Did John Oliver elect Trump?


I used to love John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show. I used to share every episode of it. I used to be a big fan.

But the more the 2016 US Presidential election approached, the more John Oliver was dissing Donald Trump. The more he criticized, caricatured and stigmatized the Republican candidate. The more he described him as unreliable, stupid and dangerous.

Was he right? I do not know. And I do not care. Whether this description is relevant is not the focus of this blog post.

Instead, what I shall argue is that it is precisely this stigmatization of Trump that indirectly made Trump popular. John Oliver’s criticisms did not damage Trump’s campaign; they fed it. The more Trump became hated by the Democrats, the more Republicans defended him, and the more these Republicans successfully rallied the swing votes. To the point where, in the end, Trump might have won the election thanks to the vicious circle that John Oliver bootstrapped.

Yesterday, I released a video on my (French) YouTube channel entitled “Dear Conviction, mutate into a viral infection”. The video anthropomorphizes a conviction and explains the mechanisms that will help it become viral.

The ideas presented in the video are not new. They had been researched by empirical psychology and sociology, and brilliantly presented by CGP Grey.

According to this analysis, convictions are like viruses or germs that are transmitted through metaphorical sneezes: speeches, tweets, videos and other web medias. As a result, and especially in the modern age where sneezes are more contagious than ever before, popular convictions are not convincing convictions. Popular convictions are convictions that get people sneezing.

Yet, you can easily get people riled up by sneezing at them ideas they strongly disagree with. In fact, it is precisely when being sneezed at by such enraging ideas that people will be sneezing their own convictions with the greatest virulence. In other words, if you want to get people strongly engaged in a cause, the best way to go seems to be to show them why the opposite side is deeply biased, wrong, stupid and dangerous.

But beware, as your side grows, so will the other side. In fact, if your side is itself irrationally biased — which, let’s face it, is almost always the case — then the other side will easily collect plenty of reasons to regard your side as deeply wrong, stupid and dangerous.

From this point on, the louder side will no longer be the side whose convictions is most empirically justified or scientifically based. The louder side will be the angrier side.

Now, you might argue that we live in democracy and, as a result, the angrier side need not be the winning side. The winning side should be the larger side. But perhaps the key figure to understand how the angrier side can now become the winning side is turnout. Turnout for the 2016 US Presidential election was, according to Wikipedia, 55%. Most voters did not vote. Only angrier voters did, as well as those that got hooked by angrier voters.

While John Oliver definitely successfully made Democrat voters angry, I would argue that he made Republican voters angrier. If you are a Democrat, you might not have felt it. But his mocking jokes are incredibly violent. He has made Republicans angrier than any other Democrat could have.

So, to sum up, democracy requires a larger side (plus or minus electoral college voting weirdness). But in the context of low turnout, the larger side were to be the angrier side. Yet, John Oliver mostly made Trump’s side the angrier side. Thus, it seems to me that John Oliver favored Trump’s election.

I certainly have my own bias concerning Trump (which I’m sure you’ll easily guess). But the point of this post is not about how to favor your favorite candidate or how to oppose your least-favorite one. The point of this post is to stress the counter-intuitive consequences of (poor) arguing. Mocking, stigmatizing and caricaturing a conviction is actually likely to promote it. This holds for sharing mocking, stigmatizing and caricaturing web medias as well. And more generally, such arguing techniques only increase an already increasing ideological segregation (see Are American More Divided Than Ever).

Needless to say that, since I made this observation, I have stopped sharing John Oliver’s content. It is perhaps time we promote other styles of communication.

I have a new, very exciting project…


I don’t want to say too much about it so far, but, yes, I have a new, very exciting project in mind. It will be in French (sorry English readers!), and it will be awesome.

A year and a half ago, I had a crazy, but hugely exciting summer… even though I did not travel much! That summer, I wrote, shot and edited a 2-hour documentary on undergrad mathematics. It was amazing, and I got overwhelmingly awesome feedbacks. Just check them out (they’re in French though)!

And, as my postdoc is coming to an end, the timing is perfect for a sequel. For the sequel. I’m currently writing a script for a 3-hour documentary on big data mathematics! And it’s going to be awesome!

My Podcast Interview on GLIMPSE


A few weeks ago, Alex Albanese interviewed me on the MIT post-doc GLIMPSE Podcast. We discussed populations, cakes, toilets, Google and many more topics. The podcast was released yesterday.


It was an awesome experience. Alex is a great interviewer. And, even though he is a biologist (I guess I can forgive that ;)), he was extremely sharp and quickly saw deep connections between the various mathematical topics I discussed. It was a real pleasure to interact with him, and I think that the podcast shows this very well. In fact, I highly recommend you to check his other GLIMPSE Podcasts.

What’s Einstein’s gravity? General relativity explained! Science4All 15


Last time, we saw that Einstein explains the falling of the apple by the upwards acceleration of the ground. This is Einstein’s happiest thought. But wouldn’t this imply that the surface of the Earth is expanding outwards? Well, no. Why? Because of spacetime curvature! At last, this video explains how Einstein’s gravity really works.

Warning! This video is a bit more technical than usual, and previous videos are prerequisites to fully grasp this one. They include:
Is special relativity relative? Time dilation and space contraction | Science4All 6
What’s wrong with that map? Spherical Geometry | Science4All 9
What’s a straight line? Curved-space geometry | Science4All 10
What’s the geometry of my underpants? Hyperbolic Geometry | Science4All 11
Are astronauts weightless? Einstein’s happiest thought | Science4All 14

More to understand general relativity…
Spacetime of General Relativity | Science4All Article
Is gravity acceleration or curvature? Follow-up clarifications | Science4All 16
Is Gravity An Illusion? | Space Time | PBS Digital Studios
General Relativity & Curved Spacetime Explained! | Space Time | PBS Digital Studios
What proved general relativity? Einstein’s heart palpitations | Science4All 17
What’s the destiny of the universe? Einstein’s biggest blunder | Science4All 18
What’s gravitational time dilation? Twin & Grandfather paradox | Science4All 20

Splash Report – My Best Teaching ever!


So good. I’ve just spent most of my week-end teaching as part of the MIT splash event, where high school students came in and took classes that went way beyond the high school curriculum. These guys are way smarter than I expected; and they were very, very curious. What a pleasure it was, just to get to interact with them!

On Saturday, I taught a 4-hour class on the math foundation crisis (which I kind of regarded as a warm-up my upcoming Youtube series). The 2 first hours were awesome. Both for me, and — I think — for them. The trouble was, they were way smarter and knowledgeable than I expected, so we went through all of what we prepared in just 2 hours. Seriously. They cracked the infinite hat problem with the axiom of choice in half a minute! So the last 2 hours were improvisation — and it turns out, I’m not comfortable with math foundation to improvise a class on this topic… At least so far.

Sunday was my marathon day. I first taught a 2-hour class on the mathematics of democracy — an field I have done research in. I had a class of hundreds of students — 138 were registered. So awesome. The students were very curious. They asked insightful questions, and proposed clever answers to the numerous questions I asked them. They also elected Batman as the Condorcet winner of superheroes! At the end, I proposed the voting system I have been designing in my research (which hopefully I’ll write and talk about on the Internet soon…). To my surprise, I even seemed to have convinced them that this was the right voting system… But that’s just a detail. What matters is that, for sure, they left pondering the legitimacy of all voting systems that are widely used these days… and that’s a big deal!

Next was a 2-hour class on cryptography and the theory of complexity. This was the only class that didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Somehow, I didn’t manage to connect with most of the students. Perhaps, the long historical introduction I presented was a bit too long. Perhaps, as well, the students started to get tired after over a day of advanced classes all over MIT…

At lunch, I must say, I was a bit afraid. While students started to get tired, I had become exhausted. Would I still find the energy and the voice to present another 4-hour class? Plus, by far, this 4-hour class was the one I prepared the least. Seriously, my slides were mostly pictures of physicists… But as it turned out, this last class would be the one I was actually the most prepared for, as it was about the theories of gravity I have been talking about in my recently finished series on general relativity.

This class was awesome! Step by step, I got the students to almost figure out by themselves the most brilliant thoughts of Galileo, Newton and Einstein. The climax was when I repeatedly asked them: “If gravity is not a force — which is what Einstein claimed — why do apples fall?” It took them a while. They proposed different ideas. Mostly wrong. But that’s okay. Einstein himself got mostly wrong ideas. But, slowly, they got warmer. And warmer. Until, all of sudden, one student said half convincingly: “the ground is accelerating upwards!” Yes! Yes, yes, yes! The ground is accelerating upwards!!!

I had several students thanking me for the classes. Many even said that my classes were the best classes they had attended… which, I guess, means that I’m not such a bad teacher when I don’t have to follow some stupid curriculum (which I had to when I was teaching in Montreal), and where students are not fully focused on some upcoming exam. I guess I actually love teaching. But the conditions need to be right… and I do know that conditions will hardly ever be as good as they were in this amazing Splash event…

I guess Youtube is the next best thing :p. Come on Final Cut, let’s talk logic and math foundation!

Are astronauts weightless? Einstein’s happiest thought | Science4All 14


Finally, here was my first video on general relativity per se. And it starts with a basic but incredibly deep question: Are astronauts weightless? Pondering similar questions (there were no astronauts back then) would lead Einstein to the happiest thought of his life… and for good reasons. It might be the most dramatic thought (in physics) I’ve ever encountered!

Despite a few technical issues and the smallness of the number of views, I still regard this video as my best one yet. Please let me know what you think 😛

How did Newton figure out gravity? On the shoulders of giants | Science4All 13


The theory of gravity did not fall from trees. It took a giant, standing on the shoulders of other giants. Building upon Descartes’ algebraic geometry, Galileo’s law of falling objects and Kepler’s law of planetary orbits, Newton would mark History, as he would infer the fundamental laws of motion and gravity.

Newton’s thoughts are so clear that they had to be true. And for centuries, they were to convince any scholar who would ponder them! Until came some unknown patent clerk…

Links to go further:
The Massive Puzzle of Gravity | Science4All Article
Don’t heavier objects fall faster? Galileo’s Thought Experiment | Science4All 12
Are astronauts weightless? Einstein’s happiest thought | Science4All 14
What’s Einstein’s gravity? General relativity explained! Science4All 15
Is gravity acceleration or curvature? Follow-up clarifications | Science4All 16
What proved general relativity? Einstein’s heart palpitations | Science4All 17

Don’t heavier objects fall faster? Galileo’s Thought Experiment | Science4All 12


Back to physics; back on tracks on our way to Einstein’s theory of general relativity… We start with Galileo’s brilliant insight into gravity, one of the greatest insights I’ve ever got to discover — and I discovered it only about a year ago!

In short, most of what you’ve learned about Galileo’s law of falling objects is, at best, misleading and deceptive… Does it annoy you, as it annoyed some viewers? Or does it clarify a lot of things and get you very excited about Galileo, as it did for me?

What’s a straight line? Curved-space geometry | Science4All 10


Straight lines in curved spaces are highly counter-intuitive, but they are the key to general relativity! Now, many mathematicians and physicists would say that they are distance-minimizing trajectories, which is (almost) true. But, like Gabe on PBS Space Time, I actually don’t like this definition. I think it is neither natural nor insightful… Here’s why:

What do you think? Do you get a feel for straight lines in curved spaces now? Are there things that are troubling you? Tell me!