Sociologist Robert Merton featured in Final Jeopardy!

Sociology rarely makes an appearance on Jeopardy! but the discipline was featured in the Final Jeopardy! question on January 8:

Final Jeopardy! clue: Often applied to athletes, this 2-word term popularized by Robert K. Merton refers to an example we aspire to.

I was not aware that this term was popularized by Merton. If anybody popularized this term in recent decades, it was Charles Barkley who several decades ago said:

“I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

Read a quick overview of the concept of role model as well as a summary of Merton’s wide-ranging career (which included popularizing other terms such as “self-fulfilling prophecy”).

Lack of sociology on Jeopardy

Jeopardy recently had a college tournament and the opening sequence featured sociology:


I don’t watch every episode of Jeopardy but my wife DVRs all of them and we agree on one thing: we have rarely seen categories involving sociology. There was one a few months ago but that stood out for its unusual questions. There are multiple disciplines that aren’t featured much, including calculus and math, which is in the same screenshot. On the other hand, certain disciplines come up all the time: politics, literature, history, pop culture, and current events. So why doesn’t Jeopardy have more sociology? Perhaps they are simply catering to viewers who may not be able to answer questions about sociology when they arise. It is interesting to see sociology and calculus come up with a screenshot for the college tournament – perhaps this is where most viewers and Jeopardy producers think these subjects should remain.

Analyzing gendered uptalk on Jeopardy!

As part of a household that regularly watches Jeopardy! via the magic of DVR, I was intrigued to read about this sociological study of uptalk on the show:

Linneman’s study involves issues deeper than how game show contestants talk—specifically, the implications uptalk has for gender identities. According to his article, “The primary sociological controversy surrounding uptalk concerns the fact that women use uptalk more often than men do, and some interpret this as a signal of uncertainty and subordination.”Linneman found that both gender and uncertainty played a role: “On average, women used uptalk nearly twice as often as men. However, if men responded incorrectly, their intonation betrayed their uncertainty: their use of uptalk shot up dramatically.”

The use of uptalk is not merely an academic concern, as Linneman discovered with one of his results.

“One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show…The more successful a man is on the show, uptalk decreases. The opposite is true for women…I think that says something really interesting about the relationship between success and gender in our society, and other research has found this too: successful women in a variety of ways get penalized.”

Uptalk’s sometimes-negative connotations bring up the subject of how women speak, a provocative issue.

While this isn’t an earthshaking finding, two things are very interesting here:

1. It is a reminder that language usage and speech patterns reflect larger social forces. While individuals may have unique ways of expressing themselves, language and expression is also learned behavior influenced by others.

2. Selecting Jeopardy! as the research case for this particular phenomenon is clever. While uptalk is related to perceptions of a lack of confidence, the contestants on the show should not have as much reason for nervousness as others might have about being on TV. In order to make it on air, they have to be smart enough to pass a qualifying test and then they have to pass an in-person audition. In other words, the contestants, males and female, are bright people. Granted, being in front of a camera is a different matter but these contestants aren’t caught completely unaware nor should they be fully perplexed by the questions they are trying to answer.

The billable value of humility

In a previous post, I linked to an IBM executive who claimed that Watson’s success on Jeopardy! might revolutionize the legal profession.  Gary Kasparov, the chess champion who was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, makes an interesting observation over at the Atlantic:

My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson’s performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all….A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty…but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering “Toronto” in the “US Cities” category, as Watson did.

It would be ironic (in the extreme!) if what saved the legal profession from being taken over by computers was lawyers’ own humility.  In a world where machines can process far more data far faster than human minds, perhaps our weakness is also our greatest asset:  we know our limits.

The Turing Test and what makes us human

Each year, the Loebner Prize competition takes place where judges are asked to interact through computer terminals with humans and computer programs. The judges then vote on whether they were talking with a human or a computer in this version of the Turing Test.

Two things struck me in this article:

1. The writer frames this issue of “mind vs. machine” as a more fundamental question about what separates humans from other animals:

Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls “The Sentence.” Specifically, The Sentence reads like this:

The human being is the only animal that ______.The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it’s not just the animals that we’re worried about.

We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.

If this is the case, then the Turing Test, or Ken Jenning’s battle with a computer on Jeopardy!, become the final battleground as humans lose what we thought made us distinct: thinking or reasoning. But this quick definition of human selfhood seems to leave out a very important component: the human search for meaning. Sociologists, like Peter Berger, have talked about this for decades in order to help explain the prevalence of religion. Berger argued that religions arise because people have enduring questions about why the world is the way it is and what their place is in it. Do other animals pose such existential questions? Is spirituality or religiosity what might really separate humans from other animals?

2. As the writer explains his strategy for showing the judges that he is human, he recounts past conversations computer programs have had with humans. Several of these were quite interesting. One program from the 1960s, Eliza, took a more therapeutic approach to dealing with humans:

User: Men are all alike.

Eliza: In what way?

User: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

Eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

User: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here.

User: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

Eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

User: It’s true. I am unhappy.

Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

User: I need some help, that much seems certain.

Eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

User: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

Eliza: Tell me more about your family.

This program was apparently quite effective in fooling people and some even went off to have therapeutic conversations with this program. Another program acted belligerent at random points and threw some people off.

It sounds like these computer programs will continue to get more sophisticated.

Law jobs in Jeopardy

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy! — and its win.  Now, the pundits are trying to digest what the implications will be now that Watson has already been hired as a physician’s assistant.

What, specifically, does this mean for lawyers?  Robert C. Weber, a senior VP and general counsel at IBM, breaks it down for us over at over at the National Law Journal:

Imagine a new kind of legal research system that can gather much of the information you need to do your job — a digital associate, if you will. With the technology underlying Watson, called Deep QA, you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.

But won’t this mean fewer jobs for lawyers?  Oh no, reassures Mr. Weber:

Deep QA won’t ever replace attorneys; after all, the essence of good lawyering is mature and sound reasoning, and there’s simply no way a machine can match the knowledge and ability to reason of a smart, well-educated and deeply experienced human being. But the technology can unquestionably extend our capabilities and help us perform better.

Humanity — I mean — lawyers win, huh?  This is great!  Where can I put Watson to work?

The technology might even come in handy, near real-time, in the courtroom. If a witness says something that doesn’t seem credible, you can have an associate check it for accuracy on the spot.

Wait a minute — I thought you said that we’ll always need lawyers?  But if using Watson/Deep QA is just as easy as running a Google search against a witness on the stand, why do you need to have an associate perform it?  Associates are expensive, or, at least, used to be.  Why not a paralegal?  Why not someone even cheaper, with even less training?  Are you sure it has to be an actual lawyer?  (Besides, Weber also tells us that “We’re pretty sure [Watson] would do quite well in a multistate bar exam!”)

Perhaps when he said Watson “won’t ever replace attorneys,” Mr. Weber meant that Watson won’t ever replace someone like himself:  a successful, established, general counsel at a Fortune 500.  You know, the sort of person who passes off his “research” to an “associate.”  Or whomever.  Or whatever.

I’m not buying it, Weber (neither is Above the Law, for whatever that’s worth).  Watson is going to put a lot of lawyers out on the street, which is precisely the conclusion that Andy Kessler comes to over at the Wall Street Journal.  In Kessler’s colorful employment taxonomy, lawyers are classified as “sponges”:

Sponges are those who earned their jobs by passing a test meant to limit supply. According to [the WSJ], 23% of U.S. workers now need a state license….All this does is legally bar others from doing the same job, so existing workers can charge more and sponge off the rest of us.

But eDiscovery is the hottest thing right now in corporate legal departments. The software scans documents and looks for important keywords and phrases, displacing lawyers and paralegals who charge hundreds of dollars per hour to read the often millions of litigation documents. Lawyers, understandably, hate eDiscovery.

We can argue whether this is a good for society overall (or not).  But come on, Weber.  Don’t say that Watson “won’t ever replace attorneys” when what you really mean is that “I personally am going to be able to keep my job.”