Jordi Inglada
14 Nov 2020

La science, les médias et le virus

Mi octobre, l'émission La Méthode Scientifique sur France Culture était dédiée au traitement de la science dans les médias faisant ainsi écho à une tribune publiée dans Libération où des scientifiques appelaient leurs pairs à mettre de l'humilité dans le débat médiatique lié à la pandémie de SARS-CoV-2.

À la lecture de la tribune et suite à l'écoute de l'émission, on constate que les médias1 déterminent qui sont les experts sanitaires. Ils donnent le même poids à un commentateur professionnel («je ne suis pas médecin, mais …») qu'aux vrais experts et ne font pas la distinction entre un médecin clinicien, un épidémiologiste ou un virologue. Ceci n'est pas nouveau, évidemment, et c'est une pratique courante sur d'autres sujets sans base scientifique comme la finance, par exemple.

Comme le dit Étienne Klein, qui participait à l'émission, dans son tract Le goût du vrai:

[…] avoir un avis n'équivaut nullement à connaître la justesse ou la fausseté d'un énoncé scientifique. Les revues scientifiques ne sont certes pas parfaites – il leur arrive de publier des articles contenant des erreurs ou présentant des conclusions biaisées –, mais ni Twitter ni Facebook n'ont vocation à concurrencer Nature, encore moins à en tenir lieu, comme ils tendent parfois à le faire ces derniers temps.

Les scientifiques seraient tombés dans le piège du quart d'heure de célébrité. Ceci n'est pas étonnant vu qu'ils sont déjà des friands usagers des moyens de l'économie de l'attention pour optimiser les métriques utilisées pour les évaluations de carrière. Mais on peut aussi penser qu'il y a des raisons plus nobles à ce comportement, comme une vraie intention de se rendre utiles dans la crise, voire vouloir montrer que la science est utile et qu'elle doit être soutenue par les pouvoirs publics.

Ce n'est pas de l'élitisme que de dire que la plupart de citoyens (y compris ceux avec beaucoup de diplômes) ne savent pas comment fonctionne la science. Pour citer encore E. Klein :

Comme tout un chacun, les scientifiques peuvent se tromper, subir l'influence des idéologies ou des lobbys, parfois même tricher, de sorte que leurs déclarations quant à la vérité de tel ou tel résultat ne sauraient être prises pour argent comptant. Toujours est-il que, dans leur champ de compétences, ils en savent plutôt davantage que ceux qui en savent moins. Pardon pour le truisme.

Pour arriver à des éléments de réponse fiables, la science se base sur une méthode qui travaille souvent par réfutation d'hypothèses, et donc, par construction, la travail du scientifique est d'essayer de mettre en défaut le status quo. Le débat scientifique est donc nécessaire. C'est ce que Popper (et j'emprunte encore la référence à E. Klein) appelait « la coopération amicalement hostile des citoyens de la communauté du savoir ».

La mise au premier plan du débat scientifique serait utile si le public avait les outils et le temps de digérer toute l'information disponible. C'est donc aux médias (s'ils veulent aller au delà de la captation de l'audimat) de faire le travail d'explication. Au lieu de ça, certains font plutôt le contraire et brouillent le discours. Voici un exemple (encore tiré du livre de Klein) :

Le 5 avril dernier, alors qu'aucune étude thérapeutique n'avait encore eu le temps d'aboutir, Le Parisien publiait les résultats d'un sondage abracadabrantesque. À la question : « D'après vous, tel médicament est-il efficace contre le coronavirus ? », 59 % des personnes interrogées répondaient oui, 20 % non. Seuls 21 % des sondés déclaraient qu'ils ne savaient pas. L'immense majorité (80 %) affirmait donc savoir ce que personne ne savait encore…

Pourquoi en arriver là? Pourquoi ne pas traiter les sujets avec nuance, pédagogie et profondeur? Probablement parce que cela demande du temps et du travail et qu'il y a toujours le risque de perdre du temps de cerveau disponible. Il est beaucoup plus efficace de créer du faux débat avec une bonne dose de clash, céder à la tyrannie de l'urgence et créer du faux scoop, même si les spectateurs s'en moquent. Pousser donc les scientifiques à donner des réponses simples et courtes (entre 2 coupures publicité), comme s'ils répondaient au sondage cité ci-dessus, résulte en une absence de nuance et de raisonnement et font confondre l'avis du scientifique avec ses espoirs de citoyen.

Comme le disait Chomsky dans On archism, imposer la concision est une technique de propagande :

In fact, the structure of the news production system is, you can't produce evidence. There's even a name for it—I learned it from the producer of Nightline, Jeff Greenfield. It's called “concision.” He was asked in an interview somewhere why they didn't have me on Nightline. First of all, he says, “Well, he talks Turkish, and nobody understands it.” But the other answer was, “He lacks concision.” Which is correct, I agree with him. The kinds of things that I would say on Nightline, you can't say in one sentence because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you're expected to give evidence, and that you can't do between two commercials. So therefore you lack concision, so therefore you can't talk.

I think that's a terrific technique of propaganda. To impose concision is a way of virtually guaranteeing that the party line gets repeated over and over again, and that nothing else is heard.

Et comme le disait récemment Frédéric Lordon, les vrais intellectuels passent mal à la télé :

L'accès régulier aux grands médias est par soi un indicateur de la manière dont ceux qui en bénéficient vont y tenir la « fonction intellectuelle » : d'une manière factice qui contredit la fonction intellectuelle puisque la fonction intellectuelle est essentiellement fonction critique, et que l'accès régulier aux grands médias a pour condition implicite de n'y tenir qu'une fonction de ratification, ou bien de fausse critique. La ratification, ce sont tous les experts qui viennent dire sous des formes variées le bien-fondé général de l'ordre social comme il est, et la nécessité d'en opérer quelques réglages pour qu'il soit encore meilleur.

On pourrait se dire que dans le cas des questions scientifiques il n'y a pas de ligne du parti, mais quand on essaye de faire croire que les masques ne sont pas utiles, ou que l'on ne se contamine que dans la sphère privée, on peut se poser la question de pourquoi il n'est pas de l'intérêt de certains que ceux qui regardent comprennent. Même si la façon de masquer l'incompétence de ceux qui sont aux manettes, ainsi que leur niveau de cynisme, est variable en fonction des pays, il est intéressant d'écouter cet épisode du podcast «Making Sense» de Sam Harris pour avoir des éléments de réponse.

Au delà de toute tentative de manipulation de la vérité, il y a les biais cognitifs dont nous tous sommes victimes. Nous développons tous des stratagèmes pour ne pas croire ce que nous savons si ce savoir nous dérange.

La science est lente par nature, et malgré tout, on avance très vite dans la connaissance du virus. Le débat scientifique répond à de règles qui servent justement à éviter les biais cognitifs. Mais si les scientifiques eux-mêmes tombent dans le piège de la recherche de la reconnaissance immédiate et des effets de communication, comme c'est le cas des politiques et des journalistes, il risque d'y avoir deux effets très négatifs.

D'abord, les citoyens feront de moins en moins confiance à ces scientifiques qui semblent ne pas se mettre d'accord et changent d'avis en permanence. Et, deuxièmement, le bénéfice que la société pourrait tirer de leurs découvertes n'aura pas lieu parce que, à l'ère de la post-vérité chacun a tendance à faire son marché parmi les opinions disponibles, sans que cela ait besoin de passer le contrôle qualité de la réalité, ou comme le disait R. Feynman :

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

Richard P. Feynman

Footnotes:

1

terme utilisé pour dé-responsabiliser les individus journalistes

Tags: fr science medias
25 Oct 2020

Sérendipité, productivité et télétravail

La pandémie a permis (obligé?) l'expérimentation à grande échelle du télétravail. Beaucoup de gens faisaient déjà du télétravail avant, non pas seulement comme un substitut de ce qui était fait dans les locaux de leur entreprise, mais aussi comme un complément (ramener du travail à la maison, travail pendant les déplacements professionnels de courte ou de moyenne durée). Mais dès le début du confinement, il a fallu mettre en place des outils de «communication», non, plutôt de «collaboration» pour pallier le manque d'interaction quotidienne.

Le résultat a été un recours précipité et sans esprit critique à des services de messagerie instantanée et visio-conférence pour générer des interactions non indispensables pour le déroulement normal du travail.

Certains ont attribué cela à un manque de confiance de la part des managers qui ne seraient pas formés à gérer ce genre de situations.

D'autres, ont justifié le besoin de ces outils pour favoriser la sérendipité et le brassage d'idées, malgré le fait qu'il est démontré que les interruptions et les échanges permanents son négatifs pour la productivité. En effet, la plupart des gens vivent mal les interruptions, dont la plupart ont lieu quand on est physiquement au travail. En effet, ces interruptions ont l'inconvénient de ne pas pouvoir être mises en mode avion. D'ailleurs, il existe un sens de la culpabilité associé au fait de désactiver les notifications dans les outils de «collaboration».

À l'inverse, une bonne hygiène dans la gestion de ces outils résulte en une augmentation de l'efficacité par rapport au travail en présentiel (ou par rapport au télétravail qui essaie de simuler le présentiel).

En fait, cette sacro-sainte sérendipité a vraiment du mal à marcher aussi bien qu'on le voudrait et des efforts importants (avec les budgets associés) sont déployés par les entreprises pour concevoir des locaux lui permettant de s'exprimer. Oui, on en est là.

Si on peut comprendre que certains aient besoin d'interaction fréquente, il semble peu approprié de vouloir imposer ce mode de travail à tout le monde. Mais, malheureusement, on peut s'attendre à ce que des startupeurs se positionnent sur le créneau de la e-serendipity. Déjà, les CIO (les DSI du monde d'avant) se frottent les mains en voyant venir des augmentations de leurs budgets.

Ces effets de mode dans un workplace où les promotions et la reconnaissance passent de plus en plus par le présentéisme (contemplatif o stratégique) et la visibilité (physique ou numérique) contraste avec des analyses moins sexies. En effet, il semblerait que les rencontres fortuites ne mènent qu'à des vraies collaborations que par un travail approfondi. Ce travail conjoint approfondi nécessite la co-présence, mais organisée et en évitant la culture du ASAP, le FOMO et le changement continu de contexte.

En gros, il faudrait éviter le travail superficiel composé de réunions d'information descendante, les échanges sur la messagerie instantanée, les appels téléphoniques non programmés, etc. On pourrait aussi apprendre la collaboration asynchrone, ce qui permettrait de sortir de la tradition orale où la mémoire des équipes est perdue, mais aussi de respecter le rythme de chacun.

Vaste programme …

Tags: rant fr productivity meetings
13 Sep 2020

The end of e-mail

e-mail is great

e-mail is a great form of communication.

For starters, it is asynchronous, which means that one can choose to deal with it when desired and not to be victim of unwanted interruptions (unlike phone calls).

e-mails can be of any length, from just one word in the subject line and an empty body (unlike a letter), up to several pages of arguments and ideas. They can be accompanied by attached documents and richly formatted1 (unlike the limits of SMS or some «social media» platforms).

e-mails have some kind of permanence, since they can be stored by the sender or the receiver as they want (unlike most modern «social media»).

e-mail is decentralized, in the sense that anybody can have their own server and send and receive e-mails without going through a central server or authority (unlike most of the means of electronic communications we use today, be it SMS, WhatsApp, etc.). e-mail can be considered as the first service in the Fediverse.

e-mail also allows to personalize how one wants to appear on the internet, since an e-mail address can show the belonging to a group, a company, just one's own name or even a chosen nickname.

e-mail sucks

Of course, most people have learned to hate e-mail with an attitude which has become rather hipster.

  • We get lots of e-mail (but much less than what we get on Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.)
  • Lots of e-mail is spam (not unlike the ads one gets on all other media)
  • Long e-mail threads with many people in CC are close to spam (not unlike Twitter threads)

All these issues can be solved by using a good e-mail client or MUA which allows us to filter and archive messages to suit our preferences (unlike the algorithms implemented by Twitter, Facebook and even Gmail, which choose what one can see). We can also have a good electronic hygiene by unsubscribing from useless newsletters, implementing «Inbox zero» (if that works for us), shutting off e-mail notifications and using different e-mail addresses for different purposes2.

A monopolistic view of e-mail

Many have predicted, wanted and even worked towards the end of e-mail. You may remember Wave, a Google project presented as the perfect replacement for e-mail. It was discontinued after a very short life, then the Apache Foundation tried to resuscitate it, but it was finally abandoned.

Google was criticized for trying to implement this e-mail substitute as a way to capture all those electronic communications which where happening between people not using Google services. Indeed, despite the popularity of Gmail, both as an e-mail provider (with lots of storage for free) and as an e-mail client (with a very good anti-spam filter, and other useful features to deal with lots of e-mail), this service uses the standard e-mail protocol and therefore, it is difficult to have a monopoly on it.

Why would Google want to have all the e-mail on the internet go through their servers? Because being able to parse and inspect all these messages allows to extract lots of information which is useful to train AI models which in turn can be used to understand what people think, want and need3. Then one can select which ads to show them and how to keep them «engaged» in their platform.

I am picking on Google because it was the first player on this game, but Microsoft is doing the same with the Office365 platform, where Outlook is the Gmail equivalent.

The network effect and the silo

Just providing a complete platform with an online office suite, e-mail (server, storage and client) does not seem enough to force all users to stay permanently on the platform. What should Google and Microsoft do to get people to do all their electronic communications on their platforms?

Until now, they have succeeded in capturing lots of users: nearly everybody has a Google account because of Android and YouTube; and an increasing number of people, at least in the enterprise and academic sectors, are Office365 users because of the «need» of collaborative distributed editing (think SharePoint and the move of Microsoft Office itself to the cloud).

If a large number of business and universities have moved to cloud services like G-suite and Office365, this means that many e-mail messages have a receiver on these platforms. What can these platforms do to get more users? The easiest thing is to make communications with users outside these platforms difficult. For instance, redirect to spam all e-mails coming from domains which are not linked to the platforms. Google will accept messages from Microsoft servers and vice-versa, but will likely flag as spam messages coming from other sources.

Spam is your friend

Fewer and fewer people maintain their own e-mail servers. It is not a matter of lack of technical skills. Easy solutions like Mail-in-a-Box exist, so nearly anybody can install their own server. The problem is that these servers are often blacklisted and the messages they sent are trashed by the receivers4. This makes many sysadmins choose e-mail services hosted by cloud providers, like Gandi, OVH, or Ionos in Europe.

Unfortunately, some of those, like OVH, have chosen to replace the technology they used which was based on Free Software (postfix or sendmail, etc.) by Exchange. Are they loosing their technical skills and prefer to use a commercial product with commercial support? Or are they choosing a solution which is less likely to be flagged as spam? After all, a Russian spammer will use free software instead of buying a Microsoft license.

Regardless, these providers will have a hard time competing with complete integrated solutions as those from Google or Microsoft5.

Break the standards

Now that everybody uses Google or Microsoft servers, there is still one thing that bothers these companies. As e-mail uses a set of open protocols (SMTP for sending and IMAP or POP for getting the messages from the server), there is still the possibility to access Google and Microsoft servers with clients running locally on the users computers. It is therefore impossible for the provider to display ads or monitor how the user interacts with e-mail. This is a loss of potential revenue.

Both Google and Microsoft have announced that they will be shutting down the standard user authentication for SMTP and IMAP. The only way to send and receive e-mail will be to implement an authentication which needs to register the client application with a secret token which may change periodically. That means that only applications for which Google and Microsoft will have given their blessing will be able to communicate with Gmail and Outlook accounts.

Of course, getting a Free Software e-mail client registered with Google or Microsoft should be possible, but their terms of service forbid making public the registration token, which means that it can not be embedded in the free software. Thunderbird and KMail seem to have gotten an exception, but for how long?

The end of e-mail?

So that is a nifty theory about evil corporations working to destroy our dear internet. I am probably wrong and even a little paranoid here, but the fact is that it is increasingly difficult to self-host an e-mail server and use local e-mail clients.

If you have a different point of view or any ideas on how to preserve e-mail as a decentralized and open means of electronic communication, please get in touch. Contact information is available at the bottom of the page.

The sad thing is that most people don't care about these issues. Most people think that the internet is the web. From those, the majority things that the internet is Google or Facebook.

Even most people who are into politics don't care or don't understand. Left-wing anti-capitalists are on Facebook and use Gmail and then they complain when they are censored. Conservative patriotic nationalists in Europe live in Microsoft environments to write and discuss about sovereignty. What a joke!

Footnotes:

1

Although there are drawbacks to that: HTML e-mail is usually twice the volume of a plain text one and it is often used for phishing attacks.

2

Personal and professional, of course, but also having a specific address to give to any commercial entity pretending to need our e-mail contact.

3

"I think of Google as a set of overlapping things. It's a consumer platform, consumer phenomenon of which search is its fundamental activity, but there are many other things you can do than search… I think of Google as an advertising company who services the broader advertising industry in the ways that you know." Eric Schmidt

4

If Gmail has the best anti-spam filter, how come there are so may false positives?

5

Again, free software solutions exist, like those based on Nextcloud and the associated ecosystem of applications, but most business and universities choose to go with Google and Microsoft instead of fostering in-house skills or supporting local companies which can provide maintenance for these solutions.

Tags: free-software internet standards email
11 Nov 2019

Several tonnes of reasons not to go to IGARSS 2020

As every 10 years, IGARSS will take place in Hawaii in 2020. This time it won’t be in Honolulu as in 2000 and 2010, but in Waikoloa, in the “Big Island”.

I went to Honolulu for the 2 previous events, and it would be nice to go there again, visit another place and meet with colleagues and friends that I don’t see often out of this kind of gathering.

But the issue is that, without falling victim of solastalgia, I find it difficult to justify flying for about 50h for a conference. As most of my colleagues, I have done it plenty of times. Thanks to IGARSS and since 1998, I have been to a lot of interesting places and met brilliant people from the remote sensing community. But I find it ironic that people observing our planet from space and measuring how climate and biodiversity are going astray wouldn’t change their behaviour and reduce their impact.

Every IGARSS has a particular theme. Here are the ones for the previous 6:

In 2020, the theme is Remote Sensing: Global Perspectives for Local Solutions.

One can see that the environment, our living planet, energy etc. are some of the focus of the community who attends these events. This is why the choice of a place which for most of the attendees will need between 12 and 50 hours of travel by plane is questionable. Some may try to get there by other means, but Hawaii is a 6h flight (one way) for everybody.

Let’s do the math. If we assume greenhouse gas emissions of 1/4 tonne CO2 equivalent per hour flying, this is between 3 and 12 tonnes per person (knowing that In order to stop climate change, 0.6 tonnes is the maximum amount of CO2 that can be generated by a single person in a year). Let’s assume an average of 7. IGARSS 2019 in Yokohama had 2600. We can imagine that at least the same amount of people would want to go to Hawaii, although one could argue that Hawaii may attract more people. The calculator says that 18200 tonnes of C02 would be emitted just by flying to IGARSS, that is the maximum amount that 30,000 people can produce in a year if we want to stop climate change.

Of course, this back-of-the-envelope calculation may not be very accurate, but I think that the orders of magnitude are good.

I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think that my contribution to Earth observation that could potentially be used to mitigate climate change and biodiversity degradation is worth the emissions.

Meeting the remote sensing community is useful to advance science and technology, but other ways can be used. The GRSS society has started a new initiative, as announced by its president:

[…] in 2020 we are starting three regional conferences held in locations far from the IGARSS flagship conference. The idea is to help communities that cannot come to IGARSS because of distance, but also because of economic issues or other barriers, and organise dedicated events.

Let’s hope that these events replace the trips to distant venues and do not add up with them!

Tags: eco politics remote-sensing
23 May 2016

Sympathy for the Evil: let's help improve Google Earth Engine

Please allow me to introduce a couple of ideas which should help improve the user experience on the GEE platform. I know that Google, a company of wealth and taste, has an impressive record on providing services with outstanding features. They have the best search engine, the best web mail application and the best web browser1.

But these services and tools are targeted to non expert users. With GEE, Google is addressing a complete different audience: scientists, or I should say Scientists. These are clever people with PhD's! Therefore, in order to keep them satisfied Google will have to make an extra effort. One could think that scientists can easily be fooled because, for instance, they agree with giving away to private companies the results of research funded with tax payer money2. Or because they accept to be evaluated by how many times their tweets are liked3. Seeing scientists like this would be a mistake. They are very demanding users who only want to use the best tools4.

But Google has the technology needed to attract this smarter-than-the average users. Here go some ideas which could make GEE the best platform for producing impactful research using remote sensing data.

Executable papers

I think that it would be nice to introduce some literate programming facilities in the code editor. This could be similar to what can be done with Emacs org-mode's Babel or Knitr for the R programming language. This would allow to directly write scientific papers on the GEE editor and keep together notes, formulas, code and charts. Of course, exporting to Google Docs would be also very useful so that results can be integrated in slides or spreadsheets.

The possibility of citing bibliographic references should also be integrated in the editor. I suppose that a Google Scholar search function would not be difficult to add. Oh, yes, and Google Books also, by the way. Actually, using the same technology Google uses to insert advertisements in search results or in Gmail, it would be possible to automatically suggest references based on what the user is writing.

In these suggestions, papers produced using GEE could come first, since they are better. Papers written by people in the author's Google contacts list could also be promoted: good friends cite friends and the content of e-mails should help the algorithms determine if they are collaborators or competitors. But let's trust Google to find the algorithm which will make the best suggestions.

Many software development environments have code completion. In the case of GEE the technology5 would be much more powerful since all the code written by all scientists could be used to make suggestions. The same technology could be used to suggest completions for the text of the papers. We all know how boring is writing again and again the same "introduction" and "materials and methods" sections. Google algorithms could introduce some randomness and even compute a plagiarism score to help us make sure that we comply with the scientific literature standards. Of course, the "Conclusions" section could be automatically produced from the results using Google's AI technology.

It would also be nice to have some kind of warning if the user was designing an experiment or a processing chain that somebody else had already done. So some kind of message like "this has already been done" together with the link to the corresponding paper would be great. Also, automatic checking for patent infringement would be useful. Again, Google has all we need. In this case, the warning message could be "I can't let you do that Dave".

Massive peer review

The executable paper written using what has been described above could be made available through Google Plus as a pre-print. Actually, nobody would call that a "pre-print", but rather a paper in beta. All people in the author's circles could be able to comment on it and, most importantly, give a +1 as a warrant of scientific quality. This approach could quickly be replaced by a more reliable one. Using deep learning (of course, what else?) applied to the training data base freely generated by GEE early adopters, Google could propose an unbiased system for paper review which would be much faster than the traditional peer review approach. The h-index should be abandoned and replaced by the paper-rank metric.

Funding research

Thanks to GEE, doing remote sensing based science will become much cheaper. Universities and research centres won't need to buy expensive computers anymore. Instead, just one Chromebook per person will be enough. Actually, not even offices will be needed, since WiFi is free at Starbucks. Lab meetings can be cheaply replaced by Google Hangouts.

However, scientists will still need some funding, since they can't live on alphaet soup and coffee is still not free at Starbucks. Google has a grant programme for scientists, but this is somewhat old school: real people have to review proposals and even worse, scientists have to spend time writing them.

Again, Google has the technology to help here: "AdSense is a free, simple way to earn money by placing ads on your website." Scientists who would allow ads on their papers, could make some revenue.

Conclusion

I know that in this post I have given away many ideas which could be used to get venture capital for a start-up which could make lots of money, but this would be really unfair, because all this would not be possible without:

  • Google Earth Engine
  • Gmail
  • Google Chrome
  • Google Docs
  • Google Scholar
  • Google Books
  • Google Patents
  • Google Plus
  • +1
  • Chromebook
  • Google Starbucks
  • Google Hangouts
  • AdSense
  • Google's Youtube

Don't forget that the mission statement of GEE is "developing and sharing new digital mapping technology to save the world". And anyway, section 4.3 of GEE Terms of Service says6:

Customer Feedback. If Customer provides Google Feedback about the Services, then Google may use that information without obligation to Customer, and Customer hereby irrevocably assigns to Google all right, title, and interest in that Feedback.

Footnotes:

Tags: remote-sensing free-software
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