Misinformation and the Eulering Of Nate Silver

Sometimes it seems that there is no choice but to write a post.

Last week, Australia’s censorship asshole was back in the news. Julie Inman Grant and her team of goons have a new report out, which Inman Grant announced with a predictable warning of “a perfect storm” of online hate. Fair enough: I, for one, loathe this woman and am happy to declare it online. Or in person. Or by post. Or by carrier pigeon, if that’s all that’s going. Inman Grant’s hysterical message never really changes, however, and my loathing for her never really changes, so I decided to spare readers a new post. But then I stumbled upon a Twitter battle between Nate Silver and a misinformation guru. Still no reason to post: Twitter clowns are in plague proportions, of course. But then then I saw that the misinformation clown had decided to go in for a little Eulering. That was too much, and here we are.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Eulering” refers to the famous story of Leonhard Euler’s confrontation of the French philosopher Diderot, at the court of Catherine the Great. Catherine supposedly enlisted Euler to put the atheist Diderot in his place, and then Euler confronted Diderot with the challenge (in French),

Sir, (a + bn)/n = x, therefore God exists. Respond!

The correct response would have been, of course, “Euler, you’re a tosser”. But supposedly Diderot, unaware of the equation’s meaninglessness, just slunk away in confusion and/or embarrassment.

Although 95% fictitious, it’s still a great story, and it illustrates a genuine and common dilemma: what to do when confronted by an authority figure presenting a technical claim that is beyond one’s expertise? How, without expending a huge amount of time and energy, does one determine if one is being Eulered? (Of course the dilemma is all the greater if the claim is being advanced by a certifiable genius such as Euler, but that is very far from typical.) Scott Alexander has a great post on this, on balancing a proper respect for expertise with a sensible wariness of being Eulered.

Now, to the Twitter spat. A couple weeks ago, Sander van der Linden, a Cambridge professor of psychology and misinformation guru, posted a screenshot from the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Risk Report (p 11):

The WEF, by the way, is where Inman Grant suggested we’ll have to think about a “recalibration” of freedom of speech, but I digress. Sort of.

Nate Silver, being the data-based political junkie that he is, has a pretty good radar for spin doctoring and a pretty low opinion of spinners, particularly if the spinners are dressing up their spinning with appeals to their authority. It is hardly surprising, then, that Silver has a low opinion of “misinformation” and an even lower opinion of “1500 experts”. Silver responded to Van der Linden’s tweet, perfectly:

Silver also linked to an article, arguing why “misinformation” is not properly a sciency thing. The article is excellent and also links to other excellent articles, including a post by Scott Alexander, but that is all by the bye. The Twitter battle was on, and it was fun for one and all.

The readers can chase the links and decide who won the Twitter battle (Silver). There’s also plenty more one could write about Van der Linden, none of it good, but I’ll just close with his Eulering.

After taking a bit (a lot) of a hammering, Van der Linden decided to up the appeal to expertise, posting on an article in a Nature off-shoot:

The article is open access, and readers can judge for themselves what it contains on “complex system dynamics”, but it is easy to summarise: misinformation feeds misinformation. In brief, no madness is an island.

Well, duh. But, it’s a paper on “complex system dynamics”. In (an off-shoot of) Nature. It looks good.

The idea that the valid and strong concerns with “misinformation”, and with the misinformation gurus, can be addressed by some crappy graph with loops is pure Eulering. It wasn’t effective Eulering, since Silver didn’t bother to respond. For better or worse, those who are highly suspicious of information gurus are almost automatically immune to Eulering. But that doesn’t excuse Van der Linden’s attempt, which was absurd and disgraceful.

These misinformation gurus love to present themselves as above it all, as the pure at heart objective scientists, but they are not. Ever. They always and inevitably have their own biases. Moreover, somehow it happens that their biases are almost always of a particular “liberal” persuasion, are almost always hand in hand with government authority and the legacy media. Which, somehow, they find really hard to see as major sources of misinformation.

The misinformation gurus are players, just like everyone else. But, because they present themselves, and are presented by others, as authorities, as referees rather than players, they are sanctimonious and arrogant. And insidious. Censorious. They are loathsome.

11 Replies to “Misinformation and the Eulering Of Nate Silver”

  1. Oh, yes, the misinformation gurus love to appeal to science, and if ‘science’ is already compromised, then, for instance, to children or to anything else that might generate appeal.

  2. I may be tweaking what he meant, but it is possible that – contrary to Nate Silver’s retort – the plague of “misinformation” (and faux science) that is upon us may indeed be among the most serious risks we face.

    As this blog reveals, once one (whether JIG, or vdL, or VCAA, or Nelson, or AMT) loses hold on reality, everything becomes fuzzy. Those who continue to try to think straight either join forces, or risk being as powerless as the last sober student in the midst of a total piss-up: one appeals for friends to desist from smashing things for no reason, only to find that ordinary logic no longer carries any weight.

    Marty directed us the “article” referred to by vdL, saying: “readers can judge for themselves what it contains”.
    So I tried. It would appear to have no substance whatsoever.

    There was a time – not so long ago – when one could reasonably conclude that an attempt of this kind to appeal to such purported “authority” (acyclic directed graphs, or complex dynamics) had to be a spoof. Less than 30 years ago, Gross and Levitt, and Alan Sokal expended considerable effort – and remarkable taste https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair – to demonstrate the extent of our gullibility, and the consequent dangers. Now it seems there is no need for charlatans to do more than include “a directed acyclic graph”. (The article appears not to explain what it means by a”directed acyclic graph”; why it is relevant; or how the illustration arises. In contrast, it does include a formal definition of “bullshit”.)

    I applaud the naive optimism of this blog: one has to no choice but to continue to confront nonsense in the Enlightenment tradition. But it looks increasingly as though the impact of education, mathematics, engineering, and the triumphs of reason has not been quite what was once anticipated: their benefits have simply been cashed in by the masses, and those who feed their crude appetites (with bread and circuses, titillation and TedX Snake Oil Salesmen) without recognising the underpinning logic. History suggests that political and ecological consequences will follow – but with sufficient timelag to allow for further obfuscation.

    1. Thanks very much, Tony, but you can hold your applause. I’m undoubtedly naive, but I’m not remotely optimistic. I’m simply yelling while the waters rise.

    2. The best thing we can do to continue to be who we are is to transcend our cynicism, acquired through years, into ‘informed naivety’.

  3. I am surprised by your view that misinformation gurus almost always have a liberal bias.
    The term is yours but why wouldn’t it apply to any conspiracy theorist claiming the other side is spreading misinformation?
    Anti vax and oct 7 was a false flag and so on all have expert sounding voices trying to tell us how we can know from the facts every one else is wrong.
    It’s actually interesting how some of these have switched from left to right owned views.

      1. Marty, I think Stan meant that there’s plenty of “expert sounding voices” (ie social media pundits, partisan media, etc) proclaiming things like “Anti vax [rhetoric], and ‘Oct 7 was a flase flag!!’ conspiracy theories, and so on…” and that he was presenting this as evidence contra to “misinformation gurus always have a liberal bias”

        That’s how I interpreted it.

        1. Ah, so quotes around “false flag” et al? Maybe. That’s a lot more reasonable than how I read it.

          But even if so, I think it misses the point. Of course there are self-appointed experts of all stripes on all issues, pronouncing on what is true. And of course this pronouncing will include declarations of what is false, declarations that this or that opposing claim is misinformation or disinformation. But that’s just part of the normal fight. One could argue that the nature and the rules of this fight has changed with social media, but it’s still basically the same fighting as it always was.

          But information gurus like Van der Linden are different. They’re from The Academy, and they promote themselves as meta-experts, as being scientific, as being above the fray. And they’re not and they’re not and they’re not. And, pretty much without fail, they’re “liberal” of a certain type.

          It is really worth reading the article that Silver links, as well as the references at the end of that article. It gives you a really good sense of who these information gurus are, and how up themselves they are.

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