Lewandowsky has a new article out in Nature Human Behaviour co-authored with Cass Sunstein, [the Artful Nudger] lead author Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, post-doctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for Adaptive Rationality, (no, really) and the Center’s director Ralph Hertwig.
Authors Stephan Lewandowsky and Ralph Hertwig thank the Volkswagen Foundation for their support (presumably financial, and not merely automotive.)
It’s called “How behavioural sciences can promote truth, autonomy and democratic discourse online.” The abstract opens by observing that:
The current online ecosystem has been designed predominantly to capture user attention rather than to promote deliberate cognition and autonomous choice
which distinguishes it from other information ecosystems, like peer reviewed journals, newspapers, the cries of market traders, or, going further back, the epic tales of bards in preliterate societies, which are all about the promotion of cognition and autonomous choice of course, and nothing to do with capturing user attention.
…people have never been as cognitively impoverished as they are today. Major web platforms such as Google and Facebook serve as hubs…Technology companies exploit this all-important role in pursuit of the most precious resource in the online marketplace: human attention… such companies target their users with advertisements… The relationship between platforms and people is profoundly asymmetric… These asymmetries in Big Tech’s business model have created an opaque information ecology that undermines not only user autonomy but also the transparent exchange on which democratic societies are built…
As always with this kind of blurb, which introduces absolutely every paper on modern information sources, fake news, etc., it fails to answer the reader’s natural question: “Why are you telling me this?”or as the Times Washington correspondent Louis Heren used to put it: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”
The market trader who assures me that his raspberries are freshly picked this morning, or the Guardian journalist who claims that 97% of scientists agree with him, is also exploiting a profound asymmetry due to an opaque information ecology. It’s called human society. It’s not just politicians and social scientists who are capable of being economical with the truth. We all do it.
And the answer to the “Why?” question is given in the very next paragraph
We argue that the behavioural sciences should play a key role in informing and designing systematic responses to such threats. The role of behavioural science is not only to advance active scientific debates on the causes and reach of false information… it is also to find new ways to promote the Internet’s potential to bolster rather than undermine democratic societies. Solutions to many global problems—from climate change to the coronavirus pandemic—require coordinated collective solutions, making a democratically interconnected world crucial.
Of course they do. And behavioural scientists like Lewandowsky and Sunstein are just the chaps to co-ordinate collective solutions by informing and designing systematic responses.
The rest of the article is a long march through the literature on boosting, nudging and sludging (yes, that’s a thing) our way to a better world, a world in which it’s social scientists and other experts in human behaviour who influence your internet content, rather then your own clicks or your Facebook friends.
It’s a rule of thumb with this kind of article that it’s when the footnotes stop that it gets interesting, because that’s when the authors say what they really think.
In our view, the future task for scientists is to design interventions that meet at least three selection criteria. They must be transparent and trustworthy to the public; standardisable within certain categories of content; and, importantly, hard to game by bad-faith actors or those with vested interests contrary to those of users or society as a whole.
And who designs the interventions, fixes the standards, and defines the categories of content? Who decides what is a bad faith actor or which vested interests are contrary to society as a whole? Step forward Lewandowsky and Sunstein.
Stephan Lewandowsky is 62, the age when a university professor starts thinking about hanging up the tools of cognitive psychology (scientific rigour, freedom from bias etc.) and doing something more active in order to shape tomorrow’s world. A place on some government commission to counter fake news would be just the ticket.
Then he can leave the heavy lifting of researching the motivations of climate denialists and other bad-faith actors to his young colleagues at the Centre for Adaptive Rationality.
[To remove any misunderstanding, the title is a misquote of Yeats’ “..slouches towards Bethlehem,” from his 1919 poem “The Second Coming” about the new post-war order. Something I didn’t know (thanks Wiki) is that “the poem is also connected to the 1918–1919 flu pandemic. In the weeks preceding Yeats’ writing of the poem, his pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees caught the virus and was very close to death.”]