, the presumption 'all other things being equal' does not mean, strictly, 'all other things', but rather, a subset of other things, and specifically (and importantly), the set of necessary conditions for the effect to happen.

Let us suppose that McIntosh said: "We can hire better teachers, but we do not need to spend money in order to do so." This is a bit of a caricature, but it is implied in the suggestion that the problem will not be solved by spending money.

Strictly speaking, this is impossible. It is not possible to hire teachers without spending money. What can only be meant is that it is not necessary to spend more money. He is stating, in other words, that enough money is already being spent to hire quality teachers. But, of course, this money is currently being spent on something else. So in this case, 'ceteris paribus' means 'same amount of money spend' but does not mean 'spent on the same things'.

The unstated argument here is that the money being spent elsewhere should be reallocated to spending on quality teachers. But this very necessary condition remains unstated. This is a fallacy; the necessary condition is hidden in the ceribus paribus clause.

A similar fallacy exists elsewhere in the same argument. McIntosh writes,
Less than 1% of African and Middle Eastern children perform at or above the Singaporian average - to be expected, you might believe, because those Singaporeans must hemorrhage cash into their education system. Wrong. Singapore spends less on Primary education than 27 of the 30 OECD countries.
Fair enough. But is McIntosh recommending that finding for education in the UK be adjusted to match the funding provided to education in Singapore? Almost certainly not!

This is a case of shifting ceterus paribus clauses. In Singapore, 'all else being equal' means expenditures at Singapore's levels. But in Britain, this means something very different.

Why is this important? Because, if the expenses in Britain are not the same as those in Singapore, this means that there is something very different about Singapore which makes it possible to spend much less on education. But if Singapore is very different in precisely this way, then it is a poor analogy and cannot be used to define 'all else being equal', for, in this case, 'all else' is very different.


Arguments involving the use of conditions and causation are often deceptive because of the misuse of necessary and sufficient conditions.

When reading such arguments, you should not be swayed into believing that something is not necessary simply because it is not sufficient.

You should also be wary of hidden, and often shifting, assumptions about necessary conditions implicit in (frequently unstated) ceteris paribus clauses.

When evaluating such arguments, ask yourself simple questions. Like: if they did A, would the result be B? If they did not do A, would B not result?

Trust your intuitions. And keep in mind that if the appeal, by analogy, is to something that is unfamiliar to you - like Singapore, or like Estonia - the reason is most likely to hide some hidden difference that makes them a special case.

Friday, January 04, 2008

What Is Not Known

Responding to the list of certainties offered by Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution.

Interesing that what one person thinks is nearly certain, another thinks is mostly false. Let's have a look.

1. Polarizing America won't make interest group politics go away, no matter how hard either the right-wingers or progressives wish it so.

I can actually agree with this, but do not (as seems to be suggested) take it as an argument against polarizing America (or anything else, for that matter).

First of all, the nature of governance as it is currently is that it will reflect interest group politics, because the evolution of policy is based on the organization and cumulation of support, much more so than the nature or rationality of the position. So interest group politics are currently inevitable with or without polarization.

And second, polarization is not inherently a bad thing, or more accurately, polarization is not always a worse thing than the alternative. From my perspective, if the abatement of polarization requires that I agree to a version of policies that (say) sanctioned unprovoked warfare, arbitrary dentention, surveillance, torture, and the rest, then my response is to accept polarization over a dangerous concession to arbitrary rule.

2. We cannot do economic policy as we might arrange pieces on a chessboard.

Perhaps, but surely some economic policy is better than none.

What you ask for is rarely what you get, and your recommendations had better be prepared for this discrepancy.

This is because economics is a complex discipline, not (as it is so often portrayed) a simple cause-and-effect system, in which given inputs produce given outputs. What this means is that the algebraic representation of economic principle is seldom, if ever, reliable, and should not be used to formulate policy or predict the consequences. Saying simple things like 'tax cuts will stimulate the economy' should be discouraged as sophistry and nonsense.

That said, so much as possible, we should attempt to model economic systems, so that we can be as forewarned as possible of dangerous feedback loops or the potential for catastrophic interventions. Saying 'there is no way to predict the outcome', for example, is no excuse for allowing a government debt to run out of control, because in most scenarios this creates an unrecoverable predicament.

3. Government-dominated health systems, insofar as they work well (a number of them do), succeed simply by lowering costs.

This is false.

Although, as a matter of fact, government health case systems lower costs, their great benefit in a society is greater security and protection from risk.

In Canada, it is not possible to 'become uninsured', for example, which means not only that people are freed from the worry that a serious illness will ruin them financially, they are freer to move from job to job or to work for themselves.

Moreover, in a government health care system, the major motivations for misrepresentations and outright falsehoods is greatly decreased. People are more inclined to trust recommendations made by health care practitioners because the financial incentives are not there for them to lie.

Finally, because the system is accessible to everyone, people are more likely to access health care services earlier in the case of an illness or injury, which has the impact of preventing much more serious consequences later.

These factors would make a government health care system worthwhile even if it cost the same as a private health care system (and, indeed, because of the disinformation spread by America lobbyists, many Canadians actually believe their system is more expensive - but they *still* won't support abandoning it, by margins of 85 - 90 percent).

Health care has a murky relationship to human health, pharmaceuticals and broken limbs aside. A version of the single-payer system, as might be adopted in the United States, would not lower costs.

It is ironic that this simple economic prediction comes only a few sentences after the assertion that you cannot do economic policy with simple predictions. Perhaps this sentence should have been extended to include prohibition on *unsupported* economic predictions.

The American health care system is the mot expensive in the world. It is hard to imagine any form of government insurance that would not lower costs. The systems used by other nations, most of which involve some or another degree of government intervention, all involve lower costs.

We would be raising taxes and lowering medical innovation to give poor people a good deal more financial security and a slight bit more health; that is the relevant trade-off.

With 50 million people in the United States currently uninsured, the benefit reaches substantially more than just 'poor people'. If we include the people who dare not risk losing their corporate health care, we find that it includes most of American society.

As for the measure of 'a slight bit more health', current measurements - including factors such as infant mortality and life expectancy - indicate statistically significant differences in outcomes, a difference that becomes all the more evident when we take into account that most of the health in America is concentrated in a small percentage of the population.

4. Overall, despite its many flaws, America is a force for liberty in the greater global community.

This is not currently the case, sadly.

The current administration is an occupying power in two nations, has supported proxy wars (such as in Somalia) in others, supports military dictatorships (including one that is nuclear-armed), 'disappears' people in foreign and domestic abductions, sanctions torture, runs concentration camps in which innocent people are detained without trial or representation, surveils its citizens constantly and in violation of the law, subverts election results with rigged electronic voting systems, awards contracts without tender to government insiders, exposes American agents for political purposes... and more.

You simply cannot do all of this and then claim to be a 'force for liberty'.

What is most damaging to the cause of liberty, however, is that the government does all this and is *still* defended by its supporters as a beacon of liberty. And people look at this and say, "If this is what 'liberty' means, then it's a lie." And then the tradeoff of liberty for stability doesn't seem so bad. because, after all, this is the route very clearly and obviously being prusued by the United States. Sadly, and tragically.

5. We are programmed to respond to the "us vs. them" mentality and highly intelligent people are no less captive to this framing. We should try very hard to get away from this framing.

Forgive me if this sounds like someone saying "let's be friends" right before he hits me over the head with a 2x4.

The fact is, polarization isn't something that was 'programmed' into anyone's head, it was a policy that was deliberately adopted by the American right, which resulted in divisive politics of religion and race, and saw the proliferation of 'Republican attack dogs' that relentlessly sowed division and hate into every online and offline forum they could find.

And we saw the 'us versus them' approach adopted as a deliberate instrument of foreign policy, an approach intended to tell people, Americans and otherwise, "if you're not for us, you're against us." When we see an end to the support for a policy of American exceptionalism, we will be willing to believe that the days of the deliberately fostered 'us versus them' politics are over.

6. America is a beacon of innovation for the world, and it is critically important that we allow the preconditions for American innovation to continue.

This is not currently the case.

Closer observation will reveal that the perception of 'American innovation' is a consequence of three factors:

a. Purchase - American companies routinely import talent and creativity, which is why many innovations appear to be American even though they have their origins on foreign shores. (It's the Canadian business model - create something new, build a business, sell out to some American corporation - it happens over and over).

b. Publicity - Americans are relentless self-promoters, taking credit for innovation whether or not this credit is deserved.

c. Monopolism - American companies and government policies act to squelch innovation elsewhere by leveraging ts large market (and sometimes its military) in order to preserve the U.S. business advantage (Canadians, again, know this well, in everything from the Avro Arrow to the Blackberry).

It is worth noting that all three of these factors are currently under pressure. Americans, because they are deeply in debt, can no longer afford to import talent (and besides, the government's "us vs. them" policy is keeping many immigrants out). Media is increasingly in the control of non-Americans, and hence, so is the publicity. And American military and economic muscle is not what it was (and arguably, will never be again).

7. It would be a disaster if American taxation ever reached 55 percent of gdp.

This is another one of those simple-minded economic predictions.

Is it ok if taxation is at 54.9 percent and then a disaster once one more tax is added?

Is it a disaster if the result is that every single American is well educated, well fed, healthy, happy and creative?

It is ridiculous to adopt a unidimensional definition of 'disastrous' and then to say that this, of all things, is 'certain'.

8. Which institutions work well is often country-specific.

A better way to say that might be to say 'which institutions work well is often culturally specific'.

Because it is culture, not nationality, that makes institutions work better or worse.

9. The West European way of life is a marvel, unprecedented in human history. That said, I am not sure that the degree of economic security to date can persist in a more mobile and more diverse future (this second sentence retreats to what I am uncertain about).

It is worth noting that western Europe has achieved its status by (a) embracing diversity, and (b) redressing economic inequality. The difficulties faced in western Europe are caused, not by diversity, but by a new economic inequality that developed because of enlargement and an old inequality that is a residue of the colonial age.

The Europeans, to their credit, mostly realize that the way forward is not to stifle mobility nor to discourage diversity, but to address the hopes and aspirations of currently disaffected minorities by addressing their social and political disadvantages.

Nothing is sure. As the environment continues to degrade and as Europe works to adapt in a dwindling resource base, it will be more difficult to meet the needs of all its citizens. ut efforts under way in Europe to support environmentalism and to reduce consumption are th best hope for economic sustainability.

Unfortunately, no such effort appears to exist in American politics, and indeed, efforts are underway to actively undermine environmentalist and conservationist policies. As the delegate from Papua New Guinea said to the Americans at the Bali conference, "If you're not willing to lead, then at leas get out of the way."

10. No one has a good idea what the equilibrium looks like for nuclear proliferation. This is very worrying.

It would be less worrying if the American government was not propping up a nuclear-armed dictator in Pakistan. But I digress.

The fact is, the only 'equalibrium' that could exist is one in which all nations have nuclear weapons, or at least, like Canada, have the capacity to obtain them but have chosen not to. This would require that nations deal with each other through reason rather than force, since the consequences of using force are too terrible. If even North Korea understands this, we can hold out hope for reason.

Otherwise, the divide between those that have nuclear weapons and those that do not is the most dangerous flashpoint, particularly when those who have nuclear weapons are unable to resist using the threat of force against those who do not. The Iranians, for example, know very well that the continued threats from the U.S. would abate after the explosion of its first test missile. After all, it has worked for much more unpalatable and repressive governments.

The best way to prevent nuclear proliferation is to make them unnecessary. This, however, requires a submission to international law - a step that the United States is singularly unwilling to take.

11. The possibility of pandemics receives insufficient attention. The world sleepwalked through AIDS for a long time, mostly because "it doesn't affect people like you and me." The next time around could be much worse.


It would be nice were the next logical inference drawn, that discrimination against subgroups that are 'not like you and me' is an irrational policy, one that leads to willful ignorance regarding very important events happening in society.

12. It is a big mistake -- even in rhetoric -- to conflate concern for the poor with comparative egalitarian intuitions. The left ought to turn its back on this mistake, although it would mean losing one of their most effective rhetorical tools.

I am uncertain whether this means the left should turn ts back on the poor, or whether it should turn its back on egalitarianism. Either way, it' not going to happen.

The corollary of point 12 is the fundamental (but so often unstated) right-wing dictum that people who are poor are poor, not because of systemic inequality, but because of character deficiencies. In other words, it's their own fault.

On a case-by-case basis, you can make that argument. You can look at a poor unemployed crack addict with a grade 4 education and a criminal record and say that it's his fault, that he made some bad life choices, like dropping out of school, packing a weapon, and shooting up.

On a society-wide basis, however, you cannot ignore the fact that the best predictor of things like health, education and crime is the person's socio-economic status. And no, you don't solve it simply by throwing money at people who grew up poor, and no, you don't solve it simply by moving poor people into rich neighborhoods.

But you do address it systematically, and you *can* address it systematically. We know it can be done, because it *has* been done, in nations like Canada and Australian and Europe, and it's not something that American culture specifically makes impossible - only the deeply held self-interest of people unwilling to bend even one iota toward a progressive social policy makes it possible.

13. Most people are sincere in their views (even if wrong), and polemic attacks on them signal a weakness of the attacker, not the attackee.

Well, it depends on how you define 'polemic'. Every statement of a position is in one sense or another a polemic.

In my own mind, the 'rules of debate' are the same as the 'rules of rationality', which I have tried in part to sketch elsewhere (I do have an update planned).

I will observe that I have found very little attempt by those opposed to my point of view to attempt to engage me rationally, based on reason and evidence. This - I'm sure you would agree - leads me to believe that reason and evidence are predominately in support of my own position.

And I would even go a bit further as to question the sincerity of some people I have faced in discussions. I have seen many times the advocacy of a position purely because it distracts from a deeper or more fundamental issue. I have seen advocacy at the behest of some foundation or corporate agent seeking to poster a certain frame or way of seeing the world. I have seen outright (and knowing) dishonesty about the facts of the matter (and sometimes on network television!).

My believe in the sincerity of my opponents is these days something that I need to see demonstrated rather than something I take for granted.

14. The chance that a protectionism will be an economically rational form of protectionism is very low.

This is another one of those simple economic statements.

Protectionism can be economically rational for a large number of reasons. One current example is protectionism as a response to dumping or economic subsidies. One country can absolutely ruin an industry in another country is the first country is large enough to sustain a loss in order to support its own industry. Thus, for example, subsidized grain production by rich western nations creates a situation in poor countries where their own farmers cannot survive, and the government cannot respond by matching the subsidy. The only way to remain self-sufficient in grain (necessary, in order to resist rising prices in a monopoly market) is to enact some for of protectionism.

It is also worth looking at different ways 'protectionism' can be created.

The simple and obvious type of protectionism is that created by duties and tariffs. They are basically a blunt-instrument mechanism for slowing the flow of foreign product into a domestic market. Viewed in this light, domestic subsidies can be viewed as an only slightly less blunt instrument for accomplishing the same aim.

But (as the negotiators at WTO know well) there is a whole raft of measures that can effectively perform the same function.

Measures such as standards and specifications also play this sort of role. For example, after one case of mad cow was found in Canada, all beef imports from Canada to the U.S. were banned for a number of years. This ban continued long after it was medically necessary to do so, at the lobbying of the U.S. beef industry. Given the incidents of mad cow in the U.S., the bad was medically meaningless. Yet it persisted. It was a form of protectionism.

Conversely, the United States has long lobbied for the abolition of the Canadian Wheat Board and similar agricultural marketing agencies. These bodies do not provide direct subsidies, but rather, the act as a 'single desk' marketing agency for a certain agricultural product. The board has a history of negotiating higher prices for Canadian wheat (and other products) and is strongly supported by farmers. It is, however, considered a form of 'protectionism' by American interests, if for no other reason than that it is protected by law and provides better marketing than American industries can provide on their own. Yet, removing this 'protection' would be devastating to Canadian agriculture, which would in effect be reduced to a third world status producing cash crops for the commodities market.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Last Year's eLearn Magazine Predictions

2007 is finally over. Everybody is busily predicting 2008, but who is checking 2007's predictions?

I am.

Here are the predictions from the 2007 eLearn Magazine's annual round-up, and what actually happened.

Don Norman, Nielsen Norman Group, Northwestern University, and Author of Things That Make Us Smart, USA

Predicted: "Finally, something might happen within the educational scene. Why? Because business leaders are now seriously worried. I have seen more educational startups, more new foundations, more retired-while-still-young entrepreneurs turning their attention to education than ever before. Sure, many of these efforts are naïve and overly-simplistic, but these people are smart, fast learners, so their lack of knowledge and understanding of education doesn't last long. Not only that, but they are hiring teachers and educators for their staff, management, and advisory boards. Finally, something might happen within the educational scene."

Grade: D

Predicting that "something might happen" doesn't really score well on the precision scale. That said, we didn't really see a blossoming of new educational ventures last year. Indeed, if anything, we saw a bit of a retrenchment.

Richard Mayer, Department of Psychology, University of California, USA

Predicted: "Researchers will continue to make progress in determining the instructional design features of e-learning that promote learning, including research-based principles for the use of animated pedagogical agents, intelligent tutoring systems, simulations, games, virtual reality, and multimedia environments."
Grade: C-

Whether researchers were able to "make progress" is debatable, but at least research did continue in the areas listed (which was pretty much all of e-learning except for online courses). No great breakthroughs, and 2007 was characterized by a nearly complete absence of animated pedagogical agents, though simulations, games, VR and multimedia were strong.

Elliott Masie, The MASIE Center's Learning CONSORTIUM, USA

Predicted: "High Definition Learning: The rise of high definition media (from HD TV to higher resolution plasma/LCD screens) will push us to a new model of High Definition Learning. This will manifest itself in high definition video conferencing, presence, and higher expectation of virtual/simulated settings. Social and Informal Blends: Add one part informal learning, one part social networking and swirl in classrooms, e-learning, and online webinars, and you have some new recipes. Continuous Events vs. Defined Courses: Why graduate learners from a course in a field that is continuing to change? Courses don't have to end, but can continue for years. That can be applied to higher education as well as corporate learning offerings. Learning Systems (LMS/LCMS) Experiment with Web 3.0: Presence on the desktop, peer reviewed content, 'gadgets/components' and Learning API's. Open Source Content: There will be several experiments on organizational open source learning content development."

Grade: C

We'll give him points for precision, but unfortunately the predictions missed the mark. HD learning? Didn't happen. Continuous courses? A marginal influence at best. Web 3.0 and presence on the desktop: nice try to anticipate widgets, but they showed up in Facebook, not on the desktop. Open Source content? Not counting Yale, we are long past the experimental stage, and moving into mainstream.

Michael Feldstein, author of the e-Literate weblog and member of eLearn Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board, USA

Predicted: "The U.S. Supreme Court will weaken the test for proving 'obviousness' in a patent case, substantially impacting Blackboard's current patent litigation efforts. The Spellings report will spur new efforts in implementing institution-wide metrics for e-learning effectiveness in higher education. The IMS Common Cartridge and upcoming Enterprise V2 standards will significantly improve content and learning system interoperability, respectively, although we won't see the full benefits of these developments until 2008. And, finally, despite a ton of buzz in the edu-blogosphere and some merit, 'e-Learning 2.0' will only see limited success in terms of widespread diffusion."

Grade: A-

Very specific predictions, and very accurate. Feldstein hits the Supreme Court ruling dead on, tracks the impact into the Blackboard case, where a substantial part of the claim was invalidated. He also correctly tracks reaction to the Spellings Commission. Common Cartridge is gaining traction, with a lot of demand being expressed, but since the specification remains proprietary to IMS members, it hasn't had the impact it could have. Perhaps they'll open it up in 2008. Finally, e-Learning 2.0 had a bit more than "limited" success - things like social networks had a big year, both in and outside e-learning - but I think both Feldstein and I agree that we'll never see a broad corporate uptake of anything other than enterprise tools.

Curt Bonk, Professor, Indiana University, USA
Predicted: "With the push toward Web 2.0 technologies, Time magazine recently named "you" as the person of the year for 2006. In the world of learning, this signifies the growing attention toward personalizing and customizing learning and placing the learner in charge of her own learning activities. In 2007, we may further recognize this by renaming "the Web" as "the Web of Learning." In effect, when it comes to training and education, no longer is the Web simply "the Web." Instructional models are beginning to reflect this trend by thinking deeply about pedagogy and the learner within e-learning, not simply technology."
Grade: C-

Nobody attempted to rename the Web, and 'The Web of Learning' simply had no traction in 2007. There was more attention paid to personalization and customization, but nothing that would distinguish 2007 from previous years. Instructional models have always thought about pedagogy and the learner within e-learning (how often do we see in the mailing lists the refrain that 'technology is only a tool' and that 'we cannot be driven by technology').

Stephen Downes, Researcher, National Research Council, Canada
Predicted: "As expected, last year was the year of video. This year will continue that trend with a wide range of video-on-demand services becoming available as the leaders consolidate their hold. Also look for ubiquitous Wii-like wireless-based online applications, a limping launch for Vista, and challenges to commercial software across the board by hosted services (which will later become free applications you can host yourself). Single sign-in will finally arrive, and new services enabled by this (such as socially supported content filtering) will sweep the web. The internet is ripe for something new (and no, that something is not Second Life): something like the personal learning environment connected to free content— Creative Commons, open access, and open educational resources. If the bottom doesn't drop out of the paid software and content market in 2007, it will at least be severely compromised."
Grade: A-

Video continued to be strong with VoD services being developed (and TiVo becoming available in Canada, yay). The Wii was probably the tech story of the year, taking the community by storm. Single sign-on arrived with major players like Microsoft, Google and AOL backing OpenID. Vista was widely regarded as one of the worst products of the year, and "limping" was perhaps an understatement. Second Life faltered but remained strong. But nothing like the personal learning environment became mainstream, though development continues. Finally, while paid content and software remain strong, there were significant compromises, as the major lables abopted DRM-free MP3 releases and the NY Times closed Times Select.

Ray Schroeder, Director, Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning, University of Illinois at Springfield, USA
Predicted: "The coming year will bring advances in mobile learning (m-learning) as Microsoft and Apple compete for the e-learning market with enhanced versions of Zune and the iPod. At the same time the major cell phone manufacturers will deploy many new models of the dual WiFi/3G cell phones. These phones will enable e-learners to access web materials (with no minutes charged) at WiFi access points and via advanced 3G cell where WiFi is unavailable. Learning providers, recognizing the rapidly expanding market of mobile-connected learners will ramp-up delivery of m-learning compatible courseware."
Grade: A

Basically predicted the iPhone and was rewarded in spades, as 2007 was a major year for mobile technologies. Palm and RiM also had (to my vantage point) strong years. And with WiFi available not only on the iPhone but also the iPod touch, Schroeder nails tat one. Many e-learning (and other) content features are now aailable in mobile format. All of that said: nobody noticed whether or not Zune released a new version last year; they're simply not a player (yet).

Karl Kapp, Assistant Director, Institute for Interactive Technologies and Professor of Instructional Technology, Bloomsburg University, USA

Predicted: "Gadgets, games, and gizmos will dominate the e-learning landscape in 2007. On the one hand, organizations will seek to develop e-learning with an eye toward 3D environments using Second Life and other commercially available platforms. On the other hand, an increasing number of simple, quick games, so called casual games, will be developed to teach facts and concepts to employees who are used to being entertained as well as educated. Mobile devices will finally begin to be used for mission critical learning events such as prepping for sales calls and troubleshooting large machinery. Web-based tools used by individuals such as social bookmarks, RSS feeds, blogs, wikis and avatars will become more mainstream in academic and then corporate environments."
Grade: B

This is basically a 'more of the same' prediction, and while the trends identified - things like 3D environments, gaming, and web based tools - remained consistent, none of them had a break-through year. 2007 was a big year for mobile, as just discussed, but not really in the way described by Kapp. So, though the prediction was relatively reliable, points lost for lack of precision and failing to key in on any of the big trends.

Saul Carliner, Assistant Professor, Graduate Program in Educational Technology, Concordia University, Canada

Predicted: "The role of instructional-designers-by-assignment continues to expand (SMEs who develop their own learning programs). Instructional designers work as production assistants in these situations— well below our abilities and aspirations. Experimentation in the design of e-learning programs will be more practical and usable to other designers as our experience with the medium grows. In the workplace, e-learning is increasingly seen as one key part of an organization's larger portfolio of learning options. Blogs and wikis continue to gain traction as an e-learning device, especially in universities. Finally, e-learning tools are increasingly working their ways into the everyday university classroom, from guest speakers by webcast to the increasing rarity of paper syllabi."

Grade: B

I have the least knowledge about Carliner's most precise prediction, that instructional designers will be increasingly marginalized. Is this so? It sounds accurate to me, but I can't be sure. I saw no evidence that experimentation in e-learning design became more practical - indeed, with things like Second Life playing a large role, it became in certain ways less practical. Presumably usability improved, but no products were touted as great improvements in usability. Existing trends - blogs, wikis and webcasts - continued.

Allison Rossett, Professor of Educational Technology, San Diego State University and co-author of Job Aids and Performance Support, USA

Predicted: "Knowledge everywhere—evolution not revolution: Annual studies by ASTD and Training magazine confirm the slow, steady trend away from classroom delivery and towards more technological approaches to training and support. Information, lessons, instructors, and events are beginning to go where they are needed. While the shift from knowledge in the classroom to knowledge everywhere is radical, progress is not. Not yet. Revolution is too strong a word for where we are today. Intimations, hints, glimmers, and possibilities—those words describe it better. How will you use 2007 for pilot projects, measurement, continuous improvement, and change management? How will you bring knowledge and support closer to where it is needed and advance this worthy revolution?"

Grade: C

This was almost a non-prediction, and the last few sentences are actually questions. Yes, there has been an observable trend toward more technological approaches to learning and support. This has been true for years. Saying that there won't be radical shifts may be (in the main) accurate but not very useful. Knowing about the iPhone, the Wii or the changes in patent law are much more important - whether or not they count as 'revolutionary'.

Jay Cross, Internet Time Group., USA
Predicted: "This will be the year of PULL. People will rebel against the ever larger haystacks that have been pushed upon them in favor of finding needles for themselves. We'll see fewer and fewer courses, books, and three-day retreats, and more "small pieces, loosely joined." Conference attendees will set their own agenda; workshop participants will choose their curriculum. Systems will evolve that enable us to rate what we read— allowing the best to rise to the top. Not that we have a lot of choice. The world has become unpredictable; only a fool plans far in advance these days. As for technology, everything will get faster, better, cheaper. That's not a prediction; it's Moore's Law."
Grade: B-

People may have been rebelling, but the number of traditional conferences and events far outnumbered the alternatives. Still, Cross picks up on an important new trend, and even noticing that there are going to be any unconferences is a prediction worth noting. That said, 2007 wasn't really a year of any significance for 'pull', nor did content rating systems become any more mainstream than Digg - useful recommender systems are still in the future.

Mark Oehlert, Learning Strategy Architect, Booz Allen Hamilton, USA
Predicted: "My predictions are that we will realize that we need to re-design the curriculum for ISD programs so that we teach critical thinking informed by interdisciplinary courses; re-design business models toward more pay-as-you-use models that take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies; re-design our markets so that they veer sharply away from predatory business practices like seeking overly broad patents; craft a new design to better integrate game-based learning while meeting instructional objectives; realize that mobile learning means something other than hardware— it means experiences and environments; and finally, that Stephen Downes will be a pretty good predictor— he picked video last year."
Grade: B-

Most of Oehlert's predictions speak to attitudes, which makes them harder to disprove. We may or may not realize the need to teach critical thinking - certainly enough people talked about it - but that's very different from finally doing it. In other cases, it's not clear people believed these things at all: was there really a movement in support of 'pay per use'? Hardly. Did people's attitudes towards patents, game-based learning and mobile learning really shift? Very hard to say. A generous B-.

Margaret Driscoll, Consultant, IBM, USA
Predicted: "E-learning will continue to gain ground outside traditional training organizations. It is becoming a popular delivery vehicle for certification and compliance training. Managers in line organizations such as operations, sales, and finance who simply need to deliver information/instruction and document "training" have discover e-learning. The reach of these kinds of e-learning programs will color learner expectations regarding e-learning. Training professionals in turn will need to market their programs to overcome prejudice and negative prior experience."
Grade: C

Scores very poorly on the precision scale. While accurate, the prediction is essentially 'more of the same'. E-learning is becoming popular as a vehicle for compliance 'page-turners', which in turn creates negative perceptions that must be overcome. Nothing particularly daring about this prediction; what would be surprising would be were it to turn out to be false.

Richard Larson, Director, MIT Learning Interactive Networks Consortium (LINC) and Mitsui Professor, Engineering Systems, MIT, USA

Predicted: "Pressed by bandwidth limitations in many parts of the world, e-learning innovators in developing countries will find increasingly clever ways to balance online Internet connectivity needs with stored local content and pedagogical aids. Local content and learning algorithms (e.g., MyCyberTutor) can be stored on a hard drive, CD, DVD, or local server. The right combination of low-bandwidth text interactivity coupled with animations and video that can be stored locally will allow more and more learners in developing countries to experience the rich learning environments that we take for granted in the higher-bandwidth West. There are business, research and implementation opportunities here."
Grade: D

A very specific prediction of something that has been going on for the last decade. It would have been more interesting to see discussion of the use of Flash memory to address connectivity and bandwidth issues, but this is the one technology that is not mentioned. As it is, aside from the increasing use of Flash memory, which is geuinely a big technology story (think Wikipedia on a stick, think Web 2.0 on a stick, think OLPC), no major advances in localized content systems were reported in 2007.

Angeliki Poulymenakou, Assistant Professor in Information Systems, and Spiros Borotis, Researcher, both at Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece
Predicted: "European Union funding policies currently emphasizing digital inclusion and skills-development will continue to provide leverage for the uptake of e-learning in Europe. The content providers' markets will be increasingly divided into two segments: there will be an increased offering of free and open content, contributing to the decrease of prices for commercial e-content; meanwhile, another segment will continue development of quality, interoperable, and interactive e-content that is bundled with additional services such as accreditation. Moreover, this latter segment will move aggressively towards the institutionalization of intellectual property rights of digital educational content. Human resource professionals will increasingly demand and procure end-to-end e-learning solutions that will complement content and infrastructure offerings with consultancy services required to develop a truly value-adding technology-enabled human resource development function. Examples of such services include HRD process improvement, training needs assessment, evaluation and accreditation, and convergence of information and learning infrastructures."
Grade: C

We saw the division discussed in this prediction - just as we have for the last number of years. No new developments are predicted, rather, a continuation of trends in this ongoing conflict. However, the advances in 2007 came from the side of free and open content, with the number of open courseware initiatives increasing, with legislation (such as the NIH bill) being signed into effect, and with open source technology continuing to make inroads. That said, there were continued (though less visibly successful) attempts by the commercial side of the house to push issues like IPR, harmonization, and quality standards. This prediction is generally a prediction that the commercial side of the house will be more successful in its efforts, but the evidence would appear to contradict that.

Masaaki Kurosu, Professor, National Institute of Multimedia Education, Japan
Predicted: "As various types of e-learning have developed, we now have come to a point where there are disciplines that specify what types of e-learning should be given to what types of learners in what types of situations. One example of such a discipline is that e-learning content generally should consist of fundamental material required for learning an advanced topic. Fundamental topics may not change so radically every year. Because advanced topics have to be changed and revised as academic knowledge accumulates, they are not as well-suited to e-learning. The time and the cost of revising e-learning content is not small, hence teachers often want to use the same content for at least 3 to 5 years."
Grade: D

Didn't happen. There was no significant move toward defining what types of learning should be given to what types of learner. This prediction is one of those where the author is stating what should happen, rather than what will happen. Perhaps there is a need for what is being recommended. But there is no evidence available suggesting widespread recognition of that need.

Ellen Wagner, Sr. Director, Worldwide eLearning Solutions, Adobe Systems, USA
Predicted: "I predict that three distinct emerging trends will impact the ways in which e-learning practitioners engage in their professional activities for 2007. The first, and probably the most significant of these trends, looks at the impact of dynamic media (e.g. smart documents, interactive Web video content, mash-ups, and metaworlds) on learning and performance support, and how this new media is changing expectations of a high-quality, engaging e-learning experience. The second trend is mobility and considers the role that mobile technologies play in providing learning and performance support at the point of need, when that support is needed, and on whatever digital device makes the most sense for the learner. The third trend considers how socially negotiated media and user produced content (the so-called Web 2.0 phenomena) are expanding opportunities for all members of an enterprise to contribute ideas and information in a variety of formats and forms, regardless of their technical abilities."
Grade: B

Dynamic media? A brave prediction, but it didn't happen. This is most likely a case of 'too early' rather than out-and-out getting it wrong, as both Microsoft and Adobe are lining up technologies that will support dynamism in traditionally inert media (such as video and documents). The mobile web prediction was accurate but vague - the trend may be 'mobility' but what kind? Finally, web 2.0 advanced as predicted, giving - as predicted - 'all members of an enterprise' an ability to contribute in a variety of formats. It would have been nice to see discussion of what happens when you give your staff - and grade 5 students - the ability to produce video records and post them online.

David Porush, Executive Director, SUNY Learning Environments, USA
Predicted: "Neal Stephenson's and William Gibson's metaverse is open for business: 3D, first-person, highly sensational, real-time. Yes, there's lots of lap dancing going on in SecondLife, but also 120+ campuses and the NMC's very compelling learning space. Learners are now physical as well as discursive avatars. Explosive brew. PREDICTION: There will be a strong impulse to 're-create' the conventional university setting (walls, lecterns, screens & whiteboards) — comforting vestigial organs, like handrails in 1920s elevators. But the fluidity of physical identity and boundary-destroying commfeeds will busta move. Someone will exploit this creative tension by inventing a new and compelling mode for learning."
Grade: C+

The prediction that people would attempt to recreate the traditional university in Second Life may have been a no-brainer, but it was made, and was accurate. The prediction that somebody will invent a new and compelling mode for learning was brave, but - with the exception of a few innovative attempts - was wrong. No such invention - sad to say - happened.

Geoffrey Bock, Principal, Bock & Company, USA

Predicted: "We're going to start building a lot more 'intelligence' into our online information environments in some surprising new ways. Our 'seek and ye shall find' style of searching will morph into an 'I need, I find, I do' kind of solution. Yes, Google will still be there when we need it. But we're going to be adding actions and decision making capabilities. We're going to have environments that help us learn and that learn from our experiences. We're going to be embedding all kinds of informative semantics into our XML-driven metadata. We're going to be looking at semantics from a business perspective. My favorite? Take a carefully look at O'Reilly's Safari U ( and then imagine the possibilities!

Grade: D

Safari U - which has been around for a number of years - has had no real impact beyond the O'Reilly readership community (and even only a moderate impact within that community). And in 2007, Google remained the undisputed - and pretty much only - way of finding things. We may be embedding metadata into XML (though this appears to be slowing a bit) but we are not actually finding things using this technology. These predictions may come true in the future - but they certainly did not come true in 2007.

Jonathon Levy, Senior Learning Strategist, Monitor Group, USA
Predicted: "We will see movement toward capturing tacit knowledge and integrating collective knowledge with corporate data and other knowledge resources. Social tagging software will emerge as an important element of the knowledge management landscape. Corporate universities will begin to question their positioning as a 'university,' and some enlightened Chief Learning Officers (CLOs) will reject the academic model and begin to reposition themselves as performance support and change management specialists. More CLOs will move up to the board. The role of knowledge in corporate competitiveness will be enhanced while the metrics of the knowledge/learning function will shift toward revenue models, abandoning 'completion' statistics for more relevant measures."
Grade: C-

There was certainly an effort to capture 'tacit knowledge', though not always by the enterprise and not always with the user's consent. But social tagging wasn't the mechanism of choice; we saw much more sharing through chat applications such as Twitter. Corporate Universityies didn't really question their position, though they did look more at performance support and change management - as they have since their inception. No evidence of a major movement of CLOs to the board. No really shift in evaluation metrics, though there was (as usual) no shortage of alternative models offered.

So that's it. What did I learn from all this?

First, that there are two major types of predictions: one, which identifies a current trend, and says it will continue; and the other, that identifies something novel or unexpected. It seems clear that the former predictions are easy and safe and not especially useful. The latter, while not as safe, were much more useful to people.

There are also different types of predictions. Some predictions speak to attitudes. Others speak to trends (including a subset of these that suggest a trend will go mainstream). And still, others speak of technological or system-wide advances. And finally, the most useful predictions identify side-effects - the result of some unexpected event and development. For example: predicting people will want video is one thing, predicting that it will become popular is another, predicting that Flash video will help video become accessible is another, but predicting YouTube is most useful of all.

And third, scale is a tricky issue. There were many predictions that will probably come true - some day. But they did not come true in 2007. We want to reward such predictions, because we feel they are accurate, but unless it happens, it's just another false prediction. Another trend was a slew (the perpetrators won't be named) who correctly predicted last year's event or trend.

Planes to Nowhere

Responding to Marginal Revolution, Planes to Nowhere, criticizing subsidies paid to airlines to provide service to small rural centers.

You will find, if you look more deeply into it, that this is just one of numerous subsidies paid to residents and services based in rural areas.

A similar pattern exists inside cities, where the taxes paid by businesses and residents in the denser urban core subsidize residents and services living in the more dispersed suburbs.

It is worth noting - even though others have made the same point - that recipient communities tend to vote conservative (Republican in the U.S., Conservative in Canada, etc.).

Residents in such communities are very often (ironically) anti-subsidy and anti-big-government. An analysis of their criticisms, though, shows that their platforms are based on self-interest: they oppose in the larger part measures that help people living in urban centers (notable examples include their opposition to support for welfare, support for the arts, support for urban transportation, etc.).

When in government, these same conservatives tend to be financially irresponsible, accelerating subsidies and other supports to their 'base' in the rural community, creating large government deficits as a result (which they inevitably blame on the subsequent more liberal administrations elected to clean up the result).

This situation is exaggerated by the distribution of voting districts, which tends to grant disproportionate representation to rural residents.

Speaking as someone from the left, I understand the need to provide these subsidies to rural and suburban regions. They are necessary because the free market, left to its own devices, would leave these regions completely unserved.

This would greatly exaggerate the 'time warp' effect, whereby rural regions would be decades behind urban regions, not only in technology, but also education and health care, and ultimately, attitudes and behaviours.

This - not coincidentally - is the same result we see worldwide, especially in areas where subsidies are not in place. The same supports that keep the rural regions of the United States (marginally) in the twenty-first century are simply not in place in Africa, Asia and South America.

This - it should be noted - is why we see decades-old attitudes and behaviours, things like tribalism, religious fanaticism, and the like. And we see the same antipathy toward more liberal (and wealthier, and more generous) regions. And (interestingly) for the same reasons: the fear that government is changing traditional values, making too many demands, and costing too much.

It turns out - and we have the empirical evidence for this now - that it is much cheaper to provide subsidies to these regions rather than to take a 'law and order' approach. Responding to religious fanaticism, tribalism and the like by war and invasion costs hundreds of billions of dollars - a non-productive subsidy that amounts to thousands of dollars per resident.

It is understandable that voters in rural and suburban regions in the U.S. (and elsewhere) support the 'law and order' approach. They just don't *get* the other approach, they don't understand it, can't accept it, because it flies in the face of their own myth of self-reliance. People should not receive subsidies, they cry - while at the same time accepting subsidies of their own, and paying even *more* to try to enforce law and order.

Recognizing that a subsidy to rural regions exists is the first step. Understanding *why* it exists is the second step, and the step that most populist and conservative politicians and supporters are unable - or unwilling - to take.

For after all, the way to address 'needless' expenses on 'planes to nowhere' is, of course, to eliminate the disproportional representation received by rural residents in the legislature, to ensure that one rural vote is worth exactly the same as one urban vote. And what right-winger is willing to do that?