Role of Argument in Sciences, Law, and Social Sciences

20 Aug

The following article has been written by Chaste, who has contributed to this blog before.

I will assume for the purposes of this piece that argument is the dominant form of writing in academia. This is also true of public discourse, but this piece will limit itself to academic writing, and more specifically to writing in the social sciences. If academia aims to produce worthwhile knowledge then the argument is the form that mediates our view of the object studied, and academia is the structure that mediates the production of the specific types of knowledge.

Mediating forms are layers of abstraction that can help understanding. They define a process for understanding that prevents distortion due to visceral or other perceptions. Yet as Adorno warns us, forms of viewing and the structures that regulate those forms can limit our understanding of the object studied. To take a simple instance, researcher-teachers argue a position to get published, and the success of such arguments in staking out and establishing a specific position within the field gets them promoted. Yet we expect researcher-teachers to conduct independent research, and train students to think with an open mind and to acquire comprehensive knowledge in a field. We must be wary lest the form of the argument and the structure of academia advance original/individualistic positions at the expense of responsible scholarship. We must also worry about the lure of political power for academics. Politics desires simple, narrow and sharply defined positions, whether for political posturing or for public programs. Succumbing to this lure can only exacerbate the effects of argument on knowledge.

Nature of Argument and its Role in Academia

I will quickly lay out the nature of the argument as used in academia. The argument typically takes the form of a declared purpose, followed by a description of the theoretical method, which the researcher will use for his analysis. It then applies this method to the selected data to come up with a conclusion that mirrors the declared aim. The primary critique of this form of argument uses a simple piece of reasoning. Applying a theoretical method to a selection of data should always produce the same result and conclusion. Therefore if “reasonable” (sic) minds disagree, this can only be because their aim / conclusion has pre-determined their choice of theoretical method and / or their selection of data.

The primary virtue of argument is its clarity. This is due to two qualities: consistency and discreteness. Yet consistency provides much greater explanatory power when we combine it with complexity than when we use it to support a single point. Argument often achieves discreteness by excluding other perspectives. We can gain greater explanatory power by defining relations between disparate issues perspectives, rather than by limiting them. “Cohere” is useful as it suggests both cohesion and coherence.

The popularity of the argument is doubtless because it mimics similar forms in science and law. Despite its recent success, scientific research is hardly a model of philosophical rigor. Recall the search for the “gay gene,” where scientists confused the biological phenomenon of sexual urge with the likely social phenomenon of sexual attractiveness. Or witness the ongoing fiasco about the continuous upward revision of global warming estimates because scientists had missed such obvious factors as the methane release from a permafrost melt, or missed the systematic differences caused by changes in methods for measuring temperature over the past century. Most scientific research is simple because it deals in the existence of facts. Reporting the properties of an element at 1000c has much scientific value. On the other hand, reporting my thoughts at any given moment has little value even though it may be an appropriate object of study for psychology or political science. Most scientific research does not involve speculative selection and aggregation of data. When it does, as in astronomy, public health, and climatology, its conclusions are no more reliable than those in the social sciences. “Speculative” is crucial when dealing with a seemingly infinite number of variables and infinite data. It underlines the necessity of an a priori judgment when faced with infinite variables and data. The analysis then turns into a test of the speculative judgment. It is at this point that ethics become crucial in such research. The researcher can choose his theoretical methods and select his data to prejudge the outcome in favor of the a priori judgment. Alternatively, the researcher can choose to be ethical. He could either come up with a new hypothesis and test it, or he could simply state the conclusion supported by the most appropriate selection of data and choice of methods.

The argument also mimics the dominant form used by law. However, the legal context is also quite different from that in social science research. It is true that lawyers select and even slant the data. However, the data is very limited. Again, the lawyer has no choice in the theoretical methods. Every legal point in dispute has a clearly established set of legal elements, which the lawyer must prove. It is this systematic exhaustion of every relevant legal element that makes legal briefs both thorough and thoroughly tedious. In academic arguments, exhaustive lists of theoretical methods are not possible. The infinite data and variables provide infinite scope for cherry picking: the only criterion is that the method or data support the argument. Cross-disciplinary studies exacerbate these dangers. They make it easier to ignore any agreement in a discipline about the criteria for selecting relevant data, or about the best methods to analyze a particular type o data. In this instance, the proliferation of theoretical methods simply provides even more tools to derive a conclusion of one’s choosing. An extreme case of this phenomenon is that of the cross disciplinary case study, which narrows the selection of data to a single instance, providing fertile ground for any conclusion whatever.

I do not suggest that such lax cross-disciplinary studies or case studies do not have any value. Their value is that of interpretive works, and is similar to the value of literary works. Literary works sometimes reveal networks of meaning that cannot b openly discussed in their time. Cross-disciplinary case studies can straddle the boundary between what can and cannot be viably discussed in academia. As such, they can provoke thought and provide insights and skeletal structure for further analysis. An excellent work of this kind is Patricia Williams’ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” which weaves together insightful arguments and moving, thought-provoking life experiences on various issues.

Another critical difference is that the law uses argument within an adversarial context. There is no counterpart in academic writing wherein a counter-argument immediately follows the argument. In this sense, an academic piece resembles an ex parte hearing in which the lawyer is required to disclose all facts favorable to the absent opponent. No such requirement exists in academic writing.

When used in the unsuitable academic context, the primary disadvantage of an argument is that it induces a loss of perspective by giving disproportionate emphasis to the position argued for. To a reader without extensive knowledge of the field, it is not possible to infer anything about the validity or worth of any claims. Unless the argument is part of a conversation, the only appropriate response is skepticism and a reserving of judgment. Judged by the credibility of its claims, the argument becomes worthless except as a data point in a survey or as part of a meta-reading.

Reforming the Argument

I will briefly examine a few alternatives to the argument as typically practiced. The first option is to abandon the argument in favor of a meditation that densely weaves together patterns of related insights. Meditation need not imply any loss of evidentiary or logical rigor, merely a flexible structure. The form of the meditation has several advantages. It dramatically reduces the problem of disproportionate emphasis on the one position. The substantive part of most arguments is less than 20% of their length. The rest is low value elaboration masquerading as thoroughness. The more flexible structure of the meditation will encourage authors to replace the low value elaboration with related information / insights. The weaving of patterns will become a pedagogical exercise, which will train the reader to map and relate the data in the field.

Meditation may be the ideal form; its practice is very likely to be something else. Authors will be tempted to spawn patchworks of recycled insights. This will make the editor’s job both time consuming and difficult.

Another solution involves a minor modification of the form of the argument. Editors can insist that the articles be self-aware: that they demonstrate how different conclusions can be drawn with different selections of data or variables, and different choices of theoretical methods. This is the least resource-intensive of my three solutions. However, it runs the risk that the author will demonstrate only those alternatives that support rather than undermine his conclusion.

The most pragmatic solution is to have peer-reviewed publications. Unfortunately, most “peer reviewed” journals are a misnomer since they are only peer approved. The journals should publish the peer reviews, and allow the author to respond to the reviews. The reviews themselves should be an engagement with the material, and not merely indicate the quality of the piece. The editors must choose reviewers from different methodological expertise and disciplinary backgrounds (where that is appropriate). This will deter the author from making expedient selections of data and of theoretical methods and traditions. It will also give the reader an adequate perspective on the author’s argument. The interactive nature of the reviews and response will have pedagogical value not only for the reader but also for the author and the reviewers. It will enable the author and reviewers to possibly expand on the conversation outside the journal, and provide networking-related scholarly and career benefits. The article will come with a relatively objective assessment of its worth, which will help both readers and anyone else who may be interested in evaluating the work of the author. The editors should keep the approval process separate from the review process, and keep the submissions to reviewers anonymous. The editors should take care that the reviews not mimic the journalistic practice of seeking input from hacks representing stereotypes of established positions. However, this is achieved relatively easily in academia.

Peer review is reduced to peer approval in the sciences because unlike the social sciences, scientific research often deals in results rather than conclusions, and because the researcher is the only person with direct access to the results. Therefore, peers in sciences are largely concerned with fraudulent claims of results rather than with the validity of conclusions. In social sciences, the data is often public, and the value of the article lies primarily in the validity of the conclusions. Peer review will help determine this validity. It will also encourage responsible scholarship from authors. Not only will every article have to survive a more rigorous engagement; this engagement will be invigorating for all. Above all, it is achievable in practice because it does not impose unacceptable burdens on editors.

Vague apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policy makers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

The Problem in Immigration Reform?

9 Jul

The following article has been written by Chaste, an astute commentator who has written for Spincycle before.

Note: The author has used the phrase, “illegal workers” only when the illegality is specifically implicated. Elsewhere, he has used the phrase “foreign workers.”

Discussions about immigration reform have acquired a feverish intensity. Not only is there a pervasive sense of the intractability of the problem, there are wildly differing accounts of the nature and extent of the problem. These are tell-tale signs that the problem is probably overstated, and that there is a simple and straightforward solution — that the problem lies in the public’s attitude to foreign workers and immigration (read race-class nexus in substantial part). Here below, I will try to show that this conjecture is largely true.

Reliable data about the effect of illegal workers on the economy is hard to come by, in part because of basic disagreements about which factors to measure. Therefore, I will rely on analytical reasoning. On its face, the contention that immigrants who come to America in search of work are a burden on the economy seems absurd. The economy supports most native workers through their parasitic (from the economic point of view) phases of childhood and early youth. Americans for instance, consume close to $100,000 in school funding alone by the end of their high school. It is inconceivable that the average foreign worker could consume public services on a scale even remotely close to that. The economy gets a free lunch from foreign workers because it gets the benefit of their productive years without ever supporting them in their parasitic / dependent phase. This is a minor variation on what we know as the “brain drain.” That it goes largely unacknowledged points out the close ties between class and worth in this society.

Other popular arguments such as the burden on public schools also strain credulity. It is unclear that a child who may be here through no choice of its own should be lumped together in the same categories as illegal immigrant workers. In any case, since most of these children will grow up to be Americans, the rational approach to measuring their impact on the economy is within the trajectory of their own lives. Some even lament the supposedly downward pressure on wages. Yet wage levels are not determined merely by the market internals of demand and supply. External checks in forms like foreign competition are significant. The assessments of regulatory agencies like the Federal Reserve regarding the optimal wage pressures in a labor market are particularly important.

The proposed solutions are equally mired in unreal contentions and assumptions. Despite the clamor for walls and tighter border security, there is no evidence that migration patterns are responsive to anything other than economic opportunities for foreign workers. Programs that allow employers to check the immigration status of their employees voluntarily have produced no results. Massive state action in the form of imprisonment against employers, or deportation / imprisonment against foreigners who have been in this country for many years, is probably too controversial to be viable.

For the record, I will quickly lay out the simplest solution, one that is obvious to anyone who has given the issue any serious thought. The solution makes the following basic assumptions:

  • The government has an interest in having a stable and competitive labor market. It has the right to use immigration as a tool to address market distortions caused by structural problems (health and legal sectors are dramatically over-compensated relative to other sectors), or by cultural stigma (specific types of casual labor do not attract American workers at a pay rate appropriate to the relative lack of required skills). The government can achieve this with minor modifications to the concept of “prevailing wage rate.” The government currently uses the “prevailing wage rate” to protect American skilled workers from wage cuts due to immigration.
  • To the extent that American workers maybe disadvantaged by immigration, this is largely a function of the disparity in rights between citizens and foreign workers. The obvious solution would involve not depriving foreign workers of rights, but rather drowning them in rights. It is important here to distinguish between rights and entitlements: rights simply give privileges within a transaction such as employment without any guarantees that the transaction (employment) will actually happen whereas an entitlement guaranties that the transaction will happen. Currently, the government protects victims of sexual trafficking, and it can similarly protect foreign workers when employers violate their rights (henceforth “violating employers”). Indeed the government should allow the foreign workers to recover substantial financial damages from violating employers.
  • The government should use market incentives rather than administrative regulation because it will enable more effective implementation. As mentioned above imposing greater burdens on illegal workers is unhelpful because it is their very lack of rights that makes them attractive employees. Besides, with no rights, even deportation has failed as a deterrent. Imprisonment of violating employers will likely be politically controversial. Very stiff fines against violating employers will target a group, which is particularly sensitive to such incentives, and will have an increased chance of political viability.
  • The government should avoid controversy and increase efficiency by delegating implementation to private enterprise. American lawyers have proved themselves gods of enterprise by defying even the most basic laws of economics like the price supply curve: even as the country is drowning in lawyers, they continue to rake in enormous incomes. The government should allow private civil actions in court in which lawyers for successful foreign workers can recover lawyer’s fees from violating employers and get a percentage of the recovered damages.

The broad outline of a solution is clear. The government should determine the minimum wage rate for different professions based on the needs of the economy. Thus, the minimum wage rate can be lower than the prevailing wage rate in over-compensated professions so that those sectors do not become a drag on the economy. Conversely, the minimum wage rate can be higher than the prevailing wage rate for lower skill jobs because the low prevailing wages are often possible only because of indirect government subsidies in the form of social services. The foreign workers should have the right and incentive to sue violating employers. If successful, the foreign workers should get a permanent right to stay, should get their lawyer’s fees paid by their violating employer, and be able to recover substantial damages from violating employers (between $50,000 and $100,000). The prospect of 40% of $50,000 – $100,000 in addition to lawyer fees will motivate lawyers to pursue violating employers aggressively. Once these measures ensure enforcement, the government can throw open employment opportunities to foreigners, and increase labor supply in over-compensated and culturally stigmatized sectors. The minimum wage rate and the threat of legal action will make employers wary of hiring foreign workers in other sectors except in special circumstances.

This simple solution is obvious to anyone who has given the matter serious thought, or to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the legal sector. Yet mainstream media never mentions it. The public eschews practical solutions in favor of posturing in part because as discussed above the alleged problems likely do not exist. The idea that foreign workers should have the rights to sue American employers is anathema to American conservatives. They are unlikely to accept the idea to resolve fictitious problems. Liberals do not see immigration as much of a problem, and are content with the status quo. Americans would dearly love to have the jobs themselves, and have the work done by foreigners, all without the inconvenience of having the foreigners in their midst. Failing this, they have settled for the perks of cheap labor, the comforting disparity in the rights enjoyed by themselves and the largely non-white foreign workers, and the self-indulgence of a self-righteous hysteria centered on law and legitimacy.

What is so foreign about foreign aid?

18 Nov

A khaki clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many a times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
Rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsibly for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission sates, “The nation’s fastest growing sector needs administrators, policy makers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future”” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbour with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”

A response to Sherry Turkle

16 Nov

Chaste, who has contributed earlier to the site, critiques an article by the reigning doyenne of Science, Technology and Society, Sherry Turkle.

Her article:

Chaste’s response –

My main issue is that it is a sloppily done article. A thorough piece generally bases itself on a careful theoretical apparatus or produces such solid evidence that most of its claims are very difficult to argue against. This author simply strings together a bunch of speculations, at least 70% of which have at least equally convincing arguments against them. I simply do not see the point of such pieces, for they are little better than chat-like aggregation of ideas. And her efforts at an MIT-based incestuous self-aggrandizement do little for the credibility of her analysis.

Here are just a few examples to show how very thorough she is in her sloppiness. She talks about the possibility of exploring alternative personas in cyberspace, and how this represents a very different possibility of self-exploration than anything that went before. But isn’t she led to such conclusions by assuming as given that the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is more analogous to “reality” than to fantasy as “virtual” would suggest? Thus, couldn’t a man in his fantasy life in decades and centuries past explore alternative personas based on the films he watched from day to day or the gossip stories he read in newspapers or heard from neighbors? Or take her example of the effect of HCI affection in the shaping of emotions. None of her examples go beyond children aged 10: a time at which they have barely outgrown belief in the tooth-fairy. Unless she can give substantial evidence of emotions in adult lives, why should we distinguish HCI from the countless other things that children set store by? And when she does venture into adult HCI, her ineptness is only laughable. She talks of a man who chooses a female persona as a convenient outlet for his assertiveness. First, the man’s responses are reactive rather than exploration-oriented; second, his choice of a female persona appears to be dictated by little more than convenience. Only in an age of post-modernist sloppiness can the choice of a convenient medium be confused with meaningful self-exploration. And I do not need to tell you that avatars are not aspects or sub-personalities of Hindu gods, but are their incarnations: the latter is a discrete entity at a point in time throughout all space.

And now to the couple of things in this essay that actually sparked my interest. First of course is the definition of what it is to be human, and why I find it rather absurd that humans would ever accord machines a similar status. At one time, I had toyed with the idea that what gives human beings their uniqueness is an arbitrariness induced by biochemical arbitrariness in their responses to various stimuli. But frankly all that is pointless palaver. No one has ever seriously taken any definition of humanity based on objective ideas like intelligence. All those crappy definitions of race were largely based in politics and economics, and what support they got from neutral academics was largely based on those academics being at their wits end to produce a logical rebuttal. What people perceive as most worthy about themselves is inevitably what has always driven their definition of what is human. Thus, there were very few serious Christians who ever subscribed to the racial hierarchies of 19th century race science, precisely because they saw in non-white people the same capacity for Christian redemption that they most valued in themselves. What people regard as valuable can of course change. But let me glance at some of the odds stacked against machine creations. I will stat by assuming a sophisticated persona that is not programmed with a limited set of instructions but is constantly changing itself based on selective crawling of web data. As such it would be a store-house of information and insights on any topic including the manners of various subgroups of our times that a human could only dream of. Given current IP laws, digitally generated personas cannot be owned by the owner of the persona generator. Besides, such persona generators are unlikely to be monopolies. Hence the personas will lack that most important value in human eyes, namely, market value. They will be infinitely reproducible. It is also impossible to conceive of personas as serious stakeholders which could accrue value for themselves through participation in the market and in social spaces. Who would allow a persona a serious stake in anything when that demand for a stake could simply be disposed of with a mouse-click? It is difficult to see why personas should be much more effective than the characters in Shakespeare or in Emily Bronte. Claiming this would be succumbing to the seduction by the latest medium: no different from claims by conservatives about the effect of media violence based on an assumed confusion between reality and screen by the audience.

The other point that interested me pertains to the possible psycho-pharmacological uses of such personas. I think she is trying to make the point seem more important than it is by using some trendy term like “psycho-pharmacological.” The fact that she talks about them primarily in relation to children and the elderly points out the less glamorous spin on it, namely, that they are more effective toys at killing time and keeping unproductive people occupied at low cost. She could have pointed out (which she does not) that intelligent personas could be used as effective and cheap socializing tools both for children and for entrants into a new culture. But doubtless that sounds less sexy.