Random links

Waneta Hoyt: The Serial Killer Paper
"I just learned about a truly remarkable case in which a doctor apparently wrote a paper about a serial killer who murdered her five children – without realizing what had happened."
Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks
"moral contagion was bounded by group membership; moral-emotional language increased diffusion more strongly within liberal and conservative networks, and less between them"
Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work
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Orwell on believing untrue things

The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. - George Orwell

A woman-issued warning and its implications

I'm currently about halfway through Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes - just at the end of its "Missed Warnings" section. The last chapter of of that section though seemed out of place. The stated focus of the book is on trying to find advance notice of problems in order to avoid catastrophic failures. The chapter in question focuses on a woman named Meredith Whitney. She's described as follows in various parts of the chapter:

  • "a junior associate at a relatively small investment firm"

  • "She doesn’t have an MBA and began with no formal training in financial analysis (when R.P. first met her she was a history major at Brown University). Not to mention that she is married to a six-foot-six-inch former pro wrestler whose stage persona was a financier, and whose appearance in the ring was heralded by the sound of a Wall Street trading bell."

Basically she seems to fit the following profile extremely well at first glance (though with the male and female roles swapped around from how the cartoonist intended them):

How did the market respond to her warning?

In Lewis’s view, Whitney was an oracle who came out of nowhere. “It’s never entirely clear on any given day what causes what inside the stock market,” he wrote, “but it was pretty clear that, on October 31, Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash. By the end of the trading day, a woman whom basically no one had ever heard of, and who could have been dismissed as a nobody, had shaved 8 percent off the shares of Citigroup and $390 billion off the value of the U.S. Stock market.”

In short it seems about as far as you could possibly be from a missed warning - particularly since the chapter also suggests that "the collapse may have been a foregone conclusion by the time she was heard." Other cases described in the book seemed to involve highly-qualified individuals making the same warning over and over (often for years) while being ignored. In this case you have a near-instantaneous, massive market reaction to a warning issued by a low-level employee at a minor firm who largely lacking the traditional qualifications expected in this area.

She seems like a classic argument for trying to take into account outside views, yet that's the sort of perspective often harshly suppressed. (The word "mansplaining" comes to mind).

What I'd have liked to have heard more about:

Neither were her calls entirely unprecedented; some analysts and even a Citigroup senior vice president had warned of trouble weeks and in some cases years before. But no one had predicted the worst-case scenario and issued such a fact-based, specific, and inflammatory warning with potentially dire and far-reaching ramifications.

Whitney seems to have been not the proverbial canary-in-the-coalmine but rather the spark that ignited the blaze. If you were looking for examples of hidden warnings that might have prevented a catastrophe it seems to me that the chapter should have dug deeper here.

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Truth Bias and Partisan Bias in Political Deception Detection
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