Loud & Wrong

Loud & Wrong
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

Anthony Bourdain had a method for figuring out where to eat in a new city:

Go to a number of foodie websites with discussion boards. Let’s say you’re going to Kuala Lumpur — just post on the Malaysia board that you recently returned and had the best rendang in the universe, and give the name of a place, and all these annoying foodies will bombard you with angry replies about how the place is bullshit, and give you a better place to go.

We can call these Bourdain Statements: saying a false thing loudly to provoke other people to correct you. (Note that posting "where do I get good rendang in KL?" would have got you zero responses.)

This technique is incredibly annoying and incredibly effective. A friend used to do it in a corporate research job – basically, cold-calling strangers and asking them intrusive questions about their businesses. If he asked "how much money does your company make?", nobody would tell him. (Nor should they: in this context, the information could only plausibly be used against them). But if he said "your revenue, it's $4m per year, right?" they couldn't help themselves but correct him.

Here's another example. In 2010, a non-famous mathematician called Vinay Deolalikar published a "proof" that P≠NP. Many of the world's top mathematicians 1) declared that from even a first glance it was clear this proof could not be right, and 2) instantly dropped what they were doing to go correct it.[1]

This might be a good moment to ponder whether such attention grabs are necessarily morally bad. Some mathematicians said that Deolalikar deserved gratitude for spurring the community into an energetic collective project. And you can sort of see the logic of that – in an "emergency", people often put in more effort and energy than they do in their everyday lives.

On the other hand, you might say that anyone who redirects Terence Tao's attention for one week has set back progress in mathematics by at least one week's-worth, and probably more. There is something that sits wrong about hijacking someone's attention this way.

Alas, certain leading bloggers have mastered this technique: regularly posting blog posts full of errors that would have been cleared up by even the smallest amounts of research, generating detailed responses from people who actually did the research, then incorporating those responses with a self-congratulatory "isn't the process of collaborative discovery great!" grin.

You don't need to think they're including rampant falsehoods in their posts deliberately. You can imagine they're just responding, slowly over time, to the gradient of incentives: they published a post with some unresearched false statements in it, the pushback generated lots of engagement and higher readership – perhaps even response-posts from more famous bloggers! – and then when writing future blogposts, they just tried to do more of "what works," and so published more posts where they asserted X while the most basic fact-checking would have revealed not-X.

By responding to these posts you create terrible incentives for the writers to keep doing it; you should resist if you possibly can. But it's hard not to – however exactly it works, false statements seem to hack our mental circuitry and create a desperate urge to reply. Like the rendang served at Nasi Lemak Wanjo Kg Baru, correcting the record is almost irresistibly delicious.

  1. the ATVBT authors have in fact discovered a truly remarkable proof that P≠NP, but unfortunately this margin is too small to contain it. ↩︎

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