Web of lies and the public

In the previous two posts I’ve gone through the depressing exercise of exploring the misconstrued world-view that led the UK to leave the EU. The picture that emerges is not limited to the UK, but is a paradigm example of how misinformation and systematic lying is enough to derail the whole mechanism of democracy. On one side, a well established web of lies is enough to make electors consistently vote against their best interests, on the other, it forces politicians into an ever-narrowing path that leads to authoritarian forms of government.

Image by Tom Houslay ©

Image by Tom Houslay ©

We should be afraid and we should take action.

The problem is, of course: how? To explore this question, we need to give a closer look at how the web of lies affects the people who buy into it.

It goes without saying that in the case of Brexit, many people believed the lies; we’ve seen the effect this has on politicians who exploit such lies, but what about the people who happen to believe in them?  The mechanism of cognitive attraction will unfortunately take its toll: the longer the lies are believed, the harder it will become to recognise them as false. Furthermore, because of the importance of politics in society, and in particular, in shaping our public and private persona, it is likely that the views justifying our political choices rapidly acquire foundational value. They become deeply embedded in our web of beliefs, triggering all the defence mechanisms that are explored by the prolific research on human biases.

In detail, the mechanism that is likely to take hold is usually described with the catch-all “confirmation bias” label. In layman’s terms, it is widely accepted that we all tend to actively seek evidence that confirms our beliefs and concurrently overlook evidence that undermines them. For a good review of the concept, along with a hint that it may be a broad concept that actually applies to numerous distinct mechanism, see this paper (Nickerson 1998). In short, it is fairly uncontroversial to say that a set of beliefs, once accepted, will become harder and harder to dislodge as time passes. In memetic and fragility/antifragility terms, this becomes self-evident: if a set of beliefs is good at persisting, it is probably because new experiences tend to reinforce it. If this wasn’t the case, a given set of beliefs would be likely to disappear sooner rather than later. Thus, the age of a given set of beliefs strongly correlates with its tendency of being reinforced by the accumulation of experience. This tautology isn’t particularly informative, but does help recognising the crucial factor that some elements of the outside world must be able to reinforce any web of widely spread beliefs; whether such beliefs are true or false becomes secondary.

Realising this is important, because it indicates one way of opposing the overall trend, but before looking into this we need to explore what is likely to happen if any web of lies gets widely accepted as true. We’ve seen that it frequently has the effect of constraining the options available to politicians. On the other hand, a member of the public who got caught in the same web will become progressively less and less likely to change her mind, and will therefore be more and more likely to vote for whoever publicly upholds the mendacious world-view in question. The degeneration of autocratic states is an enduring testimony of this mechanism: as time passes, the web of lies grows and those who hold power become more and more constricted by it. Meanwhile, considerable proportions of the public will become more and more entrenched in their support for the collective fiction. Old examples abound, but more recent ones include Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey, and naturally North Korea. The result is that entire nations seem to progressively detach from reality, with predictable dire consequences which I will not explore. Saying that the prospect doesn’t look appealing should suffice.

The question thus becomes: how do we stop this mechanism before it leads us toward self-destructing autarchy? First thing to note is that in the UK we already have a large proportion of people who have bought in the web of lies. Two consecutive elections and Brexit testify it. Thus, there is political capital available to whoever is willing to publicly uphold the web. In other words, expecting politicians to stop lying is delusional: in the current circumstances, lying brings votes, so in case candidate 1 refuses to do so, candidate 2 will be able to reap the benefits. Once aweb of lies is established, the democratic system makes it self-sustaining. Does this mean that we should restrict democracy? I don’t think so, for pragmatic reasons: autocratic systems have an even worse record in this respect, so they don’t seem to be a decent solution. In other words, the self-sustaining element of any established web of lies entrenched in a democratic system is the kind of problem that is good to have: the alternatives are worse. That’s not to say that it’s good to have one of more web of lies established in public discourse, it is not: we should try to dissolve the web, precisely because we know that it is somewhat self-sustaining.

Unfortunately, the whole discussion above demonstrates that dissolving the web is not going to be easy. For starters, the supply of people willing to publicly uphold it is likely to be endless: as long as lying comes with positive political value, someone will. Therefore, the only general strategy available is to try reducing the political value attached to the web, which in turn means trying to reduce the number of people who believe in it. Simple, right? Of course not, so we’d better try to figure out how.

Let’s start with the basics. As long as the lies can get aired and remain unchallenged, it will always be possible to believe them: remember, all lies that confer political capital are believable by definition. First rule of thumb: when exposed to a lie, we should do what we can to denounce it. This series of posts is trying, more won’t hurt – social media is there for you to use, it’s cheap and always on. However, this strategy alone can’t be very effective: to start with, it is at best only able to reduce the appeal of the lies, perhaps instil some doubts in whoever is still sitting on the fence, but not much more. Unfortunately, this strategy also comes with a genuine danger: whoever is already caught in the web, is likely to react defensively, which won’t help in any way. That’s right: the real danger is to polarise opinions, reinforcing misbeliefs as a defensive reaction against what might be perceived as an aggression. I can’t stress this enough: how do you expect people to react if you tell them that their political choices are wrong because they have been conned? They will tell you to eff off, that’s what they’ll do, and will reinforce whatever story they use to justify their beliefs.

Not convinced? Think again, the accumulated evidence looks overwhelming to me. Facts and rational discourse, don’t change minds, they polarise opinion. Google it, seriously! A few pointers: flat-earthers regard themselves as ultra-rational, but hey, they are crazy. However, the effect of evidence in entrenching opinion has been observed many times, starting at least with Lord et al. (1979), all the way up to Corner et al. (2012). [Note that the latter paper is also useful to see how these mechanisms are not straightforward, Corner and colleagues find a meaningful distinction between opinion polarisation and biased assimilation of evidence: fascinating stuff!]

Moreover, both the manifest and scientific images are clearly indicating that political discourse is getting more and more entrenched. Worryingly, social media does not contrast this, in fact, there are strong indications that it enables the creation of partisan bubbles. For details, see Nikolov et al. (2015 a summary is here), or the evidence about political discourse in Conover et al. (2012 – Note: both papers come from the work of the same group, their home page is full of good resources and well worth a visit).

Overall, one thing is clear: simply denouncing as false the various lies that are used to justify public policy, is clearly not enough, moreover, even directly challenging false beliefs in person, won’t work, not if the only strategy is to use evidence and rational discourse. Depressing. What else can be done? Well, we need to learn the art of persuasion, which we’ll explore with the next post.


The rise of populism is no accident. Front National in France, the long Italian thread between Berlusconi, Lega Nord and the Five Stars movement, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Parties in Austria and the Netherlands, Trump himself, as well as the pro-Brexit rhetoric and the unashamed fascistic turn (see: 1, 2, 3) of Theresa May’s government are part of a pattern that is visible in most or all Western Democracies. It is a dangerous path: I see no reason to doubt that it leads towards autocratic regimes. Our current destination looks very much like Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey (see also the previous post). Recognising the pattern and doing nothing would make us complicit. Problem is: what can be done? My proposal is, first and foremost, whenever systematic lies are used to uphold public policy (this includes lies used to support policies we agree with), we should use all the channels we have to challenge at least the most evident BS. This won’t invert the trend, but should help slowing it down. To go further, the only option is, unfortunately, effortful and slow: as wonderfully expressed by Ben Walters, we need to “make art that wins hearts and arguments that win minds“, in short: make it personal and take action. In the next post, I will look at what is known about how to win minds  (spoiler: it ain’t easy).

Bibliography and disclaimer.

Please note: this post draws on a few peer-reviewed papers which explore a handful of psychological mechanisms and effects. Most of my readers will be already well aware that the world of Psychology research is in turmoil, following the replication crisis. For an in-depth, comprehensive summary of the whole charade, see this post by Andrew Gelman.
Obvious question: if the science I’m citing is, as a whole, not necessarily trustworthy, why did I bother? I did because habits are hard to dislodge, but also because the bibliography I’m including does at least provide one important contribution: the cited studies should not be considered as evidence that I’m definitely right, but they do provide some reason to believe that I’m not unquestionably wrong. That’s good enough for me: my general approach is that I should nurture self-doubt, I should never take my views as obviously correct (even/because it feels they are). In this case, since reviewing the evidence that may challenge my point would be a prohibitively long task, I’ve settled for the second-best option and merely presented some evidence that (weakly) supports my argument.

[Explicit thanks are due to Artem Kaznatcheev for always providing food for thought, valuable sources, and for keeping me constantly on my toes.]
Nickerson, R. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2 (2), 175-220 DOI: 10.1037//1089-2680.2.2.175

Lord, C., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 2098-2109 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.37.11.2098

Corner, A., Whitmarsh, L., & Xenias, D. (2012). Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: biased assimilation and attitude polarisation Climatic Change, 114 (3-4), 463-478 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0424-6

Nikolov, D., Oliveira, D., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2015). Measuring online social bubbles PeerJ Computer Science, 1 DOI: 10.7717/peerj-cs.38

Conover, M., Gonçalves, B., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2012). Partisan asymmetries in online political activity EPJ Data Science, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1140/epjds6

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Posted in Politics, Psychology

Web of lies, policies and politicians

In the previous post in this miniseries I’ve used the example of Brexit referendum to explore how allowing lies to be systematically upheld in public discourse is poisonous for democracy itself. The bleak conclusion was that people voted Brexit on the basis of false information. In Cipolla’s terms, most of the Leave votes were stupid: their real effect will  be the opposite of what the voters wanted to achieve.

On the national scale, voters have consistently voted against their best interests (if my analysis is right!), turning Democracy in a farcical caricature of itself. Assuming there is some truth in this, it calls for some serious analysis: how is it even possible? I hope you won’t spot me claiming that this question allows for one single simple explanation, but nevertheless, one claim I do wish to make is that the neo-liberal world-view (the commonly accepted web of lies[1] described in detail in the previous post) is partially responsible:

  1. It is entrenched in public discourse, so much so that it is isn’t even questioned. For example have a look at these two BBC articles (on Banking and Energy providers) and look for the assumptions they rest upon[2].
  2. As demonstrated in the previous post, neo-liberalism rests on a number of wrong assumptions (there are more technical ones: for example, mainstream economic models rely on the fictional idea that consumers act rationally – an idea that has been debunked beyond reasonable doubt by Daniel Kahneman – see Neblo 2003, Aktipis et al. 2004).

We’ll see in the next post what kind of effect this may have on the electorate. For now, I’ll concentrate on the effect it has on policies, politicians and their ability to effectively respond to the challenges posed by an unpredictable world. Before I can continue, I should make it clear that what follows rests on a big assumption of my own [3].

Assumption: any given world-view, being conceptual, must be somewhat wrong. Thus, one should compare world-views in terms of how fit for a given purpose they are, or, in more general terms, in terms of how well they work when they are adopted for multiple purposes.

I’m mentioning this because the key to understand what is happening lies in recognising that a world-view finds its justification in how it is used. The most important variable is how fit-for-purpose it is, not necessarily how well it describes the actual state of affairs. To clarify, a clear-cut example might help: if you are reading this, it is almost guaranteed that you think astrology is nonsense. As a world-view, it is almost impossible to expect it to closely match the facts: you could say that its truth-content is low enough to approach absolute zero, so why does it even exist? Well, I think it does because, despite its overt purpose of describing the real world, it actually responds to other, deeply seeded needs. For the general punter, it may be soothing, a source of mild amusement, a comfort during troubled time, a way to keep anxiety at bay, and so forth. For a professional astrologer it is the source of livelihood and is closely tied to her own personal identity. Thus, the function of astrology for the general public does not require to subscribe to an astrological outlook: you can regularly glance at the horoscopes page on the newspaper without believing anything you’ll read. At the same time, the primary functions generate a secondary one: for an astrology professional, the world-view  is a source of income – to some, a perfectly fit-for-purpose source of income. Thus it’s interesting to note that whether astrology is true or not, or how well it approximates truth, if one considers both the primary and secondary purposes, is mostly irrelevant. The conclusion so far is that not all world-views need to be tightly related to how the world actually is, in order to exist. They can be abysmally wrong and still persist.

The web of lies I’ve described in the previous post belongs to this same category: it paints a fictitious picture of the world, but it is nevertheless described as true. Unfortunately, the primary purpose of this view is to justify policy decisions – as such, it doesn’t need to be true, but it does need to believed by many (unlike astrology). Austerity was justified by the idea that balance sheets of a state work exactly as (or closely enough) those of private entities. Much of the leave vote was justified by the belief that limiting immigration will have a positive effect on the living standards of the bottom half of the population, and so forth. To be fit-for-this-purpose, such a stance needs to be convincing enough, which of course requires to be somewhat linked to reality, in the sense that it needs to appear realistic. More importantly, it needs to be an attractive world-view. People need to find it easy to adopt it, for one reason or the other (something we’ll explore in the next post). For now, what’s important to note is that this particular world-view, given the purpose of justifying policies, needs to have relatively high truth-likeness: very few would approve a public spending round justified by the alignments of the stars, after all.
In turn, the truth-likeness requirement generates an all-important constraint on policy makers. This is a general requirement: to utilise any world-view for policy-justification, its truth-likeness needs to be preserved. Which means that once a politician has publicly upheld a given world-view, and justified his/her policies on this basis, he or she will find it progressively more difficult to suddenly change his/her position. The web of lies can capture enough votes, but by doing so it constrains its proponent degrees of freedom in a roughly proportional way. Empty rhetoric is a double-edged sword.

Once more, the example of Brexit elucidates my point perfectly: Cameron called the referendum, probably because he was convinced that the leave side will easily win. We know he was wrong, but we should also assume that he is neither an idiot nor that he lacked the means to evaluate the relevant facts. Nevertheless, his decision now looks stupid, a gross miscalculation, a mistake. Why did he get it so wrong? I think there are two concurrent explanations, with the first one being almost certainly relevant, while the second is more speculative.

Reason 1: he didn’t factor the self-inflicted constraints that his publicly held world-view would impose. Having had a track record of being able to successfully convince the British public of whatever suited him best, he probably thought that he’ll be able to pull the same trick once more, without much trouble. What I don’t think he realised is that maintaining the truth-likeness of his web of lies had a relevant cost: one that would significantly hinder his ability to make a convincing argument in favour of remaining in the EU.

Let’s look at a few examples: since the 2008 crash, standards of living have decreased or flatlined for the vast majority of the British electorate. The Brexit camp could easily blame uncontrolled immigration, lack of sovereignty and EU red-tape, exploiting the real situation of the country to spin up the current web of lies, they could simply build on the already established one. However, Cameron, being tied to the official government narrative, could not: in defending the status quo, his options were limited, the only possible strategy was to explain how the current situation was not as bad as the alternative. Of course, he could not go out and simply tell the truth: “look guys, our policies are causing your distress, the EU is not responsible, or it is only marginally so“. To avoid a guaranteed political suicide, he simply had to uphold his own web of lies and find a way to spin it in his favour. The trick may have worked in the past, but this time the world didn’t comply: the lies of the leave campaign had more appeal and fitted better in the existing web. In other words, Cameron got caught in his own web. If you are not convinced, take a look a how Cameron answers a question posed by one of his electors: he doesn’t answer at all, does he? Why? Because he did blame immigration for falling living standards, he got elected (also) because of this stance, and therefore he found himself unable to keep his new narrative attractive. Given the choice of sacrificing truth-likeness or attractiveness, he could only sacrifice the latter, because sacrificing the first would inevitably kill also the second.

The mechanism is generalisable: once a politician starts justifying his policies on the basis of wrong assumptions (by mistake or deliberate deception, it doesn’t really matter), the democratic constraints (or the need of fostering enough popular consensus in general, something which is necessary to hold onto political power in all cases, not only in democracies) starts eroding his or her degrees of freedom – since the purpose is to retain enough credibility, the web of lies will inevitably constrain what our politician can say or do. Give a lying politician enough time in power (or the in the public’s attention), and he/she will find herself with less and less viable choices, ending up being effectively forced into an uncontrollable roll of the events. From actor on the political arena, s/he will become a mere puppet, forced to play a part with little or no freedom to choose what to do next.

Reason 2: what if Cameron believed his own lies? Preposterous, I know! For argument’s sake, let’s temporarily answer “yes”, and see how it plays out. Perhaps he did believe everything he said to justify his own policies. Perhaps he did think that brutal austerity was needed and beneficial, and that immigration is bad for poor people. Perhaps his answer to the question linked above was sincere, he felt that leaving the EU was merely too risky. If that’s the case, it would be self-evident that he was even more constricted by his own web of lies. He would have calculated that failing to uphold it would destroy his credibility and would also have felt that sticking to [what he believed is] the truth could also give him a strategic advantage (because not having to lie through your teeth ought to be easier!). Unfortunately, this hypothesis is unsubstantiated and impossible to verify empirically: how can we reliably find out if politicians believe in what they say?
Be as it may, if Cameron actually believed his own lies, it means that his world-view is positively disjointed from reality in the important aspects that shape his own policies; in such a case, Cameron would be officially incompetent, making the explanation of his miscalculation trivial.
I am mentioning this (unverifiable) hypothesis because the nature of the political game itself makes it surprisingly convincing: lying systematically is hard. The more you lie, the harder it becomes to avoid contradicting yourself. Moreover, each word you utter comes at an increasing cognitive cost: all the time you need to remember the details of your own fiction, just to make sure you won’t destroy your credibility without even realising it. It must be exceedingly hard. On the other hand, we know that lies used to promote consent need to be credible, after all many people need to believe in them in order to fulfil their purpose. Thus, in the political arena, those who actually believe in  a greater proportion of what they say in public will have at least a marginal advantage (decreased cognitive cost). Moreover, in order to lower the cost of incremental lies, it could also be beneficial to retrospectively convince yourself of your own lies. This mechanism is (anecdotally) visible in extreme cases such as Berlusconi: I have little doubt that he eventually managed to fool even himself…
Furthermore, being always immersed in an environment where everyone publicly upholds the same web of lies, adds peer pressure to the mix: if everyone you consider an ally seems to believe that X, perhaps X might even be true, after all [4]. If this (unverifiable) mechanism does actually happen, it means that politicians who wilfully chose to lie to the public are actively setting themselves on a path that leads to increasing incompetence (you’ll excuse me if I think this last remark makes this speculative part instantaneously more convincing).


Before looking at the ill effects that a web of lies has on the people buying into the fiction (in the following post), let’s wrap up the argument so far. In the first part, we’ve seen how Brexit provides an example of the institutional damage made by systematically lying to the public. If  a large proportion of the electorate actually believes in a given web of lies, democracy itself simply ceases to exist. It remains as a facade, but the substance is different. Democracy becomes a system to allow the powers that be to control the population, subverting its main purpose in one single move. Instead of electors, you have useful idiots. Moreover, the same mechanism affects politicians just as much, it constrains them into ever decreasing degrees of freedom – from puppeteers, they become puppets of their own narrative. This is utterly dangerous: if things turn out well, the politicians in question will eventually be forced out of office (cfr. Cameron himself, Clegg just before, as well Blair and Brown). If, on the contrary, stuff goes wrong, the only route that remains open is a descent towards authoritarian rule, as exemplified by far too many examples (Putin himself, Berlusconi to some extent, Erdoğan more recently, or Mussolini in the not-so-distant past).

“Yes”, you may say, “lying is bad. So what?” Well, systematically lying to the electorate is worse. Moreover, basing policy on systematic lies is downright dangerous. Therefore, we should all do our best to always challenge the web of lies spun by politicians, and perhaps more importantly, make all possible efforts to make sure we don’t buy any of it, regardless of our own political inclinations. After all, both left and right have identical incentives to manufacture their own version of the truth.

Notes and bibliography.

[1] I derive the “web of lies” expression directly from Quine and Ullian “Web of Beliefs” (1970 & 1978). The original concept applies to scientific knowledge, but is relevant in this context because of the emphasis on coherence. A web of beliefs can support knowledge and knowledge creation when the various parts are interconnected in mutually validating ways. In our case, a web of lies can justify policies only if to appears coherent both internally (between various components) and externally (with respect to the perceivable world). Failing to appear coherent would make it hard for people to buy into the fiction, reducing the web of lies to ineffectiveness.

[2] The official rhetoric forgets a simple fact: we want our money to sit safely in a convenient place, we need our bank accounts for practical reasons. We also want electricity and gas to reliably arrive in our homes. What nobody wants is having to constantly check whether we’re being ripped off, and frequently go through considerable discomfort in order to get the best possible deal. In such “markets” everyone is willing to pay a price in exchange of not having to think about energy providers or bank accounts. Thus, these are “markets” where by definition there is an upper-bound to competition, and a very low one as well. Going to the supermarket is different: we need to do it regularly: picking one chain or the other doesn’t necessarily increase the cost for us (in terms of effort). Once we are there, picking one or the other brand also doesn’t require a massive difference in effort. Thus, supermarkets can operate as functional markets, banks and utility companies simply can’t.

[3] Moreover, even if the practical examples I’m using come from the neo-liberal, conservative side, it is important to note that what I’m saying also applies to lies promulgated by the left, in exactly the same ways. I’ll stick to the right wing lies because my own biases allow me to see them more clearly and also because they are the more recent ones, fresh in my mind and presumably my readers’ memories.

[4] Plain old Cognitive Attraction would also play a role, reinforced by peer pressure in ways that resemble my interpretation of Boris Johnson’s ethical stance.

Aktipis, C.A., & Kurzban, R.O. (2004). Is Homo Economicus extinct? Vernon Smith, Daniel Kahneman and the evolutionary perspective Advances in Austrian Economics, 7, 135-153

Neblo, M. (2003). Choices, Values, and Frames, edited by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, New York: Cambridge University Press Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 22 (3), 491-493 DOI: 10.1002/pam.10145


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Posted in Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Politics, Stupidity

#Brexit: how systematic lying reduces democracy to a farce

I am shocked, horrified, incredulous, scared, very angry and, above all, sad. The UK has decided to turn its back to common sense, its best values, its own self-interest, and voted to leave the EU. A lot of ink has been spilled, trying to make sense of the result, analyses abound, making what follows a mere drop in the ocean. I still need to write it, because it is the necessary premise of what I hope can become a constructive interpretation. This post is intended to be the first of a series of three articles: to get started, we’ll look at the minimal list of lies that allowed the UK to shoot itself in both feet (or worse) – it’s a long list, with origins that can be traced back to the glossy eighties. The second post will look at how systematic lying affects politicians themselves, the third will do the same for electors. My hope is to identify a reasonable strategy to try counterbalancing the current trend.

The fact that the EU referendum result has been somewhat influenced by systematic lies, and that at least some of these lies were allowed to reach the status of pseudo-facts is well known, even passionate Brexiteers will admit that their side has proposed somewhat misleading arguments. Lots of people have already explored this outlook, see for example Peter Yeung  for the Independent, this analysis by Will Davies, Jonathan Freedland, and Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian. Examples from the blogosphere abound as well, I’ll cite only Eleanor St Clair‘s eloquent article , because she speaks for my anger as well.

The bottom line is: Britain was conned (pun intended), the Brexit side won because a large proportion of the population was systematically misinformed. This is bad, but it entails a much darker consequence: in the process, democracy has been subverted and reduced to a despicable farce. Doublespeak is not just normalised, it is either expected or required. I am sorry, but I am not going to oblige. If you voted leave, what follows will be hard to read: I can’t help it, please do read it and please do let me know the reasons why you may disagree.

[Note that links are hereby used as evidence: with one exception (on the marginal subject of Neo-Liberalism) they link to sources selected on the basis of their reputation and independence.]

My main thesis: one of the main purposes of democratic institutions is to make sure decision makers do not systematically favour the already privileged. There is much more to democracy, of course, but this important aim is the one that has been violated more blatantly. In this context, the EU referendum was conceived as a con (it was not called exclusively in the interests of the electorate), and ended up being much worse: we’ve got to a situation where upholding the democratic process requires either to act against the best interests of the population at large (invoke Article 50 – no matter the consequences) or to ignore the “democratically” expressed preference of the very same population. It’s a lose-lose situation, but I will be arguing that doggedly proceeding towards Brexit, in the name of the Will of the People is manifestly not our best option. Why? Because a vast proportion of the population was systematically misled, and brought to believe in a sky high, steaming pack of lies. A vote cast on the basis of systematically disseminated, hardly ever challenged lies, is not and cannot be a democratic expression. On this basis, it should not be acted upon without further reflection.

In other words, my aim is to demonstrate that many leavers did vote on the basis of false information.

A key narrative of Thatcherism was that self-interest, when channelled through competitive markets, can be transformed into a force for good. There is some truth in this claim, with the keyword being “can”, under certain circumstances. However, the first foundational lie which made the current situation possible is that, thanks in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it is now fairly uncontroversial to imply that competition and market regimes can be used to solve almost any problem (Lie#1). This is not the place to debunk this idea, so I’ll have to appeal to my readers’ charity and ask to provisionally accept that perhaps there are some problems that markets can’t solve (or even that markets actually create their own problems, just like everything else). For the current purpose, it’s important to note that such a Neo-Liberal idea  has become commonplace since the early nineties, so much so that it is now assumed as fact: it is so pervasive that it is almost invisible. In this context, the Labour governments of Blair/Brown did not have any chance (and perhaps no intention) of challenging said assumption. As a consequence, an excessive (culpable) degree of laissez-faire allowed the financial sector to spin out of control, while the government temporarily enjoyed increased tax-revenues. We all know the result: by gambling with other people’s money, the financial sector undermined its own viability and had to be rescued with vast amounts of public money. Within weeks, tax-revenues dropped dramatically and at the same time the government had to spend unprecedented amounts of money to ensure the very structure of our financial institutions could survive. The above should be uncontroversial, it’s merely a dry description of what happened.

However, this narrative is not the accepted version, it has been in fact replaced with a lie: the Labour governments of Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by spending too much (Lie#2). This is false, Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by failing to prevent excessive financial speculation. They did end up spending too much, but this was an effect of the financial crash. Lie #2 is a lie because it inverts the causal chain: what was a consequence is now described as the root cause. Why did this happen? Because spinning the false narrative allows those who can to make more money. Pretending that “spending too much” caused the crash directly justifies reducing the size of the state, e.g. reducing the volume of public services. Reducing public services creates the opportunity of delivering the same services for a profit, it’s not rocket science. Now, I’m not saying that a big state is always better, it is not. All I’m saying is that the policies that followed were based (at least partially) on a lie, and a lie that was allowed to spread and be accepted as fact.

This leads us to Lie#3: to rescue the economy, the only option is/was austerity. At the propaganda level, this lie was sustained by maintaining that “we were living above our means” and that austerity is/was needed because the state budget works like a the household one, which is blatantly false, but feels reasonable. Why is it false? Because the state prints money and legally enforces its use (at the very least by collecting taxes in the state currency), families don’t. This tiny detail immediately breaks the analogy: if the state merely needs more money, it can print more. It is entirely true that doing so without limits would be suicidal (via hyperinflation), but it is nevertheless not true that it all works like a family budget. For example, it is an uncontroversial fact that Keynesian stimuli can work; conversely, it also uncontroversial that austerity harms the economy, even the IMF has now been on record saying that it harms the economy more than  expected. Do I need to highlight the key implication? “More than expected” implies:”yes, we already new that austerity harms the economy, we just didn’t think it was so bad”!

We all know what happened next: the coalition government implemented the Conservatives’ agenda, austerity was delivered, Britain enjoyed a double dip recession, the Chancellor’s predictions were never met, which, largely justified by Lie#3, allowed to keep pushing more and more austerity down our throats. So, what does austerity mean? It means less public spending, which means less public services. In other words, those who rely on public services are, by definition, the ones who will bear the grunt. Ultimately, living standards for the bottom half of the population (the half with less money) inevitably degraded. At the same time, inequality increased, adding insult to injury. Still, we do know that the public actually did believe Lies #2 & #3 because, guess what? They voted for more austerity, and (re)elected a Tory government. Go figure.

Meanwhile, UKIP and the right-wing popular press were busy preparing the ground to establish another lie. Fostering fear and xenophobia, they prepared the grounds for the ultimate con. We all know Lie#4: public services are struggling because there is too much immigration. This lie is all too easy to debunk: what do you think happens when you spend less on public services? It happens that the public sector delivers fewer services, that’s what. It is well known that immigration positively contributes to the public purse. Claiming the opposite is just blatantly false and should not be tolerated.
Conversely, another partial lie has been established: immigrants steal our jobs, making working class people poorer. There is some limited truth in this claim, so it needs to be debunked with care: it is true that an influx of cheap labour makes finding low-income jobs somewhat harder; it’s also reasonable to think that it generates a downward trend to (already) low wages. We do know that these effects are marginal, but they do exist, meaning that the consequent problems should be addressed. How? In a nutshell, one needs to limit the decrease in wages and hike protections of workers’ rights. Guess what? Tory-led governments did the opposite: they have consistently tried to undermine the power and credibility of the unions, and then also managed to deliver an impressive additional lie via the “living wage” reform. Under Labour, to protect the lowest wages, two separate mechanisms existed: the minimum wage and the unofficial, but increasingly recognised concept of the living wage. The Tory government, in a spike of evil brilliance, managed to undermine this by effectively hijacking the “living wage” label: by setting up a new system to calculate the periodic increases to the legal minimum pay (what is, if words still matter, a “minimum wage”), they concurrently renamed it “living wage”. An example of doublespeak if there ever was one: unchallenged by the bulk of the media, they did little or nothing to help low wages workers while claiming to be their champions. One has to admire such crafty cynicism. Overall, the deliberate policies of the government made it possible to transform a weak claim into an all too powerful lie: (Lie#5) people struggle to find decent jobs because of immigration. In truth, people struggle because the economy has been strangled by excessive austerity while at the same time there has been hardly any protection of the lowest wages.
In short: lies #4 & #5 blame immigrants for the negative consequences of cynical policies enacted by two successive right-wing governments.
This leads me to the actual #EUref campaign: to finish off the list of lies about the economy, it is a well known fact that the leave side has been “creative” in depicting the economic cost of EU membership, claiming that we can save money by leaving (Lie#6), while all the evidence suggests the opposite (for some reason, it’s the only lie that is now uncontroversial).
Leaving the economy aside, the other big argument in favour of #Brexit is that the UK wanted to reclaim its Sovereignty. This argument has two horns: control of our borders, and control of our legislation in general. The need for controlling EU immigration is largely supported by the previous string of lies, but also relies on an additional falsity. The leave side repeatedly claimed that we’ll be able to retain free access to the EU single market without having to accept the freedom-of-movement flipside. Nobody knows if this will happen, so Lie#7 is simply the claim that “of course, it will happen”!
Still on Sovereignty, a major issue has been about the European Court of Human Rights. The leavers’ claim is that Britain doesn’t need a supra-national institution to protect human rights. This may or may not currently be the case, but it blatantly ignores the reason why the defence of human rights ought to be enforced by supra-national institutions. Question: what kind of entities perpetrate the worse offences against Human Rights? Answer: states and para-states, always. Thus, supra-national institutions are required to effectively defend Human Rights, it’s that simple. Lie#8 is that Britain doesn’t need an external Human Rights watchdog, while it manifestly does (it’s sad and shameful, I know). Still on Sovereignty, much of the rhetoric was aimed at establishing Lie#9: this is the claim that most of UK laws are undemocratically decided by “them” (some faceless, monolithic EU). First of all, this myth has been officially debunked. Second, to sell goods or services in a given market, the rules of the market need to be respected (whether you sit amongst the market regulators or not). Third, it is true that EU institutions are somewhat opaque and byzantine, but that is because they are designed to allow national governments to exert their own influence, not the opposite, as the leave side has systematically implied.
That’s it, I’m done with the list of lies used to misinform the electorate before the referendum. My claim is that the (non binding) referendum result needs to be ignored or somehow ratified, because it was based on false information. To do so, the necessary premise is that at least some of the lies listed (1-9) are actually lies and also that they were believed by a not-negligible proportion of the electorate. You should feel free to challenge me and claim that what I’ve labelled lies are in fact true facts, but please be careful: by doing so you will inevitably reinforce my claim that they are indeed believed. Secondarily, you should manage to demonstrate that at least the majority of them are not lies at all. The burden of proof is high: because most of them have been sold as “established facts”, it would not be enough to show that they may be true or somewhat true, you will need convincingly show that they are, for the most part, manifestly true. I have provided supporting evidence for all my claims in the form of links from independent and well-respected organisations, so I don’t think it’s even possible to demonstrate such a thing. To seal off my argument, I need to add only one thing: it’s necessary to show that people voted because they actually believed one or more of the deliberate lies I’ve listed. The evidence for this comes from a post-vote poll by Lord Ashcroft, where the “reasons to leave, reasons to remain” are investigated (I’ll leave aside the vast, largely anecdotal, evidence about “buyer’s remorse”, even if it’s now becoming hard to ignore). Once again, the evidence is uncontroversial: people voted to leave to regain Sovereignty (lies 7-9, accounting for the first and third “reasons to leave”) and to limit immigration (tied to all the lies, in different ways). It’s interesting to note that people did not choose to vote remain because “all the alleged reasons to leave are false”. If a considerable proportion of the population saw through the lies I listed here, you would expect that “there is no reason to leave” should have been a popular choice, but sadly it wasn’t among the choices offered in the poll.

First conclusion:

The outcome of the referendum has been unduly determined by deliberately false and misleading propaganda. As such it is not the result of an informed choice and should not be considered as the free democratic expression of the electorate.

Second conclusion:

At the very least, a second referendum should be called (a general election with a credible contender pledging not to leave, or to have a second referendum, would be my preference), this time it is imperative to allow enough time for discussion, so that deliberate lies may be challenged and exposed in the public forum. The option of simply not acting on the basis of a non-binding and hastily debated referendum should also be considered, although ironically, the “leave” side would certainly be able to denounce the practice as “undemocratic”.

Final remarks.

Unfortunately, all options on offer are bad: actually leaving would be (it is now clear) catastrophic for the economy and won’t have the desired effects, either because leaving is supposed to solve an non-existent problem (Sovereignty), or because the solution won’t work (Economics). Refusing to execute “the will of the people” will undoubtedly fuel poisonous and mendacious rhetoric on the leave side. Conversely, there is no guarantee that a second referendum will allow to better inform the public, although there is in fact some hope that it may be at least a little less misguided. Overall, this last option is not necessarily disastrous, so it seems to be the only one defensible on rational and democratic grounds.
Be as it may, the fact that all the conceivable options are bad, and have concrete undemocratic qualities (either acting against the best interests of the country as a whole, or ignoring a formally democratic mandate) demonstrates my larger point: if lies are allowed to poison the public discourse for long enough, democracy becomes an empty shadow, and a dangerous one. In the next post I’ll start exploring why.
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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Stupidity

Ecological representations: a reply to Golonka and Wilson

This is going to be a very unusual post, it’s an ad-hoc effort, responding directly to Sabrina Golonka and Andrew D Wilson‘s call for feedback: they have recently published a pre-print on bioRxiv, entitled “Ecological Representations“. In the accompanying blog post, they explicitly ask for comments, and since I’ve found their paper extremely promising, I’ve agreed to produce my detailed commentary here. This is also the proper follow-up to a brief discussion I’ve had with Sabrina, mentioned also in my reply to Epstein’s essay.

You are about to read a form of pseudo “open peer review”: it’s not exactly open peer review because I’m not really their peer. I’m not a psychologist and not even an active academic in related fields. Never mind: I have strong opinions and when I started blogging I’ve decided I will make them public.
For the reminder of this post, I will address Sabrina and Andrew directly (makes for easier writing), however, note that they are interested in collecting opinions (not my opinions in particular!), so please do feel free to chip-in with your own comments.
Before reading what follows, it’s probably better to read their paper in full (time well spent: you won’t regret it).


Sabrina and Andrew,
thank you for writing this paper, reading it confirmed my higher hopes: I think it’s a very needed move in the right direction, and could help cut through an impressive amount of conceptual knots. I really hope your paper will become a cornerstone of both psychology and philosophy of mind, so I am thrilled by the opportunity you’re giving me to try contributing. However, I do think you’ll find what follows difficult to take onboard, for multiple reasons, so I guess it’s better to make the main ones explicit.

First, our backgrounds are very different, my formal preparation is in molecular biology, biophysics and neuroscience (all growing steadily out of date). My interest in psychology is personal, pursued in my private time, not formal in any way (meaning it is patchy, as I only dig into what grabs my interest) and not focussed on Gibson’s work at all. Furthermore, in the last few years I’ve been actively concentrating more on philosophy of mind, not empirical psychology per se. Thus, my language and point of view is very different from yours, making effective communication harder; it is also quite possible that I’ll be barking at the wrong tree (as far as you are concerned), and that my views/comments will simply not apply to what you’re trying to achieve.

With this important disclaimer in mind, I can describe the structure of what follows.
In general, I found your paper to be well written, (mostly) clear, easy to follow and very promising. However, I also think that you have overlooked or misplaced an important conceptual step, which in turn justifies why I disagree with one important conclusion you reach. The possibility that I am misreading or misunderstanding you however is very concrete: it’s possible that I simply don’t grasp the concept of Ecological Information (EI) well enough, and that therefore my main criticism is misplaced. If that’s so, please feel free to expose my own mistake/ignorance, without sugar-coating. As you’ll see, I won’t be pulling my punches either: in the interest of clarity, I’ll be very direct (knowing/expecting that this is what you’d appreciate more than anything).

The big reason why I’m investing a few days of my spare time is simple (also insanely ambitious): I hope that addressing the step I believe you’ve missed will make the paper even more groundbreaking; as it is, your paper tries to bridge EI with almost “traditional” representations (as used in Cognitive Psychology), but in my opinion, it currently falls just short of the mark. If you’ll find my comments somewhat useful, you might be able to also bridge EI with Shannon’s Information (SI) and, for the same price, open the door to the field of prediction-based perception. If I’ll succeed (unlikely, but it’s worth trying) you may eventually see how to unify all four approaches (instead of “just” two), saving the best sides of each and concurrently solving related philosophical problems. A high-stakes, high-risk game, so I’m happy to take the risk as I personally have nothing to lose🙂.
As it’s unlikely that you’ll find my high-risk suggestions useable, I’ll add a few low-risk, low-gain suggestions at the bottom of this post, hoping to be useful at least a little.

What follows is rich in quotes (I hope you don’t mind), I’ll start them with the indication of the page where they appear, to aid navigation.

Take-home message so far: please be aware of the distance between our backgrounds, also do keep in mind that I’m deliberately taking a long shot, so the chances I’ll miss my self-selected distant mark are high. In the rest of this post I will try to:

  1. Expose what I think is a (very big) gap in the picture you are painting.
  2. Explain why I think the presence of this gap doesn’t allow you to justify some of your conclusions.
  3. Propose my own way of filling the gap.
  4. Briefly explain why I think the proposed addition is worth the risk.
  5. Finally, I’ll close up with minor suggestions and general praise.

Main Commentary

I will start by declaring my main problem with your aim and conclusions, you write:

[P3-4] We propose that Gibsonian ecological information perfectly fits the definition of a representation.

I think this is wrong: Gibsonian ecological information (EI)  does not fit the definition (on its own), but what you propose as “neural representations” do fit the definition of representation you’ve adopted. This ties-in nicely with what I think is the main gap you’ve failed to bridge.

The way I read you, you claim that EI is “out there”, it is collected by sensory organs, transformed into “neural representations” of EI and then used to both control and select actions. At worse, this picture is sketchy to the point of being wrong (my biophysics background comes to the fore).

In plain terms, what we do know is that sensory organs collect and transduce (transform into nervous signals) a vast amount of data. I’m not using the term “information” yet, for reasons that should become clear below. At any given time, touch receptors, smell-cells, photoreceptors, proprioceptors (and more) are all active doing this: they collect everything that hits them (if it’s able to influence their specific receptors) and send a corresponding signal towards the brain. Once transduced, what was before unspecific energy or molecules becomes something which can be directly interpreted as a signal (the action potentials travelling through the axons of sensory neurons). Nothing particularly new in this, but this very general and universally accepted picture is apparently hard to reconcile with the vision you are proposing.

In your view, EI is out there, it is collected by the senses and then used to control/select action. This isn’t plain wrong, but glosses over important details:

EI is indeed out there, but is bathed in a sea of unspecific stuff. All this unspecific energy and molecules will disorderly hit receptors and all of it has the potential of being transduced (within the boundaries of what sensory organs can collect). Thus, the first signals that are transmitted within an organism are unspecific, they potentially contain also EI, but they actually “contain” a lot more. At this point the task for the organism is to discard all the information that isn’t currently useful and retain only what counts as EI. Crucially, in your paper you mention something that is close to this need only when you briefly comment on “learning to perceive”, but otherwise you ignore the whole subject. This for me is a deal breaker: if I were formally peer-reviewing your paper I would recommend to reject unless you are willing to show how organisms manage (or may manage) to extract EI from unspecific stimuli. Unfortunately, doing so is potentially negating one of the things you find exciting: EI is indeed present outside, but already considering it a representation is at the very least misleading, as it is effectively hidden by the vast amount of potentially irrelevant data. At “collection time” EI is present, but useless: one needs a way to extract it, and a way which is flexible enough to accommodate the somewhat unpredictable ecological needs of the perceiving organism.

Thus, one of the main points of the paper:

[P9] we propose that ecological information simply is the representation that closes the poverty of stimulus gap, though it is external and ecological rather than internal and mental.

Is strongly undermined by what I’m proposing here (sorry!). Specifically: I’m not convinced that it is already useful to consider EI, when external, as a representation. To be considered as such, one needs to take as a given (gloss over?) the context and internal state of the perceiving organism: depending on contingent factors, including the task at hand, what counts as EI changes all the time, so I think we’d be better off by accepting that EI is such in virtue of internal factors as defined by the organism itself and, crucially, its own ecological needs.
To use the example you make of coordinated rhythmic movement: the dynamic pattern of “relative direction” used to coordinate action is external in the sense that it is potentially available to any third party observer. This is of extreme importance when it comes to empirically reverse engineering how organisms produce behaviour. However, in the world out there there is a hell of a lot more structures and dynamics, all of them co-existing in a seemingly chaotic mixture. A priori, all of them may have important ecological implications for a perceiving agent. Importantly, in your own example, what makes the “relative direction” criteria relevant to the subject is determined by something inside the subject (in this case, what the subject is trying to do).

Of the collected signals, what comes from visual (and I’d guess propioceptive) sensors can be used to determine in what direction each limb is moving. From there, you can also derive the relative direction, and use it to coordinate. Thus, functionally, the Shannon’s kind of information (SI) that is available outside is massively filtered at the level of sensory organs (only some physical properties can have effects on the activity of a given receptor), it is then processed, and via this processing, the ecological information is “extracted”. The process is computationally analogous to compression: you have a hell of a lot of bits outside, transduce only some (the potentially relevant, as defined by evolutionary processes) and “process” it further in order to progressively reduce them, ending up with the minimal amount of bits which are enough to react appropriately (coordinate, in this case). If we change the task, what information is thrown away and what is instead retained would change accordingly. Thus, if we are trying to explain how an organism does all this, the fact that the relevant information, AKA Ecological Gibsonian information is out there is indeed important, at least because it enables to design solid empirical investigations. However, the crucial functionalities that can allow an organism to function are:

  1. Ability to collect whatever is potentially relevant.
  2. Ability to extract what is actually relevant for a given task.

Because what is actually relevant is a function of the organism, the context, and of the contingent organism’s state, saying that the representation is already external hides the fact that what counts as EI is determined by the organism itself. For this reason, I fail to see why it’s useful to declare that external EI is representational (apart from saving a signature aspect of radical embodiment). Photons bouncing around can be seen as ecological information only if someone is detecting them.
Time for a little detour: one factor of extreme importance is that something like the “relative direction” of the organism’s limbs is something that can be detected, using the vast amount of (potentially) detectable stuff in the world. Crucially, this data is collectable by virtually any third-party observer: it is an objectively measurable property of the environment, and thus, directly amenable to empirical investigation. This enables doing science, justifying the successes of radical embodiment; one can hypothesise: “this particular pattern is what the organism uses to coordinate”. With such a hypothesis, you can make predictions and on this basis, verify if the hypothesis seems to hold. In this way, you get to specify what kind of signals may be collected in 1. and how they need to be transformed (filtered/compressed) to perform 2. Paired with good old boring biophysics (specifying what and organism can actually collect, in terms of SI), you’ve narrowed down the possibilities to a tremendous extent.

Yes, in a sense the EI is out there, it is external, but what makes it “ecological” or, if you prefer, what makes it possible to extract the signal, differentiate it from the irrelevant (not ecological, not relevant for the organism for the current task) is exclusively internal. Since we are interested in understanding how the organism detects the relevant information (from the messy bulk of stimuli collected by lots of sensory organs), the information needed is by definition out there, but it actually becomes proper Ecological Information because of how it is internally processed.

This leads to what you call “neural representations”. What your paper seems to suggest is that EI is directly collected and transformed into “neural representations”. What I’m suggesting is that the “directly” part is (if implied, as I think) misleading. Furthermore, how neural representation of EI are generated is exactly the interesting passage in the whole story. I appreciate you probably have consciously decided not to tackle this aspect, but I think it’s a mistake:

a. It makes your paper vulnerable to the kind of criticism I’m making.
b. It misses a tremendous opportunity, while weakening your claims.

Specifically, your paper already tries to unify traditional Cognitive Psychology and Radical Embodiment, while keeping the best sides of both views. To do so, you gloss over a major aspect of perception, opening up to criticism. Instead, you could bite the bullet, strengthen your argument, and get additional unifying powers:

I. As hinted above, the revised story I’m proposing is also mapping the relation between Shannon’s Information and Ecological Information. (See also my attempt to link structure and dynamics to SI.)
II. Showing how information is filtered/compressed in order to extract EI from raw sensory input allows to slot-in the other main hot-topic in neuroscience: the predictive approach. Doing so solves a problem and reconciles apparently antagonistic views…

I’ll allow myself to briefly discuss this second benefit. We already know that all sorts of raw unspecific signals are collected by sensory organs, we know they are processed along neural pathways at each identifiable step (at the very least, when signals pass from one cell to the other). The story I’ve been painting starting from your paper then allows to clearly define what is the main function of the transformations that happen during and after the first transduction. The aim is to isolate EI and to discard the rest.

The problem is that what counts as EI is both context-dependent and internally defined (depends on the state of the organism). Thus, the system that extracts EI needs to be potentially universal (we agree on this, apparently), or at least, as versatile as possible. It’s like designing a targeting system while not knowing what kind of projectiles and targets will be used. Such a system needs to be dynamically able to identify the correct kinematic projections from the original (outside world) dynamics. At any given time, the set of possible kinematic projections is effectively infinite. How can a system optimally isolate the correct ones when it can’t make many assumptions on what will make them “correct”? [If you wish, I’m merely restating the framing problem.]
One solution comes from the prediction-based approach: if you can manage to transform input at time A in such a way that it efficaciously predicts input at time A+1, you are guaranteed that you are keeping as much potential EI as possible, while at the same time you are discarding everything else – you are distilling the potential EI while filtering out all the noise. For brevity, I’ll leave this as a hint, but do note that I have a lot more to say, so in case I’ve tickled your curiosity, feel free to ask. [Note also that, like Andrew, I still have to read Clarke’s latest book, but I do usually agree with him. See also this brief article by Tim Genewein on why Bayesian approaches can be understood in terms of lossy compression.]

This concludes the highly challenging and propositional side of my comments. To close off the main commentary, I still need to address the one conclusion you make which I don’t think is appropriately justified. It will take just a little longer.

[P18] Our developing solution begins by identifying that information can not only control actions; it can also select them

Yes, no problem with this. Once the organism has isolated an applicable form of EI, it can select actions, not only control them. Interesting here: to select, one discards most of the collected SI, and remains with the amount of bits necessary to discriminate across the available options, so very few bits. In controlling action, frequent and highly tuned corrections are needed, so less SI is discarded. This leads to a vision of “higher order” cognition as the most impoverished form of cognition! It is also the only cognition which we consciously experience, so putting the two things together, you end up explaining a few interesting things:

i. Traditional cognitive psychology starts from the ideas of impoverished signals and of enriching representations because, well, that’s what we experience, so makes intuitive sense. It’s also somewhat wrong. The most impoverished signals are objectively poor because they are very rich in EI. One could say they are objectively poor and subjectively rich (!).
ii. A signal rich in EI, can be used to produce high-level predictions, making it possible that such signals are indeed sometimes used to fill-in the blanks, as assumed by cognitive psychology.
iii. The enrichment/filtering process is likely gradual: if used to control movements the signal can be routed towards outputs without being impoverished to the max.
iv. This also directly explains why [P19] “there is no convincing evidence that we can instantiate a neural representation of information sufficient to support action control unless the relevant information is present in the current environment“. We only store the most enriched EI, why would we store anything else? But because of that, the information is poor (objectively) and thus, not sufficient to drive highly refined behaviours. It only suffices to effectively select behaviours. In other words, I agree with your entire “motivation 3” discussion (from P16), and think it should be extended.

This brings us to my last problem, appearing at the bottom of p20:

But these neural representations, while internal, are not the mental representations of standard cognitive theories.

Unfortunately, you have not convinced me that the two kinds of representations aren’t one and the same. You describe impoverished representations which can produce perceptions (hear my inner speech, for example), and can be used both to produce inferences and select behaviour. Without other context, I would be recognising these representations as the classic cognitive psychology ones. The one thing you’ve added is showing why they need to be intensional (because by being so they solve the problems associated with representations and therefore make representations ecologically useful!), and thus you are showing why cognitive psychology is wrong when it understands representations in a way that can only make them extensional.
In other words, you are correcting a very big and frequent mistake made in cognitive psychology, you are showing what the representations we talk about actually are, but you are not negating their existence. Perhaps is my relentless drive towards unification that is speaking here. [Side note: the intensional/extensional distinction you make is spot on, and the main reason why I agree that your view actually goes a long way in naturalising intentionality. I would love to see your paper published for this reason alone.]

Other comments

While re-reading your paper, I took a lot of notes. I will include them here with minimal editing. If the ambitious commentary above will prove to be useless to you, perhaps you’ll find something useful in what follows.

Across the whole paper you sometimes refer to “information”, sometimes to “ecological information”. When I read (unqualified) “information”, I automatically understand “Shannon’s information” – problem is, I don’t think you ever refer to SI, so the effect is confusing and (for me, a non-Gibsonian) an extra effort is required. I guess most scientists would experience a similar effect, so why not introducing the EI acronym and using it throughout?

[P3] They have yet to develop any widely accepted explanations for the ‘high-order’ cognitive activities driving Motivation 3.

Not sure I follow the grammar, here. What is the “3” for? Why “driving motivation”?

Use of “intentionality” on P3: it’s not immediately clear whether you are talking about having “intentions/plans” or intentionality as “aboutness”. P4 clarifies that it’s the latter, but:

[P4] a cognitive system must be able to behave as an (almost) arbitrary function of the environment. In other words, a cognitive system has to be able to be ‘about’ anything it encounters in the world.

I do see the link between these two sentences, but only because I already agree with it, thus I fear this passage might be confusing to others.

[P5] We take Motivation 1 (getting intentionality out of a physical system) to be the primary job of representations. Motivations 2 and 3 are constraints on exactly how Motivation 1 might be implemented given the existence of the two gaps.”

Do you need the second sentence? After re-reading the rest of the paper I don’t think you need to qualify.

Note 5 on P6: I don’t understand it! This note confused me more than anything else.

[P14] Ecological Information Supports System-Detectable Error

This is the only section where you hint towards the big problem you are otherwise largely ignoring: how is the correct EI isolated? The fact that you do mention this makes me hope that my main criticism may not be too wrong.

[P16] Motivation 2 is that representations are required to bridge a poverty of stimulus gap.

I found the bit that follows a little confusing. For me the poverty of the stimulus refers to the fact that we don’t collect all possible signals from the environment, and that sometimes the signals are very indirect (i.e. a pawn print isn’t the tiger, but still a worrying sign, I guess). However, as I’ve explained above, a huge issue is the one of isolating EI from the raw incoming signals, it’s a matter of reducing a huge amount of bits to much, much fewer (i.e. to specify whether to do this instead of that you end up needing only one bit!), but of course, the problem is doing it effectively. Thus, once we have a grasp of how to collect intensional information (see above: I think you can bridge this gap with the predictive approach), reducing it to its bare minimum, AKA impoverishing the signal, is precisely what needs to be done. It goes without saying that the result is necessarily symbolic/representational.

The good stuff

Before concluding, a little praise, in the form of a selection of quotes I’ve absolutely loved (there are many more!).

[P4] These informational representations solve both the symbol grounding and system-detectable error problems [yes, they do], and they constrain the form (and empirical investigation) of neural representations caused by interacting with information.

If we do fill in the blanks (see above), this hits the nail on the head.

[P4] these two ecological representations then address all three motivations for representational accounts described above, including, as we develop below, the major challenge of supporting ‘higher-order’ cognition.

Yes! If you’ll manage to get this view in the mainstream, major problems could be finally surpassed, great stuff.

[P9, on coordinating rhythmic movement] The kinematic information variable ‘relative direction’ is standing-in for the dynamical world property ‘relative phase’ and it requires no additional enrichment from a mental representation in order to do so.

[P12] understanding the function and structure of neural representations requires understanding the structure and environmental cause of ecological information, which is not how cognitive neuroscience currently guides its work.

These two quotes, along with the ones below, summarise why I’m so excited, you are fixing stuff that has been broken for much too long…

[P14] Informational representations [ecological information, once distilled inside the organism], however, are immune to the grounding problem.

Agreed, with the modification I’m proposing.

[P14-15] because, from an ecological perspective, perceiving and acting are fundamentally intensional (Gibson, 1979, Turvey et al., 1981) and because the content of informational representations is accessible to the perceiving-acting organism, organisms can be aware of when these representations are wrong and this awareness can have a consequence on future behavior.


[P16] because information specifies properties and not individuals (Turvey et al, 1981) informational representations can explain our behavioral flexibility. When we encounter a novel object or event, it will likely project at least some familiar information variables (e.g., whether it is moveable, alive, etc), giving us a basis for functional action in a novel context.

In a way, I’m paradoxically disappointed by how quickly (but, in my view, effectively) you sweep through the solution to the problems of intentionality, of grounding representations and the role of the intensional/extensional distinction. I realise this isn’t new, but does bear repeating and re-proposing because it is exactly right. Failing to focus on intensional content is the source of so many errors and confusion in traditional cognitive approaches.


I am very aware that I’ve grabbed your ball, took it to a different court and started playing my own game with it. I’m doing so because I have some hope that you’ll like my modified game. If you don’t, please do feel free to tell me to give the ball back and eff-off. I’ll comply and won’t be holding a grudge, it’s a promise. If, otherwise, you do like some of my lucubrations, please feel free to use them as you wish (no strings attached). What you are doing is immensely useful to what I’m trying to put together here, so I do know I’m not wasting my energy (just thinking about these things is useful to me a-priori).
Finally, if, in virtue of some extraordinary stroke of luck, you think I can help you some more, please do let me know, I’ll be very happy to try.

In all cases, I’m looking forward to your feedback. Thanks for reading!


Golonka, S, & Wilson, AD (2016). Ecological Representations bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/058925

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Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Philosophy, Psychology

#EURef: a how to vote flowchart

A couple of weeks ago I posted a long post complaining about the low level of the discourse around the upcoming UK’s EU referendum. Since then, I had a few discussions on- and off-line. I’ve concluded that the original blog post is both too long and too short. It’s too long for its intended purpose: if you are undecided, it is relatively unlikely that you are ready to read a long essay written by an Italian living in the UK. Thus, I’ve decided to try a very different, not too serious strategy. Below you’ll find a flowchart, in Q&A style: a little guide on how to vote, according to me. Very patronising, so do note my apologies. The whole thing is based on the reasoning explained in the original post, if your curiosity is tickled, do check it out!
Some parts of the chart below are clickable, hovering over them will make the cursor change and will show a short text. Clicking on them will send you to the second half of this page, where my own explanations are written in short-form.



Not Voting:

I know this suggestion will make many people howl in exasperation. Still, I do think that, for any vote, if you don’t care enough to think about your decisions, you shouldn’t vote. By voting you are making the result more dependent on the marketing machinery than anything else (without engaging, the superficial impressions count more), thus, you are most likely going to be exploited by demagogues than not. Stay at home, avoid making systematically bad choices and just trust those who care enough. Furthermore, if you don’t care and vote, your vote will count as much as the ones cast by people who do care, which does look marginally unfair.


Yes, this is to help the undecided!

A personal note: I’m wasting my time writing this because chatting with friends and colleagues I’ve realised how puzzled most people are. Thus, since I have an idea about how to resolve the puzzlement, I may as well try to make it known (FWIW). This whole little effort is really intended to help the undecided. If you already have strong opinions, that’s OK, do hold onto them.


Economic self interest.

In the main post, I do argue why “self interest”, when intended as direct economic self-interest, is a self-defeating position. It’s as if what happened in the world at large didn’t have economic effects in the UK… Furthermore, simple economic interest can’t help deciding, because the outcome is unknown: everyone says that for sure voting with their side will work best for all. That’s nonsense: in all cases there will be winners and losers, while overall we can only bet on a period of turmoil if the “leave” camp leaves. After that, nobody, I repeat nobody knows what will happen!


OK, how about cooperation outside the EU?

There is a genuine objection to be made here. If the UK leaves, wouldn’t this allow to cooperate more with the whole world? Maybe, but the obstacles that the EU poses in this direction are small. For example, if we wanted, we could allow anyone to have a student visa, that’s not prohibited. Fact is: the current government doesn’t want. [See also below]


The EU will fail. How do you know?

It may well be that the EU was always destined to crumble before delivering its promises. Fine, but how do we know it? If you have strong arguments to make this conclusion, please let me know. I am genuinely interested. One word of caution: saying people are selfish/short sighted doesn’t count. They may be, but they may not. What counts is how the political discourse unfolds: it can bring out the best or the worse, there are plenty of historical examples of both. Since here we are talking about what kind of world-view we do want to work for, appealing to the fact that people are (by definition) somewhat responsive to populist arguments simply isn’t enough.


I’m almost joking.

It’s reasonable to say “Yes, international cooperation is important, as well as solidarity, but other things are more important”. The trouble is demonstrating that other things can’t be done while also favouring cooperation. Moreover, why would being in the EU preclude cooperating with other countries? Yes, certain trade agreements are bound to EU-wide negotiations, but others aren’t, and there are other tools to be used besides trade agreements. Thus, if you really think cooperating is OK only if it’s cheap, I do feel entitled to suggest to prepare for the upcoming fights: you won’t be making many friends anytime soon!


Not joking.

So, you really think it all comes down to dog eats dog, don’t you? This conclusion really is bad. If cooperation, international law and political solutions are not worth your consideration, then I’d suggest retiring to the proverbial desert island…

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Posted in Politics, Uncategorized

Robert Epstein’s empty essay

Sometimes reading a flawed argument triggers my rage, I really do get angry, a phenomenon that invariably surprises and amuses me. What follows is my attempt to use my anger in a constructive way, it may include elements of a jerk reaction*, but I’ll try to keep my emotions in check.
Dr. Epstein recently published a badly misguided essay on Aeon, entitled “The empty brain“, the subtitle makes it clear what the intended take home message is: “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer“.

DNA as both structure and Information. From Wikimedia

Unfortunately, the essay is systematically wrong: virtually every key passage is mistaken, and yet, overall, it tries to make an argument that is worth making. Thus, I grew annoyed by the mistakes and misrepresentations (my immediate comment was “this is so wrong it hurts”), and then descended into anger because Epstein is actually damaging the credibility of an approach that I find promising, but is all too often misunderstood or straw-manned.

In what follows, I will blatantly ignore the first rule of civilised debate: I will not try to give a charitable reading of the original essay. I won’t because it would effectively hide the reasons for writing my reply. Instead, I will report the key arguments proposed by Dr. Epstein, explain why I think they are wrong, and then finish off by outlining why I nevertheless sympathise with some of the science it endorses (as I understand it).

Epstein’s essay starts by defining the overall aim:

The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

My nonsense detectors already started to make noises: we can remember lots of stuff, so it’s undeniable that we do contain memories. Perhaps he meant that memories are surprisingly different from what we might think they are? The essay then states that:

For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.
To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies.

Unfortunately, what follows doesn’t show “how vacuous this idea is” it merely re-states the point. The real trouble starts when actual computers are described:

Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’).
I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Uh oh. Dr. Epstein made it very clear that he doesn’t understand computers. In fact, computers don’t contain zeroes and ones (or images, or symphonies, or texts…), they contain physical stuff, highly organised in precise and changeable structures which can be interpreted as zeros and ones, which in turn, can be interpreted as representations of virtually anything. This point is crucial and something which I’ve discussed at length before (in the context of “brain/mind” sciences, see here and here): importantly, computers are designed to make their behaviour predictable and understandable. Because of their designed features, the interpretation of their inner working becomes relatively easy, and thus it becomes possible (not utterly wrong) to say that they “really” do operate on symbolic representations. However, this is true because we explicitly design the interpretation maps (we write the software), in other words, the symbolic nature of what happens inside our computers is true in virtue of what happens within the brains of people (who design, program and use computers), there is nothing intrinsic in a computer that makes its internal patterns of electrical activity “stand for” this or that. That’s to say that one could also make the opposite case, and point out that physical computers are just a bunch of mechanisms in motion, and conclude that computers don’t process information at all. That would be formally defensible, but absurd, right? Indeed, it would be: the whole point of computers is to process information, thus, even if producing an explanation of how they work which completely ignores any concept of information is entirely possible, it would be useless if our aim is to understand why computers behave in certain ways. Information is in the eye of the beholder, and that is precisely why it’s a useful concept. Furthermore, it is entirely possible and appropriate to describe information in terms of underlying structures.

To make the concept even more clear, let’s look at another biological phenomenon: inheritance and DNA. You can (and should) describe DNA in structural terms: things like the double helix, the shape of nucleotides, the molecular mechanisms of DNA replication, of protein synthesis and so forth. However, once all of the above is done, it is handy to also describe stretches of DNA in terms of pure information, namely the sequence of nucleotides, represented by the letters A, T, C and G. Thus a stretch of DNA can be effectively described by something like this:

The image above is a representation of the gene which encodes for Insulin. Crucially, it is this kind of description which enabled the production of synthetic Insulin and thus the production of cheaper and safer medication. My point: both a purely structural and a purely information-centric descriptions of the Insulin gene are possible. The latter is more abstract, and because of that it is frequently more useful.

In the same way, describing the inner workings of computers in terms of information makes perfect sense, but doesn’t negate that a more accurate description would involve physical mechanisms.

Back to Epstein’s essay. So far, we’ve established that his crucial point (“Computers, quite literally, process information“) is at best misleading: they do, but we may say so because it is a useful way to conceptualise how computers operate. In another sense, computers don’t process information, they just shuffle electrical charges, Information Processing (IP) is merely a useful interpretation, arbitrarily added by us, the observers.

The essay continues by remarking that historically bodies and then brains have been described by means of metaphors, employing the most advanced technologies known at a given time. Currently, digital technologies are used, so we may be entitled to predict that as technology advances, we will stop using the silly metaphor of IP and jump on the next bandwagon (also: where is the dichotomy between metaphors and “actual knowledge” coming from?) . This may be, but again, it’s a misleading way of looking at what happened: once technology started to produce complex-enough mechanisms, it became possible to conceive the idea that organisms may be nothing more than complicated mechanisms. Subsequently, once Information Theory (Shannon’s – SI) was developed, it became possible to describe dynamic structures in terms of their informational content (storage, signalling and processing). As exemplified by my detour on molecular biology, it happens that this new, more abstract way of describing stuff is frequently very useful, and thus people are looking at the inner workings of brains and nervous systems also by employing the informational metaphor. When an action potential travels along an axon, it is natural, handy and useful to describe the shuffling of ions as a travelling signal. If you do, you are already using the IP metaphor: if it’s a signal, we are already describing it in SI’s terms.

The following step should really clarify where my anger comes from. Apparently Dr. Epstein finds it surprising that neuroscientists don’t know how to describe their subject without deploying IP. He believes they should avoid IP altogether, because, according to him, it’s clearly wrong:

The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Few little problems here! First of all, the IP metaphor is pervasive because it’s useful, as I’ve demonstrated above. Second, I’ve never heard, and have no need to deploy such a silly syllogism. The reasoning I’m defending is that it is reasonable to interpret complex control mechanisms in terms of information processing. Brains are complex control mechanism, and therefore it is reasonable to deploy the IP metaphor when describing and studying their inner workings.

Moving on, Dr. Epstein then attempts to demonstrate that the IP metaphor is damaging neuroscience. To do so, he makes a really important observation: when asked to draw a one-dollar note, people will perform poorly if they do so without having an actual note to copy. This is an important thing to note: people can draw something which resembles the original in important aspects, but most of the details will be missing. The correct conclusion is that our brains are not optimised to store faithful representations, and that whatever it is that they store, it is usually very sketchy. In other words, efficiency and efficacy are normally favoured, accuracy isn’t. Jumping from this observation to the conclusion that the information needed to produce a gross sketch of a one dollar bill isn’t somehow present in the brain is so blatantly wrong that I don’t even know how to refute it. Unfortunately, it seems that Dr. Epstein wants us to actually draw this absurd conclusion (the “any sense” clause is deal breaker):

[N]o image of the dollar bill has in any sense been ‘stored’ in Jinny’s brain. She has simply become better prepared to draw it accurately, just as, through practice, a pianist becomes more skilled in playing a concerto without somehow inhaling a copy of the sheet music.

In fairness, Dr. Epstein then tries to make a subtler point:

As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences.
no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions.

In other words, seeing a banknote, hearing a song – even more, singing a song – will change some structural element inside us, presumably in the brain. Fine, this is manifestly what every neuroscientist thinks is happening. Thus, because we can link structures and structural changes to information and information processing, we can, if desired, deploy the Information Processing metaphor. In other words, Dr. Epstein has so far proposed a number of questionable claims, peppered with one interesting observation (which manifestly refutes one of the intended take-home messages): whatever it is that our brains do store, it apparently is surprisingly inaccurate.

At this point it goes on to both promote and misrepresent a branch of Cognitive Science which I find very interesting, promising and rightly controversial, that is: Radical Embodiment.

The mainstream view is that we, like computers, make sense of the world by performing computations on mental representations of it, but Chemero and others describe another way of understanding intelligent behaviour – as a direct interaction between organisms and their world.

Why do I say “rightly controversial”? Because if one interprets it as above, the whole idea fails to make sense. Hypothesising “a direct interaction between organisms and their world” means that there would be nothing to learn in studying the mechanisms which mediate the interactions and happen to occur inside bodies (would count as indirect?). In other words, it declares the reductionist approach a dead-end a priori. Trouble is, nobody does this: we do study how sensory signals travel along nerves towards the central nervous system and also what happens within brains in similar ways. The only problem I have with Radical Embodiment is that it might superficially seem to espouse such a view, while I happen to think that it tries to do something which is much more important, and orders of magnitudes more useful.
Radical Embodiment is challenging our understanding of “representations” and showing how they are far less “information rich” than what our common intuitions would suggest. It is doing so by showing how much the interaction with the world is necessary for guiding and fine-tuning behaviour. It does challenge the idea that we hold detailed models of the world and interact with those (instead of interacting with the world), and does so for a lot of good reasons, but, as exemplified in this brief exchange, it does not challenge the IP metaphor, it is merely showing how to apply it better!

Dr. Epstein goes on by citing reputable sources and even mentions Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka’s blog (see also their excellent Twitter feed), which happens to be one of my favourite corners of the Internet.

This is one reason why I’m writing all this: if I’m right, Dr. Epstein is badly misrepresenting the Radical Embodiment idea, and in doing so he is unnecessarily making it look mistaken and indefensible. Far from it, it is something that is worth a lot of attention and careful study. To say it with the always thought-provoking words of Wilson and Golonka (2013), the main idea behind the movement is:

Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems.

To me, it is self-evident that this radical idea is basically correct, and at the same time, it is a reason why it is so difficult to figure out how brains work. One needs to account for much more than just neurons… At the same time, while I do accept the basic idea without reservations, I am also worried that, as exemplified by the short discussion I’ve linked above, radically rejecting all uses of the “representation” concept isn’t going to work: what needs to be done is different, but perhaps something that is best left for another time.

Overall, Cognitive Neuroscience is tricky, it is prohibitively hard, and, as I argue in the introduction here, it is of paramount importance to carefully select the correct metaphors in order to convincingly describe the vast number of different phenomena occurring at different scales (from the psychological, to the neural, down at least to the molecular). In this context, expecting that at one or more of these levels the IP metaphor will prove to be useful (as it is in the case of computers) is entirely justified. Challenging the consensus is something that scientists probably aren’t doing enough, but alas, Dr. Epstein’s attempt is unfortunately failing to do so.

Notes and Bibligraphy:

ResearchBlogging.org*It’s even more interesting to note that when I write an angry reaction the resulting posts frequently happen to be among the most popular on this blog, see for example here (with follow-up) and here. It’s also worth noting that the essay I’m criticising has collected a very high number of negative comments, see the one from Jackson Kernion in particular.

Wilson, A., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied Cognition is Not What you Think it is Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058

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Posted in Psychology, Stupidity
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