Is cultural evolution “neoliberal”?

I have been involved, over the weekend, in a small twitter debate on the old question of whether anthropology should use qualitative or quantitative methodologies. The debate was not particularly interesting by itself (I had many, probably too many, similar conversations starting when I was an undergraduate student) and the readers of this blog know, or suspect, my position, so I am not dwelling on it. There is, however, a marginal aspect that made me think a bit: I have the feeling that, when it is all said and done, the negative attitudes toward quantifications are linked to the idea that quantifying human culture is politically “neoliberal”, if not altogether “right-wing”.

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Did Einstein really say that?

The phenomenon of online diffusion of misattributed quotes is so widespread that got its own dedicated meme. You may have seen a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, that warns: ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it’. Lincoln, apparently nicknamed ‘Honest Abe’ when young, was assassinated in 1865, which makes it unlikely he had opinions about the Internet, and he is one of the historical celebrities most quoted (often incorrectly) on the web. Lincoln shares this questionable honour with the likes of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ is one of the most famous quotes of Albert Einstein. Except that is not: the earliest known exact match of the quote appears in a Narcotics Anonymous information pamphlet in 1981, some 25 years after Einstein’s death.

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Houellebecq and the Internet

If you read this blog, or if you follow my activity on Twitter, you may know that I have a fairly relaxed attitude towards the “dangers” of the digital world. The great majority of supposed perils correspond more or less to what happens in our offline lives, and – in our offline lives too – we tend to be vulnerable to external influences only up to a certain point (here an excellent paper argumenting that we are not as gullible as we think – in fact, as we think others are). I wrote about the digital spread of fake news mirroring the traditional spread of rumours (according to BuzzFeed, the fake news that generated more engagement on Facebook in 2017 is titled “Babysitter transported to hospital after inserting a baby in her vagina”), about the inconsistencies of the “post-truth” narrative, or about the exaggeration of the digital echo-chambers danger (I would probably write differently today these two, rather old, posts).

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Lies and truth in social media

Few thoughts on an important paper that just appeared in Science, The spread of true and false news online. The paper received (and will receive) justified attention: it is massive (“~126,000 rumor cascades spread by ~3 million people more than 4.5 million times” in a long temporal window – from 2006 to 2017), it includes several detailed analyses (the authors did not only check basic metrics such as speed and size of diffusion, but they measured things like structural virality; the proportion of political versus non-political news; the role of bots; they run a sentiment analysis of the tweets, etc.), and it has a straightforward (and I guess welcome to many) take-home message: “fake” news are more successfull than “true” news in social media, at least in Twitter (*).

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Oreos are more addictive than cocaine!

In 2013 I took the time to collect some data about the spread of a story about Oreo cookies. According to it, scientists demonstrated that Oreo cookies are as much, or possibly more, addictive than cocaine. The story spread and faded very quickly, in a couple of days in October 2013, but was reported by hundreds of English language media outlets, including prominent ones such as the Huffington Post or the Guardian.

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