Saturday, May 14, 2016

More on the ethics of the OKC/OSF data dump

Here's another take on what was ethically incorrect about the Emil Kirkegaard data dump of nearly 70,000 OKCupid users.

There are essentially four points that are to be considered:

1. OKC users did not consent to their data being used in the way Kirkegaard used them or to be shared. In fact, even a cursory reading of the terms of service at OKC are clear on the matter of how their data are to be used.

2. OKC itself did not consent to the data being used as it was. We can certainly quibble about concern over a company's well-being, but certainly there is precedent for researchers obtaining a company's permission to analyze their members' data (with safeguards for anonymity put in place). The reason I add that last sentence is that some of my first research experiences as an undergrad involved analyzing data from a computer matching service, from which my mentor had obtained all necessary permission. Everything was above board. In the process, we were able to make a number of statements with that data, including confirming that successfully matched couples tended to have considerably more in common than couples that were not successful matches. It made for a couple conference presentations, if nothing else, and no one's privacy was harmed in the process. A win-win in my book.

3. Which leads to a third point - the way Kirkegaard went about releasing the database could lead to real harm to real people. That is not how we operate as scientists. A guiding ethical principle that was imparted to me and that I share with my students is that we do no harm to those we study. Putting others' privacy at risk is a good reason to not make a database public or go forward with a particular project. The potential for individuals in the OKCupid database to be personally identified is one I find rather unsettling (and that is really an understatement), especially to the extent that their being personally identified could lead to real physical or financial harm. The publishers of the database showed cavalier disregard to that possibility, and those who are using this data going forward are doing likewise.

4. Any work involving human participants requires review by an institution's ethics panel. That applies not only to faculty and staff members of an institution, but its students as well. Students in particular are still beginning to learn the research process, and the idea of students (at any level) being turned loose to simply run whatever they want without oversight is not something a reputable institution will stand for. However, regardless of whether one is a student or a seasoned professional, and regardless of how excited one might be about their research ideas, there is a need for an impartial third party to provide some modicum of oversight - if nothing else to determine the ethical soundness of a particular project. In addition, the Kirkegaard data dump along with its accompanying paper provides another problem: conflict of interest. Not only did Kirkegaard entirely sidestep his institution's IRB, but he made sure that another potential safeguard was sidestepped: the role of the journal editor and peer reviewers. As the editor in chief of the "journal" in which his work was published, Kirkegaard is his own judge, jury, and executioner.

I am sure we all have our own various war stories to tell about our institutions' IRBs or ethics panels, but at the end of the day, they do serve an important function. Regardless of any frustrations I've had with my own, ultimately I and my students get to conduct our research. We may a wait on our hands, but we'd rather err on the side of safety.

I am sure that this incident will cast a shadow over the open science movement, which is a shame since I do think that this is a movement that serves a purpose as well. The appeal of the open science movement was its apparent dedication to transparency, leading to better and more ethically sound science. OSF, which housed the data set in question, should simply remove the data set posthaste. In other words, an organization that is the face of the movement needs to take a strong stand now, rather than freeze in a time of crisis. In any form of communication, there is a fine line between openness and TMI (aka., too much information). Kirkegaard has erred on the side of TMI, and could drag down a potentially beneficial movement within the sciences with him in the process. That should concern all of us.

Michael Gerson on dehumanization

Here is a clip (for those of us who would otherwise be frustrated by columns that are behind WaPo's  paywall:

“A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. . . . These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. . . . Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. . . . These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

These words were written not in 1943 but in 2013. They are from an article by Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, and a friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Bayer’s attitude toward the Roma (Gypsies) is part of a broader theory that big corporations, leftists, Jews and Muslim migrants are engaged in a conspiracy to undermine Hungarian identity. “There are all kinds of weapons: traditional, chemical, atomic,” Bayer argues. “And now we see that there are also racial weapons. This is the weapon that they, the ‘invisible hands,’ have employed against Europe and against the white race.”

Orban is not quite so blunt, but he seems more than willing to gather the political benefit of ethno-nationalism. “We, the Hungarians of national solidarity,” he has said, “must squeeze all disunity out of Hungarian life.”

Hostility to outsiders, of course, preexisted the political movement taking advantage of it. But what role does leadership play in encouraging this attitude? This has been a topic of recent research by Emile Bruneau of the University of Pennsylvania and Nour Kteily of Northwestern University. They have devised an appropriately offensive scale on which to measure blatant dehumanization. In September 2014, a representative sample of Hungarians was asked to place Muslim migrants somewhere on the familiar “ascent of man” scientific illustration — the one showing the gradual development from ape to Homo sapiens. The same survey was conducted in October 2015. In a little over a year, the level of blatant dehumanization in Hungary doubled.

There are a number of possible explanations. But Bruneau postulates that political rhetoric played a role. “When people see this as normative,” he told me, “they are more likely to express themselves.”

Bruneau has also studied the disturbing neuroscience of bigotry. One might expect dehumanization to light up emotional, pre-rational parts of the limbic system. Instead, he said, “it is deeply seated in the cortex, in a reasoned cognitive response.” Viewing others as less than human involves a very conscious and deliberate decision.

“Dehumanization,” argued Bruneau, “morally disengages us.” Most humans hold to a morality that forbids harm to other humans. But if someone is regarded as less than human, those moral rules no longer apply. This rationalization is what allows people who commit genocide to go home, kiss their children and sleep at night. It is also what leads Bayer to say: “Whoever runs over a Gypsy child is acting correctly if he gives no thought to stopping and steps hard on the accelerator.”

How does this relate to U.S. politics? In a survey of Americans conducted by Bruneau and Kteily, the dehumanization of Muslims (as you’d expect) was a strong predictor of support for policies such as carpet bombing in the Middle East and denying visas to Muslims. “Conservatism does predict some support for these positions,” said Bruneau, “but dehumanization goes above and beyond this. It is more strongly predictive than political ideology.”

Blatant dehumanization was also more strongly correlated with support for Donald Trump than for any other candidate.

This recent research seems to dovetail with quite a bit of what we know about the impact of dehumanization, including attitudes toward torture, where a student and I were able to demonstrate that attitudes toward torture were significantly more favorable when the victim was Muslim than when non-Muslim American.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ethically challenged "researcher" potentially doxes OKCupid website users

Since I had written a bit about the problems with researchers analyzing data from social media platforms without getting prior informed consent (remember Facebook?) I thought this latest fiasco deserves to at least be highlighted. I noticed a mention of the ethical breach in question in my twitter feed (via Vox) as I was taking a break from grading. Oliver Keyes has a well-written take-down of the ethical breach on his blog, as well as a good deal of eye-opening background on the lead researcher (Emil Kirkegaard) in question. The breach is one not only of informed consent but also the principles of the open data movement.

At the moment, Kirkegaard is unrepentant, and Arhus University (where he is currently a grad student) has issued a tepid response. As for Kirkegaard's "research", it largely speaks for itself. Much of it appears in a particular "journal" that is edited by, you guessed it, Emil Kirkegaard. Over half of the entries published in the stable of "journals" at on which he is listed as editor (Open Differential Psychology, Open Behavioral Genetics, and Open Quantitative Sociology and Political Science) are ones authored or coauthored by Kirkegaard. In reality, Keyes is spot on when he refers to the journal as little more than a blog. The editorial boards consist of individuals who are either pseudonymous or ones who might not be obvious fits for the subject matter for each journal (I'll go ahead and use the term, albeit loosely), and the peer review process appears to be minimal at best. Although Beall's List is exclusively devoted to predatory publishers that amount to little more than vanity presses charging exorbitant fees to their authors with little to no peer review, at least some subset of what Kirkegaard is engaged in is predatory in a much deeper sense. Beall might wish to consider adding Kirkegaard's journals to the list as a warning to anyone biased toward the open data movement who might be suckered into thinking his journals are even remotely legit.

If one does look at Kirkegaard's Google Scholar or ResearchGate profiles, it shall become readily apparent that the bulk of the citations his work garners are self-citations. There are a handful of authors publishing in peer-review journals citing his work as well, although those appear for now to be a small minority. I certainly have plenty of questions that I would love to ask his advisor regarding the amount of oversight s/he has over Kirkegaard's work - after all, graduate students are expected to receive considerable mentoring, and clearly something has gone off the rails in this particular instance. In addition, I wonder what it says about an academic department and its host institution that essentially is facilitating the work of an alleged student who appears to be more interested in abusing a position of privilege. As for the OKCupid users affected, whatever one might want to say about internet and privacy, it should go without saying that they did not deserve to be Kirkegaard's victims.

I may say more if time permits.

A personal note

My wife broke a hip late February. Since then I have, in addition to attending to taking on many of her daily responsibilities and dealing with the usual problems that crop up when dealing with insurers and physicians, been simply trying to maintain some semblance of my own work-related responsibilities. After all, there are classes to teach, committee meetings to attend, and data sets to analyze and write up. She had some complications post-surgery that we are still dealing with. She is getting better and will undoubtedly be walking at her normal baseline level before all is said and done. The complications - namely visual from a mini-stroke occurring post-surgery - will take a bit longer to sort out. Blogging obviously was going to take a back seat under the circumstances. I'll have some new posts up as time permits.