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Updates to chapter 1

Kenneth John Odle 1 month ago
  1. 68


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\chapter{The Salad Days Are Over}
I emerged from college with a second degree and a newly refreshed teaching certificate. My grades were good enough that I managed to earn a place in Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society.\footnote{\kref{}{}} I had a website, and had recently installed a Wordpress blog to talk about books.\footnote{\kref{}{}} ``Web 2.0'' was a buzzword and we still thought that social media could transform the world for the better.
We were wrong. Social media is a great way to make the world better. It's also a great way for nut jobs and conspiracy theorists and racists and fascists to connect with each other and increase their levels of hate and ignorance exponentially. What have we done?
\kdivb{Oh gosh, it's a diversion already.}{-2}
The problem with social media is that while you can broadcast to the world, the reality is that it quickly becomes an echo chamber. You follow people who have the same interests you do, and they follow you back, and it quickly becomes a community. This is a good thing, and this is pretty much where we thought social media would go.
The problem is that some people don't realize that a community is not the same thing as the entire world. If you are one of these people, and you only follow people who agree with your viewpoints, you start to think that the entire world (or the vast majority of it) thinks this way and that you are obviously in the very, very, very large majority.
Of course, you probably aren't. You're just a victim of selection bias.
What this means is that the people you've surrounded yourself with haven't been selected at random. You've selected them precisely because they share the same beliefs that you do. This is not a problem. The problem is thinking that the rest of the world looks like this group of people and then assuming you must be correct because ``everybody else thinks like this too.''
There are two great examples of this, one a comedy routine, one a presidential election (and so, yes—this matters).
The first one is a comedy routine by George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen which was broadcast on their radio show during the height of the Great Depression. This was a period in United States history when telephones were just becoming a widely available household appliance, but most people couldn't still couldn't afford them. I don't recall the skit exactly, and despite literally seconds of searching the web, I haven't been able to find it. But it went something like this:
\noindent{}\texttt{George: What have you been doing lately, Gracie?}
\noindent{}\texttt{Gracie: I've been doing a survey to see how many of our friends have telephones.}
\noindent{}\texttt{George: And how many of them do?}
\noindent{}\texttt{Gracie: All the ones I've called.}
The point here is that of course anyone you call on the phone will have a telephone. Audiences in the 1930s understood this—and unfortunately they also understood the ``smart man/stupid woman'' trope as well.
The other occurred during the 1936 presidential election when a publication called \textit{The Literary Digest} predicted that Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon would win the election. Of course, this did not happen, and their margin of error was huge—almost 40 percentage points.
The problem was that the magazine employed a faulty polling technique, and so didn't capture a random sample of the population. It first surveyed its own readers, and then it surveyed two other readily available lists—registered automobile owners and registered telephone users.
At the height of the Great Depression, most people couldn't afford a magazine subscription, much less an automobile or a telephone, and these people tended to vote for Democratic candidates. The inaccuracy of the poll ruined the magazine's reputation, and it ceased publication two years later. (In point of fact, they not only failed to find a random sample, they relied solely on people who responded to their poll, and such people responded because they were vehemently opposed to Roosevelt. This is an example of ``non-response bias'' or ``participation bias'' but the point is the still the same—they failed to select a random group of people to poll.)
And this is what comes after.
I am in a very different place now than I ever thought I would be. I'm not on Plan A or Plan B. In fact, I've pretty much run out of alphabet to describe exactly where I am now.