Part 5—In praise of computer editing: Last Sunday’s column by Childress and Childress points to an obvious problem:
Even at the Washington Post, our journalistic elites can no longer function! They can’t reason, analyze, judge or assess. Nor do they seem to want to.
Well sir, the analysts woke us early today with a solution to this problem—and with a new perspective on that remarkable column by the Childress sisters.
(To review the Childress column, see parts 1 qand 2 of this series.)
Intriguing! Atop the front page of today’s New York Times, John Markoff reports an exciting new way to let the nation’s professors get by with even less work.
Why should professors waste their time grading their students’ essays? According to Markoff, the grading of essays can be done by computers now!
Here’s the way today’s report starts. Yes, that is the actual headline, at least in the on-line Times:
MARKOFF (4/5/13): Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a BreakWe’re not sure why the student would be allowed to rewrite his test to improve his grade. But just imagine! Under this system, professors could get to the south of France that much more quickly each year!
Imagine taking a college exam and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program.
And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the system would immediately let you rewrite the test to try to improve your grade.
EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.
Kidding aside, we have no idea how this could possibly work. Can computers really be programmed to judge the content of an essay on some esoteric topic?
We can’t imagine how that could be done. On the other hand, the ongoing failure of our journalistic elite draws attention to a parallel problem:
Increasingly, we humans can’t judge the content of essays or arguments either!
Can computers judge the content of a student essay? Markoff described the way some skeptics have allegedly fooled the machines. According to Markoff, one longtime critic of this type of grading “has drawn national attention several times for putting together nonsense essays that have fooled software grading programs into giving high marks.”
It may well be that this occurred. But what about the nonsense essays which have fooled our professors down through the years? What does this longtime critic have to say about that?
(In his later work, Wittgenstein more or less said that the history of western philosophy was a pile of conceptual nonsense. He didn’t name many names, but he more or less said, for example, that all that stupid shit about shadows on the wall of that cave had been wrong all along!
(Question: If professors hadn’t noticed that, should they be grading those student essays? The computers might bungle the grading too. But at least they could do so quickly.)
Back to Markoff. As he continued, he described a petition from a group of educators who oppose the idea of computer grading.
Among others, Noam Chomsky has signed this petition. At this point, we couldn’t help thinking of the suits who run the Post:
MARKOFF: “Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring,” the group’s statement reads in part. “Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.”Computers can’t measure those qualities? That may be true, of course. But neither can the Washington Post, as the newspaper made quite clear in printing the Childress column.
Has it ever been more clear that our journalistic elites can’t function, even in the most basic ways? That they lack the ability to make the simplest judgments?
Can we talk? Sunday’s column by Childress and Childress resembled one of those “nonsense essays”—the essays which “have fooled software grading programs into giving high marks.” Indeed, the sisters’ reasoning was so bad that their column may have been a similar experiment—an experiment designed to put our journalistic elite to the ultimate test.
It would be hard to compose a column whose basic logic was more bollixed. According to Childress and Childress, “nearly all of the mass shootings in this country in recent years...have been committed by white men and boys.”
It isn’t clear that this claim is true. But as the sisters reasoned from this premise, the experimental nature of their submission may have come shining through.
According to Childress and Childress, white males commit a disproportionate number of mass shootings. For that reason, the sisters said, we shouldn’t pay attention to “an organization led by white men, such as the NRA or the tea party movement,” when it offers its ideas about this societal problem.
This basic notion is so dumb that it betrays the possibility that the column was sent to the Post as a test. Making the test even harder to fail was this howling claim at the end:
CHILDRESS AND CHILDRESS (3/31/13): If Americans ask the right questions on gun issues, we will get the right answers. These answers will encourage white men to examine their role in their own culture and to help other white men and boys become healthier and less violent.If we ask the right questions, we’ll get the right answers? Surely, no one could really think that. Surely, that one last howler was inserted to make this the ultimate test.
If this submission was meant as a test, the Washington Post flunked it badly. It not only published this column, it did so on Easter morning! That said, we haven’t yet mentioned the most noxious part of this submission—the repeated suggestion that members of some so-called racial group are somehow responsible for the crimes which are committed by others in that group.
Needless to say, the history of this line of thinking is unspeakably vile. But Childress and Childress ostentatiously went there—and the Washington Post failed their test.
The Childress column was inane, brainless, ludicrous, vile—and the Washington Post couldn’t tell! Having said that, let’s note one way this column captures the cultural moment.
If we assume that the sisters were serious, they were suggesting that groups like the NRA should be disregarded based on the gender and race of their leaders. This is a remarkable suggestion, in part for the following reason:
In the current pseudo-debate, the NRA is advancing several arguments which make no earthly sense. But Childress and Childress have apparently dropped the idea that we the people know how to function on the basis of logic and reason.
In their experimental column, the sisters assume that we won’t be able to see that these arguments make no sense. As a replacement, they turn to the ugliest old play in their nation’s playbook:
We will reject the NRA’s stance because of the race of its leaders!
How many young men swung from trees because of the thinking these Rappaccinis built into their experiment? Down through the centuries, how many innocent people have been slimed because of this racialist thinking?
(Racialist, not “racist.”)
We’re sorry their “nonsense essay” was published, in part because of the 5000 angry comments it predictably inspired. But its publication does make one point crystal clear:
Our journalistic elite can no longer function! You live in a world with its gatekeepers down—in case you hadn’t noticed.
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