Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fake news wasn’t hard to predict – But what’s next?

In 2008, I wrote a blogpost which began with a dark vision – a presidential election led astray by fake news.

I’m not much of a prophet, but it wasn’t hard to predict. Journalism, for too long, attempted the impossible: Make people pay for news they don’t want to hear.

It worked, because news providers, by and large, shared an ethical code. Journalists aspired to tell the truth; their passion was unearthing and publicizing facts – especially those that nobody wanted to hear. And as long as the professional community held the power, they controlled access to the press – the device – and kept up the quality.

But the internet made it infinitely easy to produce and distribute news, both correct and incorrect. Fat headlines suddenly became what economists call an “intangible good.” No longer does it rely on a physical resource or a process of manufacture. News now can be created, copied, and shared by anyone, anywhere, with almost zero investment.

By the early 00s, anybody could set up a webpage and produce headlines. From thereon, quality went down. News makes the most profit if it’s cheap and widely shared. Consequently, more and more outlets offer the news people want to read –that’s how the law of supply and demand is supposed to work after all.

What we have seen so far, however, is only the beginning. Here’s what’s up next:
  • 1. Fake News Get Organized

    An army of shadow journalists specializes in fake news, pitching it to alternative news outlets. These outlets will mix real and fake news. It becomes increasingly hard to tell one from the other.

  • 2. Fake News Becomes Visual

    “Picture or it didn’t happen,” will soon be a thing of the past. Today, it’s still difficult to forge photos and videos. But software becomes better, and cheaper, and easier to obtain, and soon it will take experts to tell real from fake.

  • 3. Fake News Get Cozy

    Anger isn’t sustainable. In the long run, most people want good news – they want to be reassured everything’s fine. The war in Syria is over. The earthquake risk in California is low. The economy is up. The chocolate ratio has been raised again.

  • 4. Cooperations Throw the Towel

    Facebook and Google and Yahoo conclude out it’s too costly to assess the truth value of information passed on by their platforms, and decide it’s not their task. They’re right.
  • 5. Fake News Has Real-World Consequences

    We’ll see denial of facts leading to deaths of thousands of people. I mean lack of earthquake warning systems because the risk was believed fear-mongering. I mean riots over terrorist attacks that never happened. I mean collapsed buildings and toxic infant formula because who cares about science. We’ll get there.

The problem that fake news poses for democratic societies attracted academic interest already a decade ago. Triggered by the sudden dominance of Google as search engine, it entered the literature under the name “Googlearchy.”

Democracy relies on informed decision making. If the electorate doesn’t know what’s real, democratic societies can’t identify good ways to carry out the people’s will. You’d think that couldn’t be in anybody’s interest, but it is – if you can make money from misinformation.

Back then, the main worry focused on search engines as primary information providers. Someone with more prophetic skills might have predicted that social networks would come to play the central role for news distribution, but the root of the problem is the same: Algorithms are designed to deliver news which users like. That optimizes profit, but degrades the quality of news.

Economists of the Chicago School would tell you that this can’t be. People’s behavior reveals what they really want, and any regulation of the free market merely makes the fulfillment of their wants less efficient. If people read fake news, that’s what they want – the math proves it!

But no proof is better than its assumptions, and one central assumption for this conclusion is that people can’t have mutually inconsistent desires. We’re supposed to have factored in long-term consequences of today’s actions, properly future-discounted and risk-assessed. In other words, we’re supposed to know what’s good for us and our children and grand-grand-children and make rational decisions to work towards that goal.

In reality, however, we often want what’s logically impossible. Problem is, a free market, left unattended, caters predominantly to our short-term wants.

On the risk of appearing to be inconsistent, economists are right when they speak of revealed preferences as the tangible conclusion of our internal dialogues. It’s just that economists, being economists, like to forget that people have a second way of revealing preferences – they vote.

We use democratic decision making to ensure the long-term consequences of our actions are consistent with the short-term ones, like putting a price on carbon. One of the major flaws of current economic theory is that it treats the two systems, economic and political, as separate, when really they’re two sides of the same coin. But free markets don’t work without a way to punish forgery, lies, and empty promises.

This is especially important for intangible goods – those which can be reproduced with near-zero effort. Intangible goods, like information, need enforced copyright, or else quality becomes economically unsustainable. Hence, it will take regulation, subsidies, or both to prevent us from tumbling down into the valley of alternative facts.

In the last months I’ve seen a lot of finger-pointing at scientists for not communicating enough or not communicating correctly, as if we were the ones to blame for fake news. But this isn’t our fault. It’s the media which has a problem – and it’s a problem scientists solved long ago.

The main reason why fake news is hard to identify, and why it remains profitable to reproduce what other outlets have already covered, is that journalists – in contrast to scientists – are utterly intransparent about their doings.

As a blogger, I see this happening constantly. I know that many, if not most, science writers closely follow science blogs. And the professional writers frequently report on topics previously covered by bloggers – without doing as much as naming their sources, not to mention referencing them.

This isn’t merely a personal paranoia. I know this because in several instances science writers actually told me that my blogpost about this-or-that has been so very useful. Some even asked me to share links to their articles they wrote based on it. Let that sink in for a moment – they make money from my expertise, don’t give me credits, and think that this is entirely appropriate behavior. And you wonder why fake news is economically profitable?

For a scientist, that’s mindboggling. Our currency is citations. Proper credits is pretty much all we want. Keep the money, but say my name.

I understand that journalists have to protect some sources, so don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean they have to spill beans about their exclusive secrets. What I mean is simply that a supposed news outlet that merely echoes what’s been reported elsewhere should be required to refer to the earlier article.

Of course this would imply that the vast majority of existing news sites were revealed as copy-cats and lose readers. And of course it isn’t going to happen because nobody’s going to enforce it. If I saw even a remote chance of this happening, I wouldn’t have made the above predictions, would I?

What’s even more perplexing for a scientist, however, is that news outlets, to the extent that they do fact-checks, don’t tell customers that they fact-check, or what they fact-check, or how they fact-check.

Do you know, for example, which science magazines fact-check their articles? Some do, some don’t. I know for a few because I’ve been border-crossing between scientists and writers for a while. But largely it’s insider knowledge – I think it should be front-page information. Listen, Editor-in-Chief: If you fact-check, tell us.

It isn’t going to stop fake news, but I think a more open journalistic practice and publicly stated adherence to voluntary guidelines could greatly alleviate it. It probably makes you want to puke, but academics are good at a few things and high community standards are one of them. And that is what journalisms need right now.

I know, this isn’t exactly the cozy, shallow, good news that shares well. But it will be a great pleasure when, in ten years, I can say: I told you so.

43 comments:

Matthew Rapaport said...

Yes Dr. H. Very prescient of you. You are very right about all of this though I might quibble with you over the responsibility of a channel like Google or fb. But a fellow named Paul Otlet (a professional archivest) saw all this damaging potential almost 100 years ago now and noted even more presciently than you that all of this would happen unless sources (meaning individuals who put the news on the channel) could be unambiguously identified. Alas Otlet's warning was long forgotten by the time the Internet came along... but his work is still out there to be found..

kashyap vasavada said...

Hi Bee,
Sorry to see that you think you will die when you are just 69 years old! I hope you are wrong!
kashyap

Arun said...

This is related to the issue of fake news and is worth reading:
http://time.com/4675860/donald-trump-fake-news-attacks/

"The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

If some of you in this room are students of political philosophy, you know where this argument originates. This is a version of Thrasymachus’s argument in Plato’s Republic that justice is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice “if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.”

Substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “justice” and “injustice,” and there you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.

If you can sell condos by claiming your building is 90% occupied when it’s only 20% occupied, well, then—it’s 90% occupied. If you can convince a sufficient number of people that you really did win the popular vote, or that your inauguration crowds were the biggest—well then, what do the statistical data and aerial photographs matter?

Now, we could have some interesting conversations about why this is happening—and why it seems to be happening all of a sudden."

(The author then proceeds to talk about why it is happening.)

TheBigHenry said...

Sabine,

Excellent essay! I will definitely share this with my colleagues, with attribution, of course!

Best, Henry

TheBigHenry said...

One minor quibble -- "news" is a singular noun.

Unknown said...

Fake news are nothing new. A Soviet joke was: “There is no truth in Izvestiya [information in russian] and there is no information in Pravda [truth]”. Americans have been very good in not believing in the lies of the establishment and in voting for Trump.

Michael Gogins said...

Thanks for thinking about this and writing about this. I think it is critically important.

The obvious solution is totalitarian state control of the Internet.

I've been worrying about that since 1969, but I'm afraid the only solution I could come up with is slowing down the Internet by spreading humanity across interstellar space.

Uncle Al said...

"The chocolate ratio has been raised again" to a smaller number, arXiv:1610.01639, a curve fit of curve fits. When meat metes meet defeat, Quill!

https://www.narrativescience.com/quill
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/533976/robot-journalist-finds-new-work-on-wall-street/
...not merely lies, perspectives.

"Our currency is citations" 80+ papers on OPERA "superluminal" muon neutrinos in arXiv? "academics are good at a few things and high community standards are one of them"

https://netwar.wordpress.com/2007/07/03/feminist-epistemology/
...Professor Dr. Luce Irigaray sources physics' social defects.
https://i.imgflip.com/15xf51.jpg
...Historically a male monopoly, but no longer.
http://www.bristol.ac.uk/geography/news/2013/321.html
..."Luce Irigaray is one of the world’s most important contemporary thinkers."

Thomas Quinn said...

"news" is singular, in english grammar

Pfogle said...

5. Real world consequences - try that one on Andrew Wakefield, fraud, struck off the medical register in UK but able to pursue a career in Texas - arguably having caused the deaths of thousands through his false undermining of confidence in the MMR vaccine.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Henry,

Thanks for pointing out. The plural/singular form of some nouns causes me a big headache. I have the same issue with 'police' and 'data'. I've fixed the headline, but could you let me know if I got it wrong in any other sentences? Eg, should it be 'fake news becomes visual'? (Sounds odd too me.) Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Matthew,

Yes, it's all been said before. I'm sure if you look closely enough already Plato wrote about fake news. Anyways, it's a topic I find strangely fascinating because it forces us to face the rather philosophical question what's real anyway? (That I wrote about for entirely other reasons a few times.) Best,

B.

TheBigHenry said...

Sabine,

No longer does news rely on a physical resource or a process of manufacture.

News makes the most profit if it's cheap and widely shared.

1. Fake News Gets Organized

An army of shadow journalists specializes in fake news, pitching it to alternative news outlets.

2. Fake News Becomes Visual

5. Fake News Has Real-World Consequences

The problem that fake news poses for democratic societies attracted academic interest already a decade ago.

The main reason why fake news is hard to identify, ...

And you wonder why fake news is economically profitable?

Best, Henry

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Henry,

Ok, thanks. I think I get it :)

TheBigHenry said...

Sabine,

Sorry; I didn't mean to belabor the point. I just thought I would save you the trouble of finding all the sentences that needed alteration.

I realize that your native language is probably German, so I am not surprised that the words "news", "police" and "data" are problematic for you. "News" is a singular noun that has no plural. Police is a plural noun that has no singular. And "data" is really complicated:

"Data leads a life of its own quite independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural. It occurs in two constructions: as a plural noun (like earnings), taking a plural verb and plural modifiers (as these, many, a few) but not cardinal numbers, and serving as a referent for plural pronouns (as they, them); and as an abstract mass noun (like information), taking a singular verb and singular modifiers (as this, much, little), and being referred to by a singular pronoun (it). Both constructions are standard. The plural construction is more common in print, evidently because the house style of several publishers mandates it." -- From https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/data

If you would like, it would be my pleasure to proof-read any of your future posts that you have written in English. You can reach me by email via my Blogger Profile: https://www.blogger.com/profile/04917973198063733316

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Henry,

I wasn't complaining, it was a sincere 'thank you' since I realize you must have spent some time reading through and correcting the text. Yes, my native language is German (though I rarely write in German). Best,

B.

Eike Decker said...

Believing in false news isn't determined by the quality of the news providers. It is an independent factor which is in my opinion described pretty well by Einstein's quote "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen".

Disbelieving in science isn't a new thing either, according to [1] but the fact that science is trying to influence politics in order to take action on climate change is new in terms that science is more political than in most other times in the past centuries. The vaccination movement is having this battle about facts for a much longer time and there are studies about how changing opinions works (not really according to [2]).

I don't believe we can do much about people who are more willing to search for theories that confirm their personal bias than actually changing their mind. And if action or inaction by closed minded people backfires, don't expect them to change minds either (nicely depicted in this cartoon [3])

I agree with Sabine Hossenfelder that news should tell their sources of information. But more importantly I believe is to start teaching children to learn to evaluate information. Making tests where you're given articles and you have to fact check them and determine how much truth or falsehood it contains should be mandatory. Critical analysis should become part of common education. I remember that it was covered in its basics at school back when I was a pupil - but I wouldn't call it a good preparation for what was about to come.


[1] - http://www.sciencealert.com/researchers-have-figured-out-what-makes-people-reject-science-and-it-s-not-ignorance

[2] - http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/02/25/peds.2013-2365

[3] - http://boingboing.net/2014/05/28/tom-the-dancing-bug-what-will-2.html

Richard Burke-Ward said...

Sabine - thank you.This is a powerful piece of observation, and I think that looking at fake news through the lens of socio-economics is really valuable. As you say, no solutions are immediately apparent, but I do think that fresh perspectives like this are our only hope of *finding* solutions. Eike, your point about teaching children is very well made, and I agree.

I just want to add one observation (well, let's call it an opinion - no citations needed!):

"The news" may, as a phrase, have a ring of authority about it. But think of it a different way. News is essentially gossip. It's not a quest for the truth, it's an outgrowth of our biologically and culturally wired desire to track what is going on in other people's lives. "Hey, you know that weird guy in the next village? He just got caught swindling the farmer..." That kind of thing. The media came into being as a way of MEDIAting this flow of gossip. As Sabine pointed out, they were the owners of the means of transmission. By owning radio stations or telegraph stations or printing presses, they were able to transmit more gossip, more quickly, and from further away.

This then raised issues of reliability and authority. It might have been fine in the 1500s to come back from 5 years at sea with a map that pictures of monsters and headless cannibals on it, but as our ability to transmit information faster and over longer distances grew, so too did the contradictions. Are there really headless cannibals in Africa, or do we believe this new report that says they look just like us and eat only vegetables? are there really sea monsters, or these new-fangled photograph-things closer to the truth?

All of it gossip. Rumour and counter-rumour. Ways of learning about the parts of the world that we will never get to see in person.

So I guess you could argue that the fact that there was a phase where gossip turned into journalism, where we put our trust in journalists to tell us the unvarnished truth, was perhaps just that: a phase. Wasn't true in the 1700s, and is rapidly fading in the 2000s.

We're back to news and gossip being indistinguishable from each other. But with the powerful difference that, these days, gossip has serious consequences, because it affects how people vote.

RBW

akidbelle said...

Hi Sabine,

thanks, nice futurology... but maybe you forget that news were always manipulated, censored and filtered. Fake news is nothing new, and even 100% forged news has been there for long (made fortunes in stock markets). Years ago I talked to an old journalist who was maybe 40 when you were just born, he witnessed manipulation and filtering from within. Believe me he had a lot to talk about.

I think the cure will be simple; before all you mention has happened most people will stop believing the press and make their own mind from their own situation. (Of course there will still be nutcases.) The trick is that all that craps is based on training automatic emotional response. e.g. Watch soccer game, not the game but the public.

Best,
J.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

akidbelle,

Sure, there have always been fake news. Trust me, it has occurred to me. But if you think this is business as usual, you should look again - the impact of fake news has never been so quick and so global. If you think orders of magnitude don't make a difference, you're on a slippery slope sliding down the wrong end. Also, you should look up normalcy bias.

Yes, you are right - people will eventually give up on news and re-establish a new mode of (mostly truthful) communication, but this is a few years (5-10, I guess) into the future.

I wrote about the circle of lies and communication breakdown here, but the majority is presently still far off noticing (admitting?) that communication is costly but useless. Best,

B.

Bill said...

Dear Sabine -- thank you for having the courage to openly say what many of us have known for a long time. As for you, I hope you make it long after 2045 (assuming to want to still be here).

I won't get into into the alt-fact, willfully ignorant, low-information Trumpocracy I'm now living in, which is in fact a direct consequence of what you speak of. But I see a similar trend in science "reporting" as well, which comes to many in the form of noisy whoosh-bang CGI cable shows (and Michio Kaku is usually on hand for much of it). Thanks to these shows, the average American actually believes we'll be going to other galaxies in the next few years with our existing chemical-propellant technology. God help us.

Wilfredo Yambao said...

Great and very timely essay it. Sharing it!

cybervigilante said...

The claim that "news" is singular must be backed up by three primary citations.

cybervigilante said...

Nations have been doing fake news for ages. The Spanish-American war promoted by Hearst, the Reichstag fire, the Tonkin Gulf, Weapons of Mass Destruction, etc. The only real difference is now the public gets to do it. The lies are more diffuse but so far haven't started a war - although that could change.

akidbelle said...

Hi Sabine,

I think the cure comes after and from the sickness. The society of powers has made allegiance to the society of money and all this power stuff has been based on lies for eons (including fairy tales in your own words). What can I do? Tell a bit of truth where I can and where I see it. Act at my scale, educate if I can, get educated myself.

And again, this is all about automatic emotional response - always. The purpose of fake news is to train individual to this kind of automatic unconscious response - exactly like it was 30-40 years ago - and the very fact that it now needs so much power is rather a good sign. 100 years ago, people were happy to go to war.

Concerning normalcy bias, I measure it every single day in my own domain - together with social pressure to enforce it (though I prefer the word conformance selection). I understand this is what this blog is about, in your own domain, for a non-negligible part. But I think maybe you're a bit lucky because contrary to many other aspects of disinformation, in physics there is a spoon. (Though I wonder if physicists remind that there is only one).

I think 5-10 years is a bit short considering the amplitude of the manipulation; but maybe Mr. Trump has a chance to lead us quicker to the cure :).

Best,
J.

David Schroeder said...

Ages ago paleolithic hunter-gatherers, Middle East farmers, and metal-age invaders mixed together to form the modern European populations. Over the centuries, and millennia, their descendants divided into tribes, kingdoms, nation-states; finally merging together in the EU, as a component of the broader Western world. With each larger political entity the conflicts between them grew more destructive, with orders of magnitude greater loss of life.

Fortunately, the Western and Eastern conglomerates avoided what would have been a planet devastating conflict - with immense credit due to a president who fully understood the consequences of the path the world was following, and sensibly ended the East/West divide. But his successors have taken us backwards, reinstating that divide.

I had hoped that our new president would reverse this trend, but he is being drowned out by those beating the drums. Once again we see the warriors posturing and practicing for battle. It is a pity that our new president did not serve in the military, as that would have given him greater status and legitimacy, as was the case with JFK - a peacemaker if there ever was one. But, hopefully, peace and commonsense will prevail, and we will do honor to our distant ancestors.

Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

I think there is another reason why fake news was so important in the Brexit vote and the presidential elections in the USA.

In the end, both were not about policy, but about power. There is a power struggle in the Western world between on the one hand older, rural voters, and on the other hand, younger, urban voters. The "Take back our country" movements in the USA and UK, and now in continental Europe, e.g., in the Netherlands.

Most of the "valid arguments" in current policy discussions are in the hands of the urban, younger and educated part of the population. The older and rural population is less well educated and have a dearth of "valid policy arguments". This struggle was "won" in this cycle by the "rural" block. Their tactic was to neutralize their disadvantage in policy arguments by swamping the discussion with fake news and discrediting all expertise.

In short, I think the Trump and Brexit voters do not want good policy, but they want to get the power to run the country as they see fit, whatever the cost. Real information and real facts only interfere with getting it their way.

So, I see this not so much as a fault of the media, or the experts. The deeper problem seems to be that a large part of the population feels betrayed by politics and want their old life back, no matter what. I see this illustrated in many interviews where voters for Trump-like candidates readily admit to only vote for him/her to punish (or destroy) the existing parties and that they do not believe their candidate will actually help them.

Richard Burke-Ward said...

Rob, you make a really strong point about older more rural communities vs younger urban communities. I think it applies to smaller towns too.

it will be interesting to see how the issue plays out over a long time period. The 'aged' proportion of most developed societies is increasing fast because people live longer. On the other hand, there is a big trend towards urban living; cities are expanding fast, as are smaller towns. Of course, as towns and cities grow, the older section of the *urban* population may also be resistant to change...

In the meantime, we are stuck with voters and governments that are less interested in what is factually valid or sensible, and more interested in getting what they want.

Phillip Helbig said...

@David Schroeder: In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a good and well documented case that violence has decreased almost continuously from prehistoric through modern times, with very few exceptions. (Of course, death toll etc is a fraction of the population, not absolute numbers.) This contradicts many people's opinions.

As for Kennedy being a peacemaker, remember that the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world quite close to nuclear war. Remember that the Viet Nam War was not ended during his time. Whether it would have been had he not been killed is questionable.

Trump would have more respect had he served in the military? Respect from whom? His own supporters apparently don't care, and those who don't support him certainly wouldn't think more of him had he served.

akidbelle said...

Hi David,

please be sure I do not want to be aggressive to anyone. And certainly not to the US citizen or to your president. As a French man I honestly envy a democracy that can elect a man without a 40 years career dedicated to climbing the ladder of his own party - I mean someone who had a real job in contact with real world.

Best,
J.

TheBigHenry said...

"Most of the "valid arguments" in current policy discussions are in the hands of the urban, younger and educated part of the population. The older and rural population is less well educated and have a dearth of "valid policy arguments"."

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, of course. Moreover, our Constitution guarantee's everyone's right to their own unsupported assertions.

But nobody is entitled to their own facts. Truth is not assertion, and assertion is not proof.

Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

@Henry
"But nobody is entitled to their own facts."

Anyone particular in mind?

TheBigHenry said...

@ amateur

"Nobody" subsumes everybody. Your question makes no sense.

David Schroeder said...

@akidbelle, I wasn't thinking of your post when I wrote my short missive, but thanks for the kind words.

@Phillip Helbig, I have to disagree with your opinion on JFK. I was a teenager at the time of the crisis, and well remember the fear and uncertainty surrounding that superpower standoff. Kennedy was well known as an intellectual, and not prone to being trigger happy. He opposed the generals plan to invade Cuba. As a teenager back then, with plenty of testosterone, I thought the president was being wimpy. But in retrospect, an invasion of Cuba could well have escalated to all out nuclear war, and likely you young people would not be here today to respond on this blog.

During Kennedy's tenure the Vietnam war was only at the advisor level, with no major American troop commitment. It's difficult to say what he would have done had he not been assassinated. But my guess is he would have avoided a major increase in American involvement.

@Rob van Son, "Power to run the country.." was the last thing on my mind when I voted in the last election. For any thinking person it was quite clear that 25 years of military involvement in the Mideast and surrounding regions was not a good plan. It cost trillions of dollars, and stirred up a hornet's nest. Admittedly, it all started rather innocently with an apparent mis-translation of Aprile Glaspie's meeting transcript with Saddam Hussein, in 1990, that the dictator interpreted as a green light to invade Kuwait. We Americans had two foreign policy choices in the election - continue the same old course, or start to disengage and scale back our involvement in that region.

Personally, I had absolutely no intent, or desire, to "punish", or "destroy" the other party. I can't speak for every other person who voted as I did, but I was not motivated by vindictiveness. I simply voted for the candidate who I felt was the better choice for our country.

elsurexiste said...

I was agreeing in general, but when you reached your Chicago School of Economics you engaged in a bit of fake news yourself. There's a lot of wrong in your text.

"Economists [...] the math proves it!". That's a bit like saying "Newton would tell you that SR/GR can't be.": technically true, but ultimately irrelevant. If you consider fake news a good, then (given assumptions unlike the ones you describe) you can establish a connection between what they want and what they choose, what they choose and how much welfare they experience and what they are refused and how much welfare they lose. That's not limited to Chicago's: virtually all mainstream Economics accept this. You may consider fake news on an imperfect information framework, but then it wouldn't be a good and your phrase loses sense.

"But no proof [...] that goal". That paragraph is false. Rational preferences in Economics have a precise definition: they are complete (alternatives can be compared) and transitive (preferring A over B and B over C means A is preferred over C). You may argue that there's inconsistency in transitivity and there's empirical evidence for that. As for factoring long term consequences, there are two statements for it:
* People behave "as if" they have factored the long-term consequences, much like developing a theory of gas behavior without knowing there are molecules involved. There's evidence for this.
* People make time-inconsistent decisions when comparing the present and the future, like heuristic or hyperbolic discount. There's evidence for this too, e.g. in economic addiction models (ironically, there are researchers from Chicago that work on such subjects).
Notice that in none of those cases your idea of rationality applies.

"In reality, [...] wants". Wants don't need to be logically possible: it's the ability to pick between two bundles of goods and respect transitivity that's required. As for short-term/long-term preferences, they occur in all sorts of situations, not only free markets. For instance, someone stranded on an island that needs to allocate for finding food, building a tent and other activities.

"On the risk [...] – they vote". Revealed preferences that only respect the weak axiom aren't much useful; those that respect the strong axiom are equivalent to rational preferences as defined above. As for voting, there's A LOT of resources about voting and public choice from Economics, including from recently deceased Kenneth Arrow and Chicago's Stigler.

"We use [...] promises". You have described main reasons for a regulator that restricts behavior (through taxes or similar), not democratic decision-making: asymmetric information and unaccounted externalities. We just need to remember when Pi was to be established by law to 3.2, or notice that in 2009 the Congress of Argentina established... a hyperbolic discount factor for inflation over pensions, both completely democratic in principle and process. As for treating both systems separately, just consider a game-theoretical model of law makers and suddenly both become one and the same and you'll be able to make all sorts of predictions, even... say... "why in Latin America abortion laws never change".

"This [...] facts". What should we do with all the alternative facts you just said here, which may have already influenced some of your readers?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

elsurexiste,

"technically true, but ultimately irrelevant"

is what I'm saying

Yes, I'm referring to transitivity.

I don't know why time-inconsistency should not be inconsistency, or else I don't understand what you mean.

"it's the ability to pick between two bundles of goods and respect transitivity that's required."

Exactly.

"As for short-term/long-term preferences, they occur in all sorts of situations, not only free markets."

Of course. I am not sure why you feel that you have to tell me the obvious.

"As for voting, there's A LOT of resources about voting and public choice from Economics, including from recently deceased Kenneth Arrow and Chicago's Stigler.

I know, thanks. What I am saying is not that nobody's ever thought about public choice theory, I'm saying it's generally nonsensical to pretend the economic system is separate from the political one.

Having said that, I think you entirely misunderstood what I wrote, starting from the phrase "the math proves it." I wasn't commenting on economists at all. I have high respect for the profession and think it should be paid more attention to, not less. What I was stabbing at were politicians who cherry-pick whatever conclusion it is that supports their ideology, a practice that seems to be particularly common among neo-liberals (or neo-conservatives, as they're called elsewhere). Hope that explains it. Best,

B.

Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

@Henry
""Nobody" subsumes everybody. Your question makes no sense."

Posing random truisms makes not sense either. A human must always assume that a sentence is said or written for a reason. If I assume you did not blurt out your quote randomly, I am still wondering what you were referring to.

@David
""Power to run the country.." was the last thing on my mind when I voted in the last election."

But it IS the rallying cry in all the elections from Brexit to the upcoming elections in France and the Netherlands. And this includes Trump. So, while you might not have that idea, many others most certainly yell it out loud.

@David
"Personally, I had absolutely no intent, or desire, to "punish", or "destroy" the other party."

Again, this is what voters tell journalists everywhere.

TheBigHenry said...

@ Rob

I deliberately quoted a portion of your comment at 4:35 AM, February 23, 2017. I did not blurt it out nor was it a random choice.

My remarks were obviously addressed to your opinions, which you, in turn, based on your own unsupported assertions.

My so-called "truisms" were also not random. They were specifically chosen by me to point out to you that it is a trivial matter to pose any opinions that are based on unsupported assertions, which you presented as if they are established facts.

I have no doubt that you are a human. Your assertion to that effect was not necessary.

Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

@Henry
"
My remarks were obviously addressed to your opinions, which you, in turn, based on your own unsupported assertions."

That was ambiguous to me, so I asked for clarification, which I now got.

As for unsupported assertions. I wrote an oppinion which I can illustrate with a lot of public data. Not least the words of the principal campaigners for Brexit and Trump, as well as those of Le Pen and Wilders.

A single example: What is a full stadion shouting "lock her up" other than a call for revenge?

Now, was my oppinion that absurd?

JimV said...

Sometimes I think technology might provide a solution; for example, a reliable and usable lie detector. Suppose we in the USA could ask our political candidates questions refereed by reliable lie detectors - there are several questions I would like answered that way. (Not that I usually have much trouble detecting political charlatans, but I would like my hunches confirmed and widely known.)

Then again, such technology could also be used by dictators to weed out dissenters. Still, it seems to me to be the only hope for the human race, provided enough of us are willing to sacrifice for the truth; and if we aren't, I guess we don't deserve any better than to bog down in an morass of fake news.

TheBigHenry said...

@ Rob

You have a problem with reading comprehension, which I am not inclined to remediate for you.

Look up the words "opinion", "assertion", "fact", "unsupported", "valid", and "demographics". Then, read what I stated at 11:05 AM, February 23, 2017. Slowly.

Have a nice day.

Henning Dekant said...

I was never quite sure who I should regard as the most well rounded, smartest person on this planet since Stanislaw Lem passed away. Well, this post did it. It's gonna be you. Hope you don't mind :-)

Nicholas_X65 said...

Sabine, by presenting a history of "fake news" defined as witting lies by amateurs and insurgents, I fear you omit more than half the story here. The responsible, institutionalized, professional, well-funded media organizations of old, in the West as everywhere else, at all times functioned primarily as instruments of inculcating and reinforcing the nationally hegemonic ideologies; and engaged, often very wittingly, in enormous campaigns of propaganda and often enough fabrication. To go only with one of the most obvious examples: The most important and consequential "fake news" campaign of the 21st century remains, not what some unidentified but purportedly "Russian" operatives did on Facebook last year with the supposed aim of electing Trump, but rather what the New York Times, Washington Post, CIA, Pentagon, Downing Street, Washington think-tanks et al. did in fabricating claims that the Iraqi government was harboring WMDs and had had a hand in the 9/11 attacks, contrary to all known credible evidence. The contrary evidence, which has been proven correct and is now universally accepted, was present in the foreign press, but in the U.S. it was accessible mainly through independent operators and insurgents on the Internet. Thanks for your work generally, I like this blog and had fun watching your songs. Best, Nicholas