Episode 49 - Vincent Hendricks
Nick: Hello, and welcome to episode 49 of the SCI PHI Podcast. From Bloomington, Indiana, I’m Nick Zautra.
On today’s podcast, I am pleased to welcome Dr. Vincent Hendricks, Professor of Formal Philosophy and Director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) at University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Vincent’s work deals with modern mathematical and philosophical logic and concentrates primarily on bringing mainstream and formal approaches to epistemology together — from epistemic reliabilism, counterfactual epistemology and contextualism to epistemic logic, formal learning theory and what is called 'modal operator epistemology'.
Vincent’s work with The Center for Information and Bubble Studies focuses on the nature, structure, dynamics, noise and resolution of bubbles. “Bubbles” are usually considered unwelcome and destabilizing phenomena associated with finance and real estate markets. Generally a bubble has developed when assets trade at prices far exceeding the estimated fundamental value. The guiding research principle of The Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) is that bubbles essentially amount to information control problems among deliberating agents who are collectively susceptible to robustly demonstrated socio-psychological features like boom-thinking, group-thinking and lemming effects, which together determine market models and conditions which may make for bubble-hospitable environments.
By aligning problems of bubble formation in miscellaneous. markets with information control problems, Vincent brings together philosophy, economics, logic, social psychology, information theory, behavioural science, and computer science to form a novel and thoroughly interdisciplinary platform for analyzing and resolving often destabilizing bubble-phenomena of human and market interaction.
In his recent work REALITY LOST: Markets of Attention, Misinformation and Manipulation, co-written with PhD student Mads Vestergaard, Vincent analyzes the nuts and bolts of the information market, the attention economy and media eco-system which may pave way to post-factual democracy. Here misleading narratives become the basis for political opinion formation, debate, and legislation. To curb this development and the threat it poses to democratic deliberation, political self-determination, and freedom, Vincent and his co-author argue that we first need to grasp the very mechanisms and structural conditions that cause it.
And thus, without further ado, let’s bring in Vincent. [music]
Dr. Vincent Hendricks, welcome to the SCI PHI Podcast. How are you this morning?
Vincent: Very good sir. The sun is shining and it's Indian summer in Copenhagen.
Nick: Beautiful, beautiful. How is Copenhagen this time of year?
Vincent: Well, usually, it's very rainy and very unpleasant. However, this year, probably due to climate change, things have been fairly nice [inaudible 00:00:30], probably too hot for these kinds of places but well you know climate change has its perks but mostly they’re all [inaudible 00:00:41].
Nick: How long have you been there?
Vincent: Well, I've been on and off. I'm 48 years old by now, right. So I was born here but I spent a good part of my life in the US. I was doing my PhD at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.
Nick: Oh, wow.
Vincent: And I was a professor at Columbia for a while, visiting professor. So I've been back and forth all my life. My father's American, my mother's Danish, so it's been between the two countries all my life one way or the other.
Nick: Cool, cool. And so for our listeners, Vincent is the professor and director at the Center for Information and Bubble Studies. Is that right?
Vincent: That's correct sir.
Nick: That's cool. Can you tell us a little bit about Bubble Studies?
Vincent: Yes, usually, when we think about bubble, you think about well, it's not the ones in draught beer or champagne, we think of situations in finance in which assets that could be everything from stock, real estate to financial derivatives; what have you? Systematically traded prizes that far exceed their fundamental value. Now by age of information, there is a new asset which was actually prophetically anticipated by Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics in 1978. Back in 1971, and I was one years old at that time, he prophetically said about the information age. In an information which world you're gonna find a scarcity of something else. A scarcity of whatever it is that the major consumes. What information consumes is pretty obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients, so there you have it. Everything today in the information rich world is about attention, and attention is the thing that you allocate by information. So you can see that there would be a market for putting information into circulation that allocates a lot of attention independently of being true suppose well fake news or shit storms and what have you.
Vincent: So, you can overheat other kinds of assets, the monetary assets and in the information age the prime one would be attention.
Nick: All right, so yes--
Vincent: So what we are studying at the Center for Information and Bubble Studies are the fundamental idea that comes from finance or economics when it comes to bubbles but then apply to assets that are of a different sort of nature and that could be attention and so we're looking at everything from the developmental trajectory of shit storms on one hand to the way with social psychology is part of generating these storms and the other. It's a combination study between philosophy, math, science, economics, social science, social psychology and other disciplines. So an interdisciplinary center along those lines.
Nick: Wow! I imagine this is-- I don't know the history of the bubble studies. Do you happen to know a little bit about like, at what point did this kind of mass connection of disciplines? Especially bringing over disciplines from things like finance, economics and applying them to things like social psychology. Wondered who came up with this? When did this start happening?
Vincent: Well I mean, [laughs] coining the term Bubble Studies is something that I came up with would be applied to the [unintelligible 00:04:04] Foundation for the grant that established a set of information for bubble studies. So you can say.
Vincent: As a coined term, it's a fairly recent thing. I hadn't seen it before but of course, the entire idea of combining everything from philosophy on one hand to economics, social psychology on the other to study just various aspects about human nature and rational interaction and irrational interaction has been in the works for the past what 30, 40 years.
Nick: Yeah. Fair enough, fair enough. Well, I'm excited to hear more about what you guys are doing here at the Bubble Studies, what kind of projects you're doing. Before we get into that, let's take a step back and let's get back to your origin story. So Vincent, you mention you grew up in Copenhagen, yeah tell me a little bit about that. What was it like growing up in Copenhagen?
Vincent: Well, I mean Copenhagen is very different while what it used to be. Globalization hit Europe too and it’s going to hit Denmark and it certainly hit Copenhagen. For the past what, 10, 15 years. Before that, Copenhagen was over Denmark was a much more secluded place up North. So, I think it's fair to say that Denmark is more cosmopolitan now than Copenhagen in particular more cosmopolitan than it ever was.
But back in the day when I was a kid, you have to realize that 88 percent of the Danish population device the same tribes so to speak. So, it’s a very homogeneous population as compared to say the US and from that perspective, I’m part black, part white and so those who had more to be born like a statistical singularity in Denmark at that time especially coming from America or my father's American. So, it was interesting growing up, fairly quiet. I'm also part American. You get the natural flamboyance. I have very close relations in New York City so yeah, bit of this and a bit of that. It's fair to say.
Nick: Okay, yes. What kinds of interests did you have growing up? What were you interested in?
Vincent: Well, my father was an engineer or is an engineer so everything that could move and had an electric motor in it was interesting to me especially if you control cars and what not. So, I grew up with a father who taught me everything from electronics on one hand to radio controls on the other and as a kid, I indulged in that doing various sports as kids do.
Vincent: And then, I took up a particular interest in writing as a very early on. And in drawing illustrations, but never to the extent of being artistic about it, but to the extent that I could see that it could serve a purpose even in my field. So a lot of the things that I came to do as you know often enough, you don't see many illustrations in philosophy but I reason much better with illustrations and drawings and I grew up in mass really in logic, right.
So everything from drawing your diagrams on one hand to get an idea what the topological space looks like on the other generates some very beautiful drawings which is actually good for understanding. So the entire idea that everything has to be in syntactic strings with no illustrations what was always alien to me. And if you look at many of my books, has a lot of illustrations in it for no other reason than to clarify the thought at least for myself.
Nick: That's really something that I think not enough gets said in terms of the way in which we reason. I know in the sciences and mathematics, we're often doing things where we're sketching out ways in which we relate concepts, information. And yeah, it's something that maybe we do some kind of illustration even in our head so to speak when where we're thinking about things. Can you recall any time I guess in terms of developing your illustrations and your way in which that has advanced your thinking in philosophy? Like I don't know. Helping you tease apart a concept or represent something.
Vincent: Yeah, I mean even basic concepts so take notions like under-determination, Qunian under-determination or human under-determination or something to that extent, situations in which there are two possible worlds ascribing opposite truth value to the same hypothesis in such a way that the evidence remains the same forever independent of your which worlds are the ones which is actual.
So that's under-determination for you in a little more technical possible world terms. But you can draw that very nicely and you can see very nicely exactly how under-determination works as opposed to say local under-determination which is more related to the problem of induction which you can also draw in many different ways as to how much data you have seen and what sort of predictions or projections you want to make from that data.
So from that perspective, taking a world and chopping them into pieces and making them discrete rather than continuous and see where you can get out of that has been a big part of it. And a lot of what the studies that I did in philosophy were on the borderline of epistemic logic and typology or formal logic theory and typology and there you draw diagrams, you draw illustrations all the time because otherwise, it's hard to figure out exactly what you do and then your then retranslate them into gammas, deltas and epsilons and subset signs and whatnot but you don't do that immediately.
Nick: Yeah, fair enough. Okay, well yeah, I love-- have you included any of these illustrations in your work?
Vincent: Sure. I mean if you take my first monograph of mine from 2001 it’s called convergence of scientific knowledge, it came out in Springer Nature, has a lot of illustrations in it and subsequent ones, Mainstream and Formal Epistemology which came out with Cambridge University Press in ‘06 also has a lot and especially the kind of stuff that we do now has a lot of illustrations and material gathered from the net from the web from tweets to polarization studies on Facebook feeds.
Nick: Yeah, yeah, there you make a good point. So as you're coming of age in Copenhagen, you’re interest in writing and interested in illustrating. What philosophy on the radar at the time? What did you want to do?
Vincent: Okay, so that I can actually answer pretty crisply. So when I went to high school, I like the humanities and I like the sciences, so I needed some sort of field in between the two and their philosophy was presenting itself rather strongly because it's a little of this and a little of that.
Although that being said, I would have to say that I got pretty disappointed in philosophy from the outset insofar as to say that history of philosophy is being presented with a lot of theories about this and that and once when you figure out that you got Kant and understood that he was right and Hume was only had half the story and Descartes the other half, you always are realizing that Hegel says that Kant got it all wrong and now you take your time to figure out what Hegel had to say and then you realize and so forth and so forth.
Yeah, this entire idea of pro and con all the time. So I develop very early on a keen interest in logic because that's a matter of what will follow up on what on what premises and what not.
Vincent: And what are the correct means by which you process information and which ones are the incorrect ones. So early on, I took a solid interest in logic basically because it provided me with a scaffold or a set of tools by which I could study almost if not everything then at least a lot of different issues that I found of interest.
Especially when it came to knowledge and belief and their way in which they may be defined and transferred between agents etcetera. And that's basically how it came to pass that I started be interested in bubble studies because I was interested in mathematical models of social psychological phenomena from living effects to bystanders.
Nick: Yes, so I see here you go-- so right away, you found yourself into philosophy and logic at the University of Copenhagen and then doing a Masters as well in doing a thesis on epistemic logic for AI artificial intelligence. Can you tell me a little bit about that project? How you got interested in that and what that turned out to be.
Vincent: Well, I was interested in informal models of knowledge representation really. And those are studies that pretty pointedly came out of one particular philosophy from a book from 1962. It's called Knowledge and Belief – An Introduction to the Logic of the Two Notions which was written by Jaakko Hintikka who died recently and who I actually became very close to him by the end of his life. I was interested in those sort of studies.
And why I was interested in that was because it was basically he had have a keen interest in epistemology. And there epistemic logic, doxastic logic and dynamic versions of those come in pretty handy to study everything from novice transmissibility issues on one hand to the way in which we collectively reason on the other. And so, you had yourself a set of tools that you could use to study these things and my master’s degree and you have to realize that epistemic logic has grown exceedingly advanced over the past 20, 30 years because a lot of different scholars took interested in it.
Not only philosophers, but also linguists, computers-- theoretic computer scientists and a host of other fields to get-- even economics, yes. Robert Altman's agreeing to disagree result is epistemic logic in disguise. So just to say, my master's degree was basically just a rehearsal, an understanding of these kind of different logics that were keen and in vogue at the time and especially, there was something called non-monotonic logic that was pretty fancy or in vogue in the later late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And so, I basically did a systematic studies of some of these different logics. It wasn't particularly original but at least, I figured out what it was all about.
Nick: That's something we can do in philosophy we can try to clarify, certainly.
Vincent: That's right.
Nick: [Laughs] And so yeah and so I see yeah, having-- so you know with an interest in formal logic and formal epistemology, seems like you went to a good place in studying at Carnegie Mellon, one of the top places to study. What was that like?
Nick: Yeah. Tell me about it. What was it like yeah, coming from the-- yeah, yeah.
Vincent: Okay, so it had got-- you know it wasn't too hard for me to obtain my master's degree from the Philosophy Department at the University Copenhagen so what I sit down in Pittsburgh because I wanted to do a PhD in logic and computation at Carnegie Mellon University. I thought well, since it got me that it was pretty easy way to get so far maybe it's not too much of a question were Carnegie Mellon can teach me and by implicature what I could teach them which best as ridiculous as the worst is even worse because Carnegie Mellon is tough, all of these guys are smart, let me tell you.
Vincent: So I was holding on to my fingertips just to keep my bearings and my PhD advisor after four weeks said look, you’re not one of the smartest people I’ve ever had, but you could work pretty hard. And I got pretty frustrated with that comment until I realized that everything you do is 10 percent talent and the rest is hard work if you want to get anywhere with it.
And so, what my PhD advisor Kevin Kelly was really telling me is that there's also room for you, there's no free lunch. 24/7 we’re always open, never closed. And that was actually, I'm grateful for him today for saying that because it kept me modest and it kept me honest and at the same time, it also taught me the value of working hard and that's [laughs] what we do in science.
Nick: Yeah, so in doing the formal epistemology and then working on your PhD, how connected were you to the philosophy of science?
Vincent: Well, very closely connected because basically, my PhD is about the structure of inductive problems from a formal learning theoretical perspective that's Kevin C. Kelly’s specialty. And so, my PhD is about a particular belief or vision program called AGM belief or vision which was developed by among others a famous Swedish philosopher. His name is Peter Gärdenfors and he developed a model for how beliefs change when you receive new evidence along certain principles and those principles that he celebrated in the book are pretty closely related to the ways in which Kuhn thought the paradigms tended to change.
And so from that perspective, it had close ties with philosophy of science in so far, philosophy of science is also about rationality and the way in which our belief stays change in light of new information and from that perspective, it's extremely closely related to philosophy of science. And on top of that, what I was interested in, and you can see that in the title of my first book from 01, it's called the Convergence of Scientific Knowledge and that's based on the idea that we may at any given point, we will have only this much knowledge apparently.
But is there a state after which we would be having conversed to the truth and nothing but and would we know about this point, yes and no? And so, I started combining epistemic logic with the structure and nature of inductive problem from formal learning theory and we've developed this modal operators’ theory paradigm which basically was the groundwork of what I did for the first half of my career probably.
Vincent: And that is philosophy of science.
Nick: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know thanks for clarifying that. So, it sounds like a tough time in the PhD but a humbling time none the less and it sounds like something that you're quite grateful for. Yes, well so what came next in terms of getting a formal position, working in your career? How did the job search and or finding a position go for you?
Vincent: Okay, so I was blessed in so far as to say that when I got back to Copenhagen, the Carlsberg Foundation are actually whipped me up with a post grant to finish my first book.
However, I only got to sit in that position for about six months and by that time, the University of Copenhagen opened up an assistant professor-- a tenured assistant professorship and I applied for that and I got it. And, but I only sat for that in for about a year because then, my old master and mentor and good friend and now unfortunately dead, professor of philosophy of science at Roskilde University which is a small university outside Copenhagen opened up an associate professorship for us to build the department down there.
It was called the science studies program. So I went to Roskilde University for some eight years and then at some point, realized-- and in the meantime, then things went really fast from there because I became Editor in Chief of Synthese the journal--
Nick: Yeah, yeah.
Vincent: -- in 2005 and I was Editor in Chief of Synthese for 10 years along with John Simmons who's now in-- he used to be a University of Texas El Paso but now, he's in Kansas and then Johan van Bentham from Amsterdam so that we were at — we were turning in many ways, Synthese, if it wasn't already a journal, into a journal for formal philosophy.
And so, we ran that journal together for ten years which were fun. And from there of course, things started to develop really quickly and I got an idea about how to combine mainstream epistemological concerns with formal epistemological concerns. I wrote this book with Cambridge, it's called Mainstream and Formal Epistemology came out in ‘06.
Vincent: And then, I started worrying about, well, a lot of what I've been doing has been about individual agency, right. So what is the singular agent able to know in and by him or herself or itself if it's a computer say. But how does knowledge traverse between agents? So if Nick tells me I know that P and I know that Nick knows that P, does that entails that I also know that P? And that's pretty easy to prove because an iterated version of action T with different agents.
But if you're looking at learning mechanisms, it’s not that tricky, it’s not that trivial actually. And so, I started worrying about knowledge transmissibility between agents and how agents reason collectively. And once you start doing that, you're not only looking at situations in which this actually goes well because in many ways it does, but you're also looking at ways in which collective reasoning will create a sub-optimal result.
And that's when you get into social psychology and the way in which lemming effects and bystander effects and spirals of silence and all the other classical issues of social psychology will actually turn out and by that time, epistemic logic was fairly developed to the point where you could talk about multi-agency systems. And then, you could start studying these phenomena which had been in many ways reserved for social psychology and empirical studies but now, were actually amenable to formal studies in ways you could uncover the structure and the dynamics, intrinsic structure and dynamics of social psychological phenomena.
And that again led to this whole issue of start worrying about the ways in which we reason together and since the internet—since the reasons to get on continuously now because of the web, you can see that there is a lacuna for making various systematic studies of everything from social psychology on speed--
Nick: [Laughs] yeah.
Vincent: -- to the way in which Twitter storms develop
Nick: Hey, so you mentioned social psychology on speed, I imagine you're interacting with other social psychologists, other folks who read, who are interested in either collective reasoning or collective social behavior. How do you-- so what would you say? How do you communicate to them the benefits of taking a more formal approach and using these tools because they're not familiar with these tools.
These are-- you know, as coming as a psyco-- my background was in psychology, we didn't learn formal epistemology. We learn you know, base psychological theories, we might pose a lot of it as more biological in nature to kinds of explanations or even mathematical models. So, what kinds of tools-- how do your tools and the tools you're developing, working with, what do they add and how can they kind of yeah, help to explain?
Vincent: That's a very good question, Nick. So basically, logic is all about uncovering structure. That's all that's basically a set of tools for uncovering various structures.
Vincent: And when you're looking at many of the social psychological phenomena, you can look at them as social psychological information borne phenomena, right. So a bystander effect is a situation in which nobody will do anything because nobody will do anything pertaining to an accident and there could be many reasons for that. But one reason also has to do that you are making observations about what the other agents are doing and then, you are making up your mind as to what you should do based on what the other agents either do or do not.
Now that's an information theoretical problem because about you’re gathering information and reasoning accordingly. And social psychologists are very open to this kind of understanding of the issue. This is not to say that this is the only and all there is to say about it but it does give you a pretty formal grip of what the informational structure of this problem is and that is not to say that it is only and solely an information driven or information control problem if you want to talk engineering about it.
But it is to say that part of the argument as to why people will do what they do and reason collectively debts has to do with the fact that they misinterpret the signals that they get from others in a certain way. And that could be studied by information theory or computer science or logic or formal epistemology; whatever you want to term it.
Vincent: I don't really care about the terms of the disciplines as long as it works.
Nick: Got you. Okay, fair enough. I see that. All right. So why don't you tell us a little bit about some of the projects you've worked on maybe perhaps that the either you feel like have most contributed to your career in your research? You've mentioned kind of an early book. Yeah, why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of those?
Vincent: Yes, so I think it's fair to say though that the book-- the sort of dedicated philosophy book that made the biggest dent if any dent at all was this book that came out in ‘05 which was called Mainstream and Formal Epistemology. Came out with Cambridge University president in New York and these are sort of systematic surveys of the way in which formal epistemological approaches and informal epistemological approaches tend to be everything from the problems of skepticism on one hand to knowledge attributions on the other.
And so that book was a very-- it's not very long. It's about 160 pages or 150 pages and it was a systematic survey of all the standard approaches to epistemology from Nosek’s counterfactual analysis to Louis's elusive knowledge, etcetera. And so but that was in a certain sense a very purely puristic philosophical project. What I've been doing ever since then, and there is a story to be told about that because in 2008, I received what's called the Elite Research Prize by the Danish Ministry of Science and Innovation and which is a very prestigious prize and my son Milton who was eight — he was eight years old at that time, so it was 10 years ago.
There was a lot of stir in the press about me receiving this prize because it was very fancy and so, one of his teachers in school had gone up to him and congratulated the son that the father had received this prize. And the very morning I was going in to receive the prize at a museum with the secretary of science and the crown prince's where else was there, he popped me a couple of questions that I've been trying to answer ever since. The first one I can do, but the second one is still in process and he asked me, “listen dad, I’ve got to ask you something. What is it that you do?” Which in it by itself is a pretty good question.
Nick: [Laughs] Oh, it’s a funny one.
Vincent: But that's the one that you can usually answer. But the second one is the one that takes the prize. He goes, “Why is it important?” Why is it important? Now those complicated topological studies of knowledge convergence and the limit for certain infallible types of knowledge; da, da, da, da, da. Now in a certain sense yes, they are important because they uncover some of the structure.
But what-- I've been trying to answer that question for ever since as to how philosophy can feed into not only addressing bigger pictures, a bigger problem but also solve bigger problems. And you have to realize that philosophy can be very aggressive if it wants to be but it can also be very seclusive if it wants to be. And realized that ever since 2013 the World Economic Forum has been saying that misinformation on the web is now to be considered a global challenge on par with climate change, inequality, health issues, etcetera, etcetera.
So there is an argument for why studying misinformation is important because it undermines democracy. And so, that was basically for me a wakeup call because I like to subscribe to the idea once we're talking philosophy of science that's called scientific social responsibility namely the idea that science should be part of addressing and solving some of the grand challenges of this world is facing from inequality on end to climate change and misinformation on the other.
And with these fundamental structural studies of dynamics, a reasoning process and collectively as in why Twitter storms develop as they do can be used to both of us against living in the information age and making us more enlightened which we don't only get just because we get a lot of information then that's what philosophy should be used for. So, we originally came out with a book which you can actually download for free from Springer Nature. It's called Reality Lost and the other title is Markets of Attention, Misinformation and Manipulation. And it basically is a study of fake news and what it is as a semantical product and why it has the proficiency to spread as the way we have seen. Now that to me is making science feed into grander issues.
Nick: Yeah, yeah, let's describe the-- Why don’t you-- if you wouldn't mind telling us a little bit about Realist List and what you know, so what has gone into this book? Obviously, you kind of you know, I think you've done nice job connecting why some of what you do, what you can do is certainly important. But yeah, what is this book address and yeah, what can readers who are interested in downloading it take from it?
Vincent: Okay, so the book came out in-- I wrote it with my PhD student. His name is Mads Vestergaard and we wrote it because the first, we wrote it last year in ‘17 and it came out in Danish and there was no systematic analysis in Danish of the market of attention and how fake news as a sub-prime information product can actually prosper and live fairly robustly on non-regulated information markets. Then, it was translated into German and has actually been nominated for the science book of the year in Germany. It’s called Postfaktisch. And then, then I wanted to have it out in English. We wanted to and so we did. But the way we wanted to do it was that I just recently came back from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where I gave a keynote at the U.N. summit there on misinformation and fake news for all the statistical offices of the African continent. And the entire point now is to of course the Africans are afraid that the Chinese are going to take all their raw materials and the tech giants are going to take their attention.
So the entire point of launching the book-- we launched the book at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia not three weeks ago with a message that we might be emancipating lightning information will take your attention but it’s not going to take your data, it’s not going to take your money and it's not going to turn you into a product for the social media. So therefore, we relinquish this book for free to the entire world for them to get the idea of the structure and the nuts and bolts of the information market to make sure that we can actually live in and have preventive means for not selling out our self-determination while being products for the social media.
Nick: Wow, wow. Well I think-- I was just going to ask, what is the decision to release the book? But I imagine, I mean there's a lot of good reasons to do so. How is the participation at the summit? What was that like in connecting these things?
Vincent: It was very interesting because there were delegates from every country on the African continent and you have to realize that a lot of these emerging democracies have had severe problems with fake news, campaigns with their elections. Kenya 2013 and ’17, Nigeria, Tanzania, you name it. And so, it was very well received and they know that this is an issue not only the western world are fighting fake news, the third world is, too.
The only problem is of course that they are less robust democracies. Well at least in principles than the ones that we are having. But be that as it may, it created quite a splash and people were interested. They could see the point about why we had released it under those open access circumstances.
Vincent: Exactly because economy information that should qualify your decision making should be something that you paid for with your attention but not with your data and not with your money and not in such a way that you become more or less the commodity being sold.
Nick: Very good. So for other philosophers, folks either in epistemology or philosophy of science or elsewhere who are interested in contributing to these kinds of questions and these kinds of problems, giving advice to recommendations or any experience with working with others who in some ways could do this kind of work that on the one hand is-- you know, you're still doing philosophy in many ways for its intellectual merits but at the same time, you're socially connected with a more broader impact purpose.
Vincent: Sure. One of the things that one has to realize is that the kinds of problems this world is facing not surprising are extremely complex. So, if you're just purely training in philosophy and you want to contribute, then you're going to have to sit down and bite the bullet and know something about other disciplines whether it might be political science on one hand, math or computer science on the third, depending on where you want to-- or social psychology or economics before you can actually engage. Because you're going to have to know something about what sort of teeth you're going to need in order to bite this apple and philosophy teeth by themselves are not sharp enough for that.
So from that perspective, you're going to have to spend some time studying other disciplines not such that you get master’s degree in everything or PhDs in economics and philosophy and cognitive science in order to do this … I want to do this but at least have an operating working knowledge of other disciplines and then you're going to have to look at things in a little bit of a different light. When you've got interesting examples of say misinformation, then you ask yourself, what is the structure of this problem?
I mean realize there's something. Reason why-- there was a couple reasons, personal reasons why I got into this field and one was my son namely that when he was 10 or 11 and that was between 2010 or 2011, he came home with a story from school where he goes, “Listen dad, I took over an Instagram profile from one of my friends.” He goes, “well, he had 3,000 followers.”
And I was like, “so?”
And he goes, “well look-- then over the weekend, we took a stroll down one of the big pedestrian street in Copenhagen. There are some rappers there that are really famous. So, we took a couple of selfie with these guys and we put them on the Instagram profile. And all of a sudden, the number rised [sic] from 3,000 to 9,500.”
And I was like, “yeah, so?”
And he goes, “well today in school, Anton asked me whether he could buy the profile for money.”
And I was like wait a minute here: so what you're telling me is that there's so much social capital in that profile that has actually now worth real money? I got to understand this kind of economics. I don't understand this. So then, I started to study attention economics and I started to study all these other issues that sort of feeds into it.
But my point I'm trying to make here is that it actually-- this example turned into a structural study or a structural question for me. How does this work? I got to understand this. And so you got to have to look at philosophy from a different kind of lens. A lens in which philosophy is committed to by its very nature not to basically be part of the world. Be part of the problems that are there and also part of the solutions. And by the way in which philosophy is thought in many ways it tends to be or tends to seem very secluded from the kind of world that we're in. Not that it is, but the levels of distraction that you have to go through in order to get to the bone is pretty severe often.
Nick: Yeah, yeah.
Vincent: And from there on out, it's not too hard and I think it's fair to say that a lot of people working in philosophy whether it be feminist philosophy or questions of trust or social epistemology, etcetera are all interested in the real world problem in a pretty real way.
Vincent: It also goes to show that philosophy by its very nature is an interdisciplinary study. All that philosophy really means is love or wisdom. Well that goes for everything and everything as far as I'm concerned.
Nick: Yeah, yeah no but I think you make a good point and I like how you say you know, you've explored these other areas, you kind of follow what you need to do to answer and address the problems and I think yeah, you hit it. You get at it very closely that a lot of the formal instruction initially in philosophy is somewhat of a secluded nature and so, branching out. I mean maybe that's a good thing for at least the time being. At least getting down the skills that you need to take--
Nick: You need to be disciplined in some capacity.
Nick: But eventually, right, if you want to engage with the stuff, if you want to have something to say, you got to learn a little bit about whatever it is you're talking about and usually quite a bit
Vincent: Right. I mean you know Steve-- Was it Bertrand Russel or was it Steven? No, no, no. It was-- What is his name? Feynman. Richard Feynman once said, “Philosophers incidentally have a great deal to say but what is absolutely necessary for science and it is as far as I can see rather naive and probably wrong.”
Vincent: It’s like wanna be a philosophers along those lines? I don't think so.
Nick: No, no, definitely not. So tell us a little bit about-- yeah, current you know catching us up of current projects and perhaps future projects. I imagine, you've just finished a book, so maybe a lot of that is going on and kind of trying to market it and sort of go around and talk about the book a bit. Defend the works but yeah, just catch us up. What’s been going on with you lately?
Vincent: Okay, so we have been doing this fake news tour now for misinformation, fake news now for a good two and a half years now so things are branching out in different ways. I personally with a couple of my colleagues at the Center for Information and Bubble Studies are now trying to down code some formal models of attention economics from a logical perspective. So that's what research wise is going on at the time for what's one part.
The other part is that we're developing some games for people to understand what lemming effects and wisdom of crowds are all about. But the interesting thing about once we start to develop these games are computer games, it turns out that some of the old dogmas of these different issues are not quite true. So there are ways in which one should regiment what you're doing in order to get this to work properly and so there's a new research results in that as well. And eventually, I have to write this book that's just called Bubbles.
Nick: Yeah [laughs]. We've got to know and-- yeah, yeah.
Vincent: But that's on a little longer terms time scale before I write that one. But that's definitely something that I probably have to do to end the circle.
Nick: Right. I would be intrigued. I would certainly be interested. So in this book, what do you think would go into the bubbles? Will this just going to be a nice overview of your work, of the concept, why it's important?
Vincent: No, it's going to be more than that. It's going to be to make the argument stick mathematically, experimentally and philosophically that there are other kinds of bubbles and financial bubbles and if they could be looked at in much the same way that financial bubbles are being looked at in different ways. So at Twitter storm is essentially or a shit storm (excuse my French)--
Nick: Yeah [laughs].
Vincent: -- is essentially an aggregate of anger from a lot of different nodes in a network independently or whether they necessarily know what the case is all about or even if it's at all required to get a shit storm that you know what it is about. And what the studies tend to show these days and there's a book to be recommended here that's Jonah Berger, who's a marketing professor at the Wharton Institute in Pennsylvania.
Berger wrote a very interesting book. It's called Contagious – Why Ideas Spread Online and one of the things you figured out that there are certain sentiments that tends to be shared a lot. Information for certain sentiments and those sentiments are anger and fear and indignation. So what's called negative activity mobilizing sentiments. So anger is a negative activity mobilizing sentiment because once I get angry, I want to do something about it. I want to share, I want to click, I want to so forth and so forth.
So anger is extremely contagious. But happiness is not necessarily contagious actually. It’s the state that you’re in but it doesn't animate you to do something so happiness is a positive but negative but activity demobilizing sentiment. And so, there's a whole lacuna to be explored here as to the way in which the sentiments that tends to get us to share things whether or not they are justified or not in so far as to follow the facts or not.
And so from that perspective, I would have to tell the full story of why attention is the new asset and that you can unjustifiably overheat the asset and then get situations which are pretty close to the kinds that you find in finance namely that bubbles burst and there is nothing, there is no fundamental value, that means there's no truth underlying it. So let me give you an example of that.
Vincent: So in the early 2000s, Alan Greenspan who was running the Federal Reserve had this idea that if you deregulate and liberalize financial markets and if the markets are very liquid, then in the end, only the good products, the goods services will survive. The rest will get weeded out given the competition and that it will be the best possible model for growth because in this fierce competition, only the good products would survive.
So when we get the sub-prime prices in a way, even Alan Greenspan had to say that's not quite the way it works. There is actually a market for sub-prime financial products that will take out huge shares of what's going on. But once you look into what they are, they are really not very good-- that's really not very good credit, not good mortgage. And hence there is a market for sub-prime financial products that would actually live long and prosper and deregulated financial markets.
And if you look at the information market as an attention economy there is a market for sub-prime information products that will allocate a lot of attention independently of whether they are actually true. And so, there is a market for fake news whether that is for agenda setting or making money or marketing or propaganda and that's the entire argument that we present in this reality last book just in a very systematic way.
Nick: Very nice, very nice. Well hopefully, yeah, I'll try to include a link in the show notes here and for any of our listeners who actually want to download this book for free and yeah, that will be great. Well, why don't we come to with one of the final questions that I have many of our guests which is, what do you see to be the greatest challenge facing philosophy of science today?
Vincent: The greatest challenge facing philosophy of science today?
Vincent: Is getting close enough to science. I mean, if you really want to do philosophy of science with a bite, if you want to do philosophy of physics today with a bite, you're going to have to learn and know physics really well. There's some great philosophers of physics out there but they're not too many basically because they have to train a lot to become good physicists first and then good philosophy of physics second or inverse order as you please.
Vincent:The same goes for math, the same goes for chemistry, biology, social science, political science, take your favorite pick. So, I think it's fair to say that if you want to be a good philosopher of science, then you have to be pretty close to the science that you're interested in and from that perspective, make sure that you take a lot of courses.
If you're interested in political science, if you're interested in physics or chemistry or biology or climate studies or what have you, make sure that you take a lot of hands-on courses in those fields because you're going to need it if you want to get these different scientists into play and listen to you. So you will not end up with detach philosophy of science from the science that you're really interested in commenting on, making better, problematizing, whatever it is that your ambition is.
Nick: Thank you. So, this is certainly a concern of many other philosophers of science. In your experience, it seems like-- you've mentioned you go out and you work and you work with the scientists. How do you personally like to interact with other scientists and or other-- I mean folks in the disciplines in economics or political science. Like what do you and your folks do?
Vincent: I usually attend to these issues in a very modest way in the sense of saying I don't know but you're the expert here, so tell me a little bit about X, Y and Z. And let me tell you why I'm interested in this. Is there anyway in which what I'm interested in has anything to do with your science at all?
Vincent: Or could you look at it from this perspective?
Vincent: I tend to show socratic modesty, yeah. It’s not to say that the only thing I know is that I don't because I do know something. But I do know that what I'm trying to do on a regular basis when I interact with scientists is to present with some very clear crisp concise problems that I have. Not sort of painting a grand a picture of such and so, but understanding what a greater fool’s theory is in economics or understanding how time series analysis works for predicts in the value or stock or something like that.
And so, ask the science is something very precise so they know and can say that I actually, I'm not presenting a red herring here. This is an issue because such is so. So be very well versed and ask clear crisp and concise questions.
Nick: Very good advice so-- Oh! So, before we go, I know you've mentioned actually-- you mentioned your son asking some fairly great philosophical questions, pointed questions. Do you see him-- are you grooming him in terms of encouraging philosophy degree out of him?
Nick: [Laughs] No?
Vincent: No. No way.
Nick: “Do something else!”
Vincent: Do something else.
Vincent: That’s his choice completely but I can tell you he already wants to be a journalist so he's not going after dad.
Nick: Okay, yeah, I've just been impressed is something I don't always ask is the way in which our families can kind of impact the way-- You know what we question, what matters to us and it seems like very much in your experience, you mention two such experiences where these questions from family have interested you and sort of steered you a certain way.
Vincent: And steered me very strongly in one way or the other.
Nick: Yeah, yeah.
Vincent: Look and it's this might sound a little glorious but look. I can't bear the idea that we're going to be riding on the enlightenment in the information age, the first generation that leaves a world worse off to our kids that one we got from our parents.
Vincent: I can't have it and we're going to have-- science is going to help us solve that one I tell you that much. And if they way I do science can just have a little bit of a say in that regard, then I consider myself to having satisfied my call as a scientist. I never call myself a philosopher. I'm a professor of philosophy maybe, but I'm trying to just follow the rules of science in getting some results, that’s all.
Nick: Fair enough. Well Vincent, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat and fill us in on what's going on with you and tell us a little bit about your origin story and your work. It's been great to get to know you. Is there anything else you'd like to leave us with? Any current updates, information, plugs for certain projects?
Vincent: I will say this. I really like the University of Indiana and Bloomington. I was there maybe four years ago, five years ago as a visiting professor.
Nick: Oh really? In philosophy or in--
Vincent: Well, with Larry Moss.
Nick: Yeah! Oh, you came— Larry Moss. Yeah, he runs the logic seminar.
Vincent: Larry Moss who is a good friend and also Robert Becker out of the economics department. It was just after we finished our first book on these issues called Info Storms explaining individual behavior on the social net. So, I was there for almost three weeks and I really enjoyed Indiana and I really enjoyed University of Indiana Bloomington and I think you're doing important work for humanity and the world in times of trouble.
Nick: [Laughs] Well, it's good to engage and I think I could certainly say the same of you. The way in which you’re reaching out, connecting getting some of this hopefully important information out there and how we're concerned about it and how we're addressing it. I think is important. So I appreciate the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed Indiana.
Vincent: I certainly did, sir.
Nick: Yeah, well if you ever come visit, please you're always welcome. Hope to meet you in person someday but —
Vincent: You certainly got it, Nick.
Nick: — But otherwise, yeah enjoy the rest of your semester, enjoy the Indian summer in Copenhagen and yeah, we'll be in touch soon.
Vincent: Thank you very much, Nick. Thank you sir.
Nick: All right, take care Vincent. Bye, bye.
Vincent: You too, bye.