Nudging Towards Bethlehem

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.”]


  1. So, Lew and his fellow cognitive/behavioural scientists just want to do what’s best for society and stop the flow of anti-science fake news information and guide (nudge) us all into correct thinking and behaviour – nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, know what I mean?

    It’s weirdly synchronistic that “The Second Coming” about the post war new order is also connected to the 1918-19 ‘flu pandemic which had the archetypal Second Wave, more deadly than the first, which the nudgers like to scare us with in order to convince us that coming out of lockdown is a risky business.

    Talking of the nudgers at Sage, here’s one:

    This is what Wiki says about her:

    “Her current research includes developing methodologies for designing and evaluating theory-based interventions to change behaviour, and advancing scientific knowledge about, and applications of, behaviour change interventions. She leads the Human Behaviour-Change Project funded by the Wellcome Trust.[4][5]

    Her current research includes developing methodologies for designing and evaluating theory-based interventions to change behaviour, and advancing scientific knowledge about, and applications of, behaviour change interventions. She leads the Human Behaviour-Change Project funded by the Wellcome Trust.[4][5]”

    The perfect professional colleague I would think for Lew and partners in their crusade to “promote truth, autonomy and democratic discourse online” and address the scourge of “cognitive impoverishment” amongst the climate science denying/lockdown/Covid denying proles. Certainly nudges me – know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The pervasive control of the internet by climate fanatics correlates completely to the impoverishment the papers discuss.
    Lew and his fellow slimeballs are the purveyors of the impoverishment.


  3. Governments need behaviourists to push their agenda, viz Climate Change Committee:
    Professor Nick Chater FBA
    Nick Chater is Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School.
    He has particular interests in:
    the cognitive and social foundations of rationality
    applying behavioural insights to public policy and business

    Nick is co-founder and Director of Decision Technology Ltd, a research consultancy. He has previously held the posts of Professor of Psychology at both Warwick University and University College London (UCL), and as Associate Editor for the journals: Cognitive Science, Psychological Review, Psychological Science and Management Science.

    We have the SAGE example above and of course we have the UN and its propaganda reports, eg SR15
    which had similar representation amongst its authors:
    JIANG Kejun
    Director of Energy Research Institute (ERI)
    Ph.D in Social Engineering from the Department of Tokyo Institute of Technology.

    STEG Linda
    Professor of Environmental Psychology. In 1996 she gained her PhD at the University of Groningen with a thesis entitled “Behavioural change to reduce car use. Steg’s research focuses on matters such as the behavioural-scientific explanation of domestic energy use, stimulating energy savings, the acceptance of environmental policy and the effects of policy and environmental conditions on people’s wellbeing.

    Petra conducts research at the intersection of political ecology, climate change adaptation, social-ecological resilience, environmental justice, livelihood security, and participatory action research and learning within a development context.

    Many more of a similar ilk, few climate scientists, or indeed scientists, but the report is usually quoted as “by the World’s Leading Climate Scientists”, psychologically implanted and people believe it. Constant repetition of a lie makes it true.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I see nothing wrong with governments consulting specialists, including behavioural scientists, on all sorts of subjects. It’s all a question of quality, and the end user (in this case ministers) can be the only judges of that. If they read a report and find it useful, they’re going to want more of the same. Of course, if they have no time to read reports and rely on one page summaries from their civil servants, we’re back in the world of Yes Minister where the system controls everything.

    I had a look at Nick Chater, professor of psychology at Warwick Business School, mentioned by Dennis Ambler above. His book “The Mind is Flat” gets a rave review in the Spectator. However, the extract available on Amazon is less than promising.

    The title says it all; Chater is a Flat Mind-er (not a flat minder) the way you might be a flat Earther. He says in the introduction:

    ..the interpretation of the motives of real people is no different from the interpretations of fictional characters. And fictional characters can’t of course, have an inner life, because they have no life at all… No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives’, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. It is not hard to plumb our mental depths because they are so deep and murky, but because there are no mental depths to plumb.

    One of the commonest dismissals of Freudian depth psychology is that the neuroses he treated were culturally specific – peculiar to early 20th century bourgeois Vienna. Let’s concede that this society was unlike, say, early 21st century Warwick. For a start it contained Einstein*, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Schiele, Stephan Zweig, Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti and Freud himself. Not like Warwick.

    It may easy to claim that there are no depths to our minds if you divide your life between Europe’s biggest Business School and Decision Technology Ltd. The idea that such people have been chosen (how? By whom?) to guide government policy is disturbing.

    [*Wrong about Einstein. He became Austrian, but don’t think he ever lived in Vienna.]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s interesting that the paper identifies two approaches towards determining the epistemic value of online material: endogenous and exogenous. The first requires examination of the actual content, and the paper quickly decides that this a poor strategy. The second is all about the supposed credibility of the source and whether the content tows the party line. No surprises that this where the paper sees great potential for the application of behavioural wizardry.

    As far as I am concerned, this paper fails both endogenously and exogenously. It is poor content written by people who I do not associate with anything better.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. By ‘examination’ I should say an evaluation of the content’s merit.


  7. “The second is all about the supposed credibility of the source and whether the content tows the party line.”

    Yep, immediate fail. Because all this shows is alignment to a consensus, not whether the consensus is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or indeed a cultural or rational consensus). Nor, even if one discovers rhetoric devices in the content (oft cited for fake-content tests), can one necessarily say this means that the info is good or bad. All sides involved in a culturally conflicted topic will tend to deploy rhetoric to some extent. However, if one discovers unambiguous alignment to a known strong *cultural* consensus, one can say that this content is very likely bad, because all strong cultural consensuses are wrong, they have to be in order to perform their function. Unfortunately, if there is no such alignment, it doesn’t mean the content is good or ‘correct’, only that it is at least not wrong by virtue of cultural alignment. And further, being bad by virtue of alignment to a cultural consensus, doesn’t necessarily mean being on the ‘wrong side’. It may mean being on the right side for the wrong reason (which is the case for various cultural messaging from Rep / Cons on climate change, these being due to a consensus regarding Rep / Con cultural values and so wrong, but still happening to be on the right side). ‘Sides’ may encompass those who are right for the right reasons as well as those who are right for the wrong (and potentially different) reasons. And in the public domain, the latter is typically more prevalent for culturally conflicted topics.

    Lew had pretty good stuff on misinformation before he launched head first into the climate domain. But the plunge seems to have knocked most of it out of him, to the extent that he effectively contradicts his earlier work now.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’ve been sat here for some time now thinking about why I should be taking such umbrage over the Lorenz-Spreen paper. After all, it isn’t as though it is trying to address an imaginary problem – people gaming narratives on the internet is a serious issue. And, after all, the techniques proposed are only those that we have all called upon from time to time to help us navigate the internet’s epistemic minefield. Yes, there is the question as to whether authenticity can act as a surrogate for veracity, but does suspecting that the authors might not even appreciate the difference justify my visceral reaction? Probably not.

    I am sure that, as academics, the authors of the paper are well aware of the dangers of evaluating the merit of a student’s paper by simply counting the usage of keywords (such as ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’). I am sure also that they know that prodigious citations to back up an argument not only demonstrate that the student is well-informed but also that he or she lacks independence of thought. It would be churlish, therefore, for me to suggest that the authors’ preference for ‘exogenous’ evaluation reflects a shallow understanding of all matters epistemological. Nevertheless, there is one thought that, try as I may, I cannot shake off, and it is leaving a nasty taste in my mouth. If we are to judge a book by its cover, where will that leads us? It wasn’t that long ago that the National Socialist Teachers League produced a book titled ‘Never Trust a Fox in a Green Meadow – or the Word of a Jew’. That, I think, is why I am so disturbed by all of this. The dividing line between prejudgement and prejudice is gossamer thin, and an accepted view is not to be confused with the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There’s a facility at the article website for telling the lead author why you read the article. I used it to link here, inviting comments, and I notice visits to this site from Germany have picked up considerably in the past two days. I intend to use this facility as often as possible in the future. I hope our German readers are following the comments with as much interest as I am.


  10. Shouldn’t worry too much John. Whatever our British Government decided to do to control our main sources of independent information would have to defeat the internationality of the WWW. Yes China does it, but the UK? Really? The internet has its own defences, and a surplus of attack dogs. Look at most climate blogs.

    BTW an abundance of references in a student’s work means that he/she has no independence of thought? Not in my experience, more commonly meant they had copied someone else’s work. A well read student (undergraduate) is almost an oxymoron.


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