We Are Being Manipulated In Scientific Ways

Tristan Harris is a technology ethicist. He has a Master’s degree from Stanford in the ethics of persuasion. His used that training for his first job – at Google in the field of technology ethics.

The field of persuasion and technology ethics is a new one. I doubt Socrates or Plato spent any time thinking abut AI and algorithms.

How does it apply?

Let’s start with something simple and something most people have thought about.

Suppose I make this assessment. “It is unethical to lie in advertising with the purpose of manipulating a potential customer” Is the question about a) the manipulation or b) about the lie? Unethical in either case.

As it turns out you can manipulate people with the truth, too. Would that be okay? Some people say you couldn’t do it.

Suppose I tell you that since the first Tesla was built in 2007, 90% of them are still on the road. The unstated message is the car is reliable and durable. It is true. It Is persuasive. But is it ethical?

Truth need not be ethical. Suppose you knew that of all those Teslas, 84% were delivered in the past three and a half years. While true, the statement misleads.

Why should we care?

Attention and emotion is what drives advertising, government policy, corporate media, and social media algorithms.

We care because not everyone reacts to emotion the same way. If you look at what the government and media, use as possibly true, but unprovable information, to frighten people and cause them to support policy, can you decide the behaviour is ethical? When you think about it, you probably do not.

That does not mean you can avoid the reaction. Tristan Harris claims social media, governments and corporate media use persuasive tools to capture and harvest attention. “It’s a race to the bottom of the brainstem.” The bottom of the brainstem is where emotions and emotional responses originate.

Emotion is not the best choice for organizing a workable response.

How does it work?

The foundation is known as “The Somebody Might Get Hurt” fallacy. Zero Covid means something and nothing at the same time. It means something to the people who respond emotionally and means nothing to those who do not. It relates to a personality factor, one of the big five – neuroticism. I think it might be better accepted if the word was different but we must use what we have.

Neuroticism relates to how easily someone is triggered by the fight/flight response. As with all personality factors, there is no right or wrong answer. They just are. What we know about neuroticism is that people who score high on the trait react to risk differently than those who score low. More quickly and more emotionally. Since the characteristic is distributed in a familiar bell curve distribution we can guess that about half the people will respond emotionally to a negative stimulus and likely some share of the others, too

If we you wanted to “capture and harvest attention” wouldn’t it be easier to trigger the high risk avoidance group rather than trying to make a reasoned case to the others? You don’t need everyone.

What happens next?

I am not a psychologist, but I suspect American journalist H.L. Mencken was a low neurotic person.

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

The key to the hobgoblins is plausibility. The hobgoblin must be a theoretically possible but unprovable. No one has evidence to support the claim, just as no one has any certain knowledge about the future. Worse yet, there is no persuasive evidence that the premise is not true either.

The problem is not about how to assess a future condition that may or may not exist, but rather how the government creates policy.

Suppose there is a problem in the world. Climate change and Covid are two of them today. Maybe racism and income inequality too. Suppose you knew the policies were designed to appeal to the high side of the neuroticism curve. None of the policies could be sustained unless the fear level was maintained. New rhetoric and truthful but possibly meaningless “facts” must be be presented. Daily if possible. Absent fear the “Clamorous to be lead to safety” governmental power factor would disappear. Then  what? Rational thought.

Ultimately governments create policy based on polling, not on science. Science is hard to explain and appeals to only a tiny fraction of the population. That might not scare them either. No political power advantage there.

All forms of media work on that same principle.

What can happen?

Notice the system of persuasion. Is it fear or some other emotion? If yes, look for evidence. The most common evidence referred to  is “Expert opinion.” How valuable is that? It depends.

Let’s think about it this way.

Science is objective. The theme of politicians and the media is the science is settled. As anyone worthy of the name “scientist” will tell you, that story is NEVER true. All of science is transitional. So we would want to know where there are questions and what is being done to understand those areas better. With Covid, I doubt half of what scientists would like to know is known. With climate change there are two parts – the promoters and the skeptics. Neither has complete knowledge. The arguments are always among   the unknowns. Each side rationalizes the unknowns to match their theory

Even honest scientists must “dumb down” the science so an outsider can catch the principles. It is unrealistic to believe any journalist can catch more than what the scientist says is the meaning. That will be highly summarized and lacking nuance. It is a mistake to accept that as absolute truth. The journalists understanding of what the scientist simplified for the them is clearly not science. It is interpretation.

The journalist interprets it further and emphasizes parts. They have to sell the story after all.

Political staff may find the story and see how it supports the current narrative. They may check with the scientist and others perhaps. The scientists are unlikely to argue it is clearly wrong. They might add some new details or dispute the emphasis. The staffer further changes the emphasis of the factors to suit a political narrative and devises a policy paper. There will also be polling that seeks people’s response to the “crisis.” At least half will have a strong emotional response.

The policy comes to the politicians who almost certainly don’t understand the science and have too little time to seek better answers. If it suits the narrative and their policy position, they present it a as acting on “expert opinion.” The key is unnamed expert opinion. As time passes, the original fear is replaced by new factors which require you to infer the meaning and sustain the emotion. That’s what we do when we don’t have all the information we need.

The solution for us is to move back up the brain stem and assess meaning using objective factors and reasoning. The first thing you will discover is there is very little to assess. The media seems to be suppressing, or perhaps does not know the objective facts. It would be nice for us to know these.

What is the Covid serious effects and death percentage for all those who contract it?

Step 1 – data before vaccination was common – Data from 2020

  1. Organize by age.
  2. Sort out those in who live in institutions
  3. Isolate those who have no comorbidities.
  4. Anecdotally, obesity is a comorbidity regardless of age.
  5. What is the incidence of the infection by age group.
  6. What is the resulting mortality rate of the infected by age group. With and without comorbidities.
  7. What is the incidence of infection by age group compared to the population in that age group.

Step 2 – After vaccination is common. Maybe after March 2021.

  • Same questions as above sorting in addition the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.
  • Effects of variants on infliction and on the serious injury death stats.
  • Vaccination effects.
  • Injuries and death following vaccination by age
    • Due to medical error – failure to aspirate being one.
    • attributable to the vaccine (implied)

Step 3 – Access to more information.

  • Access to Pfizer’s testing data, protocols and outcomes. That it is currently proposed to release it in pieces ending in 2075, it is likely of no value or even misleading.
  • Access to testing data for the other vaccine providers.
  • Access to information regarding more current variants. Are they more likely to spread. Are they likely to be less serious when they do. How does it affect those with comorbidities and age.

I am sure a skilled data scientist would have more questions and I expect they would be frustrated in getting any of the information in a form they could verify.

Where are we now?

Mostly we are following half-baked policies. The new objective evidence thing seriously reduces credibility.

The pharma companies had no credibility before the pandemic, but new heights have been reached.  Suppressing their test information is unconscionable.

Suppressing alternate treatments for lack of information may be justified. Giving vaccines to children who have nearly zero mortality risk from the disease, because the agencies and the pharma companies need more information seems strangely incongruent and even hypocritical.

Is there a reliable collection of data elsewhere in the world? Are we using it?

The takeaway

Be more careful with what you believe, why you believe it, and how you act on it.

Do not accept the media or government manipulating your emotions for their purposes.


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I build strategy and fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways and alternate timing to achieve both spending and estate distribution goals. In the past I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning, have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email to don@moneyfyi.com

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