The Bayesian Model – We Need To Understand the Dark Times Ahead

Cloud 1

In recent weeks I came across the phrases “Bayesian Model” and “Bayesian Inference” a few times and started to wonder what it was (and why it was cropping up so much now).

In reality, with everything happening in the world today, this might be one of the most important concepts that everyone should know about. It provides considerable explanation for the increasingly bitter polarization that we see happening in so many parts of the world today. Therefore, it goes to the heart of the world we’re living in today, and the world we’re shaping for tomorrow.

My search for information came up trumps when i found the following article. It’s a fascinating, scholarly article that shares in a very readable manner the background and research that explains the Bayesian inference, why it matters and the worrying state of polarization in the world today;

Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development – Bleak Future Ahead – The Science Behind Contemporary Polarization
(Click on the link above to open and read the article in either a new window or new tab)

What we learn from the article is firstly the big bad news – when people hold to an extreme idea or set of ideas, the more they hear that agrees with them, the more they will be drawn to those views as endorsements of their existing beliefs and refute or disregard opposing views. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to see people listening to the opposing views and as a result moving towards a middle ground or even a third position that can accept or acknowledge justifications in both opposing sets of views.

The article goes on to talk about some factors that have existed in the past that had a tendency to act towards anti-polarization. However, the writers – Alison Goldsworthy and Julian L Huppart draw conclusions that match my own fears – the forces that are pushing people towards polarized views are stronger than ever, and the forces that might have acted as checks and balances have been so weakened as to render them weak and ineffectual.

People’s exposure to media used to come from a daily newspaper and perhaps a daily TV news broadcast. However, today we are saturated with views from 24-hour news channels that pump up the intensity to maintain viewership, alongside continual debate and exposure through social networking and the sharing culture (exacerbated by algorithms that tend to ensure we see most the material that accords with our existing views). There’s another related factor – in those times there was at least some attempt made by newspapers and TV channels to take a middle line, to avoid providing a platform to extreme polarizing views. These media companies retained a high level of trust and were seen as a genuine source of factually reasonable information. Today, media companies command much less trust and are often seen as peddling the polarizing views of particular interested parties. They make no pretense of impartiality at the time of elections, but push the agenda of their chosen party.

Secondly, in the past, one of the biggest factors that led people away from polarization towards extreme views was balancing, rational and reasonable human interaction, most often with close trusted relatives and friends. Today, many have more interaction with relative strangers online than with close associates in the real world. These interactions often don’t practice the same human niceties and tend towards more rapid and extreme polarization. Once a person takes a stand on an issue, they are more likely to move towards stronger iterations of that viewpoint, with less balancing possible from friends and relatives. In fact, the media has carried many examples of situations regarding Trump in the US or Brexit in UK, where families and friendships have been destroyed through polarized position-taking.

Historically in our democracies, not only were the press and media seen as being an important trusted neutral voice, but so also were judges and figures related to election administration. However, we’ve seen both of these institutions and the trust in them severely undermined in many countries. Politicians have taken steps to gain control over judicial appointments and then paraded to their supporters as a virtue their willingness to appoint judges who will err in favour of their policy wishes and inclinations. In the US we even see a situation with an Attorney General appointed, William Barr who acts in many ways more like a personal defence attorney for the President of the country, even willing to undermine faith in the US CIA and FBI and due legal processes. With regard to elections we’ve seen many cases in countries across the world of blatant gerrymandering, suggestions of corruptible electronic voting proceeses, postal vote frauds and more recently extensive foreign interference in the voting outcomes of national elections. The sad reality is these don’t even all need to be true to serve the purpose of undermining belief in the integrity of the processes and encouraging further polarization of views.

If there were no extremist, polarizing politicians and leaders, people would inevitably listen more to rational middle ground compromising thinkers and influencers. However, this is not how it’s been working. Instead, as the views and opinions of people become more polarized, so politicians ‘follow them’ out to the fringes and seek to make themselves appealing with more strident and extremist messaging. In most countries today, to be a politician who seeks middle ground, compromise, open and transparent debate is all too quickly to be written off as a woolly idealist who isn’t willing to stand up for something.

In terms of such polarization extremes, we have been here before, even within the last 100 years. However, the fears of the writers (that I share) are that the balancing factors that pulled us back from the extremes eventually in the past aren’t present with adequate strength today. So, it increasingly appears that there will need to be something on the level of a catastrophe or disaster maybe on a worldwide scale to poor enough cold water on the extreme polarized influences and bring people back to a point where they’re ready and willing to listen to each other, compromise and unify out of a common interest in our humanity.

In the meantime, I struggle to hold out too much hope for putting the online media genie back in the bottle, getting adequate numbers to engage in thoughtful, non-combative offline debate and discussion or renewing public confidence in impartial and independent judiciary or non-partisan electoral reform.

There is one further factor that we need to add in to the mix – not talked about in the article, but i believe critical. Though we currently by so many measures live in a world that is the best it’s ever been, there have rarely, if ever, been such levels of personal anxiety, stress, depression (record suicide rates) and sensitivity and vulnerability. There has probably never been a generation to live that can be so triggered and emotionally wrecked by the expression of political or social viewpoints that people disagree with. This all contributes to a level of intensity in the situation that is beyond anything seen before.

A final thought – for those of us working in education, we have to be aware that these polarized positions, views and stances will be held by educators we employ and by the young people we teach. They, even less than adults, will fully understand how their views have emerged or how harmful they can be. We need to invest considerable effort in determining the kinds of learning spaces we want – ones where all controversial issues are avoided, shut down or suppressed (out in the open, while triggering, polarizing argument continues online) or places where we teach young people that there are other ways to engage, debate, exchange viewpoints and to break out of the ideas that our identities are wrapped up in the beliefs we sign up for and champion. This will not be easy, because the educators themselves must lead the way.

 

ICT and Children – Extreme Measures

The ICT (Information and Communication Technology – a broader term than simply IT) juggernaut is steamrolling its way through education throughout the world with many schools and whole education systems taking drastic (and very expensive) action on instinct, feeling that they’ve got to be part of the wave, but really not sure of all the implications.

For every movement, you’ll be able to find a counter-movement somewhere. When it comes to ICT, surely this private school in London represents a pretty extreme set of reactions;

Quartz – Article – Banned Technology – In School and Home

I share concerns with many others about what happens to children when they are exposed to ICT so extensively at a very young age and have often written about those issues here on the blog. However, I’m not sure that banning addresses those issues, especially in a world where major companies have been making announcements over just the last month about how they intend to bring “free” internet to millions in the poorest countries of the world (more on that later).

I think the article raises a number of interesting issues:

a) To what extent does a private school (as a commercial provider of a service) have the right to impose strict rules on its ‘customers’ regarding behaviour in their home as well as on the school premises?
b) Would it, in all practical terms, work? Is it even possible?
c) Even if possible, will such a ban serve a worthwhile purpose?
d) What risks are there for a child growing up cut off from the reality of ubiquitous technology?

With regard to point a), I guess some will say that if the parents know what they’ve signed up for, want the education from that school enough and are prepared to make the commitments, then there’s not so much wrong with the school setting down certain expectations about what will go on at home as well as at school. Whilst i’m all in favour of schools that stand for their values and who work to set down some core principles, I believe the way to work with parents is as partners. It is important that educators don’t take the lazy route of giving what parents say they want for their children, but rather take the time to educate and advise parents on what they should want, and why. It’s important that we don’t make the mistake of treating parents like children!

Whilst they’re not necessarily on the same level, couldn’t this be compared to communities that deny children blood transfusions when they’re sick because it goes against their religious beliefs? Whilst as parents, guardians and educators we have a duty of care over children it really isn’t a right of control that goes beyond the needs of society. So, for example in more and more countries the law prevents a parent from using physical forms of punishment with their own child. Could an education approach like this be seen as risking the delivery of only one set of messages, beliefs and views about the world, denying children access to wider and alternative perspectives.

Can a child really get away from the media, TVs and computer screens? How far would you have to go to enforce this kind of policy? For example, restaurants, airports, malls and shops have screens and media. It’s in taxis and buses, on planes and on billboards in the street. Would such children be prevented from having friendships with children of any other schools? Surely, sleepovers and visits to such friends’ homes would be way too much of a temptation? Would we prevent the child from joining a sports team or club because they use video cameras to analyse players’ performances and then watch them back? What about the child’s wider family? No more trips to Grandma’s house because she has a TV?

How will parents live their lives if they’ve signed up to this kind of commitment on behalf of their children? No TV in the house? Never working on a laptop in the evening? Or, sneakily rushing the children off to bed as early as possible, so that they can secretly engage in elicit technology use behind their children’s backs?

Will it just simply lead to blatant dishonesty? Children, potentially lying to their parents and even whole families attempting to hide their infractions from the all seeing, prying eye of ‘Big Brother school? I’ve even seen in India that attempts to impose ‘screen time’ limits or to suggest that there are particular types of programmes a parent doesn’t want their child watching leads to creative underhand behaviour as the child relies on loyal friends to offer them the alternative routes to the alluring, out-of-bounds things they’re being denied. After all that, if directly challenged they have no choice – lie completely! Should parents and educators be creating such situations in which children will almost inevitably be lured in to dishonesty, thereby undermining trust and family bonds? When the evidence of such dishonesty emerges the emotional bank accounts take a real pasting.

There have now been many research articles and commentaries referring to the ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital deficit’ – the shortcomings in learning for children who don’t have access to the internet compared to those who do. Now, I’m the first to admit that this is the excuse for the kind of subterfuge that sees Google, Microsoft and Facebook making out to the world they’re heroes for bringing internet accessibility to poorer countries and communities (while I fear it will actually be a trojan horse for pumping enormous volumes of highly profitable advertising and ‘agenda based’ messages to young and impressionable minds).

nevertheless, are we really going to create situations where there are vast areas of employment opportunities not open to these young people when they grow up? With their lack of exposure to technology and media, will these children grow up to be merely quaint and outdated? Those of us who have become very familiar with all aspects of media, especially online know that there’s a vast array that is inaccurate or at best worthless. There’s the well written and the amateurish, the naive and the thought-provoking, the quality and the ‘chaff’. There’s also the creative, enlightening and sometimes downright dangerous. I believe that young learners today need to be acquiring critical skills about how to decide and discern between all these different messages – the 21st Century skills of Media Literacy. Can a student who is cut off from and denied access to such material learn to engage with it critically?

Then, when it comes to writing, students need to learn difficult but critical skills about how to absorb the ideas of others, build them in to new and original ideas without abusing the rights and ownership of the originator. Plagiarism and ‘passing off’ others’ ideas as one’s own is now a vast problem and challenge – good for the law courts, but ultimately bad for creative and original discourse in any field. This isn’t happening more because children today are less moral, lazy or dishonest. Rather, I believe, it’s happening because as vast amounts of writing become accessible, they struggle to find a path through what exists to reach their own original thoughts. Also, too often, educators are overtly or covertly discouraging original and independent thought causing students to feel it’s safer to simply replicate the thoughts and views of others. Effective use of source materials takes practice, and I’m not sure that children cut off from the online world will get the exposure they need to master those skills.

In the end, I’m left with three big concerns;

Firstly, are these well meaning educators who genuinely believe it is their duty to protect these young people from the perils and evils of mass media exposure? Or, is there a more sinister intention to propagate particular perspectives and world views amongst these children, free from balancing and countervailing voices, views and opinions?

And secondly, if we’re unhappy about the more negative aspects of what children get exposed to in the media, as educators don’t we have a duty towards all children to raise our voice to get the content cleaned up or segregated in ways that are beneficial for all children. Instead, this seems to me like taking a handful of children and enclosing them in an ivory tower.

Finally, there has long been a strong force in the rearing of children, parenting and education that starts from the premise that children cannot be trusted, that they are inherently listless, wilful and if left to make their own choices and decisions will always make the wrong ones. This manifests in the control structures in schools, sticks and carrot approaches to rewards and punishments in parenting advice etc. Here, these educators who might at first seem quite progressive and innovative in going against the tide are actually really being quite traditional and backward in their approach. The starting assumption is that no amount of teaching, guidance or advice about safe surfing, the perils and downsides of excessive screen use etc. will lead children to make good, healthy positive choices and decisions in their lives. Therefore, we (the adults) must impose draconian ‘all or nothing’ controlling regimes until we deem them old enough and fit to make decisions (i.e. they’re not children any more). I would like to have higher aspirations for children and a greater belief in their innate goodness. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but when they do I believe we have to look at how we guided them and how we might do so better, rather than see it as justification for taking all decision making away from them.

Summer Positive

The sun is shining, we have time on our hands and ……………….. yet, how many allow themselves to still be plagued by doubts, fears, worry, anxiety about every little and big thing that might be less than perfect. If we switch on to the mainstream media we would quickly fall in to a depressive funk about all sorts of things and the state of the world?

Now, I’m no Pollyanna and believe we have to acknowledge the challenges in the world and step up to do something about them – this is way more effective than just sitting around complaining, moaning or getting anxious. The reality is, there are phenomenal people in the world who don’t just look at problems and complain, but instead take a positive perspective and set out to right wrongs, find alternative solutions and apply their creativity to finding ways to make a better world.

So, in the spirit of the cool summer vibes, let’s celebrate good things in the world with some of the best resources I’ve come across.

First up – a wonderful article that brings together a big variety of stories where simple, ordinary people did something special for someone else, usually a complete stranger:

Stumbleupon – 33 People Who Prove The World Isn’t Such a Broken Place After All

Next up, Gimundo compiled 16 inspiring websites to enjoy this summer:

Gimundo – 16 Inspiring Websites

Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend that while you’re there, check out the rest of the Gimundo site and sign up for their weekly newsletter which brings a regular dose of good news stories to your inbox.

So, in case all that wasn’t enough, here are two further choices of mine:

Good News Network
A great website that regularly updates some wonderful stories about good things happening in the world – enough to restore even the most jaded faith in the goodness of humanity.

Positive News
This UK based site just achieved a great funding exercise online to bring in readers as stakeholders and to fund their growth and expansion. They have a real mission to change the way news is reported and to reach a point where the news can play a positive and inspiring part in people’s lives.

So, I hope i’ve just made all readers very happy and positive to enjoy the summer. There’s something for everyone here.

And teachers, some great opportunities when the new term starts to craft some age-appropriate lessons around good news/ bad news in the world and to help children to see a more positive perspective on the world they’re growing up in.

Kids and Media

This was an interesting, but very scary article from last week’s India Today about the current trends of children and media.

I wish more parents took these matters seriously. For one thing, it would make life a little easier for those of us parents who do care. There are few things harder to deal with than a child with a sense of injustice because they believe that all the other children are getting access to something that you’re not letting them access.

India Today article

Scary Statistic!!

Within the developed world (which includes the developed bits of the developing world!!), a child, on average, spends approximately 50 hours a year talking alone with his/ her parents and 1,500 hours a year in front of a screen (PC, TV, movies etc.)

And some of us wonder why media material has more impact on them than we do? The other thought that went through my mind was if our interaction with our children is really only 50 hours per year (barely an hour a week!) we had better make sure it’s good interaction! Because, if half of it is nagging, criticizing and battles then we need to be ready for all the consequences.

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