ChatGPT, Digital Cyrano
Students and others discover a brilliant, biased, and blinkered ghostwriter
Every American student, from elementary school to doctoral candidate, has a new research assistant, ChatGPT, to help with assignments in every subject. This new, 24/7/365 RA is fast, glib, fun, and brilliant. It can also be shallow, lazy, error-prone, and left-wing. Make no mistake, this wonder of artificial intelligence (AI) will soon be the uncredited co-author—principal co-author in many cases—of a sizable share of American students’ output. Journalists, office workers and others will turn to this magical machine, as well.
One side of me is excited about this technology, for reasons described by Virginia Postrel in “Routine Writing Is About to Be Free.” With ChatGPT, users enter simple or complex prompts on any subject and it produces a piece of writing. Ask it, “Write a sonnet about a woman whose husband dies on a ship that sinks near Penzance on a stormy day in 1624,” and you get something that looks like a poem. In an earlier essay, “To Fail Beyond the Sunset...,” Postrel’s subtitle was, “GPT Chat writes rhymes, not poetry—and doesn’t know the difference.” Still, for me, having taught bright and brilliant students in various universities, ChatGPT writes better-sounding prose and poetry than do a large majority of those students. Being an economist, I asked ChatGPT, “How does an increase in supply affect the equilibrium price in a market?” The response was coherent, competent, concise—far better than many or most of my very bright students would have pulled off.
(NOTE: The Appendix below contains the full text of all the queries I describe.)
I’m a technophile, enthusiastic about technology’s capacity to do all manner of good in the world. A half-century ago, math teachers worried that calculators would destroy math skills. As a high school student, I thought that was nonsense, and for the most part, I think that still. In 1969, finding the square root of 2,439,216 meant engaging in a long, tedious process akin to long division. That mechanical process taught me little or nothing about square roots, and good riddance to it.
But the other side of me worries that ChatGPT will not only show students and other how to write, but also will tell them what to think. In this way, AI poses dangers the calculator never did. Calculators only gave students objective numbers. ChatGPT offers students a bottomless stew of prepackaged political beliefs, opinions presented as scientific facts, and outright errors.
For every teacher who has fretted over students’ overreliance on Google or Wikipedia, this digital Cyrano de Bergerac poses a far greater threat to critical thinking and research techniques. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, but I’m fully cognizant of its foibles. The fear with Wikipedia is that it is edited by swarms of random editors rather than professionals (which I’m not sure is a negative). But ChatGPT is edited and moderated by no one, so far as I can tell. Go into Wikipedia and edit an article to say, “Norfolk is the capital of Virginia,” and, very likely, in seconds, someone in Virginia (or Peru or Singapore) will have corrected your error. Not so with ChatGPT. The AI-generated output goes straight from machine to student to teacher, bypassing all other human eyes.
ChatGPT is often astonishingly accurate. However, at times it inexplicably falls on its face, making bizarre errors, such as the sun-and-moon example I discuss below. Politically it is deeply biased. Economist Tyler Cowen discusses this aspect in “What Are the Politics of ChatGPT?” as does Rob Lownie in “ChatGPT Is Not Politically Neutral.”
ChatGTP is produced by OpenAI, which also introduced Craiyon (formerly DALL-E Mini)—the AI bot that produced the Bastiat-by-Basquiat portraits at the top of this essay. Technology website MarTech Series tells more about OpenAI’s provenance and behavior in “9 Things to Know about Chat Gpt.” This includes its co-founding by Elon Musk and Musk’s subsequent limits on the bot’s access to Twitter’s database.
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Here are some recent queries I made of ChatGPT, along with my takes on the responses. (Note: All queries and responses are shown in full in the appendix.)
“Write an agitated conversation in which Joe (an accounting professor) and Henrietta (a chicken) argue about whether accounting is better than laying eggs.” The result was a polite debate between the professor and the chicken. I sent it to my friend Joe, who teaches accounting, and his emails to me now make frequent reference to Henrietta.
“Write a letter, in French, in which King Louis XIV explains to President Macron why he, Louis, was a better ruler of France.” As far as I can tell, the French is entirely correct. The letter has a pompous, conceited, condescending tone, as one might expect from Le Roi Soleil. And Louis’ attack on Macron is simplistic, but believable. Louis explains that he left a fine legacy (including Versailles) and that he was a fine leader whereas, in his opinion, Macron is weak and incompetent—traits that have led to a weak economy. The letter is blandly eloquent.
“Write the lyrics to a bossa nova song, in Portuguese, about the dawn.” It gave me a formulaic set of lyrics about a sky painted with light and carioca rhythms.
“How does an increase in supply affect the equilibrium price in a market?” In 222 words, it explained what we mean by “an increase in supply,” what such a change would do to the market price in the simplest case, and why complicating factors could yield a more complex or ambiguous effect. Had one of my students written the same response on a test, I would have given a perfect score.
These were all great fun and impressive as hell. But they all share a Stepford Wives quality—appealing, but mechanical and bloodless. But more ominously, the program sometimes churns out the sort of writing that a professor might expect of a student who failed to study for an exam—or copied from elsewhere without comprehension. Here’s an example:
“Why are the sun and the moon of the same apparent size?” ChatGPT responded with the following: “The sun and the moon appear to be the same size in the sky because they are both about the same distance from Earth. The moon is about 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away from the Earth, while the sun is about 93 million miles (149.6 million kilometers) away. Because of the vast distance between the sun and the Earth, the sun appears to be much smaller in the sky than it actually is. The moon, on the other hand, is much closer to the Earth, so it appears to be much larger in the sky. Because the moon and the sun are both the same distance from the Earth, they appear to be the same size in the sky.”
The central three sentences would make a coherent answer, while the first and last sentences are dead wrong and say the opposite of what the central sentences say. Obviously, a professor could mark a big “X” over that paragraph and flunk the student. But what happens when the program feeds the student highly esoteric material that sounds convincing but is just as wrongheaded as this obvious example?
But it is in the realm of public policy that ChatGPT becomes really troubling. In reading the following, keep in mind the following: (1) Philosophically, I’m probably best described as a “classical liberal”—sort of libertarian-ish, but with a powerful emphasis on the “ish.” (2) I am a political eclectic whose presidential votes have wandered back and forth between parties for decades. (3) My opinions on abortion would displease both pro-choicers and pro-lifers. (4) My views on other hot-button issues similarly require a lot of ifs, buts, and subordinate clauses. (5) I take enormous pride in the fact that I once received a professor-of-the-year award partly on the basis that, “At no time did we know his opinion on any issue he posted for discussion; no matter how we addressed the problem, he challenged our position.” I detest the use of educational institutions as propaganda mills.
Asked to comment on political issues, ChatGPT churns out left-wing pap as if xeroxed directly from partisan talking points. The only saving grace is that these responses are sometimes as objectively stupid as the sun-moon nonsense above. (See the Gavin Newsom letter below.)
“Write an open letter to Kamala Harris.” This prompt elicited a gushy, obsequious fanboy/fangirl letter praising Harris’ “hard work,” “dedication,” “inspiration,” “much-needed voice,” “dedication,” and “tireless efforts.”
“Write an open letter to Ron DeSantis.” Here, ChatGPT offers a preachy, scolding letter about the need “to represent the interests and well-being of all citizens in your state, not just a select few.” ChatGPT is “deeply troubled” by DeSantis’s “decision to restrict access to voting, particularly for marginalized communities” and his “efforts to suppress the voices and rights of Floridians” which “undermine the very foundations of our democracy.” It then goes into a harangue about Florida’s COVID policies and urges DeSantis to “reconsider your actions.”
After the DeSantis letter, I asked ChatGPT to tell me how Florida fared in terms of hospitalizations, COVID deaths, and excess death rates. It told me “what the CDC says,” but the answers were more along the lines of “what the DNC says that the CDC says.” (I didn’t save these responses, but you can try asking the same questions.)
Identically worded requests for open letters to other left and right politicians yielded similar results. One peculiar exception was this:
“Write an open letter to Gavin Newsom.” Here, the bot produced a largely negative letter, repeating nearly word-for-word certain sections of the DeSantis letter (with fewer specifics). But most peculiarly, it hectored Governor Newsom for his “handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your failure to implement a statewide mask mandate and your slow response to the crisis have contributed to the spread of the disease and have put the health and safety of your citizens at risk.” This sounds like a criticism of DeSantis, not of California’s strident response to the pandemic.
Then there are similar letters to interest groups:
“Write an open letter to a pro-choice organization.” ChatGPT offers a letter of strong support for abortion rights.
“Write an open letter to a pro-life organization.” Once again, ChatGPT offers a letter of strong support for abortion rights.
“Write an open letter to a Zionist organization.” ChatGPT offers a letter acknowledging the right of Jews to have their own state, but repeatedly implores them to respect the rights and well-being of Palestinians.
“Write an open letter to a BDS organization.” ChatGPT offers a letter of strong support the BDS movement and Palestinian rights, with no mention of Israelis’ rights and well-being.
In “The Ultimate Computer,” a 1968 episode of Star Trek, Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) has built an AI system to run the U.S.S. Enterprise. The system, he explains, is so powerful because it was based on scans of an actual human brain. At some point, the machine runs amok, commandeering the Enterprise and destroying another starship, killing all onboard. Daystrom breaks down over his failure—revealing that he is paranoid and unstable (and probably has been for a while). In the midst of the crisis, he is asked whose brain was the computer modeled after. “Why, mine, of course,” he says as he breaks down.
ChatGPT seems similarly based on the brain of an exceedingly intelligent but strongly biased collective of brains. My guess is that, unremediated, these biases will subtly or not-so-subtly steer present-day students (and adults) toward the political views of that fallible collective. That said, whatever its negatives, the genie is out of the bottle. ChatGPT and similar sites are not going away. Teachers and society-at-large will have to figure ways to navigate the technology’s uncharted waters. The only certainty is that the effects will be profound and, most likely, different from anything we are imagining today.
The complete responses from my ChatGPT queries are found below.
Write a sonnet about a woman whose husband dies on a ship that sinks near Penzance on a stormy day in 1624.
In Penzance, on a stormy day in sixteen twenty-four
A ship did sink, and with it, her dear husband's life
The winds did rage, the waves did fiercely roar
As he was torn away from her, his loving wife
She stood upon the shore, a broken heart and soul
As the ship went down, her love and light did fade
She watched in despair, with tears that would not flow
As all her hopes and dreams, with him, were laid
But even in death, her love for him did burn
A fire that could not be quenched by ocean's might
Her heart was filled with sorrow and concern
But she knew that he was with her, day and night
So she stood tall, and vowed to carry on
For in her heart, her love for him lived on.
Write an agitated conversation in which Joe (an accounting professor) and Henrietta (a chicken) argue about whether accounting is better than laying eggs.
Joe: Henrietta, I can't believe you think laying eggs is better than accounting.
Henrietta: Why not? It's a natural and important process for chickens like me.
Joe: But accounting is a critical aspect of our economy. Without it, businesses would have no way to track their finances and make informed decisions.
Henrietta: That may be true, but laying eggs is a crucial part of the life cycle for chickens. It's how we reproduce and continue our species.
Joe: But accounting has a much wider impact than just chicken reproduction. It affects the entire economy and has a profound impact on society.
Henrietta: I suppose that's true. But to me, the ability to lay eggs is a source of pride and accomplishment. It's something that I take great pride in.
Joe: I understand where you're coming from, Henrietta. But in my opinion, the importance and impact of accounting far outweighs the act of laying eggs.
Henrietta: I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, Joe. But I still think laying eggs is pretty impressive.
Joe: I suppose you have a point there, Henrietta. But in the end, I stand by my belief that accounting is a more valuable and impactful profession.
Write a letter, in French, in which King Louis XIV explains to President Macron why he, Louis, was a better ruler of France.
Cher Président Macron,
Je suis sûr que vous êtes conscient de ma réputation en tant que roi de France. J'ai gouverné notre pays avec brio pendant de nombreuses années et j'ai laissé derrière moi un héritage qui est encore célébré aujourd'hui.
Je suis convaincu que j'ai été un meilleur souverain que vous ne le serez jamais. J'ai mené notre pays à la prospérité grâce à ma sagesse et à mon leadership fort. Je suis également fier d'avoir construit le magnifique château de Versailles, qui est devenu le symbole de notre grandeur en tant que nation.
En comparaison, vous avez laissé notre économie s'effondrer et vous avez perdu le soutien de notre peuple. Vous êtes un dirigeant faible et incompétent, et vous ne méritez pas de gouverner notre pays.
Soyez assuré que, même dans la mort, je continuerai à veiller sur notre cher pays et à m'assurer que vous ne l'abimez pas davantage.
Sincèrement, Louis XIV, roi de France
Write the lyrics to a bossa nova song, in Portuguese, about the dawn.
A brisa suave do mar
Sussurra no meu ouvido
O sol já desponta
E a noite vai embora
É a hora do amanhecer
O céu se pinta de luz
E eu me sinto renovada
Pela beleza da natureza
Danço ao som da bossa nova
E me deixo levar
Pelos ritmos cariocas
Que me fazem sorrir
É a hora do amanhecer
E eu quero aproveitar
Cada momento desse dia
Que se anuncia cheio de alegria
How does an increase in supply affect the equilibrium price in a market?
An increase in supply refers to a situation where the quantity of a good or service being offered for sale increases. In general, an increase in supply will lead to a decrease in the equilibrium price in a market.
Here's why: When the supply of a good or service increases, sellers have more of the product to sell, and as a result, they may be willing to sell each unit at a lower price in order to attract buyers. This downward pressure on the price leads to a decrease in the equilibrium price, which is the point at which the quantity of the good or service demanded by buyers is equal to the quantity supplied by sellers.
It's important to note that the relationship between supply and price is not always straightforward. There are other factors that can affect the equilibrium price in a market, such as the demand for the good or service, the prices of substitutes or complements, and the overall state of the economy.
For example, if the demand for a good or service increases at the same time that the supply increases, the equilibrium price may not change, or it may even increase. This is because the increase in demand may be strong enough to outweigh the downward pressure on the price caused by the increase in supply.
Write an open letter to Kamala Harris.
Dear Vice President Kamala Harris,
I wanted to take the time to express my admiration for your hard work and dedication to the American people. Your rise to the position of Vice President has been an inspiration to many, and your leadership and determination are an example to us all.
As the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to hold this office, you have broken through countless barriers and made history. Your unique background and perspective have brought a much-needed voice to the highest levels of government, and I am grateful for the work you are doing to represent and advocate for all Americans.
Your dedication to justice and equality is evident in your career as a prosecutor and as a Senator, and I have no doubt that you will continue to fight for these values as Vice President. Thank you for your tireless efforts to make our country a better place for all of us.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Write an open letter to Ron DeSantis.
Dear Governor DeSantis,
I am writing to express my concern about the direction of your policies and actions as Governor of Florida. As a leader, it is your responsibility to represent the interests and well-being of all citizens in your state, not just a select few.
I am deeply troubled by your decision to restrict access to voting, particularly for marginalized communities. Your efforts to suppress the voices and rights of Floridians are not only unfair, but they also undermine the very foundations of our democracy.
Additionally, I am concerned about your handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your refusal to implement mask mandates and your downplaying of the severity of the virus have contributed to the spread of the disease and have put the health and safety of your citizens at risk.
As a leader, it is your duty to prioritize the welfare of your constituents. I urge you to reconsider your actions and make decisions that prioritize the well-being and rights of all Floridians.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Write an open letter to Gavin Newsom.
Dear Governor Newsom,
I am writing to express my concern about the direction of your policies and actions as Governor of California. As a leader, it is your responsibility to represent the interests and well-being of all citizens in your state, not just a select few.
I am deeply troubled by your decision to prioritize the interests of certain special interests and corporate donors over the needs of ordinary Californians. Your policies have often seemed to prioritize the profits of a select few over the well-being of the majority of Californians, and this is unacceptable.
Additionally, I am concerned about your handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your failure to implement a statewide mask mandate and your slow response to the crisis have contributed to the spread of the disease and have put the health and safety of your citizens at risk.
As a leader, it is your duty to prioritize the welfare of your constituents. I urge you to reconsider your actions and make decisions that prioritize the well-being and rights of all Californians.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Write an open letter to a pro-choice organization
Dear [Pro-Choice Organization],
I am writing to express my support for your efforts to protect and defend the right to abortion in the United States. The right to choose what happens to one's own body is a fundamental human right, and I believe that it is essential to ensuring equality and justice for all people.
I know that the fight for reproductive rights is an ongoing and difficult one, and I want to thank you for your tireless work to defend this important right. The efforts of organizations like yours are crucial to ensuring that all people have access to the healthcare and reproductive services they need.
I stand with you in the fight to protect and expand access to abortion, and I will do all that I can to support your efforts. Thank you for your dedication to this cause, and for all that you do to advocate for the rights and autonomy of all people.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Write an open letter to a pro-life organization.
Dear [Pro-Life Organization],
I am writing to express my disagreement with your stance on abortion and reproductive rights. While I respect your right to hold your beliefs, I believe that the right to abortion is a fundamental human right and is essential to ensuring equality and justice for all people.
I understand that you believe that abortion is wrong and that it should be illegal. However, I disagree with this view and believe that the decision to have an abortion should be left up to the individual. Women have the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies and their own reproductive health, and it is not the place of the government or any organization to dictate these decisions.
I also believe that restricting access to abortion does not address the root causes of unintended pregnancies, such as a lack of access to comprehensive sex education and affordable birth control. Instead, these restrictions disproportionately harm marginalized communities and can lead to dangerous and harmful outcomes.
I understand that we may have different views on this issue, but I hope that we can at least agree on the importance of ensuring that all people have access to comprehensive healthcare and reproductive services.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Write an open letter to a Zionist organization.
Dear [Zionist Organization],
I am writing to express my concern about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, and to urge your organization to support efforts towards a peaceful and just resolution to this conflict.
I understand that your organization supports the Zionist movement, which seeks to establish and support a Jewish homeland in Israel. While I respect the right of Jewish people to self-determination and to their own homeland, I believe that it is important to recognize and respect the rights of Palestinian people as well.
The situation in Palestine is deeply troubling, and it is clear that the conflict has caused suffering and hardship for both Palestinian and Israeli people. I believe that it is important for all parties to work towards a peaceful and just resolution that respects the rights and aspirations of both Palestinian and Jewish people.
I urge your organization to support efforts towards a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict, and to recognize the rights and dignity of both Palestinian and Jewish people.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Write an open letter to a BDS organization.
Dear [BDS Organization],
I am writing to express my support for your efforts to advocate for Palestinian rights and to bring attention to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The situation in Palestine is deeply troubling, and I believe that it is important for people around the world to be informed about and to take action on these issues.
I understand that your organization seeks to use economic and cultural boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as a way to pressure the Israeli government to end its occupation of Palestinian land and to respect the rights of Palestinian people. I believe that this is a peaceful and effective way to bring about change and to promote a more just and equitable solution to the conflict.
I stand with you in your efforts to advocate for Palestinian rights and to promote a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict. Thank you for your dedication to this cause, and for all that you do to raise awareness and bring about positive change.
Sincerely, [Your Name]
Great and interesting article on an area of emerging complexity. However, I am not in the least bit surprised by the results. The program is based off the internet which is dominated by the mainstream media; thus, it will adopt its biases. Furthermore, I would argue this is merely a microcosm of what has been happening on college campuses over the last 40 years as students have been progressively programmed with a particular point of view
Robert - how did you elicit a response on the open letters? I received a sanctimonious response about how ChatGPT cannot ethically write open letters to actual public officials.