Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Right not to Know

"The Right not to Know" was a highly discussed topic in the German newspapers last week (this week it's been replaced by the raise in milk prizes - just to let you know what's on the German mind these days). Anyway, I initially only saw the headline of that article and had several hours to wonder what it was about before I actually read it. (An interesting exercise btw that I recommend to the reader.)

To begin with, let me clarify that mystery: the discussion was in this case whether patients who suffer from potentially lethal medical conditions have the right not to know about these, and refuse a preventive medical checkup. My opinion on this is very case dependent. I definitely give you the right to die unexpectedly, but if you've been growing that funny thing in your face with twenty years solarium, and pretend not to notice it's been turning purple lately, then don't expect me to pay for your pain treatment if you don't drop dead as unexpectedly as you wished. (The situation is of course different if the medical checkup itself carries risks, or if you're suffering from something that has very little chances to be cured anyhow.)

    If one could predict the day you will die, would you want to know?

Anyway, I'll leave that question to you to consider next time you're sitting in the waiting room. Instead I want to tell you where my thoughts were running to with the Right not to Know. I don't have a TV and unless I'm at my mother's place I hardly ever read a (printed) newspaper. The information density in that part of the world I live in is so high what is important reaches me anyhow. People sometimes ask me: but don't you want to know? Fact is, there are many things I'd rather not know.

Every time I open a newspaper I read headlines like "38 year old man kills his two children, burns down the house with his mother in law, and hangs himself", "man kills wife in love triangle", "women kills 5 people and herself at an US post-office" (the latter happened to be next door at this time). My head is full with photos from wars around the world, mothers holding their dead children, men missing body parts, blood stained shirts, children searching through piles of dead bodies for their relatives. I am probably not the only one who still has the videos from 9/11 running in her head on trigger. And the recent details about the series of almost-accidents in German nuclear power plants, did I really want to know that?

    If someone prefers not to know what reality looks like, will you insist he has to know and be unhappy about it?
In fact, there is the prevailing hypothesis of depressive realism, according to which depressed people are those who actually see the world how it 'really' is. And who'd want that?

Now you can argue I have a duty to inform myself about the country I live in (milk prizes? Wait - actually, I don't even live in this country, so make that the world I live in). Be a responsible citizen, well educated who KNOWS what is happening to have a reasonable and INFORMED opinion about the war in what-was-the-name-again? My duty? My right?

Let me go a step even further. Since I'm a scientist, I want to ask that same question about scientific insights: Would you grant someone the Right not to Know that his genetic code indicates at 99% CL he'll most likely develop Huntington's disease [1]. If it was possible to predict, would you grant someone the Right not to Know statistical data indicates at 99% CL she'll never make a top mathematician? If someone proved there is no afterlife (whatever that means), do you have the Right not to Know? (And, speaking of afterlife, do I have the Right not to Know what Jehovah's witnesses think will happen to my allegedly immortal soul after Armageddon or whatever they call it?)

Does someone have the Right not to Know our solar system is only one of many in the universe and not exceptional in any regard; the Right not to Know the earth is older than 20,000 years [2]? The Right not to Know all the cruelties in the history of mankind? Do you have a Right not to Know your military kills innocent people, farting could cause global warming, and these potato crisps you like so much have proven to cause cancer in animal tests?

    What right would I have to insist you realize that love is just a chemical reaction?
And it's all about sex anyhow.

Knowledge, so said Francis Bacon, is power. Understanding helps you master your life, rational thinking is an evolutionary advantage, ignorance of the way the world works will be cured by natural selection. These are all the good reasons that came into my mind why every 'sane' person would want to know about the evolution of the species and the elementary constituents of matter. But in many cases this argument does not quite hold. In how far is the presently available knowledge really relevant for our lives? Knowing that the current data shows the universe presently undergoes accelerated expansion is definitely an advantage for my life. But it might not be tremendously relevant for Mike who stamps my passport in Chicago (sorry, Mike).

Plus, knowledge isn't necessarily an evolutionary advantage. If you sit in front of your laptop all day, scan newstickers and blog about, say, global warming your chances to reproduce aren't the best. More seriously, rational thinking takes time and energy, doesn't necessarily contribute to happiness, and can drive your supervisor nuts. In many cases, it's an advantage to live with good faith in semi-rational believes (true love exists), and not to question everything all the time: You might open the box, just to find that curiosity killed the cat.

However. Unfortunately, very little people consciously just don't know things, but fill in blanks with believes and made-up custom explanations. In which case passively not knowing the truth can turn into actively denying the truth. You see where I am heading?

    How much ignorance of facts can a society take?

But what good is a right to know or not to know without knowing what one should know or doesn't want to know? Do I really need to know 20 ways the world could end tomorrow, or that Britney Spears vomited all over her Gucci dress?

Most people consciously or unconsciously filter the information they gather - how else was it possible to deal with all these news and rumors that surround us every day? Every one of us needs to divide the information overflow into relevant, irrelevant and marginal. Should this ordering be left to Google?

The world wide web collects an increasing amount of statements that are just plain wrong. There is no qualified rating available on all this information. The number of links, comments, or diggs is far off being a reliable factor - yet one that people count on. We presently have no tools to deal with all that knowledge [3]. So what all these random thoughts lead me to was the conclusion we'd actually not need a Right not to Know, but a right of information - including the possibility to filter and ban misinformation [4].

Project the present infotainment ten years into the future and we'll drown in an international sea of semi-fictitious news, unqualified commentaries, and people who echo these back and forth (in this regard it is interesting to note what psychological research tells us about the power of repetition). I certainly don't want to interfere with the freedom of speech, neither with the democratic/anarchic characteristics of the internet (that I actually put my hopes on). Say whatever you want to - just make sure it's clear this is your opinion [5], add your sources, your qualifications, don't blur the boundary between fiction as fact, and mind the frontiers of knowledge.
    "The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge."

~Daniel J. Boorstin

Epilogue: Today the headline is the US credit crisis . Good to know that "The American economy is the most creative and enterprising and productive system ever devised." ~ G.W. Bush



[1] And if you do, would you grant his family members the Right not to Know he will become sick, and can they sue him if he tells them nevertheless?)
[2] With 'knowing' I don't only mean you hear the statement - which is hard to omit -, but learn about the details, data, facts and scientific conclusions.
[3] And don't give me that argument how the collective corrects misinformation, I don't want to end up with an information soup that has survived by minimizing objections. Wikipedia is an useful source to collect established knowledge, but it doesn't hold a patent on the truth.
[4] About 15 years ago I wrote a petition for the Jusos/SPD that suggested a right of information (and made sure no privacy/patent rights were violated). It failed mostly due to lack of interest. I'm still waiting for them to come back to the topic which I believe will only become more important.
[5] German law says websites needs to have a contact/author information.

39 comments:

Lumo said...

Czechia just had the first person today who paid for his euthanasia in Switzerland. Congratulations to the pioneer! 98% of people understand it in some situation.

In some cases, right to not know may be in some contradiction with the freedom of speech of those who can tell you.

On the other hand, if no one else wants to tell you something, I think it's clear that you have the right not to know. In the case of many insights, this right is heavily used by a majority of people.

In the case of lethal diseases, I feel that a person has a right to KNOW if he or she wants to, and if he doesn't, doctors are expected to be sensitive and not talk.

Uncle Al said...

One can inflate a balloon with anything one wishes - hot air, water, sand, manure. It is not the volume that is important, it is the rules at the surface. Respect interfaces.

Human life is sacred. Sacrifice it to your gods.

Anonymous said...

Thanks B for another good post; does this belong in your "Science & Democracy" set?

Anyways, I'm not sure I agree with "...rational thinking is an evolutionary advantage, ignorance of the way the world works will be cured by natural selection". After all, the most evolutionary successful organisms by any measure are bacteria, and I don't think they are capable of rational thinking!

;-)

Bee said...

Hi Lubos:
It seems taking a last trip to Switzerland has become quite common in Germany for those who have to deal with the situation. They call it 'suicide tourism'.

There are always cases where one person's right can disagree with another person's freedom or vice versa. I doubt that it is possible to have laws for a society that are free of such contradictions. The question is how one can deal with these situations, and whether the system is flexible enough to incorporate necessary changes.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

Thanks for the kind words. No, it is not directly related to research in science. Though you might have recognized certain themes, like the necessity to structure knowledge, and generally to realize the changed that we are facing and to face them instead of ignoring them.

Here, I meant to address the question how we should deal in general with the consequences of the vast amount of available information. I think the impact of the www on our political systems (opinion making process!) is underestimated, and not presently well understood. We can't just ignore these developments, but have to figure out how to deal with them appropriately. I don't think there is presently sufficient thought invested into this. It could be a danger as well as an opportunity.

Anyways, I'm not sure I agree with "...rational thinking is an evolutionary advantage, ignorance of the way the world works will be cured by natural selection". After all, the most evolutionary successful organisms by any measure are bacteria, and I don't think they are capable of rational thinking!

Depends on what you mean with successful ;-) But you've quoted the sentence out of context. I was just listing the 'standard' arguments for rational thinking - only to explain in the next sentences why they in general don't hold.

Best,

B.

QUASAR9 said...

lol Uncle Al
Human Life is sacred, Sacrifice it to your gods
The Gods of Medicine and The Gods of Science

QUASAR9 said...

"ignorance of the way the world works will be cured by natural selection"

lol Bee, is that an argument for or against euthanasia.
Personally I can't see the point of living in pain or misery.
Mind you sometimes I can't see the point of 'human' life full stop, unless it is to enjoy LIFE, debate how the world (and the human mind) works.

Could it be that it is only ignorance that makes people fear death - after all amazing how much of science revolves around the business of promising future miracles cures and boasts about the ability of science to keep people alive (as long as there's a profit to be made).
Talk about the Church of Medicine and the selling of indulgences.

Yet what is the real quality of life these miracle drugs provide, if people in Europe are still choosing 'euthania tourism' in Switzerland or Holland.

And still no cure for Alzheimer's

Free Your Mind -
Book your One Way ticket now!

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

"...rational thinking is an evolutionary advantage, ignorance of the way the world works will be cured by natural selection".

It seems that right now, ignorance is what makes the world go around :-(

and that it works by natural selection.

The dumber an entertainment programme, the "lighter" an educational programme, the more successful, the better the revenues...!

heading for a desaster..

this is communism's realization on the intelectual level!

"Morons of all countries!- UNITE!"

very sorry

best

Klaus

Arun said...

When Vasco da Gama sailed in Kozhikode on the Kerala coast in 1498, if the people back then had paid attention and learned, then the history of their descendants for the next 450 years would have been less of a disaster.

What you know may be dangerous, but what you do not know will be lethal.

Arun said...

The usual mistake people make is that something is too remote to be interesting (e.g., Americans about Afghanistan during the 1990s).

Now, it is impossible for a person to pay attention to everything. But a society, especially a large, wealthy industrial society, can afford to have people specialized, so that it as a whole, is aware of everything.

But in far too many cases, ideology (and intellectual laziness?) makes the specialists ineffective.

Tumbledried said...

A very good post! I also quite strongly believe that people have the right not to be subject to misinformation. Absolutely spot on.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

tumbledried - I also quite strongly believe that people have the right not to be subject to misinformation.

Ah yes, but that is a tough one. Who gets to decide which information is mis? If it were me, Rupert Murdoch would be bankrupt. If it were Lubos, you would never hear of Loop Quantum Gravity, global warming, evolution, or the spherical character of the Earth.

Lumo said...

Dear Pig, I assure you that the Earth is almost spherical and evolution is true and I am its biggest advocate in Central and Eastern Europe.

Indeed, I would be happier if the amount of misinformation were smaller - but to achieve this goal, we would have to get the right to freely shoot miserable pigs first. In current circumstances, if I shoot you, the animal rights extremists will harrass me that I didn't do the right thing even though it would be very obvious that I did.

These are the contradictions that Bee very correctly pointed out.

Anonymous said...

Let us work towards the day when making over-confident statements about things that are not really understood will be regarded as a solecism, like spitting or smoking.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

thank you - very thoughtful! The right of information, and the posiibility to make soemone liable for deliberately propagating misinformation, sound extremely interesting.

I only wonder if such a right may not lead to endless lawsuits, and courts which will have to decide what is information and what is misinformation? That may not really be helpful? Cases like "Scientology tries to stop a critics' book" or - quite absurd in this case, in my opinion - "Court compels web forum to self-censorship may become much more common...

To make somehow legally enforceable for some piece of information the formal points you mention: just make sure it's clear this is your opinion, add your sources, your qualifications, don't blur the boundary between fiction as fact, and mind the frontiers of knowledge sounds like good idea.

Cheers, stefan

Bee said...

Hi CIP:

You have asked the important question:

Who gets to decide which information is mis?

The question is tough because the www is much more global than any government that we have. But in principle representative democracies face similar problems, and there are ways to deal with it. As Arun above said:

But a society, especially a large, wealthy industrial society, can afford to have people specialized, so that it as a whole, is aware of everything.

That is the strength of representative democracy. It doesn't require everybody to know everything, but elects people who (hopefully!) know what is going on, i.e. leaves the situation to the experts. It requires people to realize though that their knowledge is limited. I don't think one can transfer that directly to the www, and I don't have a solution - but it's a direction to think into.

No system will never work perfectly, so it needs ways to adapt. But compare that with the present situation regarding (mis)information. We basically have a direct democracy going anarcho-capitalistic. Paid links can push your website to importance which raises your influence. And what has happened to the quality of newspapers since hits count relevance? People write things that entertain the masses or that scare them, things that upset, or amuse, as long as it sells. Don't add too many details or require the reader thinks about it. And THIS is the basis we build our world view on?

But I think you have misinterpreted me somewhat, I am not as radical as it might seem. What I am asking for is basically saving the standards of good journalism and responsible publishing. One of the scary points that I mentioned above is the power of repetition. I myself notice if I hear or read something repeatedly I tend to think there must be something true about it. There are just many cases in which somebody will stumble over a website on a topic he's not an expert on and just simply can't tell if it makes sense. In the good old days you had a fair chance that what was written in a book made sense. Of course there was never a guarantee on that, but the ratio of reliable/unreliable information has dropped dramatically.

I will give you an example. Some time ago I wrote a post about Wireless power. The first twentysomething Google hits were repetitions of the same text, only some sentences changed back and forth. Neither of these articles had any sensible content. None of them cited the relevant publications. None of the authors apparently had any idea what he/she was actually writing about. None of them raised the relevant questions, not to mention that nobody made an effort to answer them. All of the articles were completely uncritical: All of these articles were completely, utterly useless.

What I'd basically like to have is a label that tells me immediately: don't waste your time on that. On the long run it should have the result that people who have nothing to say are discouraged from repeating things they don't understand. Let them say whatever they want to say, just consider carefully what writings should be rewarded with attention - how do we find the relevant information?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Arun:

Yes, you are right. I'd say one of the best signs for intelligence is not so much to avoid mistakes, but the ability to learn from mistakes. Shouldn't we have learned how receptible masses are for the simple solutions and the easy information, and that these opinions do not necessarily correct themselves? Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Stefan:

I am afraid you have misunderstood me. Self-censorship is exactly what I think we should *not* rely on. There is no guarantee that it works, worse, there is good reason to believe it does - in general - not work. As I've mentioned above, it might work quite well in some cases, see Wikipedia. But the cases in which it works well are those where there is a solid ground of common 'textbook' (school?!) knowledge. But what happens if there are no common-knowledge textbooks? What if everything was just based on 'common' sense? What is the criterion for a 'stable' (optimized?) article at Wikipedia? That nobody is sufficiently upset to change it, or that it just sounds convincingly enough? That it is politically correct? That it can cite an sufficient amount of other websites/Wikipedia entries that look reliable?

Anonymous above actually said what I would hope for:

Let us work towards the day when making over-confident statements about things that are not really understood will be regarded as a solecism, like spitting or smoking.

That is, I'd hope realizing the problem and maybe formulating a Right for Information might lead to a re-thinking. I don't think that as you say it would lead to endless lawsuits, the case you mention above is much more subject to the freedom of speech.

What I'm asking for is e.g. if somebody writes a website that mixes up string theory with neurosciences and claims the tenth dimension is where the consciousness lives, he has to make really clear which part is supported by research, name sources, has to point out what part is his own invention, and what critical voices have said about this. I think this would already discourage many (including publishing agencies) from spreading bullshit just because it sounds interesting and sells well.

There is nothing new about this. Indeed, it is actually a tremendously conservative requirement, but I think we need to hold on to quality requirements for information that is publicly distributed, or the whole democratic decision making process can go seriously wrong.

I could go on and on about the problem of deliberate misinformation in politics, but I think I'll stop here. Let me just say there is a limit where 'simplified' statements become just wrong, if not outright lies. Occasionally I'd really like to sue somebody for making matters worse by repeating nonsense over and over again. Best,

B.

Rae Ann said...

Nice thought provoking post! I can't really say what's good for everyone else, but if I had some terminal illness I would want to know so I could settle whatever unfinished business I had with friends, family, etc. When my mother told us she had 6 months to a year to live (she only made it about 5 months), it was devastating news. But at least we had time for some amount of "closure."

These issues are complicated when you have to consider everyone's financial contributions, as you mentioned you don't want to pay for someone's treatment when they've obviously neglected their condition, etc. That's kind of similar to the thin people not wanting to pay for the fat people's healthcare, etc. I guess my point is that I really think that healthcare should be a more privately administered system so that no one thinks he has any say in what is decided between people other than himself. Sorry if that's not stated too well. (many children interrutions this morning)

Arun said...

It is not just elected representatives and government officials, academia also has a role in keeping the country informed.

But in the humanities, US universities seem to be again, more personality and ideology driven than by knowledge-seeking.

That is why it can come as a surprise to most Americans that if you replace a Baathist dictator in Iraq by anything other than another Baathist dictator, it strengthens the hands of Iraqi Shias - coreligionists of Iran - and removes an enemy of Iran (Baathism). Bernard Lewis would have known, but he is a cheerleader for the war, and I don't think he warned anyone.

Now much handwringing on Iran having been strengthened by the war, and so on - among the sane.

Among the religious insane (among which you have to count former Speaker Tom DeLay and current President G.W. Bush) Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus is closer, and so much the better.

Sorry Bee, this is the last political type post I'll put on this thread. But 50% +1 of American electorate == Morons has to be pointed out whenever and whereever possible.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Bee - What I'd basically like to have is a label that tells me immediately: don't waste your time on that. On the long run it should have the result that people who have nothing to say are discouraged from repeating things they don't understand. Let them say whatever they want to say, just consider carefully what writings should be rewarded with attention - how do we find the relevant information?

Filtering is indeed the key challenge. In fact, though, there are experts in every field trying to reach some kind of consensus on difficult issues all the time.

A major factor, though, is the existence of organized attempts to suppress truth. Dictators and other politicians hide the truth about wars and corruption to keep their subjects enslaved or at least loyal. Organized religions spread false messages about evolution to protect their financial interests and relevance. Powerful business interests fund organized efforts to discredit scientists whose findings threaten their bottom line.

Rae Ann said...

Is it "scientifically correct" to say that the greater the degrees of freedom there are the more "entropy" or disorder there will be?

Wouldn't it be expected that a society with lots of freedom will also have a lots of disorder?

How do you control the disorder without limiting the freedom?

These are the basic questions that concern me when we start talking about Rights and Freedoms and who's "right" and "wrong" and so on.

Bee said...

Dear Rae Ann:

How do you control the disorder without limiting the freedom?

These are the basic questions that concern me when we start talking about Rights and Freedoms and who's "right" and "wrong" and so on.


And these are good questions. I believe these are questions everybody has asked who ever had to work out the details of a constitution that a human society is build on. It's the fundamental conflict - how do we arrange our Rights and Freedoms with minimal conflict?

Human societies don't flourish with maximum disorder. That's why we have formed 'groups' of various kind that provide some organized environment, have agreed on laws that give us safety which benefits our lives. E.g. I personally appreciate it if I leave the house in the morning and my car is still where I left it in the evening. I wouldn't want there to be a maximal disorder. Property rights, and laws that enforce them restrict freedom - that's the Social Contract we have agreed on. Disorder doesn't work in a human society because it disagrees with our desire to direct and plan our life - if only dinner the next day.

Groups of people, if left to themselves, will generally organize in one way or the other. If there is a vacuum of power, or a lack of hierarchy, somebody will try to fill it. (True anarchy is a nice idea but it doesn't work without protecting it, it's just not in the nature of men. So that leaves you an organized non-organization which doesn't make sense either).

The problem is that such a self-organization isn't necessarily the best that could happen.

Now to come back to my writing: As long as the internet is in a state of 'disorder', most of it is basically useless. Try to imagine what would happen if the DNS nameservers break down. The invention of better and better search engines makes this information much more useful. There are other Meta services that do nothing else than sorting and ordering information according to some kind of 'importance'. Digg is one of them. Reddit. Newstickers of major websites.

The point is that the information available IS already ordered. What I am asking is if this 'self-organization' that HAS already taken place is really to our benefits? I think at least we should invest more thought into the possible dangers that misinformation can bring.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi CIP:

You are completely right. Knowledge IS power. Consider the danger that lies in putting our trust into a global information system that could be corrupted with such an organized attempt, because it is not presently organized - we trust much too blindly. If I was a terrorist, I'd start with hacking Google and Wikipedia, and spread my version of the 'truth'.

Or, even easier: we've come to rely on the www as a source of information so much, consider what would happen if the DNS nameserver were blown into pieces. How much of an economical loss! What an amount of confusion! Recall how upset people were a couple of months ago just because the BlackBerry net didn't work for a couple of hours.

Best,

B.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Some seventeen or more years ago, the Babri Masjid (a mosque built by Babar, descendant of Timur and founder of the Mughal dynasty in India) controversy was going on in India. The historical question was whether Babar had destroyed a Hindu temple to build the mosque; the political question was what to do about it, (if anything) today?

That was the first controversy that I researched - I had full access to the University of Pittsburgh library, which is pretty good.

Since then I've looked at other stuff (such as "The Bell Curve") and so on.

Some learnings:

1. The internet did not create the problem of "what information is reliable"?

It existed before the internet, in the news media, in the books people wrote that fill the libraries. There is no "label" that can tell you this is the truth.

2. In other than the experimental sciences, the problem is even more acute. Long chains of citations really don't mean much - it really just indicates that some school of thought dominated the academic landscape for a long time.

3. Uncertainity is the name of the game. You can know something only upto a certain confidence level.

4. The amount of effort it takes to know something is significant; and so invest this effort only where the outcome is important to you.

5. Look for the intrusion of ideology, look at the logical structure of arguments made, find as many sources as you can, read the primary sources in the original language if possible. Develop trusted sources. In some detailed exposition, pick at random some claims and go as deep as you can to check the veracity of those claims. The more they hold up, the more trust you invest in that source.

6. Skepticism is a good habit to cultivate.

The good news is it really only matters when the way someone is going to act is based on information or misinformation. In that sense "general knowledge" is useless.

There is some more to say, but this will do, I think.

Best,
-Arun

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Bee, Arun and all,

Our knowledge is indeed uncertain, and that can't be completely overcome. A few mundane points:

I'm not certain, but I think that there is a lot of redundancy in name servers - a whole lot of computers would need to be taken down to take out the net.

It would be nice to have tags that indicate the reliability of information, but there is an effort, the Semantic Web, which seeks to label data with metadata, which can include a lot of information about the nature and provenance of that data. At some point, I expect, there will be vetting services that can tell you a lot about the quality of that data.

That still leaves the question of whether you can trust the vetters. For that we will continue to have to rely on our judgement and previous experience.

For example, I come to backreaction because it has always been a source of interesting and useful information, not to mention clever and amusing articles. I still visit The Reference Frame because it occasionally has interesting stuff on an incredible range of topics - even though I think that most of the commenters there are quite detached from reality.

Bee said...

Dear Arun:

You are of course right that the question which information is reliable and which isn't is not a new one. I definitely agree that scepticism is a good habit in many regards. But the fact is, most people don't do that. And the problem that I see is that the internet creates the 'illusion of knowledge'. Multiply that with a society in which knowledge is mistaken for intelligence, and in which being up-to-date and knowing what's NEW is socially chique. This leads people to very uncritically accept things for true. Because they don't have the time to think about it, or because the details actually don't matter to them. As you say The amount of effort it takes to know something is significant. Yes, and it's an effort people don't have the time for (at least they think they don't have the time). How often have I been asked 'Did you read the recent paper...' and I had to answer 'No - because I'm still thinking about the one from last year' and felt like a complete looser.

The danger of misinformation has always been present, but the development of the internet significantly increases the potential damage. One can of course also support an awareness of how to deal with information on the internet. I know e.g. that some schools de facto teach pupils how to judge on stuff they find on the internet. But both points into the same direction: we need to find some sensible way to judge on the information content we find in the web.

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

If you read it on August 6th, you should look at michellemalkin.com - quite similar pictures. ;-)

Arun said...

Ironically, I began to understand how censorship worked in so-called free societies when I reported from totalitarian societies. During the 1970s I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship. I interviewed members of the dissident group Charter 77, including the novelist Zdener Urbanek, and this is what he told me. “In dictatorships we are more fortunate that you in the West in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and nothing of what we watch on television, because we know its propaganda and lies. Unlike you in the West. We’ve learned to look behind the propaganda and to read between the lines, and unlike you, we know that the real truth is always subversive.”

Vandana Shiva has called this subjugated knowledge. The great Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn got it right when he wrote, “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.”


John Pilger
http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/08/07/3056/

a.k. said...

Bee, let me point out that, again, leaving aside I couldn't quite follow the logical conclusion of your thoughts, your intentions moving from self-chosen resignation to enforced confrontation, there seem to be some non-subtle fractions of idealism concerning the abilty to 'rationalize' the mechanism to decide between and define 'misinformation' and 'realiable data', your views are possibly psychologically governed by a string-physicists 'view on the world', the belief in 'rational reasoning', but let me convince you, that outside of mathematics, and I mean PURE mathematics, not theoretical physics, the term 'rational reasoning' and 'reliable information' or even 'misinformation' is, in most, and these are the most relevant, cases, to a high degree undefinable, and it probably never was. That a mathematical model for phenomenons of reality is 'rational' is undeducable by 'a priori' methods, in this sense, you will never be able to decide, the physical community will NEVER be able to decide, if their model on certain physical phenomena is 'rational', as long as they did not test it with 'sufficient precision', and even then: it will be no more then 'empirically' correct (and 'consistent', whatever that meant to mean). It is impossible to PROVE by 'reasoning' (strictly speacking: even not by experiment) that any argument which relies on and aims at a given non-logical, non-axiomatic environment is 'rational', rationality in the real world, also in the physical world, is to a high degree dependant on cultural backgrounds, on beliefs, on pre-accepted strategies and on personal abilities and preoccupations.

The same applies to your view of 'the right to know', outside of a given 'knowledge system' the beliefs of what 'to know' means, are, outside of fundamental human abilities, (reading, wrting, calculating prices at the butchers') highly undefinable, even 'knowledge is power' is undefinable and questionable, there are numerous examples where to acquire CERTAIN kinds of knowledge can prevent you from being a 'functional' member of 'certain' fractions of societies, try for instance to persuade a given sociologist that string theory, that knowledge about string theory is 'relevant', try to be interesting talking about details of string theory when all of your friends are artists, dancers and musicians, this can be more than 'interesting'.

Your 'right to knowledge' suggests that there are instituitions which 'spread' knowledge or should ensure, the right, reliable knowledge could be 'spread', all this is non-existing and there are good reasons to hope that it will never exist, and let me say that I am already concerned about the way the 'exact sciences' tend to define what could be 'rational knowledge', what would be reliable and what would be worth worrying about. As Foucault said, there are forms of 'discursive dispositives' which govern modern societies, a claim, the individual could be defined, is more valuable to society, as soon as he or she agrees to certain forms of 'confession', this applies to sexuality as well as to 'knowledges' and beliefs, it is interesting to observe, and THIS could be actually crticised, that the internet strengthens and re-installs modern forms of 'religious confession', blogs, especially your blog, also Lubos' blog, are good examples for the tendency to strenghten and expand 'confessional techniques' which mark (and define) the individual as belonging to a certain group of societal fragment, for instance you or Lubos confess your belief in certain rational techniques and 'world frames' you learned in the realm of theoretic physicists, wheras I confess not to believe at all in the techniques of 'rational confession'. The tendency to make confession a rationalizable cultural technique is exactly what possibly devides our western societies from societies which are still organized more traditional, or more empirical, where the collective 'knowledge' is not made to expose or examine the single human beings as objects of a classifying mechanism of 'truth'.

Bee said...

Hi A.K.,

your views are possibly psychologically governed by a string-physicists 'view on the world', the belief in 'rational reasoning',

Interesting. And by which string-physicist view am I 'psychologically governed'? I haven't yet noticed.

but let me convince you, that outside of mathematics, and I mean PURE mathematics, not theoretical physics, the term 'rational reasoning' and 'reliable information' or even 'misinformation' is, in most, and these are the most relevant, cases, to a high degree undefinable, and it probably never was

Indeed, from a philosophical point of view I tend to agree with that. However, despite all the philosophical problems, there is definitely information that the average guy-from-the-street would consider 'relevant' for his well-being, for the simple reason that it is useful to improve his circumstances. I am speaking of 'misinformation' in this very pragmatic sense. In contrast to what you claim, I have never argued that 'exact sciences' should 'define' what 'rational knowledge' is - and I have no idea why you accuse me such. If you read what I wrote above you might figure out that I have instead asked what right we have to impose knowledge on others. Best,

B.

a.k. said...

..Bee, I basically refered to sentences like

'The World wibe web collects an increasing amount of statements that are just plain wrong. There is no qualified rating available on all this information.'

I claim these types of sentences in a sense characterize certain forms of 'truth-finding' being a cultural strategy among physicists, in greater generality among humans believing in dichotomies like 'plain wrong' and 'correct', which without any doubt applies to purely mathematical results, but, as I said, only to them. The point is furthermore that you refer to a 'qualified rating', as if there should be (and could be) authorities rating ANY information accessible in the world wide web, as if there couldn't be strategies for any humand being to decide what (for them) would be 'plain wrong' and what would be 'reliable'. I judge it furthermore at least naive to believe there were not masses of (in your sense) 'plain wrong' statements before the achievements of electronic publication and communication. I 'understand' your reasoning from physical point of views, since a science which possibly relies as very few others on intellectual 'leadership' of a few persons (Witten et al.) tends to ignore that the value of a result of exact sciences should be possible to be judged by well-defined methods, not by 'black boxes' accessible to specific persons or groups.

Anyway, possibly my criticism does not match your communicated view, still I am not asserting to literally 'know' what your intention was, my answer reflects what I 'conceived' you were expressing.

Bee said...

a.k. - I have explained in the previous comment what I mean with 'wrong'. E.g. there must be some hundred websites extensively explaining the side-effects of babies immunisation and give all good and convincing reasons not to. Consider these end up for whatever reason (well written, financially pushed and advertised? a Google hack?) being the prime source of information for parents. What I am asking for is the requirement to add sources, references and to mention disagreeing opinions. I.e. what good journalism should do. But more importantly I am asking not to rate the importance of information by the number of links - influenced by a liking of the site design, advertisements, witty writing, gossip etc - factors with little impact on the actual relevance of the content (I'm not saying these are completey irrelevant. E.g. it's definitly a good thing if a text is understandably written and the website is bug free!)

I agree that outside the exact science there are many more shades of knowledge, and information comes in various degrees of confirmation of usefulness. It's equally dangerous to ignore these (see last quotation of my writing). Unfortunately, this ignorance too is promoted by the web. It polarizes strongly between right and wrong (feedback effect), and the finer nuances drown. What we're left with is the illusion of knowledge. In case this was too many words: the illusion of knowledge the Internet gives us is exactly what I criticise.

Best,

B.

a.k. said...

Bee, a good example for an institution which matches ALL of your criteria for 'reliable' information and ends up by spreading revisionary and very questionable nonsense is the german wikipedia, you mentioned this (as a 'positive' example). I won't give links here, but there are several articles concerning certain historical issues, i.e. the beginning of WW2, an article about 'Waffen-SS' and several very 'sensitive' (not to say: positive) articles about NPD-politicians (for others: the NPD is the most influential german 'neonazi'-organisation), that can be only regarded as a revisionary catastrophe, just consinder the title 'Der Polen-Feldzug' (translation: 'The Poland-campaign'?) which marks the article about the beginning of WW2 and is highly euphemistic, the argument given by the (right-wing) authors was INDEED, that the 'PC' wording for the beginning of WW2, namely 'Der Ueberfall auf Polen' ('the Raid on Poland') would not have been 'neutral' enough, it is totally clear that 'pseudo-rationality' is commonly used by idiots to convey 'rationalizable' truths using institutions which pretend to be governed by those principles, this is why I deeply mistrust 'authoritative' sources, at least in the non-exact matters.

The point is not, to repeat this, that a given site spreads nonsense, right-wing views or neo-nacist information, the danger is that an institution which conveys to be 'authoritative' does this, which is EXACTLY the reason why wikipedia is literally overrun by far-right-wing authors.

Your example of sites fighting their crusade against 'immunisation' is on the other hand a good example for the fact that the internet simply reflects that there actually do 'exist' not-so-few people who, for what reason ever, do refuse to follow the results or the opinion of, in this case, micro-biologists and physicians, you might call this dumb, but in any case the usual information sources for 'anti-immunisation'-activists can be for ANYONE identified to be 'non-medical', 'non-authoritative' sources and I do not see that the internet amplifies the effect of these movements (which already started long time ago, if I am right). Still let me mention that there ARE children dying after immunisation, even if the probability may be very small, one can't in general 'forbid' people to have ethical standards that do not match common statistical reasoning (even if it could have fatal consequences for their children).

Bee said...

Hi a.k.

I have no idea how you manage to read things out of my text that I've never said. If you'd care to look, I have strongly doubted the 'wisdom' of Wikipedia, see e.g. footnote [3]. Further, I have never claimed my some few suggestions will solve all problems, I've said it's about time we think about it.

Your 'right to knowledge' suggests that there are instituitions which 'spread' knowledge or should ensure, the right, reliable knowledge could be 'spread',

I have never spoken about 'spreading' knowledge, but about organizing available information. Again, if you'd maybe read what I've said repeatedly the point is that there ARE institutions which 'spread' knowledge better than others - those who can afford it, financially, technologically, or just because they are Google-lucky. This is NOT a good development and what concerns me.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS:

but in any case the usual information sources for 'anti-immunisation'-activists can be for ANYONE identified to be 'non-medical', 'non-authoritative' sources

Oh, really. Well, then that of course solves all problems. If its always plain obvious for everybody what information is 'non-authorative' then exactly why are you concerned that "that the internet strengthens and re-installs modern forms of 'religious confession', blogs, especially your blog," ?

Also,

and I do not see that the internet amplifies the effect of these movements

It might not be the case for this example, I haven't followed these developments. Fact is, I'd like people to think about potential problems BEFORE things go wrong.

B.

a.k. said...

..Bee, you said above, wikipedia would be an example where 'self-censorship' would work 'quite well', I know you did NOT promote self-censorship, still wikipedia is a good example how 'organising information' and creating 'reliability' and 'authoritative information' can fail, if in the internet or elsewhere. Generally speaking, you possibly misunderstand the internet, which is not a forum for labeled reliability and scientific knowledge but instead developed to an 'artefact' reflecting ANY portion or group of society, in the latter, what you call misinformation always existed, the fact that you were not aware of this, goes exactly back to the fact that the internet crosses any 'cultural spheres' and 'interest groups', scientifically valuable data and 'trash' is not discriminated by 'google', still it is to the receptor to choose his degree of 'reliability', I claim this has not changed in any way compared to pre-internet-eras, things are just more 'visible'. But again my question: WHO should be the 'institution' to produce the 'labels' you promote? The scientific community, the physicists, it seems a bit as if your vision of an 'ordered society' stems from your belief in 'vertical organisations', but let me assure you: reality is not as vertically organisable as citation indices may organise the physical community (thank god).

By the way: I am not concerned about you doing non-'reliable' religious confessions, what concerns me is that the internet promotes confessional techniques and exposition of individuals, that it crosses personal borders in a way that humans are possibly not adapted to understand, from my point of view the internet is psychologically and personally a continuation of the tendency of western societies to produce a discursive culture about privacy, the internet continues the 'confessional dispositive' Foucault mentioned alread thirty years ago.

Bee said...

a.k.

Yes, misinformation always existed, and yes, the internet makes it more visible. the problem - as I've written - is that it creates the illusion of knowledge. It's a difference if somebody doesn't 'know' and is aware he doesn't 'know' or whether he thinks he 'knows'. As to your question who should be the institution: this is exactly the right question to be asked. I have repeated that I am not presenting a 'solution' but I try to raise awareness for the problem to begin with. Your accusation that I'd suggest the scientific community, the physicists, it seems a bit as if your vision of an 'ordered society' stems from your belief in 'vertical organisations' is completely inappropriate, I have never said that, and I for sure have never spoken of something like an ordered society - a concept that doesn't make sense to me. If you'd care trying to follow what I've said above, I am a strong believer in representative democracy. My problem with the internet (whether or not you think I understand it) is that it's *not* democratic, it's partly anarchic, partly capitalistic and in cases (like Wiki) communistic, all with 'censorship' processes that I don't think are for the optimal benefit of the user. I consider this development reason for concern. If you think everything is going just fine then why are we having this argument?

Best,

B.

uzir said...

I was once threatened with being punched out for pointing out facts which contraindicated the political positions of the potential puncher.

Of such is faith. It is human nature to cherish ignorance, for this makes it possible to worship heroes who are as full of sins as any villain, yet societal suicide, because it gives villains the undue authority of heroes.

I suppose it is unnecessary to add the puncher was an American Republican. Yet, did I not do so, it would not then be so surprising to find out that I, just this last month, have registered as a Republican myself =)

LOL! I will now confess that I did this in order to be able to vote against Giuliani in the primary, and intend to switch back (not a Democrat either ;))as soon as that obligatory task is complete.

My point is that representative democracy is the antithesis of liberty, and popular democratic republics doomed to eventual subjection to tyranny (USA today, for example, is about to begin suffering a pogrom of heinous proportion) because people need to organize themselves, and despots excel at generating adulation.

Fortunately, machines will soon surpass our capacity to comprehend them, and we won't have to run things anymore. No longer subject to villainy, we will also no longer have heroes.

In sum, we all must selectively pick our truth from the sea of potentially knowable facts/lies. We not only have a right not to know, we have a need to not know most things.

To some degree we all are 'true believers' in things that are demonstrably untrue, and vice versa.