After a three-week break, welcome back to Story Rules on Saturday - your weekly content recommendations from the world of storytelling.
After a long time I review a book! A book that alerts us to all the different ways in which information can be misrepresented (wilfully or otherwise) - and the tools you can use to identify and call it out.
But first up, the #SOTD Digest.
Here's a quick summary of the five #SOTD emails from the past week:
- #SOTD 51: A key Netflix competitor spends 0$ on content: A Prof. Scott Galloway post is never short of storytelling techniques. In this fascinating article titled "WMDs" (Weapons of Mass Distraction) Prof. G unveils the big whale that is eating up a lot of our scarce attention: TikTok. He uses a neat storytelling tool when he compares TikTok with Netflix.
- #SOTD 52: A Mother’s Day ad goes viral: In this viral ad for Mother's Day, jewellery major Tanishq does a smart job in using the power of mystery and revealing a satisfying insight at the end.
- #SOTD 53: Clear messages in Airbnb's shareholder letter: Airbnb's latest shareholder letter offers some simple yet powerful lessons in how to present the key insights from financial and business highlights.
- #SOTD 54: A host story from the Airbnb Shareholder letter: From the same letter, I profile an individual host's story that does a great job of humanising the numbers
- #SOTD 55: A surprising statement by the Twitter CEO: In response to why he voted for Elon Musk's acquisition offer, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said he did it in the interest of Twitter's shareholders. In a thoughtful piece, Matt Levine uses the storytelling tool of norm-variance to argue why this response was surprising.
Those were the #SOTDs of last week. In case you would like to get these daily emails in your inbox (9.30 AM, India time), here's where you hop onboard:
|Yes - Sign me up for the #SOTD emails|
Bullshit is all around us. Sample this beauty:
Our collective mission is to functionalize bilateral solutions for leveraging underutilized human resource portfolio opportunities.
Or in other words, as the authors put it: "We are a temp agency"
In this wide-ranging book, authors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom (both professors at the University of Washington at Seattle) unpack the many, many (seriously many) ways in which people bullshit each other.
The problem is a serious one, especially in the current 'post-truth' world where fake news is given a free rein. The authors have an ambitious goal for the book:
Rather (at the risk of grandiosity), we believe that adequate bullshit detection is essential for the survival of liberal democracy. Democracy has always relied on a critically thinking electorate, but never has this been more important than in the current age of fake news and international interference in the electoral process via propaganda disseminated over social media.
What makes this aim rather difficult are two challenges
(a) Lies travel faster than the truth
...secretary of state, Cordell Hull: “A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.”
(b) It is harder to refute something than to make an assertion
Perhaps the most important principle in bullshit studies is Brandolini’s principle. Coined by Italian software engineer Alberto Brandolini in 2014, it states: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it.”
Having made their case for why it is important to spot (and call) bullshit, the authors spend most of the book sharing examples of different categories of bullshit and how to identify it.
Here are some of the most important lessons I learnt from the book. (All extracts from the book)
1. Be wary of clickbait headlines
It's easy to get carried away by enticing headlines. Here's an interesting trick that many content writers use:
Entrepreneur Steve Rayson looked at 100 million articles published in 2017 to determine what phrases were common in the headlines of articles that were widely shared. Their results will make you gasp in surprise—unless you’ve spent a few minutes on the Internet at some point in the past few years. The study found that the most successful headlines don’t convey facts, they promise you an emotional experience.
How exactly do they do that? It's all in the words:
The most common phrase among successful Facebook headlines, by nearly twofold, is “will make you,” as in “will break your heart,” “will make you fall in love,” “will make you look twice,” or “will make you gasp in surprise” as above. Other top phrases include “make you cry,” “give you goosebumps,” and “melt your heart.” Intellectual experiences cannot compete. Pause for a moment and think about what a huge shift this represents.
2. Be extremely wary of correlation or association
It is human nature to infer that when two things are associated, one causes the other. After all, we have evolved to find patterns in the world. Doing so helps us avoid danger, obtain food, deal with social interactions, and so much more. But often we are too quick to leap to conclusions about what causes what.
Just because A is associated with B, it does not mean A causes B.
If migrating geese arrive in early September every year and coho salmon begin to run later in the month, we might assume that the geese have something to do with calling the fish up the rivers. Of course, the fish don’t give a damn about the geese.
Just because A happens before B does not mean that A causes B—even when A and B are associated. This mistake is so common and has been around for so long that it has a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc. Translated, this means something like “after this, therefore because of it.”
3. When studying numbers look for context and norms
Once, one of the authors reached a hotel late at night and wanted to have a hot drink before retiring to bed. Since he was jet-lagged, he did not want to drink something too stimulating. That's when he came across a packet of hot cocoa from Nestle, which advertised itself as "99.99% caffeine free"
That sounds impressively low. But that number lacks context. It lacks norms.
... pause and think about it for a minute. Even though there’s a lot of water in a cup of cocoa, caffeine is a remarkably powerful drug. So is a 99.9 percent caffeine-free drink really something you want to drink right before bed?
Let’s figure it out. How much caffeine is in a cup of coffee? According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are 415 milligrams of caffeine in a 20-ounce Starbucks coffee. That corresponds to about 21 mg of caffeine per ounce. A fluid ounce of water weighs about 28 grams. Thus, a Starbucks drip coffee is about 0.075 percent caffeine by weight. In other words, strong coffee is also 99.9 percent caffeine free!
So while there’s nothing inaccurate or dangerous about the 99.9 percent assertion, it’s a pointless claim. Most regular coffees could be labeled in the exact same way. Nestlé has provided us with an excellent example of how something can be true and still bullshit of a sort.
Another great example on the use of the right norm is the following chart about fatal car accidents by age of the driver:
Here's what the authors write about this misleading chart:
Looking at this graph, two surprising things leap out. First, it appears that 16- to 19-year-olds may actually be better drivers than 20- to 24-year-olds. Second, it seems that people become better drivers as they age; we don’t see the expected decline in driving ability among the elderly. But this graph is misleading because it reports the total number of fatal crashes, not the relative risk of a fatal crash. And critically, there are huge differences in the number of miles driven by people of different ages. The youngest and oldest drivers drive the fewest miles. When we look at the graph of fatal accidents per mile driven, we see a very different pattern. The youngest and oldest drivers are by the far the most dangerous.
Here's the chart with the right norm - compared to the number of miles driven:
4. Don't (even) trust academic papers blindly
You might be thinking - surely if a paper has been published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, it must be credible, right? Right?
The authors share that the results of many high-profile published papers are not replicable:
Authors C. Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis reported that scientists working in a commercial lab were able to reproduce only 6 of 53 important cancer biology studies published in the recent scientific literature.
...the Open Science Collaboration—a large-scale collective effort among dozens of researchers—reported that they were able to replicate only 39 out of 100 high-profile experiments in social psychology. In experimental economics, meanwhile, a similar effort was under way. One study revealed that only 11 of 18 experimental papers published in the very best economics journals could be replicated.
Alright then. Does this mean that everything is false? What do we even believe?
Despite pointing out misrepresentation, lies and meaningless drivel across multiple sources, the authors assuage us that the response should not be to become sceptical about everything we read and hear, especially in science:
Empirically, science is successful. Individual papers may be wrong and individual studies misreported in the popular press, but the institution as a whole is strong.
The book covers many more topics, in addition to the ones I've shared above. These include: Avoiding selection bias, noticing data-visualisation errors and tricks, being wary of "big data" and machine learning algorithms.
In the final two chapters it ends with a series of recommendations on how to spot bullshit and how to call it out.
In sum, this book is perhaps the most comprehensive primer on the skill of identifying bullshit.
Reading the book, I was reminded of the fascinating article series by Tim Urban - The Story of Us. In that he mentions about two thinking states - the Primitive Mind and the Higher Mind. To me, books like 'Calling Bullshit' (and others like Steven Pinker's Rationality) are attempts to move humans up the thinking ladder - from the Primitive Mind to the Higher Mind.
A minor quibble: The book is not a quick read - it took me an unusually long time to complete. Also one chapter (the one on academic papers) gets a bit technical with statistics and probability theory. (Nothing that a layperson cannot understand though).
Overall, this book is a more academic, comprehensive and rigorous version of Tim Harford's "How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers'. (I'd reviewed that book here).
Despite being written by academics, the book is not a drag and is written in an engaging manner. Highly recommended!
Dan Pink is one of the most influential non-fiction writers globally. His books - specifically 'To Sell is Human' and 'When' - have had a massive impact on my life and growth.
This podcast episode discusses his latest book: 'The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward'. If you, like me, have not had the time to read the book, this podcast offers a good synopsis of the same.
Most of us try and avoid regret. (Exhibit A: Jeff Bezos's 'regret minimisation framework'). But in this book, Pink argues that regret has a useful role to play in our lives. We must learn from our regrets, as well as the most common regrets expressed by others.
For the book, Pink went to extraordinary lengths to research about regret. He conducted his own 'World Regret Survey' through which he collected regrets from more than 16,000 people across 105 countries!
Distilling the responses, he boils it all down to four core regrets that most people have:
- Foundation regrets: These are about stability - not having worked harder, saved more or taken better care of one's health
- Boldness regrets: Not having the courage to have asked someone out, quit a difficult job, started out on your own etc.
- Moral regrets: The regret for having cheated someone or done something else immoral
- Connection regrets: Not having kept in touch with loved ones
It's a thought-provoking conversation.
Recently Tim Urban elicited some amazing facts on Twitter. Here are two that blew my mind!
3D topography maps are my weakness. Can stare at them for a long time!
‘Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you [thereafter], save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.’
- John Alexander Smith addressed the entering class at Oxford (referenced from 'Calling Bullshit')
a. How to ruin a joke by Key and Peele (3:15)
More Key and Peele goodness. Peele plays a character who's trying to tell a joke while Key... well let's just say he doesn't understand the concept of a joke or a punchline...
Another brilliant example of Key's manic energy and acting skills. Impossible not to laugh watching them in action.
How does he do it? Cranks out video after video of insane hilarity for such a wide range of products (from his own movies to Aviation Gin to this mobile services company)?! Ryan Reynolds is a mad genius level of talent.
That's it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the week.