Sunday, August 06, 2017

Should we care if a job candidate does not know the social and ethical implications of their work (Second Blog Post inspired by Rogaway's Moral Character Paper)

Phillip Rogaway's article on the

The Moral character of Cryptographic Work (see here)

brings up so many issues that it could be the topics for at least 5 blog posts. I've already done one here, and today I'll do another. As I said in the first post I urge you to read it even if you disagree with it, in fact, especially if you disagree with it. (Possible Paradox- you have to read it to determine if you disagree with it.)

Today's issue:

Should a department take into account if someone understand the social and ethical issues with their work?

1) I'll start with something less controversial. I've sometimes asked a job candidate `why do you work on X?' Bad answers:

        Because my adviser told me to.

        Because I could make progress on it.

        Because it was fun to work on.

People should always know WHY they are working on what they are working on. What was the motivation of the original researchers is one thing they should know, even if the current motivation is different. If its a new problem then why is it worth studying?

2) In private email to Dr. Rogaway he states that he just wants this to be ONE of the many issues having to do with job hiring (alas, it usually is not even ONE). As such, the thoughts below may not be quite right since they assume a bigger role. But if you want to make something a criteria, even a small one, we should think of the implications.

3) In private email to Dr. Rogaway I speculated that we need to care more about this issue when interviewing someone in security then in (say) Ramsey theory. He reminded me of work done in pure graph theory funded by the DOD, that is about how to best disable a network (perhaps a social network talking too much about why the Iraq war is a terrible idea). Point taken- this is not just an issue in Security.

4) What if someone is working on security, funded by the DOD, and is fully aware that the government wants to use her work to illegally wiretap people and is quite okay with that. To hold that against her seems like holding someone's politics against them which I assume all readers of this blog would find very unfair.. OR is it okay to hire her since she HAS thought through the issues. The fact that you disagree with her conclusion should be irrelevant.

5) What if she says that the DOD, once they have the tech, will only wiretap bad people? (see here)

6) Lets say that someone is working on cute crypto with pictures of Alice and Bob (perhaps Alice is Wonderland and Bob the Builder). Its good technical work and is well funded. It has NO social or ethical  implications because it has NO practical value, and she knows it. Should this be held against her? More so than other branches of theory?

7) People can be aware of the social and ethical issues and not care.

8) The real dilemma: A really great job candidate in security who is brilliant. The work is top notch but has serious negative implications. The job candidate is clueless about that. But they can bring in
grant money! Prestige! Grad Students! I don't have an answer here but its hard to know how much to weigh social and ethical awareness versus getting a bump in the US News and World Report Rankings!

        What does your dept do? What are your thoughts on this issue?


  1. I'll stick to the less controversial #1: I actually don't think that these are bad answers. Unless you consider "too much truthful" a bad thing. Specifically:

    a. If a candidate who was recently a Ph.D., having much of the research done by the adviser's suggestions just means that it was a good adviser. It is a problem only if this is the answer to most of the candidate's research topics, especially after some Post-Doc period.

    b. Very important to success is choosing the topics you can actually make progress on. Ideology should not trump practicality, also when it is "mathematical ideology" about research topics.

    c. Research should be fun! Do you really want someone that does not derive fun from work?

    Yes, you can formulate extreme cases, and indeed the above a/b/c should not be all the answers, but having them as 50% of the answers is not bad, and for b/c is actually good.

  2. a,b,c are fine if there is ALSO a deeper answer. Even so, I may be expecting too much from a fresh PhD. However, for a postdoc or someone with more experience I think its fair that they have some idea of where there problems come from and why they are interesting.

  3. To me your exact question "why do you work on X?" does not capture the thing you are concerned about. I think there are many people who simply want to solve math problems for a living -- I don't think you should hold it against them that they don't have some deeper motivation. However, I agree that this does not excuse you from at least being knowledgeable of the social implications of your work.

  4. Could the social and ethical implications be uncomputable? Should the fact that someone thinks they DO know those implications in fact disqualify them?

  5. I think "because it was fun to work on" is perhaps not very explanatory, but still one of the best possible answers.

  6. I see that Eldar beat me to it, but I'll also say the answers a/b/c to why you work on certain problems are not particularly bad. You expect students to grow out of "Because my advisor told me to" eventually, of course, but working on a problem because you think you can make progress on it seems fine -- I often work on problems because I read a paper with open problems and think I see a path where I could make progress on them. And I think "Because it was fun to work on" is a great answer -- I've worked on (so) many problems over the years just because I thought they seemed fun, or (even better) I thought I would have fun working on the problem with the person or team that I was able to work with on the problem.

    That's not to say there wasn't other motivation for the problem -- I'm sure in the introduction I didn't write that the problem was motivated by how much fun it seemed (though I've said that in some number of talks). It's just whatever the supposed "motivation" was was not really why I worked on the problem. But I thought one of the nice parts of working on theory is that you didn't have to have an immediate motivation for every problem you worked on, other than that you thought it was interesting and that you might learn something useful. And I say that as someone who has a reputation as a very "practical theorist".

  7. This is an interesting paper and an interesting concept but is it at all practical? The author points out some notable moments of scientists being this noble force for good, but what about the times when they were not. There's obviously stuff like the actual creation of the atomic bomb prior to the Russell–Einstein manifesto, but history is full of all kinds of work where scientists are on the wrong side of things. Just look at the work on Henrietta Lacks, all the Syphallis experiment work, today's culture with lack of diversity in image recognition and its impact (literlly having a computer saying that Black people do not exist), biases in the implementation of Facebook & twitter algorithms on complaints (super lenienant towards one side that harrasses women/minorities/non-Christian faiths, but quick to punish those very women/minorities/non-Christians for publishing, responding to or bringing attention to the fact that they were harrassed), etc.

    This just scratches the surface based on what comes to mind at 6 at this morning. I get the question Dr. Gasarch is asking in the post today about a department's hiring, but in my opinion its still ignoring a fundamental problem with the sciences which is that there is still a (very) small set of people deciding who can (or should) participate in science. Maybe the decision of hiring a candidate shouldn't be seen as "deciding who can participate" but its another barrier based on some philosophilical disagreement. So we run the risk of science (departments) blackballing, or "Kaepernicking" an individual because they did research that exposes the truths in science/society, or does work that the leadership at the university disagrees with? Isn't that one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of tenure?

    This is definitely not to say that science does not have an impact, or that scientists shouldn't care about those impacts, but I think this is a very touchy subject. Every action we take (scientific or not) has consequences and we live in a very polarized world, particularly where the small towns have different values than the big cities, the suburbs are different than the inner cities, and the poor think about different things than the well-off. But scientists have and do come from all of these backgrounds and many more. ANd we (as a collective whole) need to be making science more inclusive in all ways.

    And if you're going to turn down a student for giving an answer "Because it was fun to work on", I think that's just flawed logic. That's the perfect opportunity to engage with that student (or postdoc or researcher) and educate them on the social impact things they're missing and mentor them instead of just rejecting them and possibly closing that door on a possible genius mind.

  8. A comment about 8).
    The interview is for a position in an educational institution. What prevents you from educating the candidate?

    One of the possibilities is that her reaction to your ethical concerns may indicate whether you can make her more aware of the possible implications of the work.

  9. I muse be in the minority here.

    I think working on a problem (only) because you can make progress, or (only) because it is fun is fine for a little while, but not if that's how you choose what problems to work on for your whole career. It's self serving, and results in papers being published that have no value.

    Regarding Rogaway's article, unfortunately I don't think Rogaway is interested as much in having people understand the social/ethical implications of their work as he is in having them understand Rogaway's (liberal) opinion about the social/ethical implications of their work. So if a candidate is working on crypto of benefit to the NSA because they value national security, Rogaway would view that as unacceptable.

  10. I think we ought to be very careful here because often in complex areas like this what will become socially acceptable or appropriate to say about a moral problem is very different than the right answer.

    We have strong social norms about the importance of signaling concern which very easily actually push in the wrong direction. For instance, which will get me hired more easily as a moral view (say working in some kind of genetic engineering): There are troubling issues with human genetic engineering and we need to be careful and cogniscent of the ways these could disadvantage the poor or alter what it means to be human OR there are people who are born into unnecessary suffering each day we hold back this research and we always have some treatments only available to the well off.

    The first one of those (even if you believe some of these concerns can be developed) is just someone parroting back the orthodox societal viewpoint while the later reflects someone who at least has a thought out opinion (right one IMO). Yet it will be the first person who interviewers and potential colleagues see in a positive light since their answer doesn't suggest you don't value any thing they might think is important and merely by virtue of being standard it *feels* like something safe and cautious.

    More broadly, I'm far from convinced the ethic of responsibility by scientists is a good or appropriate thing or if it gives us an excuse not to create any actor or regulator who can look at the whole big picture of research and evaluate that and actually have effects that assigning responsibility to each person for their work can't do.

  11. To phrase the point more briefly it seems to me what you are really asking for when this question is brought up is to see if the applicant can successfully give the default societal position. When asked about the ability of violent criminals to use your work to avoid tipping off the police the individual who has never really thought about it but can just parrot back the received view (yes that's bad but it also helps warm fuzzy people under tyrannical rule and its a net win) does much better than the person who has actually thought about this point and says, "Yes, that is why I go out of my way to make it available in a simple open source form for criminals since these econ papers all support the claim that the more effectively and with less risk the cartels can organize their violence the less violent they will have to be." is probably going to do enough worse with respect to someone evaluating them that they will be sunk.

    What I'm trying to say is that thinking seriously about morality is hard and anyone who is actually trying to work them out rather than saying what people want to hear will almost surely end up with some positions that will strike those with conventional views as horrifying. So stay away from morality since, in large part, it is a social acceptability test.

    So unless you are interviewing for a spot in the philosophy department