Littlewood’s Law in Media

Check this out.

What’s your gut reaction?

If Moontower Musings are doing their job then many of you will have smelled a trap and wondered “well how many cardiologists are there?”

The excerpt was taken from a Slatestar’s post Cardiologists and Chinese Robbers (Link). He discusses parallels in “Chinese robbers”, police brutality, and basically any anomaly that can be summed without context to indicate a trend.

Littlewood’s Law

“In the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month”

Applying Littlewood to the news, Gwern writes:

There will be enough ‘miracles’ that all media coverage of events can potentially be composed of nothing but extreme chance chances, even though it would seem like an ‘extraordinary’ claim to say that all media-reported events may be flukes. 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.

Inoculate Yourself

He maintains that your best defense remains standard techniques like critical thinking, emphasizing trends & averages, and demanding original sources can help fight the biasing effect of news.

Here’s an easy trick you can use every day. When you encounter cases where anecdotes are used to paint a picture, instead of jumping to horror, retrain your mind to ask “what is the denominator?”

Unfortunately, connectivity combined with the existence of billions of humans will lead to news which distorts reality. I don’t see any supply-side solution to this. Extremes sell. The human love of narrative is a biological backdoor that media holds a key to. It takes mental effort to be constantly critical. To constantly question how stories are framed. For a mild taxonomy of narrative fallacies and how to spot them Art of Manliness gets you started. (Link)

Gwern has some satirical recommendations for the journos. His intentionally naive belief that news is about signal and not clicks is cute. Some of my favorites:

  • 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 an 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 as the first anecdote.
  • A “proportional newspaper” might allocate space by geographic region populations, so there’s a giant void with a tiny little 2-line wire item for Africa, while the (much smaller) USA section requires a microscope.
  • 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.


The Cost of Taking The Bait

The news’ incentives plus our susceptibility to stories strand us in a suboptimal equilibrium. The distortions are insidious and distributed.

How do they darken our world?

1) Healthy skepticism is your best-case scenario

Back to Slatestar’s cardiologist’s example:

If you read Part I of this post and found yourself nodding along, thinking “Wow, cardiologists are real creeps, there must be serious structural problems in the cardiology profession, something must be done about them,” consider it evidence that a sufficiently motivated individual – especially a journalist! – can make you feel that way about any group.

So what are your options?

  • Put no effort into learning how to reason and be an easy mark for charlatans, pseudoscience, ads, politicians.
  • Go to a Penn & Teller show to start a life-long journey into skepticism

Nobody actively chooses to be a sucker, so this is a classic Hobson’s choice. You might not check out P&T but you do try to be critical. So you must find a way to be skeptical without becoming cynical. If my own experience is any indication I’d expect many of you to agree that this is a difficult line to walk.

2) We glorify extremes 

Dr. Oz and the media will highlight whenever a patient appears to benefit from one of his quack remedies. But no story will be written about the patients who did not get better using his tips. Sure that’s frustrating, but by now you are immune to that trick even if the masses are not (given how rich Dr. Oz is I’m pretty sure I’m not underestimating the public here).

But here’s a more speculative cost of glorifying extremes. School shootings. The gun control issue is important, but I’m a seller of it being the entire issue. The social mirroring aspect feels like it is not given enough weight. The question of whether they are contagious, and if so, why and to what extent feels underexplored. Malcolm Gladwell is only a scientist by airport bookstore standards so we know to take him with a heap of salt, but his riot threshold model is worth a peek.

My own feeling about the rise in shootings is strongly tied to a vague sense of how social media and traditional media feedback on each other which is highly coincident with how modern the epidemic really is. Gladwell’s theory happened to tie it together in a way that made me feel that I wasn’t alone in thinking social dynamics are the biggest driver.

  • I first caught wind of his take from a 10-minute talk at the New Yorker Festival. (Link)
  • If you prefer a 3rd party take on his theory, Derek Thompson gives it his characteristically balanced treatment. (Link)

If you are new to Moontower, you can find my own views about consuming the news here.

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