I was thinking about this recently when Michael mentioned that the 'Illusion of Knowledge' I kept talking about and that even made it on our conference poster (it's no longer there), isn't anything he'd ever heard of. Thus, I guess I made that up and came to believe I heard it elsewhere. So here is the missing explanation.
The Illusion of Knowledge refers to the following quotation by Daniel J. Boorstin
- "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
Illusion in the 21st Century
In the 21st century we are faced with an incredible amount of information, and it is in many instances impossible to read and judge on all of the available information on a given topic. If under pressure to put forward an opinion it is often necessary to use shortcuts to arrive at a conclusion fast, most notably relying on trusted sources. The illusion to then have knowledge about a topic makes the world much easier classifiable in good and bad, right and wrong, friends and enemies.
The internet supports the Illusion of Knowledge in various ways
- Because many sites are publicly available, but poorly referenced, unrevised, and present unbalanced and severely biased information whose scientific quality possibly isn't immediately clear to non-experts. Yes, one would think people should be critical, but sites with high ranking in search engines are widely read, and I suspect there are many people who don't judge as critically as necessary.
Take as an example the discussion about the alleged danger that the LHC destroys the earth. It is tale-telling how many people believe such catastrophe stories notwithstanding the fact that literally everybody working on the field patiently explains why the accusation is completely unjustified. The question here is not who has the better arguments, but which side receives larger attention in the media (and catastrophes always go well).
- Because with the advent of infotainment there seems to come the believe that learning must be easy, and if a topic is complicated, it must be the fault of the person explaining it. Everything can be explained easily on only five powerpoint slides, in a blogpost not exceeding three paragraphs, or on a YouTube video, right? This consumer-attitude is an unjustified expectation.
Possibly "in the year 3535 everything you think, do or say is in the pill you took today" - but we're not there yet. To learn something in the year 2008, it still takes time, one has to sit down and think about it. It doesn't help reading 30 websites in the hope to find the one explanation that immediately makes sense. This explanation just might not exist.
- Because of the increasing believe that knowledge which isn't on the internet doesn't exist, or if there's only ununderstandable explanations to be found, nobody can explain something understandably.
It's not only that Stefan and I, we've both come to notice that there is sometimes no useful reference that can be linked to. It's also that many of the best and most useful sources of information are still books, carefully researched, revised, and written by people who know how to write (it makes a big difference, at least to me). And many of these books are possibly decades old, and don't even appear on Amazon search inside. I have also repeatedly come across statistics or data that weren't available online, even if I knew the institution who did a survey. There are also large differences in coverage depending on the country. Yes, one would think that the knowledge base on the internet grows, but the question is very much one of demand. I am afraid that the pieces of knowledge that are likely to receive little attention (like not very well known books in the history of science or so), will just never make it.
- Related to the above, the increasing believe that newer information is better. E.g. if there is a newer book/article on some topic, omit the older one because it isn't up to date. As things are, many of the really insightful science books were written long before the first website went online. (A side effect of this attention-for-newness is that pieces of information have a recurrence time after which they can be warmed up again and reappear.)
- Because of the believe that relevant information which is online can be found easily, which I suspect leads people to not search very closely for information.
- Because of the general problem of information overflow, and the effects of constant time pressure combined with the fear of missing something and not being up to date. It causes a generally short attention span, and lacking patience. The constant fear to miss something and to not be up to date supports very much the tendency of people to expose themselves to more information than they can possibly accurately judge on in the time they take.
- Because online one can find support for whatever point of view one holds, one just has to chose the social network appropriately and stick to the right forums, blogs or interest groups. As I mentioned in this earlier post "Can technology make us happy?", online networks can much easier be kept 'clean' from undisturbed influence and thus support confirmation bias.
- The distribution of opinions about science without any quality control leaves people with a great confusion about the reliance of today's scientific research, and with the suspicion that science is a waste of time and money, and people in the 'ivory tower' don't care or don't understand what is important in the real world out there. This is an excellent base for superstitious believes.
- A raise of pseudoscience distributed by people who have the erroneous believe they've solved some urgent problem without knowing exactly what the problem is to begin with.
- Blurring of the boundaries between Fact or Fiction for the sake of entertainment, on which I previously commented here.
- And eventually an erosion of the facts that progress can be build upon. There can be no scientific progress without it being appreciated by the public, since research has to be funded and eventually needs to be incorporated into every day life.
You can witness today the consequences of such a gap between scientific research and its incorporation in the case of social sciences, politics, economy and ecology. It's been decades that scientists have warned our political and economical systems are inappropriate to deal with global environmental problems, yet people have continued to argue with faith based approaches - and they still do so. If you are among those who believe in 'invisible hands' or that 'it will all work out somehow' you probably sleep better at night than I do, but there is no scientific basis for your faith. I don't want to see the same thing happening in the natural sciences - there being a case in which incorporation of knowledge into our society is stalled by opinionated influential lobbies and insufficient education. I therefore think we need to keep track on how technological developments influence the way we pursue and communicate research, and what the impact is of these changes.
The internet is a tightly coupled network that reacts on very short timescales. It is not a coincidence that 'hypes' have been gaining more momentum with the advent of online media, and it is unsurprising this also affects the scientific community. Such hypes are brilliant examples for positive feedback loops, in which attention causes more attention - and nowadays everybody craves attention. Information that has been repeated many times gains some sort of importance notwithstanding its actual value. The result are bubbles of nothing that waste time, energy, and resources.
The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is the Illusion of Knowledge that comes with an overabundance of unstructured information. It fosters the public manifestation of unfounded believes, stalls scientific arguments, and hinders progress.
TAGS: INTERNET, ILLUSION OF KNOWLEDGE, SCIENCE AND SOCIETY