Selection effects in media become increasingly strong as populations and media increase, meaning that rare datapoints driven by unusual processes such as the mentally ill or hoaxers are increasingly unreliable as evidence of anything at all and must be ignored. At scale, anything that can happen will happen a small but nonzero times.
2018-12-15–2019-02-18 finished certainty: highly likely importance: 5
Online & mainstream media and social networking have become increasingly misleading as to the state of the world by focusing on ‘stories’ and ‘events’ rather than trends and averages. This is because as the global population increases and the scope of media increases, media’s urge for narrative focuses on the most extreme outlier datapoints—but such datapoints are, at a global scale, deeply misleading as they are driven by unusual processes such as the mentally ill or hoaxers.
At a global scale, anything that can happen will happen a small but nonzero times: this has been epitomized as “Littlewood’s Law: in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.” This must now be extended to a global scale for a hyper-networked global media covering anomalies from 8 billion people—all coincidences, hoaxes, mental illnesses, psychological oddities, extremes of continuums, mistakes, misunderstandings, terrorism, unexplained phenomena etc. Hence, there will be enough ‘miracles’ that all media coverage of events can potentially be composed of nothing but extreme outliers, even though it would seem like an ‘extraordinary’ claim to say that all media-reported events may be flukes.
This creates an epistemic environment deeply hostile to understanding reality, one which is dedicated to finding arbitrary amounts of and amplifying the least representative datapoints.
Given this, it is important to maintain extreme skepticism of any individual anecdotes or stories which are selectively reported but still claimed (often implicitly) to be representative of a general trend or fact about the world. Standard techniques like critical thinking, emphasizing trends & averages, and demanding original sources can help fight the biasing effect of news.
The paradox of news is that by design, the more you read, the less you might know, by accumulating an ever greater arsenal of facts and examples which are (usually) true, but whose interpretation bears ever less resemblance to reality. This was always true, but online/
Remember how everyone was talking about how Trump must have inspired an anti-Semitic crime wave among his supporters? And remember how some of the incidents were traced to an anti-Trump socialist working at a leftist magazine? Well, the rest of them seem to be the fault of an Israeli Jew who may have a personality-altering brain tumor. The Atlantic has a pretty good postmortem of the whole affair.1
This is an interesting one because it illustrates a version of “Littlewood’s Law of Miracles”: in a world with ~8 billion people, one which is increasingly networked and mobile and wealthy at that, a one-in-billion event will happen 8 times a month. Littlewood’s law is itself a special-case of Diaconis & Mosteller 1989’s “the Law of Truly Large Numbers”:
The Law of Truly Large Numbers. Succinctly put, the law of truly large numbers states: With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. The point is that truly rare events, say events that occur only once in a million [as the mathematician Littlewood (1953) required for an event to be surprising] are bound to be plentiful in a population of 250 million people. If a coincidence occurs to one person in a million each day, then we expect 250 occurrences a day and close to 100,000 such occurrences a year.
Going from a year to a lifetime and from the population of the United States to that of the world (5 billion at this writing), we can be absolutely sure that we will see incredibly remarkable events. When such events occur, they are often noted and recorded. If they happen to us or someone we know, it is hard to escape that spooky feeling.
Human extremes are not only weirder than we suppose, they are weirder than we can suppose.
Hate crimes, and Anti-Semitic attacks are pretty rare in any absolute sense in the USA (a country of >325m people), so it doesn’t require a common cause to account for such rare effects. A surprising number of hate crimes turn out to be hoaxes, perpetrated by a member of the targeted group; it might seem crazy for, say, a black person to fake a burning cross on their lawn or a hanging noose, but apparently every once in a while, a black person has sufficient reason to do so. The problem is, there need not be any sufficient reasons. In accounts of con artists, one of the most consistent themes is how understandable their schemes are when you appreciate how much good faith we assume and take on faith, and how otherwise miserably & pathetically understandable they and their malice is (borrowing & stealing wealth & power to fill the empty void within themselves); while in accounts of forgers, hoaxes, and fabricators, the most consistent theme is that the investigator, after exhausting all avenues, examining all minor contributing factors, unconvincingly laying out all sensible motivations like career advancement, frequently interviewing them at length only to be baffled by deflections, and lies, is finally left in silence. Why did they do it? No one knows.
If someone said, “I don’t really believe these anti-semitic hoaxes are real in the sense of a bunch of anti-Semites have been emboldened by Trump’s election, I think there’s something else going on, like maybe an employee made them up to drum up donations”, you would probably think that was excuse-making; if they had said, “I don’t believe them, maybe they’re actually fake because some schizophrenic or crazy Jew with a brain cancer & a flair for VoIP pranks did them all themselves”, you would definitely think they were desperately coming up with excuses & denying facts, and to not put too fine a point on it, that they should be ashamed of themselves for such a lack of intellectual honesty & flagrantly partisan bias.
Yet, there you have it! It is apparently a real thing, that a (self-hating?) Jew halfway across the world in Israel decided to spend all his spare time hoaxing over the Internet dozens of Jewish institutions with hate-crimes in the US post-Trump-election in part because he is an anti-social & autistic criminal, who may be driven in part by a brain tumor causing a severe personality disorder. It sounds absurdly implausible and made up—yet, among ~8 billion people, there turns out to be at least one evil brain-tumor phreaker Jew, and we all got to hear about his handiwork. “My, Earth really is full of things.”2 (One of the other culprits for the anti-semitic bomb threats, incidentally, was a liberal journalist.)
Or consider the YouTube headquarters shooting by Nasim Najafi Aghdam, unusual for being a mass shooting perpetrated by a woman, but also bizarre in that the motivation for the shooting by the self-described “first Persian female vegan bodybuilder”3 was apparently YouTube removing ads from her pro-veganism & exercise videos popular in Iran. Or how about that English kid who convinced his friend to murder him on the orders of British intelligence? Or the Darwin Awards specifically. Or parasocial relationships online in general?
Industrial accidents are similar. Rare effects do not need common causes; a freak accident may have a freak cause. In industrial accidents, post-mortems often detail a long series of unlucky chances and interacting failures which all combine to lead to the final explosion. The ‘swiss cheese model’ imagines each layer of systems as being like a slice of Swiss cheese and only when the holes of 6 or 7 layers line up, can anything fall through: The systems were always failing to some degree, but are so redundant that a total failure is avoided, until it happens, and one marvels that 7 different things all went wrong simultaneously.
Precisely because airplanes are so safe, planes no longer crash for boringly plausible reasons like “the propeller fell off the plane” or “the pilot couldn’t see the ground in the fog”, and the remaining aviation incidents now tend to be astonishing in some way; the Germanwings suicide required not just a suicidal pilot who wanted to take a whole plane with him but also abuse of post-9/
Think about scientific papers. Imagine the ideal scenario in which models are always correct, all plans are pre-registered, etc. Because of the massive exponential expansion of the academic-industrial complex worldwide post-WWII, there’s something like 1 million papers published each year; assuming (unfortunately) fairly normal research practices of testing out a few configurations on a few subsets and using a few covariates and eyeballing the data beforehand to decide on statistical approach, each paper has the equivalent of thousands of NHST tests; thus, it is entirely possible to legitimately see a p=(1 in 1 billion) or p < 0.00000005 just when the null is true (which it never is), and if you consider just the most recent set of papers from the past decade or so, you could see p < 0.0000000005. All with the null hypothesis being true. Of course, in practice, things are far worse than that. Throw in the low but non-zero base rate of fraud, questionable research practices, incorrect parametric modeling assumptions, endemic publication bias, odd phenomenon like the “lizardman constant” in surveys (where a tiny fraction of respondents will always just answer at random or give the troll answer, giving ridiculous justifications if challenged), etc, and there’s a point at which no matter how many studies there are on a particular effect, you still don’t have particularly strong belief in it because the data may simply be measuring ever more precisely the level of crud in that field rather than the substantive effect you want interpret to it as (Duhem-Quine, but for biases).
“You really think someone would do that? Just go on the Internet and tell lies?”
Can we trust film or photographs because they look real? “After all, no hoaxer would be able to or be able to afford to make such a realistic video”, right? Of course not. Not because of “Deep Fakes”, but because humanity has devoted itself with extreme assiduity to churning out millions of highly sophisticated ‘fake news’, applying its utmost ingenuity and considerable resources to… making fictional depictions of fake events, such as Hollywood movies. Many hoaxes or fakes are of high quality simply because they are recycled from commercial media, special effects, mockumentaries, etc, which have the highest standards and often are deliberately designed to erase any hints of being fiction.
Factchecking websites every day struggle with articles copied from political satire sites (like The Onion or The Babylon Bee) which get reshared and the new readers don’t realize was humor. This occurs throughout history and in the most respectable sources. To give an example, Teddy Roosevelt never rode a moose, but the original photograph editor at the respected Underwood & Underwood firm didn’t intend to ‘forge’ anything: it was simply some political humor, part of a set of 3 edited photographs along with rival presidential candidates William Howard Taft (sitting on an elephant) and Woodrow Wilson (donkey), which was dredged up and repurposed for Internet memes. (Speaking of elephants, you may have seen an elephant at an Irish riot c.1970—photoshopped for an amusing series of Irish satires, but subsequently taken for real.) More recently likely hundreds of thousands of people were convinced by a video of a school cafeteria spiked with laxatives, with students soiling themselves; after all, the prank’s so realistic, with its cellphone footage and so many different students affected by vomiting/
Nor does there need to be a ‘hoaxer’, per se: these can be emergent (a “stand alone complex”?)—perhaps someone saw a clip and didn’t notice the metadata, or posted it with no metadata and a viewer assumes it’s real and reshares it, and that is how the viral hoax comes into being. Snopes is chock-a-block with these. When it comes to media, “three men make a tiger”.
“‘What did the Men of old use them [the palantír] for?’ asked Pippin, delighted and astonished at getting answers to so many questions…‘To see far off, and to converse in thought with one another,’ said Gandalf…In the days of his wisdom Denethor would not presume to use it to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed…He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.”
Gandalf, The Return of the King
As time passes, it becomes increasingly hard to believe rare events at face value, and one has to simply “defy the data”. Sure, that video looks real, but it probably isn’t; it’s bizarre that anyone would run all those bomb hoaxes, but maybe someone did and it wasn’t a vast anti-semitic terrorism wave; and maybe the co-pilot just decided to crash the plane and it wasn’t an ISIS attack after all. At some point, you may have to simply start ignoring all anecdotes & individual datapoints because they border on zero evidence and a priori may simply be fake.
This is life in a big world, and it’s only getting bigger as the global population grows, wealth & leisure grow, and technologies advance. (If you thought humans could think & do weird things and fail in weird ways, just wait until everyone gets their hands on good AI tech!) There are billions of people out there, and anything that can go weird, will. The totalitarian principle—“Everything not forbidden is compulsory.”
Nevertheless, “it all adds up to normality”!
Because weirdness, however weird or often reported, increasingly tells us nothing about the world at large. If you lived in a small village of 100 people and you heard 10 anecdotes about bad behavior, the extremes are not that extreme, and you can learn from them (they may even give a good idea of what humans in general are like); if you live in a ‘global village’ of 10 billion people and hear 10 anecdotes, you learn… nothing, really, because those few extreme anecdotes represent extraordinary flukes which are the confluence of countless individual flukes, which will never happen again in precisely that way (an expat Iranian fitness instructor is never going to shoot up YouTube HQ again, we can safely say), and offer no lessons applicable to the billions of other people. One could live a thousand lifetimes without encountering such extremes first-hand, rather than vicariously.
This is not due to whipping boys like “social media” or “Russian trolls”—all of this would be a problem regardless. The media can report with perfect accuracy on each (genuine) incident, but the mere fact of reporting on them and us learning about such vanishingly weird incidents is itself the problem—we can’t put the proper psychological weight on it. This is not just a selection bias4, it is a selection bias which gets worse over time.
’In the autumn of 1939, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his young Cambridge student and friend Norman Malcolm were walking along the river when they saw a newspaper vendor’s sign announcing that the Germans had accused the British government of instigating a recent attempt to assassinate Hitler. When Wittgenstein remarked that it wouldn’t surprise him at all if it were true, Malcolm retorted that it was impossible because “the British were too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand, and . . . such an act was incompatible with the British ‘national character’.” Wittgenstein was furious. Some 5 years later, he wrote to Malcolm:
“Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. . . . you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends. You see, I know it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other peoples lives.”5
What can we do in self-defense?
We could start trying to structure our communications in a way which embodies the true proportions, and builds in the weighting we are unable to do.
Crime and crime rates are an easy one—falls in the crime rate should get as much space as the total of individual crimes; if a murder gets a headline, then a year with 50 fewer murders should get 50 headlines about the that reduction’s 50 non-murders (because surely avoiding a murder is as good news as a murder is bad news?).
Perhaps in one format, discussion could be weighted similar to a meta-analytic weighting of effect sizes: you are allowed to discuss both anecdotes and studies, but the number of words about a anecdote or study must be weighted by sample size.
So if you write 1 page about someone who claims X cured their dandruff, you must then write 100 pages about the study of n = 100 showing that X doesn’t cure dandruff. That’s only fair, since that study is made of 100 anecdotes, so to speak, and they are as deserving of 1 page of coverage as your first anecdote—right?
Weighting could be applied to costs & benefits as well: in a discussion of clinical trial design and bioethics of randomized experiments and whether it can be ethical to run a RCT, one could allow discussion of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (affecting 399 men as an upper bound on QALYs lost) but only if one then has proportionately much discussion of the estimates of the number of people hurt by small underpowered incorrect or delayed randomized trials (usually estimated in the millions), which might require some advanced typographic innovations to express the relevant orders of magnitude.
A “proportional newspaper” might allocate space by geographic region populations, so in today’s edition, there might be a giant void with a tiny little 2-line wire service item for Africa, while the (much smaller) USA section requires a microscope to read all the material in it.
What if one wrote movie or book summaries in a strict scaling of 100 words per X minutes/
pages, instead of relying on fading memories or a few points? After all, that’s how one has to consume them, at 1 second per second, and what the experience actually is.
It seems peculiar that reviews will describe hours of material in a few sentences, and then a 30 second scene might get a loving multi-page description and analysis, since that is not how one watches the movie, and that gives a misleading view of the movie’s pacing, if nothing else.
What if social media stopped prioritizing recent short items and instead gave visual real estate in proportion to how old something is?
Weight by age: If someone is rereading a 50-year-old essay, that should be given more proportionally more emphasis on a social media stream than a 5-minute old Tumblr post.
Historical loss: how much do we underestimate Greco-Roman science & technology, such that things like On The Nature Of Things, the Antithykera mechanism, Nemi ships, Archimedes Palimpsest, or Barbegal aqueduct and mills (Sürmelihindi et al 2018) come as shocks because we fail to grapple with the implications of ~99% of their research literature being lost & many things surviving only as lone objects or manuscripts6—and the surviving 1% severely biased towards particular authors & topics, particularly Christian-palatable ones? (Did they understand gravity or accept heliocentrism?) Citation analysis of cross-references and survival rates (capture-recapture?) would likely deliver deeply counterintuitive results about what has been censored by history.
To help visualize this, we could create a list of Greco-Roman works or achievements based on such an analysis. First page: list of known & surviving works. Second to tenth pages: list of known lost works. Tenth to hundredth pages (based on estimate of total corpus): Markov chain/
neural net gibberish (using the preceding pages as seeds/ prompts) representing the unknown lost works. (This would be even better than simply blacking-out, redaction-style, like on some historical maps, because erasure tends to be simplified in the mind, whereas rich pseudo-detail, like the Codex Seraphinianus, force one to think.)
More immediately, you should keep your eye on the ball: ask yourself regularly how useful news consumption has really been, and if you justify it as entertainment, how it makes you feel (do you feel entertained or refreshed afterwards?), and if you should spend as much time on it as you do; take Dobelli’s advice try to cut back or ignore recent news (perhaps replace a daily newspaper subscription with a weekly periodical like The Economist and especially stop watching cable news!); shift focus to topics of long-term importance rather than high-frequency noise (eg scientific rather than polling or stock market articles); don’t rely on self-selected convenience samples of news/
The world is only getting bigger.
I try to trace back “Littlewood’s Law of Miracles” to its supposed source in Littlewood’s A Mathematician’s Miscellany. It does not appear in that book, making it a leprechaun, and further investigation indicates that Littlewood did not come up with it but that Freeman Dyson coined it in 2004, probably based on the earlier “Law of Truly Large Numbers” coined by Diaconis & Mosteller 1989, in a case of Stigler’s law.
“How many people do you think there are in Nessus?”
“I have no idea.”
“No more do I, Torturer. No more does anyone. Every attempt to count them has failed, as has every attempt to tax them systematically. The city grows and changes every night, like writing chalked on a wall. Houses are built in the streets by clever people who take up the cobbles in the dark and claim the ground—did you know that? The exultant Talarican, whose madness manifested itself as a consuming interest in the lowest aspects of human existence, claimed that the persons who live by devouring the garbage of others number two gross thousands. That there are ten thousand begging acrobats, of whom nearly half are women. That if a pauper were to leap from the parapet of this bridge each time we draw breath, we should live forever, because the city breeds and breaks men faster than we respire.”
I have wondered if Wolfe was alluding to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (which was a key source for Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates), although the sources for Robb’s The Discovery of France are also plausible (perhaps conflating Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont with his quondam patron “Lord Henry Seymour”):
Every town and village was a living encyclopedia of crafts and trades. In 1886, most of the eight hundred and twenty-four inhabitants of the little town of Saint-Étienne-d’Orthe, on a low hill near the river Adour, were farmers and their dependents. Of the active population of two hundred and eleven, sixty-two had another trade: there were thirty-three seamstresses and weavers, six carpenters, five fishermen, four innkeepers, three cobblers, two shepherds, two blacksmiths, two millers, two masons, one baker, one rempailleur (upholsterer or chair-bottomer) and one witch (potentially useful in the absence of a doctor), but no butcher and no storekeeper other than two grocers. In addition to the local industries and the services provided by itinerant traders (see p. 146), most places also had snake collectors, rat catchers with trained ferrets and mole catchers who either set traps or lay in wait with a spade. There were rebilhous, who called out the hours of the night, ‘cinderellas’, who collected and sold ashes used for laundering clothes, men called tétaïres, who performed the function of a breast-pump by sucking mothers’ breasts to start the flow of milk, and all the other specialists that the census listed under ‘trades unknown’ and ‘without trade’, which usually meant gypsies, prostitutes and beggars…
As the Breton peasant Déguignet discovered to other people’s cost, begging was a profession in its own right. Beggar women sold their silence to respectable people by making lewd and compromising remarks about them in the street. They borrowed children who were diseased or deformed. They manufactured realistic sores from egg yolk and dried blood, working the yolk into a scratch to produce the full crusty effect. A judge at Rennes in 1787 reported ‘a bogus old man with a fake hump and a club foot, another man who succeeded in blacking out one eye to give a terrible, dramatic impression of blindness, and yet another who could mimic all the symptoms of epilepsy. ’Idle beggar’ was a contradiction in terms. As Déguignet insisted in his memoirs, it was no simple task to hide behind a hedgerow and to fabricate a stump or ‘a hideously swollen leg covered with rotten flesh’.
These rustic trades were also found in cities. In the 1850s, one of the first amateur anthropologists of Paris, the Caribbean writer [Alexandre] Privat d’Anglemont, set out to explain [in Paris anecdoté (1854)/ Paris Inconnu (1861); no English translations available] how seventy thousand Parisians began the day without knowing how they would survive ‘and yet somehow end up managing to eat, more or less’. The result was a valuable compendium of little-known trades. He found a man who bred maggots for anglers by collecting dead cats and dogs in his attic, women who worked as human alarm clocks (a speedy woman in a densely populated quartier could serve up to twenty clients), ‘guardian angels’ who were paid by restaurants to guide their drunken clients home, a former bear-hunter from the Pyrenees who exterminated cats, and a goatherd from the Limousin who kept a herd of goats on the fifth floor of a tenement in the Latin Quarter.
To expand a little more from Jullien 2009:
His books are filled with tales of quaint encounters, and describe the bizarre trades of old Paris. The reader is introduced to a killer of cats, who sells the skins as sable and the flesh as rabbit (113), a painter of turkey feet, expert at giving them the glossy look of freshly killed fowl (50), a breeder of maggots for the many fishermen of Paris (23), a retailer of used bread crusts to feed rabbits (52), a guardian angel who escorts drunks back home safely (66), a maker of artificial rooster crests (116), a renter of leeches to patients who cannot afford to buy them (121), and—strangest of all—even a lyric poet who makes a living with his poetry (139). The list goes on.
Milord l’Arsouille, a.k.a Lord Henry Seymour (1801–1859), the eccentric English millionaire who held court in the Paris slums, haunts the final pages of the book (228–240). Although Privat never met him in person, but only heard of him, he is the benign ghost who provides the author with a kind of aristocratic patronage. Milord l’Arsouille, often emulated (but never surpassed) by young and wealthy Parisians, became a legend for the poor people, a real-life replica of Eugène Sue’s Rodolphe Gerolstein, the hero of his fantastically popular serial novel Les Mystèresde Paris (1843)…Like Prince Rudolph, Milord L’Arsouille is a protector of the weak and punisher of the evil, and outrageous anecdotes proliferate around him (239–240).
The difficulty of doing veganism safely, or its compatibility with athleticism is apparently a sore point for vegans, given the online popularity of vegan gurus claiming to do both but who then eventually are discovered to be hypocrites & expelled.↩︎
Describing the news or media as having a “selection bias problem” is a bit odd, and like describing bombs as having a mortality problem; arguably, the sole function of the news is to be a giant global selection bias.↩︎
Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir and a Biographical Sketch by G. H. Von Wright, Second ed., with Wittgenstein’s Letters to Malcolm 1984, pg 30, pg35 (emphasis in original).↩︎
What are the odds that we would discover surviving in a shipwreck the only Antithykera mechanism, or that such an extraordinarily compact, precision-engineered, elaborate object was the first and only such one? Astronomically small, one might say.↩︎
Not that any source is 100% reliable, but at least tracing it back eliminates the many serious distortions which happen along the way. I can’t count how many times I’ve found leprechauns when I traced back a claim or story to its original source or paper, and discovered that they had buried the lede or a major caveat had been left out, the original was fake or otherwise worthless, or the original actually said the opposite of what had finally been relayed to me. (And often the best & most interesting version is the original, anyway.)↩︎