Month: February 2011

Wiki Government in the Netherlands?

UPDATE 2012-01-18: related news, found via @LiberationTech: U.S. Congress May Soon Take Questions From The Great State Of Social Media

Disclaimer: I have not been educated in public policy or politics.
In Wiki Government (2009), author Beth Simone Noveck discusses how technology can benefit democracy when used for citizen participation, working toward a more open model of decision-making. The Dutch government is currently running a two-year pilot program at in which all ministries (are said to) consult the public about at least 10% of their legislative proposals (I don’t know how they measure the “10%”). Although I highly appreciate this pilot as a step toward a (more) participatory democracy, I hope its successors at the level of both Dutch ministries and Dutch municipalities will make sure to take into account Noveck’s lessons-learned described in chapter 8 (citation):

  1. Ask the right questions: The more specific the question, the better targeted and more relevant the responses will be. Open-ended: “What do you think of x?” questions only lead to unmanageable and irrelevant feedback.
  2. Ask the right people: Creating opportunities for self-selection allows expertise to find the problem. Self-selection can be combined with baseline participation requirements.
  3. Design the process for the desired end: The choice of methodology and tools will depend on the results. But the process should be designed to achieve a goal. That goal should be communicated up front.
  4. Design for groups, not individuals: “Chunk” the work into smaller problems, which can easily be distributed to members of a team. Working in groups makes it easier to participate in short bursts of time and is demonstrated to produce more effective results.
  5. Use the screen to show the group back to itself: If people perceive themselves to be part of a minimovement, they will work more effectively together across a distance.
  6. Divide the work into roles and tasks: Collaboration requires parceling out assignments into smaller tasks. Visualizations can make it possible for people to perceive the available roles and choose their own. Wikipedia works because people know what to do.
  7. Harness the power of reputation: Organizations are increasingly using bubbling-up techniques to solicit information in response to specific questions and allowing people to rate the submissions.
  8. Make policies, not websites: Improved practices cannot be created through technology alone. Instead, look at the problem as a whole, focusing on how to redesign internal processes in response to opportunities for collaboration.
  9. Pilot new ideas: Use pilot programs, competitions, and prizes to generate innovation. 
  10. Focus on outcomes, not inputs: Design practices to achieve performance goals and metrics. Measure success.

In addition: could anything be learned from and ? I’d be very happy to read your comments!

Cyberwar = Propaganda (isn’t it?)

Bill Blunden‘s paper “Manufacturing Consent and Cyberwar” (.pdf), written for the Lockdown 2010 conference, deserves more attention and discussion, IMHO. Obviously referencing “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988) by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Blunden discusses the dangers of “offense is the best defense” crisis mentality, (mis)attribution of attacks and weakly-founded claims about (future) threats by security firms and media; which altogether may resemble the propaganda model after, updating it to the current realm of discourse, one replaces Herman/Chomsky’s “anti-communist” filter with perhaps a more generally apocalyptic “FUD” filter (better suggestions are welcome). The paper is well-written. Its abstract:

Over the past year, there have been numerous pieces that have appeared in the press alluding to the dire consequences of Cyberwar and the near existential threat that it represents to the United States. While these intimations of destruction can seem alarming at first glance, closer scrutiny reveals something else. Ultimately, the gilded hyperbole of Cyberwar being peddled to the public is dangerous because it distracts us from focusing on actual threats and constructive solutions. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain says the ball of fire named Oz. In this presentation, I’ll pull back the curtain to expose the techniques being used to manipulate us and the underlying institutional dynamics that facilitate them.

Slides (.pdf) are available as well.

(PS: yes I see the irony of posting “Cyberwar = Propaganda” on “”)

The Sokal affair

In 1996, Alan Sokal gained notoriety for getting his (intentionally) bullshit paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published in the cultural studies journal Social Text. This has become known as the ‘Sokal affair‘. In “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science” (1997), physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont explain why Sokal’s parody paper is bullshit and identify the (probably undesirable) conditions of (mostly French) postmodernist thinking that (probably) made it possible for the parody paper to get accepted in a journal. Excellent book. The affair demonstrated unwarranted disqualification of scientific methods as a result of overly relativistic “anything goes”-thinking and unjustified and often improper use of concepts from mathematics, physics and logic.

Lessons that are suggested to be drawn (page 185-189):

  1. It’s a good idea to know what one is talking about (don’t apply concepts you don’t understand);
  2. Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound (strive for easy-to-understand language);
  3. Science is not a “text” and can’t be analyzed in a purely verbal manner;
  4. Don’t ape the natural sciences or its “paradigm shifts” (e.g. between probabilist and determinist theories);
  5. Be wary of argument from authority (this can’t be repeated enough);
  6. Specific skepticism should not be confused with radical skepticism (“scientific theory X is bogus” versus “all scientific theories are bogus”);
  7. Be aware that ambiguity may be (ab)used as subterfuge.

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Questions to ask when reading/reviewing a scientific paper:

  1. What questions does the paper address?
  2. What are the main conclusions of the paper?
  3. What evidence supports those conclusions?
  4. Do the data actually support the conclusions?
  5. What is the quality of the evidence?
  6. Why are the conclusions important?

I suggest the following subquestions:

  • If the paper contains a hypothesis, is it falsifiable?
  • (How) Is the work reproducible? (what would you need to reproduce it?)
  • What does the paper contribute to the existing body of knowledge?
  • Are the applied methods explained, valid and reliable? (e.g. statistical tests)
  • Are the limitations of the work acknowledged?

Naturalistic Conception of Science

Several years ago I read the Dutch book “Wetenschap of Willekeur” (1985) by A.A. Derksen, which (still!) is an excellent introduction to the philosophy of science. Can you read Dutch? Buy a copy! 🙂 The book contains one diagram which IMHO summarizes the (?) naturalistic conception of science pretty well, and for educational purposes I reproduced and translated it:

P.S.: I expect this blogpost to be covered by the Dutch right of citation (‘citaatrecht‘), please inform me if I’m wrong.