YouTube: Designed to Seduce?

by Fabio Tollon

In 2019 Buckey Wolf, a 26-year-old man from Seattle, stabbed his brother in the head with a four-foot long sword. He then called the police on himself, admitting his guilt. Another tragic case of mindless violence? Not quite, as there is far more going on in the case of Buckey Wolf: he committed murder because he believed his brother was turning into a lizard. Specifically, a kind of shape-shifting reptile that lives among us and controls world events. If this sounds fabricated, it’s unfortunately not. Over 12 million Americans believe (“know”) that such lizard people exist, and that they are to be found at the highest levels of government, controlling the world economy for their own cold-blooded interests. This reptilian conspiracy theory was first made popular by well-known charlatan David Icke.

What emerged from further investigation into the Wolf murder case was an interesting trend in his YouTube “likes” over the years. Here it was noted that his interests shifted from music to martial arts, fitness, media criticism, firearms and other weapons, and video games. From here it seems Wolf was thrown into the world of alt-right political content.

In a recent paper Alfano et al. study whether YouTube’s recommender system may be responsible for such epistemically retrograde ideation. Perhaps the first case of murder by algorithm? Well, not quite.

In their paper, the authors aim to discern whether technological scaffolding was at least partially involved in Wolf’s atypical cognition. They make use of a theoretical framework known as technological seduction, whereby technological systems try to read user’s minds and predict what they want. In these scenarios, such as when Google uses predictive text, we as users are “seduced” into believing that Google knows our thoughts, especially when we end up following the recommendations of such systems. Read more »

On the Trail of Leonardo– Confusion, Collusion, and Connoisseurship

by Leanne Ogasawara

Salvator Mundi (Leonardo da Vinci)

It was mid-summer 2011 when the news broke that a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting had been found. Apparently, a New York City art dealer noticed the picture at an estate sale in Louisiana and purchased it for around $10,000. This occurred back in 2005, and the following six years were spent in painstaking work to research and restore the painting. Now in 2011, it was making its public debut in a high profile blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

My first thought was: “This is the greatest art historical discovery of my lifetime!”

After all, it has been over a hundred years since the last Leonardo was officially “discovered.” This happened when the Benois Madonna was triumphantly trotted onto the world stage in Saint Petersburg, in 1909. Considered to be one of two very early Madonna paintings that the master himself mentioned working on in his notebooks in 1478, the painting was bought by the Hermitage Museum in 1918 and has remained in that collection ever since. This purchase being much to the chagrin of the American industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, who had plunked down a hefty deposit for the picture– only to lose out in the end, when the Russian czar swooped down to exercise his right to purchase.

Benois Madonna

Not a prolific artist, it is hard to say which was worse: Leonardo’s chronic procrastination and inability to finish projects or the highly experimental methods in technique and materials that he favored. The result being that not many paintings remain in what is broadly agreed upon by experts to have been done in his hand. Prior to the new 2005 discovery, there were fewer than twenty pictures. So the new discovery was immediately –and not surprisingly– met with a deluge of doubts. First of all, how does one lose something this valuable in the first place? Shouldn’t there by a seamless trail of the work from its conception and initial purchase by a king or duke down through history, as it changes hands for greater and greater sums of money? Leonardo was, after all, legendary even during his own lifetime, with kings and queens clamoring to obtain paintings from the great master. And unlike with my favorite artist, Piero della Francesca, his work never fell out of favor. Read more »

Creationism as conspiracy theory – the case of the peppered moth

Addendum: On the day this item was posted, a school board member in Nebraska used slides of Well’s Icons of Evolution to argue that the school should teach “the evidence for and against neo-Darwinian evolution;” details here and here.

by Paul Braterman


Comparison of carbonaria and typica mounted against post-industrial treetrunk, 2006. Licenced under GFDL by the author, Martinowski at nl.wikipedia. [Click image to enlarge.]

The peppered moth provides a textbook example of industrial melanism and its reversal. Once a classroom classic, then much criticised, and finally rehabilitated through further observation, the story also shows how real science works. The response of the creationist and “Intelligent Design” community provides a textbook example of a conspiracy theory in action, with cherry-picked quotations, allegations of collusion and fraud, and refusal to acknowledge new evidence.

This moth comes in two main varieties, mottled pale (typica), and dark-coloured (carbonaria). The dark form was first noticed, as a rarety, in 1848. Then came widescale industrialisation and grime. By 1895, 98% of the peppered moths in Manchester were dark, and in 1896 it was first suggested that this was a camouflage effect; typica is well concealed against a pre-industrial treetrunk, with its mottling of lichen, but against a sooty background it is an obvious meal for any passing bird. J.B.S. Haldane, in 1924, applied his new methods of quantitative genetics to the speed of such changes, and inferred that carbonaria must have possessed something like 50% per generation advantage over its pallid competitor. An extreme case of Darwinian evolution.

(Let me define that term, since for their own reasons creationists habitually equate all modern biology with Darwin. Darwinian evolution requires just three components; inheritable variation within a population, competition between its members to survive and reproduce, and a difference in fitness between variants. Fitness, here, is simply the ability to survive and have offspring that are themselves fit. This then leads to the evolution of a population in which the variations that confer fitness have become more common. We now know, as Darwin did not, that the inheritable variation corresponds to differences in genes, and that mutations, arising from gene copying errors, give rise to an ongoing supply of new variations. That’s it.)

In the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell, medical student turned naturalist, carried out a set of direct experiments to test the suggestion that industrial melanism was the result of selective predation. He released large numbers of moths, a mixture of typica and carbonaria, in both polluted and unpolluted woodlands. As expected if the predation-selection mechanism is operating, the survival rate was greater for typica in clean environments, while the opposite applied in environments that were polluted. Kettlewell then persuaded Niko Tinbergen to film the actual process in both kinds of environment. Tinbergen later shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for his work on supernormal stimuli (exaggerated forms preferred to the real ones), along with Konrad Lorentz (filial imprinting) and Karl von Frisch (bee signalling).

Subsequent decades saw the passage of clean air acts, the washing clean of trees by unpolluted rainwater and the return of lichens, and a recovery of the numbers of typica at the expense of carbonaria.

So here we had the clearest possible example of Darwinian evolution in action. Variation dependent on a single gene; a selection pressure, namely predation by birds; an evolved response, namely camouflage; and a change in the direction of evolution with circumstances as camouflage favoured first one variant, then the other. Or so it seemed.

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9-11… Random Thoughts

by Omar Ali


This is not a post about the great tragedy of 9-11 or the great tragedies that followed 9-11. These are just some random thoughts about some arguments that show up around this topic and that I, as a regular blogger and commentator on the intertubes, have taken part in over the years. Since most of my friends and interlocutors are westernized liberals or leftists, this is necessarily focused on arguments common in the westernized liberal world. By saying this, I hope to deflect the inevitable argument that I am “missing” or ignoring the awful, bone-chilling, sickening racism and islamophobia that is rampant on the Western right wing; or that I am ignoring the awful, bone-chilling, sickening anti-semitism and islamofascism that is rampant in the Islamist world or, for that matter, the awful, scary, racist nationalism that bubbles through sections of the Chinese intertubes. I am going to give those a miss, even though I am vaguely aware of their existence. This post is not going to be fair and balanced; It is about our pathologies (or my pathologies, as the case may be). And many of the sentences in this article are copied from previous comments and past posts.

Truthers: In some ways, the existence of the 9-11 truth movement should be completely unsurprising. Every world historical event generates conspiracy theories (and some of them are even true) and it is no surprise that the largest terrorist atrocity in US history, followed by two wars (at least one on completely false pretenses) and massive domestic spying and other illegalities, would generate many conspiracy theories. But the way otherwise intelligent and sensible people argue in support of outlandish and completely irrational theories about controlled demolitions and remote-controlled aircraft has still been a surprise and a learning experience. This is not about the claims themselves (which have been debunked in great detail on hundreds of occasions) but rather about what I have learned from arguing about them.

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