Sunday, December 27, 2009

Often Wrong, Never In Doubt

I once heard someone describe a person as "Often wrong, never in doubt." I was a Lance Corporal in the USMC at the time and was tickled by the description. USMC doctrine and tradition demanded that a Marine be ready for action at all times. To hesitate when faced with an ambiguous situation was to invite failure into your house for a good sit-down, a big dinner, and an eternal stay. "It is better to act inappropriately," in effect, "and be wrong, than to do nothing at all." This is useful in combat, where it's better to stay on the move and handle potentially lethal situations as they come. When it comes to collaborative efforts to determine truth, it may be less useful. With the aid of the internet, you can resolve your ambiguity quickly, and armed with numerous citations, you can fortify your rhetorical position so well that you never have to think again.

Thus, many people, military and non-, have become adherents of this view. The internet has allowed everyone to become an "instant expert" on practically any field of endeavor. Don't know much about autocatalytic reactions? Google will sort you out in 0.24 seconds!

The main barrier to education today, it seems, is not being able to find information. It's how to judge how reliable the vast masses of information you find are. In a contentious issue such as climate change, this is a real problem. The always cogent Roy Edroso sums the issue up in this way:

We were once promised a consortium of great minds cooperating to unravel current events, and wound up with a cottage industry of propaganda mills extracting partisan advantage out of every news item that comes down the pike and churning it into outrage.
This isn't exactly new- theological historians will recall the acrimony over minute disputes in Christian dogma in the late Roman period:

The classic argument of the time was based on one iota of difference, the small letter ‘i’ in the Greek alphabet. The Nicene Creed used the term homoousia, God and Jesus being of one and the same substance. The Arians preferred the term homoiousia, God and Jesus being of like or similar substance.

Espousing the incorrect belief then could result in condemnation as a heretic, a meaningful punishment for clergy at the time, but not for the general population. The rarefied air of Church Councils has now given way to the office water cooler, the corner bar, and the echo chambers of the internet.

Thus, the issue has reached epidemic proportions today and affects anyone who seeks to be well-informed. In his novel Anathem, Neal Stephenson explains the problem and envisions a solution and implements it on an alien, though still human, world:

"Anyone can post information on any topic. The vast majority of what's on the [Internet] is, therefore, crap. It has to be filtered... When I look at [an esoteric topic] I don't just see information about that topic. I see meta-information ... the filtering system tells me that only a few sources have provided information about this and that they are mostly of high repute... If I look up the name of a popular music star who just broke up with her boyfriend... the filtering system tells me that a vast amount of data has been posted on this topic recently, mostly of very low repute"

- Neal Stephenson, Anathem, p. 407
Getting back to climate change, the amount of information available is staggering. Google returns 37,600,000 hits for the search "global warming" and suggests several further refinements, most neutral constructions such as "facts on global warming," but also "global warming hoax," which returns 2,740,000 hits, the majority of which I think we can safely assume are crap.
Given the voluminous and calamnous nature of the denialist industry, it is easy to see why people such as my interlocutor yesterday can feel self-righteous and assume that I'm the misinformed one. Mentioning that I have a degree in Geoscience simply verifies in their minds that I have been indoctrinated. Questioning their claims, and rebutting them with reputable science just shows what a close-minded bastard I am.

This is clearly a problem which cannot be solved overnight. However, the alternative is to live in a world where science is done by democratic vote, regardless of qualification. As science is the best method the human race has found to guide its decisions regarding the natural world which we all must live in regardless of personal philosophy, this may be a question of the survival of our species.

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