Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Lenore Skenazy rightly mocks
a popular "viral" "tip" for parents who might use smartphones to photograph
The fact that the vast majority of crimes against kids are not committed by criminal masterminds poring over the Internet to find a stranger to stalk makes no difference to the news team. It prefers to dream up the wildest, least likely chain of events (seriously, what kind of predator has the time for all this?) and act as if it's a danger all parents must be aware of.I wouldn't blame technology for the popularity of uncritically passing along bad advice couched in life-or-death language any more than Skenazy blames technology for child predation. Technology is only a tool that can be used or misused, just like any other.
And now -- thanks to the "share" button -- we are.
The problem is cultural. Most people continually hear that reason is no better than -- or even inferior to -- faith. On top of that, many of these same people have such poor educations that they have little introspective basis to question such assertions. Too many people are unable to construct an independent hypothesis based on actual evidence, at least past a certain point of complexity; and they are also fed a steady diet of propaganda in government schools. That is, too many people have had the virtue of independence beaten out of them, if they ever really had a chance to cultivate it.
Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it--that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life--that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence. -- Ayn Rand (linked above)The Skenazy piece puts a face on two blog postings I ran into recently regarding the "wisdom" of most crowds. In the first, Vivek Haldar examines a common assumption about the Internet:
Ever since James Surowiecki published "The Wisdom of Crowds", I've often heard the glib "rule" that "many minds are smarter than one." But as Surowiecki constantly stresses in the book, crowds are wise only if each individual judgment is uncorrelated with the others. When the judgements are correlated, you don't have a wise crowd, just a stupid herd.The second post examines such a phenomenon mathematically, considering the simple case of a five-member jury whose members independently have differing chances of reaching an incorrect verdict on their own. The chance of the whole jury reaching an incorrect verdict rises dramatically if everyone follows one juror than if everyone votes independently -- even if all who follow are worse at evaluating the evidence than the one they followed.
Of course, a stupid herd can be behind something that stands on its own merits, just as a jury with only one person doing any thinking can render a correct verdict. But can you really say that most of the people involved in either case really judged anything? "What he said," could summarize such "thinking". It would also serve as a warning to someone seeking to make his own judgement that he should ignore such a person.
Whether something is regarded as conventional wisdom is inconsequential for seriously considering it unless most supporters can give solid reasons for holding it as such. If Skenazy makes a mathematical paradox or a speculation about the wisdom of crowds more concrete, Rand explains them: The probability involved is the chance that a check of a claim against the facts has been done correctly. When two or more people do this, the chances of an error being detected rise. When everyone trusts an authority figure, they put themselves at the mercy of any error or deception on his part.
Part and parcel of the popularity of spreading panic on the Internet is human psychology. What confidence level can someone have if he never thinks for himself? Such a person will be easy to panic and quick to adopt a "fix". And he will want to feel good about himself by passing along the "tip".