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    nmw 15:27:59 on 2016/07/12 Permalink
    Tags: academia, academic, , , , , , , , bandwagon, bandwagon effect, , , , , , , , , , compute, , corrupt, corrupted, corruption, , , , , , , group think, groupthink, , , , , , , , , , , , , majority, , , , , populism, populist, , , rason, , , , , , , scientific method, , , systemic, , , trusted, , , universities, , valid, validity, vote, votes, voting, ,   

    The Spectre of Populism 

    There is a spectre haunting the Web: That spectre is populism.

    Let me backtrack a moment. This piece is a part of an ongoing series of posts about „rational media“ – a concept that is still not completely hard and fast. I have a hunch that the notion of „trust“ is going to play a central role… and trust itself is also an extremely complex issue. In many developed societies, trust is at least in part based on socially sanctioned institutions (cf. e.g. „The Social Construction of Reality“) – for example: public education, institutions for higher education, academia, etc. Such institutions permeate all of society – be it a traffic sign at the side of a road, or a crucifix as a central focal element on the alter in a church, or even the shoes people buy and walk around with on a daily basis.

    The Web has significantly affected the role many such institutions play in our daily lives. For example: one single web site (i.e. the information resources available at a web location) may be more trusted today than an encyclopedia produced by thousands of writers ever were – whether centuries ago, decades ago, or even still just a few years past.

    Similarly, another web site may very well be trusted by a majority of the population to answer any and all questions whatsoever – whether of encyclopedic nature or not. Perhaps such a web site might use algorithms – basically formulas – to arrive at a score for the „information value“ of a particular web page (the HTML encoded at one sub-location of a particular web site). A large part of this formula might involve a kind of „voting“ performed anonymously – each vote might be no more than a scratch mark presumed to indicate a sign of approval (an „approval rating“) given from disparate, unknown sources. Perhaps a company might develop more advanced methods in order to help guage whether the vote is reliable or whether it is suspect (for example: one such method is commonly referred to as a „nofollow tag“ – a marker indicating that the vote should not be trusted).

    What many such algorithms have in common is that on a very basic level, they usually rely quite heavily on some sort of voting mechanism. This means they are fundamentally oriented towards populism – the most popular opinion is usually viewed as the most valid point of view. This approach is very much at odds with logic, the scientific method and other methods that have traditionally (for several centuries, at least) be used in academic institutions and similar „research“ settings. At their core, such populist algorithms are not „computational“ – since they rely not on any kind of technological solution to questions, but rather scan and tally up the views of a large number of human (and/or perhaps robotic) „users“. While such populist approaches are heralded as technologically advanced, they are actually – on a fundamental level – very simplistic. While I might employ such methods to decide which color of sugar-coated chocolate to eat, I doubt very much that I, personally, would rely on such methods to make more important – for example: „medical“ – decisions (such as whether or not to undergo surgery). I, personally, would not rely on such populist methods much more than I would rely on chance. As an example of the kind of errors that might arise from employing such populist methods, consider the rather simple and straightforward case that some of the people voting could in fact be color-blind.

    Yet that is just the beginning. Many more problems lurk under the surface, beyond the grasp of merely superficial thinkers. Take, for example, the so-called „bandwagon effect“ – namely, that many people are prone to fall into a sort of „follow the leader“ kind of „groupthink“. Similarly, it is quite plausible that such bandwagon effects could even influence not only people’s answers, but even also the kinds of questions they feel comfortable asking (see also my previous post). On a more advanced level, complex systems may be also be influenced by the elements they comprise. For example: While originally citation indexes were designed with the assumption that such citation data ought to be reliable, over the years it was demonstrated that such citations are indeed very prone to be corrupted by a wide variety of corruption errors and that citation analysis is indeed not at all a reliable method. While citation data may have been somewhat reliable originally, it became clear that eventually citation fraud corrupted the system.

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    nmw 16:58:00 on 2016/06/13 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , celeb, celebrities, , celebs, , dictators, , , , , , , , , , mesmerization, mesmerize, mesmerized, , politician, politicians, , , , , , scientific method, , , , , , ,   

    The Big Data Rationality of Large Numbers: Quantitative Statistics + Fanatical Delusions 

    There are virtually innumerable fans of so-called „big data“. Countless fanatics of this quasi-scientific method will swear on a stack of bibles that if you count anything – it really doesn’t matter what, as that minute detail will certainly „emerge“ from the data itself – you will be rewarded with insights beyond your wildest dreams. Such descendents of bean-counters from previous centuries have moved on to grains of sand, dust particles, the colors of a beautiful sunset, whatever.

    These people may strongly believe in science – without actually understanding much about scientific methods.

    There seems to be a link between such lacking understanding and fanaticism. Let’s go back to one of the greatest leaders of fanatical movements ever: Adolf Hitler was probably one of the most (if not even the most) quintessial dictators of all times. I think what many people overlook, though, in this example is not that he was able to mesmerize such humungous masses, but rather how the masses let themselves become mesmerized.

    Fans follow leaders (perhaps they should instead watch the parking meters 😉 ). There is a sort of quirky rationality to this behavior: When fans follow their leader, they apparently feel they no longer have to think themselves… – they simply accept whatever their leader says (i.e., dictates). This saves energy, because thinking can be quite difficult. Not thinking is easier than thinking.

    The important takeaway is this: If people feel able to let someone else do the thinking, they seem very willing to do so. One way they feel able to enable a dictator to think for them is if / when other people seem to approve of the dictator. Other people’s approval of a dictator seems to make it „OK“ to let the dictator do as he / she pleases… – whether the dictator is a politician, a celebrity, a brand name, or anything anyone happens to be a fan (i.e., a fanatical follower) of.

    When popular brand names such as Google or Facebook sell „big data“, of course they tell naive and innocent consumers a story about how important big data is in order for consumers to be able to find leaders. What they don’t tell such consumers (as those people who are willing to believe this story) is that the „big data“ plans are actually all about tracking consumer behavior. What they don’t tell advertisers is that the consumer behavior they track actually isn’t actually a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but merely a fanatical delusion hardly worth any more than a single grain of sand.

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    nmw 13:58:37 on 2016/06/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , Gustav Le Bon, impression, impressionability, impressions, influence, Law of large numbers, , , , , , , , , repitition, , scientific method, , , ,   

    The Rationality of Large Numbers 

    This is a huge topic – I will not be able to cover it in a single post, not even in just a few posts. What I want to do here and now is to introduce the topic, and to describe why I feel it is so immensely important.

    First: What do I mean by „large numbers“. Oddly, I am not even exactly sure myself. I think I mean at least two things. Most directly and obviously, I mean the statistical and research methodology that is a cornerstone of the scientific method which has been used with such resounding success for hundreds of years already. Basically, this has to do with large populations (whether of people, of atoms or of other things), and how there seem to be quite predictable relationships between characteristics of populations and characteristics of individual members of such populations. Although I do not mean to diminish the importance of the insights gained from such statistical analysis, one point that often seems to get overlooked is that it is nonetheless a belief system – much like a religion, we believe that atoms (and similar properties of phenomena we refer to collectively as „the hard sciences“) behave in accordance to such laws (as „the law of large numbers“) throughout the universe. Nonetheless, to call the entire scientific method into question because of this one intriguing point would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Let me turn to a much more disconcerting issue with respect to the notion of large numbers. In the scientific approach, it seems quite clear that the aim is to be able to make predictions about populations which basically result from the way a large number of individual members of these populations function. There is, however, also a much more controversial matter – namely, that large populations may also have an impact on individual members. Although this may not be obvious when talking about atoms or similar „inanimate“ phenomena, one would be quite hard pressed to maintain that one single bird is not influenced by actions of the flock, or that one single human is not affected by actions of a mob of people which he or she is a member of.

    Beyond that, over the past century or so it has become blatantly obvious that individuals are not only influenced by actual mobs, but that are even prone to change their behavior on the basis of merely a percieved influence of mobs. The groundbreaking insights of Gustav Lebon at the close of the 19th Century were used with amazing „success“ throughout the 20th Century, and they are still being used today. In many – no: in the vast majority of – countries today, the vast majority of the population believe that the „top result“ for any search using google.com are validated by the vast majority of the population worldwide. Similarly, advertisements shown on facebook.com or on the screens of smartphones are assumed to be backed „by the numbers“.

    In this sense, one can quite reasonably argue that „belief in Google“, „belief in Facebook“, etc. are on par with belief in other religious organizations and/or belief in some kind of infallible oracle.

    At the same time (over the past century or so), there have been significant advances in the scientific approaches used to measure and improve the effectivity of propaganda and manipulation. Today advertising has become something akin to the gold standard of validation with respect to new ideas, innovation and anything modern, successful and/or technologically advanced. I remember seeing billboards advertising apple products nearly everywhere about 10 years ago, and such overwheming repitition was a nearly everpresent and constant reminder that apple was „where it’s at“, plain and simple because apple was everywhere. Today, „everywhere“ has also even eradicated the traditional distinction between „editorial“ and „advertising“ once used in „traditional“ publishing. Today, the „newsfeed“ is populated with many advertisements and product placements, and the vast majority of news consumers view this as a sign of success.

  • Profile photo of nmw

    nmw 11:56:34 on 2016/04/28 Permalink
    Tags: assert, assertion, assertions, assertive, , , believe, believing, communicate, communicating, , , communicative, dumb, , evident, , , , , , , , , , methodology, , , , outspoken, , , , , scientific method, speak, speak out, , , , , , , , , , ,   


    If you believe something to be true, but do not assert your belief, then you are probably dumb. 😉


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