AI: What’s the Harm?


Skeptics of all stripes get asked what the harm is all the time. What’s the harm of alternative medicine? Of acupuncture? Of placebos? Of beliefs not supported by evidence? Fortunately, there’s a good answer to that – “What’s the Harm?” chronicles cases where a lack of critical thinking made things go wrong.

However, this week, I got asked about the harm in totally different context – in response to a discussion about online tracking and behavioral advertising. Although I managed to come up with an answer, which I won’t bore you with here, it threw me. The worst part was that we had just been discussing a case (Target’s targeted ads, for those who are interested) where harm had clearly been caused.

Sometimes “what’s the harm” is a genuine question, but sometimes it’s merely a derail, meant to make someone advocating a position stop to explain all the potential bad consequences. Often, calling it out as a derailing tactic will only make things worse.

Have you encountered situations where you’re asked “what’s the harm?” How do you typically respond?

Image courtesy of What’s the Harm?

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  1. The only time I’ve run into that is in the discussion about science curriculum here in Texas. It was a pretty big deal over the past few years. What’s the harm in teaching ID? Or the ‘weaknesses’ of evolution? Lets the kids decide!

    The harm is this: schools should teach true things to the best of our collective knowledge. Schools should not teach false things to the best of our abilities. The harm in teaching false things, or not teaching true things, is that our children will not be prepared to apply that knowledge in the real world. Trying to be a petroleum engineer looking for oil deposits is going to be difficult if you think a Great Flood killed all the dinosaurs.

    False ideas will disproportionally cause harm because they cause people to take actions with the wrong expected outcome in their heads. Reality doesn’t care what you believe. It just is.

  2. Sometimes “what’s the harm” is a genuine question, but sometimes it’s merely a derail, meant to make someone advocating a position stop to explain all the potential bad consequences [of the thing they are advocating against].

    But isn’t communicating the harm of a harmful practice the core duty of the advocating group? Part of any activist’s toolkit must be the ability to clearly and succinctly explain the fundamentals of their position, including examples of why prevailing or otherwise opposed positions are incorrect. If they are unable to do this, it calls into question their ability to evaluate the situation. This is true whether or not the position they advocate is correct and/or sympathetic.

    I will admit to playing devil’s advocate sometimes in order to make this point, especially when I suspect that someone with whom I fundamentally agree is not arriving at their conclusions through a rigorous thought process.

    In my mind, there are three ways to respond to this kind of needling.

    1) Said concise explanation, with good examples, coupled with a willingness to answer a few follow-up questions. This is best-suited for meatspace.

    2) A link to a good primer for beginners that explains important concepts, provides examples, and defines terms. This is best-suited for the internets. Follow-up questions on the material should not be dismissed.

    3) Handwaving. This is usually couched in terms of unwillingness to condescend to the new person or accusations of derailment, but tellingly does not include any good sources for the person to go read in order to participate. This can happen even when people are well informed, but gives the impression they are not, or even that they are hiding something or misrepresenting the facts.

    The complaint is often made that it is tiresome to repeat the same fundamental arguments and answer the same common questions over and over again. This is true, but it doesn’t make it less crucial. Not everyone can be convinced, but some people (at least) want to be convinced. I try always to be among the latter, and I wouldn’t be here and have the views I do if a few people along the way hadn’t taken the time to tell me what the harm was.

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