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Opening the Black Box: Duke Researchers Discuss Bias in AI

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Artificial intelligence has not only inherited many of the strongest capabilities of the human brain, but it has also proven to use them more efficiently and effectively. Object recognition, map navigation, and speech translation are just a few of the many skills that modern AI programs have mastered, and the list will not stop growing anytime soon.

Unfortunately, AI has also magnified one of humanity’s least desirable traits: bias. In recent years, algorithms influenced by bias have often caused more problems than they sought to fix.

When Google’s image recognition AI was found to be classifying some Black people as gorillas in 2015, the only consolation for those affected was that AI is improving at a rapid pace, and thus, incidents of bias would hopefully begin to disappear. Six years later, when Facebook’s AI made virtually the exact same mistake by labeling a video of Black men as “primates,” both tech fanatics and casual observers could see a fundamental flaw in the industry.

Jacky Alciné’s tweet exposing Google’s racist AI algorithm enraged thousands in 2015.


On November 17th, 2021, two hundred Duke Alumni living in all corners of the world – from Pittsburgh to Istanbul and everywhere in between – assembled virtually to learn about the future of algorithms, AI, and bias. The webinar, which was hosted by the Duke Alumni Association’s Forever Learning Institute, gave four esteemed Duke professors a chance to discuss their view of bias in the artificial intelligence world.

Dr. Stacy Tantum, Bell-Rhodes Associate Professor of the Practice of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was the first to mention the instances of racial bias in image classification systems. According to Tantum, early facial recognition did not work well for people of darker skin tones because the underlying training data – observations that inform the model’s learning process – did not have a broad representation of all skin tones. She further echoed the importance of model transparency, noting that if an engineer treats an AI as a “black box” – or a decision-making process that does not need to be explained – then they cannot reasonably assert that the AI is unbiased.

Stacy Tantum, who has introduced case studies on ethics to students in her Intro to Machine Learning Class, echoes the importance of teaching bias in AI classrooms.

While Tantum emphasized the importance of supervision of algorithm generation, Dr. David Hoffman – Steed Family Professor of the Practice of Cybersecurity Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy – explained the integration of algorithm explainability and privacy. He pointed to the emergence of regulatory legislation in other countries that ensure restrictions, accountability, and supervision of personal data in cybersecurity applications. Said Hoffman, “If we can’t answer the privacy question, we can’t put appropriate controls and protections in place.”

To discuss the implications of blurry privacy regulations, Dr. Manju Puri – J.B. Fuqua Professor of Finance at the Fuqua School of Business – discussed how the big data feeding modern AI algorithms impact each person’s digital footprint. Puri noted that data about a person’s phone usage patterns can be used by banks to decide whether that person should receive a loan. “People who call their mother every day tend to default less, and people who walk the same path every day tend to default less.” She contends that the biggest question is how to behave in a digital world where every action can be used against us.

Dr. Philip Napoli has observed behaviors in the digital world for several years as James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School, specifically focusing on self-reinforcing cycles of social media algorithms. He contends that Facebook’s algorithms, in particular, reward content that gets people angry, which motivates news organizations and political parties to post galvanizing content that will swoop through the feeds of millions. His work shows that AI algorithms can not only impact the behaviors of individuals, but also massive organizations.

At the end of the panel, there was one firm point of agreement between all speakers: AI is tremendously powerful. Hoffman even contended that there is a risk associated with not using artificial intelligence, which has proven to be a revolutionary tool in healthcare, finance, and security, among other fields. However, while proven to be immensely impactful, AI is not guaranteed to have a positive impact in all use cases – rather, as shown by failed image recognition platforms and racist healthcare algorithms that impacted millions of Black people, AI can be incredibly harmful.

Thus, while many in the AI community dream of a world where algorithms can be an unquestionable force for good, the underlying technology has a long way to go. What stands between the status quo and that idealistic future is not more data or more code, but less bias in data and code.

Post by Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, Class of 2025


What Happens When You Give People Money?

Paige Stampatori

What happens when you give people money? Dr. Aisha Nyandoro and Natalie Foster know: through their research, they’ve seen the impacts of guaranteed income firsthand.

On November 9, as part of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy’s Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture series, these experts discussed their work and what we can learn from it at “What Happens When You Give People Money: The Future of Economic Security for Children and Families.”

Natalie Foster

Foster, co-founder and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, began with the big idea of guaranteed income. Before the pandemic, wealth and income inequality were at all-time highs — disparities that “can be traced back to the origins of racialized capitalism.” But recently, things have gotten even harder. Wages have remained stagnant despite increases in productivity — and despite inflation, making it harder to afford things like rent. Foster denounced the “strong ideology that says that lack of security in this system is a personal failing. That if you can’t pull yourself up, there’s something wrong with you.” There’s something wrong with the system, Foster said. “People are working. The economy isn’t.”

Foster explained that the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” fundamentally changed welfare by converting the old New Deal-era unlimited grant program into the flat-funded block grant we now know as TANF, leaving determination of eligibility to state discretion and generally “making welfare more punitive.” The Act, Foster said, was built on racist stereotypes, like that of the welfare queen. To make matters worse, it was passed against the backdrop of a persistent devaluation of the labor of people of color

Foster said that even though there didn’t appear to be room in these political conditions to do things differently, she had the “audacity to imagine something else: the ‘adjacent possible.’” She wanted to give cash to people directly, ensuring an income floor regardless of whatever crises that may abound.

Foster worked with the mayor of Stockton, California on the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which provided 125 Stockton residents with $500 monthly payments for two years. 

Dr. Aisha Nyandoro

Foster was connected by a mutual friend to Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. Nyandoro had launched The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi with $1,000 monthly payments for one year. 

With The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Nyandoro sought to shift away from economic policy “rooted in ‘what is,’ and toward ‘what could be.’” This concept has a rich history, she said, and includes the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. She had a specific ‘what if’ in mind: “What if when Black women told us what they needed, we believed them?” What if we sought to overturn the very structures that keep these people down, and subverted the “paternalistic nature of the social safety net”? 

Nyandoro stated that as a researcher, when she has questions, she “goes back to the people.” When she did, she found that although people’s needs were individual, “cash was ubiquitous” — cash was a solution that could address every single one of the problems that she heard. Giving cash directly could help combat a system that “penalizes people for being poor, rather than trying to lift them out of poverty.” 

Why low-income Black mothers? Nyandoro explained that in order to do the work of economic liberation, one must identify what’s wrong with the system. In this case, that meant identifying those who are the most negatively impacted by the system, and using what limited resources are available to help them specifically.

Nyandoro turned to her findings: giving people cash works. These mothers are often working tirelessly, holding down two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet. After receiving the money, people continue to work and often do so at higher rates (a major fear of opponents of guaranteed income). As a result, their income is often doubled — with life-changing results

Beyond the numbers, Nyandoro emphasized that “we are seeing joy. We don’t talk about joy enough as it relates to Black women.” This money allowed Black women to feel free, to be entrepreneurial: to “dare to dream for the first time — for themselves and for their families.” 

She referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous speech “The Danger of a Single Story,” explaining that in order to change the narrative, “we need to change the narrator.” It’s time to think about whose voices we center.

In Jackson, Mississippi and Stockton, California, the pair had carried out research about the ‘adjacent possible.’ They’d used cities and states as “laboratories in democracy.” Foster said that their work was paving the way for gradual advances in guaranteed income — slowly, but surely. Then, the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, ideas that had recently been dismissed as too radical were viewed as necessary. Often unable to work, people needed money fast in order to put food on the table and cover their most urgent needs. The federal government rose to the challenge with the American Rescue Plan, providing stimulus checks and pandemic unemployment insurance, plus expanding the Child Tax Credit. “The ‘adjacent possible’”, Foster said, “had become the possible.”

The country saw an “immediate drop in poverty.” The pandemic was revealing, said Foster. It revealed that cash provides time, stress reduction, and resilience. It revealed that cash serves as a tool to create economic security and “build back better.” Above all, it revealed that “poverty is a policy choice that we’re currently making. We could make a different policy choice in order to eliminate it.”

The pandemic also revealed that stimulus checks and the Child Tax Credit were “very popular policies.” Nyandoro has observed support in the form of petitions for monthly cash transfers, the founding of organizations like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, and the launch of over a hundred guaranteed income pilots of some sort. All these efforts, Nyandoro said, are pushing toward “the same North Star”: centering the needs of families and achieving economic liberation through federal policy.

Foster turned the discussion toward next steps: “these victories have been immense, but could disappear” if the Build Back Better Act does not pass. The Act includes a year-long extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a key instantiation of guaranteed income. The Child Tax Credit has bipartisan support

If the extension of the Child Tax Credit passes, then according to Foster, guaranteed income is one step closer to becoming a cornerstone of social policy. This would be a “nail in the coffin of the way we’ve done policy for the last fifty years — that you’re only worth what you do in the world. Every human has dignity and worth, and we have the opportunity to build a policy that says just that.” 

Nyandoro agreed with Foster. As an anti-poverty advocate, she believes in a world without poverty: a world where “everyone can have a life of dignity for themselves and their families.” She believes that the ‘adjacent possible’ is achievable if “we can move beyond our own individual needs in order to view life as a collective, where prosperity is shared rather than hoarded.” She ended by quoting Toni Morrison: “if you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.”

Last Friday, the House voted to pass the Build Back Better Act, which now heads to the Senate.

Post by Zella Hanson

Duke has 38 of the World’s Most Highly-Cited Scientists

Peak achievement in the sciences isn’t measured by stopwatches or goals scored, it goes by citations – the number of times other scientists have referenced your findings in their own academic papers. A high number of citations is an indication that a particular work was influential in moving the field forward.

Nobel laureate Bob Lefkowitz made the list in two categories this year.

And the peak of this peak is the annual “Highly Cited Researchers” list produced each year by the folks at Clarivate, who run the Institute for Scientific Information. The names on this list are drawn from publications that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science™ citation index – the most-cited of the cited.

Duke has 38 names on the highly cited list this year — including Bob Lefkowitz twice because he’s just that good — and two colleagues at the Duke NUS Medical School in Singapore. In all, the 2021 list includes 6,602 researchers from more than 70 countries.

The ISI says that US scientists are a little less than 40 percent of the highly cited list this year – and dropping. Chinese researchers are gaining, having nearly doubled their presence on the roster in the last four years.

“The headline story is one of sizeable gains for Mainland China and a decline for the United States, particularly when you look at the trends over the last four years,” said a statement from David Pendlebury, Senior Citation Analyst at the Institute for Scientific Information. “(This reflects) a transformational rebalancing of scientific and scholarly contributions at the top level through the globalization of the research enterprise.”

Without further ado, let’s see who our champions are!

Biology and Biochemistry

Charles A. Gersbach

Robert J. Lefkowitz

Clinical Medicine

Pamela S. Douglas

Christopher Bull Granger

Adrian F. Hernandez

Manesh R.Patel

Eric D. Peterson

Cross-Field

Richard Becker

Antonio Bertoletti (NUS)

Yiran Chen

Stefano Curtarolo

Derek J. Hausenloy (NUS)

Ru-Rong Ji

Jie Liu

Jason W. Locasale

David B. Mitzi

Christopher B. Newgard

Ram Oren

David R. Smith

Heather M. Stapleton

Avner Vengosh

Mark R. Wiesner

Environment and Ecology

Emily S. Bernhardt

Geosciences

Drew T. Shindell

Immunology

Edward A. Miao

Microbiology

Barton F. Haynes

Neuroscience and Behavior

Quinn T. Ostrom

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Robert J. Lefkowitz

Plant and Animal Science

Xinnian Dong

Sheng Yang He

Philip N. Benfey

Psychiatry and Psychology

Avshalom Caspi

E. Jane Costello

Honalee Harrington

Renate M. Houts

Terrie E. Moffitt

Social Sciences

Michael J. Pencina

Bryce B. Reeve

John W. Williams

Post by Karl Bates

How is Universal Healthcare Like the Waterboarding Debate?

The Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) is an undergraduate publication started in Spring of 2020 that examines conversations around universal patient-doctor responsibility. In other words, they’re training the next generation of healthcare providers to ask big questions and make informed decisions. So, we owe them a huge thank-you in advance. 

On Sunday, October 24th, DMEJ hosted Dr. Gopal Sreenivasan to speak with current members. The event was open to the public as part of the club’s mission to promote ethical practices across all fields. Dr. Sreenivasan is a moral philosopher, but he is also a professor of medicine at Duke Medical School. His position as the “Crown Professor of Ethics at the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine,” is part of an initiative to connect societal arts and sciences aspects of Duke University to the Medical School. 

Dr. Gopal Sreenivasan

“Today, I want to talk to you all about the human right to health,” he opened. 

Sreenivasan’s talk was focused on the question of how individual countries can provide healthcare or insure health.  “One division within the human right to health is the division between health and healthcare,” he clarified. “Another is the difference between a regular right and a human right.” 

As a philosopher, Sreenivasan took the issue of access to health and placed it on a universal scale. He addressed the social determinants of health (callback time!) as part of the solution, alongside more direct-but-still-indirect healthcare actions like vaccinations. His conclusion? We are ultimately moving away from the narrative that we have a right to healthcare and towards the narrative that we have a human right to health

“You have a right to health, but that does not necessarily mean you are going to be healthy. There are still factors that affect this which are under no one’s control. It doesn’t mean that if you don’t live to be 80 or 85 that your right has been violated. But you’re still entitled to a broader range of things than just health.”

To help illustrate this for my fellow visual learners, I’ve made a fun little visual aid. 

Sreenivasan laid out a verbal map to demonstrate the confusion policy makers face about addressing the wellbeing of their constituents. If you believe healthcare is a right, you believe the government has a different role to play than if you believe health is a right. You may expect less of them in terms of handling indirect factors like social determinants and vaccines. If you believe healthcare is a human right, you expect all governments to provide healthcare access universally. This is different from Sreenivasan’s preferred view: health is a human right. All people are entitled to all aspects of their health being addressed all the time in every way in every place. 

The word human in “human right” indicates universality the same way removing the care from “healthcare” does; they both broaden the scope. 

After that lovely philosophical grammatical discussion (Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?) as our foundation, Sreenivasan moved on to a challenging analogy: waterboarding

“It does not belong to the nature of a right that everyone has to have it. But it does seem to belong to the nature of a human right that everyone has to have it. Take the human right to not be tortured, for example.”

Your moral view may differ on whether or not it is a human right not to be tortured. You may think the right should apply to all people, or no people, or only some people. But you also may think that the right should apply to only certain aspects of torture; maybe you think that specifically waterboarding doesn’t count.

(The debate around whether or not waterboarding counts as torture and whether or not it is prohibited under human rights legislation is one that has been around for a long time. Torture has been banned by multiple American presidents in multiple environments, but the language around waterboarding in particular is highly controversial. You can read more about the debate here.)

“It’s not that some people have a human right not to be tortured which protects them from waterboarding, and other people have a human right not to be tortured but it is somehow lesser and does not protect them from waterboarding. You can’t pick and choose the content based on the person for whom the right belongs.”

So, how is the waterboarding debate like universal healthcare?

For one, it’s a matter of exclusion. It’s a matter of moral philosophy. It’s a matter of definition. 

The question of whether there should be universal healthcare goes far beyond the question of whether healthcare is a right. 

How do we improve access? Who is at fault for rising drug prices? How is America’s healthcare system different than other countries? These questions must start with questions of definition. Who is our target audience? Who is included? Who is excluded? What is included? What is excluded? 

“It seems intuitive that human rights are all or nothing.” Sreenivasan explained. “Either everyone has them or no one has them. But then you must say that their content also has to be the same.”

Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ARES_Olivia.jpg

School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

Post by Zella Hanson

Leadership As ‘Groundskeeping,’ Not ‘Gatekeeping,’ and Other “Lessons From Plants”

Dr. Beronda Montgomery, author of Lessons from Plants, recently spoke at Duke University. (Photos: Marie Claire Chelini, Biology Dept.)

Plants do not passively exist, leaving their survival to the whims of fate; they notice their environments and respond accordingly, says Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a professor, writer, science communicator, and researcher from Michigan State University who studies plants and what we can learn from them.

She visited Duke last week to talk about her recently published book, Lessons from Plants, and the inspiration behind it.

Plants perceive and respond to their surroundings in myriad ways, from turning toward a light source to reacting to differences in temperature, humidity, and nutrient availability. Even the same stimulus can cause different reactions in different situations, said Montgomery, whose research involves photosynthetic organisms, especially Arabidopsis plants and cyanobacteria. She is broadly interested in how organisms respond to and are affected by their environments.

For example, light can serve as either a “go signal” or a “stop signal,” depending how much of it is available. In low light conditions, plants invest more energy in stem elongation as they seek light. When they have sufficient light, on the other hand, plants undergo “de-etiolation,” creating shorter stems and better developed leaves.

Montgomery doesn’t just learn about plants; she learns from them as well. And in some cases, she says, plants might make better teachers than humans.

Montgomery spoke in the Penn Pavilion at Duke.

One area Montgomery has written about extensively, both in Lessons from Plants and elsewhere, is equity. As she points out, “Equal aptitude can result in different outcomes depending on environment.” According to Montgomery, “Humans, by and large, have an expectation of growth for plants,” so when something goes wrong, we look to external factors. We blame the caretaker, not personal defects in the plant. With humans, on the other hand, “We recruit people… who have demonstrated success elsewhere,” fueling a vicious cycle that can exacerbate inequities and limit opportunities. Montgomery talks about “the need to move from leadership as gatekeeping to groundskeeping.”

When students or employees struggle, she believes we should scrutinize mentors and caregivers instead of automatically attributing failure to personal defects. After all, “We would never say… ‘let me teach you to have turgid leaves’ to a plant” or tell it to simply try harder. We don’t eliminate houseplants that aren’t thriving. We ask ourselves what they need—whether it’s light, fertilizer, or water—and make changes accordingly.

“What would happen,” Montgomery asks, “if we saw things like equity as essential to our existence?” She stresses that questions like these can’t remain hypothetical. She points to a quote in Breathe, a book by Imani Perry, that captures the importance of applying what we learn: “Awareness is not a virtue in and of itself, not without a moral imperative.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery believes that “We have to live in the system we have while we transform it.” Sometimes, just as managed fires can make forests healthier and safer, there is a need for “intentional disruption” in the human world. “We seem to want change without change,” when we should instead be embracing the process of change as well as the result. “Change doesn’t mean that what happened in the past was all evil. It just means that we have to keep moving.” Moving forward is something plants do well. Season by season, year by year, they keep growing. Montgomery speaks of the tulips that helped bring her peace during a period of personal and collective grief. In spite of everything, the tulips she had planted in the fall came up in the springtime, ready for warmer weather.

Plants don’t just respond to change; they prepare for it. In the fall, when deciduous trees lose their leaves, they are “actively prepar[ing] for rest,” something Montgomery thinks we could all learn from.

Hope, according to Montgomery, means that “some things have to die, and some live,” and that “despite what’s going on around you, you have to find the power and strength to go on.”

“I aspire to hope,” she says.

Montgomery also did a book signing for Lessons from Plants which was published in April of this year.

Montgomery says her guiding life principle is reciprocity. It seems fitting, then, that she has taught her son to appreciate plants from an early age, just as her mother did for her. When Montgomery’s son was nine months old, she planted a tree in his honor with the idea that he would be its steward. Sometimes, her son was taller than the tree. Other times, it was the other way around. When Montgomery’s son was seven, the tree became ill, but they treated it successfully, prompting conversations about sickness and recovery and what it means to care for something. Throughout his childhood, her son’s tree remained a valuable conversation starter. It still is.

“He’s a second-year student in college, and he still asks about his tree.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Dr. Laura Richman is Defining Health by its Social Determinates

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act sparked a nationwide debate on the extent of responsibility the American government has over our healthcare. But Dr. Laura Richman has been asking that question since long before that. 

Richman is a health psychologist. “I examine psychosocial factors that have an impact on health behaviors and health outcomes,” she explains, sitting across from me at the Law School café. (Neither of us were wearing a cardigan. It was rather hot outside). 

Laura Richman Ph.D. is an associate professor in population health sciences. (image: Scholars@Duke)

Richman is an associate professor at Duke in the Population Health Sciences, an associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and, coincidentally, my professor in the Science & the Public FOCUS cluster. She co-teaches the course Science, Law, and Policy with Dr. Yousef Zafar, in which we examine the social determinants of health through the lens of cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a Ph.D. in social psychology, Richman worked at a sort of think-tank for health professionals collaborating on social issues. This inspired her to pursue health research through the lens of social determinants.

“There was a lot of work on substance use, on mental health, on behavioral disorders. That certainly contributed to my continued interest in factors that have an influence on these [health] outcomes,” she said. 

Continuing in this work, she became a research associate at the School of Public Health at Harvard University; Richman described her time at Harvard as “exciting,” which is not a word used by many to describe empirical research environments. “Certainly there’s that really robust relationship between low income, low education, low job status and poor health outcomes, but a lot of those pathways— like the ones we talk about in class, Olivia— had not been studied.” 

She’s referring to the public health concept of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ solutions. (The river parable goes as follows: when you observe a trend in people drowning in a certain river, you are presented with different ways of solving the problem. You can start pulling people out of the river and saving them one at a time, which is called a “downstream” solution in public health. You can also prevent people from falling into the river, which is called an “upstream” solution.)

(courtesy of SaludAmerica!)

Richman’s professional research explores another crucial social determinant of health we discussed in class: perceived versus actual discrimination. She asked whether marginalization — objectively or subjectively — can affect functioning, “both psychologically and cognitively. Like, how does it affect their thought processes? Their decision-making? Then, how does that affect their health?” You can read her study here

One thing I noted immediately was Richman’s affinity for creative research design. In a lab she headed at Duke, she conducted one experiment with a student that tested the aforementioned effect of marginalization on health decisions. They provided subjects with a choice between unhealthy and healthy snack options after watching a video of, reading a passage about, or imagining members of their community experience discrimination.

In one study we read for Science, Law, and Policy, the stress effect of discrimination towards Arabic-named individuals after 9/11 was measured through the birth outcomes of Arabic-named mothers pregnant during that time. When I asked her about this, she said, “Particularly working with students, I think that they just bring so much energy and creativity to the research. Surveys serve their purpose — I think they’re really important, but I think there are just lots of opportunities to do more with research designs and research questions. I like trying to approach things from a different angle.” 

Richman is also working on a book. She is studying relational health — health as determined by the opioid epidemic, the obesity crisis, and social isolation associated with aging. She hopes her project will be used in classrooms (and by the interested layman), and that the value of social determinants of health is reflected in increased funding dollars, more people interested in health disparities, more focus in medical education on the screening and referral system, and stimulating dialogue among people in positions of power on a policy level.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

‘Anonymous Has Viewed Your Profile’: All Networks Lead to Re-Identification

For half an hour this rainy Wednesday, October 6th, I logged on to a LinkedIn Live series webinar with Dr. Jiaming Xu from the Fuqua School of Business. I sat inside the bridge between Perkins and Bostock, my laptop connected to DukeBlue wifi. I had Instagram open on my phone and was tapping through friends’ stories while I waited for the broadcast to start. I had Google Docs open in another tab to take notes. 

The title of the webinar was “Can Anyone Truly Be Anonymous Online?” 

Xu spoke about “network privacy,” which is “the intersection of network analysis and data privacy.” When you make an account, connect to wifi, share your location, search something online, or otherwise hint at your personal information, you are creating a “user profile”: a network of personal data that hints at your identity. 

You are probably familiar with how social media companies track your decisions to curate a more engaging experience for you (i.e. the reason I scroll through TikTok for 5 minutes, then 30 minutes, then… Oh no! Two hours have gone by). Other companies track other kinds of data— data that isn’t always just for algorithmic manipulation or creepy-accurate Amazon ads (i.e. “Hey! I was just thinking about buying cat litter. How did Mr. Bezos know?”). Your name, work history, date of birth, address, location, and other critical identifying factors can be collected even if you think your profile is scrubbed clean. In a rather on-the-nose anecdote to his LinkedIn audience on Wednesday, Xu explained that in April 2021, over 500 million user profiles on LinkedIn were hacked. Valuable, “sensitive, work-related data,” he noted, was made vulnerable. 

Image courtesy of Flickr

So, what do you have to worry about? I know I tend to not worry about my personal information online; letting companies collect my data benefits me. I can get targeted Google ads about things I’m interested in and cool filters on Snapchat. In a medical setting, Xu said, prediction algorithms may help patients’ health in the long run. But even anonymized and sanitized data can be traced back to you. For further reading: in an essay published in July 2021, philosophers Evan Selinger and Judy Rhee elaborate on the dangers of “normalizing surveillance.”

The meat of Xu’s talk was how your data can be traced back to you. Xu gave three examples. 

The first was a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas- Austin attempting to identify users submitting “anonymous” reviews for movies on Netflix (keep in mind this was 2007, so picture the red Netflix logo on the DVD box accordingly). To achieve this, they cross-referenced the network of reviews published by Netflix with the network of individuals signed up on IMDB; they matched those who reviewed movies similarly on both platforms with their public profiles on IMDB. You can read more about that specific study here. (For those unafraid of the full research paper, click here). 

Let’s take a pause to learn a new vocab word! “Signatures.” In this example, the signature was users’ movie ratings. See if you can name the signature in the other two examples.

The second example was conducted by the same researchers; to identify users on Twitter who shared their data anonymously, it was simply a matter of cross-referencing the network of Twitter users with Flickr users. If you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, you and that group of people are likely to initiate that same chain of following each other on every social media platform you have (it may remind you of the theory that you are connected by “six degrees of separation” from every person on the planet, which, as it turns out, is also supported by social media data). The researchers were able to identify the correct users 30.8% of the time. 

Time for another vocab break! Those users who connect groups of people who know a guy who know a guy who know a guy are called “seeds.” Speaking of which, did you identify the signature in this example? 

Image courtesy of Flickr

The third and final example was my personal favorite because it was the funkiest and creative. Facebook user data— also “scrubbed clean” before being sold to third-party advertisers— was overlain with LinkedIn user data to reveal a network of connections that are repeated. How did they match up those networks, you ask? First, the algorithm assigned a computed score to every individual user based on how many Facebook friends they have and one for every user based on how many LinkedIn connections they have. Then, each user was assigned a list of integers based on their friends’ popularity score. Bet you weren’t expecting that. 

This method sort of improves upon the Twitter/Flickr example, but in addition to overlaying networks and chains of users, it better matches who is who. Since you are likely to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but you are also likely to know all of those guys down the line, following specific chains does not always accurately convey who is who. Unlike the seeds signature, the friends’ popularity signature was able to correctly re-identify users most of the time. 

Sitting in the bridge Wednesday, I was connected to many networks that I wouldn’t think could be used to identify me through my limited public data. Now, I’m not so sure.

So, what’s the lesson here? At the least, it was fun to learn about, even if the ultimate realization leaves us powerless against big data analytics. Your data has monetary value, and it is not as secure as you think: but it may be worth asking whether or not we even have the ability to protect our anonymity.

A Look Inside the Most Dynamic Criminal Trial of 2021

“You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. You heard that testimony… the truth of the matter is – that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”

– Jerry Blackwell

George Floyd holding his now 7-year-old daughter, Gianna Floyd.

May 25, 2020 was a day that shook the United States to its core. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by white police officer Derek Chauvin. Police brutality is nothing new to America, but the barbarity of this incident sparked international outrage, leading to the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, worldwide protests, and national polarization.

On Sept. 20 at Duke Law, political science professor Kerry L. Haynie and law professors Timothy Lovelace and Trina Jones had the opportunity to converse in a virtual panel discussion with Jerry Blackwell, the lead prosecutor for the George Floyd trial.

“The unique thing about this case was that George Floyd died in all of our living rooms,” Blackwell began. “The people wearing the badge who are supposed to protect the people almost made me feel like an object that could be brutalized.”

Blackwell, a North Carolina native, said he sympathized with George Floyd, not in the direct sense of being brutalized, but from other dehumanizing injustices by police, such as being pulled over without reason, being racially profiled, and being questioned without a warrant.

Lead Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell during the Derek Chauvin trial.

Blackwell’s involvement with the case launched with a call from Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first Black attorney general in the state of Minnesota. “Happenstance” was how Blackwell described his acquisition of the case. He explained that his law firm, Blackwell Burke, practiced trial law and that this was a criminal case, causing potential issues in participation. Regardless, he wanted to help in any way that he could, especially since the incident happened in Minneapolis, where he lives.

Blackwell thought he would be “helping with costumes and hemming the curtains,” helping other criminal lawyers get ready for the trial, maintaining a more behind-the-scenes position. He joined on a pro bono basis, meaning he did not get paid, but after a few weeks, he ended up becoming the Lead Prosecutor for the case.

During his work, Blackwell said he encountered a plethora of obstacles, one of which was the issue of American History. Since the onset of the civil rights movement, attempting to commit a white police officer for the brutalization of an African American is a rare and arduous thing. “So many citizens don’t want to believe that police officers would ever do that,” thinking instead that there had to be some confusion going on, that if given more time, there would have been a different reaction. The assumption that cases like these represent a situational issue and not a personal one is one of the factors responsible for the current lack of accountability in the justice system.

There was also the concern of drugs being in Floyd’s system at the time of the murder.

“Some jurors might hear ‘drug equals thug’ and a thug isn’t a thing a juror would rule in favor of against a white police officer.” Blackwell said. It was important to him that his team prove without a doubt that drugs were not his cause of death, so they could turn their attention to incriminating Derek Chauvin. Blackwell was also questioned by his team on whether he held enough objectivity to handle this case since he had lived similar experiences as a black man.

During the three-week trial, Blackwell remained hopeful about the outcome of the case, even though it was extremely difficult at times.

Officer Derek Chauvin moments before the final verdict was given.

He opened up about having white counterparts who expressed, “How hard can it be, with video proof?” and explained that when it comes to the issue of social justice, just because everyone has seen it doesn’t mean the verdict will be any different.

“Every African American was on the edge of their seats, and I was too,” he said. After deliberating for around 10 hours over a two-day period, the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder and he was later sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

Justice was served, right?

According to Blackwell, it wasn’t. “Don’t call it justice, because if it were, George Floyd would still be alive.”

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Introducing: The Duke Space Initiative

NASA

Engineers, medical students, ecologists, political scientists, ethicists, policymakers — come one, come all to the Duke Space Initiative (DSI), “the interdisciplinary home for all things space at Duke.”

At Duke Polis’ “Perspectives on Space: Introducing the Duke Space Initiative” on Sept. 9, DSI co-founder and undergraduate student Ritika Saligram introduced the initiative and moderated a discussion on the current landscape of space studies both at Duke and beyond.

William R. & Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law Jonathan Wiener began by expressing his excitement in the amount of interest he’s observed in space at Duke. 

One of these interested students was Spencer Kaplan. Kaplan, an undergraduate student studying public policy, couldn’t attend Wiener’s Science & Society Dinner Dialogue about policy and risk in the settlement of Mars. Unwilling to miss the learning opportunity, Kaplan set up a one-on-one conversation with Wiener. One thing led to another: the two created a readings course on space law — Wiener hired Kaplan as a research assistant and they worked together to compile materials for the syllabus — then thought, “Why stop there?” 

Wiener and Kaplan, together with Chase Hamilton, Jory Weintraub, Tyler Felgenhauer, Dan Buckland, and Somia Youssef, created the Bass Connections project “Going to Mars: Science, Society, and Sustainability,” through which a highly interdisciplinary team of faculty and students discussed problems ranging from the science and technology of getting to Mars, to the social and political reality of living on another planet. 

The team produced a website, research papers, policy memos and recommendations, and a policy report for stakeholders including NASA and some prestigious actors in the private sector. According to Saligram, through their work, the team realized the need for a concerted “space for space” at Duke, and the DSI was born. The Initiative seeks to serve more immediately as a resource center for higher education on space, and eventually as the home of a space studies certificate program for undergraduates at Duke. 

Wiener sees space as an “opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned from being on Earth” — to consider how we could avoid mistakes made here and “try to do better if we settle another planet.” He listed a few of the many problems that the Bass Connections examined. 

The economics of space exploration have changed: once, national governments funded space exploration; now, private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic seek to run the show. Space debris, satellite and launch junk that could impair future launches, is the tragedy of the commons at work — in space. How would we resolve international disputes on other planets and avoid conflict, especially when settlements have different missions? Can we develop technology to ward off asteroids? What if we unintentionally brought microorganisms from one planet to another? How will we make the rules for the settlement of other planets?

These questions are vast — thereby reflecting the vastness of space, commented Saligram — and weren’t answerable within the hour. However, cutting edge research and thinking around them can be found on the Bass Connections’ website.

Earth and Climate Sciences Senior Lecturer Alexander Glass added to Wiener’s list of problems: “terraforming” — or creating a human habitat — on Mars. According to Glass, oxygen “isn’t a huge issue”: MOXIE can buzz Co2 with electricity to produce it. A greater concern is radiation. Without Earth’s magnetosphere, shielding of some sort will be necessary; it takes sixteen feet of rock to produce the same protection. Humans on Mars might have to live underground. 

Glass noted that although “we have the science to solve a lot of these problems, the science we’re lagging in is the human aspects of it: the psychological, of humanity living in conditions like isolation.” The engineering could be rock solid. But the mission “will fail because there will be a sociopath we couldn’t predict beforehand.”

Bass Connections project leader and PhD candidate in political science Somia Youssef discussed the need to examine deeply our laws, systems, and culture. Youssef emphasized that we humans have been on Earth for six million years. Like Wiener, she asked how we will “apply what we’ve learned to space” and what changes we should make. How, she mused, do prevailing ideas about humanity “transform in the confines, the harsh environment of space?” Youssef urged the balancing of unity with protection of the things that make us different, as well as consideration for voices that aren’t being represented.

Material Science Professor, Assistant Professor of Surgery, and NASA Human System Risk Manager Dr. Dan Buckland explained that automation has exciting potential in improving medical care in space. If robots can do the “most dangerous aspects” of mission medical care, humans won’t have to. Offloading onto “repeatable devices” will reduce the amount of accidents and medical capabilities needed in space. 

Multiple panelists also discussed the “false dichotomy” between spending resources on space and back home on Earth. Youssef pointed out that many innovations which have benefited (or will benefit) earthly humanity have come from the excitement and passion that comes from investing in space. Saligram stated that space is an “extension of the same social and policy issues as the ones we face on Earth, just in a different context.” This means that solutions we find in our attempt to settle Mars and explore the universe can be “reverse engineered” to help Earth-dwelling humans everywhere.

Saligram opened up the panel for discussion, and one guest asked Buckland how he ended up working for NASA. Buckland said his advice was to “be in rooms you’re not really supposed to be in, and eventually people will start thinking you’re supposed to be there.” 

Youssef echoed this view, expressing the need for diverse perspectives in space exploration. She’s most excited by all the people “who are interested in space, but don’t know if there’s enough space for them.”

If this sounds like you, check out the Duke Space Initiative. They’ve got space.

Post by Zella Hanson

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