by Henry Farrell on March 8, 2023

[attention conservation notice: this post consists of lengthy opinionating with a smattering of thinly sketched arguments from psychological research, and a now-obscure science fiction novel. Also – if you really disliked M Night Shyamalan movies, even before the shtick became a shtick, you’re likely to be annoyed].

So Jonathan Chait wasn’t happy with the side-comment on his career incentives in my last post (see the tweet pictured above). Fair enough. But his alternative theory of how the attention economy works is one dimensional and self-flattering (which is not to say that it is entirely wrong).

Chait’s implicit theory of the political economy of opinion journalism seems to be that the true path to success is to flatter your readers’ prejudices. The implication of Chait’s sarcasm is that those who split their audience, such as, to take a random example, Chait himself, are less likely to be rewarded. People like me, who argue to the contrary, are wrong (maybe even idiots). Matt Yglesias, in a follow on comment, says that “I think it’s probably true that a lot of journalists suppress their own heterodox views (most journalists are left or center but few people are totally dogmatic) in a way that’s bad for their careers in response to informal social pressure from peers.”

So the argument (especially in its more explicit Yglesias formulation) that there are incentives to flatter the beliefs of your own side, and to downplay the points of disagreement, is not at all wrong. Social pressure is real, and there is a lot of evidence, whether anecdotal, personal-universal (I imagine that pretty well everyone with a bare minimum of social skills has regularly kept quiet about what they really think on some controversial topic in order to avoid friction), and experimental (the notorious though often misinterpreted Asch conformity experiments), to back this intuition up.

Cognitive psychology provides a lot of evidence to back up the notion that we are coalitional animals. More political scientists and sociologists should read books like Pascal Boyer’s Minds Make Society. As Boyer discusses, we very easily discern the coalitional dynamics implicit in information we have been given, and tend to focus on it:

There is no social history or ethnography of any human community that does not mention people joining forces for common goals, creating and maintaining rival alliances, and punishing defections. This is so pervasive in human interaction that the point seems banal

When people hear conversations, they find it far easier to recall the implied information about who is allied with whom than the actual content of of discussion. In short, we have specialized cognitive mechanisms for keeping track of coalitional politics, and a lot of what we say and think is driven by these mechanisms.

That helps explain why people sometimes repress what they actually think. But it also plausibly helps explain why being a professional controversialist can be a good career move. If we have cognitive mechanisms that draw us to pay particular attention to fights and disagreements, then the attention economy isn’t just going to reward people who tell their audience what they want to hear. It is also going to reward people who say challenging, provocative and outrageous things. Contrary to what Chait implies, splitting your audience, and outraging the norms of a perceived community – so that people generate pile-ons, counter-pile-ons and so on, is a path to success. Indeed, Chait himself has pretty well acknowledged that this is part of his journalistic appeal in a past spat with Crooked Timber.

the story … in the print edition, asked, “Can a white male liberal critique the country’s current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)? We’re sure you’ll let us know.” This was my editors’ playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm the piece would set off.

“provocatively anticipate the firestorm” and “We’re sure you’ll let us know” suggest that this is perfectly self-conscious and deliberate on the part of Chait and his editors. It’s the same logic that inspires conservative activists to invite Milo onto campus – “The left-wing riots were not the price or the downside of inviting Yiannopoulos—they were the attraction.” Similarly, Chait seems to be telling us that he and his editors at New York Magazine anticipate and want howls of outrage from angry liberals and the left. That’s what pulls the punters in.

And here comes the half-arsed M Night Shyamalan twist. I’m guessing that a lot of (perhaps most?) readers who’ve gotten to this point, have been sucked in because this starts like another “Why Jonathan Chait Is Wrong” piece, with snarky title and lengthy argumentation. I’ve written other such pieces in the past, but I’m not now sure that this is a useful way to think about things. The particularities of Jonathan Chait are not, after all, a question of urgent importance. As the earlier post suggested, what is more important are the larger dynamics that reward and reinforce certain kinds of ways of participating in the public, while demotivating others.

For me, the big question isn’t whether Jonathan Chait (or Glenn Greenwald, or name any other extremely online person who you think is a controversialist or party hack) is an innately terrible human being. It’s why we have a media architecture that creates feedback loops that reinforce certain behaviors (whether it’s being hackish, or stirring shit for the sake of attention, or some combination) with attention and engagement. My hypothesis is that the dynamics of social media and the coalitional aspects of our cognitive architectures have come to reinforce each other in increasingly unfortunate ways, so that people reliably get attention by either reinforcing or outraging political sensibilities rather than saying actually interesting things.1

We can disagree about whether particular people started out in a bad place, or whether they broke bad over time – and we probably don’t have data to figure out any good answers. But I think people are more likely to agree to the surmise that we are in a world where it is much easier than it ought to be for people’s worst tendencies to feed on themselves, once they’ve reached a certain degree of online fame. It’s like climate change – we can disagree over whether individual weather events are the result of global climate change, but fighting about the particulars of this or that hurricane is missing the point about the deeper and more structural changes.

We live in a climate, where once people are Internet famous, they get rapid and large scale attention. Some of them like it, and/or can make careers from it. They keep on pressing the button for that dopamine hit or increase in engagement, and if they aren’t careful, they end up becoming caricatures of themselves.

In short: we live in a media ecology that creates incentives for Internet famous people to become crude approximations of themselves if they want to keep on being Internet famous. Some of them play to their crowd. Some of them embrace the role of Bold Contrarian Truthteller (playing to a different crowd, and outraging another). Both tend to play up what gets attention. Both have incentives to double down on error rather than admitting it.

It’s hard to avoid this trap, and maybe easier to get out while the going is good. One of the really great things about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ early blogging was that he was able to talk openly about the things he didn’t know and wanted to learn. He clearly took enormous joy in open-ended conversation. Then, at a certain point, he became Ta-Nehisi Coates, and figured out that he needed to leave social media. When you occupy the headspace of millions of people, you don’t have any “room to maneuver or margin for error.” Coates did what he had to do – but he has had to abandon a big part of what made him so wonderful to read.

We live in an attention economy that either forces the successful to get out, or traps them in feedback loops that make it increasingly difficult for them to learn, and increasingly easy to become a crude approximation of themselves if they aren’t possessed of exceptional self-control. I’ve joked that Large Language Models were creating a reverse Turing Test, where it would be increasingly difficult to distinguish prominent op-ed columnists from the clouds of statistical associations of tokenized text that might be used to model them. To the extent that this is true, it’s the product of a media political economy that selects on some kinds of communication and reinforces them, while not selecting on others. This isn’t just the product of social media (Thomas Friedman was Thomas Friedman before Twitter) but it has arguably gotten worse.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Iain Banks’ sf novel, Feersum Endjinn, which depicts a far future in which some people, but not others, are resurrected after death into afterlife in a digital “crypt.” In Banks’ description:

As the saying had it: the crypt was deep and the human soul was shallow. And the shallower the soul, the less of it survived as any sort of independent entity within the data corpus; somebody whose only opinions were received opinions and whose originality quotient was effectively zero would dissolve almost entirely within the oceanic depths of the crypt’s precedent-saturated data streams and leave only a thin froth of memories and a brief description of the exact shape of their hollowness behind, the redundancy of their beings annihilated by the crypt’s abhorrence of over-duplication.

My objection to most professional contrarians isn’t that they outrage my core beliefs, but that they don’t do so in particularly interesting ways.2 It’s much harder to distinguish Chait from ChaitGPT than it ought be. If you’ve read even a moderate amount of his previous work, you’ll be able to predict, with a very high degree of accuracy, what he is going to write when the next Chait-friendly controversy hits. The media economy’s incentive structure has led him to converge upon his statistical approximation, to the extent that I wouldn’t fancy his chances much in Iain Banks’ imaginary future. (this implies a hand-wavey equivalent to Shannon information for public commentators – the element of surprise roughly approximating the difference between what they say, and what their ChatGPT models would predict they will say).

But much more importantly, I wouldn’t particularly fancy the chances of many of the rest of us either. We aren’t subject to quite the same selective pressures as the Internet famous, but we still live in a world that’s straining out diversity and condensing our opinions and beliefs into crude summaries and simplifications. Fixing that – rather than bagging on any one individual opinionator – seems to me the bigger problem.

1 This is a different claim than the more common one that engagement maximizing dynamics are the primary cause of deranged beliefs. One of these days soon, Cosma Shalizi and I should have something public to say on the latter claim.

2 By corollary, I try to be tolerant of contrarians, even if offensive, to the extent that they actually come up with interesting and unexpected ideas. Your own mileage may vary.



a different guy named kent 03.08.23 at 5:54 pm

As a fan of both your own work as Mr. Chait’s, I’m delighted by the intelligence and fairmindedness of your reply to his snark! Thanks for this.

A question. Aristotle and William Bennett, in their different ways, used to talk about the importance of character and virtue. The moral life consists of being a good person, a person of good character. Do this, and let the chips fall where they may. Would not a person of truly good character, of virtue understood correctly in the Aristotelian or Thomistic sense even, also be predictable and uninteresting, by your standards?

Not to say Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias are exemplars of Aristotelian/Thomistic virtue! But can you condemn the contrarians without also condemning the truly virtuous?


a different guy named kent 03.08.23 at 6:00 pm

Take the Dalai Lama. Or Martin Luther King, Jr., if you prefer. Pick your exemplar of moral and political virtue. Malcolm X, Gandhi, Bernie Sanders, whoever you like.

Wouldn’t one have to say that, precisely because of their (virtuous) commitment to their (stipulated to be good) beliefs, these people’s expressed opinions on the issues of the day are going to be similar to a Chat-GPT’s simulation of their opinions?


steven t johnson 03.08.23 at 6:09 pm

” In short, we have specialized cognitive mechanisms for keeping track of coalitional politics, and a lot of what we say and think is driven by these mechanisms.”

I thought a lot of what we say and think is driven by appetites and emotions and experience and learning. Also, it is unclear if the position implicitly argued against, is, memory that doesn’t play like a video must be a sign of evolutionary indifference to mere dialogue. Or to put it another way, surely reproductive competition (aka evolution) must adapt people to speaking compelling words that of course must stick in the memory…and since they don’t necessarily then words aren’t reproductively adaptive. The possibility dialogue may be harder to remember than a mental checkmark about who was on whose side does seem to be excluded.

Every effort I’ve made to investigate these evolutionary hypotheses has resulted in the discovery they are not well-founded in detail. Nor do they orient their claims in a broader perspective. And they strongly tend to reject alternative hypotheses a priori.

The Banks quote strongly suggests that for some reason Banks thought most people’s sex life was a matter of received opinions and unoriginality. I haven’t done a survey but offhand this seems to be much more unlikely than the quote seems to allow.


Henry Farrell 03.08.23 at 6:12 pm

1 & 2. This is fair. The implied standard here is one of surprisingness rather than virtue (I’ve added a sentence waving towards Shannon information to clarify that). Another plausible criticism is that the model here is of a public space that maximizes on diversity of opinion, which is likely good for generating unexpected ideas, but not so great for generating collective action. Suppressing disagreement for the sake of the coalition is part and parcel of effective politics. Melissa Schwartzberg and I have an old article which stresses the benefits of spaces of agreement for collective action – while I still think that is right, I (and I would guess maybe Melissa too?) are probably more inclined to weight the benefits of intellectual diversity than back then. Still, you need to simplify the issue space somehow if you are to build successful coalitions.


Sashas 03.08.23 at 6:47 pm

@adgnk (1, 2) In defense of the virtuous, moral behavior is not as easy as it looks. I think ChatGPT would, for example, have quite the difficult time producing Martin Luther King’s positions on justice and violence. Most exemplars of virtue have quite a bit of nuance in their positions once you take a closer look. (Not saying they aren’t as virtuous as they appear at first glance. Saying rather that virtuousness is nuanced!)

Compare to certain types of contrarians, whose positions are frankly not nuanced at all. Like the OP, I try to tolerate contrarians that come up with something new and surprising. I get rapidly bored (and intolerant) when I can name the fallacious rhetorical moves and recite the full script from memory upon just reading the headline.

@OP This reminds me of a trick one can use in the classroom to get students actively engaged. You simply do something wrong on the board, and as long as you are open to questions you will get that students who otherwise never raise their hands will stop you to point out the error.


MisterMr 03.08.23 at 7:46 pm

In my opinion, it is normal that each famous journalist/political media figure will cater to a certain group and reflect the opinions of said groups. If it wasn’t so, then nobody would represent anybody and there would be no social discourse.

I can’t tell if the sort of increased political polarisation we see today is something new or something normal: we came from a period of “end of ideology” but perhaps it is that period that was strange.

For what is worth it seems to me that today, perhaps thanks to the internet, more points of view are represented than before, and therefore also more extreme points of view, and this might cause a polarisation effect.
But then it seems to me that the 70s were even more polarised, and then what about maccartism? So I really can’t say that we are so much polarised.


Tra James 03.08.23 at 8:56 pm

Thank you for writing this, I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks trying to come up with ways to decide what opinions to give my attention to. Recently, I’ve been gravitating towards a two-step test to determine if I should take opinions seriously or dismiss them. The first test is to ask whether this is a novel opinion or something I’ve heard repeated elsewhere. This cuts down on a lot of noise but still leaves things that seemed pointless so I’ve been trying out a second part; does the person stating the opinion actually believe what they’re saying?

The first test is generally pretty easy because the people who repeat these opinions usually do so verbatim and typically happen in clusters. For instance, when the SCOTUS heard arguments about Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan there were a lot of people repeating the exact same claims of “fairness for people that already paid their loans” and ” worthless liberal arts degrees” and even an exhumation of the economy killing “avocado toast”. None of those opinions are novel, none of the people parroting them reasoned their way into those opinions. These were all “received opinions” like your Feersum Endjinn quote mentions and there’s really no reason to engage mentally with them past taking note of the self-sorting of those that repeat them. Once you recognize that a lot of opinions are simply the regurgitated thoughts of someone else you realize that argument or debate is no longer a prudent strategy and it’s best to disengage. [1][2]

The second test is a little harder because judging whether a person believes what they’re saying or not means spending time listening to them and what they’ve said in the past so you’ve already surrendered some of your attention. However, this test weeds out a lot of “opinions” you’ll see on the internet, especially from opinion writers in magazines and newspapers but also internet-famous people. I don’t believe there is any reason to engage with opinions when the person saying it doesn’t believe in what they’re saying or if their entire goal is to drive “engagement”. I do think there’s an important place in our discourse for contrarian, unformed, or ambivalent opinions but only when they’re presented as a sincere attempt to understand something better. Unfortunately, it seems many of these are simply trying to drive engagement and capture more of the attention economy, playing to those “cognitive mechanisms that draw us to pay particular attention to fights” as you put it.

This is not to say that all of my opinions are completely original but, as a general rule, I don’t express ideas or opinions I haven’t thought through myself. At times this general rule annoys my wife greatly.
If you’re still inclined to continue the conversation with say, your brother about conspiracy theories he heard on Youtube, I’ve found the best course of action is to shift into an explanation/education mode. Allow them to go on the offensive and attempt to poke holes in what you’re saying instead of the other way around. You probably won’t change their mind but they’re more apt to actually listen to what you’re saying when they’re trying to formulate counter-arguments and find holes than if they’re simply taking a defensive posture and battening down the hatches.


SusanC 03.08.23 at 9:52 pm

The Banks quote strongly suggests that for some reason Banks thought most people’s sex life was a matter of received opinions and unoriginality

GPT is pretty good at imitating Internet erotica. It seems likely that much of it is very unoriginal.

It is a rare person whose sex life is actually innovative. (Glances at Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade).


Alex SL 03.08.23 at 9:53 pm

I must admit that I don’t really understand the framing in terms of splitting the audience, outraging political sensibilities, or suchlike. My understanding of these guys (with the caveat that I don’t read them a lot because they are so predictable and uninteresting) is that they do indeed flatter their readers’ preconceptions, nothing more complicated than that.

It is just that the preconceptions that their readers want flattered are that left and right are as bad as each other, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, and that the centrist middle is always the sensible place to be, regardless of where the Overton Window has shifted, i.e., even if the centre is currently where the far right fringe would have been a generation ago. That stance upsets the left, yes, but they aren’t the target audience whose preconceptions these guys want to flatter.

If I read it correctly, the OP ultimately draws the same conclusion, so I am merely puzzled that it didn’t start from that perspective in the first paragraph.

If you’ve read even a moderate amount of his previous work, you’ll be able to predict, with a very high degree of accuracy, what he is going to write when the next Chait-friendly controversy hits.

Quite so, and he isn’t the only one. There op ed writers (I am even thinking of two specific ones in the UK and the USA), who always follow a very strict pattern: complain about something their country’s conservatives have done for about a third of the piece, then turn around and bash their country’s left for about a third to counterbalance the first third and demonstrate one’s bothsideist credentials (usually woke academics or protesting students, but for a few years in the UK it was Corbyn Corbyn Corbyn), then insinuate in the final third how smart their readers are for being in the middle. They could indeed be replaced by a text generating algorithm, but ChatGPT would be overkill; even one from fifteen years ago could do that trick.

That being said, however, I also don’t entirely understand why it is always a problem if diversity of opinion and belief is strained out and condensed. Morality is more complex, but in matters factual there is a single empirical reality (the moon is made of moon rock) and hundreds of ways to get it wrong (the moon is made of cheese, it is a goddess, it is a hole in the firmament letting through light from the fires beyond…). Many opinions and beliefs are quite simply wrong or harmful. I don’t want suprisingness if the surprise is a falsehood. I would love to live in a world where everybody was agreed that, say, the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks, global heating is caused by burning of fossil fuels, and all humans should be treated as equals regardless of their sexual orientation, skin tone, or gender.

The problem isn’t lack of diversity, the problem is lies and misconceptions being propagated and maintained current for clicks and career advancement. To that can then be added an ideology of nihilistic doubt that anybody can be the judge of truth and falsehood, that expertise actually matters; just let all the opinions and ideas slosh around unfiltered on the marketplace, and somehow magically the truth will be arrived on, or worse, people can simply pick what feels like truth to them. It is all just a game. Until it isn’t, and decisions that were based on treating everything like a market suddenly run into the brick wall of empirical reality, with consequences ranging from an avoidable economic crisis across hundreds of thousands of avoidable Covid deaths to southern Florida and Bangladesh being underwater.


SusanC 03.08.23 at 10:06 pm

Hmm.. this has interesting implications for how a university might justify its policy on invited speakers.

An unoriginal contrarian who merely repeats other contrarians adds zero bits of information, and is therefore nor worth inviting. Someone who has a new crazy idea, on the other hand… (Not sure if Shannon Entropy is strictly the right measure here, but I’ll go with it in a loose, metaphoric, sense),


engels 03.08.23 at 10:51 pm

There was always politics and polarisation (prior to the dreary 90s) but not the artificial, spectacular, technologically nurtured kind there is now, kind of like comparing folk music to the productions of the culture industry.


J, not that one 03.09.23 at 12:04 am

After a certain point (maybe around age 50), it begins to seem that everyone is just defending their career prerogatives against those they perceive as the most immediate threats, and willing to use Frankfurt Bullshit to do so. At that point, the Shannon Entropy of every new piece of information is essentially 0.

For example, it should be obvious that labeling people “contrarians” ought to have no persuasive value to people outside one’s own coalition. Yet that doesn’t seem to be obvious at all to the people who use the term.


J, not that one 03.09.23 at 12:11 am

To clarify what I mean by the comment I just posted, there are lots of people who are apparently part of my own (liberal) coalition, who publish statements with which I disagree. To some extent, the fact that they published and I didn’t makes me heterodox and them not — I think it’s undeniable that this is how the Discourse works — what’s published is orthodox, automatically. Yet that’s a twisted way for things to work, especially if the point in “Conservatives on campus” is true — and I think it is.

If what gets published has a right-leaning slant, and what gets published is believed to be reliably liberally orthodox, that’s a recipe for mass confusion.

Of course, some of the time I only believe what I read leans right because I disagree with it, and of course it’s possible that I’m the one who’s wrong. (To use a little circular logic, I must be the one who’s wrong because I’m not the one who’s published.)


CarlD 03.09.23 at 12:27 am

Stochastic parrots.


anon/portly 03.09.23 at 1:55 am

From the earlier (“Conservatives on Campus”) one:

One reason that the model of conservative campus outrage politics works, is that it is easier to use speech issues to split people on the left half of the political spectrum …. create disarray in the ranks of their opponents.

But the broader implication is that the political economy of conservative student organizations that Binder and Kidder describe aren’t just linked to right wing media, but to the incentive structures of liberal media too. The strategy would be much less successful, if it didn’t play into liberal-versus-left tensions and attention dynamics too.

I can’t disagree with this, but I felt as I read it that this was missing part of the picture. In particular I think the word “create” as quoted above is unhelpful – “exploit” would be more accurate.

To the extent that the provocateur model works, doesn’t it work because of the beliefs and preferences of certain college students? If you think those beliefs and preferences are valid and good, I’m not sure what the complaint is.

But that gets at how much it really does “work” and who it really benefits, which I think is very unclear. The right ends up with an increased investment and reliance on a (empty, unseemly, unappealing) politics of provocation, while the left is (hopefully) incentivized to reform.

…we have a media architecture that creates feedback loops that reinforce certain behaviors (whether it’s being hackish, or stirring shit for the sake of attention, or some combination) with attention and engagement. My hypothesis is that the dynamics of social media and the coalitional aspects of our cognitive architectures have come to reinforce each other in increasingly unfortunate ways, so that people reliably get attention by either reinforcing or outraging political sensibilities rather than saying actually interesting things.

I can’t disagree with this at all, but my alternative hypothesis is that there’s a chicken/egg problem, or supply/demand problem, which maybe is being more explicitly factored in than I think, but maybe not. How did so many people get to the point of having “political sensibilities” that can be “reinforc[ed]” or “outrag[ed]” by people saying (and I totally agree with this characterization) things that are “not actually interesting?” Has it always been thus, to this extent?

Who is “hackish” and who is not, who is “stirring shit for the sake of attention,” and who is just putting forth their genuine beliefs? There’s no “answer” to these questions, right? Whether Chait is one or the other, I have no strong opinion – I’m not very familiar with him.

But another Internet who arouses a great deal of ire, and gets attacked as a “contrarian,” – a running gag on his Twitter feed – is Ygelsias. After HF responded to the Yglesias tweet quoted in the post, Yglesias responded with this:

Yeah, I mean I see this the other way — lots of journalists (and college professors too I might add) shy away from making useful interventions in the discourse because they’re trying to be good team players in the “war of ideas”

Are Chait’s efforts “useful interventions” in the “liberal-versus-left” thing or are they mindless and predictable, GPT-like? If he is just predictable and a hack and a stirrer, and yet has been very successful at this for a long time, I don’t see how the people who make him a success aren’t 10x the problem he is….


both sides do it 03.09.23 at 6:35 am

Re 1&2’s “wouldn’t that make the virtuous predictable”

This seems relatively backwards to me!

We honor people who are able to apply abstract virtues/ethics to everyday affairs not only because it is emotionally hard to do so, but also because it’s goddamn hard to be able to know what to do in order to act virtuously.

People we recognize as virtuous often are unpredictable (in the thread’s handwavey Shannon entropy sense) because of that very virtuousness.

The Dalai Lama might be illustrative here. One of the common ways of conceptualizing the development of a Buddhist practice is in becoming more and more aware of the unique structure and dynamics of a given moment, while at the same time having more and more freedom in responding to those dynamics and structure.

So, one way of conceptualizing what makes the Dalai Lama a “moral exemplar” is that he’s infinitely flexible to the needs of the moment, and thus maximally unpredictable wrt handwavey Shannon entropy!


TM 03.09.23 at 10:21 am

Agree broadly with Alex SL and also agree that the OP’s valuation of diversity/ surprisingness for its own sake is wrongheaded. Take the Ukraine war, there is very little factual room for controversy as to who started the war, who is the aggressor, who is committing war crimes; and nobody openly disagrees with the notion that aggression and war crimes are bad and need to be condemned. There are genuine moral disagreements around the question of violent self defense, but the overwhelming consensus is that self defense is legitimate. It is hard to generate genuine and good faith controversy from this material, so a great deal of actual controversy is made up in bad faith by misrepresenting the facts, not by looking at the facts from a surprising and overlooked angle that might add something novel to the debate.

There is a common discussion trope that if there is so much consensus on some question (and the consensus in support of Ukraine remains very strong in the US and Western Europe), there must be something suspicious going on. It is then claimed that heterodox views are oppressed by “the establishment” and “the mainstream media”. We observed the same phenomenon during the Covid pandemic, and of course the climate change denial industry has operated in the same way. The valuation of diversity for its own sake is a double-edged sword. Yes, democracy needs diversity and pluralism and heterodoxy. But often, heterodox views are just wrong.


Zamfir 03.09.23 at 1:18 pm

@SusanC, to take the metaphor fairly literal: in the Shannon theory, there is only one message. It is by assumption “interesting” or “surprising” to the receiver of the message, who wants to receive every bit of the message. Its only the encoded signal that might have low information per bit, because there can be many different signals that encode the same message.

We can apply that model to university speakers, at least metaphorically. It implies that different opinions are distorted signals that attempt to communicate the same message. Some underlying truth, like Plato’s cave, or the blind men describing an elephant. The opinion-havers are not the senders, they are themselves part of the imperfect communication channel.

In that framework, you want to select communication channels that have a relatively low noise in themselves, while also selecting channels with uncorrelated noise. So, not too much crazy, but enough new in the idea.


steven t johnson 03.09.23 at 3:07 pm

SusanC@8 suggests porn is to real sex as TV sitcoms are to real families. Both faithfully reproduce the vast mediocrity and repetitiveness.

But I’m not so sure this is true.

Another hint from Feersum Endjinn is that to be truly human, you have to be original enough to copyright. This seems like a very writerly perspective to me. (And very petty bourgeois, literally not figuratively.)

I’ve never actually read any Chait, just quotes in comments on Chait. But it seems to me that the question could be usefully reframed as, does a good writer troll others on behalf of the readers, who are implicitly invited to consider themselves one of the elect, so to speak. Or does a good writer risk trolling the commentariat of a site, who are expecting performative affirmation of themselves by condemnation of those others?Nuance, even novel justifications, much less re-framing or, even worse, “derailing” is generally deemed trolling in a way denigrating whole swathes of humanity are not.

Lastly, a dip into links led to some references to Jason Brennan and others denigrating the rationality of the voters—apparently the connection to the OP is supposed to be something about the role of rational discourse in leading to good policy. My first thought was, significant voting on actual policies is primarily conducted by delegated representatives. The connection between those votes and the irrationality of the masses is not at all clear to me. I don’t think the American Legislative Exchange Council counts as the people.


Luis 03.09.23 at 7:56 pm

Henry, I’m curious where you think the Sullivan career trajectory fits into this model, and what Sullivan and Coates’ trajectories tell us about the “good life” for a modern public intellectual. My sense is that mid-career Sullivan, when he actively engaged with (including taking correction from!) his audience, was a much better and more interesting thinker and writer – a more generative writer – than early/late career Sullivan, who (Chait-like) is uninteresting, predictable, “phoning it in”. But like Coates, who was also immensely generative during that phase, to live that life is… really hard. It seems to require a humility, intensity, vulnerability, patience that is nearly superhuman on any given day, much less over a full career arc. Sullivan had a multi-person staff to help him with it and it still burnt him out (and the “humility” part of it never sat well with him); Coates was exasperated in public once and that was pretty much the end of it.

(A survey of some of the more intriguing writers of the era – Cottom, Tufecki, Yglesias (love or hate him, he’s the intellectual entrepreneur who brought us YIMBY, which is more than 99% of public intellectuals), Klein, Jeong – would be really interesting.)


Jim Harrison 03.10.23 at 1:09 am

We’ve been collectively suffering from information overload for a long time now. Really informative media would just make the problem worse, which is a major reason we reward banality generously. Public debate is so heavy scripted it is reminiscent of those paper cutouts dance teachers used to put on the floor to teach people where to put their feet. Arguments about abortion or Israel or almost any other matter of public interest generally have almost no information content in the Shannon sense. That’s is why CHATbots recreate them without difficulty. As a Heidegger might put it, proximally and for the most part, human thinking is more like AI than what we optimistically imagine as normal human reason. It’s not that some people can’t think in genuinely adult ways, simply that even if we’re capable of it we don’t employ the ability very often if only because it doesn’t pay. And, worse than that, it’s work.

Rhetoric is older than dialectic. Discourse evolved to manipulate the behavior of others. In that respect, the lie is older than the truth; and sincerity only emerged because actual honesty turned out to be a surprisingly effective tactic—as every salesman knows, you can’t get behind the man behind. That and because you really can’t con reality when it comes to technology. The question, then, is why sincerity—the real thing, not its theatrical impersonation—seems to be in such short supply these days. Maybe one reason is that the increasing complexity of our civilization has exacerbated an already bad epidemic of epistemia gravis to the point where maintaining an illusion of connection and identity is more imperative than the benefits of genuine thinking. We revert to a culture of lies, not because of a shortage of truths but because there are too many available truths. It really is damned hard to find the other person in the staggeringly enormous space of possible ideas, values, and feelings.

Moralists have bitched forever about the human addiction to novelty, and it’s perfectly true that people insistently desire something new. Thing is, though, what we demand are new things to assimilate to our existing frames. Things that must be accommodated, i.e., that require an actual alteration in our thinking, are too much like work. No wonder Chait et al. make a good living. They never violate the Law of Least Hassles. Whether you buy their line or snort at it, you aren’t challenged by it.


KT2 03.10.23 at 1:27 am

@16 “People we recognize as virtuous often are unpredictable (in the thread’s handwavey Shannon entropy sense) because of that very virtuousness.”
I agree and thanks for being on the virtuous side HF.

An answer to Henry’s Q1: “why we have a media architecture that creates feedback loops that reinforce certain behaviors”

As I am not a wordsmith, here is the best answer I agree with:
“Based on an analysis of the actors that sought to influence political public discourse, this book argues that the current problems of media and democracy are not the result of Russian interference, behavioral microtargeting and algorithms on social media, political clickbait, hackers, sockpuppets, or trolls, …

“but of asymmetric media structures decades in the making.
“The crisis is political, not technological.” End quote.

From the abstract of Network “Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics by Yochai Benkler et al.

Thanks to the authors for making the book accessible online:
“Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

Yochai Benkler et al.

CHAPTER 6 Mainstream Media Failure Modes and Self-Healing in a Propaganda-Rich Environment

I hope someone has an cure for-
“…. we still live in a world that’s straining out diversity and condensing our opinions and beliefs into crude summaries and simplifications.”.

As you headlined the piece with ChaitGPT – (great line) – here is another Chait based neologism re;
HF said “perfectly self-conscious and deliberate on the part of Chait and his editors.”

Perhaps they use a 
– “provocatively anticipate the firestorm” and “We’re sure you’ll let us know” algorithm – Chait-CHaiD “Decision tree learning” and publish at unity. 0 or 1. (“referred to as unity, where there is no uncertainty at all – no freedom of choice – no information” from  “Entropy (information theory)” below)

Decision tree learning:
“In practice, CHAID is often used in the context of direct marketing to select groups of consumers to predict how their responses to some variables affect other variables, although other early applications were in the fields of medical and psychiatric research.”

Entropy (information theory)…
“The minimum surprise is when p = 0 or p = 1, when the event outcome is known ahead of time, and the entropy is zero bits. When the entropy is zero bits, this is sometimes referred to as unity, where there is no uncertainty at all – no freedom of choice – no information. Other values of p give entropies between zero and one bits.”

I’ll note it is a shame we do not get to see decision trees or graphs of the AI’s or algorithms. If we were able to see them, alot of commenters above, and I, would be able to reduce redundancy of information.

This  (poorly edited( page has history re Myron Tribus who advanced / riffed off Shannon:. Entropy suggested by Von Neumann….

“… When I [Trubus] discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me,      ‘You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place you uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name. In the second place, and more importantly, no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

And a manifesto for bottom up AI not top down as it currently is, and invoking natural vertebrate immune systems as necessary to check AI and gatekeepers power:
“Natural Security: Defensive and Sustainable Intelligence
Building Strong and Safe Machines, and Secure Human-Machine Teams. – Part 4 of a Limited Series by John Smart and Nakul Gupta


John Q 03.10.23 at 6:43 am

There’s a more prosaic aspect to this predictability. Anyone who has followed me reasonably closely over 20 years of blogging (and 20 more years of pre-Internet opinionating) will be able to predict, pretty reliably, what line I’m going to take on any almost any topic.

But I’m writing on the assumption that most people haven’t read my arguments in the past, at least not in any great detail. The small group who have will, I hope, be interested in marginal variations on existing themes.


Phil H 03.10.23 at 9:57 am

“we still live in a world that’s straining out diversity and condensing our opinions and beliefs into crude summaries and simplifications”
I’m going to come over all Panglossian and suggest that this isn’t true at all. Or at least, it’s much less true than it used to be. Long form journalism seems to be booming online, and as the traditional newspapers continue to die, new things will continue to emerge in their place…
Over the last decade the US just had a resurgence in the use of the term socialist; Trump and Brexit-Johnson inspired whole new waves of comment and political debate… I dunno, I’m just not seeing how the online efflorescence of opinion today is in any way worse than the rigidly chunked and gate-kept old media. There are always pressures that iron out subtlety, but think those pressures are much weaker now.


MisterMr 03.10.23 at 11:52 am

So for example every week or so, the Pope comes out of Saint peter and says catholic things.

This is mostly predictable, and yet the Catholic Church couldn’t work without a Pope that comes out every week to say the same things: it is a performative act in the strict sense ( ).

Then, slowly as popular opinion changes and evolves even between catholics, what the Pope says will change, and rarely some Pope will say something unexpected from a Pope (e.g. that homosexuality is not a sin).
But this is unexpected and important precisely because the Pope represents the orthodoxy, and so a change of opinion of the Pope represents a change in the orthodoxy.
You can’t have an orthodoxy without the usual perfrmative and repetitive acts.


Alex SL 03.12.23 at 10:55 pm

Somebody having an ethical stance or a worldview that allows one to predict what good faith position they will most likely take on a newly arisen issue is unlikely to be what most people mean when they talk about the predictability and boringness of an op ed or blog writer. This is about the writer making everything about their pet peeve even where it makes no sense and always arriving at their favoured conclusion even where it isn’t supported by the evidence, or about always following the same formulaic approach to their writing, and in particular about people who are boringly predictable in that way while posturing as intellectual mavericks and providers of great insight.

If you are on Twitter, I suggest following DougJBalloon to understand what this about.


roger gathmann 03.13.23 at 1:08 pm

This is a very individual-centric view of the pundit paradox. To my mind, contrarianism in the pundit can work as an attention getter. But does it work for a collective, for, say, an enterprise like The New Republic, which under Marty Peretz nourished the centrist reactionary set? Here, things get interesting. In terms of audience, the New Republic obviously found a very powerful clique in D.C., in the 80s and 90s, that loved it. But as it assailed, among others blacks and “Ted Kennedy” liberals, it alienated the people who are inclined to shell out for a traditionally liberal magazine. Until, of course, there were too few of the latter to support the mag, and the former, the wheeler dealer crowd, moved on to other self-reinforcing mirrors, like Slate – under another TNR alum contrarian, Michael Kinsley. Of course, it was a money loser perhaps all the time, but when Peretz decided he could not afford it, there wasn’t a demographic left that couldn’t do without their New Republic. Interestingly, to regain relevance the magazine moved to the left, which divorced them from the wheeler dealers and was too little too late for the liberal-lefties. Chait is not only a twitter person, but is paid good upper 10 percent money by Vox Media, which has branched out to support the Effective Altruism cult in its thingy and other mags, and is now reportedly trying to figure out payroll as SVB goes under. I might be very wrong, but I think Chait spreads collateral damage to the New Yorker mag part of Vox Media, as he collects personal groupies and haters and helps himself. This rarely happens on the right, I should say. Only the Weekly Standard was really wounded by not going full scale Trumpist and thus alienating its readers – otherwise, the right is remarkably stable, as far as I can tell.


Rob Chametzky 03.14.23 at 4:15 pm

Late coming to this post/discusssion, but Justin E H Smith’s 2022 “The internet is not what you think it is: a history, a philosophy, a warning” (Princeton) is very good/on-target for matters discussed here.

And Jim Harrison@21, check out Mecier & Sperber’s 2017 “The enigma of reason” (Harvard) and/or their 2011 “Behavioral & Brain Sciences” target article: Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory (available online).



KT2 03.19.23 at 9:55 pm

Time for CT to test / usa AI for:
HF said  “My hypothesis is that the dynamics of social media and the coalitional aspects of our cognitive architectures have come to reinforce each other in increasingly unfortunate ways, so that people reliably get attention by either reinforcing or outraging political sensibilities rather than saying actually interesting things.(1)

“1. One of these days soon, Cosma Shalizi and I should have something public to say on the latter claim.”

Try a test of your hypothesis using some of the “137 emergent abilities of large language models” auch as;
– identify odd metaphor
– logical fallacy detection,
– logical sequence,
– movie dialog same or different
– … more … see below.

And as we – I – need graphs and trees to enhance communication and understanding, they may be generated using:
“COMET: Commonsense Transformers for Automatic Knowledge Graph Construction” …
“thereby providing common context with other relations that are part of the same groupings…”

“137 emergent abilities of large language models

Written By Jason Wei

PaLM 540B (25 tasks): analogical similarity, causal judgment, code line description, crass ai, cs algorithms, elementary math qa, english russian proverbs, geometric shapes, hyperbaton, , international phonetic alphabet nli, language identification, logical fallacy detection, logical sequence, movie dialog same or different, physics questions, question selection, temporal sequences, understanding fables, unit interpretation, snarks, english proverbs, timedial, hinglish toxicity, vitaminc fact verification”

“COMET: Commonsense Transformers for Automatic Knowledge Graph Construction”

” Despite the challenges of commonsense modeling, our investigation reveals promising results when implicit knowledge from deep pre-trained language models is transferred to generate explicit knowledge in commonsense knowledge graphs. Empirical results demonstrate that COMET is able to generate novel knowledge that humans rate as high quality, with up to 77.5% (ATOMIC) and 91.7% (ConceptNet) precision at top 1, which approaches human performance for these resources. Our findings suggest that using generative commonsense models for automatic commonsense KB completion could soon be a plausible alternative to extractive methods.”
Accepted to ACL 2019

“D.2 Concept Hierarchy Training Leveraging the prior knowledge that certain relation types in the ATOMIC knowledge graph are linked to each other, we explore providing these group identities as additional tokens in the relation. For example, when generating the completion of a xReact relation, the model would receive as input the following meta-tokens: , , , – thereby providing common context with other relations that are part of the same groupings…”

– GPT4 / ither LLM’s may surpass above???
-;CT contributors imho have the resources to generate these tests. As some are already writing for eg economic textbooks, I believe CT needs to serialize AI testing applicable to contributors specialities to avoid potential remarks being outdated , due to rapid LLM & emergent AI capabilities. Thanks

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