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Against either/or thinking, part 978

This one’s no big deal but it annoys me nonetheless. From Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times:

There will be academic case studies on the mania around GameStop’s stock. There will be philosophical debates about whether this was a genuine protest against hedge funds and inequality or a pump-and-dump scheme masquerading as a moral crusade. Eventually, we will learn whether this was a transformational moment powered by social media that will shift the investing landscape forever, or a short-term blip that soon fades away.

Two things:

1. “Whether this was a genuine protest against hedge funds and inequality or a pump-and-dump scheme masquerading as a moral crusade”: Why can’t it be both, and other things as well, most notably the always potent mix of greed and fomo?

2. “Whether this was a transformational moment powered by social media that will shift the investing landscape forever, or a short-term blip that soon fades away”: Why can’t it be something in between?

In summary, either/or thinking has big problems. By saying “either A or B,” you’re ignoring several other possibilities:

– Neither A nor B

– Both A and B

– Something in between A and B.

We’ve discussed this many times before; see for example here or, for a more academically-focused example, page 962 of this article.

I’m not trying to slam Sorkin here; I know that journalists are busy, and I’m sure that in using the “whether A or B” formulation, he’s not trying to exclude these other possibilities. But I also think that words have implications and that expressing things dichotomously in this way can lead us into misunderstandings. I don’t have evidence for that claim of mine—maybe something like it has been studied in the judgment and decision making literature—it just makes sense to me.

18 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    How about looking at A and B as basis vectors? Sure, any real situation is somewhere in between but it’s easier to illustrate the features using the extreme cases.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Sure. That is what we call “continuous model expansion” in chapter 7 of BDA.

    • jim says:

      “looking at A and B as basis vectors?”

      That probably would make sense in a world of a limited number of possibilities. Say, for example, in a chemical system where there’s only 100-odd possible vectors / dimensions. In this case however the number of basis vectors / dimensions is limitless and the number of possible combinations of dimensions is (limitless)^(limitless).

  2. jim says:

    “Eventually, we will learn whether this was a transformational moment powered by social media that will shift the investing landscape forever, or a short-term blip that soon fades away.”

    Well it’s something to gin up a column about at any rate. I don’t know of a particular case but it’s certain to have happened many times before. “Blip” is probably much closer to reality.

    Reporters love to flog this “powered by social media” thing, as if people never communicated before.

  3. Felix Salmon says:

    Nah this is just lazy throat-clearing, the kind of stuff a journalist writes and then a good editor just deletes. (Most articles are improved by deleting the first paragraph.) It’s important for the writer to write it, it helps them get to what they want to say. But it does need to be deleted by *someone* before publication.

    • Mark Palko says:

      But isn’t this kind of thing now part of the NYT brand, another example indistinguishable from a New York Times pitchbot parody?

      • Andrew says:

        Mark:

        I don’t think this anything particular to the NYT. I think it’s just a natural way that people think. The funny thing is, the horrible either/or framing is a step up from the usual alternative which is to pick one of the two options and just go with it. At least the author of the above-linked article is admitting some uncertainty, even if in only a limited way.

        • Mark Palko says:

          When making a claim, is an explicit statement of uncertainty actually all that helpful unless we really are in unknown unknown territory? Don’t reasonable people assume speakers are fallible and/or biased and statements have to be judged accordingly?

          By comparison, calling out uncertainty where little actually exists often does tremendous damage, misleading readers while allowing journalists to evade responsibility. Virtually all persistent bullshit from power poses to hyperloop proposals depend on false uncertainty coverage. Lots of Sorkin’s peers are able to strike the right balance here, including Harwood, Hiltzik, Lopez, the staff of FT Alphaville, and pretty much everyone you hear on Marketplace.

          The false uncertainty dodge is primarily use when there is some possibility of pushback. You’ll notice that Sorkin treats claims of Gamestop pump-and-dumps and market unfairness differently. Both are very probably true but only one will get him an angry response from some of his readers.

          As for selective uncertainty being worse at the NYT, that’s a topic for another day.

    • Kyle C says:

      The second Bob Newhart show spoofed this in a way that still makes me laugh. The local morning talk show debated “the styrofoam cup: modern convenience, or Satan’s chalice?”

  4. Andrew Wilson says:

    I’ll go with “neither” here. I think the story is, people finally realized that other people read and act based on what they read in online investing forums. Then hedge funds and other large players joined in the fun.

    Fun fact: I found this blog through searches related to my interest in machine learning and finance.

    GameStop the company, I think the story is about an ongoing transformation to e-commerce.

    GameStop the stock, I think the story is zero-commission trades, plus covid related boredom, plus, most importantly, a realization other people really do read the same forums.

    I think we are seeing this in a number of places. A single individual or small group comes up with an idea and fleshes it out. The idea gains momentum online, and is eventually picked up by large players, such as hedge funds and family offices. Eventually the media also joins in.

  5. Zhou Fang says:

    Lemme warm up the hot take engine.

    I think the A or B formulation is about fulfillment of a cognitive need in a lot of people to pigeonhole facts and assertions in a simple form. ~Reality~ might be something more complicated, but for most people who don’t need to know or think much about this, they’d prefer it just be one or the other so they can move on and not think about it. It’s the same as the folks who insist that true honesty in a politician is to give a straight Yes or No answer to all questions.

    Contrariwise, I think where the author gets wrong is “Eventually, we will learn”. Most likely, we won’t. Or different people will have different answers.

  6. Thomas says:

    There are two kinds of people out there.
    – people who divide things into two separate classes
    – all the others

  7. David Marcus says:

    “I know that journalists are busy”: Is this a good excuse for anything?

  8. David W Hogg says:

    Hear, hear! This kind of binary has always seemed related to the true/false binary about a scientific result. It’s not definitely true and it’s not definitely false. Get used to it! But I guess the true/false binary is simpler than the A/B binary.

  9. Martha (Smith) says:

    Brings to mind that when I taught a “continuing education” course called “Common Mistakes in Using Statistics — Spotting Them and Avoiding Them”, I started by saying that perhaps the biggest (or most common?) mistake in using statistics is “expecting too much certainty”.

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