NNT on "Fake News"

The piece is over a year old, but it just came across my desk this morning. Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues from his own experience that "The Facts are True, the News is Fake."
In the summer of 2009, I partook of a an hour long discussion with David Cameron, who was in the running for, and later became, the U.K. Prime Minister. The discussion was about how to make society robust, even immune to Black Swans, what structure was needed for both decentralization and accountability, and how the system should be built, that sort of thing. It was an interesting fifty-nine minutes around the topics of the Incerto and I felt great communicating all the points in bulk for the first time. The room in the elegant Royal Society for the Arts was full of journalists. I subsequently went to a Chinese restaurant in (London’s) Soho to celebrate with a few people when I received a phone call by a horrified friend. All London newspapers were calling me a “climate denier”, portraying me as someone part of a large anti-environment conspiracy.

The entire fifty-nine minutes were summarized by the press and reported from a tangential comment that lasted twenty seconds taken in reverse. Someone who didn’t attend the conference would have been under the impression that that was the whole conversation.
It turns out the reporter's understanding of the comment he did make was exactly backwards, but the only thing he heard during the whole hour that grabbed his interest. The news suggested both that Taleb was hotly advancing an agenda he wasn't, and that advancing this agenda was crucial to his argument.

Taleb goes on to make recommendations about how to handle this. Aquinas is involved.


Texan99 said...

I've heard this argument from Taleb before, the precautionary principle. I usually find it persuasive, but it falls apart in the climate debate, because we don't face any policy proposals that DON'T introduce something new into the situation that involves huge and catastrophic risks. In fact, to my way of thinking, climate deniers are the ones offering proposals that are less risky and disruptive.

If we wanted to decide whether to switch from substance A that works pretty well and is affordable to substance B that doesn't work that much better and may kill everyone on Earth, the precautionary principle would work great. Hold off until everyone has a chance to run some studies, no problem. But the climate debate is about whether we should cripple the global economy, impoverishing a lot of people in the short term who are actually a lot more likely to die without the benefits of a bit of extra affordable energy--all so that we may gain an advantage in future temperature that we don't understand and can't predict well and that may well be a complete fantasy.

But he's right, of course, about how likely it is that a journalist will seize on one stray climate comment, not only using it to overshadow everything else he said but also getting his point exactly backwards. Even if I happen to disagree with his climate point as he was actually trying to express it, I'd prefer to argue against the point he made instead of the point I made up in my head.

Apparently Taleb's intellectual crime was to treat any aspect of future climate change as an unknown. If you do that, you're letting down the side, showing weak faith.

Grim said...

I agree with you that the need to invest in an expensive solution modifies the sensibility of the general proposal. It's different if "There's a chance X is bad for you" is avoidable simply by not taking up X; then you're saving money while not exposing yourself to the risk. But if you have to put down a large portion of your life's savings to avoid X, well, it's another question.

What I found interesting about this particular post, though, was the distortion. As he says, the facts are true; but the news was fake.

Texan99 said...

After the storm down here, insurance is a topic always on everyone's minds. The thing is, you can't insure against everything, no matter how unlikely, if you want to have any resources left over for the likely problems.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The hard part is getting people to even consider the possibility that this is not a one-off unfortunate mistake by the media they consume, but is at least partly in play in everything they read in those sources.

douglas said...

AVI, it's getting easier all the time, as the trust in media declines precipitously. And of course, you're correct that they're always doing this or versions of it. I once wrote a letter to the editor of Time magazine, and they edited the letter "for length". Fine. Except they also changed one word, and that word change, along with the clipping for length, changed the letter substantially from a critique to an almost supporting point. It's funny, but I don't even recall now these many years later what the subject was, much less the specific edit, but I'll never forget that lesson about editorial power.