“Guys,” he writes. “It’s time for some game theory.” Game theory, for the uninitiated, is a branch of mathematics that uses computational models to predict the behavior of human beings in potentially conflictual situations. It’s complex, involves a lot of formal logic and algebra, and is mostly useless. Game theory models human actions on the presumption that everyone is constantly trying to maximize their potential gain against everyone around them; this is why its most famous example concerns prisoners — isolated people, cut off from all the noncompetitive ties that constitute society.
I agree with Sam Kriss about a few points he made in his article on Garland’s now famous/infamous thread. I take issue with his unjustified attack on John Nash, but I don’t blame him for his ignorance. Not many of us know game theorists — though I happen to have a nice one sitting down the hall from me. But the attack on game theory itself seems silly; it’s the basis for a ton of microeconomics and decision theory that was written in the past 50 years, and may have prevented nuclear war. Given what he said, then, Sam Kriss is a bit of an idiot — but unlike Garland, at least he’s a game theoretically optimal one.
Game theory is about describing and understanding the interaction of multiple parties that act at least somewhat rationally — and while Kriss’s straw man isn’t entirely wrong, it’s certainly not right. It’s not always complex, doesn’t always require algebra, and has essentially nothing to do with formal logic — another field I assume Kriss knows nothing about.
A journalist wants to sound intelligent to their audience, but knows little about most subjects. They have several choices — attempt to learn enough to actually be educated on every subject, learn just enough to sound educated to a lay-person, or not bother to learn anything, and either use technical terms very wrongly, in a way transparent to most readers, or not use them at all.
This has different effects on different people; Journalists have a cost of getting it right, and a cost of sounding dumb. The important difference is that in some cases — being only partly educated, or faking it — there can be a consequence for getting caught or called out, and a benefit for the educated in doing so.
A game theorists would represent this notionally, below. (We don’t know the exact values of each option, but a sketch will be helpful for thinking about it.) For each person, they have a payout for what happens. In the second and third column, the result depends on whether the journalist is called out by someone knowledgeable. The first entry is if they are not called out, the second if they are. Obviously, these numbers are not exact, but they are useful in understanding the dynamic, without resorting to “formal logic” or “complex” “algebra.”
Payoffs to: | Learn | Learn a bit | Fake it | Sound Dumb
Journalist | -5 | -1 / -3 | 0 / -20 | -10
Knowledgeable | +1 | -2 / 0 | -2 / +50 | -1
Lay Public | +5 | +1 | -1 / +1 | -1
(Of course, the exact values differ by area — the cost for a business journalist to be ignorant might be higher, since their audience is mostly knowledgeable people. Similarly, the choice isn’t discrete — journalists can pick how much to learn, anywhere from a bare minimum to a PhD, and so there are a contiuum of options. But this is sufficient for our purposes.)
If you think about the above table for a while, you can see that journalists would love to be able to fake it — but the cost if they are called out is high. Being moderately informed, however, has little downside. Even if someone knowledgeable calls them out, they only look a little silly, and the benefit for someone knowledgeable to do so is small, or nonexistent. So they know enough about game theory to describe it loosely, but not enough to appreciate why it’s useful.
This is the first insight from a game theoretic explanation — Journalists become moderately educated on most subjects, and rarely fake knowledge completely. But they also aren’t usually interested in becoming really educated, because it has too little benefit for them.
The second insight, though, gets to the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” he mocked. Hundreds or thousands of people would benefit from knowledgeable journalists, but there is not enough incentive for them to do so. This means that the public gains little, but not nothing, from reading their semi-informed thoughts. This has little to do with prisoners, except in the sense that we are all held captive by the idiocy promoted by lazy journalism. This is referred to in economics as a market failure — there is insufficient incentive for smart journalism, and little incentive for educated people to call out journalists on their semi-educated status.
Ideally, journalists should learn more, and then stick to their strengths — everyone would win, at the expense of journalists working a bit harder to develop those strengths. Instead, we have a news culture that rewards writers for moderate ignorance. And that’s why it’s optimal for Kriss to stay ignorant of game theory — while still obeying its dictates.