Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why Is It Suddenly So Hard for People To Know Things?

If you’re like me, you’re watching the news, actively engaging with social media, and from time to time engaging in actual face-to-face conversations with other people, and you’re asking the question:

Why is it so hard, suddenly, for people to know things?  Or put more cynically: How is it that I and other right-minded people can be so secure in my knowledge about a great many things — including and most importantly What’s Really Going On in the World — while at the same time a roughly equal number of folks on the other side are utterly, stubbornly deluded and resistant to plain facts?

If you’re interested in sustaining a civil society, this seems like an important question.  Maybe even the important question, as an informed and engaged citizenry is essential to the operation of a democratic republic. 
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(This seems obvious, but as a thought exercise let’s take a moment to toggle the switches and explore the three other possibilities:

  • Uninformed, disengaged population --> tyranny in a hurry.
  • Informed, disengaged population --> tyranny by the scenic route, and with a few more complaints.
  • Engaged, uninformed population --> division and anarchy, until some collection of interests comes to predominate over all others, at which point you can fairly expect tyranny.)
Having covered all that, how do we describe our current condition?  It’s fair to say that none of the four categories adequately captures the particular predicament we’re confronting right here right now, in the United States in 2018.  To be sure, there is a critical mass of people who care deeply about the nation, its direction, and the many issues and controversies at the forefront of our politics.  This to the point that I’d say, taken together from both sides of the aisle, there are enough of us invested in current events and their implications to support the conclusion that for better or for worse, yes, the people are engaged. 

The next question is are the people informed?  I don’t think we can deny that they are.  This is, after all, the Information Age.  Each of us has by orders of magnitude greater access to information than the American people did even twenty years ago.  And each of us participates daily in the circulation and flow of that information.  At least, that’s what I think we’re doing on our phones.

But there is a problem here.  Something’s broken.  In fact, in a time of perhaps unprecedented division and bitterness in our politics — at least since the First Civil War (see what I did there?) — the following may be the single proposition on which liberals and conservatives largely agree: There is a real, and threatening, information gap cleaving the nation in two.  Partisans will complain that framing the problem at this level of generality was a trick.  You did get us to agree, Phutatorius, but for different reasons.  The left believes the right is willfully under- and misinformed, blinded by ideology and impervious to the actual evidence.  The right sees the left as captives of corrupt institutions that distort the political process with slanted information.  I have my own opinion on who’s right here, but I’ll save it for later.  For now, let’s offer the neutral framing that the two sides are differently informed and leave it there.

Having settled that proposition, we can start breaking down how we landed ourselves in this blind alley, where we have ready, near-immediate access to 1.2 million terabytes of online information (some of it, admittedly, behind paywalls), but we can’t reach basic agreement on what we know.

A first step is to consider, at the 50,000-foot level, how we come to know things.  I.e., what processes do we undertake to draw conclusions about the world we live in?  The short answer is all kinds, but because I’m a lawyer, and becoming a lawyer indelibly alters your mind, one such process strikes me as especially attractive and beneficial.  And here it is: we come to know things by (1) making observations, (2) examining the evidence provided by those observations, and (3) making conclusions.

Elaborate, Phutatorius.

I shall.  Let’s talk first about observations.  We can often observe immediate events personally — I know my son’s and daughter’s ages because I witnessed their births firsthand.  I was present, in the hospital room, on a particular date, when my children entered the world, and I can calculate their current ages with reference to that date.

(It’s not that simple, necessarily.  Because as time passes, the births of my children become increasingly remote events, not so much in place but in time, with the result that I have to rely on my memory.  That’s easy to do, for an event like the birth of my children.  But there are often cases where facts slip from memory — or they would — so we rely on supporting evidence that records facts: say, a birth certificate, or the date-stamps on photos of the newborn baby.  More on this below.)

Events that are place-remote are more problematic for me to observe, for the obvious reason than that I’m not there.  In cases like these, I need to rely on someone else’s account of what happened.  I am able to know Mithridates’ daughter’s age, because he told me when his daughter was born.  He was there, he strikes me as someone who would be a reliable source on this question, and I don’t have any reason to believe he would lie.  These three factors — immediate presence at the event, a relationship suggesting he would be particularly attentive to the event, and no obvious motivation to lie — make Mithridates a reliable authority on the question of when his daughter was born.  On this basis I can receive his evidence and, without requiring corroborating information, arrive at a definitive conclusion on his daughter’s date of birth.  Do I know the DOB to the point of absolute certainty?  No, but I am satisfied.

So we have firsthand evidence (what we personally witnessed), and secondhand evidence (what someone else tells us).  Written documents, generally speaking, are secondhand evidence.  The birth certificate records the hospital’s testimony as witness to a child’s birth.  They aren’t more authoritative, necessarily, than what Mithridates told me.  But because we can imagine cases where we might have reason to find Mithridates less reliable — say, he was out of the room, he was fried on LSD, or he is embroiled in a legal controversy to establish his child’s citizenship status — contemporaneous written documentation from a neutral arbiter (here, the hospital) comes with an additional measure of authority that can be important. 

(We can ask whether a written recording of firsthand evidence — a note to myself, written in my journal — is secondhand evidence, too.  If I don’t remember the event per se, and I need the writing to remind me, one could argue that written evidence is in fact secondhand evidence.  And in the course of evaluating its authority I should apply many of the same principles I would to a writing prepared by someone else.  Indeed, my first question should be: do I remember writing this?  If I didn’t, I can examine the handwriting to determine if it looks like mine.  I can examine the journal to determine if it is familiar to me and has ever left my custody.  And so on.  Ultimately, the question I am required to answer is whether the journal entry is an authoritative record of the events it purports to describe.  Whether or not my journal entry provides secondhand evidence or a recording of firsthand evidence is really an academic exercise.)

A further note on the subject of documents merits a brief discussion.  Certain documents may be regarded as more reliable than others, because rather than simply inscribe what a witness perceived, they are instead created by technologies that allow for the direct recording of an event.  An audio or video recording of a courtroom proceeding will generally be regarded as more reliable than the court reporter’s transcript, because in the latter case events in the courtroom are mediated by the court reporter’s perception, with the result that the transcript could be marred by mistakes, or for that matter the court reporter’s bad faith.  By the same token, an audio or video recording could be fabricated or doctored, and it is for this reason that “chain of custody” evidence is important in a court of law.

This process that we undertake, in order to know things, happens in most cases on automatic.  There’s no clutch we have to engage, and we don’t talk ourselves through the work of gathering, sorting through, and evaluating evidence.  All day long we receive information, assess it, assign measures of authority to it, and draw conclusions from it — largely unaware that we are working through a process each time we do it.  I look at the baseball score.  The Indians are losing.  I don’t belabor the question whether the MLB.com website is reporting accurate information, whether it might have been hacked and is now reporting a false score to me, whether the true score was reported from MLB.com but was garbled or intercepted and replaced on its way to see me.  And I don’t have any reason to question the conclusion.  The Indians are playing the Yankees.  I would like them to be winning, but it doesn’t strain credulity that they’re not.  I see the score, I accept it with resignation, and I move on.

Because in most cases we draw final conclusions about what we know so easily, so quickly — so blithely — we tend to understate the extent to which we personally play a role in deciding what we know.  Although at times it might seem so, information does not act upon us.  It doesn’t just pilot its way to our brains, land and stick there.  We actually operate a tower that summons the information and assigns it a runway.  And there’s always the possibility that we might reject the information.  We may conclude that it does not, in fact, come from an authoritative source.  Or we may conclude that the source is authoritative as a general matter (it’s never been wrong before), and it seems as if it would be authoritative in this particular instance (like Mithridates, it was present, attentive, faithfully recording what it perceived, and having no reason to lie), but it just doesn’t fit into the broader system of conclusions we’ve previously drawn.  It just can’t be true.  That guy sold us Pudding Pops for decades.  He can’t be a rapist.

We’ve covered some ground here, but it seems to me we’ve only scratched the surface of real epistemology, and we have not yet even started to consider why a process like the one I’ve described could fail, or could lead to such a yawning, sprawling, chasmic Information Gap as we’re seeing right here, right now in 2018.  Returning, then, to the question embedded in the title of this post — Why is it so hard, suddenly, for people to know things? — I’ll throw out these ideas, which I’ll explore more fully in subsequent posts (not necessarily in this order):

  • First, there are gradations of knowable-ness.  For example, What did the President say at the press conference? is, one should think, a question we should be able to settle, among all parties.  What did the President mean to say? is a harder question.  Why did the President say it? and What was he thinking? are still harder.  And don’t even get me started on a question like Do tax cuts promote economic growth?  I would argue that over time, our tendency to engage in vigorous disputation on the less knowable propositions has bled over into the more knowable propositions.  We have called off the hard arguments on the notion that “reasonable minds can disagree,” and in so doing we’ve set the stage to apply that principle to questions where, to be honest, reasonable minds probably shouldn’t.  Add to this the proposition that nothing — nothing at all — can be known to absolute epistemological certainty, and suddenly everything seems like fair game.
  • Second, the networked world makes it harder to know things.  One obvious reason for this is that in a networked world, there is more information interference.  But more than this, cause and effect determinations, which comprise one important subset of knowable propositions, are much harder to make, because the Internet enables a multiplicity of distant and diffuse causes to render actual effects, big or small, without regard to time displacement or distance.
  • Third, the Internet and digital media have created a crisis of authority, by devolving the capacity to generate and broadly publish information from capitalized elites to, well, anybody.  This is a good thing if, for example, you’re a nobody to book publishers and you’re starting a blog.  But it problematizes knowledge determinations by, among other things, enabling the publication of information untethered to journalistic or editorial standards.  For centuries we relied on media elites to provide information to us, and we assumed reliability.  Our media literacy — our ability to assess the quality and bona fides of information sources has atrophied.  Or we never had occasion to develop it in the first place.  As a result, we are struggling to apply traditional indicia of reliability, toward fairly and reasonably evaluating evidence.
  • Fourth, and relatedly, the Internet and digital media have created a crisis of authenticity.  We are accustomed to examining documents — in text, photographs, recorded audio and video — and taking at face value that they are authentic and accurate.  But through technology unprincipled persons can, and increasingly they are, fabricating and altering documents with an expertise that we’re just not gonna catch.  Seriously.  This is only going to get worse.
  • Fifth, and with my apologies to Republicans for walking back from neutrality, there has been for decades now a concerted effort by the right wing to attack the legitimacy of institutional sources of information that are central to our civil society, in order to obtain short-term political advantage.  Targets include the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, network news, institutions of higher education, and lately even the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.  As a result, a large portion of the country has been convinced to reject out of hand reporting and assessments from principled and generally reliable information sources.
  • Sixth, not everyone hews to or even favors an evidence-based approach to knowledge all of the time.  Am I engaging in unfair speculation when I suggest that religious fundamentalists who predicate so much of their understanding of the spiritual world on faith (which I won’t criticize) will be susceptible to basing their understanding of material and sublunary political matters on faith, too (which I will?).  There is a go-with-your-gut, reject-the-evidence mentality that predominates on one side of the political debate.  The process these folks follow will absolutely lead to divergent results, as against evidence-based analysis.
  • Seventh, and I mentioned this briefly above: in the end we decide what we know.  And it is in that point in the process — even in the evidence-based process I would favor — that we are most at risk.  Every human weakness is brought to bear, and applies its leverage, at that point.  And there are a lot of human weaknesses.  Just to name a few: prejudice, spite, pride, grievance, group identity.
More to come.

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