Lewandowsky, Parliament, and the Gloucestershire Village Idiot

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has just published its “Interim Report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’.”

I was mildly interested since Professor Lewandowsky was a witness. There’s a transcript of his oral evidence before the committee, and his written evidence can be found here.

Professor Lewandowsky proved a bit monomaniac. Asked about fake news and misinformation, he replied about climate change. Four times.

If we can get to people before the misinformation does then there is evidence to show that they will be able to filter it out better. One example is a recent study that I published with colleagues last year where we told people about the way the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s was trying to create the appearance of a scientific debate about tobacco when, in fact, the science was quite clear. Once you remind people of that precedent, they then became extremely resilient to misinformation about climate change, which followed the same playbook.

The overriding variable that I discover and other researchers discover is political ideology and the worldview. People’s political leanings determine about 80% of everything that is going on out there on social media or in their attitudes towards climate change and so on. Then, yes, I look at age and gender in my studies but it is like either nothing shows up or it is a very small effect.

I think there is work now on categorising different types of misinformation. In fact, in one of my recent papers we have come up with five different categories of misinformation. I do not have time to get into them all, but basically I would differentiate between two things. There are specifically targeted curated lies that are designed to achieve a particular purpose on the one hand but that make a claim to reality. The issues that come to mind would be what I call climate denial, where there is a systematic attempt to claim the same reality with an alternative story. Then on the other hand we have a sort of free-for-all constructivist shock and chaos misinformation in fake news that do not even make a claim to reality any more.

We have data on that. In a recent Australian study on climate change only 8% of people were found to completely negate the idea that the climate is changing but those 8% thought that their opinion was shared by half the population and that was because they were all in this echo chamber and talked to each other and felt their opinions confirmed. I think that is a novel problem that is inherent to the technology. That people think, whatever they think, everybody else thinks the same way.

The latter quote is mentioned by the authors of the report, who were obviously impressed by his evidence, since they quote him by name twice in the body of the report. They say:

Within those social relationships, [i.e. on social media] people tend to connect and want to spend time with others who share their same views and interests, which is when the spread of misinformation can happen so quickly. Professor Lewandowsky, from the University of Bristol, told us about an Australian study on climate change…

The Australian report is not referenced, but it is highly unlikely that it actually makes the point that the authors and Lewandowsky claim. I have certainly never heard of a report which examines the media habits of climate deniers in order to determine where they get their information. It’s certainly not from the hundreds of sceptical sites on the internet that you and I consult.

The fact that the 8% of climate change “negaters” referred to by Lewandowsky think that half the population agree with them seems to me to be a perfectly normal expression of one’s necessarily vague impressions of what the rest of the world does or doesn’t think about one’s own thoughts, opinions, claims, beliefs, feelings, peer-reviewed findings or what have you. (Note that the kind of cognitive psychology practiced by Professor Lewandowsky does not distinguish between the above concepts. If it’s in your brain, and it spills out in response to a questionnaire, that’s good enough.) What proportion of the human race shares my opinions about politics, Trump, Brexit, stand up comedy, or Barcelona Football Club? About half, I’d say.

This view, that social media must be at the heart of what’s wrong with the world, seems to be an assumption that Lewandowsky shares with the members of the committee. Consider this extract from his testimony which precedes the reference to the Australian study:

Professor Lewandowsky: Could I make one more comment, connecting to what you were saying about the social environment and the importance of that?

Chair: Sure.

Professor Lewandowsky: I think again that is under-appreciated, how that has changed with the technology. One of the things we know with great certainty is that people’s opinions are held to the extent a person thinks it is shared by others. We are social animals. If I think everybody else thinks the world is flat then I am not going to change my mind on that. The problem is that 300 years ago or in the middle ages the proverbial village idiot in Gloucestershire, or whatever, might have thought that the earth was flat and everybody kind of knew, “Yeah, right”, and he knew that everybody else thought, “I am not quite aligned with everybody else”.

Today, that same person, no matter how absurd the belief is will find a community on Facebook because with a billion users there will be somebody else in Denmark who thinks the earth is flat and then they are joined by somebody from Turkey and all of a sudden they have an epistemic community. The moment that happens their opinion becomes entrenched because they see no reason to change it. The social signals are telling me, “Oh, everybody else feels the same way”.

Now, you might argue that if village idiots react that way to social media, why shouldn’t other minority groups – climate scientists, for instance? Isn’t that how consensus is born?

Or, you might point out that his example is completely at odds with what he’s trying to establish. The mediaeval village idiot who believed that the world was flat was not looked at askance, because everyone else believed the same thing. And it wasn’t a shared belief that came about by some kind of communal folk wisdom. It was imposed by authority, specifically by the peer-reviewed findings of the Catholic Church. And woe betide you if you expressed a differing opinion on the mediaeval equivalent of Radio Four. Some Ecclesiastical Bob Ward character would have you burnt at the stake before you could say: “It’s warming.”

And what dragged the Gloucestershire village idiot out of his idiocy was not the action of parliamentary committees, but the Renaissance equivalent of social media – the printing press – and the mobility of scholars who were in touch with likeminded people who could exchange information about what was happening in Denmark, or Turkey, or New Spain.

Of course, the flat earthers in power were in touch with each other via the infinitely more powerful structures of church, state and universities. Neither group were much interested in what the Gloucestershire village idiot thought, because he couldn’t read, or vote.

Which brings us to the heart of the report, which is not about fake news at all, but about supposed attempts to influence elections via personal data collection. Fake news is never defined. Information sources other than social media are never examined. In the section entitled “Recommendations” (paragraphs 19 and 20) the authors look forward to hearing the governments response to their recommendations, and welcomes submissions based on their recommendations, but then forget to make any. The bulk of the report is about “interference” in elections (e.g. by saying stuff about your opponent which isn’t true.)

At this point they mention the Zinoviev letter and quote Thucydides and Plutarch on dirty doings on the stump in Athens. (Oh, silly me, no they don’t. They talk about Russian interference in the Catalonia referendum:

An example of alleged Russian interference in other countries’ affairs is provided by the Catalan independence Referendum… Francisco de Borja Lasheras told us about the context in which alleged Russian interference occurred:

In the case of Catalonia, we saw a mixture of things that were right—that there were instances of police violence—and of fake news, biased reporting and a misleading account. With all of those patterns, we cannot attribute all of that to Russia; that would just not be correct. It is important to distinguish between proper fake news—there were cases of fake news—and biased reporting. In the case of the Russian-affiliated outlets, you see a little bit of both: you see instances of balanced reporting with instances of biased reporting and fake news.”

Gosh. People from all over the world said stuff about the Catalonia referendum – some of it true, some of it biassed – and some of them were Russian.

It’s happening all over, apparently, from St Kitts and Nevis (paras 214-217) to Trinidad and Tobago (para 218):

Trinidadian elections are affected by the population’s mixed ethnicity: political leaders from one group have difficulty in making their messages resonate with those outside of it. Working from this 2009 finding, SCL designed an ambitious campaign of political graffiti that “disseminated campaign messages” that ostensibly came from a ‘united youth’.

An ambitious campaign of political graffiti” “that ostensibly came from a ‘united youth’.” Oh, the horror of it.

Now Trinidad is no stranger to what is described in the report’s summary as: the relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour” for political or commercial ends. The sinister figures behind this century-old tradition are called songwriters, and their medium is the Calypso.

Take for example this blatant interference in the election process by Attila the Hun in his “Mr Nankivell’s Speech.” Or what about the attempt to intervene in the British constitutional crisis of 1938 perpetrateded by Lord Caresser with his partisan “Edward the Eighth”? Or the seditious sentiments expressed by Lord Pretender in the mischievously named “Human Race”?

But when it comes to interference with the democratic process, the prize must go to Mighty Sparrow for his defamatory accusation against the supposedly rigged election which resulted in him being (temporarily) dethroned from his title of Calypso King in his “Robbery with V.”

We won’t hear their likes again. Not if the The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee can help it.

The idiots have taken over the village, and it’s global.

24 thoughts on “Lewandowsky, Parliament, and the Gloucestershire Village Idiot

  1. Shucks, I thought Lew was finally going to confess to being an academic Goebbels and promise to stop being a deceptive, cynical liar. Instead he chose to demonstrate just how it is done.
    Thank all that is good that Lord Pretender and his nefarious sedition was halted early.

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  2. Are you not fretting ower naught? A Parliamentary Committee Report with no recommendations surely has no teeth and will be consigned to a rubbish pile. From your description of it and Lew’s participation, it well deserves such a fate. A focus upon fake news influencing politics, when everyone and his dog is doing it, was never going to get anywhere. What a complete waste of time, effort and paper.

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  3. A large chunk of the report is about the interference in elections by SCL. For example, in St Kitts Nevis they paid someone to offer an opposition leader a bribe, which he accepted. This is somehow interpreted as being unfair on the corrupt politician.

    But the main target of their enquiry was Russia. If you think the anti-Russian hysteria since the Skipral pseudo-poisonings, the Syrian pseudo-gas attacks, and the Trump-Putin Helsinki meeting is something whipped up by the media, do read paras 198 and 199 of this report.

    The UK Government has made Russia a tier 1 national security threat. With that should come a united Government approach, but Edward Lucas told us that “everybody’s treading on everybody else’s toes, and what we have seen so far in Whitehall is that there’s been a massive turf war, rather than anything that’s actually dealing seriously with Russia”. The problem has been to treat Russia as an emerging economy, which has “created lobbies in this country who are extremely unhappy at the thought of relations with Russia going downhill, and you get those lobbies exercising power in all the political powers”.

    Six Committees at the House of Commons, including our own, formed the Russian Co-ordination Group in April 2018. It comprises of the Chairs (and selected members) of Select Committees with an interest in Russia. The Group aims to co-ordinate Committee work relating to scrutiny of Russian-related activity by sharing knowledge about relevant inquiries by Committees. The chair of the Group, Tom Tugendhat MP, said about its launch: “We want to produce a system of work that answers the malign influence we are seeing in a collective way from Russia.”

    They have evidence of Russia’s “malign influence,” of course:

    Throughout this inquiry, from October 2017 to June 2018, we attempted to gain information from Facebook about the extent of Russian interference in UK political campaigns. Time and again, Facebook chose to avoid answering our written and oral questions, to the point of obfuscation. Facebook finally agreed, in January 2018, to expand its US investigation into alleged Russian interference in the EU Referendum. However, it downplayed the extent of the problem, and told us that the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) had bought only three adverts for $0.97 in the days before the Brexit vote… According to evidence that Facebook submitted to Congress, and later released publicly, Russian anti-immigrant adverts were placed in October 2015 targeting the UK, as well as Germany and France. These amounted to 5,514.85 roubles (around £66).

    I honestly think this is the most insane political crisis I’ve seen in my lifetime. With the Weapons of Mass Destruction, at least we knew what Blair and Bush were doing and why. And we knew that they knew what they were doing. This lot are off to Never-never-land, with Lewandowsky providing the Pixie Dust.

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  4. ALAN KENDALL
    Apologies. There are in fact 53 paragraphs of recommendations at the end under “Conclusions and Recommendations” followed by an Annex with more recommendations from the Atlantic Council. There are no recommendations in paras 19 and 20, headed “Our recommendations in this report.”

    What’s disquieting about the report is that it’s clearly aimed at promoting legislation to control what we read and view, based on a supposedly urgent need to fight “misinformation” which they urge the government to define (!!!)
    para 1 of conclusions; “We recommend that the Government rejects the term ‘ fake news’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. With such a shared definition, and clear guidelines for companies, organisations, and the Government to follow, there will be a shared consistency of meaning across the platforms, which can be used as the basis of regulation and enforcement.”

    A campaign of enforcement against misinformation is something governments do in wartime, or when they’re in a spot of polrtical bother – whichever comes first.

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  5. Geoff, I believe you are guilty of misinformation.

    Governments able to define this noun are very scary. But then, this current example is unable to agree upon anything, as would any conceivable concoction of Labour MPs.

    Misinformation has always been with us, ever since Cain denied knowing where Able was.

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  6. Lewandowsky states:

    “We have data on that. In a recent Australian study on climate change only 8% of people were found to completely negate the idea that the climate is changing but those 8% thought that their opinion was shared by half the population and that was because they were all in this echo chamber and talked to each other and felt their opinions confirmed. I think that is a novel problem that is inherent to the technology. That people think, whatever they think, everybody else thinks the same way.”
    I presume that Lewandowsky is alluding to the following study led by Zoe Leviston:

    http://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate1743

    This study talks of a cognitive bias called the ‘false consensus effect’ and gleefully highlights that, whilst the effect was present in all of the minority groups, this effect is strongest in the group with the most sceptical opinions relating to global warming, i.e. the group that even denies that such warming takes place.

    What the authors fail to appreciate, however, is that this particular group also happens to be the smallest in the study. The fact is, the smaller the population, the greater is the scope for overestimation of its size, and therefore the greater the likelihood and extent of overestimation by group members. This is a brute statistical fact requiring no fancy explanation. It’s called regression to the mean. Similarly, groups larger than the average will have a statistical propensity to underestimate their size.

    It does not surprise me one little bit that Lewandowski, Leviston and all those who are impressed by this most unremarkable statistical phenomenon should look towards psychobabble to explain it rather than recognize the relevance of basic statistical theory.

    Bias Blind Spot strikes again!

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  7. JOHN RIDGWAY
    Thanks for the reference. The article is paywalled, but figure 1
    https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate1743/figures/1 clearly demonstrates that it doesn’t support Lewandowsky’s claim. While the outright deniers of climate change overestimate the number of people who agree with them, the 42% who think that climate change is natural underestimate the number who agree with them, putting it at 25%. That 42% is the nearest their categories come to defining us sceptics, and despite our living in a confirmation bubble, we seem to believe there’s fewer of us than there are.

    Regression to the mean indeed, aided by old-fashioned honesty; while only 4% of people didn’t know what they thought themselves, 20% admitted that they didn’t know what other people thought. They’re clearly in need of some training in cognitive omni-science.

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  8. John Ridgway: No, I think the ‘recent Australian study’ cited by Lewandowsky was probably the 2015 summary of a series of surveys carried out by CSIRO between 2010 and 2014. Available here (17MB):

    https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP158008&dsid=DS2

    The 8% (7.9%) said that this statement best described their thoughts about climate change: ‘I don’t think climate change is happening’. On average, the people who ticked that box reckoned that 49% of their fellow Ozzies shared their view. (They also reckoned that human activity was responsible for 35% of climate change, which makes one wonder what they thought the statement about climate change meant. Perhaps for them ‘happening’ meant ‘happening now’.)

    A further 39% up-thumbed this: ‘I think that climate change is happening, but it’s just a natural fluctuation in Earth’s temperature’. (That lot reckoned 47% was due to human activity.)

    46% up-thumbed ‘I think climate change is happening, and I think that humans are largely causing it’. (‘Largely’, in their case, meant 79% – a long way short of the current consensus’s 110%.)

    Those results summarized five surveys. Only 269 people completed all five – which, by an astonishing coincidence, is the number of people who who were living in the Black Forest village of Birkendorf in June 1958 when Steve Lewandowsky was busy being born on the other side of the world. (OK, I made that last bit up. Genuine fake news. Sorry. It was actually 272.)

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  9. Geoff,

    I came across the paper when I was researching for a WUWT article I wrote on cognitive biases. The False Consensus Effect was one of those I suspected would be used by the CAGW faithful and, hey presto, there it was in this Australian study. I seem to remember reading the paper in full without having to pay for it, so there may be a free link out there if you look hard enough; I just can’t remember where I found it.

    As for all this talk of ‘misinformation’, I think the Nazis got there first.

    John

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  10. Vinny,

    You may be right. I’ve just conceded to Geoff that the paper I first came across wasn’t behind a pay wall. The confusing thing is that the abstract of the Leviston paper also seems a perfect match (albeit of older vintage to the one you found). How many Australian studies of the False Consensus Effect within climate science scepticism are there? Surely, one would be enough!

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  11. Vinny’s paper looks like the right one, since it has the 8% “negaters” mentioned by Lewandowsky. There’s a most interesting bar chart detailing responses to the question: “Which best describes what your opinion about climate change is based on?” Extract from responses:

    “Scientific research”
    Not happening 11%
    Happening but natural 14%
    Happening but human-induced 49%

    “Historical events”
    Not happening 18%
    Happening but natural 21%
    Happening but human-induced 3%

    Believers claim to rely largely on “scientific research”, and hardly at all on historical events. I think we can discount the idea that many of the respondents have conducted, or even read the results of, scientific research themselves. So they’re relying on authority, whereas historical events are either experienced, or available from non-controversial sources.

    Only 8% of both believers and non-believers claim to get their information from the media, which is obviously false, but demolishes Lewandowsky’s argument.

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  12. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Vinny has the right citation. However, you will note that Leviston and Walker are a common denominator, so I think it is basically the same work coming at us from many directions. This, of course, is how a minority group can give the impression of being a broad movement. It’s all about citation counting.

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  13. Has Lewandowski published any research on on village idiots? Is there any? Did village idiots in 1718 think the world was flat? And, if they did, was that belief confined to village idiots or did everyone in the village also think that? There is way too much lazy supposition here even for a highly respected figure such as Lewandowski. If you go back to the Mediterranean sea ports in 1490, was there a consensus that the world was flat? Were people busily faking evidence to show that consensus? Suddenly the study of history evaporates in front of my face now that Lew has got started on it

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  14. I’ve read this expose several times now and am still not sure I understand the linkages being drawn between Lewandowski’s ‘work’, misinformation (aka fake news) and Gloucester village idiot beliefs (so relieved Norfolk village idiots weren’t targeted). Surely at a time when everyone believed the Earth was flat, the village idiot would announce his idiocy by professing the Earth was round?

    I must admit to being far more concerned about the changing of Google’s search algorithm
    (https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/07/29/google-and-the-adjustment-of-inconvenient-viewpoints-especially-climate/)
    than the ditherings of a parliamentary committee with a government that seemingly cannot agree upon anything.

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  15. ALAN KENDALL, MANINABARREL
    Let’s forgive Lewandowsky for screwing up his analogy by placing his Gloucestershire contrarian in a vague timeframe (the Middle Ages or the 18th century?) which obscures the point he’s trying to make, but also obscures the fact that he’s entirely wrong.
    (And let’s spell his name right. The most chilling moment for me in George Perec’s Holocaust novel “W” is the author’s explosion of anger at the fate of names, which are twisted and tortured at each border crossing as refugees are processed by illiterate or overworked officials. If he wants to pronounce it Leh-Wan-Dausky that’s his affair. But give the search engines a chance.)
    He seems to be saying that social media have changed our relation to the truth because anyone who previously held a weird belief would have known that he was in a minority and adjusted his behaviour accordingly. The slightest acquaintance with social history demonstrates that this is nonsense, and the Australian research he cites, whatever it is, doesn’t support his thesis. Weird ideas flourish like viruses, and just as it took medical science millennia to identify viruses, and may take centuries to control them, it’s going to take us a while to understand (and control?) profound social change based on new technology.

    What’s disturbing here is not the fact of Lewandowsky selling his wares, such as they are, to the Mother of Parliaments, but the idea of a committee of our elected representatives thinking that they’re going to get to the bottom of the nature of truth and untruth in an Australian opinion poll. Of course, it’s what you’d expect of a committee whose remit covers Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

    What’s happening here, (first to Steve McIntyre, but not only) is that we sceptics who have been digging away at a certain kind of idiocy involving climate science and policy for ages are starting to realise, the deeper you dig, that it’s idiocy all the way down. Science; debate; democracy; academic freedom; the pillars of our civilisation suddenly seem not to be bearing the load.

    By chance I clicked on MIAB’s name and came on a dormant site which shows that Man, like the rest of us I believe, is capable of rising above these trivial affairs of state to discuss higher things. Whether we see eye to eye in our judgement of 1930s Hollywood musicals is a subject for another day.

    And Alan is quite right about the Google algorithm thing. Mind you, sticking porn on the top shelf of the papershop didn’t do it any harm.

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  16. Well said, Geoff, and yes I am an amateur of 1930s musicals. The problem I have is that my parliamentary representatives are so credulous that they give any credence to a charlatan such as Lew, with his knowledge of village idiots between 1470 and 1770,without seeming to demand credentials. I would not like it if I were on trial and expert evidence against me was given by someone hypothesising the views of an uneducated person in an era 3-6 hundred years ago, of whom no records exist. It is verging on Lovecraft or “we have a belt-fed and we know how to use it” territory

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  17. Geoff I am still little wiser. You suggest Lew’ “…seems to be saying that social media have changed our relation to the truth because anyone who previously held a weird belief would have known that he was in a minority and adjusted his behaviour accordingly”.
    This is not logical. Before social media the weird belief would not necessarily be unique because others in the restricted community might well have different but equally restricted beliefs. After social media it is true that the idiot might be aware of others with his peculiar belief but equally would become aware of just how weird and restricted the belief was.
    I as a Norfolk idiot based in the bastion of climate change orthodoxy that was UEA, could use social media and the Internet to discover others with my belief but also learn just how much of a minority position my belief was. Like many other things social media and the Internet are two edged swords.

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  18. Alan,

    I as a Norfolk idiot based in the bastion of climate change orthodoxy that was UEA, could use social media and the Internet to discover others with my belief

    As your former colleague put it in one of the emails,

    The internet has allowed all these people to find one another unfortunately.

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  19. Paul I find my reaction to Phil Jone’s comment unchanged since I first read it: “ain’t life a bitch”.

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  20. Do we know who suggested/put forward Lew as a witness for this committee?
    seems he has friends in high places (or is very smart), not sure which!!

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  21. DFHUNTER
    If we knew who recommended him for a gold medal from the Royal Society and a five figure sum from the Wellcome Foundation to entice him to England, that might give us a lead.

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  22. Geoff
    Q. Who promotes Lewandowsky?
    A. The benighted : 1. those in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance.
    2. those overcome by darkness
    Take your pick.
    So long as Lew is not be knighted.

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