The Rationality of Large Numbers

This is a huge topic – I will not be able to cover it in a single post, not even in just a few posts. What I want to do here and now is to introduce the topic, and to describe why I feel it is so immensely important.

First: What do I mean by „large numbers“. Oddly, I am not even exactly sure myself. I think I mean at least two things. Most directly and obviously, I mean the statistical and research methodology that is a cornerstone of the scientific method which has been used with such resounding success for hundreds of years already. Basically, this has to do with large populations (whether of people, of atoms or of other things), and how there seem to be quite predictable relationships between characteristics of populations and characteristics of individual members of such populations. Although I do not mean to diminish the importance of the insights gained from such statistical analysis, one point that often seems to get overlooked is that it is nonetheless a belief system – much like a religion, we believe that atoms (and similar properties of phenomena we refer to collectively as „the hard sciences“) behave in accordance to such laws (as „the law of large numbers“) throughout the universe. Nonetheless, to call the entire scientific method into question because of this one intriguing point would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Let me turn to a much more disconcerting issue with respect to the notion of large numbers. In the scientific approach, it seems quite clear that the aim is to be able to make predictions about populations which basically result from the way a large number of individual members of these populations function. There is, however, also a much more controversial matter – namely, that large populations may also have an impact on individual members. Although this may not be obvious when talking about atoms or similar „inanimate“ phenomena, one would be quite hard pressed to maintain that one single bird is not influenced by actions of the flock, or that one single human is not affected by actions of a mob of people which he or she is a member of.

Beyond that, over the past century or so it has become blatantly obvious that individuals are not only influenced by actual mobs, but that are even prone to change their behavior on the basis of merely a percieved influence of mobs. The groundbreaking insights of Gustav Lebon at the close of the 19th Century were used with amazing „success“ throughout the 20th Century, and they are still being used today. In many – no: in the vast majority of – countries today, the vast majority of the population believe that the „top result“ for any search using google.com are validated by the vast majority of the population worldwide. Similarly, advertisements shown on facebook.com or on the screens of smartphones are assumed to be backed „by the numbers“.

In this sense, one can quite reasonably argue that „belief in Google“, „belief in Facebook“, etc. are on par with belief in other religious organizations and/or belief in some kind of infallible oracle.

At the same time (over the past century or so), there have been significant advances in the scientific approaches used to measure and improve the effectivity of propaganda and manipulation. Today advertising has become something akin to the gold standard of validation with respect to new ideas, innovation and anything modern, successful and/or technologically advanced. I remember seeing billboards advertising apple products nearly everywhere about 10 years ago, and such overwheming repitition was a nearly everpresent and constant reminder that apple was „where it’s at“, plain and simple because apple was everywhere. Today, „everywhere“ has also even eradicated the traditional distinction between „editorial“ and „advertising“ once used in „traditional“ publishing. Today, the „newsfeed“ is populated with many advertisements and product placements, and the vast majority of news consumers view this as a sign of success.

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