Who Wants Common Sense?

The mass media often says things that should seem unlikely, at least to a well-informed common sense. And in such cases, the usual outcome is that common sense is proved right. This seems so obvious to me that I don’t see the point in arguing it. But to illustrate the point, let me mention the book Expert Political Judgement, and recent claims that AI would take away most jobs, that masks and travel restrictions do not help in pandemics, and that hell on Earth will result if the other side wins the next election.

What I want to point out in this post is a noteworthy lack of clearly-available voices that express such well-informed common-sense-based media-skepticism.

Let us focus on the top 1% of the top 1% of people, in terms of their ability to understand and apply common sense. Such people would be reasonably smart, know the intro-textbook basics of many fields, and the basic history of their industry, region, and world for the last century or two. Oh, and they must be able to write tolerably clearly.

Out of 8 billion people in the world, there should be 800K people in this 1% of 1% class. Each of which could in principle author a newsletter, blog, or podcast, etc. wherein they specialize in pointing out the worst ways that recent media reports conflict with common sense. In its first decade or two, such a newsletter could emphasize cases likely to resolve within a decade or two, in the sense that any reasonable attempt to score them for accuracy will be able to credit a substantial fraction of what they’ve said on this timescale.

For example, if you made one comment per week for ten years, that’s 500 comments, and if just 40% of these could be scored within two decades, that’s 200 scoreable comments. And if you make ten comments per week, that’s 2000 to score. Which should be plenty enough to show that an author can see and apply common sense to correct media errors.

Imagine that the top 1% of media consumers could recognize and appreciate such a track record. So if an author took a decade or two to collect such a track record of cases pointing out media deviations from common sense, this 1% of consumers would be capable of browsing this track record to evaluate it, or trusting intermediaries who scored it for them. And they’d value such a common sense corrections enough that they’d spend some time actually reading them.

So I’m postulating 80M media consumers who would want to read common sense media critiques, and 800K authors capable of writing such critiques, and of validating their track record within a decade or two. This seems a large enough market, in terms of supply and demand, that we should see at least 800 actual entrants, who regularly write commentary on media errors. That’s only one entrant per 100K customer/readers, and one per 1K potential authors.

Surely 80M customers eager to read such commentary could induce at least 800 writers to regularly write such things. Even if such authors did it as a hobby on the side, after their regular job, and got paid nothing directly for it. Maybe most of these 800K folks have better things to do with their time, but not all of them. The wisdom of at least one in a thousand of them may not be recognized by the labor market, or its realization may be blocked by individual personality quirks. Surely we all know this large a fraction of smart and wise but under-used folks.

Consider further that this class of 800K potential authors could each team with associates, to create more effective commentary. Associates could feed these authors summaries of media cases to consider, could polish their prose to become more concise and accessible to readers, and could organized the scoring of their track records. And once an author had validated his or her own track record, they might later specialize in rating other sources, either by endorsing their track records or directly including their commentary. Given all these possibilities, I’m confident that at least 800 writers could actually write such commentary, and have it be validated as accurate, if in fact there were 80M customers willing to read them.

Furthermore, 800 authors would allow a substantial degree of specialization, wherein each author focuses to some extent on particular regions, industries, topics, and media sources. I’d expect a lot of overlap, wherein authors end up commenting on the same media stories. But we don’t need all 80M customers to care mainly about the same world-media stories, ones that most of these 800 authors comment on. We just need these 80M customers to have wide enough interests so that 800 authors suffice to serve them.

The attentive reader has probably already deduced my point: As we don’t actually see 800 authors specializing in using common sense to correct common media errors, and proving their accuracy via track records, there must not actually be even 1% of media consumers interested in reading such corrections. And as I’m confident that at least 1% would be able to find and appreciate such corrections, if they were interested, I must put the main blame on their lack of interest.

I’m not sure we even see eight authors who specialize in this basic writing strategy of using common sense to correct media errors. So I’d say there may not even be 800K customers worldwide, 1% of 1% of readers, interested in reading such media corrections written by the top 1% of 1% common-sense authors, assuming that such writers are willing to write commentary if they can expect 100K readers each.

Now, I expect that many people will say that they’d like to read such commentary. But only as long as that comes with all the usual other things they get from their pundits. Such as wit, political affiliation, name recognition, and arguments they can repeat to associates to sound smart. They aren’t much willing to trade off those other desired pundit qualities for more common sense critical accuracy. Which of course really means that they don’t much care for common sense based media criticism.

Yes, media markets are often regulated. Professional licensing prevents most people from talking on some topics, and media regulation prevents many from getting paid for their commentary. Libel laws and other kinds of liability often punish honesty, as do cancel mobs. But on reflection I just can’t put the main blame on these things. There is in fact usually enough freedom of speech that media error correction could find an audience, if a large enough audience actually existed. (And yes, perhaps also if they stayed away from the most controversial of topics.)

Some hope that future innovations like AI-written commentary, or prediction markets on common media topics, could eventually provide such common-sense based criticism. But can it do so cheaply enough to overcome the low market demand problem? If even simple articulate humans can’t find such a market today, I don’t see why AI or prediction markets should expect to do much better later.

Finally, consider this: if there’s no market for the easiest cheapest way to correct many big errors all at once, why would there be markets for less-effective more-expensive ways to correct media errors?

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