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.
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.