Mainstream Media and Maths: We’re All Going to DIE!

A couple of months ago, the Telegraph published a superb piece of shoddy journalism by claiming there were only 100 cod left in the North Sea. This came from the Sunday Times’ equally misguided claim that there were 100 adult cod left. This in turn was picked up by other mainstream media outlets, no doubt triggering a run on local fish and chip shops across the UK before our favourite fish was declared extinct. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) was quick to publish a release saying the Sunday Times was off by a staggering 21 million fish.

How on earth do respectable media companies like this get basic maths and science so wrong? Worse, why does this seem to be a systemic issue throughout all of media. Why do journalists struggle with the most basic understanding of numbers?

This has always frustrated me but after recently reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, it became very apparent that this incompetence with mathematics had effects that stretched far beyond frustrating the reader. Much of the damage lies in the misunderstanding or underappreciation of the underlying statistics.

Yet a brief look at the history of statistics reveals it wasn’t always like this. Continue reading “Mainstream Media and Maths: We’re All Going to DIE!”

Justice, Capuchin Monkeys and Investment Bankers

Capuchin Monkey in Costa Rica (Copyright © 2011,   James Matthews)

As with most of my posts, this is inspired after reading a thought-provoking book. This time, it was The Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki. The book spends a lot of time discussing how large crowds of people can make (deliberately or inadvertently) the best (or most optimal/utilitarian) decision for a given problem. This whole and rather contentious topic is something best left for another blog post, however, there were several parts of the book that covered some more psychological aspects of group behaviour that I wanted to explore.

One area that was especially interesting was the concept of justice. It turns out that humans aren’t the only species that have a concept of justice. In 2003, scientists proved that capuchin monkeys would protest if they saw another monkey “paid” more than them for the same task. This scenario was created by training the monkeys to swap stones for cucumber (the pay). Then scientists then arbitrarily chose one of the monkeys to receive a grape instead of cucumber. The other monkeys would grow indignant, sometimes refusing to take their cucumber, other times taking it and refusing to eat it, other times refusing to continue working (bringing stones). Continue reading “Justice, Capuchin Monkeys and Investment Bankers”

The Hivemind, Groupthink, Social Media and Individuality

I recently finished the fantastic book by Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget and one fairly central theme was how humans interact en masse. Much of the Internet often centres on this idea of the “hivemind” and harnessing little quanta of intelligence from a vast number of Internet-connected people to some end. Wikipedia is a prime example of this — lots of (often) anonymous people creating, editing and tweaking articles about…well, pretty much everything.

The hivemind was always an idea that both intrigued and perplexed me. I love the idea that we can harness intelligence in a similar way to harness spare compute cycles (i.e., SETI) and emergent or self-organizational behaviour continues to fascinate me. However, I’ve never been completely comfortable with how viable this is taken at an human-intellectual level. A compute cycle is a known entity ? if it changes, it scales in size which affords you more work. Human intelligence is very much an unknown, in both scale and quality.

Wikipedia seems like a great example of how this might work. However, the anonymity behind Wikipedia makes it hard to ascertain how much of it is truly the hivemind at work, versus several experts or fans creating information that is subsequently updated as time moves forward (aside: he makes an interesting parallel between Wikipedia and the Bible). Much of Lanier’s arguments against Wikipedia seem aimed more at the cultural ? search engines increasingly point to Wikipedia as the first listing, taking relevance away from other peripheral sites. As Wikipedia aims to be encyclopedic in nature, human opinions, insights and extremism is (often) missing from entries. Rightly or wrongly, it is these thoughts and opinions that gives us our rich and diverse global cultures.

The concern is that “hivemind” projects combined with the cloud-computing Overlords’ search algorithms is leading the human race down a path that inherently limits rather than frees the information we have readily accessible to us. While I have a small issue with his choice of words, the sentiment is beautifully summarized as:

“We should not seek to make the pack mentality efficient. We should seek to inspire the phenomena of individual intelligence.” – Jaron Lanier

Continue reading “The Hivemind, Groupthink, Social Media and Individuality”