pro-torrenting cliches that need to die

1. Studies say pirates pay for more content than people who don’t pirate. Those studies are old, small, and of dubious methodology, involving self-reported data. Of course, none of the people who constantly invokes them cares to look at them too closely. They are believed because they tell people what they want to hear. But even if this claim is true, it doesn’t prove what the people who say it think it proves. The question is, do these pirates pay enough to replace the revenues that are lost to the system, as a whole, from piracy? And given the way that the music industry’s revenues have cratered, and the ongoing slowdown in the movie industry, the answer appears to be no.

(If pirates download $500 a month worth of digital content on average, and spend $100 a month on digital content, and those who don’t pirate spend only $50 a month, then yes, the pirates pay for more content. But the system still loses the revenue that the pirates would have paid for the things they pirated.)

2. People only torrent things that are not available for purchase. Just entirely, demonstrably untrue. Go to any torrent site and look at the number of downloads of movies, albums, and games that you can easily purchase in any number of ways. If you really are looking for something you simply can’t get your hands on otherwise, go with God, I won’t judge you.

3. I only torrent because legal alternatives are so expensive and inconvenient. You can legally download millions of movies, books, albums, and games, at cut-rate prices, from dozens or hundreds of sellers, directly into the device you’re going to be using them on, usually without having to be at home or plugged in to anything at all. The amount of incredibly cheap content you can buy now is breathtaking, with constant sales and a relentless downward pressure on prices. This complaint has not changed one iota in five, ten, or fifteen years, despite the fact that the conditions on the ground have totally changed. The goal posts just get moved; the more convenient and cheaper the legal avenues become, the harder the pirates are to please. (I’ve literally had people angrily tell me that $9.99 for an album is an “outrageous” amount!)

4. We need IP reform. Totally true. Irrelevant to the moral question of whether you should pay the people who make the media you love for their work.

5. Pirates go on to pay for things that they’ve torrented if they like them. Pirates say they pay for things that they like, after the fact, but there’s no evidence to believe that this is true writ large. Even if that’s true, it’s totally unworkable as a business plan. A world where you only have to pay for the art and media that you’ve consumed if you decide that you like it after the fact is a world where art and media die as professional phenomena.

6. If the music/movie/publishing/video game industries still made good stuff, I’d pay for it!  See above. People sure seem to torrent award-winning stuff a lot. It’s not actually true that music now is so much worse and even if it were that wouldn’t mean you’d be entitled to get it for free.

7. I only torrent things I wouldn’t have seen/listened to/read/played otherwise. This is non-falsifiable. There’s no way to prove this is true. It seems highly unlikely given how many of the biggest, most popular properties are torrented endlessly. You can’t be nearly as certain about what you wouldn’t have otherwise paid for when you regularly get things for free.

8. The music industry/movie industry/publishing industry makes money hand over fist! They can afford it! All three of those industries have seen major losses of revenue. This argument is made totally independent of any facts. Perfectly independent observers and experts who have no love for the industry groups involved have come to the same conclusions. The notion that the idea of declining revenues in these industries is all a conspiracy is tinfoil hat nonsense.

9. You’re just a shill for the RIAA/MPAA/etc.! That is not an argument. It’s also not true. I hate the heavy-handed tactics of these industry organizations, and I find things like DRM and suing individual downloaders to be wrongheaded and counterproductive. But I think paying people for the hard work and inspiration they invest in making the art and media we enjoy is a simple and important principle.

10. Piracy only steals from the big names, which levels the playing field for the little guy. Literally the opposite is true. As Astra Taylor demonstrates in her magnificent  book The People’s Platform, and as Jaron Lanier has also argued, it’s in fact those on the bottom who suffer the worst– the experimental artists, the independent sellers, the middle class workers who have made money in ancillary positions in creative fields. Those at the top can sell their celebrity, making money from endorsements; those on the bottom find it harder and harder to make interesting, experimental, daring work.

11. Evolve or die!/These industries need to find new models/Businesses need to adapt to a changing world/etc. Which new models? Evolve how? Change in what way? Simply saying “you have to change” is not a plan. The implication that there is some obvious plan for monetization out there that is not susceptible to endless digital copying has not been backed up by any actually expressed plan. The ways that these industries have actually changed to recoup lost revenues — more product placement, “free to play,” advertising, microtransactions — are universally hated by the self-same people who advocate torrenting.

12. Torrenting is a victimless crime that has no impact on the industries in question. How can that be true? We know that millions of people torrent. We know that they download billions of files. How could it be the case that all of this has no economic impact? Yes, it’s true: there are executives in these industries that get paid. Yes, it’s true: there are stock holders who make some of these money. That’s true. But it’s also true that the creators themselves depend on the profitability of these properties. And not just to get paid themselves, either, but to be able to make more movies, albums, books, and games in the future. You cannot wiggle out of this fact: when you don’t pay for the media you consume, you are ultimately depriving the people who work hard to make the art you love.

Think about the “evolve or die” claim: what if the result is “or die”? What does it mean to you as someone who loves to pirate if these industries do die? You get a lot less of the art and media that you love. This is the most frustrating, short-sighted part of all of this: the refusal to recognize that by getting things for free now, you reduce the breadth of what you could potentially get in the future. You could be the victim, one day, because of the movie that you might love that may never get made.

I have no love for the industry groups that push aggressive, counterproductive tactics to combat piracy. I make a grad student’s wages. I agree that the creative industries are often frustrating and hard to respect. But I also think that  we should create a culture expectation, a social pressure, based on a simple principle: pay for the digital art and media you consume. That’s the alternative to ineffectual DRM technologies and lawsuits, a social movement, using the power of public pressure, to urge people to pay for what they download.

pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything

Lauren Davis of io9 has a collection of internet comics that, she claims, “shut down terrible internet arguments.” I suppose that depends on your definition of “shutting down.” If that just means “insult and dismiss the person you’re arguing with,” then sure, those comics are very effective. They suggest the superiority of the people who agree with them with maximum derision and haughtiness. (They include, of course, a comic from xkcd, which covers a lot of different topics but has essentially only one main idea, which is that the guy who  writes it and the people who share it are better than everyone else.) But if your interest was to actually prevent the proliferation of the bad argument, through convincing the people who espouse it, they’re terrible. Because people do not respond to pedantry and they don’t respond to ridicule and they don’t respond to superiority. They just don’t. That’s not how humans work.

This past semester I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Dan Fagin, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Toms River, about the environmental and health impacts of a major chemical plant in New Jersey. Fagin is a talented and experienced science communicator. We were talking about the effort against global warming. One of his points is that far, far too much climate scientists and their liberal political allies communicate about climate change aggressively and derisively, which simply does not work. Adults really do not like the sensation that they’re being educated by another adult, particularly one that attacks their various communal and affinity groups. So the question becomes, do you care enough about slowing global warming to drop the psychically satisfying routine of ridiculing people with whom you disagree?

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

a scientific definition of causation

Whenever I get into these correlation and causation battles (and I do frequently, both in the university and online), they seem to go wrong in two ways: one, people often insist on an entirely unhelpful definition of the word “implies,” and two, people often presume some quantitative signifier of absolute causation that does not exist in most fields.

For the first case, there’s a widespread and strange contention that “implies” is synonymous with “proves.” I find this out of character with conventional use: the word implies seems to exist specifically to indicate a softer claim that the word proves. “Officer, did the suspect specifically state that he wanted to buy drugs?” “No, your honor, but he implied it.” My boss implied I would get fired if I didn’t do my work. The woman at the bar implied she’d like me to buy her a drink. Etc etc. To say that an implication amounts to proof positive just seems contrary to the way we use that term, to me. If you’d prefer “suggests” or “provides evidence for,” then I’ll use that instead. But in each case, we are make a probabilistic judgement call, not a simple quantitative conclusion, because of point two: in the large majority of fields, causation is a philosophical, epistemological concept, not a mathematical one. In those fields where there are communal standards of causation, from my limited knowledge, they tend to be beyond the reach of a vast majority of the social sciences.

Take a field where the stakes for research are high indeed: medicine. Robert Koch, a pioneering epidemiologist and physician, proposed four criteria for demonstrating that a particular pathogen caused a disease.

1. the microorganism or other pathogen must be present in all cases of the disease
2. the pathogen can be isolated from the diseased host and grown in pure culture
3. the pathogen from the pure culture must cause the disease when inoculated into a healthy, susceptible laboratory animal
4. the pathogen must be reisolated from the new host and shown to be the same as the originally inoculated pathogen

You can already imagine the host of problems here, even for a field as “hard” as the medical sciences. We know that there are agents in medicine which contribute to diseases or conditions but which are not necessarily present in all cases. (10% of lung  cancer victims, for example, have never smoked.) Growing pathogens in cultures is very straightforward if that pathogen is a bacterium, but far less clear when we’re talking about many kinds of environmental and behavioral risk factors. Replicating certain behaviors or conditions in lab animals is often a practical impossibility, and in many instances, human epidemiology varies drastically from that of mice or similar lab animals. Reisolating a causal agent again makes sense if we’re hunting for a bacteria and no sense if we’re asking if exposure to soot causes scrotal cancer. And so on. So eventually, Koch’s requirements had to be discarded in some avenues of medicine such as carcinogenesis; the bar was simply too high, and the need for more cancer science far too great.

In some fields, the only responsible way to assign a cause is through a controlled experiment. That often means that the researchers must themselves control the given exposure or other independent variables, introducing them into the test group themselves. The ethical quandary is obvious: no institutional review board in the world will allow you to deliberately expose a test group of babies to tobacco smoke in hopes of determining strong empirical proof of causation. (I hope!) Similarly, no one could or should divide babies into a cohort to be raised in affluence and a cohort to be raised in poverty for the sake of experimental value, even though we might learn more in doing so that we have in decades of educational research. Instead, we are left to muddle through with observational and quasi-experimental designs in which researchers cannot themselves control exposure to a given independent variable, which some serious epistemologists would say is a requirement of truly demonstrating causation. And we do alright, sometimes, if we’re careful, limited in our claims, and we replicate. (With lung cancer, at least, we can see the physiological changes that occur from smoking. How could we ever look for a physiological sign of causation in the brain of an impoverished child struggling to succeed in school? Where would we look?)

So I will again go out on this limb: I believe that poverty causes poor educational outcomes. I think by a rational, fair standard of what we mean in common human language by a cause, that statement is true. The evidence? Decade upon decade of studies that demonstrate a strong correlation between the socioeconomic class of students (or their parents) and educational outcomes. Across a broad variety of contexts, for a number of different age groups, in all manner of different levels and types of schools, we see that basic dynamic. I’m not suggesting simplicity here. While I believe poverty is cause of educational failure, it is surely not the only cause. And while this basic dynamic is present in reams of data, the effect size is not always the same, the effect is not always equally distributed across the income spectrum, the effect sometimes changes according to age cohort, and on and on. Yet I feel confident enough in the relationship I’m describing — and in my readers to understand nuance and appropriate limitation — to say that poverty causes poor educational performance.

If you think that my use of the word “cause” here is problematic, or simply wrong, I’m very happy to have that discussion. The literature on this topic is vast, and I’m nothing resembling an expert. But for practical purposes we have to allow for sufficient linguistic and epistemological simplicity to actually grow the “storehouse of human knowledge.” We might get experts together from a variety of fields to debate and develop fair, pragmatically-useful definitions of cause that are reasonable for those fields. But I find that debate so much less fruitful than many other forms of inquiry we can undertake if we all agree to understand causation as contingent and complex.

I again recommend The Emperor of All Maladies for a very cogent discussion of how all of this played out in the realm of cancer where, despite being on the forefront of modern science, with incredible resources, the best-trained researchers could not prove causality to Koch’s standard, which the tobacco companies used to nefarious ends. Siddartha Mukherjee writes on page 256, “Rather than fussing about the metaphysical idea about causality (what, in the purest sense, constitutes ’cause’?), [Bradford] Hill changed it to a functional or operational idea. Cause is what cause does, Hill claimed.” If that’s good enough for investigating cancer, it’s good enough for me.

Update: Forgot to mention that this essay by Greg Laden is just terrific on these topics.

“correlation does not imply causation,” New Years 2015 edition

I’ve written, in the past, that I think the reflexive statement “correlation is not causation” has actually become more dangerous than people naively assuming that correlation does equal causation. I was reminded of this recently when I was reading Siddartha Mukherjee’s magnificent “biography of cancer,” The Emperor of All Maladies. The relationship between lung cancer and smoking is the perfect example of how correlational studies can lead us to better understand the world, and in a way that has clear stakes. In time, causal evidence for the link was found, but this took years, and in fact Mukherjee devotes many pages to the difficulty of defining causation and establishing it in a situation where an experiment would have been deeply unethical. Correlational data can go wrong. It can also save lives.

I wrote a long piece about this issue here, and you should check it out if you’re interested. I just want to look at one example of how statistical skepticism could become more of a hindrance than a benefit.

Consider this graph, courtesy of The Washington Post and via the Dish:

Now. Here is a case where we have a simple, intuitive relationship between a statistical observation, the spike in searches for hangover cures, and a potential cause, a holiday associated with the consumption of alcohol. What I want to point out first is that you could just as accurately say “correlation does not equal causation” here as you can with any of the intentionally absurd correlations that are trotted out for rhetorical effect. That correlation does not prove causation is just as true with people Googling “hangover cure” as it is with the famous example of ice cream sales being strongly correlated with deaths by drowning. (Sticklers would in fact call this particular relationship an association, not a correlation, as the holiday is a categorical value and not a numerical one.) In both cases, it is accurate to say that the observed correlation does not prove causation. And yet with this example, but not the latter, I am willing to say that correlation in fact strongly implies causation. 

How can I say that, when the fact that “correlation does not imply causation” has become holy writ on the internet? I can say it because I have a functioning human intelligence and the power of discrimination. I can say it because I have common sense. I can say it because I know that the definition of the word “imply” is not identical to the definition of the word “prove.” Most of all, I can say it because I have a strong theoretical, deductive basis for assuming causation. Or, to put it another way, I lack any remotely satisfying alternative explanation for why this search would spike around New Years. It might be true that all of these people are Googling hangover cures around this date because their great uncle Pappy died around this time, and they are drinking to forget. But that is exceedingly unlikely, far less likely than the simpler explanation that people drink too much at New Years and get hangovers. Contrast that with the ice cream sales and drowning deaths one. We lack a coherent explanation for how one could cause the other, and we have a perfectly good deductive reason for understanding the association — people both eat more ice cream and swim more often when the temperature goes up. It would indeed be dumb to assume that people eating more ice cream causes drownings, but luckily, we aren’t dumb. We have a broader understanding of the world and can use that understanding to avoid such a confused interpretation.

Now we could complicate things. Here’s the same search over a larger time frame, from January of 2010 to December of 2014.

hangover cures googling Jan 2010 Dec 2014

Here, we can see that a similar pattern exists — peaks that are fairly consistent around December and January. We’ve lost some of the granularity by broadening out, making it harder to see the specific concentration around New Years. But we can also see that the relationship, while consistent, is not exclusive; the rate of interest in hangover cures is not static at other times of the year, either. Nor is it immediately clear why the relative volume of searches for hangover cures has risen over time. You could easily imagine people making an intuitive leap based on some of this data that may not be responsible. But it is not irresponsible to look at the massive peak in searches in the first graph and assume a causal relationship.

What I’m arguing here, ultimately, is simple: that we have the benefit of our broader understanding of the world when we examine statistical data, and we should use it. I am also arguing that people who say “correlation is not causation” face a burden of proof too. If you want to look at that peak and sniff that correlation does not imply causation, that’s fine, but you better be able to bring theory and evidence to bear to justify that skepticism. And your burden of proof will be higher than if I said that ice cream sales cause drowning deaths, because the situation is different. Methodological ideas do not exist in a vacuum, but occupy a broad theoretical and empirical framework that complicates them at every turn. We don’t have a general problem, online, with people being either too credulous or too skeptical towards statistical data. We have both too many writers running simple linear regressions and drawing overly broad conclusions from them without appropriate checks and skepticism, and too many people repeating this cliche like parrots without actually bothering to dig into the intellectual work of understanding the world. When I become frustrated by the overt credulity of some data journalism, I read the comments on sites that are home to many skeptics, such as io9, where I find standards of evidence so absurdly high, no real truth claims could ever survive them. The goal has to be to develop a happy medium, one that recognizes the difference between different claims, their strengths, their theoretical backing, and the presence or absence of plausible alternatives.

People who blindly repeat that correlation does not imply causation act as though appropriate empirical skepticism requires us to act as though we are all dumb. We aren’t all dumb. We get things wrong, we fall prey to spurious associations, we bite off more than we can chew, but we aren’t dumb. Let’s be skeptics, not nihilists, in 2015.

let 2015 be the year we stop writing these essays

I am 100% with Will Leitch when he says that the internet has made it easier to live in enclaves, and that this is a political and social problem with profound negative consequences. However.

“this is now accepted public policy. You don’t have to find anyone to contradict you, if you don’t want to.

This isn’t just common practice now: This is how you win. The entire strategy for succeeding at anything, whether it’s winning elections, selling a product or attracting visitors for your Website, revolves around pitching yourself as loudly as you can to those people on your side and turning those who disagree with you into the worst version of themselves, demonizing them into something subhuman and venal. Nuance is tossed out, even if you know a situation is desperately nuanced, in favor of quick points and splash; we’ve all become the New York Post.”

First: “the New York Post” is a dog-whistle too. Just because your signals may have a more cultured pedigree does not make them any less a matter of preaching to your choir.

More importantly: there is no value, for anyone, in not being the New York Post in the way Leitch means. It does no good for us. It does no good for anyone. And since people are literally dying in the streets, it is perhaps time for progressives to recognize that their decade-plus sighing spell has to come to an end, for the good of progressives and the constituencies they speak for. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Jon Stewart’s tepid, directionless Rally to Restore Sanity, a performance of exasperation that pitted a vague, cranky proceduralism against any definition of a positive, actionable agenda around which human beings could actually rally. The genre of the put-upon liberal brow-furrower has this fussy quality, like an actual agenda is too coarse, too indicative of the sordid state of modern affairs. It’s like politics by Andy Rooney. Personally, I’ve always liked the cranks more than the cranky.

Maybe, someday, when substantive change has been achieved, through hard work, then we can futz. There’s time for futzing, after all, and many of Leitch’s complaints are ones that I endorse in a vacuum. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and more importantly, the oppressed among us don’t live in a vacuum. If this is the way you win, now, then let it be the way we win, now. Let 2015 be the year we put liberal sighs to bed.