Louigi Verona's Workshop


The Dangers of Public Discourse

Louigi Verona
February 2018

The globalization of public space and the democratization of access to publishing, mainly through social networks and online forums, has made it possible for anyone to post opinions on any topic without filters. This has dramatically changed the process of how public opinion gets formed, and in democratic countries has led to a number of startling political developments, as public opinion proceeds to shape the political landscape in such countries.[1][2]

This essay claims that at least in part this is due to public opinion being formed on the basis of a global discussion by non-experts, and that any discussion outside of expert space will tend to lead to the following effects:

Moreover, we claim that in context of such a global space almost any question brought to the attention of the public would quickly go through the phases of a non-expert discussion and end up forming a public consensus, vastly differing from expert consensus. Since the probability of experts being ultimately wrong is orders lower than the probability of a dilettante being ultimately wrong, public consensus has a tendency to go astray most of the time.

The public consensus is capable of surviving long stretches of time, fact checking and debunking through a number of mechanisms, primarily by becoming embedded into culture.

1. The inevitability of a global discussion becoming non-expert

It is true to say that the majority of people in the world are not experts on any given subject or at any given skill: most people are not scientists, most people are not athletes, most people are not cooks, etc.

At the same time, the complexity of the world guarantees that almost any topic requires quite a bit of education and experience in order to be navigated with sufficient accuracy - education and experience that only an expert would tend to have, since they have put in significant time and effort to obtain such knowledge. Even a professional in adjacent areas might be ill-equipped to address the topic at hand. This is especially true for areas of extreme complexity, such as technology, medicine and science, which makes the amount of qualified experts on a narrow topic remarkably small.

Therefore, any given topic that becomes a subject of a global discussion will necessarily involve mostly non-experts.

Due to a number of cognitive biases, such as the overconfidence effect, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the simple objection fallacy; the ease with which one can publish their opinion, thus reducing the time between thinking of an idea and committing it to writing - all of these factors contribute to non-experts choosing to actively participate in the discussion and form opinions on complex subjects in the absence of experts.[3][4]

2. The simple objection fallacy

The simple objection fallacy is a fallacy observed by the author while doing public education and science communication work.

The fallacy involves a person reacting to a formulation of an expert consensus with an objection, which is usually something that comes immediately to mind to someone with a cursory understanding of the subject, but not with enough insight to recognize that the objection is superficial. The error is that a person would then form an opinion based on their objection, without making an attempt to consult an expert or recognize that the objection that came to their mind has probably occurred to experts too. Instead, the objection is treated as an aha moment, with a conclusion that either all the experts got it wrong, or that it is a conspiracy.

Even if a person's rejection of expert consensus can be demonstrated to be based on other reasons, they would at present grant the highest weight to the objection as the sole reason for disagreeing with the experts. The effect is very similar to the phenomenon of anomaly hunting, but is notably different in that to a person the objection feels as a decisive argument against expert consensus.

Examples include the argument that the earth is flat because one cannot spot a curvature of the horizon, that humans never went to the moon because NASA photos contain no stars, that the anthropogenic climate change is not real because the amount of CO2 produced by the human civilization is negligible, that the gold standard is a bad idea because the amount of gold is not enough to back up all the products and services, etc.

In each of these cases the objections are easy for a non-expert to understand, and at the same time would be seen as superficial by an expert - hence, the "simple objection". Frequently, the content of the objection betrays the poor understanding that the person has about the subject.

The simple objection fallacy can be an isolated effect, or it can be a manifestation of a broader pattern of biased reasoning.

3. The conclusions of a non-expert discussion

Taking into account the aforementioned factors, the conclusions of a non-expert discussion tend to be profoundly wrong. Even if the overall conclusion is right, the reasoning itself is routinely off.

For instance, to reference a gold standard example, it is true that most American economists today believe that the return to the gold standard has more disadvantages than advantages.[5][6] However, this has nothing to do with there being too many goods and services for the gold to be able to back. In fact, this is a nonsensical objection - the ounce of gold will simply become more expensive to account for all the fiat money currently in circulation - in other words, a single dollar would be based on a lesser quantity of gold than in the past.

Nevertheless, one can find heated debates online, with opponents of the gold standard arguing passionately that a return to the gold standard is impossible based on that objection.

Additionally, non-expert conclusions tend to be overly simplistic, as this is the only way that a dilettante can comprehend what is otherwise a complex issue. In many cases, the simplification of the matter goes way too far and distorts the actual state of affairs, frequently to the point of becoming completely wrong.

4. The polarization of public opinion

The oversimplification of discussed issues leads to black-and-white thinking, with opposing positions quickly becoming radicalized. In the gold standard example, instead of talking about advantages and disadvantages of the gold standard, non-experts would tend to occupy extreme positions, and debate either the impossibility of the return of the gold standard, or its inescapable necessity. Obviously, most professional economists believe that neither position is plausible, and in general would tend to look at a broader, more complicated picture.

One of the tactics of modern information warfare involves speeding up this process by employing bots that would polarize public opinion by posting millions of divisive comments, specifically aimed at solidifying extreme points of view. However, the fact that such a tactic is even possible is explained by the already existing environment of a global discussion of non-experts, and the acceptance by the public of such a discussion as legitimate.

5. The rejection of expert consensus

The rejection of expert consensus does not have to occur immediately. It is more likely to happen after public opinion on a given subject has been already formed. It is therefore desirable for experts to react as soon as possible. Multiple scientific studies demonstrate that unfortunately it takes longer to debunk false information than to confirm correct data.[7]

In general, it is clear that generating non-expert opinions is much easier than providing an expert response. A question from an amateur might consist of one line, but a proper response may involve writing paragraphs upon paragraphs of explanations. A meta-analysis of the efficacy of countering misinformation demonstrates that while the fight is not futile, it is incredibly difficult, has to be done properly, and misconceptions can rarely be corrected in full.[8] At this moment in time there is no reliable mechanism to quickly and consistently provide the public with accurate information.

An additional difficulty arises in certain communities, prone to distrust of authorities and conspiratorial thinking. In these cases expert consensus is viewed with suspicion from the start. The so-called echo chambers - closed ideological communities, often enforced by machine-learning filtering systems of social media - make the dissemination of expert knowledge even harder.

The reasons to reject expert consensus vary. Information from experts may arrive too late, when public opinion has been formed. Changing an already established opinion is much harder, and a number of mechanisms is likely to resist the change: peer pressure and cognitive dissonance, an inability to comprehend what experts are saying, the aforementioned conspiratorial thinking, the desire to be the carrier of a unique worldview that reads between the lines of official reports, etc.

What seems to be the case, however, is that public opinion is extremely slow to agree with the experts. If anything, the more a contested idea is exposed to public attention, the more people would adhere to a wrong opinion. A notable example is the flat earth conspiracy theory. What started as almost an absurd art performance ended as a worldwide (or should we say, global) phenomenon. Today, there are serious conferences dedicated to the flat earth worldview, and billions of views of pro-flat Earth videos on YouTube.

6 . The perfect world

We have gone through analyzing what's wrong with a discourse of non-experts. But what is the right course of action?

In the perfect world a non-expert should recognize the complexity of the world and the fact that almost any area of human knowledge has people dedicating their professional life to it. Therefore, one must understand that ideas that a non-expert might have about any area of human knowledge are likely to be inconsequential. Even if there is a legitimate concern, it has to be brought to experts first. Consulting experts might also prompt them to provide better documentation for the public, in whatever form.

This requires a broader correction to the public's worldview in general. It has to become common knowledge that no matter how reasonable an initial though process may seem, empirical reality could turn out to be very different due to the sheer amount of unknowns and the overwhelming complexity of the world we live in. This is an insight that many professionals have in their domain. Such an insight should be extended to all the areas of human expertise.

Additionally, one needs to see the difference between an opinion of a single expert and the consensus of an expert community.

7 . Solutions

Unfortunately, the perfect world scenario is currently very unlikely. It would require the restructuring of school education with a focus on methodology, not only facts. It would also require a significant re-engineering of the current online infrastructure.

The latter initiative is being researched for quite a while now. It looks at platform-centric solutions, as well as third party services that might help readers receive accurate information.[9] Still, there is good reason to believe that the situation is irreversible. Even if some of the most used platforms implement features that make it more difficult to form echo chambers and spread non-expert opinions, whole communities might move to alternative services. This is exactly what typically happens to channels being banned at reddit, for example.[10][11]

But even if alternative platforms would not be able to survive for long, and all of those proposed technical solutions are successfully deployed, the main problem would remain: one can deliver facts to the public, but one cannot make the public believe them. Therefore, the need for a reform of the school educational system remains, in our view, a priority.

1. Public Opinion, Public Policy and the Welfare State

2. Coping with Permanent Austerity: Welfare State Restructuring in Affluent Democracies

3. Overconfidence effect

4. Dunning–Kruger effect

5. Gold Standard

6. Gold Standard Advantages and Disadvantages

7. Recent research reveals false rumours really do travel faster and further than the truth

8. Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation

9. Preventing Misinformation from Spreading through Social Media

10. Fearing yet another witch hunt, Reddit bans ‘Pizzagate’

11. Why Reddit finally banned one of its most misogynistic forums