Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Littlewood’s Law and the global media (gwern.net)
49 points by Symmetry on Feb 14, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 9 comments

If the bias was random, this would be less worrisome. However the bias is not random at all.

In particular we are biased towards stories that grab our attention. Which means that they scare us, they outrage us, they confirm our biases, and so on. Media is then incentivized to present them because those are the stories that get clicks.

A wonderful book laying out the incentives in detail is, Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday.

And a wonderful book demonstrating how our world view gets twisted by this is Enlightenment Now. Despite most of us feeling that the world is a dangerous place and getting more so, on every measure that we can find, it has never been so good. Someone blows up a bomb on a bus? Everyone gets scared. A quarter million people are lifted out of extreme poverty yesterday? Nobody hears about it.

In fact blowing up a bomb on a bus is rare. A quarter million people lifted out of extreme poverty in a day is common place - that was the average for every day across a the last couple of decades.

So you can't just discount rare events. You also have to understand how the reporting and your mind is biased and actively work to bring it back to reality.

This is fascinating to me.

Basically with massively large numbers of people online statistically improbable things come up with regularity and it's hard to trust the validity of a lone voice.

One of the themes I really liked in Neal Stephenson's Anathem was the role in of the Ita in filtering information and rating sources.

Obviously it's a work of fiction but the idea that you reach a point in time where nothing can be trusted on the internet with very sophisticated filtering is really interesting.

I note that where we used to rely on media corporations to filter out bad information that's now sacrificed for entertainment value. e.g. Netflix allow Gwyneth Paltrow to show here "wellness" show because it's entertaining event though it's clearly bollocks.

If you know it's just "entertainment" then that's fine you can judge it as such but there's a lot of people that will hear it and say something along the lines of "Western medicine doesn't know everything" and assume it's OK to put jade eggs where the sun doesn't shine.

We almost filter in bad information because it's entertaining. It's as if the world has got bored of living in a safe, reliable, technocratic, boring, opaque society, and instead decided to incite someone to stab it to death like the boy in the story.

People talk about media bubbles, but I think these days we're far less bubbled than we were in the past - anything "big" enough goes global, it's just the spin on the coverage that varies.

I do wish it was easier to avoid consuming so much US news and current affairs in the UK; it leaks all over both social media and other media. It's much more likely that you'll be told what's happening in Iowa than in Birmingham (UK), and I think this is increasingly a problem.

I've often had an experience, when reading or watching a fictionalized account of some dramatic thing from history, where I feel exasperated that they didn't just use the real story - "Why would they make this up?? The thing that actually happened was just as crazy, except it was real!" I scream inside my head. So people end up thinking history is boring and needs to be spiced up.

As you say, people are bored, but my opinion is that it's mostly because we think the world (and history and science, etc.) is boring, not because it's actually boring.

"Tell you what's weird, though, do you remember years ago, we used to think the news was boring? Oh, my God, golden days."

HBO/BBC Years and Years

I had a very strange election night last December - a colleague had recommended Years and Years during election day so I ended up watching 4 episodes alternating with the election results shows - was very confused the next day as to which was which....

> I note that where we used to rely on media corporations to filter out bad information that's now sacrificed for entertainment value. e.g. Netflix allow Gwyneth Paltrow to show here "wellness" show because it's entertaining event though it's clearly bollocks.

But that isn't new, is it? More than a decade ago, that nonsense book The Secret was promoted by Oprah, and I'm sure there are countless more examples from even earlier.

A TL;DR from my reading of this:

As the world becomes more interconnected and both population and per capita wealth grow, the amount of information flowing into the global discourse becomes so large that "miracles" (highly anomalous events of one form or another) become commonplace. One should expect to see a shockingly bizarre coincidence, "black swan" event, unexplained observation (e.g. UFO sightings), rare crime or terror attack, etc. virtually daily.

Now add to this the fact that some percentage of people are trolls and will create hoaxes and pranks, which means not only are there many anomalies but at least some of them are entirely non-existent and you have no way of knowing which.

This is epistemologically and perhaps psychologically hazardous because we did not evolve to cope with this amount of information or breadth of sensory input.

This worries me to be honest. The mainstream media was clearly always spinning to us long before the internet came along, but at least when people broadly trusted the same sources they also broadly bought into the same spin, so at least there was agreement within the group and a degree of social cohesion as a result. The BBC and 20th Century Britain springs to mind.

This seems to be breaking down at a rapid rate though, when it's very hard to have any idea where people will stand on hugely important subjects such as climate change, geopolitics etc until you speak to them. People's opinions vary wildly seemingly based mainly on which sources they happen to trust.

I have always maintained that social cohesion isn't a real goal for any but a dictator or manipulator. It has always essentially been manufactured consent in one way or another from when unified battle lines mattered more than pesky things like "the first three ranks of soldiers will almost certainly die", "that mentality will lead to domestic problems and stunt growth" because a rout noe would ensure everyone gets either captured and enslaved, exiled with nothing, or killed. Except it has been centuries since machinegun fire makes "cohesion" a pointless slaughter brought about because they were lead by absolute idiots. And we had plenty of proverbial ones from bad decisions.

It doesn't spare us from mass delusions and disasterous decisions and is in fact a delusion in itself. It lost its few virtues so it is time to toss the once useful lie of a cohesive monoculture onto the ash heap and move on.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact