Doing science the Wonga way

The model used by the payday loans company might finally make science work for everyone. Could we be about to enter the age of Wonga science?

Occasionally a corporate entity tries to get science done its way. Google, for instance, sponsors various researchers to find out whether their worthy, planet-improving idea can work. But what would we get if the payday loans company Wonga.com sponsored science?

It’s not an idle question. Just recently, up in committee room 17 of the House of Commons, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s science minister, gathered academics and asked for thoughts on the public role of science and how we should fund it. The responses weren’t terribly conclusive or enlightening. But one interesting thing came up – the origins of Wonga.

Wonga’s eye-watering prices (borrowing £400 for 28 days will cost you £117.48, for example) have been the subject of questions downstairs in the Commons and the Lords. Stella Creasy MP is trying to get the Financial Services Authority to cap the rate of interest a company can charge. She is supported in the other chamber by the future archbishop of Canterbury, who has called Wonga’s business model “morally wrong”.

Apparently the algorithm behind Wonga.com was originally developed to detect banking fraud. The subtext in Onwurah’s meeting was clear – Wonga is an evil application of perfectly good algorithms, and if someone had said those algorithms could lead to Wonga questions would have been asked of those funding their development. Especially, perhaps, if Onwurah were in charge. When Wonga ploughed £24m into Newcastle Football Club in exchange for on-shirt advertising, Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed outrage. She called Wonga a source of “debt and misery”.

There are two reasons to take issue with this. First, many people are clearly happy to pay hundreds of pounds for a short-term loan. Wonga’s reported customer satisfaction is above Apple’s and far above that recorded by any of the high-street banks. Second, Onwurah’s remit is innovation, science and digital infrastructure and yet she slurs a company that has used science and digital infrastructure to innovate. The firm is expanding into the US and is on course to become a billion-dollar company next year.

The good news is that the government will soon have a Wonga-friendly chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport is at present the director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest scientific and medical research charity and an investor in Wonga. When Creasy challenged Walport about this, he replied that he finds Wonga “extremely engaging”, with a good business model and a willingness to listen to feedback.

This bodes extremely well for Walport’s stint as the UK’s most influential scientist. Clearly, he’s not populist, he’s not swayed by conflicts with authority and he’s not averse to a bit of level-headed thinking.

Coming round

If Onwurah comes round, she and Walport might even usher in the age of Wonga science. This would be open to no-fuss funding of projects and people that are currently considered unfundable, ending the pyramid scheme that makes life easy for established professors and near-impossible for those trying to become established. It would reward people who cross disciplines to achieve optimum productivity (one of Wonga’s co-founders, Jonty Hurwitz, trained as a mathematician and physicist and then became a software engineer and entrepreneur). Pursuing interdisciplinary research is widely known as a fast track to the funding wilderness.

Wonga science would present straight-talking science advice to government and pursue research that has no useful application in sight. It would also encourage scientists to take things we already have and find entirely new purposes for them. Most appealing, it might show us gaps in our scientific research that no one even realised were there. The Wonga model might finally make science work for everyone.

 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile