Dances with lions; the internet can eat us alive

Imagine two creatures a few hundred thousand years ago. One is a human that is casually observing the other, a 750-pound Eurasian cave lion. The beast (the lion, that is) lunges at the human (who is not a beast at all – the cranium of humans at that time was about the same as ours, and the cranium of Neanderthals was bigger). The lion shreds our would-be ancestor like so much pulled pork. 

What happened? Why did this human with as much grey matter as you or I, or more, fail to see this coming?

For the first few million years of our evolution, humans drew conclusions in the same way that other animals did – from their senses. Their database was what they personally saw, heard, smelled, felt and tasted. This was a poor method for gathering data from which to draw conclusions about nuanced matters, because the amount of data gathered was small. It was limited by the lifespan and experiences of the single person gathering it.

Conclusions drawn from small data pools are inherently unreliable because they may be skewed by a few outlying points, whereas in larger data pools the outliers get swamped by the in-liers which, by definition, are more numerous.

Toss a coin. It’s not very unusual to get heads three times – 100% of the time – in three tosses. The odds are one in eight. But it’s exponentially harder to get heads 100% of the time in 10 tosses. The odds of that are about one in a thousand.

Now apply that principle to human affairs. A person hundreds of thousands of years ago who’d never seen a lion attack a human, even though he’d seen lions in proximity to humans several times, might reasonably conclude that lions don’t do that. People witness a specific event, and on that basis they generalize.

Extrapolating from specific anecdotal evidence to the general is natural and is even now a legitimate part of the scientific method. But the reliability of this method is limited.

Computer programmers say “garbage in, garbage out” but that’s not quite the right expression for this statistics principle. I’m not talking about input data that are garbage. To the contrary, the input data can be highly accurate. What I’m talking about is not its quality but its quantity. A better expression to capture this principle is “limited data in, limited reliability out.”

As we developed more sophisticated communication methods through complex language and societies, data gathering improved. A person’s database on which to draw conclusions expanded beyond his own experiences and began to include to some extent the experiences of people he talked with.

This was a good thing for the advancement of humankind. Humans surely became careful around lions even though they’d never seen one attack a human, because they were told by others who had seen such attacks that they do in fact occur.

The advent of inexpensive mass communication improved data collection and dissemination even more. The printing press was followed by newspapers and then electronic communication and today’s internet where virtually all public information is available with a few clicks.

You might think, as many did early in the internet, that the availability of all this data would improve decision-making. In theory it could, and in practice it often does.

But it can also have exactly the opposite effect.

People are still wired to absorb a story rather than process data. People go to the movies – and to the internet – to see a story, not to collect data. Stories are fun, data are boring. People especially like stories that play to their primitive instincts such as violence, sex and conflicts with other tribes.

The presenters of internet content – the media – are of course aware of this. That’s why they present clickbait stories instead of data. They’re in the infotainment business.

People draw their conclusions from this clickbait. That’s a problem because although the clickbait is typically accurate (though sometimes not), it’s limited in scope. Stated another way, the problem is not that clickbait is disinformation; the problem is that it’s outlying data. This internet tool that enables us to gather vast quantities of information also enables us to filter it to suit our preferences and biases.

Back to our noble but naïve and dead savage. If he’d been getting his news from Facebook or Fox News or CNN, he’d have been bombarded daily with every gory detail of every lion attack on the whole flat earth. Look what they do with shark attacks. The internet algorithms worsen his plight by collecting his interest in lion attacks in order to feed him still more lion attacks to generate more clicks which generate more advertising revenue.

From those stories of lion attacks, the reptilian part of his brain would conclude (as would mine, since modern brains are arguably no more dexterous than prehistoric ones) that lions are on the rampage and probably under his pine bough bed right now. He’d immediately go into a lion lockdown in his cave where there’s a high probability he would starve to death. But in the meantime, he’d comfort himself with the knowledge that he avoided the low probability of being eaten to death.

The prehistoric human I introduced at the outset got eaten because he had insufficient data to realize that cavorting with lions was dangerous, while his counterpart on the internet starved to death because he had too much data about that same danger without context showing that the danger is not large enough to justify a lockdown. Both made bad decisions that left them equally dead.

Today’s political junkies are similar to the second human, the one who exaggerates the danger of lions because he’s been fed a steady diet of lion attacks. Political partisans on both sides generalize from accurate but outlying clickbait to draw the conclusion that the other side is evil and stupid. I do it myself sometimes. Its takes real effort not to. It was hard-wired into our brains as they evolved in a time when that was the best data collection and analytical method available.  

So, what should we do?

My advice to readers is to get off Facebook. Get off Twitter. Get off Fox News and CNN. Get your news from a variety of sources, and not just sources that filter and spin it the way you like. RealClearPolitics.com is pretty good at presenting points accompanied by counterpoints (though they often fall into the trap of each being extreme).

My advice to the media is to rescue your industry from the clickbaiters. I realize that clickbait is a good business, but there’s a profession calling out to you. It’s called journalism. Try it. Our species is at stake.

20 thoughts on “Dances with lions; the internet can eat us alive

  1. I don’t watch Fox News — or CNN for that matter. However, if I only watched Fox News and CNN, following your allegory, I would learn from Fox News that cave lions are dangerous and a number of people have been killed by them, whereas CNN would inform me that cave lion killings are greatly exaggerated and would not arise if we didn’t trespass in their caves. Just these two samples would suggest to me that it’s wise to observe caution in dealing with cave lions whilest not obsessing about the danger outside of caves.
    If you’re talking about Tucker Carlson, Carlson researches his stories very carefully, he gets information from a lot of people, and he is not a fear monger. In short, he may be a single source, but he draws from an extended data pool. If Tucker Carlson tells me that cave lions are controlling our information and that we’re being fed to the lions, I listen.

    • You’re so right. I’m watching FOX because they’re telling the truth about what is going on in this country. The other side, all of them, are lying. There is no middle road, there’s wrong and there’s right.
      A couple of quotes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

      • “Such as it is, the press has become the greatest power within the Western World, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and judiciary. One would like to ask; by whom has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?”
        and
        “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. “One word of truth outweighs the world.”

  2. There is a disclaimer that accompanies every t.v. ad I’ve ever seen concerning lawyers. Something like, “The choice of an attorney is really important and you shouldn’t rely just on t.v. ads to make your choice.” Some voice reads aloud the disclaimer . . . at about five times normal speed. The disclaimer is required by law, I think. (Glenn, you would know about that.) Well, the internet should have something like that, too. But, unlike the t.v. ads, the disclaimers should be read about 1/2 to 3/4 speed, loudly and clearly so that even the slowest among us can follow and understand.

  3. My favorite quote on the internet:

    “The problem with the internet is that everyone takes everything on it at face value, without checking its veracity.”
    — Abraham Lincoln

  4. Enter confirmation bias. I read your columns eagerly because they reassure me that not everyone has lost his mind, that what I consider “truth” is perceived by others who are educated and experienced enough to be credible. That yard sign featured in your “Related” piece above, from April of last year, really IS stupid, and you help me better understand why I think so, and am right to think so. If I’m a partisan junkie, so be it — I ain’t got time to have my remaining days cut out from under me by the Cult of Covid and Marxist demons and “moderate” RINOS.

    • I don’t intend to suggest that nobody is stupid or evil. Some are. And I don’t mean to suggest that one should compromise his positions. Some positions are not compromisable.

      I only intend to suggest that one will get a distorted view of the world and his opponents by digesting only data that has been filtered by a system that is specifically designed to confirm his biases and stoke his anger. Demonizing one’s opponent serves a purpose, but in the long run it’s better to understand him — if for no other reason than it gives one a tactical advantage that blind rage does not.

      • As for “understanding” an opponent, keep in mind that this compound word literally means “standing under,” as one does with a respected sensai, or a moral, ethical or religious code of principle and conduct. There can be no “understanding” those who willfully inflict urban chaos, fentanyl, lockdowns, censorship, false narratives, economic hardship, etc., on citizens whom they presume to govern. But I understand (heh, heh) your point that seeking to be inflamed by strident media tribalists is not particularly wise or healthy.

      • You’re engaging in sophistry, Chad, and it’s a reach at that.

        “Understanding” does not literally mean “standing under.” It might be rooted linguistically in that, but according to the dictionary the current meaning is something like:

        “a mental grasp, comprehension, the power of comprehending especially the capacity to apprehend general relations of particulars, the power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories.”

        “Understanding” in common usage, therefore, does not mean subordinating oneself to the thing or person being understood. If I understand algebra, that doesn’t mean I’ve subordinated myself to it. You can endeavor to understand the object of your understanding without surrendering to it or him.

      • In your piece you use the word “dexterous.” Am I being “sophistical” in pointing out that the word literally means “right-handed,” just as the word “sinister” literally means “left-handed,” and in pointing out that our contemporary usage of the two words is metaphorical?

        Am I being sophistical in pointing out that when you employ algebra as a useful tool, you are indeed “subordinating” yourself to, or submitting to, or “standing under” its discipline— its assumptions, its logic, its conventions? You don’t, like some Woke extremists, reject it as a product of “whiteness” (whatever that means).

        Quibbling aside, my point was simply that, whatever we mean by “understanding,” there can be no understanding of stupid and/or evil people. I am unable mentally to “seize” or “grasp” what they’re up to, those two words being the “literal” root words in the word “comprehend.” I don’t comprehend them, and I certainly don’t subordinate or surrender to them.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. Does this mean no more click-bait column titles like “Why do Democrats want to kill all the black babies?” and “Criminals roam free while God is put on trial and His son is branded a border-jumper?”

    • I’m not sure what Glenn is confessing to, but I don’t see him as “drawing conclusions from small data bases” in either of the two pieces you cite, nor as having written them principally in order to generate clicks from partisan groupies, as some people do in order to generate revenue.

  6. “People are still wired to absorb a story rather than process data. People go to the movies – and to the internet – to see a story, not to collect data. Stories are fun, data are boring.”

    This is precisely why Lefties always talk about “the narrative.” Substitute “story” for “narrative” and there you go.

  7. Glenn – Not just this article, but most all of what you publish, is excellent. Do not always agree with you, but you make me think, and sure have skill with words. Keep it up. And thank you.

  8. I think about this too. What if we got off all media for at least a week. Would our perspective change? I am doing a study on the temperature in my area. I’ve only been at it for a month, but I am lookly directly at the data. Data is always a great revealer of truth. Thanks for your columns, it’s nice to know there are others that want to know the truth and are trying to be honest with us.

  9. Glenn, Sometimes in our innocence truth is replaced with hypothesis. “For the first few million years….” and “hundreds of thousands of years ago…..”

  10. I have a few trusted sources. Daily Wire has Morning Wire, a synthesis of the day’s news. No pot and pan banging. I also listen to Bill O’Reilly and Bill Bennett for commentary. Both carefully research, have credible guests and sources, and will openly retract previously reported stories that were later deemed inaccurate. I am saddened and sickened by the ignorance and naivety demonstrated in light of the shooting. One classmate who is not a stupid woman (although I think she is a Democrat!) posted “How does an 18 year old buy assault rifles? How can someone like him access weapons of war.” I hate to burst your bubble C but these aren’t assault rifles and they are not weapons of war….I did diplomatically and carefully explain the fallacy of her statement and I was pleased that I got a lot of agreement, and no pushback. But imagine how many people still believe this bilge?

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