THR Blog   /   January 6, 2021

The School for Scale

The problem with scale is that we don’t understand it.

Alan Jacobs

( Portrayal of discussion. Oliver Tacke via Wikimedia Commons.)

“I’m sick of having ‘ideas.’”

“Really. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a person would get sick of.”

“I am, though.”

“Well, then, why don’t you stop?”

“I am stopping. In a way, anyhow.”

“Well, then, problem solved.”

“Not really. One problem solved, another created.”

“How about you either drop this or tell me what you’re talking about.”

“Okay. I’m thinking a lot these days about scale.”

“Scale.”

“Yep. And—”

“I thought you were sick of having ideas.”

“Yeah, well, I’m coming to that. Anyway, the problem with scale is that we don’t understand it—we aren’t wired to understand it.”

“Explain.”

“Sure. Think about Twitter flashmobs. Some random person says something that offends a few people, and that person’s employer starts getting tweets demanding that the criminal be fired. (Or that her forthcoming book be canceled, or whatever.) It starts with two or three people, then someone with two hundred followers retweets the demands, and then someone with two thousand followers sees those retweets and adds a retweet of her own, and pretty soon there’s a bit of noise about this terrible person who needs to be fired.”

“Sounds like more than a ‘bit.’”

“But it’s not! This is my point. Five hundred million tweets get fired off every day. Twitter has maybe 350 million users, Facebook is closing in on three billion users. A few hundred people tweeting and retweeting about something that’s pissing them off that day—that’s nothing. Less than nothing. And of course all the people who think that the demands for some poor chump to be sacrificed to some mini-mob’s local deity are nonsensical, we don’t even hear from them. And yet company execs regularly go into a panic and immediately make the burnt offering.”

“You make a point. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the companies under attack promised a full investigation—and then did nothing.”

“There’s no doubt that almost all the fiercest protesters would forget all about it in 48 hours. But even if they didn’t, they’re not statistically significant. Or, to be more accurate, often the numbers of protestors aren’t statistically significant. My argument is that the company honchos don’t know the difference between a significant protest and an insignificant one. The scale at which these social-media kerfuffles happen shorts our their decision-making apparatus. People complain all the time about ‘cancel culture,’ but the real problem isn’t Twitter trolls braying for the punishment of the wicked; it’s people in authority who pay attention to them.”

“Well, the way Twitter facilitates and rewards trolling is also a problem. I’m old enough to remember when Twitter didn’t enable RTs and people had to do it with copy and paste, which often we didn’t bother to do. Those were the good old days.”

“You too have a point. Also, think about the Trump supporters who believe that the election was stolen from their man. In one sense it’s the same phenomenon: Somebody claims to have seen some irregularity, and that claim gets posted to Twitter or Facebook, and then someone else reposts or retweets it, and soon you get exactly the same problem that we just talked about, something that looks like an overwhelming tsunami of corruption—in this case it’s corruption, in the other case it was a protest—that simply must reflect a massive reality.”

“Yes, but, if I can run with your thought for a minute, there is another element to it, isn’t there?”

“Such as?”

“Well, it’s not just the scale of social-media signal boosting that’s relevant. There’s also the question of the scale at which voting happens in a country of 330 million people.”

“Exactly. Though perhaps we should say a country in which 150 million people voted in the most recent election.”

“Right. People hear about an election worker who accepted a ballot, or ten ballots, or twenty ballots that were improperly signed, and they see that as but the tip of a vast iceberg of fraud.”

“Indeed. But what they don’t realize is that that sort of thing would only make an impact on the election if the iceberg were not 90% underwater but 99.999% underwater.”

“And then there are also questions about whether there might have been errors going in the other direction, questions about the reliability of witnesses, reliance on second- or third-hand testimony….”

“Yep, all that is true, but for now I just want to focus on the problem of scale. People just don’t realize how many ballots would have to be falsified, altered, or miscounted in order to change the outcome of the election. The overall problem here is that we are just not any good at thinking about probabilities on a level beyond that of Dunbar’s number.”

“Dunbar’s…? That’s the guy who thinks that we can only really know about 150 people?”

“Basically, yes, though it’s more complicated than that. Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist at Oxford who thinks we operate, socially, with circles of different sizes. We have a super-intimate group of people whom we would trust with our lives—maybe  five people in typical circumstances—and then a group of fifteen intimates, then about fifty friends, and then 150 people who are at the level of good acquaintance. People we’d greet and chat with if we ran into them at the airport. Beyond that circle, Dunbar say, our thinking is increasingly abstract and we become dependent on various heuristics to sum up people or groups of people—and to do so in increasingly simplistic ways as the numbers get bigger. Stereotyping. The thing I’m talking about is not exactly the same as what Dunbar was talking about, but it’s a very similar phenomenon: It’s what happens when we are out of our cognitive depth, where we lose the ability to make reliable judgments, because our brains are basically overwhelmed by the scale. Fried by all the data voltage passing through.”

“You know, I wonder if our reactions to COVID aren’t similarly flawed. We don’t seem to be very good at assessing risk of transmission, or how quickly the disease can spread through a population.”

“Yes! And in this case the scale involved is geometric progression. Did you know the old story about the man who invented chess?”

“Nope.”

“So the story goes that the rajah was so impressed by the brilliance of this invention that he told the inventor that he could have whatever he asked for. And the inventor pulled out a chessboard and asked for one grain of rice to be placed on the first square, and then two grains to be placed on the second square, four on the third eight on the fourth, and so on until the 64 squares were filled. The rajah immediately granted this request, without realizing that there was not enough rice in the world to fulfill the terms of the agreement.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“No, it doesn’t sound right at all—but it is. Get out a calculator and try it, and you will see. By the time you get to the end of the first row, you have 128 grains of rice, which is not terrible. But at the end of the second row it’s over 32,000. And then—here’s when it starts to look really ugly for the rajah—at the end of the third row you’re over eight million. And of course it gets worse from there, geometrically worse. Imagine if the chess-inventor had asked for the grains of rice to be tripled.”

“I will try. Anyway, this is more or less how a disease like COVID works—though of course its spread is not fixed in the way the grains of rice are reliably multiplied on that chessboard. But we can figure out its average rate of spread—and we can be immensely grateful that it doesn’t spread nearly as fast as measles does.”

“Yes we can. And in these cases—the rice on the chessboard, the transmission of infectious disease—what our minds struggle to grasp is, specifically, an increase in scale. Like that little logic puzzle you may know: A lily pad on a pond doubles in size every day, and on the fiftieth day covers the entire pond. On what day did it cover half of the pond?”

“Oh, I know this one: the 49th day. But I have to admit that I didn’t get that right the first time I was asked. Again, it just doesn’t sound right.”

“No it doesn’t. And the ways ‘that doesn’t sound right’ misleads us is a problem in all sorts of ways. For instance, it’s why people find it so hard to imagine natural selection producing complex organisms and complex organs within those organisms. We can’t get our minds around the time scale involved, because nothing we actually experience is on anything like that scale. Richard Dawkins can be something of a buffoon and his thinking about religion is woefully inept, but he has a book on this subject that I think is his best: Climbing Mount Improbable. He does a great job of explaining how a proper understanding of time changes our sense of what is and is not probable.”

“I’ll put it on my reading list.”

“No you won’t. But that’s okay. Actually, on second thought it’s not really okay, and that leads me back to where we started, with my claim to being sick of having ideas.”

“Oh right, I had forgotten that. This conversation doesn’t suggest that you are sick of having ideas.”

“Well, what I mean is that I’m sick of thinking about these things and not having any concrete recommendations for what to do about them. So what I would really like to do is to create a School for Scale.”

“A euphonious name.”

“Yes, I think so, and also an accurate one. What if we had an entire curriculum constructed to remedy our inability to grasp the scale at which our world functions, and I mean that on multiple levels: the biological, the technological, the economic, the social, you name it. What if school in a quite fundamental sense were about understanding scale? Learning to think appropriately about how big the universe is, how old the universe is, how much money is in the world. The ratio between the size of the world’s oceans and the amount of plastic floating in them. Coming to understand the ways that social media overwhelm our Dunbar’s-number brains. Learning about the rates of transmission of infectious disease. These are all different ways of, as it were, climbing Mount Improbable.”

“Got that on my reading list.”

“Mmm-hmmm. But it’s a phenomenon that’s much broader and larger than Dawkins’s book suggests. It touches on almost every aspect of our lives.”

“I’m not sure about that. It doesn’t seem to touch on the arts and humanities.”

“Well … you may be right. I need to think about that.”

“I mean, there are points of relevance, and I’m not sure how central they are to your goals. For instance, I know that students tend to be very skeptical when their literature teachers point out to them, say, patterns of language or image in a novel. Surely all that wasn’t intended? But they’re skeptical because that they don’t realize the gap between the amount of time they spend reading a book and the amount of time the writer spent meditating on it, planning it, and then actually writing it.”

“That makes sense. I also remember reading that the novelist Thomas Mann just wrote one page a day—but did it every day. And when you do that, at the end of the year you have a 365 page book. Or half of a 730 page book. Producing a 730 page book even in two years might seem wildly ambitious, but it’s just one page a day. Anyhow, I don’t know.  These things are interesting, but they don’t really seem to be at the heart of what the arts and humanities are all about.”

“No, they aren’t. So does that mean that the arts and humanities get left out of your School for Scale?”

“I hope not, but let’s table that question for another day.”

“Hang on, no, let’s not. It occurs to me that you can understand a lot about works of art by understanding the scale on which they are made—and at which they are received. A sonnet can be as great as an epic, though its greatness will take a very different form. Its resources are deployed in a small compass, whereas the epic necessarily sprawls. A single song by Schubert can be as great as an opera; a miniature portrait meant to fit in a locket as great as a vast landscape painting! But the kinds of excellence available to the artists—and to the viewers, listeners, readers—depend on the available scope. This is actually a vital thing to understand.”

“Would you like to be my vice-principal?”

“Where do I sign?”

“So maybe the people educated at the School for Scale will be better makers and receivers of art—as well as better friends, citizens, and employees.”

“Oh, they’ll be all those things?”

“Well, we can hope. Also that they’ll also make better investments and will be less vulnerable to deceit and manipulation. But I certainly mean what I say about friendship, citizenship, and the workplace. They’ll have a stronger understanding of how workplaces change their character as they increase in size, and will be more conscious and intentional about how to flourish in different circumstances. When they become bosses themselves, they’ll more intelligently shape and communicate their expectations according to the dynamics of a particular business size. They’ll be stronger at assessing evidence in every arena of life where evidence matters. They’ll be less vulnerable to the social-media tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Heck, they’ll probably be smart enough to avoid social media altogether. And if their friends get dragged on Twitter, they’ll come around with a consoling word, based on their knowledge of how evanescent these fits of outrage are.”

“Sounds great. But the thing I’m wondering is how we could get this thing off the ground. We need investors, don’t we?”

“Yep.”

“Angel investors, venture capitalists, those kinds of people.”

“Yep.”

“Do you know any?”

“Nope.”

“Me neither.”