A couple of weeks ago I wrote about epistemic dependence and the idea that we need to trust experts because we are unable to verify everything ourselves as life is too short and there are too many things to think about. However, this approach exposes us to the risk of being misled and Julian Baggini has suggested that this risk is increasing with the growth of psychology, which has allowed more people to master methods of manipulating us, that has led to ‘a kind of arms race of deception in which truth is the main casualty.’ He suggests that when we are presented with new information then we should perform an epstemic triage by asking:
Is this a domain in which anyone can speak the truth?
What kind of expert is a trustworthy source of truth in that domain?
Is a particular expert to be trusted?
The deluge of information, which streams in front of our eyes when we look at the screens of our phones, computers and televisions, seems to leave most of us grasping for a hold on reality. Perhaps we should treat it all as fiction until have performed Baggini’s triage, at least on the sources of the information streams, if not also the individual items of information.
In his novel ‘Nausea’, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that at around forty, experienced professionals ‘christen their small obstinacies and a few proverbs with the name of experience, they begin to simulate slot machines: put in a coin in the left hand slot and you get tales wrapped in silver paper, put a coin in the slot on the right and you get precious bits of advice that stick to your teeth like caramels’. When I first read this passage a few weeks ago, it seemed like an apt description of a not-so-young professor writing a weekly blog.
I am on vacation combining the positive effects of reading [see ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014] and walking [see ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017] with a digital detox [see ‘In digital detox‘ on July 19th, 2017]; but, through the scheduling facilities provided by WordPress, I am still able to dispense my slot machine homily. I will leave you to decide which posts are from the left and right slots.
I attended a workshop last month at which one of the speakers showed us this graphic. It illustrates that the volume of information available to us has been approximately doubling every year. In 2005, the digital universe was 130 Exabytes (billions of gigabytes) and by 2020 it is expected to have grown to about 40,000 Exabytes. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy or disorder of the physical universe is always increasing; so, is this also true for the digital universe? Claude Shannon proposed that information is negentropy, which implies that an increasing growth in information represents a decrease in entropy and this seems to contradict the second law [see my post ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017]. Perhaps the issue is the definition of information – the word comes from the Latin: informare, which means to inform or to give someone knowledge. I suspect that much of what we view on our digital screens does not inform and is data rather than information. Our digital screens are akin to telescopes used to view the physical universe – they let us see what’s out there, but we have to do some processing of the data in order to convert it into knowledge. It’s that last bit that can be stressful if we don’t have some control mechanisms available to limit the amount of disorder that we ask our brains to cope with – we are back to Gadget Stress [see my post on April 9th, 2014] and Digital Detox [see my post on August 10th, 2016].