Lords’ Degrees

This post is a sequel to a previous post on MPs’ degrees

In June, Subtle Engine posted a chart that showed which subject areas were studied by a sample of MPs while at university. A few people suggested that it would also be interesting to see what fields of knowledge the Lords were most comfortable with. So here we go…

TL;DR – Like MPs, members of the Lords primarily studied degrees in arts rather than science or technology subject areas. About 17% of Lords studied STEM subjects (more than MPs’ 13%).

Data collected by a script that looks up each Lord’s Wikipedia entry (click for full size image)

As with MPs, data on Lords’ degrees isn’t published. The approach used in this post (and the previous) is to use an automatic script that looks up Lords’ entries in Wikipedia, and searches for phrases that mention HE qualifications, e.g. “gained a first in…” or “graduated in…”.

Using a list of 858 current Members of the Lords (from They Work For You), the script found Wikipedia entries for at least 636 Lords. Of the 636 entries it was possible to find references to and categorise 260 Lords’ degrees (about 30% of the House) into subject areas.

The four most common subject areas (accounting for 75% of the sample) were identical to those of MPs – Social studies, Law, Historical & philosophical studies and Languages. Again, as with the MPs, there was a fairly rapid drop to the less popular subjects.

About 17% of the sample studied subject areas generally thought of as STEM; slightly higher than the sample of MPs, of which 13% studied STEM subjects. The most popular STEM subject area was physical sciences, followed by Medicine & dentistry and Mathematical sciences.

Comparing the Lords’ subject areas to those of the population of students at UK universities in 2012/13 shows the bias towards Social studies, Law and Historical and philosophical studies – and away from others, such as Creative arts and design, or Biological sciences:

Lords’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Lords’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students (click for full size image)

As with the previous blog post on MPs’ degrees, the point of this post isn’t that non-STEM degrees aren’t valuable, but that there is a noticeable lack of representatives in the Lords who have studied science and technology subjects at university.

At the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, there’s no better illustration of the need for Lords who are informed of technology than the recent story of Lady O’Cathain (whose Wikipedia article doesn’t mention her degree) and her horror at the discovery of Google Maps:

I was horrified the other day when I was giving a certain website to look at. I could see the roses in my garden. It was on a Google map or something, and I have no idea how it was taken.

Lady O’Cathain joined a new committee called Digital Skills, appointed in June to “examine what [rapidly changing technology] means for the labour market”. Perhaps the Lords should start with themselves?

Note on the script and sample

It’s slightly harder to automatically look up Lords than MPs on Wikipedia, as the URLs of their articles are more colourful. It’s generally easy for a script to find an MP’s Wiki page by concatenating their first and last name (sometimes appending _(politician)):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Cameron

(Hereditary) Lords are referred to by their title, like The Marquess of Salisbury, but searching for this on Wikipedia results in the page for the title rather than the current holder of that title (searching for the bishops results in a similar issue):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquess_of_Salisbury

What we want for our purpose is to find the incumbent’s page, but there’s no consistent way of linking from the title’s page to the current holder (some pages do, and some pages don’t). Here’s the page we actually want for the Marquess of Salisbury:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gascoyne-Cecil,_7th_Marquess_of_Salisbury

This is by way of an aside, but is mentioned to show that the initial sample of 636 Lords is probably biased towards life peers (who, like MPs, have less ambiguous Wikipedia URLs) and away from hereditary peers and the lords spiritual.

As with the previous post, these charts will not be perfectly accurate, but should show the broad trend fairly reliably. They depend on correct Wikipedia entries as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas.

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Why Technology Isn’t Just Applied Science

Image from the British Library's collection on Flickr

Image from the British Library’s collection on Flickr

Do you love the nuances of a subtle definition, or do technicalities often strike you as trifling details? In case it’s the latter, please bear with this post, as defining what is (and isn’t) meant by technology is important for the early stages of a blog about tech and people!

Anyway, here’s Chambers’ (21st C) attempt as an opening example:

technology noun (technologies) 1 the practical use of scientific knowledge in industry and everyday life. 2 practical sciences as a group. 3 the technical skills and achievements of a particular time in history, of civilization or a group of people.

Chambers’ broad definition is typical of other sources. Is technology the application of science; an activity or practice; a specific branch of knowledge; the study of certain techniques; or something else? Is it one or more – or even all of – the above?

In The Nature of Technology, economist W Brian Arthur describes such definitions as “badly fused together and possibly even contradictory”. He offers a definition that seems thoughtful and precise, as well as representing the word’s common usage.

There are three parts to his definition:

1. Technology is always a “means to fulfill a human purpose”.

As a means, a technology might be a device (like an engine), or a process (filtration), or a method (like an algorithm). It might be complicated (like artificial intelligence) or simple (like a pulley), it could be something you could touch, or something intangible.

2. Technology is an “assemblage of practices and components”.

Some technologies (e.g. biotech or electronics) are also assemblies of other technologies. Later in the book. Arthur writes at some length about the recursive structure of technologies, each comprising assemblies or components which are technologies in their own right.

3. Technology is the “entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture”.

This is the collective meaning of technology, used when we talk about technology as ‘the solution for climate change’, or as the reason for ‘the pace of modern life’, for example. Arthur notes it’s the same idea that technologist Kevin Kelly refers to with his term the technium.

Arthur’s book is well worth reading for more on technology, not so much on the opportunities or risks of new tech, but on what technology actually is. He aims to set out what he thinks is missing: a theory – or “-ology” – of technology.

Let’s end with the common idea that technology is simply the application of science. Arthur thinks it’s more complicated – powered flight emerged with no need for science, and it’s only since the mid 1800s that tech has borrowed scientific knowledge.

Modern technology does use scientific ideas, but so does science rely on technology. The telescope enabled modern astronomy as much as Copernicus, and Watson and Crick (and Franklin) relied on X-ray diffraction methods to discover the structure of DNA.

The reality, Arthur argues, is that science is deeply woven into technology, as technology is into science.

Automatic for the People

Futurama's Bender, borrowed from hollywoodhatesme.wordpress.com

Futurama’s Bender, adapted from hollywoodhatesme.wordpress.com

In July 2014, the BBC, Guardian, FT and Wired covered a document that the Guardian described as “the UK’s first official robotics strategy”. But that makes it sound more official than it really is.

It’s been written – not by BIS or any other government department – but by members of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group (RAS SIG) of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

There were 19 members of the RAS SIG who contributed: 3 academics (inc. one co-chair), 2 from EPSRC, 2 from Knowledge Transfer Networks – and 12 from the private sector (inc. the other co-chair).

Read this then, as a fairly apolitical piece of advice to government from industry.

The report suggests that AUVs could roam Loch Linnhe, and driverless cars through the roundabouts of Milton Keynes. That Sellafield and Boulby Mine would make great testing grounds.

It’s heavy on the skills, networks, partnerships and assets that could help the UK capture a bigger slice of the robot economy. It’s light to non-existent on what you might call ‘thought leadership’ of robots.

As automation becomes more prevalent, there are big implications for the workers of the future economy. Where technology once replaced brawn, future software might easily replace brain.

Don’t expect issues like these to be thoughtfully explored in the RAS SIG’s document. On page 8 the authors briefly acknowledge there could be pros and cons to robotics and autonomous tech:

Whilst [Robotics and Autonomous Systems are] a positive development, RAS technologies will raise concerns – some legitimate, some very far-fetched. Of course, films and novels have explored some of these issues, and there is potential for RAS technology to be used for both good and bad.

They also mention “There will be many reasonable and appropriate questions for public debate”. But ultimately, they see their role as campaigning for these technologies:

People often find it difficult to envisage the potential uses of robots until they are presented with specific examples, such as improved prosthetic hands, or on demand parcel delivery. Greater awareness of the multiplicity of roles RAS are capable of performing can therefore lead to an increase in support from the general public.

This is all fine, so long as it’s understood that this is the work of an industry group who are enthusiastic about the potential for the technologies they develop and want others to agree with them.

The net economic benefits to the UK’s economy might well be very significant. The Telegraph report the global market could be $70bn each year by 2025. Nothing wrong with that, either.

What is the problem then? It’s the lack of debate, understanding and preparation for the downside of automation. Stian Westlake writes in his introduction to NESTA’s recent pamphlet on robots:

It is hard for governments – or indeed for anyone – to accurately diagnose whether an innovation is sufficiently bad to ban. But politicians should encourage an open and informed debate about it, backed up with the capability to regulate effectively if necessary, and approach that researchers like Richard Owen and Jack Stilgoe have called ‘responsible innovation’.

The risks of automation aren’t unlikely or small, nor are the implications relevant only to the far future. On same day that the RAS SIG’s strategy was published, David Willetts was expected to say:

Robots have often been positioned as a thing of the future, but today’s strategy-launch emphasises the fact that they are very much of the here and now.

Technology moves oh, so quickly. Much faster than policy. Informed public debates and good public strategy on robots (and other technologies) matter. Can we have some, please?

Falling for It

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Who decides whether technological modifications to a person are an enhancement or not? Theologian Ronald Cole-Turner asks this question in his introduction to Transhumanism and Transcendence.

The modification might be medicine that makes you smarter, an implant that gives you a ‘new’ memory, or perhaps a physical prosthetic that allows you to control devices with your brain.

Secular approaches to bioethics, he explains, inevitably end with the subject of the change deciding for themselves whether the modification is an improvement or not.

This leads Cole-Turner towards an interesting question:

What are we to think if, after the technological enhancement, there is a change of mind – literally? Before the modification, the person completely understands and truly believes that the change is an enhancement. After the modification, the person completely understands and believes that it is not an enhancement, not because anything went wrong but because the enhancement worked and the moral core of the person has been changed. In such case, is the change an enhancement?

The thought experiment is a reminder of a much older story:

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The serpent convinces Eve to be disobedient by convincing her of the fruit’s enabling power. Eve quickly realises that though the serpent told the truth, the ‘enhancement’ was a trap:

“The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

And according to the Christian story, the consequences are realised by Eve, humanity – and ultimately by God – at incalculable cost.

Technology is Neutral

Martin Heidegger wrote the following introductory lines to establish the scope and approach of his 1954 essay The Question Concerning Technology:

We shall be questioning con­cerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology …

Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that That which pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees.
Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means any­ thing technological. Thus we shall never experience our relation­ ship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it.

What struck me most was the next paragraph:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as some­ thing neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we par­ticularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

The concept of neutral technology (it’s what you do with it that counts) is surely as prevalent today as it was when Heidegger wrote – at least among those who develop tech.

MPs’ Degrees: What Do They Know?

September 2017: The below post relates to MPs elected in 2010. If you’re interested in more up-to-date data, see some of the sources in this Twitter thread (click on the tweet to see the rest in the thread):


An earlier post quoted Carl Sagan, who was convinced that not enough people really understand science and technology: “a prescription for disaster”, he said. So what fields of knowledge are our national decision-makers most comfortable in?

There’s been plenty of media noise in recent years about ‘professional politicians’ and more recently about Labour’s choice of candidates, as well as the occasional FoI request to government departments to find out what qualifications ministers have.

But information on MPs’ qualifications doesn’t seem to be readily available… Until now perhaps! The data in the chart below was collected by a script which looks up the Wikipedia entry for each MP, searches for mention of their degree, and if found, categorises it:

Cap

Data collected by a script that looks up each MP’s Wikipedia entry

Of 650 MPs in the 2010-2015 parliament, the script found data on the degrees of 374 MPs, about 58% of the total. The other 276 may not be graduates, or their Wikipedia entry may not mention it, or be specific enough to categorise (some entries refer to a BSc or BA).

Of the sample, the most common subject area (using HESA’s subject areas) was social studies, which includes geography, economics etc. Following a sharp drop, the next category was law, and historical and philosophical studies, before another fall to languages.

The most common STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths) subject area (based on this definition) was physical sciences (14 MPs in the sample qualified in chemistry, physics etc.). 8 MPs had degrees in maths, 6 in engineering & technology and 2 in computer sciences.

Is the high proportion of social studies graduates in parliament actually unusual, or does it simply reflect the popularity of those subjects? This chart compares the distribution of MPs across subject areas with full-time students at UK universities in 2012/13:

Cap

MPs’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Of the three biggest parties; 11.3% of Conservative MPs, 11.9% of Labour MPs and 23.7% of Liberal Democrat MPs in the sample studied STEM subjects. However, taking sample sizes into account, the Lib Dems’ lead on STEM isn’t statistically significant.

About 32 MPs (9% of the sample) studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. A recent BBC article about PPE in Westminster quoted graduate and columnist Nick Cohen talking about his subject’s penetration in government:

[PPE is] a degree for generalists, and British society has always loved generalists … But I think we’d certainly benefit from more scientists and engineers at the top.

Does this matter? Of course degrees in subject areas other than STEM are valuable; qualifications in politics or history are obviously appropriate for an MP. And of course it’s true that many social studies graduates have an excellent understanding of technology.

But the bias away from STEM is still striking. One humdrum argument for more tech know-how in Westminster is that as public services become more IT-dependent, ministers need a better understanding of the pitfalls of technology. As the Institute for Government found:

Ministers frequently do not pay sufficient attention to the IT dimension of policy announcements

But the more interesting arguments are related to future trends; say if human enhancement becomes commonplace, or robots have a big effect on the labour market. Legislators are keen to promote STEM, but does parliament itself have the knowledge it needs to keep up?

There’s now a sequel to this post that looks at Lords’ degrees.

Note on the script

The above charts may not be completely accurate; they depend on the MP’s Wikipedia entry to correctly record the degree, as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas. The script is on Github, if you’d like to see it – or improve it!

Thanks to TheyWorkForYou for making the list of MPs available, and to Wikipedia for making its data available via an API, as well as its contributors for researching MPs and keeping their articles up to date. Any errors are highly likely to be the author’s.

Between Technophobia and Technophilia

Talk about the future of technology and you’re likely to hear two categories of response: technophobia (Chambers describes a technophobe as “someone who dislikes or fears, and therefore avoids using, technology”) and technophilia (a technophile is “someone who likes and advocates the use of new technology”).

But what’s the name for views that occupy the middle ground?

Technorealism (which appeared as a term in the 90s but seems to have died away) sought to “expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism”. Technorealists advocated applying tech “in a manner more consistent with basic human values”.

Also occupying the middle ground are the complementary terms Techno-progressivism and Bioconservatism. Both terms are frequently used – and were perhaps coined – by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, a think-tank with close transhumanist links.

Techno-progressivism describes an optimistic stance towards technology, recognising a key role for it in effecting positive change. Bioconservatism is a more wary position on tech (though less so than Technophobia), conscious of its threat to existing social patterns.

Through interviews with the UK’s public, Ipsos MORI have identified six segments (which are simply descriptive, rather than ideological) that illustrate how the UK population respond to science, and by extension, to technology. MORI describe the segments as:

  • Confident Engagers – positive attitude towards, and few concerns about, science
  • Distrustful Engagers – enthusiastic about science, but distrustful of scientists and regulators
  • Late Adopters – did not enjoy science at school, but have become more interested as adults
  • The Concerned – have stronger views on the limitations of science
  • The Indifferent – not especially worries about science, but tend to think it’s not for them
  • Disengaged Sceptics – find science overwhelming and do not feel well informed

This chart illustrates how the UK’s population is distributed across the six segments in 2011 and 2014. While the number of Confident Engagers and The Indifferent have fallen, the Disengaged Septics and Late Adopters have risen:

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

MORI also report links between the segments and religion. On average, 13% were likely to attend a religious service at least a week, but this figure rose to 21% for members of The Concerned. 33% of Muslims belonged to The Concerned segment, but Muslims only accounted for 10% of that segment’s membership.

Michael Sleasman of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, a research centre at a Christian university, outlines three (lengthily-named) responses to technology he has observed among Christians: technological sentimentalism, technological messianism and technological responsibilists.

Technological sentimentalism sees technology as a threat and urges a return to a less technological past. Technological messianism views technology as a saviour, the solution to all our problems. Technological responsibilists adopt a consciously critical approach, which Sleasman illustrates with a quotation from Stephen Monsma:

[Technology is a] distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes.

This post is simply sketching out the semantic terrain… More on what the middle ground of techno-progressivism and technological responsibilism look like in future posts.