Coping with the Information Glut

[7 minute read]

 

Q: Who can you trust?

In the short years following the invention of the printing press in 1440 people who could read would have quickly come to the startling realization that it was simply impossible – in their lifetime – to read all of the existing books.  Perhaps only a decade later these same people would have realized that it was now impossible to merely keep up with new books printed in a given week.  You can see where this is going.  In fact, you know where this trend has taken us.  Today you need to be a PhD student spending all of your waking hours on research in an incredibly narrow and focused field just to keep up with the latest papers and discoveries in said field.  Even that scenario may already not be achievable.

Let that sink in for a bit.

New scientific studies, socio-political developments, cultural movements, and technological breakthroughs are all forces which are shaping our history.  Because there is so much new information being generated on a daily basis, the best method we have to process it is to rely upon experts.  Experts have an extensive and verifiable degree of knowledge in a specific field and often have reputations avowed by professional organisations.  Experts are authoritative.  In fact, experts influence and advise greater authorities such as governments and businesses.  They have an incredibly high level of social responsibility.  And we all know from Spider-Man that with great responsibility comes great power.

I strongly believe that ethics underpin the podium from which experts cry their wares.  However we know all too well that they do not always behave and act ethically.  And therein lies the heart of this particular problem: we are often reliant upon their services to deal with the overwhelming amount of information out there and our perceived lack of time to process it all to an actionable outcome.  So what’s to be done?  The ‘go out and get 3 quotes’ strategy is a good way to deal with this.  But even this can sometimes take us to an uncomfortable place where a choice has to be made based on the trustworthiness and reputation of the expert in question rather than a purely rational deconstruction of the original issue which of course takes time and effort – which is why we pay the experts in first place!

Let’s take a step back now.

Throughout all stages of our lives – childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – there is a noticeable trend of conditioning we have undergone: that decrees from people in higher authority than yourself must be unquestionably fulfilled.  This has usually been enforced with means which are inherently violent in nature rather than through logical persuasion.

Disagree with your parents?  You get spanked.  Back in line!

Disagree with your peers?  You get alienated.  Back in line!

Disagree with your teachers?  You get disciplined.  Back in line!

Disagree with your family?  You get ostracised.  Back in line!

Disagree with your religion?  You get excommunicated.  Back in line!

Disagree with your colleagues?  You get ridiculed.  Back in line!

Disagree with your boss?  You get sidelined.  Back in line!

Disagree with the law?  You get incarcerated.  Back in line!

Disagree with the mob?  You get slandered.  Back in line!

Disagree with an expert?  You get trivialised.  Back in line!

Of course, people in authority aren’t necessarily experts.  But as experts fall under the umbrella of authority what I’m getting at is that we have developed a knee-jerk reaction to experts.  A large part of our being has been conditioned to fear the consequences of disagreeing with or having an opposing view to an expert.  But as information is becoming cheaper (internet and computer costs are going down) and better (more sources and transparency) the status-quo is rapidly beginning to change.

For example, why do we believe the mainstream media?  A reasonable answer might be: because media companies are composed of professional, sworn-in, and respected journalists.  But the reality is that they have an agenda which is not to consistently expose us to the undiluted facts (read: news) but rather to get our eyes to look at and click on their advertisements.  Lately their agenda has been overtly ugly.  It is has been political.  They have routinely been using their position of privilege as experts to cajole us (the masses) into voting for a political party or to believe in a social paradigm which they are both backing and have invested in monetarily and ideologically.  This is not ethical practice.  This is propaganda.

As another example, have you thought about why we trust doctors and psychiatrists?  Have they studied many years (sometimes decades) to accumulate a professional degree of knowledge and to earn their position of authority?  Yes.  Have they built up solid, invaluable experience?  Absolutely.  But are they infallible super-humans who can always provide the best solution to our problems?  No.  They also have an agenda.  Do you know which pharmaceutical company is buying them lunch or took them to the golf course last weekend?  Do you know what year they graduated and whether they are up to date with the latest treatments and medical practices?  Again, thanks to the internet you can now arm yourself with the latest, cutting-edge facts and developments.  Knowledge of this sort used to be accessible only by the few and the privileged but today is available to the layman willing to concentrate for a bit.

And what about politicians?  Economists?  Sociologists?  Climate scientists?  History has shown us time and time again that these groups of experts – in the highest echelons of power – do not behave ethically.  As the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises once said, “The proof of a theory is in its reasoning, not in its sponsorship.”  What’s more is that the recommendations and actions from these groups of experts have ironically caused more harm than harmony and in some cases have even resulted in the exact opposite of what they prognosticated!    And so, with the glut of raw information and the explosion of expert opinions it can seem impossible to know who to trust.  This state of permanent uncertainty is one negative side effect which people can experience from our fast-paced, information-driven world.

As always, the best solution is the simplest:

Think for yourself.  But truly think!  Listen to all sides.  Do thorough research.  Take notes.  Read books.  Listen to speakers.  Watch some debates.  Be convinced.  Be offended.  Be astounded.  Chew on the fat.  Sleep on it if you have to.  But don’t just swallow it all in a single gulp!  And then examine, privately, what it was that convinced you the most.  Was it the raw, unadulterated data?  The scientific approach?  Was it a passionate speech?  Was it Socratic logic and reasoning?  Was it a powerful anecdote?  Regardless of what it was that resonated with you the most, it is your responsibility to now hold it up to the light and see whether it is opaque or full of holes.  Remember that the simplest of questions will always undermine even the most elaborate of lies.

A: Trust in yourself.