Thursday, March 23, 2023

Gary Smith's "Distrust"

Gary Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from Yale University and was an Assistant Professor there for seven years. He has won two teaching awards and written (or co-authored) more than 100 academic papers and 15 books. He is the author of The AI Delusion (2018) and co-author with Jay Cordes of The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (2019), which won the 2020 Prose Award for Excellence in Popular Science & Popular Mathematics by the Association of American Publishers.

Smith applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science, and reported the following:
I was skeptical when asked to try the Page 99 Test: Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.

I appreciate the power of random sampling but I also recognize the importance of sampling size. One page? Yet, if it can only be a single page, the number 99 is appealing. The initial and last pages are likely to be unrepresentative. Page 100 is closer to the middle of most books but it is a suspiciously round number. The number 99 sounds like it has been selected on the basis of some kind of scientific study. So, page 99 it is.

Here is page 99 of Distrust (the initial bracketed text is from the bottom of page 98 and is included because it is needed to understand the beginning of page 99):
[Page and Brin’s 1998 graduate school paper describing the Google algorithm anticipated the inability of search engines to distinguish between fact and] fiction and their vulnerability to manipulation by corporations peddling products:
There is virtually no control over what people can put on the web. Couple this flexibility to publish anything with the enormous influence of search engines to route traffic and companies which deliberately manipulate search engines for profit become a serious problem.
They did not anticipate manipulation for political reasons.

The easy access and wide reach of the Internet in general and social media in particular allows pretty much anyone to say pretty much anything and perhaps find a receptive audience, including such evidence-free assertions as the Earth is flat; school shootings are false-flag operations; and Bill Gates orchestrated the COVID19 crisis so that he can use vaccines to insert microchips in our bodies.

Ironically, such far-fetched nonsense is the kind of dragon that science was intended to slay, but now the dragons of fanciful delusion are more powerful than ever because of the Internet and social media that science created and developed. Like a Frankenstein monster that has gotten out of control, the Internet powers the anti-science movement. Too many people have reacted to the heroic successes of scientists in developing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines with distrust, disinformation, and refusals to be vaccinated.

The costs of rejecting science are enormous, not just for scientists and anti- scientists, but for society as a whole.
I am definitely surprised by how well page 99 captures the content and style of the book. It may not be the very best page—it may not even be above-average—but it is remarkably apt. On the other hand, Distrust argues that there are three ways (disinformation, data torturing, and data mining) in which the hard-won reputation of science is being undermined. Page 99 only touches on the disinformation prong of the three-pronged assault, so it may mislead browsers into thinking that Distrust is just a book about the internet and social media.

I wager that this myopia is common. If a book covers a variety of topics or makes a complex argument, a single page is unlikely to capture the breadth of the work. On the other hand, the Page 99 test asserts that this page will reveal “the quality of the whole,” which may have more to do with the style of writing than the content. If so, then—for better or worse—I think a Page 99 Test of Distrust succeeds.
Visit Gary Smith's website.

--Marshal Zeringue