Summer of the Shark

Sometimes a single word or phrase is enough to expand your mental toolkit across almost every subject.  “Averaging argument.”  “Motte and bailey.”  “Empirically indistinguishable.”  “Overfitting.”  Yesterday I learned another such phrase: “Summer of the Shark.”

This, apparently, was the summer of 2001, when lacking more exciting news, the media gave massive coverage to every single shark attack it could find, creating the widespread impression of an epidemic—albeit, one that everyone forgot about after 9/11.  In reality, depending on what you compare it to, the rate of shark attacks was either normal or unusually low in the summer of 2001.  As far as I can tell, the situation is that the absolute number of shark attacks has been increasing over the decades, but the increase is entirely attributable to human population growth (and to way more surfers and scuba divers).  The risk per person, always minuscule (cows apparently kill five times more people), appears to have been going down.  This might or might not be related to the fact that shark populations are precipitously declining all over the world, due mostly to overfishing and finning, but also the destruction of habitat.

There’s a tendency—I notice it in myself—to say, “fine, news outlets have overhyped this trend; that’s what they do.  But still, there must be something going on, since otherwise you wouldn’t see everyone talking about it.”

The point of the phrase “Summer of the Shark” is to remind yourself that a “trend” can be, and often is, entirely a product of people energetically looking for a certain thing, even while the actual rate of the thing is unremarkable, abnormally low, or declining.  Of course this has been a favorite theme of Steven Pinker, but I don’t know if even reading his recent books, Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, fully brought home the problem’s pervasiveness for me.  If a self-sustaining hype bubble can form even over something as relatively easy to measure as the number of shark attacks, imagine how common it must be with more nebulous social phenomena.

Without passing judgment—I’m unsure about many of them myself—how many of the following have you figured, based on the news or your Facebook or Twitter feeds, are probably some sort of epidemic?

  • Crime by illegal immigrants
  • Fraudulent voting by non-citizens
  • SJWs silencing free speech on campus
  • Unemployment in heartland America
  • Outrageous treatment of customers by airlines
  • Mass school shootings
  • Sexism in Silicon Valley
  • Racism at Starbucks

Now be honest: for how many of these do you have any real idea whether the problem is anomalously frequent relative to its historical rate, or to the analogous problems in other sectors of society?  How many seem to be epidemics that require special explanations (“the dysfunctional culture of X”), but only because millions of people started worrying about these particular problems and discussing them—in many cases, thankfully so?  How many seem to be epidemics, but only because people can now record outrageous instances with their smartphones, then make them viral on social media?

Needless to say, the discovery that a problem is no worse in domain X than it is in Y, or is better, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight hard to solve it in X—especially if X happens to be our business.  Set thy own house in order.  But it does mean that, if we see X but not Y attacked for its deeply entrenched, screwed-up culture, a culture that lets these things happen over and over, then we’re seeing a mistake at best, and the workings of prejudice at worst.

I’m not saying anything the slightest bit original here.  But my personal interest is less in the “Summer of the Shark” phenomenon itself than in its psychology.  Somehow, we need to figure out a trick to move this cognitive error from the periphery of consciousness to center stage.  I mustn’t treat it as just a 10% correction: something to acknowledge intellectually, before I go on to share a rage-inducing headline on Facebook anyway, once I’ve hit on a suitable reason why my initial feelings of anger were basically justified after all.  Sometimes it’s a 100% correction.  I’ve been guilty, I’m sure, of helping to spread SotS-type narratives.  And I’ve laughed when SotS narratives were uncritically wielded by others, for example in The Onion.  I should do better.

I can’t resist sharing one of history’s most famous Jewish jokes, with apologies to those who know it.  In the shtetl, a horrible rumor spreads: a Jewish man raped and murdered a beautiful little Christian girl in the forest.  Terrified, the Jews gather in the synagogue and debate what to do.  They know that the Cossacks won’t ask: “OK, but before we do anything rash, what’s the rate of Jewish perpetration of this sort of crime?  How does it compare to the Gentile rate, after normalizing by the populations’ sizes?  Also, what about Jewish victims of Gentile crimes?  Is the presence of Jews causally related to more of our children being murdered than would otherwise be?”  Instead, a mob will simply slaughter every Jew it can find.  But then, just when it seems all is lost, the rabbi runs into the synagogue and jubilantly declares: “wonderful news, everyone!  It turns out the murdered girl was Jewish!”

And now I should end this post, before it jumps the shark.

Update: This post by Scott Alexander, which I’d somehow forgotten about, makes exactly the same point, but better and more memorably. Oh well, one could do worse than to serve as a Cliff Notes and link farm for Slate Star Codex.

47 Responses to “Summer of the Shark”

  1. John Sidles Says:

    For centuries, conservatives have vehemently ascribed to the Moderate Enlightenment the sinful heresies of the Radical Enlightenment. As a case study, history-minded Shtetl Optimized readers are referred to Warren Montag’s essay “‘That Hebrew Word’, Spinoza and the Concept of the Shekhinah” (2002). Montag’s essay begins:

    Beginning in 1666, the consistory of the Reformed Church of Amsterdam, a body of Church elders whose task it was to safeguard the morals of the community and to watch for signs of the heresy and atheism that, it was feared, were everywhere to be found in the too-tolerant city, directed its attention to a group of thinkers inspired, if not directed, by Spinoza.

    Church records reveal that on June 10, 1666, the clergyman Pieter Leupen reported to the consistory that brothers Johannes and Adriaan Koerbagh, the latter of whom was one of Spinoza’s closest friends, had expressed to him “very heretical and unhealthy opinions” concerning certain key articles of faith.

    Nor were the transgressions limited to matters of belief: Adriaan not only regarded the sacrament of marriage as a form of superstition but lived his belief fully, producing a child out of wedlock and acknowledging the child as his own without the slightest sign of remorse or repentance.

    For Adriaan — as for all-too-many of his radically enlightened fellow freethinkers — the consistory’s investigation ended, for Adriaan, in the sad sequence of arrest, prosecution, torture, imprisonment, and an early death.

    For details of these early radically enlightened ideas, it’s tough to beat like Adriaan Koerbagh’s own words, as set down in Koerbagh’s pre-Spinozist manuscript A Light Shining in Dark Places, to Illuminate the Main Questions of Theology and Religion (1668).

    Koerbagh’s text has become publicly available only in recent decades. A modern preface by Michiel Wielema) gives this account:

    This book has taken a very long time to produce—in a way, almost three and a half centuries. For it contains the first-ever edition of a major early-modern libertine text that will be accessible to an international audience.

    Until 1974 no edition whatsoever of this text was publicly available. When Adriaan Koerbagh (1663-1669) in 1668 first tried to publish, in his native Dutch, his A Light Shining in Dark Places, which is a systematic, philosophical critique of organized religion and its dogmatic pretensions, the authorities successfully intervened to stop the printing process and jail the author, who shortly afterwards died in captivity. The work was only partly printed and except for a few copies the entire print run was very probably destroyed.

    Ironically, however, the same authorities who destroyed the book were also responsible for its preservation. For the court that sentenced Koerbagh to jail needed a number of copies for its judiciary process. That is why at least two known copies of the work now still exist, with the printed portion supplemented by the remaining text in manuscript. …

    The present edition may therefore be said to be the first that does full justice to Koerbagh’s intentions. His aim was to produce a popular book, a book intended not just for scholars but for the Dutch people in general, in order to disseminate reason and tolerance and combat superstition and bigotry.

    Hmmm … “disseminate reason and tolerance” … “combat superstition and bigotry” … here we appreciate that Scott’s Shtetl Optimized essays have, for a decade or more, nobly continued an Radically Enlightened tradition of 350 years standing.

    So, bravo Scott! Long may Shtetl Optimized continue to dispell the darkness of superstition and bigotry, with the light of reason and tolerance.  🙂

  2. anonymous Says:

    I’ve always wanted to know the name of this phenomenon!

    Thank you for the extensive list of examples.

    However, I feel that you have gotten the currently most prominent one:
    “Climate change”/”Global warming”.

  3. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    “Crime by illegal immigrants
    Fraudulent voting by non-citizens
    SJWs silencing free speech on campus
    Unemployment in heartland America
    Outrageous treatment of customers by airlines
    Mass school shootings
    Sexism in Silicon Valley
    Racism at Starbucks”

    Yeah, but see some of these are brought up from people from the other tribe so obviously those are real Summers of the Shark being made for their own political ends. Others are from my tribe and therefore they are highlighting relevant concerns even if they aren’t statistically representative.

  4. Dan Says:

    Related – SlateStarCodex on cardiologists and Chinese robbers:

    Although what’s nice about the Summer of the Sharks is that it’s a real-life, uncontroversial and easy-to-explain example of this phenomenon.

  5. Boaz Barak Says:

    You know what they say: an optimist is a pessimist who hasn’t yet been bitten by a shark.

  6. Scott Says:

    Dan #4: Ah, thanks, I’d somehow forgotten that post! Of course, it makes exactly the same point that I was trying to make, but much better and more memorably. Well, I suppose one could do worse than to serve as a Cliff Notes and link farm for Scott Alexander.

  7. cody Says:

    Gah! Dark joke! From even darker times I suppose…

    While I’m aware those are all issues that people talk about and worry a lot about, for some reason I’ve honestly never considered any of them to be all too common.

    I’ve known for a long time that gun violence is mostly a problem of about 20,000 suicides a year, and 10,000 homicides, with mass shootings in schools or elsewhere making up a tiny fraction of that.

    I suppose I figured sexism is kind of ubiquitous, though I wouldn’t expect it to be significantly more or less common in Silicon Valley. Though it didn’t really occur to me until I saw the HBO docudrama Confirmation, about Anita Hill’s testimony—there’s a scene when some women in Congress sort of storm into a dining area and tell some men in Congress that she’s going to testify. That was the first time it occurred to me that sexism is something virtually all women are familiar with, and very few men are (or worse, many men don’t even see sexual harassment as a problem, and commit it, or even brag about committing it).

    I know unemployment is way down, I think the problem has been more wage stagnation for the last few decades, though it sounds like that is starting to change finally…

    Illegal immigrant crime & voter fraud I thought were pretty much entirely right-wing conspiracy nonsense. SJWs silencing free speech, airlines abusing passengers, and Starbucks racism I thought were practically “one-offs”?

    I did sort of have the impression that police killing young black men was sort of an epidemic, but now I think it’s probably always been like that, and it’s just now becoming obvious to ignorant white folk like me for the first time because of the ubiquity of cameras.

    I hear the phrase “opioid crisis” and “epidemic” a lot, though I’ve also heard it said that this isn’t knew, it’s just getting more attention now because it’s afflicting more white people. I don’t really know how that has changed over time, though “generational forgetting” comes to mind…

  8. Michael Says:

    At some point we had to learn that absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. With the modern communications we — hopefully — will eventually notice that abundance of evidence is not always evidence of abundance.

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  10. Richard Gaylord Says:

    this can be compared to the reporting on shooting incidents in high schools. while many students now express fear of a shooting incident at their school, the fact is (according to a google search) that there are 47,000 high schools in the U.S. so if there is one school shooting per day in the U.S. the odds of there being one at your school are:…. . today’s 24 hour a day cable news and social media coverage of ‘bad’ behavior (which practices the newspaper adage “if it bleeds, it leads”) has apparently resulted in increasing such behavior rather than reducing it. over-exposure is as harmful as ignorance in this case.

  11. Richard Gaylord Says:

    Addendum: i might add that is is revealing that the coverage of school shootings and the resulting fearfulness of students occurs when it happpens at non-black, rural schools while there is virtually no coverage given to its daily occurrence in the black urban community such as in my town, Chicago, where a day of less than a dozen such acts (not to mention the ongoing threat of gang related terror) is considered a peaceful day. the idea that America is not racist to its very core is belied by the media coverage (and the election of Obama followed by the elction of Trump serves as additional evidence of this stain on America’s soul).

  12. Oscar Cunningham Says:

    Perhaps everyone’s current fascination with populism/nationalism is also an example. Two close-together events (Trump and Brexit) served to focus people’s attention, but aside from those events there’s not actually any sort of trend. You can point to a few nationalist parties having success in various countries, but you could also have done that in the 00s, 90s, 80s etc.

    On the other hand I think that sometimes these things can create their own momentum. I’m sure there were fewer people who thought the earth was flat before “Laugh at the flat-eathers” became a meme.

  13. John Sidles Says:

    (continuing the historical themes of Comment #1)
    In view of ongoing political events, it is both logically natural and politically timely to enquire into future objectives of the Radical Enlightenment — with special reference to the research concerns of Shtetl Optimized.

    One question that we are led to ask is this: how do the mathematical, scientific, and technological issues and objectives that are associated to (what has been called) the quest for “Quantum Supremacy” overlap with the broader issues and objectives that are associated to (what might be called) the quest for “Enlightenment Supremacy”?

    Jonathan Israel, in his magisterial Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 (2008) enumerates the cardinal objectives of “Enlightenment Supremacy” as follows:

    Radical Enlightenment conceived as a package of basic concepts and values may be summarized in eight cardinal points:

    (1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true;

    (2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence;

    (3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual);

    (4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

    (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking;

    (6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults;

    (7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere.

    (8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.

    Of course, nowadays these enlightened objectives scarcely sound radical. So let’s consider how some of the scientific ideas that are associated to Quantum Supremacy might reinvigorate and extend these principles.

    Here is a personal, admittedly idiosyncratic, listing of principles for extending the Radical Enlightenment::

    The Radical Enlightenment of the 21st century, conceived as a package of basic concepts and values, is being scientifically extended in eight cardinal directions:

    (1) adoption of the Standard Model in general (and quantum electrodynamics in particular) as the only and exclusive true microscopic description of biological processes in general, and human neurocognitive processes in particular;

    (2) acceptance of the extended Church-Turing Thesis (ECT) — and in particular, the efficiently extensible Church-Turing Thesis (EECT) — as the only and exclusive basis for the quantitative description of all biological processes (including cognitive processes);

    (3) biophilic appreciation of the equality of all life forms (genetic, metabolic, and cognitive), grounded in a theoretical, observational, and descriptive appreciation of the earth’s planetary ecosystem that is microscopically synoptic, globally comprehensive, and universally accessible;

    (4) capabilitarian ‘universalism’ — including in particular universal access to medical knowledge and therapeutic healthcare — chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

    (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of cognition, grounded in the philosophical embrace of cognitive modalities that are compatibly ratiocinative, intuitive, and affective;

    (6) personal liberty of cognition and conduct between consenting adults;

    (7) freedom of cognitive expression in the public sphere;

    (8) democratic republican capabilitarianism as the most legitimate form of politics.

    The above cardinal points were constructed by considering the traditional objectives of the Radical Enlightenment in the light of modern (quantum) notions of dynamics, measurement, information, thermodynamics, evolution, and cognition, that are so enjoyably discussed here on Shtetl Optimized.

    Any such listing of Radical Enlightenment objectives is necessarily personal and idiosyncratic, in that today’s radically enlightened researchers can no more reasonably expect to enjoy near-term mutual agreement, in regard to the Enlightenment’s radical 21st century objectives, than could diverse early freethinkers like Koerbagh, Leibniz, and Spinoza! 🙂

    Famously, in the 20th century, John von Neumann found it expedient to ground his century’s radical research motivations and objectives in the illuminating context of Roman history.

    Today, with many of the same motivations as von Neumann, researchers can expediently ground the 21st century’s radical research motivations and objectives in the illuminating context of humanity’s ongoing Radical Enlightenment.

  14. Scott Says:

    Richard Gaylord #10: I think the considered (if cynical) argument would be—gun violence itself is a serious problem that affects a lot of people in the US (34,000 deaths per year, ~62% of them suicides, and 74,000 injuries). And we’re pretty damn sure, from the experience of other countries, that gun control laws could cause a huge reduction in this. Meanwhile, mass school shootings are a problem like terrorism, which directly affect only a tiny number of people, but garner massive media attention due to their shocking and tragic nature. Ergo, maybe mass school shootings can be used as a political wedge to finally make a positive difference on the bigger issue of gun violence, much like Rosa Parks with segregation. (Before Rosa Parks, civil rights leaders had apparently turned down several other southern blacks who’d defied Jim Crow, for not being “perfect victims” who would inspire mass sympathy. Were they wrong?)

  15. Scott Says:

    Oscar Cunningham #12: I think the big difference is that, while there are 7.5 billion people to be the victims of shark attacks, there are only 195 countries, with the bulk of the population and power concentrated in an even smaller subset. A trend that led to a takeover of the United States by autocratic nationalists would already be more than enough to change the future of the entire world—even if the same apparent trend hadn’t also led to increasing autocracy and/or nationalism in the UK, Russia, India, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines…

  16. Scott Says:

    Michael #8: “abundance of evidence is not always evidence of abundance.”

    That’s fantastic, just as memorable as “Summer of the Shark,” and I might have to steal it sometime!

  17. Richard Gaylord Says:

    “maybe school shootings can be used as a political wedge to finally make a positive difference on the bigger issue of gun violence.” yes it can (we hope). but at what psychological cost to the students? if students fear being in a school environment, will they want to go to college, go to graduate school, become teachers and professors? will students stay away from taking courses on campus and take online courses instead (and if so, will they receive an equivalent education)? will students view their peers as potential friends to be made or potential dangers to be avoided? when adults fail to be responsible, the young suffer the most.

  18. GASARCH Says:

    When John Roberts voted FOR Obamacare (I know thats not quite right but you know what I mean) there were stories like

    He’s not really a conservative! He’s betrayed us!

    Similarly recently with Gorsuch (sounds like Gasarch!- some people have asked if we are related- we are not) voted against a Trump Immigration thing, and again:

    He’s not really a conservative! He’s betrayed us!

    1) This is only one vote. It’s not a trend.
    2) Maybe they did what justices are supposed to do and actually look at the law instead of their own believes.

    I’ve heard that more women are running for congress and that this might be `the year of the women’ I’ve heard that phrase before.

  19. Edan Maor Says:

    While I agree that this is very similar to Slate Star Codex’s cardiologists post, I *really* love this “Summer of the Shark” phrasing. Both because of its memorability, and also because of the real-world example. So, kudos!

    Also semi-related post: Paul Graham’s “Submarine”:, which explains why “Suits make a comeback!” has been a news item every year for years.

    It seems that a large percentage of my recent debates with people end up being about this – is phenomenon X that the press or that I am worried about real and new? Or not? Worth doing something to combat? Or just the same as always?

    The one thing I feel is missing from the discussion is just how often these things are done “on purpose”. It’s one thing to only report shark attacks because ratings, etc. It’s another thing to only report on, say, SJW campus speaker protests, or to only report on school shootings, because you’re trying to change political minds (the latter seems to be claimed by some on the right, e.g. Ben Shapiro). I absolutely think “the press” has enormous power here to shape the message – but I really don’t know how much that message is consciously shaped, vs this being about money and ratings. And I think that’s a pretty important question to ask.

  20. Scott Says:

    Richard #17: Have there been many cases of students refusing to go to school, or college, because of the fear of shootings? I imagine that such cases would be depressed by the paucity of viable alternatives to school in the modern world, for most well-paying careers. By contrast, if girls in high school and college are given the impression that STEM fields are teeming with sexual harassers—-when what data we have seem to show the exact opposite (see Scott Alexander’s recent post), and when nerdy guys who fear even to talk to you are possibly a bigger issue in STEM than guys so fearless that they’ll sexually harass you 🙂 —-I think there’s a real risk that those girls will be influenced to choose careers in law or business or whatever else instead, and we’ll have even fewer female role models in STEM, where they’re badly needed. Regardless of whether one sees this as a problem for the world, it’s certainly a problem for us.

  21. space2001 Says:

    Michael #8: Catchy phrase but could be rephrased to be a bit stronger, I think.

    How do you feel about:

    “abundance of uncorrelated evidence is evidence of abundance”

    Now the reader can argue with themselves about the degree of uncorrelatedness for a given sample.

  22. Scott Says:

    We can also translate the slogans into complexity theory.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: coNP is not in NP.

    Abundance of evidence is not evidence of abundance: BPP is not in NP (at least, not in the black-box setting)

    Quantum of evidence is not evidence of quantum: BQP is not in NP 🙂

  23. David Speyer Says:

    I’ve been reading “Enlightenment Now” (thanks for the recommendation!) and one of the things Pinker mentions is that, something like once a month, the NYT had a headline stating that some indicator had recently gotten worse even though the year long trend was downward with noise. I thought at the time that it would be nice for someone to compile a graphical display of this.

  24. Michael Says:

    space2001 #20:

    First, it is not stronger or weaker, it is in another direction.

    Second, I think it is sometimes wrong. If we care about relative abundance, the world is large and the day is short. So even if there are somewhat uncorrelated pieces of evidence in the stream of data you observe, they might be a large ratio of what you see and hear, but speak about something that is still very rare.

    Someone can give you a lot of unconnected pieces of evidence for white males exactly 6 feet tall often being murderers. Or university professors. Evidence will become abundant in what you see, probably it will be quite independent, but is there any special abundance in the real world?

  25. space2001 Says:

    Michael #23: I agree with you regarding the subjectivity inherent in determining what sample size is statistically significant – how much data do you need to establish something beyond doubt.

    I was perhaps deriving from Einstein’s “If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” where he seems to be alluding to the fact that a thousand highly correlated samples is only as good as just one sample.

  26. Michael Says:

    I think Einstein’s quote is different because he claimed to describe a universal law — so there is no point in abundance of counterexamples, one reliable counterexample with a large enough deviation is enough.

    When we wonder about abundance, there is often no doubt that there are examples of what we look for and there are examples of the opposite situation. The effects of scale mean that mere accumulation of singular pieces of evidence will never be enough. Evidence of abundance must have a different structure.

  27. Dan Staley Says:

    Richard Gaylord #10: If I’m doing my math and research correctly (180 days in a school year according to Google), that gives a >1.5% chance that there will be a shooting at a high school during the 4 years any given student is there? Given the extreme negative value of such an event (even to those who are not physically injured), I find those odds unacceptable.

  28. jonas Says:

    Scott, I think you’ve linked to the wrong Scott Alexander post. The one that’s relevant to this phenomenon is “” .

  29. Scott Says:

    jonas #28: He has multiple relevant posts!

  30. Michael2 Says:

    @Dan Staley#27- but there’s far less than one school shooting a day.
    @Scott#20- There’s another drawback to publicizing school shootings, though. Teenagers with OCD often suffer from violent thoughts:
    The more school shootings are publicized, the more likely it is that these teenagers will be mistaken for potential school shooters if they come forward and the more afraid that these teenagers will be to come forward.

  31. [Thing] Says:

    This is the most LessWrong-Rationalism-ish post I can recall seeing on Shtetl-Optimized yet. Which is fine I guess. It reminds me of one of my long-standing pet peeves, which is when people characterize some problem they want to talk about as “increasing” or “increasingly common” without making the slightest effort to justify that asser. Even people I’d expect to know better seem to do that now and then (but I don’t claim to know whether that trend is increasing or decreasing 😉). It seems like people default to pessimism regarding certain kinds of things, like whether the kids these days respect their elders sufficiently. (O tempora o mores!)

    (cows apparently kill five times more people)

    Does that figure include people killed by eating too much cow? If so, I’d say even 20% of that number is reason enough to stay out of the ocean 🙂. Can’t really hold it against the cows, though. Team human has been running up the score on them for quite some time.

    Scott #20

    I think there’s a real risk that those girls will be influenced to choose careers in law or business or whatever else instead

    I can’t recall where I saw it being advanced, but the most mind-blowing (and exasperating if true) take I’ve seen on the whole shortage-of-women-in-tech controversy was the idea that educated women go into other fields because they can, i.e. they’re just as likely to be competent at things like computer programming as men, but men are less likely to have the emotional intelligence to be good lawyers, doctors etc., so more of us go into tech jobs suitable for introverted aspies. This is related to the phenomena of women leaving programming over the past several decades as those other professions stopped excluding them, and women’s college graduation rates surpassing men’s. But yeah, let’s just go with blaming it on those nasty brogrammers being incorrigibly misogynistic 🤦‍♂️.

  32. ledgeofsanity Says:

    Scott, your treatment of shark attacks on humans statistic is sloppy to say the least. What happened to your bayesian 7th sense? 🙂 Of course the prob. of death from shark per every person in the world is miniscule, however, this number is never used in practice to properly account for risk. The Wikipedia states that: “considering only people who go to beaches, a person’s chance of getting attacked by a shark is 1 in 11.5 million”, this is still small, however if one plans to surf he better reads the following paragraph, and gather the info about his surfing area.

    “However, in certain situations the risk of a shark attack are higher. For example, in the south west of West Australia the chances of a surfer having a fatal shark bite in winter / spring are 1 in 40,000 and for divers it is 1 in 16,000.[13][15] In comparison to the risk of a serious or fatal cycling accident, this represents 3 times the risk for a surfer and 7 times the risk for a diver.[13]”

  33. Scott Says:

    ledgeofsanity #32: I completely agree that, while the overall risk from shark attacks is negligible (from, let’s say, some godlike social planner’s perspective), a person who spends every day surfing off the coast of Australia should probably give sharks some thought, just like a person who lives in the Alaskan wilderness should probably worry a bit about grizzlies, and a person going on a sightseeing trip to Mosul should probably worry about terrorism. I sort of thought that went without saying: while there are many aspects of the Bayesian worldview that need to be laboriously explained to people, this doesn’t tend to be one of them.

  34. RKM Says:

    On a sidenote, have you seen the recent article by Martinis et al concerning “A blueprint for demonstrating quantum supremacy with superconducting qubits” in current issue of Science?

    Would be interested to know your take on it.

  35. Scott Says:

    RKM #34: Needless to say I’m following Google’s progress toward quantum supremacy with excitement and interest. On the other hand, I confess that I have trouble keeping track of which of their papers is which, and which ones I’ve already seen in some form and which ones I haven’t! In any case, two weeks from now I’ll actually be visiting Google’s QC group in Venice Beach, for a workshop and discussions about what to do with their upcoming 50-qubit devices. So hopefully I’ll get the latest scoop then straight from them, and won’t need to remember which of their papers said what when. 🙂

  36. jemand Says:

    your post reminded me in your post of Octobre 30th, 2005 (sic!), which ended with this joke:

    In 1936 in Berlin, a Jew is sitting in a cafe, reading Der Stürmer. His friend runs over to him: “Herschel, what are you doing? Don’t you realize that’s a Nazi paper?”

    “Yeah, but in the Jewish papers, the news is always so depressing. Here it’s phenomenal: we control the banks, we control the media…”

  37. Scott Says:

    jemand #36: I guess my tastes in humor haven’t evolved much over the years 😉

  38. Tuesday Says:

    The deliberate avoidance in your list of any instances which might challenge your own views (and those of the majority of your readers, in all probability) is suggestive, to say the least. It’s almost as if you want to wallow in your preconceived beliefs, rather than challenging yourself.

    May I add one or two things you forgot?

    – direct Russian interference in American politics
    – antisemitic incidents following Trump’s candidacy (and later election)
    – (more general) racist incidents following Trump’s candidacy (and later election)

  39. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Tuesday #38,

    That seems like a very strange claim to make given that Scott has expressed concern before about American gun culture, and and also has expressed concern about censorship on college campuses. So at least two of the issues he listed are explicitly issues he’s discussed.

    It is also is worth noting that in fact the examples you gave largely are examples where the actual data does show that the situations have gotten worse, and that’s actual data, not just attention. The number of anti-semitic incidents in the US did increase in 2017 for example . Similar remarks apply to the other two examples you gave- Russian interference in elections is a very new thing since large-scale ability to interfere with elections using social media wasn’t even possible a decade ago for pretty obvious reasons. Similarly, official US stats show an increase in hate crimes following Trump’s candidacy . This is actual data not just media paying more attention to specific incidents and blowing them out of proportion with extra focus.

  40. Jacob Steel Says:

    Tuesday @#38:

    From what I know of Scott’s views, I think you’re wrong to say that suggesting that the possibility that “SJWs silencing free speech on campus” doesn’t challenge them, and possibly also the same of “Unemployment in heartland America”.

    “More of the things you’ve listed support your own prejudices than don’t” would be a fair comment, but that’s much weaker than what you’re alleging.

    Conversely, there is good evidence that all the three things you list *have* increased in frequency in recent years, so none of them belongs on this list: a quick google throws up the following; you could easily find better if you could be bothered, but I’m afraid I can’t. (technically only provides evidence of existence, not of increase, but since there is essentially no evidence it was a thing until recently, the difference is moot).

  41. wolfgang Says:


    the SoS phenomenon raises two questions …

    i) Why those particular topics?
    I suspect there is a difference between political examples (voting by immigrants) and spontaneous cases (sharks) and they would spread differently.

    ii) Did the internet make this worse ?

    On the one hand it makes it easier to spread rumors etc. on the other hand it makes those cases visible quickly and therefore makes it possible to argue against them (as you just did).

  42. John Sidles Says:

    Happy Earth day (April 22nd) to Shtetl Optimized (SO) readers!

    Today’s Google-link is to a two-minute encomium by Jane Goodall on the values that Earth Day celebrates.

    An opposing perspective on EarthDay is presented by the conservative(?) news-aggregator RedState, in an essay by Susan Wright titled “Hashtag ‘#MeToo’: Remembering Girlfriend Murdered By Earth Day Founder“.

    Teality dictates acceptance of the fact that he [activist Ira Einhorn] was an integral leader on the first Earth Day. There is no denying that inconvenient truth.

    Wright’s essay goes on to characterize the 1960s pesticide-critic Rachel Carlson as a mass-murderer.

    Is there any path by which these two, vastly differing, Earth Day perspectives can be reconciled? Speaking personally, it seems to me that the burgeoning growth of citizen-science offers one such path.

    Here in Seattle, 2018 is shaping up to be a very good year for the local urban raptor population: Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Merlins, Perigrine Falcons, Kestrels, Coopers Hawks, Sharp-Shinned Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks, etc. Already in 2018 my wife and I have seen all of these species.

    Seattle wasn’t always so rich in raptors.

    by Bud Anderson

    Lynn Oliphant was the first person to document Merlins moving into a North American city back in 1971 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The next year they found 2 pairs and by 1982, there were 16. Lynn estimates that there are now around 30-40 pairs in that city. A similar Merlin expansion also took place about that time in Edmonton, Alberta.

    Here in Washington, nesting Merlins had always been very rare despite many experienced raptor people looking for them for decades. There is very little historic information about them for our state. That all started to change in the 1980’s thanks to people like Tom Gleason, Jim Fackler and others who started finding nesting pairs on the Olympic Peninsula and up the Skagit and Stillaguamish Rivers among other locations.

    The first known city pair that I am aware of was found in a neighborhood in Bellingham in 2000. The number increased to at least four pairs in Bellingham over the next few years. Then Merlins started a slow southward “colonization”, showing up over the next few years in Burlington, Mt. Vernon, Anacortes, Stanwood, Everett, Edmonds and finally Seattle. Fortunately, we have had Ben Vang-Johnson and Kim Mc Cormick documenting and studying this expansion in Seattle since 2013.

    This phenomenon of raptors moving into cities is, of course, not just limited to Merlins. We first saw it in Red-tailed Hawks after the I-5 freeway opening back in the mid-60’s, Bald Eagles showed up in Kirkland and Seward Park shortly afterwards, peregrines arrived in 1994, and who knows when the first Cooper’s Hawks started to breed in Seattle. Butch Olendorff had a pair on the hillside west of the Duwamish Slough in the late 1960’s. Ospreys are likely to have been nesting on Lake Washington even further back in time.

    This colonization involving raptors moving into urban habitats is happening all across our continent. It is also underway in Europe with goshawks and sparrowhawks also moving into cities. So Merlins are likely to keep increasing in numbers locally, and Seattle should be no exception.

    How wonderful is that?

    For Seattle biophilians, the ongoing resurgence of raptor populations definitely IS pretty darn wonderful … and the strict regulation of persistent toxins has been vital to that success.

    For the joy that attends returning raptors, the world’s citizen-scientists are grateful to you, Rachel Carlson! 🙂

    In contrast, it’s far from clear (to conservationists anyway) what sort of world Susan Wright/RedState is advocated … seemingly it is a world of few joys and fewer raptors.

    Now if we could only figure out why the Seattle’s pollinator population is crashing … with attendant disastrous fruiting-failure of our urban trees. Plausibly, further and stricter pesticide regulations are indicated?

    Certainly Seattle’s conservation-minded citizen-scientists do not dismiss this scientific possibility!
    PS: this month’s preprint “Strawberry Fields: A Software Platform for Photonic Quantum Computing” (arXiv:1804.03159) is commended to Shtetl Optimized readers, as a significant step toward infusing the quest for Quantum Supremacy with the vigor of citizen-science that Jane Goodall advocates.

    Also to mention, the Xanadu Corporation — the startup company that is releasing the Strawberry Fields quantum simulation software — is presently advertising job openings for quantum optitions, photonics engineers, electrical engineers, mathematicians, and machine learning scientists.

  43. Dirdle Says:

    This is definitely a useful phrase to point to a concept somewhere between a moral panic and the chinese robber fallacy, I like it. Thank-you kindly.

    That said:
    >Crime by illegal immigrants
    >Fraudulent voting by non-citizens
    >SJWs silencing free speech on campus
    >Unemployment in heartland America
    >Outrageous treatment of customers by airlines
    >Mass school shootings
    >Sexism in Silicon Valley
    >Racism at Starbucks

    When I was being very careful to “not be tribal,” I’d have made a comment much like Joshua Zelinsky, #3. But today, well, what I want to say is: there are ‘object-level’ answers for the degree to which each of these (or indeed *any* SotS) is a problem; the degree to which that problem is overstated; and the degree to which discussion of that problem may be necessary to effect any improvement. When people disagree over which are real and which are SotS/Chinese Robbers/Moral Panics, chances are they disagree on the answers to those real questions. The thing to do is to hear and discuss those answers, even if you think the “real” reason is that they were bombarded by saturation-media and are now a culture warrior.

  44. fred Says:

    Given that there’s about 150,000 deaths on average *per day* worldwide (to renew the entire population given the average life span), it’s hard to make any specific issue (deaths by terrorism, mass shooting, aids, car crashes, mud slides, drug overdoses, …) look that important from a quantitative point of view.

    Obviously Quality matters as much (if not more) than Quantity – it’s what defines our values… but the main issue is that the media never addresses this in any way.
    E.g. they make it even worse by reporting on a given bus crash that kills 10 people, but don’t mention that the daily car crash death rate is 80, giving people the impression that 10 deaths in a freak accident is just a blip.
    Then they report on a fatality by a self-driving car, but again never mention it in the context of the 32,000 deaths per year in US traffic accidents.

  45. Jim Kukula Says:

    Whether things are getting better or getting worse, I think it is a bit like one of those Escher staircases. I created a musical analogy:

  46. Elliott Kelley Says:

    Oh that’s easy. If you emotionally react to something before you think about it, that means that you’re wrong.
    It boils down to a simple phenomenon of how the brain works.

    The brain has within itself a model of reality which is used to make predictions of reality. This model of reality is a simplification, so that the brain doesn’t have to do NP-harder math for every little thing. The brain simplifies everything down into component parts and makes comparisons and groups with other components. The brain uses this to approximate NP-harder calculations in a greatly simplified manner.

    There’s a problem with this, though. You see, the brain uses this so much that if there’s a problem with the model, then that means that the brain has made more than just a small mistake. If there’s a problem, that means the brain’s model is flawed in a deep way. As a result, the brain has a defense mechanism in place in order to deal with small problems. The defense mechanism is to: get angry at anyone who thinks otherwise, blame other people, and desire revenge against them.

    SotS plays into that behavior by enticing the brain to change it’s model to accommodate the shark attacks. People like you buy into it because you think that the model in your brain is a good approximation of reality. And it is, a lot of the time. Except it’s not some of the time.

    Okay now for part 2:
    The internet has graced us with it’s ability to transmit information to us 24/7. Problem is, the brain can handle only so much information going through it all at once. So what happens when too much information finds it’s way into our brains? We simplify the information. Our brain does all of the work for us. The brain uses the model of reality in our heads as a reference, and deliberately rejects information that contradicts our model of reality, because that information requires time and effort to process, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

    As a result, everyone is now wrong about everything. There’s way too much information to process, and our brain’s reliance on our internal model of reality directly causes our interpretation of everything to be wrong. Sometimes it’s only slightly wrong, and other times completely wrong.

    Okay now for part 3:
    The reason Trump won is because the left and the right are both completely submerged in their model of reality. Trump supporters were annoyed at that. The reason Trump haters hate Trump supporters is because of the defense mechanism that comes up when one’s model of reality is challenged by reality. Trump haters’ model of reality is wrong. The reason Trump supporters get mad at Trump every time he does something they didn’t think he would do is because of the defense mechanism that comes up when [you get the idea]. Trump supporters’ model of reality is wrong.

    Okay now for part 4:
    Think of information as a fluid, with a viscosity. Think of the brain as a series of tubes. Because of the internet, the rate of information flow through our brains is increasing, and the rate of increase is accelerating.

    There’s a model of fluid dynamics that explains this. Prior to 1995 (windows 95 and Internet Explorer), the information flow through our brains was in laminar flow. Afterward, it entered the transitional stage. We are currently in the transition stage. I predict that in 2022, we will reach turbulent flow. At that point, this trick of the brain which is increasingly becoming a problem will enter center stage whether you’re ready for it to or not. I suggest you get ready.

    I’m honestly kind of tired of waiting at this point. It’s annoying seeing everyone react so much to their own imagination as if it were reality. It’s boring, too. The model of reality in your head isn’t nearly complex enough to be interesting.

  47. asdf Says:

    Meanwhile, there’s reports of someone demonstrating entanglement of two macroscopic-sized vibrating metal discs (paywall):

    Scott, any comment? I hear they have it solving NP-hard problems by testing all the possible solutions in parallel ;-).

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