The political science of Google

by Henry Farrell on February 11, 2004

“Ed Felten”: has a nice post on Google from a few days ago, suggesting that laments for the halycon days before people tried to manipulate Google are misconceived. His rejoinder: Google results don’t represent some Platonic ideal of the truth – they’re the product of collective choice.

bq. Google is a voting scheme. Google is not a mysterious Oracle of Truth but a numerical scheme for aggregating the preferences expressed by web authors.

This means, as Felten suggests, that Google isn’t perfect, and can’t be. Indeed, the point is underlined by “Arrow’s possibility theorem”: which says, more or less, that any form of aggregate decision making is going to be flawed under certain reasonable assumptions. Felten’s insight is an important one – it opens the door for the application of a plethora of interesting results from the theory of collective choice to Google and other aggregators/search engines. There are some eminently publishable academic papers in there for anyone who’s familiar both with this literature, and with public choice theory. There’s a more general point too. Much of the early rhetoric about the Internet suggested that it somehow managed to escape from politics. Some people (Declan McCullagh for example) are still trying to peddle this line. It’s ridiculous. The Internet and other communications technologies involve real collective choices, with real political consequences, and the sooner we all realize this, the better.


by Chris Bertram on February 11, 2004

I’ve been following a “debate that’s been going on (and off) at Butterflies and Wheels”: over the past few weeks and wondering about a move that my fellow atheist Ophelia Benson makes there. Ophelia quotes Michael Ruse thus:

bq. People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs — and stays within these boundaries.

To which she replies:

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Conservatives in Academia

by Kieran Healy on February 11, 2004

I’ve never found the argument that conservatives are discriminated against in academia terribly compelling. But it does seem like an interesting case, if only because in making it common or garden conservatives are forced to admit the existence of institutionalized inequality, something they are usually loath to acknowledge. Andrew Sullivan “just bumped into this question.”: (Via “Pandagon”: He raises and then dismisses the most parsimonious explanation for this inequality, namely that conservatives are just not as clever as liberals and so don’t get hired. He quotes a tongue-in-cheek line from a Duke Prof, who says “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia.”[1] Andy is not persuaded, of course. But why not?

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