Noah Brier | February 24, 2022

The Conflict of Interest Edition

On journalism, butting heads, and peer review

Noah here. A few weeks ago a video made its way around Twitter and the web with an exchange between Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Matt Lee and State Department spokesman Ned Price. The video made waves because Lee pushes back hard on some of the State Department’s claims around some specific Russian infowar tactics related to Ukraine. 

The conversation caught the attention of many because we aren’t often privy to these kinds of heated exchanges, which likely happen behind closed doors if they’re happening at all. Lee responds forcefully, asking for evidence and not backing down when he doesn’t feel as though that standard has been reached. 

Why is this interesting?

The adversarial nature of the relationship between media and government—or whatever sector they’re covering—is, in code terms, a feature, not a bug. Journalists aren’t meant to take your word for it: they’re meant to dig into claims and uncover what’s true and what’s not. The fact that the two sides have differing interests is what allows the whole thing to work. 

In a recent episode of the Complexity Podcast from the Santa Fe Institute, Simon DeDeo described just how important this kind of conflict can be in academia and law and what starts to break when it’s missing (lightly edited for readability):

We see in some of the data that when a scientific field stops using peer review, or peer review somehow is going wrong, the field itself starts to fall apart. And in fact, one example is, we actually see that people get less creative when there's no peer review, which is really interesting. And so why might that be? One reason people get less creative when there's no peer review is that now the only judgment that you can make about the validity of the article is whether it smells right—whether it sounds good. Whereas if there's a journal of a strong peer review, that could be an article there, that's totally counterintuitive. And I'm like, well, it's in Cognition. That's a great journal. There may be something more to this. Some people hate peer review. I love it. I mean, I hate it. But I also love it. I hate it the same way a prosecutor hates the jury system. Of course, in one sense, you hate it because you're trying to win. But in another sense, you love it, because that's in the end, what establishes the legitimacy and the functionality of, in one case, scientific exploration of the other case, community justice. 

There are a lot of documented issues with peer review, it’s far from a perfect system, but by creating some conflict and friction it appears to produce better outcomes. Lots of bad things can happen when the friction goes away and everything becomes synchronized. While we often praise synchronization in the world of business—“everyone should row as one”—when companies or markets get overly synchronized, you can get fraud and bubbles. Even the assembly line, one of the great business innovations of the 20th century, was essentially a way to build cars in a less synchronous way. Instead of constructing one at a time, where any issue could hold up the whole process, you built the car in components and put it all together at the end. (If you haven’t read the Subsystems Edition it’s all about these ideas.) The just-in-time manufacturing revolution of the late century pushed those ideas even further.

One image that keeps popping into my head is a suspension bridge that sways until it begins to tear itself apart. When things become too synchronized—in this case, bridge and wind—the effects can be catastrophic. While we often look at adversarial relationships as problematic, they can also help ensure we don’t fall perilously in sync. (NRB)


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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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