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Thursday, November 03, 2022

Should you quit Twitter and Texas?

Generally with some exceptions, I use Facebook for personal stuff, LinkedIn for Illinois Tech stuff and Twitter and this blog for CS stuff. Many of you got to this post through the Twitter link. Now that Elon Musk has bought the social media company, should I and the rest of the academic twitterverse move on to something else?

I'd say not yet. Let's see what Elon does to the place. Maybe he can allow more points of view, without turning it into a cesspool. Or maybe he ruins it. It'll be a network effect--if too many academics leave Twitter, I'd have to follow or I'd have few followers. I wonder where they will go. I hope it isn't TikTok.

On a similar vein, I often here of those who suggest we don't hold conferences in certain jurisdictions for political reasons, for example Texas, because of its laws against abortion and transgender rights. I don't believe computer science, as a field, should be making decisions based on politics. Academics who live in these states don't generally hold the same views as the political leaders in those states.

Should we not have meetings in Illinois because some in our field might be opposed to abortion? Or do we just assume everyone has the same political views in the field. Individuals can make their own choices as to whether to attend, but it's best when politics is left out of academics. FOCS 2022 is wrapping up today in Denver. Seems like a safe choice--perhaps all US conferences in the future should be in Colorado. 

There are limits--I wouldn't attend or organize a conference in Russia in the near future. But if we start eliminating locations based on politics, we'll only be able to meet up in the metaverse, and we won't have social media to tell us how to get there.

39 comments:

  1. This sort of "I'm comfortable with the extra misogyny and racism in our central meeting area, so let's just continue meeting there" attitude, by people who are not as directly affected, is exactly why we have a leaky pipeline. The people who aren't comfortable stop participating, and then we wonder why so many of the remaining participants are white men.

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  2. Lets assume that Musk wants to find the balance between Twitter being a free-speech zone and not having it be a cesspool. The first thing he should do is BAN posts that claim all kinds of weird and false things about the attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband. Oh. Wait. HE posted those. Whoops.

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  3. The abortion issue isn't just about opposing (or not opposing) abortion. It can be a matter of life and death.

    You have to wonder, how inclusive are you if you hold a conference in a jurisdiction which can be potentially devastating for a pregnant woman if she develops an acute condition were normally an emergency abortion will be the best option? (And it's not just women who already know they are pregnant who are at risk, this effects any woman who might be pregnant).

    "Unsafe for women of a child bearing age" is not a label I would want to have on my conference.

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  4. I wholeheartedly agree with Lance on this. There is a push by political activists and agents to politicize every aspect of our lives. Of course, when they talk about "for social good", "being political aware", etc. what they really mean is "support my politics" and "subscribe to my ideology".

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  5. Maybe try mathstodon.xyz or a similar, more focused community Twitter clone.

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  6. > There are limits--I wouldn't attend or organize a conference in Russia in the near future.

    Could you clarify if you think that this means there should be no CS conferences held in Russia in the near future? Or if you think they _should_ still be held in Russia, but you wouldn't attend or submit a paper (even if it's the best venue for that paper; say it's a top tier conference and you would submit and likely be accepted if it were hosted elsewhere)

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    1. I would prefer that we don't have major conferences in Russia, at least for the time being. If someone actually does--well there is no way that conference would be very successful.

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    2. Are conference in China ok and very successful for some reason?

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  7. Anonymous above is quite correct. You cannot equate being offended by abortion to having to worry about whether you might die if you can't get one should the emergency arise. I have been reading this blog a long time and I was shocked to read "I don't believe computer science, as a field, should be making decisions based on politics" as if the issue here at hand was merely a matter of respecting people's beliefs.

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  8. There is an easy one related to Texas as things currently stand: Personal safety of members of the community attending the conference is absolutely a relevant issue. If the rules in the location create a risk for pregnant women attending the conference, then we shouldn't be choosing to go there.

    Some of the transgender bathroom rules that states had put in place were arguably also of this character. (And indeed it was in part pressure from the tourism industry because of cancellations of conferences/conventions that caused several those rules to be removed.)

    In general, I think that issues of human rights are a legitimate relevant factor in our choices of conference locations, whether or not they are matters of personal safety of attendees. (e.g. free speech, etc.) An established conference choosing a location that restricts human rights forces all attendees to spend money in that location and support that jurisdiction. If the goal is explicitly to try to open up that jurisdiction or support those in that jurisdiction who are laboring under the restrictive rules, that is one thing; but it should not be done casually.

    Note that this is not a matter of "politics" outside of human rights.

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  9. I cannot agree with the position about Texas. It is not a issue of politics, but safety: even without the war Russia would be a bad location for a major conference since it’s not safe for gay and non white people…


    Frankly speaking, if Russia was safe for attendees, I would say that having a conference there about something theoretical would be more appropriate than in Texas.

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  10. There are two DIFFERENT issues being discussed here, both legit, but both need to be separate:

    Is there actual danger to some of the participants? While many people have correctly said that a pregnant participant in Texas, or a Gay part in Russia would be in trouble. That is NOT about politics.

    If there was a conference in Ukraine we should not go even if we support Ukraine in the war, since it would be dangerous. This is NOT about politics.

    So a place that puts some of the participants in danger is a definite DO NOT HAVE THE CONFERENCE THERE.

    But what about a place whose politics is disgusting but for which there is NO danger? I would be inclined to think that its okay to have a conference there, but it may depend on what the issue is, how disguting it really is, etc.

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  11. Sorry, but I don't find this "safty of pregnant participants" argument to be very convincing. First, the chances a participant is both pregnant and in danger is slim. If safety, and not politics or ideology is at play here, we should also avoid conferences in Chicago (shootings), California (homelessness , some of which can be dangerous), and anything outside the US (flight crash!). Yes, these risks are low, but not lower than "dangerous pregnancy". The other argument about "human rights" is also unconvincing. Pro life activists would say abortions are immoral and a clear human right infringement.

    Lance is clearly politically correct here: science should stay away from politics, in all, even implicit, ways.

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    1. Ok, you got me. I genuinely can't tell if you're really someone in TCS who naively believes that any answer to these questions can possibly be apolitical, and that it is somehow apolitical to parrot the right-wing's scaremongering of crime in certain places and silence on places closer to their own nest (hint: https://www.wave3.com/2021/10/15/louisville-outranks-chicago-philadelphia-homicide-rates-data-shows/), or whether you're just a troll.

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  12. I think concerns about the physical safety of pregnant women attending a conference in a state where abortions are illegal are somewhat overblown but also an area where different people's tolerance for risk and moral intuitions genuinely differ.

    I tried to find out the chance that a pregnant woman will require an abortion for medical reasons. The following is a rough estimate but I think it is the right order of magnitude. Apparently the state of Florida collects data on the reason that people get an abortion. [This table](https://ahca.myflorida.com/MCHQ/Central_Services/Training_Support/docs/TrimesterByReason_2018.pdf) suggests that in about 0.25% of abortions, the reason is that the woman's life is in danger, in about 1.5% of abortions, the reason is physical danger to the woman which is not life-threatening and in about 2% of cases the reason is danger to the woman's psychological health. So let's say that 5% of abortions are due to some sort of danger to the woman. [This study](https://bmcwomenshealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6874-13-29) suggests that 6% of women who get an abortion do so for reasons that are at least partly about concern for their own health, so 5% does not seem wildly off. I'm not sure what percent of these cases are emergencies, but let's just say they all are. Next, it seems that about 20% of pregnancies in the US end in abortion (estimated using the Guttmacher institutes estimate of abortions per year [here](https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/06/24/what-the-data-says-about-abortion-in-the-u-s-2/) plus the fact that there are about 3.6 million babies born per year in the US). So it seems that the chance a pregnant woman in the US will have an abortion due to concerns about physical safety is something like 0.05*0.2 = 0.01, or 1%. However, this is the chance during the entire pregnancy. Let's say a conference is 7 days long. The chance a woman will need an abortion due to concerns about physical safety during a randomly chosen 7 day period of the pregnancy is 0.01*(7/270) = 0.00026, or 0.026%. There are other factors to consider as well: a woman who travels to a conference is probably not feeling sick and so there is a lower chance of a dangerous complication arising. On the other hand, traveling and conference attendance are stressful and can spread infections and this may raise the chance. But overall, 0.026% seems like a safe upper bound on the chance that a pregnant woman attending a conference will need an abortion for physical safety reasons during the conference. Of course, this doesn't account for the chance that the woman is still able to obtain an abortion (say by driving or flying to another state). Or that most states where abortion is illegal have exceptions for when the life of the woman is at risk. Also, the 0.026% number is for any reason involving physical safety, not just for those where the life of the woman is at risk: that would be more like 0.001%.

    I do think 0.0026% chance of having trouble getting an abortion when your physical safety is in danger is more than some people would be willing to risk. But it doesn't seem like a level of risk that everyone would agree is high enough to forbid holding a conference if the issue did not involve abortion. Here's a useful thought experiment: is it reasonable to hold a conference in Miami in the late summer or early fall? Apparently a hurricane affects Miami about once every 2 years, usually in the late summer or early fall, so the risk of a hurricane affecting such a conference is something like 7/200 = 0.035, or 3.5%. Adjusted for the chance that the hurricane actually seriously affects the conference-goers (rather than just affecting some part of Miami far from the conference) I don't think this is so different from the abortion-at-a-conference question. And I also think it's something where people's risk tolerance and moral intuitions differ. I think some people would think it's reasonable to have a conference in Miami in the summer/fall and some would not.

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    1. Having a hurricane hit nearby and being unable to obtain a medically necessary abortion are not even remotely comparable. Loss of life and long term health effects from hurricanes are pretty minimal, you can go look it up if you want. They do destroy a lot of property, but as a conference visitor, that's not really your concern.

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    2. Notice that the chance of a hurricane hitting Miami during a 7 day period is *orders of magnitude* higher than the chance of a pregnant woman needing an abortion for reasons of physical safety during a 7 day period: 3.5% vs 0.0026% according to the calculations above. So the question is not "is a hurricane equally likely to affect health as not being able to get a medically indicated abortion" but rather "is it at least 1/1000 times as likely." To me, that seems plausible. Or at least plausible that they are the same order of magnitude. Also note that medically indicated abortions *are* legal in states like Texas and so to really estimate the risk you need to come up with some estimate of the likelihood that a hospital won't perform a medically necessary and technically legally allowed abortion because of abortion law ( I realize this is a real concern people have and I don't mean to belittle it, but I am also not sure exactly how likely this is).

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    3. I am not sure this elaborate calculation is needed. It's been a while since Roe was pulled under the assumption that people still get pregnant in Texas, and that data is collected by media or otherwise on fatalities caused by not having access to abortion (or just in general the fatality rate during pregnancy), we should already have pretty good statistics. I have an unsubstantiated feeling that if there had been an increase in fatality we would have heard about it.

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    4. I believe mortality data is often not available for several months, especially in any kind of complete form. Also, someone's health can be damaged by failing to obtain an abortion even if they don't die. For example, if you look at the links in the comment above, you'll see that *most* abortions which are performed for reasons of physical safety are not due to life-threatening complications. In general I think pregnancy can come with many risks that are not usually fatal but still serious. It seems wrong to neglect such cases if you are trying to argue that the danger is relatively small.

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  13. The point isn't absolutely dangerousness. A hurricane in Miami has for every attendee the same chance of hitting, perhaps only influenced by how long they're in Miami. But a conference in Russia or Texas makes it more dangerous for some of the attendees based on their sexual orientation (gay/trans) or gender (women) due to the politics in those jurisdictions than for others (straight, male).

    That's what makes all the difference. That's the difference between being inclusive, or not.

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    1. So you believe that by making a conference more dangerous for most attendees (and less dangerous for none), it becomes more morally acceptable? To me that seems strange but I think this is also a place where moral intuitions genuinely differ.

      Also, most conferences are already more dangerous for some than others. For example, pregnant women in later stages of pregnancy are often encouraged not to travel in case it causes complications for the pregnancy (e.g. early labor). So traveling to the conference is more risky for them than for other attendees. Should all conferences be held on zoom to avoid this difference in risk?

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    2. I would support Zoom conferences where I don't need to spend over $1,000 to share my research with others.

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  14. I don't think that banning Texas and Russia from hosting conferences is inclusive. It literally excludes people who work in that regions, which is much less inclusive than increasing the risk of pregnant participants by 0.0026%. It sounds more like a political statement to me, to be honest.

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    1. > It sounds more like a political statement to me, to be honest.

      Sometimes political statements are important.

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    2. Certainly. The question is who's the one deciding on the political agenda to promote. Many people (probably majority of humanity) are hostile to the US politics. Shall we ban the US from hosting conferences then?

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    3. @David Marcus: perhaps political statements are important. But it seems somewhat disingenuous to argue for making a political statement while pretending that you are purely concerned about physical safety.

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    4. I did not mean to imply that one should give a pretend reason.

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    5. @David Marcus: fair enough. I think I conflated you with some of the other commenters on this blog post who seemed to be arguing that conferences should not be held in Texas primarily due to concerns over physical safety.

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  15. Just a point of order: the problem with medical care in Texas is not just a problem for pregnant women, it's a problem for women of childbearing age, since a fairly wide range of treatments that are seen as the normal standard of care may not available in Texas; anything that might interfere with a possible pregnancy may be unavailable, and that includes things from dermatology to cancer care. (I've written this with "may", but these problems are actually occurring. It's not nice.)

    But to get back to the original question, as someone who has never used Twitter, I assure you, you can live without it.

    Count me as against conferences in Texas. Simply because air travel involves too much CO2 emission. (I am guilty of this sin, though. An AI conference in Texas in 1983 or so. It wasn't as crazy as I expected, but that was mostly because it was Austin.)

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    1. I'm curious why conferences in Texas involve more air travel than conferences in most other states. Or perhaps you meant "count me as against any in-person conferences."

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  16. I would like to add that I agree with Lance. And it is unfortunate that I feel the need to post this anonymously, since I feel the probability that my job would be in danger by revealing my name is orders of magnitude higher than the probability that a women attending a CS conference in Texas suddenly needs an abortion but can't leave the state.

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  17. The right question to ask is: How dangerious is it to have a conference in Texas. I am not going to answer that question. However, I am going to point out that its not just

    Women who are pregnant having complications while at the conference.

    The state laws have had a chilling effect on medications for things that have nothing to do with pregnancy. See this article:

    https://www.reuters.com/world/us/state-abortion-bans-prevent-women-getting-essential-medication-2022-07-14/


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    1. That's a fair point. On the other hand, there are many differences between states regarding legal availability of medications for reasons other than abortion law. I have never seen someone argue that a conference should not be held in a particular state for such reasons, so I am skeptical that this is really the main reason in this case (rather than political views on abortion).

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  18. To all the commenters who are taking pride for being inclusive and pro human rights, organising conferences in US already excludes a lot of people from Iran and many other countries. And US is absolutely a dangerous place regarding gun violence. Why do you support organising conferences in US then? For the selfish reason of your own convenience? Bunch of hypocrites you are.

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  19. It seems like people wish to be inclusive on certain points that are politically fashionable, while at the same time are perfectly fine with excluding other groups. As a concrete example, in the last STOC business meeting it was a rather popular opinion that people with children should not be accommodated at all: if they wish to attend conferences and bring the children with them, it's their responsibility, and the conference should make zero effort to help them, e.g. by choosing a children-friendly venue. There are more examples I can think of, but this is the most recent one.

    It is unfortunate that the word *inclusiveness* is reserved to only a small number of political aspects. As a community we should do better than that.

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  20. All of this discussion reminds me of two relevant points (maybe) and one irrelevant one

    1) On the TV show `The Good Place' (which is Heaven) the character Eleanor is pondering how actions on earth gain or loser you the points you need to get into The Good Place. She says:

    There is this chicken sandwitch that, if you eat it, it means you hate Gay people. But it tastes so good!

    2) There is an app called buy-partisan

    http://buypartisan.com/

    which can tell you which companies give money to which causes. I suspect if you got it and tried to use it, you would end up not buying anything.

    My point is that these decisions can be hard. Where to you draw the line?

    3) (Irrelevant) My Favorite line on `The Good Place'

    Michael: In the bad place there is a museum of torture.

    Jason: Do they have a gift shop?

    Michael: Its Hell. Of course they have a gift shop.

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    1. When my wife and I go to a museum, we always go to the gift shop. Sometimes we go to the gift shop first. Sometimes we go to the gift shop and skip the museum.

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  21. As a person of color, I would feel much safer attending a conference in Houston or Dallas than attending a conference in places like Seattle or Portland. Not only are Houston and Dallas significantly more diverse, but Seattle and Portland are located in states that harbor white supremacist organizations, to the point where Oregon was literally founded to exclude people of color.

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  22. It might be good to first agree on principles we are going to make decisions, before trying to apply them up various situations.

    One that has come up multiple times above is consequences, danger to live. In these cases, we should not look only at the aggregate impact, but also at any particular group that might be adversely affected, even if they are a small minority.

    Another is morality and duty and values. There, as a membership organization, we should focus on values that we have consensus on. Else this is going up lead to infighting, and the state we see in the US politics. We should not impose our modality, beyond what is legal, on the other members of our community.

    If you think about this in game theoretic sense, for long term, it is harmful to coerce others even if in short term it might look beneficial to whatever goals we have. It destroys the fabric of the group and leads to polarization and us vs. them mentality.

    Where people have feel concerns of safety, we can take extra measures to help them, e.g. we can have an emergency fund to quickly get people out of Texas if needed, etc.

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