Social Media and Section 230

A couple of useful links for those following these issues:

From Eugene Volokh, a detailed legal analysis of the proper interpretation of Section 230.  Haven’t read it yet, but I plan to soon.

Vivek Ramaswamy, in the WSJ, offers a favorable view of Trump’s lawsuit against search and social media companies.  Excerpts and commentary at Stuart Schneiderman’s blog.

There are few if any issues more important than the problem of oligopolistic control over information flow.

Koonin Offers a Check on “The Science”

I ordered Steven Koonin’s Unsettled? more out of perversity than honest curiosity. It was a vote for a skeptic, for a man labelled a “denier” and thus worthy of canceling. I was wrong on several counts: it is holding on Amazon with a fairly high rating, and, I was able to get something out of it. He clearly wants to reach people like me, bewildered by charts and graphs. The tables are there, but his style and analogies accessible. (Which means it is dumbed down, but I appreciate his desire for a larger audience.) He has some of the commonsense of Lomborg: practical, prioritizing what is certain, seldom emphasizing the “wrong” and more often the imprecise, the unknown. Some reviewers found him full of himself, but his voice is that of a close reader, looking at the body of reports, comparing assertions and data with the summaries and interpretations. I assume his readings are honest and he is a good physicist but what do I know.

What struck me were the assumptions of a method he promotes, one other disciplines use and he sees as appropriate. In Chapter 11, “Fixing the Broken Science,” he suggests major reports on climate would benefit from being “Red Teamed.” The “Red Team” critiques it, “trying to identify and evaluate its weak spots,” “a qualified adversarial group would be asked ‘What’s wrong with this argument?’” Then the authors, the “Blue Team” rebuts, seeking more information, firming up arguments, gaining precision. He looks at examples where a report’s data did not support the conclusions or summaries (sometimes leading to popular articles with further overstatements). Perhaps the authors had more data, perhaps the summaries were written by those holding too strong an opinion to let the results stand on their own. Perhaps. . . But, of course, if conclusions don’t match research, that’s important.

Traditionally, peer review even in the humanities is designed to note such problems, but these have been less and less rigorous as more subjective definitions of “truth” evolve (or perhaps of careerism). More importantly, “The Science” (climate consensus) is not limited to the ivory tower; it influences awards of positions, grants, research. And, it affects policy. Seeing “The Science” as “settled” tempts those doing “science.”

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Revolutionary Virginia’s Law and Lawyers

My middle daughter gave me “Murder in the Shenandoah: Making Law Sovereign in Revolutionary Virginia”, for Christmas. I was touched she thought I’d read a book from Cambridge’s Studies in Legal History; in fact, once I’d started found she was quite right. Her friend, Jessica Lowe, was trained in law but found legal history sufficiently beguiling to finish her doctorate with this dissertation. Full of footnotes, it is also rich with observations on law and human nature, clothed in a lovely style, that proves entertaining to even an uninformed reader.

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Back Stories and Suicides

Today, a friend complained of the death of a young man in Portland, of the heart rending interview of his father on Hannity. Some deaths are memorialized, mourned and others disappear from the headlines. Deaths in gang shootings in Chicago of toddlers are given less attention than those of victims of drug overdose in police custody. Not surprisingly, ceremonial ritual respect is given to a police officer killed in defense of the capitol, while the family of a young veteran, a woman whose business was destroyed by the covid lock down, is not. One an “insurrectionist”, the other a defender. Antigone might understand the distinction, if lamenting it. Creon certainly would. Another woman is trampled. Medical emergencies happen. Chaos.

Later, suicides. Of those we speak softly, negation of life hard for strangers and even harder for families. I knew a mother who spent years denying her son was dead – long after she had buried him.

For three suicides following the 6th, we ask, as we always do of these, why? We wonder about a back story? Would it help us understand the fences about the capitol, the vitriol of the impeachment?

One was a rioter, a middle aged man, an officer in a bank, who had been charged by the police. Given the “everyone is an insurrectionist” rhetoric, being charged would make life difficult and being convicted? The proportions of why and what he did – and why and what was said, was charged – were important to him and might well be to us.

Then, the two suicides of defenders, one of a Capitol policeman and the other in the Washington force. They had their reasons – but are they ones we need to understand as citizens or only as sympathizers? Policemen are often of an honor culture who feel keenly their responsibility to protect. A friend posited another reason: resignations and firings are likely (though responsibility for inadequate preparation does not appeared to be the fault of the police but rather of politicians – seldom members of an honor culture). My friend observed that when the airline for whom her husband had piloted for decades went into bankruptcy (along with their pension fund), several pilots committed suicide. Middle aged, they were unlikely to find work of the same kind and pay; they had (according to the financial planner who served the group) chosen to leave their families in a stronger financial place than the coming bankruptcy would. The planner’s responsibility was to ensure those wishes were fulfilled. (She clearly was glad her husband had not chosen that path although 15 years later they have not yet received the appropriate pension.) Protecting family, protecting reputation – those are motives. Most suicides are prompted (if partially) by clinical depression. Back stories can be sad, but need not be, really, our business. But, given the political machinations before and after that day, the back stories might be telling.

This isn’t much of a post – I hope the comments are more substantive than it is.

Some newsy discussions:
For one, such responsibility was inherited – see CNN for what it is worth.
And Politico gives both officer’s names.
NBC gives details.

2/8 – Adding links
Another on him
The Financial Planner gives more information about Georgia’s employment; apparently he’d spent decades in finance and the order was because he had not “dispersed” when asked to by police. The difference between these arrests and those 4 years ago that protested Trump’s inauguration are telling and are not so much apples and oranges as some contend.

A Point About Amy Coney Barrett

…which I haven’t seen much discussed:  Her education was an undergraduate degree at Rhodes College (English literature, French), followed by a law degree (Juris Doctor) from Notre Dame.

What’s so unusual about that, you ask?  Just this:  every single current Justice has a law degree from Harvard or Yale.  Ginsburg started at Harvard Law, but transferred to Columbia.  Scallia also went to HLS.   So, if ACB is confirmed, she will become the first recent Justice who did not graduate from, or even attend, the apparently-sacred duo of Harvard and Yale.

Does it matter that the Supreme Court has been so completely dominated by graduates of two universities?  Here’s something Peter Drucker (himself of European origins) wrote back in 1969:

It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A and M is an engineer and not a draftsman. Yet this is the flexibility that Europe needs in order to overcome the brain drain and to close the technology gap…the European who knows himself competent because he is not accepted as such–because he is not an “Oxbridge” man or because he did not graduate from one of the Grandes Ecoles and become an Inspecteur de Finance in the government service–will continue to emigrate where he will be used according to what he can do rather than according to what he has not done.


The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim.

The US has come a lot closer to accepting such a claim on the part of HLS than it had when Drucker wrote the above.  Admissions officers at Ivy League schools have been allowed by our society to effectively claim way too much discretionary power over the filling of key roles throughout government and elsewhere.  The way in which this discretionary power has been too often exercised can be glimpsed in the analysis showing that Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected.  (Academic bureaucrats rating people on courage?)

Questions might also be asked about the internal academic cultures within universities to which so much power has been given: for example, a recent FIRE survey of free speech on campus found that 37% of Ivy League students say that shouting down a speaker is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable, compared to 26% of students not enrolled at Ivy League colleges.  And almost 1 in 5 Ivy League students find it “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to block other students from entering a campus event, compared to roughly 1 in 10 of non-Ivy students.  Way too much repressive thinking on American campuses these days; even worse at the Ivy League, evidently, than elsewhere.

I haven’t heard any publicly-stated objections to ACB’s non-Ivy background, and I certainly don’t think it’s a primary factor in the objections to her nomination, but I do wonder if it is influencing some individuals behind the scenes.

More importantly, though, this possible exception to what would otherwise be the Harvard-and-Yale-only rule for Justices points out just how much power these universities have garnered to themselves and to their selected graduates.