Oct 18 2019

## Diffusion of Responsibility

I still remember the PSA of the crying American Indian, sad because of all the trash that the modern world was spreading in the previously pristine environment. It was powerful, and it had a real impact on me. The ad was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, and I (like most everyone else) assumed this was an environmental group interested in keeping America beautiful.

Actually the piece was a clever bit of propaganda, which relates to the topic of this post – the diffusion of personal responsibility. I wrote yesterday about the letter from celebrities admitting that they are environmental hypocrites for living a high carbon footprint lifestyle while campaigning against climate change. The conflict is between personal and collective responsibility, and my basic conclusion is that both are important. Many excellent points were raised in the comments, and two points in particular I think deserve additional exploration. The main one, mentioned by townsend, is that this all relates to the diffusion of personal responsibility. This was implicit in my previous post, but it is an important social psychological principle that is worth discussing further.

I first learned about this in my Social Psychology class in college – this is a long well-established psychological principle. The broad brushstrokes are this – humans are social creatures. We evolved emotions of justice, reciprocity, shame, and guilt in order to modify our behavior to be compatible with our social structure. If everyone maximally pursued selfish interests, we could never have a functioning society.

However, problems arise when the sense of personal responsibility is diffused, because this shortcircuits the feedback loops of guilt, shame, and a sense of responsibility. If something is equally everyone’s responsibility, then it is essentially no one’s responsibility. I experience this every time I travel is large groups. Once you get north of about 6-7 people, the group is paralyzed and can’t seem to do anything. Even walking together from point A to point B becomes an exercise in herding cats. However, if you assign someone as the group leader (or wrangler, or whatever) then the group can function as a unit. The same is true on any project – there needs to be clear lines of responsibility.

This lesson was learned with public housing. Common areas soon fell into disrepair and utter filth. This is because no one was responsible for them. If, however, housing was designed with no common spaces – where an individual owner was responsible for their own space, the situation was much improved.

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Sep 23 2019

## Outrage, Bias, and the Instability of Truth

One experience I have had many times is with colleagues or friends who are not aware of the problem of pseudoscience in medicine. At first they are in relative denial – “it can’t be that bad.” “Homeopathy cannot possibly be that dumb!” Once I have had an opportunity to explain it to them sufficiently and they see the evidence for themselves, they go from denial to outrage. They seem to go from one extreme to the other, thinking pseudoscience is hopelessly rampant, and even feeling nihilistic.

This general phenomenon is not limited to medical pseudoscience, and I think it applies broadly. We may be unaware of a problem, but once we learn to recognize it we see it everywhere. Confirmation bias kicks in, and we initially overapply the lessons we recently learned.

I have this problem when I give skeptical lectures. I can spend an hour discussing publication bias, researcher bias, p-hacking, the statistics about error in scientific publications, and all the problems with scientific journals. At first I was a little surprised at the questions I would get, expressing overall nihilism toward science in general. I inadvertently gave the wrong impression by failing to properly balance the lecture. These are all challenges to good science, but good science can and does get done. It’s just harder than many people think.

This relates to Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean – virtue is often a balance between two extreme vices. Similarly, I find there is often a nuanced position on many topics balanced precariously between two extremes. We can neither trust science and scientists explicitly, nor should we dismiss all of science as hopelessly biased and flawed. Freedom of speech is critical for democracy, but that does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech, or that everyone has a right to any venue they choose.

A recent Guardian article about our current post-truth world reminded me of this philosophy of the mean. To a certain extent, society has gone from one extreme to the other when it comes to facts, expertise, and trusting authoritative sources. This is a massive oversimplification, and of course there have always been people everywhere along this spectrum. But there does seem to have been a shift. In the pre-social media age most people obtained their news from mainstream sources that were curated and edited. Talking head experts were basically trusted, and at least the broad center had a source of shared facts from which to debate.

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Sep 12 2019

## What Is Red Mercury?

I’m not a fan of the Star Trek movies reboot. While I do like the cast, and as a Trek fan I have some level of enjoyment of anything in the franchise, the movies were disappointing. As is usually the case with big budget movie failures, the problem was in the writing. Case in point – red matter. This is a mysterious substance invented by Vulcans in the future, a single drop of which could produce a singularity. It appears as a blob of red liquid. In the end it was a silly physics-breaking plot device that took you out of the movie.

I was reminded of this with recent reports of another mysterious red matter – so-called red mercury. As far as I know there is no connection between the two, and the similarity is pure coincidence. Perhaps the only connection is a psychological one. Mercury is already a fascinating substance, a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It would be fun to play with, if it weren’t so toxic. Red mercury would be an even more exotic form of this amazing element, and that is perhaps the same wonder-factor that the movie writers were going for.

In any case – as with red matter, red mercury does not actually exist. I write about a lot of things here that don’t actually exist, in order to deconstruct persistent belief in something nonexistent. People, apparently, are good at believing in things that aren’t real, a manifestation of the many flaws and limitations in our belief-generating machinery.

Beliefs can be generated and supported by a number of mechanisms – first hand experience, a phenomenon having a real effect in the world, misperception, biased memories, deliberate cons, wish fulfillment, cultural inertia, and a host of cognitive biases.  There are sufficient mechanisms of belief at work to create and sustain belief in something without any basis in objective reality. Every culture, in fact, is overwhelmed with such beliefs.

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Aug 12 2019

## The Epstein Conspiracies

This was highly predictable. Of course there are conspiracies surrounding the apparent recent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein while in prison. That’s just background noise now. There are conspiracies about everything. Apparently the two shootings last weekend were false flag operations, because #conspiracies.

Just as predictably, news about the conspiracy theories, how they spread, and how they are treated by the media is itself news. And yes I get the irony that here I am blogging about it. It’s turtles all the way down. I guess in order to have something interesting to say I have to get one level more meta than everyone else – does that do it? Getting meta about being meta?

By now this phenomenon is old news. The traditional editorial filters are no longer in place. They have largely been replaced by algorithms which determine which news items are “trending.” This becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop that allows the worst information to spread. Of course, this has always happened. Sensationalism and propaganda spread because they are interesting. They break up the mundane monotony of our lives. They are a real-life soap opera.

Jonathan Swift observed in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” There are also several versions of, “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.” The source of this quote, often mistakingly attributed to Mark Twain, is unclear. The point is – the inherent advantage that false but sensational information has in the human mind over prosaic truth has long been observed. And that, of course, is the ultimate medium, the human mind. The external method of spreading false information is incidental to the core phenomenon, but it can influence the speed with which such information spreads and the credibility it is given.

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Jul 30 2019

## The Challenge of Deepfakes

You have probably heard of deepfakes by now – convincing video manipulation that is improving rapidly, getting better and easier. Right now you can often tell when a video has been manipulated. The human eye is very sensitive to movement, facial expressions, and other subtle cues. But the best examples are getting more difficult, and experts predict there will be deepfakes undetectable by most people within a year.

How will this affect the world? Most reports I read simply say that people won’t be able to trust videos anymore (we already can’t trust photos). But that doesn’t capture the situation. People knowing that video can be manipulated won’t really solve the problem.

The problem is psychology – people can be primed and manipulated subconsciously. Let’s say, for example, that you see a video of a famous person committing a horrible crime, or saying something terrible. Even if you know such videos can be faked, or hear the claim that that video was fake, the images may still have an emotional effect. It becomes part of your subconscious memory memory of that person.

Human memory also will contribute to this effect. We are better at remembering claims than remembering where we heard them (source amnesia) or if they are true or not (truth status amnesia). Seeing a dramatic video of a person doing something horrible will stick with you and will be much more vivid than later information about forensic examination of the video.

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Jul 16 2019

## Multi-Level Marketing Is Still a Scam

Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) companies are inherently, in my opinion, exploitative. The MLM model is that the sales force is hierarchical – you are hired by someone who takes a cut of what you earn. You, in turn, can make money by recruiting your own sellers, who each pay you a cut of what they earn, and what everyone below them earns. In other words – it’s a pyramid scheme.

A raw pyramid scheme is just a transfer of money – I give you $10, and recruit five people to give me$10, and so on. Everyone makes money, except for those who get stuck at the bottom of the pyramid. Pyramid schemes are generally illegal because only the people at the top really make money. The math of the situation guarantees that even in a few generations the pyramid will burn itself out. (1-5-25-125-625-3,125-15,625-78,125-390,625-1,953,125-9,765,625-48,828,125-244,140,625) In 13 levels you get close to the entire population of the US, in 2 more, close to the population of the Earth.

An MLM is basically a pyramid scheme in which a product is used as cover for the transfer of money. Sellers need to buy product from the company, which they may use themselves but are also meant to sell. Some MLMs require a minimum purchase each month, whether you sell it or not. In this way also the salespeople are also customers. It amazes me that this is at all legal. Most states and the federal government regulate MLMs rather than outlaw them completely For example, sellers need to demonstrate that they make most of their income from actually selling products, not just getting paid by those under them. Certain practices, such as requiring a minimum product purchase, can be outlawed as well.

The numbers tell the story. An analysis by the FTC found that 100% of the 350 MLMs they looked at were top heavy, meaning that the vast majority of the profit went to the very top promoters, while everyone else lost money. A staggering 99% of those involved lost money. In fact, it’s worse than a no-product straight pyramid scheme, in which 90% of participants lose money. There, of course, will be exceptions – that seller who is 2-3 standard deviations from the mean, who was in the perfect situation, or just has exceptional business and marketing skills. They make money, and then they become the poster child for that MLM. If they can do it, you can do it.

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Jul 04 2019

## Pseudodemocracy

Today is the Fourth of July. First, I want to say happy birthday to my two brothers, Bob and Joe, fraternal twins who were born on the 4th. But also happy birthday to America. The 4th is always a good time to reflect on what the American experiment in constitutional democracy really means.

I tend to look at it this way – process is more important than outcome. This is true in the same way it is true for science and critical thinking. Science is a system of valid methods used to build an empirical model of reality. In science, using proper methods is what counts, not the outcome of the experiment. When you put the outcome first, and then use whatever methods necessary to generate the desired outcome, that’s pseudoscience.

In the same way we have a system of government that puts the rule of law, with the Constitution being the highest law, above any particular outcome. It is supposed to be a peaceful and fair method of determining things like law, justice, rights, and the expenditure of common resources. It is valid in that it derives from the people with fair and even representation. Obviously the system is not perfect, partly because people are not perfect, but also because running a country with over 300 million people is horrifically complicated and must, by necessity, involve numerous trade-offs.

But the idea of the Constitution is that we have a system, and if everyone follows the system then at least there are checks and balances, there is a system for correction of error, people have a way to make their will felt, and the whole thing grinds messily on. A friend of mine recently observed, however, that what really has surprised and even frightened him over the last two years is the realization that the whole system is much more of a gentleman’s agreement than he ever imagined. I tend to agree.

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Jun 24 2019

## Study on Visual Framing in the Presidential Debates

This week we will have the first primary debates of the presidential cycle, with two Democratic debates of the top 20 candidates (10 each night). A timely study was just published looking at the coverage of the different candidates in the 2016 primary debates of both parties. The results show a dramatic disparity in how different candidates were covered.

Unfortunately, the headline of the press release is misleading: Study Shows Visual Framing by Media in Debates Affects Public Perception. The study did not measure public perception, and therefore there is no basis to conclude anything about how the framing affected public perception. The study only quantified the coverage. But what they found was interesting.

They went frame by frame through the first two primary debates of both parties and calculated how much coverage each candidate had and what type – solo, split screen, side-by-side, multi-candidate shot, and audience reaction. This is what they found:

We likewise considered how much time the camera spent on a given candidate before cutting away by computing  -scores for each candidate’s mean camera fixation time (see Figure 3). This allowed us to see whether networks were visually priming the audience to differentially perceive the candidates as viable leaders. These data show that across the four debates, only Trump, specifically during CNN’s Republican Party debate, had substantially longer camera fixations (  ) than the other candidates (   to 1.84). During this debate, Bush (  ) was the only candidate besides Trump to have a positive z-score, providing modest support for our visual priming hypotheses concerning fixation time (H2). While for the Fox News debate, Cruz (  ) and Huckabee (  ) had substantially higher  -scores than the rest of the field, including Trump, their scores were well within the bounds of expectations. Likewise, on the Democratic side, neither CNN (   to 1.17) nor CBS (   to 0.89) gave a significant visual priming advantage to any candidate, although there were trends toward front-runners Clinton and Sanders having slightly longer than average fixation times during both debates.

Essentially, there was a lot of noise in the data, but only one significant spike above the noise – during the CNN debate Trump had significantly more camera time than the rest, with Bush also having greater camera time but not nearly as much as Trump. At the time they were the two front-runners in polling. Clinton and Sanders also had a trend towards more camera time in their debates, but not statistically significant.

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Jun 06 2019

## The Metric System Is Not a Conspiracy

Oh boy. I probably shouldn’t do this, but my “someone is wrong on the internet” instincts are overwhelming me. Tucker Carlson recently had on a guest, James Panero, who essentially repeats the arguments he laid out in this article. Who is Panero? Apparently he is an art critic. I don’t know if he is truly a conspiracy nut, or was just looking for an issue to propel him onto the media for his 15 minutes of fame.

I will also say at this point that I don’t think Carlson is worth responding to. He, in my opinion, is just a highly paid troll catering to an extreme political view. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes, but I wouldn’t assume he believes what he says. Performance art is a more likely hypothesis.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. He put the arguments out there, complete with factual errors and poor logic, and it’s worth setting the record straight.

Carlson starts:

“Almost every nation on Earth has fallen to tyranny: the metric system,” said Carlson. “From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Lusaka to London, the people of the world have been forced to measure their environment in millimeters and kilograms. The United States is the only country that is resisted, but we have no reason to be ashamed for using feet and pounds.”

He mispronounces “kilograms” then makes a funny face – performance art.  But on to the actual arguments. Panero makes the point that “It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.”

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May 31 2019

## Teaching Media Literacy

Like many activist skeptics I have spoken to, on several occasions I have been summoned to jury duty, which was a short-lived experience. On voir dire I was asked what I do and the fact that I host a skeptical podcast came up. This lead to my almost instantaneous dismissal. Lawyers, apparently, don’t want a skeptical jury. They want jurors they can manipulate. Likewise, politicians often appreciate a pliable electorate, willing to internalize whatever slogan or propaganda they feed them. Democracy, however, functions best when citizens are informed and can think critically about the information politicians and their government are feeding them.

This is why there is so much hand-wringing over what many feel is a crisis of “fake news.” As is often pointed out, fake news is nothing new, but we do seem to be entering an era of “truth decay.” Media contains more appeals to emotion, and fewer verifiable facts. Social media is certainly playing a role in this, but of course it is complicated to fully define this. The prevailing question is – what do we do about it?

As CNN reports, Finland’s answer is to do something radical – teach media literacy to all citizens. As CNN also points out, Finland is a small homogeneous country with a particular culture and national identity, which means we cannot simply extrapolate their experience to other countries. The media landscape in the US, for example, is very different. But, there is also likely considerable overlap in the challenges being faced. Finland also faces Russian propaganda exploits, and is dealing with the same array of social media outlets as everyone else.

What is media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education (which ironically has the horrible acronym NAMLE), defines media literacy as:

The ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication.

One example of good communication would be, for example, not overusing all caps. But seriously, the goal is essentially to teach critical thinking in the context of consuming all media. This goal might be familiar to the readers of this blog. This is also the exact topic of my recent book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to know what’s really real in a world increasingly full of fake. The subtitle is another way to frame media literacy.

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