Monday, June 11, 2012

The democritization of knowledge

They thought they were free

"To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

The author is talking about the rise of fascism in Germany. What I find interesting is that the "lobster in a pot" problem is so universal. "Man is the creature that adapts;" if change is gradual enough, then any destination is possible.

In our case it is changing attitudes towards knowledge. The internet has killed expertise; everyone thinks Google makes them an expert now. Americans, it appears, score higher on confidence than anyone else - even while they score lower on correctness. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in full force: the less you know, the less you realize you don't know.

The danger here is that we will continue to accept answers that sound good while moving away from standards that prevented us from doing that. The whole point of expertise, after all, is caution: to know when not to do something. The idea that we follow the person with the most confidence is precisely the wrong thing to do. Science knows this, which is why every statement of science is appended with studies, experiments, and data, not to mention qualifiers, exclusions, and limitations. The real danger is that it's easier to project confidence (and optimism) when you don't know you're wrong, which accounts for why our political leaders get dumber and dumber the worse the crises get.

The golden age of Science is a new phenomena; four hundred years out of the two million or so we've been on the planet. It is not inevitable; it can be lost. We used to rely on academics and PHds and white lab coats to preserve knowledge; but that way had its own pitfalls. The democratization of knowledge is a good thing, but only if we go all the way. People have to do it right.

The maxims are simple (though discovering them cost humanity a great deal):

"If somebody is telling you exactly what you want to hear, he has to be lying." - me

"Science is the art of not fooling yourself." - Richard Feynman

"Show your work: how you got the answer is as important as the answer." - every math teacher I ever had

I went through a libertarian stage where I argued with my math teachers. It took me forty years and Project Management to understand how right they were.

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