Daily Archives: May 28, 2011

Well-informed Nonsense

Kevin Drum, in Mindshare vs. Demographics, links to a Gallup poll that shows people overestimating the percentage of guys in America. He surmises that people are overestimating because gay and lesbian issues are prominent in the news. Even though personal experience doesn’t support that, for example, 20% of people are gay, the amount of news coverage makes them believe it’s more. It’s similar to how people always think crime’s going up because that’s all they see in the news. (Let’s ignore recent news coverage of a drop in crime for now. If you want a better example, let’s compare how threatened people feel about terrorisms and random kidnappings despite the really low chances they’ll be affected by this.)

I don’t know if Kevin Drum is right. I haven’t talked to any of these people. I don’t know any data other than the numbers from a Gallup poll that I never looked at myself. (I’m apt to believe that the real answer is more complicated than Drum’s speculations.)

Still, I brought it up just to show how knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from finding more information or being well-informed. In fact, those who follow the news (especially cable news) closely can have a very distorted view of the world. News stories exploit our cognitive biases toward narration and the shocking.

In a similar vein, Jonah Lehrer also has an interesting story on the wisdom of crowds.1 When you ask a large group of people (one at a time) to estimate how many marbles are in a jar, the average answer can be very accurate. Apparently, people can cancel out each other’s wacky guesses. Cool. Someone recently performed an experiment where they modified this a bit. Instead of giving them a question and having them answer it individually and isolated, they let people see what the group was thinking. The answers became more inaccurate because of groupthink. The range of answers narrowed as people adjusted their guesses to the crowd. Even worse, the people were more confident in their answers when they saw what the group was thinking.

I find the last part more troubling. That adding more information can make us stupider is a problem enough as it is. That it makes people more confident is even worse. People can read the news, think they’re well-informed, and be more confident in their base of knowledge, but they may be worse off than someone who doesn’t pay attention to the news at all. But at least the person who doesn’t read the news knows that he doesn’t know anything about current events.

1Just want to make a note that I’m really annoyed that I have to summarize what’s here before commenting on it, but it’s good practice. I don’t want to be too lazy with my writing.

Lazy Day


I’m having trouble motivating myself to do anything today. I did one load of laundry and vacuumed half of my apartment. The rest of the time was taken up by Angry Birds. It’s a high-quality game, and I’m considering shelling out for the full application.

The sound effects are hilarious but not annoying, which I find an impressive touch.


I want to write more about technical things because those things take up more of my time. I’ll have to experiment with ways to do it that are less boring than straight forward how-to’s.

I’d really like to find partners/mentors for programming. Self-learning is great, but I do need some type of feedback when I’m learning things.

Lately, I’ve been working on a Ruby on Rails application called RackView. I’m just playing around with a way to replace an increasingly unwieldy Visio diagram of the racks of one of the labs at work. I’d like to share what I’ve done. I can’t do it now because all the code’s on a VM I installed on my work laptop. My work laptop is at… work. I prefer doing rails development on a Linux machine over a Windows machine, which is why it’s on a VM.


I read Game Frame and found it very disappointing. It’s supposed to go through and show how you can apply game mechanics to everyday life. I found it way too breezy to be useful. Anyway, it’s kind of soured me on a genre of books. I picked it up in the science section, but it’s more of a business/self-help book. I guess what attracted me to the book was that I like philosophies that can be put into practice. In general, I find the books I’ve been reading too shallow to be useful. I’m also going to be more careful about avoiding pop psychology books and anything written by a journalist.

The last 3 books I picked up were: a collection of DFW essays, How I Became Stupid, and The Bed of Procrustes. I already finished the last one listed, which is a book of aphorisms by Taleb. He’s got a great aphorism about business writers. I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t share it. Sorry. Haha.

I’m really excited to start reading How I Became Stupid. I originally read this in high school during my existentialism phase, and I really, really liked it. I’ve looked for this several times and couldn’t find it, so I’d concluded that I lost the book. Recently, I saw it at a bookstore in Berkeley, on top a stack of books. I decided it was fate, and I had to buy the book. I was worried that it wouldn’t hold up — The Myth of Sisphysus didn’t feel as brilliant the second time around — but the store clerk ringing me up said it was really good.

I have prided myself on buying interesting books (and I’ve been complimented on this). Many of the last books I’ve picked up have been duds, and I started to doubt my prowess. I think I can change this by leaning more towards literature and discounting recommendations from certain sources.