Fact, Opinion, Truth in An Era of Information Overload, or..
...we are the most ignorant population in the history of the Earth.
It's lucky we don't think about this stuff too much. You might want to stop reading here. If I was you, that's what I would do. Imagine if you will, that almost everything you know and have learned in the last ten years might be wrong. Or that while you take for granted that what you know is "true", much of it isn't or is such a small bit of a picture that it's useless or misleading. And it's getting worse. In this first of a series of articles, we'll take a look at why these circumstances occur, and how they may affect you and me, the plain folks and businesses and even our political systems.
The Conditions of Ignorance In Modern Days
In the past ignorance has come from a lack of easily available information/facts on which to base conclusions. For example, lacking in observable and verifiable facts, the wise old ones told us the world was flat. Thus, a conclusion based on this "If you sail too far, you will fall off the edge" is faulty, and in fact discouraged the factual testing of what turns out was wrong. This is interesting because "wrong" is not benign. It wasn't then and it isn't now. A wrong fact results in wrong conclusions which results in wasted or damaging actions with real world negative outcomes.
As relevant data could be collected, of course, humans changed their conclusions, so today we know the Earth is flat. We were able to progress because at some points we had "just enough information/facts data" to be able to pick out what was relevant and not relevant.
Today, we end up ignorant, but for the opposite reasons. We never reach a point where we have just enough information to make informed decisions. We have way too much information that sounds relevant, no mechanisms in place to provide checks and balances on what information gets distributed, no way to confirm most of what we hear. On top of that we've removed our dependence and trust of authority and systems to help us out. No longer do we get our news and information from sources that have systems to check facts and sources, as with news media in the past. Most of us get information from unedited, uncontrolled and even anonymous sources. Blogs, Facebook, other social media platforms and in general most of the Internet provides alternative voices to appear, but those voices are of unknown reputation, and without oversight.
The result is we draw conclusions, not on a balanced examination of evidence, facts and data. We draw conclusions on the basis of what we want to hear, and based on what we want to believe. So, research no longer comprises looking for pros and cons of things, for example. We look for other people to confirm our already existing beliefs. For example, you like social media and twitter? You will look for and remember "data" that proves it's wonderful. You like Comcast? You will likely come across positive comments about Comcast? If you see negative ones you will diminish them in your mind. Likewise the reverse.
The conditions of modern day ignorance apply to ALL of us. That's because our limitations with selecting information out of huge streams of information are primarily biologically based because our brains are information reduction machines with a limited capacity. Hence they gate out more data/information going into the system than is accepted. Of course, with the huge increase in information that inundates us we select more and more, and the selections end up based, again, more and more on what we want to hear.
There are now billions of voices you can "hear" through the Internet, voices that would never have been available to you ten years ago. So who gets heard? Who gets believed? Who do you beiieve and why? In a perfect world people would gain credibility based on their track records, and to the degree that what they have said has been used and been proven beneficial to those that used that person's thoughts and opinions. That basically describes how science works although somewhat oversimplified. But you don't have access to that information. You only know what that person says, and what anonymous other people say about that person. If he or she is popular, there will be lots of good things said, but popularity doesn't mean truth (lets not forget the flat earth thing), or that what might have worked for that person or even someone else would work for you.
Unfortunately, in a quest to sift through information, we put our faith in the idea that popularity means rightness. We accept something said by a popular person, and then we act on it.
We really have no idea, beyond faith, whether the information we chose is true or even useful. We live on faith. We believe while applying inadequate criteria. And we don't know whether what we believe is the truth or not. In many cases, neither do we care, because we MUST operate on faith in the knowledge we adopt, otherwise we'd could never act, or worse, we go insane.
Some Summary Points
- Most of the knowledge (what we believe is true) is based on faith and not fact, and in our modern age, it's a necessity to operate this way.
- In modern times, we have too much information so we become selective, both by intention and through how the brain is wired to reduce information in the system.
- When we select it's normal and most common to select the information, and seek out the information that we want to be true.
- The Internet, and in particular social media has opened the door for billions of voices to speak, so the task is to determine who one will listen to, who one will believe and trust. This task applies to you and I as individuals, but in fact, the fate of our very political systems (and democracy) may be determined by how each of us manages this issue.
- Since we lack enough real facts and information to "test" someone to determine whether their words are credible, we (both individually and as a system) use popularity to determine who we listen to, and hear. Popular people are heard, quite honestly because the are popular. Popularity does not imply wisdom, accuracy or anything else. I means that something about a person (e.g. a haircut, facial beauty, firm jawline, charismatic way of speaking) attracts people. This things have nothing to do with wisdom or truth, yet we need to choose somehow.
- As individuals it's to our benefit to understand that almost all the information we use is now unverified. That is a major change from 15 years ago, where the sources of information -- media of different sorts, had checks and balances and ethical considerations, not to mention long traditions or pfofessionalism. Today there is very little of that. Anyone can write a blog, email messages, comment on sites, write on Facebook, and they can do so with complete impunity and responsibility. Nothing is verified, and while there is a notion that "crowds" will balance bad information with alternate information, that really doesn't come into play in real life due to psychological factors.
Should you care about any of this? While the words and language are a bit abstract, the real world consequences EVERY DAY are huge for everyone consuming information. Your behavior, what you eat, buy, wear, is influenced by information you glean from media, and more and more from the Internet. And the kicker is; you don't know beyond faith who is right. You make do, because you have to, but the truth is that understanding "information", and how to critically evaluate is now an essential life skill.