(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Tim Harford

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

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“The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist”*…

 

Nobel-winning economist Eric Maskin delivers a 24/7 lecture, in which he explains his research in 24 seconds, then in seven words [source]

 

Congratulations are in order to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, winners on 10 October of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Even though economics is not a full-fledged Nobel Prize, it has been earned by some splendid social scientists over the years — including a number of people who are not economists at all, from Herbert Simon and John Nash to Daniel Kahneman and Elinor Ostrom.

Yet this week I would rather discuss a different prize: the Ig Nobel prize for economics. The Ig Nobels are an enormously silly affair: they have been awarded for a study of dinosaur gaits that involved attaching weighted sticks to chickens (the biology prize), for studying stinky feet (medicine) and for figuring out why shower curtains tend to billow inwards when you’re taking a shower (physics).

But one of the Ig Nobel’s charms is that this ridiculous research might actually tell us something about the world. David Dunning and Justin Kruger received an Ig Nobel prize in psychology for their discovery that incompetent people rarely realise they are incompetent; the Dunning-Kruger effect is now widely cited. Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith won an Ig Nobel in physics for their discovery that hair and string have a tendency to become tangled — potentially an important line of research in understanding the structure of DNA. Most famously, Andre Geim’s Ig Nobel in physics for levitating a live frog was promptly followed by a proper Nobel Prize in the same subject for the discovery of graphene.

A whimsical curiosity about the world is something to be encouraged. No wonder that the credo of the Ig Nobel prizes is that they should make you laugh, then make you think…

The Undercover Economist (Tim Harford) on “The Ig Nobel prizes in Economics – in praise of ridiculous research.”

* Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

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As we prepare our entries for the Golden Fleece Award, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that residents of Donora, PA went to bed as usual, not knowing that a suffocating cloud of industrial gases would descend upon them during the night.  The cloud, a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust, came from the smokestacks of the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked. Over the next five days, twenty residents died and half the town’s population – 7000 people – needed medical attention for their difficulty breathing.  The Donora tragedy shocked the nation and marked a turning point in the national dialogue about industrial pollution and its effect on health.

A Donora street at noon, October 29, 1948

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 26, 2016 at 1:01 am

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