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Good essay. It really made me think about the problem of expert credibility, social media and nuance. Have you ever heard of Solution Aversion? It's a neat little bit of research which shows that the only difference which smart people demonstrate when asked to evaluate empirical evidence which contradicts a previously held belief is that they are able to come up with more means of discrediting said piece of evidence. I think this a highly informative piece of research, because it not only shows how human distributed networks tend to polarise, but also holds the key to understanding another phenomenon- the tendency of people to commit to an evidence gathering exercise which makes them believe that a problem they've been studying is far more serious than it actually is.

A good example of this would be climate change. Anybody who has read IPCC reports and summaries directly for more than a decade will know that although climate change is a very serious long-term problem, there is no feasible scenario which makes climate change an existential threat or a civilisation destroyer other than Black Swan events. I don't want to get into too much detail, but it's relatively easy to research online the assumptions that went into RCP/SSP 8.5 and see they bear no relation to a business as usual scenario an in all probably the current worst case scenario for 2100 is the Rocky Road scenario. Anyway, I was more interested in climate change as a means of explaining how governmental and institutional forces can find themselves exaggerating a problem as a means of attempting the galvanise a shift in public policy, only to find themselves in danger of losing their institutional credibility. The aims may be noble but the results are predictably catastrophic.

Here's why. The ability to detect dissembling, managed narratives or even information massaging and utilising fear as a means of inducing behavioural change simply doesn't correlate with general intelligence. If anything, the highly cognitive and highly educated have a blind spot in this regard because class affinity means that they far more likely to believe that 'people like them' are going to be more likely to be operating from 'pure' motives. The same simply isn't true of most of the population in Western countries- although 50% of the American population might possess 'some college', it's highly likely that only around 20% fit the educational background necessary to confer an automatic belief in the credibility of experts. Whose still, those who do tend to occupy elite governmental and institutional roles are highly susceptible to groupthink, because they tend to drastically overestimate support for their policies and ideas within the population. A good example of this would be the progressive component of pre-Musk Twitter. Progressives accounted for 50% of all tweets, despite being only 8% of the population.

So how did the UK differ in its handling of vaccines and Covid restrictions? Well, although the legacy media supported an elite narrative, the British government adopted a 'warts and all' approach to furnishing information. Government websites quickly admitted that their had been vaccines deaths including mRNA deaths, but that they were exceptionally rare. Even the most fringe conspiracy sites stuck to a limit of 1,000 vaccine deaths from AstraZeneca and 1,000 vaccine deaths from mRNA- in a population where roughly 90% of the over 18 category received the initial double jab.

It's also worth noting that although vaccine uptakes were high in the initial round of vaccinations, booster shots had a much lower rate of uptake. This is because although the British government acquitted itself pretty well on access to unvarnished and unmassaged data, it also quickly got itself into the habit of producing drastically overegged worst case scenarios for Covid case projections trying to induce people to change behaviour. What made matters worse was that although the Tories never actually went ahead on introducing vaccine status based restrictions (over than on flights), they continuously raised the spectre- and large segments of the British public, coded along lines of class rather than political affiliation quickly developed a reluctance to take further vaccines.

My final point is nuance. For anyone who has studied the data it quickly becomes apparent that the only time that lockdowns actually worked was right at the very start of the pandemic. This isn't because lockdowns actually stopped the virus (sea barriers being the exception). It's because it limited the initial wave of infections to relatively young and healthy real economy workers dealing with the public. In effect, it provided a limited from of herd immunity by infecting individuals who would have otherwise acted as super spreaders. But how many people would be willing to concede both that locking down two weeks earlier in most countries would have saved lives, whilst also agreeing that after this initial wave lockdowns became relatively ineffective- or at least only effective insofar as they convinced particularly vulnerable elderly individuals to cut off all human contact, other than the occasional open air contact with a delivery driver or a family member?

This can teach us a lot about how to maintain institutional credibility. First, furnish a 'warts and all' approach to information management. Second, no matter how noble the aim, don't try to massage the information to produce a morally beneficial result. Trust is more important, and people can see right through experts trying to persuade. Third, don't use fear- as we've seen with recent populist rejections of green policies, persuasion is far more likely to obtain far better results than fear aimed at producing behavioural change.

And if you doubt this last point- exactly how many additional days of annual leave did you get last year for using socially responsible green methods of getting to and from work? if it was less than three- they really haven't even begun to try to persuade people...

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I agree with this. I did not know the research you quoted is called "Solution Aversion" but I knew about it

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Have you ever read Deepak Malhotra's The Peacemaker's Code? It's a great sci fi about moral constraints and the ways in which fear can affect group dynamics and decision making, and informative when one considers the sphere of foreign relations. I think this sort of observation has an even deeper impact in terms of domestic politics. Many are now talking about behaviour change as a means of solving climate change. Persuasion is the far safer and more effective route.

A fear-based approach is always going to appeal to the more comfortable and higher status, but it's always going to seen as dystopian by the economically insecure. Unfortunately, whilst government often tries its best- top-down 'man of systems' approaches are never iterative- they can harm, even if the goal is noble, for the simple reason that no matter how far we progress society will always be unequal and prices will rise in specific areas (like housing) to place many in a precarious position.

Where government has been quite successful in the past is in hiding the the hidden costs. Unfortunately, this won't be true for much longer as China's gamble on the developmental costs of developing a nuclear energy industry appears to be likely to succeed- with some predicting prices per KWh to drop to 5c, now they've invested the developmental money (there is a great MIT paper out there about how the cost of nuclear is intrinsically linked to in-project design changes, from first in a generation tech).

The next step is transport. Personally, I don't think EVs are going to succeed- for the simple reason that input mineral costs have risen precipitously in recent years at exactly the time when lowering to acceptable price points is more important than ever. It may well be the case that Toyota has the right idea. They've developed hydrogen systems in tandem to their EV market. A recent development in collaboration with British researchers is the Hilux system. The next step is matching energy generation to hydrogen production- an endothermic reaction. Currently, the price to power a hydrogen car, given an imagined pre-existing infrastructure would by around $6.11- assuming that the hydrogen storage cost could be offset by buying and selling into a demand/supply mechanic. Research and coordination is desperately needed to translate engineering dreams into reality.

The problem is that at there doesn't seem to be much appetite for techno-optimism. Catastrophe porn is a better sell. We need our young people to be engineers and entrepreneurs, instead they're becoming activists and influencers.

I was quite lucky. For some reason because I had separate interests in engineering, climate and economics my YouTube feed started showing me amazing project around the world. It really did change my state of mental well-being for the better. Solar desalination is a good topic. I almost cried when I watched the Ocean Cleanup Interceptor River System launch.

The problem is that fear only creates a talented constituency for change- in order for it to actually work those bright and smart young people need to roll up their sleeves an do the work (Masters Degrees in STEM-affiliated fields remain the highest ROI in any part of higher education, and many courses don't require a STEM bachelors), instead of advocating behavioural change policies sure the harm the poorest the most. Running a refrigerator shouldn't be a luxury.

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"empirical evidence which contradicts a previously held belief"...this is basically Confirmation Bias. It is a phenomenon well-known to accident investigators, for example, it seems to have played a role in the commuter airliner that tried to take off from the wrong (way too short) runway, with disastrous results. There is a related phenomenon called Motivated Reasoning, this occurs when one really doesn't want to accept results because they would cause you to do things you really don't want to do. For example, a subjects were given a fake study showed that coffee drinkers were especially prone to a whole realm of awful health results, and were asked to read, study, and critique it. Those subjects who were themselves coffee fanatics (like me!) spent a lot more time trying to find something wrong with the study than did those who disliked or didn't care about coffee.

In social & political matters, Motivated Reasoning strongly applies because the consequences of adopting views that are unpopular among one's friends or work colleagues can have painful consequences.

See my related post What is the Purpose of Holding & Expressing Political Beliefs?

https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/68576.html

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The solution aversion I read about was on the subject on two sets of climate change information. In this instance Conservatives are more likely to favour action on climate change when action involves nuclear, free market solutions and geoengineering. Liberals tend to show similar swings in other areas, like gun control. On this second issue, the data does suggest that guns in the home makes people less safe- however, there is an important caveat. 2% of counties have 51% of murders. 1% of counties have 37% of murders. Although these counties have a heavy percentage of the population- 28% for for the 2% of counties figure- this doesn't fully account for the higher rate of murders. In most cases the safest counties are Republican held and have fewer gun restrictions, whilst almost all of the higher murder rate counties are Democrat held.

Ironically, the safest people in America are those who live in counties with a reputation for gun ownership, but don't keep or store guns in the home...

https://crimeresearch.org/2017/04/number-murders-county-54-us-counties-2014-zero-murders-69-1-murder/

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I think it's worth distinguishing a few different issues:

1) Control by elites vs control by elites whose values systemically differ from those of non-elites.

2) The effectiveness of explicit attempts to label and limit 'misinformation' vs the effectiveness of a system where people's information is organically controlled by elites because they can find elite sources they trust to appropriately inform them.

I'd argue that the thing we've lost is the ability to assume that the full Overton window of the populace is sufficently represented in expert opinion that you can trust relatively mainstream sources that consult these elites to adequately represent the best arguments for all sides.

Without this the problem is that many non-experts realize they can't always trust experts to give counterarguments/context if it existed so even when those experts are telling the simple truth they can't rely on them and thus they can't draw rely on experts to recommend media/information.

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"I'd argue that the thing we've lost is the ability to assume that the full Overton window of the populace is sufficently represented in expert opinion that you can trust relatively mainstream sources that consult these elites to adequately represent the best arguments for all sides." this is a very good point indeed and I agree with it

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If you work in genomics you should be familiar with Markov models.

If you consider a democracy as an information system which constantly self-tunes to minimize the discrepancy between a model of constituency needs and realities, and simultaneously minimizing the complexity of maintaining the model, you can define a resulting markov blanket that separates internal states of a political system and external states of data about the world, what maintains distinction - integrity of a political system as an independent functioning concept.

As external state descriptions become very different from reality (the system increases in entropy), the system requires more and more energy to maintain the ability to sustain the needs of the constituencies, until it cannot be sustained.

A democracy with no constituency doesn’t exist.

I believe that when misinformation distorts perception of reality sufficiently, constituencies fail to thrive and no amount of energy will be sufficient to maintain the political system.

When a person becomes psychotic, they gradually cease to be able to sustain biological processes that keep them alive.

When an immune system fails to recognize antigens, biological processes gradually cease to keep an organism alive.

When a language fails to be recognized, it ceases to be a living form of information exchange.

In contrast to the internet catch phrase, “information want to be free”, the reality is that”misinformation always increases”. Science is an extremely energetically expensive process we use create models of reality. Democracy is an expensive process we use to correctly identify and support the needs of constituencies. It’s better than totalitarianism, but it doesn’t always maximize the thriving of constituencies.

“Internet” has increased the temperature of political processes - the speed of change, and made it much more energetically expensive to maintain models of reality, and the needs of constituencies.

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Paul had a really good comment that I think encompasses a response to some of the stuff you say here: "I think it's worth distinguishing a few different issues:

1) Control by elites vs control by elites whose values systemically differ from those of non-elites.

2) The effectiveness of explicit attempts to label and limit 'misinformation' vs the effectiveness of a system where people's information is organically controlled by elites because they can find elite sources they trust to appropriately inform them.

I'd argue that the thing we've lost is the ability to assume that the full Overton window of the populace is sufficently represented in expert opinion that you can trust relatively mainstream sources that consult these elites to adequately represent the best arguments for all sides.

Without this the problem is that many non-experts realize they can't always trust experts to give counterarguments/context if it existed so even when those experts are telling the simple truth they can't rely on them and thus they can't draw rely on experts to recommend media/information."

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In a nutshell, misinformation spreads too fast now, and corrections don’t always represent actual constituencies. I rarely use the word elite except for athletes and musicians, perhaps “advanced” or “better informed” the nuance better: more advanced views of information tend to predict reality better than uninformed. But nobody can keep up with inhuman geometrically spreading waves of bullshit.

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Thanks for your recent Like and comments. 🙂

But relative to your comment about experts, you probably know of a quip by Richard Feynman, arguably The patron saint of science:

"As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

http://www.feynman.com/science/what-is-science/

You might also be amused by a poem he uses to illustrate a point or two:

"A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun

Said, 'Pray, which leg comes after which?'

This raised his doubts to such a pitch

He fell distracted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run."

We often know HOW to do some things -- like how to tie a tie -- but when asked to EXPLAIN it, we're often at a loss -- "in a ditch wondering how to run". 🙂

But somewhat apropos of which -- basically how to do science which is largely Feynman's point and, somewhat indirectly, yours if I'm not mistaken -- you might have some interest in my recent post on "A Multi-Dimensional Gender Spectrum"

https://humanuseofhumanbeings.substack.com/p/a-multi-dimensional-gender-spectrum

The problem is basically that a bunch of so-called experts -- not just in the so-called social sciences, but even in biology and philosophy -- are busily engaged in bastardizing and corrupting principles and terminology foundational to pretty much all of biology if not all of science.

Some reason there to sound the alarums, call out the gendarmes, anathematize such "arguments" from pulpits far and wide! 😉🙂

But of particular note there are the biological definitions for the sexes which is probably well within your bailiwick and on which you in particular might want to weigh-in on. 🙂

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"If you work in genomics you should be familiar with Markov models."

If you're familiar with Markov models then you should be able to appreciate the idea of a "multi-dimensional gender spectrum". Just sayin' ...

https://humanuseofhumanbeings.substack.com/p/a-multi-dimensional-gender-spectrum

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Dec 27, 2023Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

For perspective, it would be worthwhile to look at the history of the Salk polio vaccine (and earlier polio vaccine attempts) and media & public reactions to their introductions. I recommend Jeffrey Kluger's book 'Splendid Solution'.

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author

how does it relate to this case in your opinion?

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Jan 2Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

Prior to the Salk vaccine, there was another vaccine deployed which had very bad side effects and was withdrawn, so people would have been primed to some degree of suspicion when Salk vax did come out. And there were certain well-known media figures, such as columnist Walter Winchell, who attacked the Salk vaccine. The Salk vaccine itself suffered from a manufacturing error at a contract lab which resulted in thousands of active cases of polio and quite a few cases of paralyzation and death, IIRC there was also another manufacturing problem involving a bad additive.

One thing that helped the public acceptance despite the problems was that Salk chose to work closely with a particular journalist...a local man, not a national journalist...who actually made an attempt to understand the relevant research and could explain it calmly and rationally to the public...we could use some of his type today. Another factor, of course, is that the effects of polio were so devastating and so feared. In the case of Covid, I believe that less preaching and more explanation...with a less absolute attitude toward who needed the vaccines..would have helped with acceptance, especially among the vulnerable.

More generally, I think that there needs to be more education about the history of science and technology and its impacts. At least in the US, and I suspect elsewhere, a lot of people really don't know how devastating epidemic diseases used to be. Or what life before electricity and mechanical power was really like.

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Dec 27, 2023Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

The concept of 'elites' can have different implications depending on several factors, including whether those elites are open or closed (a pure hereditary aristocracy being an example of the latter), centralized or distributed (court of Versailles versus nobles on their own domains), how competent they are, and how responsible they are for outcomes. See my post What, Precisely, is the Issue with 'Elites'?

https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/21332.html

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In case you missed it, you might take a gander at Popper's "Open Society:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Open_Society_and_Its_Enemies

Though can't say that I've read it myself but seems likely to provide some illumination.

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Haven’t read it, so thanks !

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De nada, my pleasure; share the wealth, praise the lord, and pass the ammunition. 🙂

As I said, haven't read it myself, but have seen bits & pieces that are at least food for thought:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/25998-the-so-called-paradox-of-freedom-is-the-argument-that-freedom

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. .... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant."

Not sure how well that hangs together though. But available on the Internet Archive:

https://archive.org/details/FullTextOfTheOpenSocietyAndItsEnemiesVolI

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Liberal democracy is the turf of aristocratic battle for votes. The "representative" democracy is anything but representative and Simone Weil in her 1940s essay against political parties explains very well the problem, which the Iron Law of Oligarchy/Bureaucracy perfectly synthetize.

A true democracy would involve random selection of representatives and a tight control and extreme transparency of any operational/executive power. Also, a true democracy would not only allocate more on educating its population, but would work to have better results. The present "Idiocracy" is eating at the body politic.

The fact is that the West is, by and large, consisting of polities that could be charactherized as Oligarchies/Plutocracies masquerading as republics or constitutional monarchies, using elections and representation as a fig leaf for legitimacy. All the while the security apparatus is geard for more and more control and exercises in manipulation.

So the idea that the internet might destroy democracy is ridiculous. The internet is the first hole in the edifice that the power that be have erected to maintain hoi polloi under dynamic control. This is the fora now, and the only ones seeding misinformation are TPTB, while asking for censorship. Thank you, but no thank you.

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I think the vaccine example hurts your case. The difference in the US may have been that the host of the most influential political TV show in the country questioned the vaccine. He probably would have been shut down or gatekeepers would’ve stopped him somewhere else.

Good point on elites trying to shut down other elites. But misinformation studies has focused more on anti-vax than anti-behavioral genetics.

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"The difference in the US may have been that the host of the most influential political TV show in the country questioned the vaccine" - but that's not the internet!

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Like, you could have had the host of the most influential TV show in america take this stance even 50 years ago. And you could have had that in UK too. UK TV show hosts and the British public have access to the same internet that US ones do. So what is different? Maybe more free speech culture in US, polarised political landscape, decreased trust etc. And they are all tied to the internet indeed. but it does not change the fact that UK has the same internet and TV show hosts do not endorse anti vaxx

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