Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How do we know?

To me the web has greatly shifted things, offering up the opportunity to have VAST amounts of information, but not all of it is correct! Which raises the question of, how do we know when we're getting correct and valuable information?

For me it is a very personal issue having not just to do with what I think I know, but also about how convincing things I claim are to others. And the issue of false information is a giant one, as well, people DO lie. Or they make mistakes. Or rely themselves on flawed sources, who give them false information that they then spread to others, perhaps without knowing.

Like consider the finding of prehistoric paintings at the Cave of Altamira. What if they HAD been created by a fraudster? People engage in willful fraud all the time, sometimes as a joke. And with the web have come a lot of cases, where thankfully in some the fraudsters have revealed their pranks. Where web video has been a favorite area. And computers get ever better at manipulating photographs, so it's harder and harder to just trust what you see in a picture.

But the findings of cave paintings in many other places helped validate the story.

That isn't definitive though, as consider the issue of the crop circle.

Lots of expertise from lots of other sources went into validating the reality that our ancient ancestors actually painted those pictures in caves long ago. Which is important information for our understanding of our own species. So it's not a minor issue.

Or consider the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, here is a quote from the Wikipedia article about him:
Described as the "savior of mothers", Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.

From our more modern point of view it's hard to understand how people could fight over such an issue, but consider this telling quote from just a little further down in the article:

Semmelweis's observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands...

But how do we know today? Well lots of things have been learned since then, as that was back in the 1800's, so unlike then thankfully today people understand that killing dangerous bacteria and viruses is very important in patient care. Coming to that knowledge took time, science, and maybe more luck than we like to admit.

Notice that I'm using the web quite a bit in this post! Primarily I'm relying on the Wikipedia which is crowd sourced in that it is generated by the activities of a lot of people, who write the articles, and importantly, edit them as well.

Today the web allows you to get information from one source, like the Wikipedia and then go check it against multiple other sources. Over time I've found the Wikipedia to be highly accurate in my opinion so I've learned to trust it. So I am not going to go over the articles referenced here looking for errors, and feel confident that is the best way to go.

But how do I really know?

Well I think I know from motivations. And again talking about the Wikipedia there are articles where I would check against different sources as I know that a LOT of people have interest in people thinking one way against another on that subject! But with these articles there's little reason for most to care, as they are settled areas.

Not a lot of heated debate out there about whether or not...wait a minute, should shift that to, no heated debate that interests me on these subjects! With the web I kind of figure that somewhere out there people are arguing on just about every subject imaginable. But for me these are areas where I have learned confidence, and the positions given resonate with what I think I already know!

And consensus reality is that information is likely to be accepted as true when it fits better with what one thinks you already know.

We build on what we've learned, and as human beings most of us learn a HUGE amount of information, which is pumped into us during childhood in this thing that a lot of people call school. And in that thing called school they test you on the information they pump into you too!

Society needs us to know things.

Every human civilization or community needs its members to have a certain amount of information in order for it to function. And social ranking within those societies varies based on what people think they know about each other.

Which can be a motivation for fraud. It can also be a motivation for discovery.

The web is a connection engine: it allows information to flow more freely between individual human beings and to be disseminated more easily to a large number of people.

So while many focus on the frauds that we see on the web, I find it fascinating how much we know is fraud because of the web. 

Prior societies often believed much more was truth--which I'll state without proof--and had fewer examples of how often people lie, maybe even because so many high status individuals were doing much of the lying to maintain their status.

You know, like that king who might have images painted portraying him as grand, and powerful when in person he looked weak and pathetic. Today, he would need to work hard to hire some serious people to manage his image, and try to get him portrayed in the best light, as we say.

So one way we know to be skeptical is when we know someone needs us to know something in a particular way, when they know, it's not true! Or we think they know, we might know, so they want to know how to stop us from knowing, if you know what I mean!

I love writing those kinds of sentences.

Or, in other words, motivations matter.

So to find a way to end this post which is getting kind of long, I'm going to try to stop myself on that point of knowing why someone wants us to know something is important!

What's in it for them?

But even with that information, as we may not be able to get it, when many people think something is true, we may be dragged along with them, like pregnant mothers who had to rely on doctors who refused to wash their hands up until our modern age, unless you know enough, and have enough status to force things regardless.

But the consensus opinion tends to find the truth over time, as consider the modern issue of vaccinations! Where I feel confident they are important and should be had, while some wish to disagree where I will not dignify that discussion with any links.

And doesn't that example say so much? I feel VERY confident that vaccinations are very important, and know others have reportedly disagreed, which I see a public health crisis. My position then is to dismiss those who I see as wrong, and I'm very wary of validating them in any way, where I'm stuck pointing out my own behavior given the subject of this post: but how do I really know?

So now I can find an exit: having correct knowledge is a critical issue, where people will probably battle it out indefinitely as it can have such a HUGE impact on our lives at all levels, including helping to keep us or our loved ones alive, and even better than just living, living the best life possible.

Maybe the best thing then is to take the subject very seriously, and just keeping asking yourself the question: why do I think I know this thing to be true?

James Harris
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