Con Men and Bespoke Realities

End of November. The sun sets early; the house is chillier. We have our thermostat set to 68. And I think I’m approaching the finishing of one of my long-term projects. And still working on another.

  • Adam Frank on learning skepticism by growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, and learning about con men;
  • David French on bespoke realities.

Big Think, Adam Frank, 30 Nov 2023: The most important lesson about being a scientist I learned in New Jersey, subtitled “I grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and that experience gave me everything I needed to become a skeptic.”

Adam Frank is the author of several books, one of which I reviewed here, another of which is The Little Book of Aliens, which came out about a month ago and which I haven’t read yet.

This piece is interesting for its take on how doing science is similar to not being taken in by con men.

Key Takeaways

• Dr. Adam Frank grew up in New Jersey in a tough neighborhood — which ended up serving him well in life. • Science requires that you be appropriately skeptical of extraordinary claims, like “ancient aliens” visiting Earth. • Unless you are expecting the con, you are going to get taken. This is the biggest lesson Dr. Frank learned on the mean streets of the Garden State.

He grew up in a tough neighborhood and got into lots of fights.

Luckily, I got into space, astronomy, and aliens early, and that helped me deal with it all. I caught the bug from my dad. While my parents got divorced when I was just 3, my dad lived across the river in Manhattan, and he loved science. His science fiction books, and his guided tours of the Hayden Planetarium, lit the astronomy/life-in-the-Universe fire in my little kid heart. That pre-existing interest in aliens is what eventually led me to Erich von Däniken’s famous book Chariots of the Gods — and that is how New Jersey and all it taught me comes into my story of skepticism.

(My own history of discovering both science and pseudo-science also involved Erich von Däniken; see my account, written in April 2020 [just as the pandemic set in!] here: My History with Pseudo-Science (Briefly) and Science.)

Frank goes on about von Däniken and a Nova TV documentary that debunked him (similarly to my examples in the essay just linked).

In every case, these scholars [on Nova] offered pretty simple explanations — grounded in actual data — for von Däniken’s alien visitations. By the time the credits rolled on the documentary, I had been transformed from an excited, alien-obsessed kid into a very pissed off, alien-obsessed kid.

I’d been lied to. I’d been hoodwinked. I’d bought a line of nonsense, and it is here that growing up in the industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey comes in. In this part of the world — and as a teenager, I was old enough to understand it — everybody has a hustle. From the guy selling high end stereo speakers from out of his car that, you know, “fell off the truck” to the other guy who wants you to work for him hawking cooking sets door to door (“Kid, you’ll be flush!”), everybody has an angle. Everybody has a story to get ahead, and they are going to do it through you. Unless you’re skeptical, unless you are expecting the con, you are going to get taken. You are going to be a mark.

That is exactly what happened to me with von Däniken and his ancient aliens. His book was the scientific equivalent of a scam, and I had fallen for it. I vowed never to let it happen again.

And he concludes (this is a short piece):

In science, we learn that brutal requirements are needed for linking a piece of evidence to a claim about that evidence (like a blurry picture of a flying saucer being proof that aliens are visiting Earth). But I didn’t need physics graduate school to teach me that. I had already got my lessons in the necessity for hard-nosed, keen-eyed skepticism from the Garden State, and it served me well as a scientist for 30 years.

There are always people open to falling for scams. Trump, conspiracy-theorists and other disinformation con-men, depend on them. You can fool some of the people all of the time… here attributed to Abraham Lincoln.


On a related note.

NY Times, David French opinion, 30 Nov 2023: Welcome to Our New ‘Bespoke Realities’

I’ve floated this idea before. It’s always been the case that every individual perceives a slightly different reality, based on their personal experiences and beliefs. It only becomes a problem, as French says, when…

When I was growing up, the father of one of my friends was fascinated by the J.F.K. assassination. Another friend’s dad devoured accounts of U.F.O. encounters. They weren’t weird or worrisome or dangerous men, just quirky and interesting. Under no circumstance were they a threat to American democracy.

But in recent years I’ve encountered, both in person and online, a phenomenon that is different from the belief or interest in any given conspiracy theory. People don’t just have strange or quirky ideas on confined subjects. They have entire worldviews rooted in a comprehensive network of misunderstandings and false beliefs.

And these aren’t what you’d call low-information voters. They’re some of the most politically engaged people I know. They consume news voraciously. They’re perpetually online. For them, politics isn’t just a hobby; in many ways, it’s a purpose.

There is a fundamental difference between, on the one hand, someone who lives in the real world but also has questions about the moon landing, and on the other, a person who believes the Covid vaccine is responsible for a vast number of American deaths and Jan. 6 was an inside job and the American elite is trying to replace the electorate with new immigrant voters and the 2020 election was rigged and Donald Trump is God’s divine choice to save America.

Such individuals don’t simply believe in a conspiracy theory, or theories. They live in a “bespoke reality.” That brilliant term comes from my friend Renée DiResta, the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, and it refers to the effects of what DiResta calls a “Cambrian explosion of bubble realities,” communities “that operate with their own norms, media, trusted authorities and frameworks of facts.”

This invocation of the Cambrian explosion of bubble realities is a striking observation.

[I]n 2019, YouTube hosted more than 8,000 channels with more than a million subscribers apiece. This means YouTube alone is sending a tsunami of content into the public square, algorithmically curated to provide subscribers with exactly the videos it predicts they’ll like.

And the market — Facebook and other social media sites — are happy “to provide us with all the misinformation we like”, a point we’ve seen before.

The article refers to this upcoming book — Invisible Rulers: The People Who Turn Lies into Reality, by Renee DiResta — and goes on to discuss Trump voters, “in spite of his eye-watering displays of corruption and misconduct,” bespoke realities on the left, and the difficulty in avoiding contact with bespoke realities. And what to do about it.


It’s important to recognize that no person or movement is immune to the temptations of bespoke reality. We’re all vulnerable, including me, and we should not presume that we possess the innate character, wisdom and insight to avoid the comfortable falsehood in favor of the difficult truth. Rather, I recognize that I’m vulnerable and take specific steps to try to challenge my priors.

That means following as many or more people who disagree with me as agree with me. That means reading the best and smartest people I can find who disagree with me. These practices help both challenge me and humanize my opponents.

Unless we strive to be self-aware, and sometimes even when we do, we fall prey to our own human nature and the algorithms designed to feed us our expressed preferences. Bespoke reality is the path of least resistance. It’s what feels natural. It’s what feels comfortable. Understanding the real world, by contrast, requires effort. It requires us to challenge ourselves. And it requires us to accept an alarming reality: In the midst of this “Cambrian explosion” of information and outlets, our own curiosity and quest for insight — the very tools on which we’ve relied to dig for the truth — can instead lead us astray.

What am I doing in this regard? Well, most obviously, I look at sites that track other sites expressing opinions contrary to mine. Joe.My.God; Right Wing Watch. Know they enemy. And for that matter, “mainstream” sites like Slate and Salon cover expressions of the right wing. I keep trying to understand their rationale, and have not made much progress, beyond observing their obvious motivation of ‘change is bad’ and ‘the past was great’ and so on. But I think there’s a common misapprehension that the honest news sites are somehow biased to the left. Only, I would say, to the extent that they are biased to reality.

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