I used to be the only boy you’d be found with

We’re experiencing a small outbreak of the measles here in California.  As of this writing, it’s only 100 or so cases, but measles are highly contagious.  It’s likely that a bunch more people will get sick.

In 1935, Muzafer Sherif conducted a series of experiments on the autokinetic effect.  If you’re placed in a dark room with only a single point of light at some distance, you will notice that that point of light seems to sway or diverge from its position over time.  Sherif placed individuals and small groups of people in rooms and asked them to tell him how far the light was moving.

Over time, groups of individuals modified their opinions after hearing other’s opinions.  One person says that the light is moving two inches, the other person says it is moving a foot; the first person changes his estimate so that the light is now moving four inches, and the second now changes his estimate accordingly.  The groups reached a group consensus on how far the light was moving.

The kicker, of course, is that the light wasn’t moving at all.  The people in the experiment were adjusting their own stated perceptions based on the opinions of others in the group.  This was one of the earliest experiments in social proofing.  Solomon Asch conducted some similar, fascinating experiments in the 1950s.

In college I took an infamous class called “Thinking about Thinking.”  In one lecture, Robert Nozick talked about a practical joke he played on an expectant mother who was of the crystal therapy set.

He said, “Sloppy thinking tends to congregate.  Where you find one bad idea, you’ll find others.  I was once speaking with this woman who lectured me at length on the healing power of crystal structures.  On a sudden whim, I told her that I was doing research that proved that a child’s personality was determined by the structure of mineral nearest the baby at the moment it was born.  Ergo, you have to make sure the right type of rock is present whenever a baby is born.  The woman didn’t question me.  She listened carefully and told me that the research was fascinating and that I should continue it.  She didn’t tell me, as was the case, that it was an utterly silly idea with no basis in fact.”

Now the Internet of infinite ideas has a dark side.  And it’s a dark side that is historically novel.

The Internet aggregates sloppy thinking.  And it does so at a magnitude impossible before its invention.

Facebook’s recently updated algorithm reinforces content that your friends have already liked.  It doesn’t matter whether the content is correct or not; it only matters whether the content is Liked and Shared.

Facebook is the rule, not the exception.  Regardless of whatever bizarre crackpot notion you might entertain, there are a hundred people on the Internet who have already started an online forum to discuss and support and social proof you in your weird assumptions.

Before the Internet, all your social proof had to come from local friends and family and neighbors.  People within earshot.  And so your chances of getting a diverging variety of proofing opinions was far higher.  But today, with the modern Internet, amateur groupthink replaces scientific consensus, and everyone with an open browser is a self-anointed expert.

Real experts address epidemics very differently than random people on the Internet.  John Snow’s chart suggests that the water supply near Broad Street in London was the source of  an 1854 cholera epidemic.  Jonas Salk’s 1952 polio vaccine was scientifically tested in the Francis field trials before it was made available to all schoolchildren.  And in 1983, Harald zur Hausen described the HPV viruses that can cause most cervical cancers.  His work paved the way for development of a vaccine.

I suggest that social proof of nonscientific principles predisposes a population to epidemics.  In other words, endemic misinformation is a necessary precondition for “eradicated” diseases to make a comeback.

via xkcd


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