On Bernie, Dispositional Bias & Emergence
This past summer, when Bernie Sanders first started drawing huge crowds at rallies & my facebook feed was just beginning to be deluged with Bernjaculate, i was pretty skeptical of the old comrade’s chances — & the breathless zeal of his counterculture millennial boosters (my intrepid peers).
I just didn’t see much to dissuade me from this general thesis:
2016 Election Hillary Clinton's campaign is now telling reporters that she is at risk of losing Iowa to Bernie Sanders…fivethirtyeight.com
Regardless of the ultimate outcome — barring some cataclysmic collapse of Bernie’s candidacy — he has already performed far better than I and most reliably dispassionate, savvy analysts predicted. In the same vein, I (and they) typically wrote off Trump as a not-remotely-credible candidate. Now, also fresh off a 20 pt landslide in NH & dominant polls in SC, Trump is threatening to run away with the nomination.
so lately I’ve been grappling with the questions: how did this happen? why has the reality train seemingly jumped its track? why was this trajectory so imperceptible to (imo) even the keenest analysts?
I have two broad, connected hypotheses:
- What i’ve come to think of as dispositional or tempermental bias: where, for instance, a highly rational, dispassionate & empirically grounded disposition biases an individual in favor of expectations, outcomes & explanatory frameworks of the same character. Stated negatively, this bias occludes from the individual’s view more visceral, impassioned, ‘irrational’, emergent eventualities with no proximate precedent in the empirical data — obscuring the likelihood of outcomes with a character contrary to the individual’s disposition.
- As a devoted student of Nassim Taleb, i have a healthy epistemological humility regarding the human capacity for probabilistic thinking & predicting marginal events. A major class of such events (as those described in the latter part of #1) — including Taleb’s vaunted Black Swans — fall under what is known to the disciplines of Complexity Studies & Systems Theory as emergence.
emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.
Classical examples of emergence include the undirected, unrehearsed swarming patterns of birds or schools of fish, the spontaneous social order of ant colonies and — more spookily — perhaps human consciousness itself.
the wiki identifies the following common characteristics of emergence:
1) radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems)
2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time)
3) A global or macro “level” (i.e. there is some property of “wholeness”)
4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves)
5) it is “ostensive” (it can be perceived)
The scale & velocity — along with the ‘radical novelty’— of the Sanders/Trump phenomena in particular signal emergent activity (as exponential & other non-linear dynamics are common effects in complex systems). And the internet as catalyst & multiplier is also conspicuous.
This video, & Andrew Keen in general, are typical of the more kneejerky & unnuanced neo-luddite ‘internet = bad’ alarmism. But this bit at the end [~2:00] where Keen is belaboring the deliciously contrarian (read: Gladwellian bullshit) thesis that the social web is fundamentally anti-social, caught my attention:
… That’s of course the reason why it hasn’t generated real political movements. It creates explosions — the arab spring, occupy — but no legacy, no political parties, no movements, no real foundations of political change.
Now, suffice to say that I probably have greater respect for such ‘explosions’ — & less for ‘political parties’ — than Keen seems to, so even if i fully agreed with his characterizations, i wouldn’t necessarily agree with his assessments of them. That said, something rings broadly & resoundingly true in his words given our current situation.
Relatedly — and the closest i’ve seen anything come to making some analytic sense out of this shit — i’ve been sporadically trying to fully digest this study & its citations for weeks:
Social media have provided instrumental means of communication in many recent political protests. The efficiency of…journals.plos.org
Researchers analyzed twitter data from the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey & the ‘United for Global Change’ Occupy threequel protests of 5/12/12, and compared them with Twitter data around other social issues / events (Oscars, minimum wage debate).
some of their relevant findings:
We provide consistent evidence that peripheral participants are critical in increasing the reach of protest messages and generating online content at levels that are comparable to core participants. Although committed minorities may constitute the heart of protest movements, our results suggest that their success in maximizing the number of online citizens exposed to protest messages depends, at least in part, on activating the critical periphery. Peripheral users are less active on a per capita basis, but their power lies in their numbers: their aggregate contribution to the spread of protest messages is comparable in magnitude to that of core participants.
Independent of the social and material constraints that might restrict mobilization, our findings demonstrate that relatively low commitment participants–who are often derided as feel-good activists or “slacktivists” –are potentially very important as a collective. By expanding the audience of messages sent by the committed minority, the periphery can amplify the core voices and actions, and thus provide a way for larger numbers of online citizens to be exposed to news and information about the protest, even (or especially) in the absence of mass media coverage. The availability of information about protest events is important because it can increase support for opposition parties and lower the effective cost of participating, potentially leading to broader anti-regime action, as evidenced by the close correspondence between online protest activity and offline collective action
Prior research, for instance, demonstrates that cascading behavior in social networks depends greatly on the number of early adopters or first movers, but also (if more subtly) on how they are connected to one another and to the much larger community of potential participants. This is the dimension that we try to capture with our core-periphery analyses. The distributions of influential and susceptible people in social networks, including the ways in which they cluster, is also important to explain propagation behavior
So a sort of tentative model of the underlying mechanism(s) at work in such internet-enabled cataclysms has been sketched out. According to the model: behaviors of a core minority of highly active participants are amplified & propagated throughout a system in real time by a comparatively passive, less engaged but exceptionally more numerous ‘periphery’ — resulting in the sorts of seemingly spontaneous emergent phenomena i’ve been describing.
This sort of network analysis & social contagion theory is not new, and i’m not nearly sufficiently acquainted with the literature, but it represents the most promising approach(es) that i’m aware of to make some sense of the abrupt, increasingly frequent social convulsions characterizing our ever-accelerating information age.
I’ll just say that i get why longstanding, long-suffering lefties want to buy the Socialist Awaking Theory, and i myself would be thrilled to wake up at the end of election season to find a broad American consensus in favor of the (modestly Socialist) Scandinavian-style social democracy welfare state. I just don’t find the evidence all that compelling.
Nate Silver (characteristically) offers a more balanced & plausible analysis to my mind:
MERRIMACK, N.H. - Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic to come out of last week's Iowa caucuses was Bernie Sanders's…fivethirtyeight.com
He describes a less ideological, more cultural & visceral phenomenon, in which young American’s are both more amenable to formerly taboo or niche political designations (e.g. libertarian, socialist) yet “don’t necessarily back socialist economics” when asked, for instance, what role the government should play in wealth redistribution.
This would cohere with a theory of rapid, fairly chaotic social emergence, where certain behavioral contagions (‘feeling the Bern’) have achieved virality without necessarily translating into deeply held or explicit ideological inculcation. (which is not to say that the latter can’t or won’t also eventually happen, just that i’ve seen little evidence of it yet).
Economic insecurity, diminishing prospects & pervasive socio-political anxieties have long boosted the fortunes of anti-establishment populist movements. Likewise, the young & economically marginalized are typically first to wave the banners. There’s lots of reasons not to compare Bernie & Trump — they’re almost bizarro versions of each other — but their respective appeal to their supporters does seem to broadly share these things in common (as well as demographics, party affiliation / lack thereof, etc).
Add to this volatile backdrop the catalyzing agent of the internet in 2016, and i believe we have the beginnings of a more plausible theory of wtf is going on than one expecting an imminent American Red October.†
But of course, i’m disposed to believe such things, and what winds up actually happening might not share my disposition.
† note: depending on the strength of what is meant by the Socialist Awakening Theory, it might not be necessarily mutually exclusive with the above haphazard theory of emergent contagion. Indeed, the rapid societal change of heart on same-sex marriage & marijuana legalization may prove to be models for such a shift.