Winnowing truth from fiction: Our epistemic dependence and the knowledge inequality!

Truth is more complex than fiction. Of course, fiction is an excellent medium to portray the truth; still, let’s consider fiction with a lie. Or fake news and its emergence in a hyperconnected world. 

Information overload is plaguing human society. The frequency and rapidness of technological advancements are only polishing the tools of propagating false news. It results in a downward spiral of human values and society at large. Further, the dangers of social media loom larger. These platforms act as algorithm-driven “conspiracy rabbit holes.” They make you vulnerable to dangerous disinformation and tear you away from ground realities. The mediums serve as echo chambers that simply do not provide fact-checked, reliable, and accountable information to meet its selfish obligations.

But why do humans cling to false beliefs rather than know the truth? 

According to historian Yuval Noah Harari, truth is harder to understand. There are so many underlying factors subsumed under one truth that it is difficult for human beings to comprehend at face value. Content consumers don’t bother checking the facts and become prone to false information. Harvard professor, Michael Sandler, argues that progressive liberal thinkers have promoted the idea of merit over the years to attain the ultimate understanding of how the world works. It has resulted in a concentration of ideas and knowledge only within a selected few. Technocrats and scientists do not share the information beyond their academic boundaries, which has led to a shift of power. Ordinary people lack the means to access this knowledge or even decipher the language spoken in the “powerful or elite” community. It creates a void. The vacuum is filled with easy-to-understand conspiracies. Presumptions are far-fetched. And extreme right-wing ideologies are propagated. 

For example, a set of believers hypothesized the “cabal theory,” in which only a few people run and dictate the progression of the world. Some people are convinced that Joe Biden is only an AI figure controlled by algorithms on the whims of certain influential individuals. Two conclusions emerge from this conspiracy: 

1. People’s deep-rooted manifestation of the perils of technological advancements and that machines will ultimately take over the world, leading to the extinction of humankind. 

2. The resentment towards the powerful and elite of the society. And how the less privileged are merely pawns to satisfy the greed of only a selected few.

The anger grows. And this anger is exploited by right-wing trolls, propagandist narratives, and lies that are far simpler to comprehend. Language becomes important. False narratives are expressed in a manner that aligns with conspiracy theories. They complement the rationalization of complex truths to develop fertile grounds for resentment, anger, and feelings of deprivation. Indubitably, believers are urged to uproot social ethos in an already agitated world. 

Behavioral science states that followers become more strident with time. They tend to take final decisions on constitutional matters, which, otherwise, an individual is not capable of. Believers transition from sharing intermittent tribal beliefs to propagating radical ideas that impress their side. Also, ridicule for the naïve and contempt for those who don’t always side with similar thoughts deepen the rift that exists right now between liberal thinkers and right-wing believers. It leads to extreme polarization, which begets more violence. Using violence as a tool to expand radicalism only leads to volatile consequences. It also promotes nationalism and idol worship. Totalitarian figures, riding on misinformation waves, emerge to project themselves as the sole cultural regulators. It results in conscription, autocracies, and more idol worship. 

Where does the thick fog of misinformation come from?

In his book “Ends and Means,” Aldous Huxley quotes the Late Emile Meyerson as saying, “The human mind has an invincible tendency to reduce the diverse to the identical.”

Our intellect thirsts after explanation and attempts to reduce this “diversity to one identity.” Huxley writes that any proposition stipulating the existence of an identity underlying the diverse phenomenon seems to us intrinsically plausible. We tend to drive a deep satisfaction from any doctrine that reduces irrationality to comprehensible unity. Else the world would seem chaotic — “an unconnected series of mutually irrelevant phenomena.” However, natural science recognizes that there is irrational diversity, which we cannot reduce to identity and rationality. 

People have two tendencies: 

  1. Identification and generalizations.
  2. Exploration of brute reality, accompanied by a recognition of the specificity of a phenomenon. 

Huxley mentions that thought is not subject to the discipline of organized sciences. So the first tendency – identification and generalization – is allowed too much scope. It results in the oversimplification of events happening around us. In our impatience to understand the circumstances, the intellect tends to “impose more rationality upon the given facts than those facts will bear.” We look to discover more identity than really exists in life’s practical affairs. It is a shortcoming, and the penalty is not immediate or spectacular. It deprives us of the truth we might have come to possess if we hadn’t made that mistake. For example, humans oversimplify and hold God responsible for all the imperfectly understood phenomena. This way, they never research more and neither believe in science. But they do not know what science is, so they don’t know what they are losing out on. 

Holding God responsible is not fashionable anymore. In terms of society or individual beings, we do not oversimplify things in terms of God’s will. Instead, we look toward economics, sex, or inferiority complex. Consequently, we never understand human beings or how they behave. We cannot reach out to the truth if we don’t give up our ambition to find a single cause of our ills. We must admit to many reasons for intricate correlations and reduplicated actions and reactions — all acting simultaneously. 

Decentralizing scientific and academic knowledge can help people know about the methods of identifying the truth and becoming aware of the dangers of misinformation. So how do we winnow the fact from fiction?

Balance rationality with expert advice and your own thinking.

Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

How much do you know? How can you understand the world when so much of our knowledge relies on the evidence and arguments provided by others? We have access to far more information and informed opinions than ever before. Our reality is not what it seems when presented with varied analogies and anecdotal evidence—political polarization and misinformation act as oxidizers. Vetting news becomes arduous when you don’t know whom or what to trust. Political discourse, management practice, medical advances, and our regular life all ride on how we evaluate and distribute knowledge. 

Harari says that the cognitive revolution has brought about a dual reality in human thinking. On the one hand, the objective reality of fact-based evidence, and on the other hand, the imagined reality of knowledge illusion and explanatory depth. Over time, our imagined reality has taken precedence. We overstate our individual ability to amass knowledge and dismiss society’s role in possessing it. The rise of the I-know-it-all attitude comes as collateral damage in looking into your own self for all the answers. Recall how all the ads and billboards scream “Customer is king” and impose on our ability to make correct decisions every time. 

Our society’s precarious state of knowledge consumption is briefly published in John Hardwig’s paper “epistemic dependence.” For instance, you know plants use photosynthesis. But can you explain what actually happens, let alone prove photosynthesis occurs? For the most part, knowledge depends on trust and relationships as it does on textbooks, observations, data analysis, and reviewed conclusions. He explains that “justified true beliefs” are facts you can support with data and logic because individuals don’t have the time or skills to validate their own beliefs. But what do we mean when we say we know something? Hardwig opts the second out of these two dilemmas

  1. Much of our knowledge can be held only by a collective, not an individual. 
  2. Individuals can “know” things they don’t really understand because we love certitude.  

Thinking for oneself might not reveal all the answers. Dismissing this seemingly obvious “rationality,” Hardwig writes, “it’s a romantic ideal which is thoroughly unrealistic.” That means with minimum cognitive effort, you have the map of the entire world. If we continue believing such ideals, we will end up holding relatively crude information and half-baked truths that “we arrived on our own.” Without scratching the surface of the issue, we will fall prey to our prejudices. Rational thinking requires trusting in experts, even more than we already do—however, you need to balance rationality with expert advice and your own thinking. 

Encyclopedic knowledge is untenable. That is why decoding complex problems requires the collaboration of varying skills and people from different backgrounds. For example, machine learning is believed to crowd out the housing problems in the US. It strives to maintain the moral equilibrium when issuing interest rates to all individuals alike. But technology has, in some cases, exacerbated America’s systematic racial bias. For example, the University of California’s housing report shows that an AI-based mortgage lending system charged “Hispanic and Black borrowers higher rates than white people for the same loans.” Involving a dynamic set of people from different qualifications will make sure to utilize anti-racist technologies and methodologies. Progressively, the involvement will increase the fairness of the technology that is being developed. Technology can be a part of the solution. One of the other methods of identifying the truth is acknowledging the shortcuts we take to understand reality.

Steven Sloman, the cognitive scientist, calls these purported corroborations “contagious understanding.” To verify it, he asked a group of people to read up a made-up natural phenomenon — glowing rocks. Salmon told the first group the phenomenon was “well understood” by experts. Others were told either it was mysterious or “understood but classified.” Then, he recorded the respondents’ own understanding. Those in the first group gave higher ratings than the average as if the “fact that it was possible for them to understand meant they already did.” 

In a 2013 study, Sloman further explained how the illusion of explanatory depth plays a critical role in political polarization. Participants were asked about how they rated their understanding of policies related to healthcare, taxation, and “other hot-button issues.” They placed their own knowledge highly. But when they were asked to explain the policies, the participants faltered. With more such exercises, their arguments stood on shaky ground. 

In 1987, the psychologist Daniel Wegner stated about collective cognition, or “Transactive memory,” where people treat others’ knowledge as their own — objective or imagined. Mathew Hutson, a science journalist and author of the 7 laws of magical thinking, in his article “The unbearable vicariousness of knowledge,” writes: Several lessons follow from seeing your own knowledge as contingent on others’. Perhaps the simplest is to realize that you almost certainly understand less just about any subject than you think. So ask more questions, even dumb ones. 

Acknowledging epistemic knowledge can initiate meaningful debates and augment our understanding of the world we live in. But how do you test the integrity of the fact at hand? Mathew says we need to check if experts agree on it and whether there is a consensus in multiple news stories. Also, review information. Ask probing questions to your peers, or reach out to credible experts on the web. Alvin Goldman, a philosopher at Rutgers University, offers four cues that exhort reliability on an expert’s view.

  • Approved by other experts
  • Acquired ample credentials or reputation
  • Devoid of evidence about biases or conflicting interests
  • Achieved a proven track record

Epistemic dependence and the increased reliance on it have started getting recognized. Mathew explains how science operates today. He highlights how researchers depend on each other to fill in knowledge gaps. Collaboration and specialization have grown extreme. It has incorporated global networks of domain experts. Large groups with a single-minded focus on the research at hand are also being awarded together. “The Nobel Prize is an anachronism from an earlier age when things were done by an individual or a small number of people,” says Rainer Weiss, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves .”

The work involved hundreds of people, many of whom “have never met.” They used tools and knowledge of others. Such coordination doesn’t happen by chance. It requires sophisticated social and technical systems, working hand in hand. “Trust feeds evidence feeds trust, and so on,” exclaims Mathew. 

The same is true for our society. Because, ultimately, knowledge is about both trust and evidence. We don’t need to undermine our self-reinforcing system of proof and trust. If we do, our ability to know anything will cease to exist. We must follow the Swiss Cheese model while consuming views where one layer of knowledge with many holes might not suffice. But several layers on top of each other can build a solid block.

In this manner, we distribute the responsibility of our sanity to the people who constitute our social networks.

Dr. Jordan Peterson, Clinical Psychologist

But how accessible is this knowledge? Is it in a consumable format? Can ordinary people understand the written text in scientific and academic journals? Acamedecians, aka the truthbearers, are often criticized for complex writing that is hard to understand. Methods of identifying the truth and thinking critically must be accessible to all, like clean drinking water and food. Otherwise, It will promote knowledge inequality. The chasm between conspiracies and rational reasoning will deepen. However, critical thinking will ignite emotions, fuel motivation, and trigger logical perceptions in our dialogue. Else, information overload will continue to dull our sensibilities. 

Complex academic writing leads to knowledge inequality.

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

Obscure language is like a riddle on a signboard while you are on a busy, unexplored highway. You want to know the next turn to reach home but instead are tasked with solving the riddle. Certainly, you do not have the time for that. What do you do? Take a guess and keep on any chosen path hoping it would lead you home? And leave your decision to chance? I hope not. You switch on the GPS navigation and find turn-by-turn directions.

Given our certitude, we simply give in to our love for making the possible right choices for any given situation. But that could be misleading. Instead, we should ask for expert guidance when required and not give in to our inherent convictions. As knowledge is based on trust and evidence, we should be able to ferret out insights ourselves and act rationally. Our epistemic dependence can cut short misinformation and substitute enlightenment for ignorance. 

To galvanize citizens into acquiring suitable sources of knowledge, they need to understand recent scientific progress, learn about technological discoveries, realize the consequences of information societies, and detect the means to fan conspiracies. It’s like turning to your mobile maps for directions when you are unsure about the route. 

Our transactive memory can gain a lot from academic publications. Researchers from various backgrounds are employed to advance our knowledge and develop the capacity for “independent, honest, and critical thought.” In addition, they collaborate with peers and communicate their research to benefit society as a whole. 

But academicians are often called out for obscure and convoluted writing. Even the erudite find it hard to consume. In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard’s Steven Pinker used adjectives like “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand” to define academic writing. The complex writing problem—referred to as an “opaque writing style“—is explored in fields ranging from science to law. Pinker states that “unwieldy writing” has become some sort of a protected tradition.

Any attempt to dissect meaning from a mess of academic jargon and vague language is frustrating in interacting with academia. 

But the problem is pervasive. It trickles down to college students, professors, and the public. Finding meaning in the confusing mazes of complex writing is tedious. It contributes to a host of negative effects. Ryan Lillestrand, in The Student Life article, mentions, “On a larger scale, it raises walls around academic research that bar the public from engaging with exciting new work being done.” As long as complex writing dominates academia, “inequality in access to information will persist.” 

According to Deborah S. Bosley, a former University of North Carolina English professor, a disconnect between researchers and their audiences escalates the problem. Consequently, ordinary folks lack a good place to develop a base of knowledge.

“Academics, in general, don’t think about the public; they don’t think about the average person, and they don’t even think about their students when they write,” she says. “Their intended audience is always their peers. That’s who they have to impress to get tenure.” 

She further states that academic Prose is often riddled with professional jargon and complex syntax. It becomes difficult to even for someone with a Ph.D. to understand a fellow researcher’s work.

Victoria Clayton, in her article for The Atlantic, “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing: A new movement strives for simplicity,” writes, “Academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers.” 

Pinker, the cognitive scientist, boils it down to “brain training.” Years of deep academics to become specialists in their narrow field actually work against them. They are intellectually challenged to unpack their complicated ideas coherently and make them suitable for average folks to understand. He calls this the “curse of knowledge.” Academics aren’t aware they’re doing it. And they are not even trained to identify their blindspots. 

“It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley says. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would also make their work accessible to people and even their colleagues. 

Research funders, including the National Institutes of Health and The Wellcome Trust, mandates that studies they finance must be published in open-access journals. But they give little attention to ensuring those studies feature accessible writing.

However, some academics post blogs, tweets, and also try other popular platforms to make their research accessible to wider audiences. For example, TheConversation.com sources stories and authors from several research communities. Academics get the byline. But their research papers are edited by professional journalists adept at making complex studies “clear and writing palatable,” according to the outlet’s managing editor, Maria Balinska. 

“We see a real interest among academics across the board in what we’re doing,” Balinska says. “Our editing process is rigorous, but they still want to learn how to communicate their research and reach more people.” 

The Conversation currently features articles by 1,500 academics from 300 institutions. Notably, the platform gets hundreds of thousands of unique visitors every month. The promotion is mostly through social media and word-of-mouth. But these individuals are often criticized by fellow academics for oversimplifying. Critics further undermine the vital role the populizers play in spreading new knowledge and research. 

The status quo of academic writing needs to change. Bosley feels that the “bucking tradition and championing the clear-writing cause” would be an “academic’s advantage, a university’s advantage, and certainly to the public’s advantage.” And some academics already acknowledge this reality.

In the Linguistics, Style, and Writing in the 21st Century podcast, Pinker urges academics to follow the “classic prose” of writing their research papers. The model highlights: 

  1. Apply Prose as a window onto the world.
    1. The writer has seen something in the world.
    2. He positions the reader so she can see it with her own eyes.
  2. Define the reader and writer as equals.
  3. Help the reader see objective reality.
  4. Minimize the “apologizing” that academics, in particular, feel compelled to do.
    1. Classic Prose gives the reader credit for knowing that many concepts are hard to define, many controversies are hard to resolve. 
    2. The reader is there to see what the writer will do about it.
  5. Follow the conversation style of writing.
  6. Keep up the illusion that the reader is seeing a world rather than listening to verbiage. 
  7. Visualize that classic Prose is about the world, not about the conceptual tools with which we understand the world.
  8. Narrate ongoing events (we see agents performing actions that affect objects).
  9. Tell a story advanced by protagonists who make things happen.

Suppose the researchers choose to write in accessible language and leave behind unnecessary complexity. In that case, academicians will break down barriers that “discourage a wider audience from engaging in meaningful academic discourse.” 

Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, argues that scholars are “obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions, and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” For Butler, turgid writing also forces us to stop and think about what is being communicated or push ourselves to think differently about something.

Controlling conspiratorial idiosyncrasies.

Image by izoca from Pixabay

Frequent political controversies of the 21st century revolve around science. We already saw it with climate change and medical science. Both began as scientific theories but were increasingly politicized. Technology is next. It is perilous on a number of levels to keep climate science, medical progress, and technological advancements confined to a small elite. They do not bring a representative view of human interest into social upheaval debates. It is unjustified to have a technocratic notion that only epidemiologists must solve epidemics by themselves, only economists should understand economics, only climate scientists must tackle climate change, and only computer scientists should comprehend artificial intelligence. Taking a populist approach helps bridge the meritocratic and academic divide. It addresses knowledge inequality. Harari comments that the latest scientific findings in most areas should be accessible to everyone both as a project of enlightenment and politics. We cannot shut out people out of these conversations, saying it is too complicated for them to understand. It deprives ordinary people of the good that they might have come to possess. Also, it creates a vacuum and a fecund space to grow unfettered conspiracy theories and sources of disinformation. 

There are a few exceptions, like quantum physics, where you need a high level of mathematics to understand the subject. But common people must have access to the basics of economics, history, climate, and diseases. And understand the essential functions of how science works. For this to happen, the guardians of knowledge need to make an effort to reach a broader audience and explore the populist approach. For that, they sometimes need to change the way they speak and write. After all, we don’t understand professional jargon. Even most scholars don’t. Theoreticians must present critical ideas and insights that apply to our society and have a conversation about them. Substitute storytelling for numbers, statistics, and models. Even graphic images simplify ideas. And not sell science short. Reaching out to a broader audience by taking a populist approach is not undermining science. It is a service to the public good by promoting knowledge equality than confining the discussions to a few scholars in a closed room. We need to connect academics and everyday life. Because the distinction between conspiratorial idiosyncrasies and objective reality hinges on exploration. Let’s explore the fringes of our knowledge, further our epistemic dependence, and expand what we already know.