The good, the bad and the ugly of information – conspiracies and respect for expertise
We have the instantaneous capability to query, parse and review all of recorded history. With one click of a button, we can consult legal and political deliberations and records, public company financial information, biographies, educational resources and highly technical material, including the most cutting edge ideas and data in science and technology.
In addition to access to a massive amount of information, we have the ability to create and contribute information and to interact, in real time, with virtually every other person on the planet, individually or all of them at once. In no more than a few seconds, and often for free, one can create a blog, an email account, a website or a social media account. We can literally open up our own virtual publishing house and spread our ideas everywhere in a flash. No investment, no professional credentials or any license is required!
This global phenomenon of increased access into the inner workings of our civilization, and the democratization of ideas and information is incredibly powerful. It promises to change our entire civilization and indeed, it already has. Never before in history has the individual ever been so empowered to scrutinize and monitor the activities of governments and private organizations, including the world’s largest corporations, and to keep abreast of current events and human progress. We are all now empowered to speak up to promote the best of our ideas, technology and values and to speak out against the worst of them. This is an unprecedented platform from which to promote human rights, consumer advocacy, cooperation and to exchange and share global knowledge to the betterment of our entire species.
You may be anticipating the ‘but’ section of this essay and we would hate to disappoint. So what is the downside, you might ask? How could this, in any way, be negative or have potential hazards which we might wish to avoid or minimize? The most obvious downside for our civilization is the opportunity to both create and consume poor information.
Poor information comes in many forms. There is well-intended bad information and there is malicious bad information and everything in between. It seems that both have the same potential to cause great harm. While the malicious variety is more sinister, its innocent counterpart can still result in great harm. We can further qualify this claim and argue that even bad information has a productive role and purpose, if for no other reason than to prompt people to practice argumentation, identify logical flaws and collectively benefit from discussion and interaction. This is certainly true. Let’s leave the positive aspect of bad information aside and analyze its more malevolent big cousin.
It seems that our challenge, as a species, is to focus a majority, or at least a disproportionate amount, of our efforts toward the best of our ideas and to minimize the consequences of the worst among them. The disadvantage of everyone having an equal voice in this democratization of information creation and dissemination is that expertise and authority are diluted to the point that we no do not place sufficient emphasis on or adequately project the best of our ideas in any particular field of inquiry. There is, however, an obvious benefit from challenging authority and allowing layman ideas to flow into the information channel. This will only provide more food for thought for those who are most qualified to assimilate this new information and exploit it for our collective benefit.
While conspiracy thinking and distrust of intellectualism, authority and expertise is certainly not new to our civilization, it is becoming more and more prevalent as people consume and create larger and larger amounts of bad information.
The inclination toward Conspiracy thinking and the closely related reduction in respect for expertise and authority which results from this sort of overly cynical and borderline paranoid thinking is dangerous and harmful to our civilization. In order to avoid any obvious straw men arguments, this should be qualified further to state that it may not be entirely negative, as mentioned earlier, but the assertion is that it is a net negative for our world and we should challenge the trend and the phenomenon itself.
The world is becoming more and more specialized as science, technology and human knowledge grow exponentially and the need for specialized expertise will take on an ever increasing and important role. To illustrate this phenomenon, Ray Kurzweil suggests that the rate of growth in knowledge is such that if one was to possess all of human knowledge at the current moment, that knowledge would only represent one half of all human knowledge in five years time.
There was a time, in our not so distant past, when a natural philosopher could be fairly well versed in all of the scientific disciplines as well as formal philosophy. Some of our greatest historical thinkers were members of this elite intellectual community. Those days are long gone. Now the sciences and academic world are shredded down to a level of detail which prohibits even a fellow scientist in the same domain family to be competent to contribute anything of meaning or value in the sub domain.
It seems important to point out that we should not overstep our layman bounds in questions where expertise is required and that we show a greater degree of intellectual humility and respect for our specialists. We know this already and yet we so often forget. When we need to build a rocket ship to fly to Mars or a satellite to deflect GPS signals to our phones or simply need our computer fixed or washing machine repaired, we defer to an expert. We understand that on technical issues for which we do not have the prerequisite experience, practice and formal expertise, we require and gratefully accept the assistance of an expert. Do we need to question this same logic when it applies to human health, dealing with environmental issues or the safety of our food supply? Would we really support the idea of a pilot performing brain surgery or a brain surgeon taking the wheel of a supersonic jet?
So why, I ask you, do so many non-experts and complete laypeople feel equipped to arrogantly and presumptuously assume they know best for our civilization, even when it contradicts the best evidence and the consensus view of the world’s experts?
Short of very good reasons to challenge the expert consensus, it seems only rational and intellectually honest that we should err on the side of deferring to and accepting the advice of the world’s subject matter experts. Conversely, we should be skeptical of anyone who claims to know better.