Hey, don’t take it personally, that title is a cheap trick to get your attention . . .
It didn’t just dawn on me, but for a number of reasons I have been more acutely aware of late that I can’t begin to keep up with the daily deluge of information: so much to learn and understand, so little time. Of course it was always impossible to keep up, even in the good old days of print media; but the damnable internet rubs my nose in it, every day.
So the point is I don’t know squat, either; nor does anyone else, at least not in relation to what needs to be known and understood. That’s simply the reality of our situation. But mere reality doesn’t stop arrogant legions of simpleminded ideologues from claiming to have all the answers. These days they are easy to recognize because they are well-organized and crave public exposure. You want examples? Okay, here they are: deluded religious fundamentalists, global-warming deniers, political conservatives, alternative-medicine cranks, the entire anti-vaccine movement, various conspiracy mongers – all fear-driven, suspicious, intellectually lazy people looking for the one, true cause of this, that, and everything. The worst and most dangerous of the lot are the religious and political right, if only because of the outsized power they wield.
Now that I have your attention, however briefly, I promise to be brief. My original title was going to be You don’t know shit, but I chickened out at the last moment (this is, after all, a dignified publication). So with that out of the way, I’ll revert to my preferred, vulgar terminology.
Either way, diddly-squat or shit, my attention-seeking title is nothing more than a shallow overgeneralization. But then so are all cultural adages since time immemorial. How can one possibly sum up all the complexity and nuance of any topic in a sound bite? Of course you know some shit, probably about many things, as do most of us. But we also know little to nothing about vast swaths of important information, regardless of our intelligence, our erudition, or how hard we try to keep up with the deluge of news and analysis.
Ignorance has afflicted humanity in all eras, but – and this is an important point – its nature and causes have changed. Early on, in the infancy and childhood of our species, ignorance was pervasive and inescapable. It was genuine, full-fledged ignorance: our ancestors literally couldn’t know shit, other than what they instinctively had to know to survive in a hostile, natural environment. About the bigger questions that were totally out of their ken – e.g., Where do storms come from? – they just made shit up, mostly out of fear stemming from lack of control. So they invoked powerful, invisible agents, an “explanation” and coping strategy now recognized by enlightened people as the god-of-the-gaps explanation. Only, in those prehistoric times, it was all gaps, all the way down. The result was what we call human nature, with all its tattered and obsolete baggage, including superstition, gods and religion, animal and human(!) sacrifice, soothsayers, shamans, faith healing, tribalism . . . and I could go on.
We have clearly come a long way since those dark times, thanks to a reality-based mindset that overcame formidable odds to give us science and scholarship. No thanks to religion and political ideologies that erected obstacles to progress at every turn. And the obstruction continues: the frightened, the ignorant, and the superstitious are still with us in droves – no longer out of necessity but due to that pesky old human nature that still tends to default to conservative, collective ideology. Only these days the ideologues have to deal with a challenge their primitive ancestors didn’t face: verifiable scientific evidence. In order to maintain their Medieval world views, they now rely on stratagems our ancestors didn’t need – denial and rationalization.
These days you gotta have a filter
For the vast majority of our species’ time on earth, life has been short and brutish. Don’t you feel, as I do, immensely privileged to be living now rather than, say, at any time prior to 1900? Despite everything, these are, for the time being, the best of times; and under favorable conditions things could continue to improve were there not so many organized, ideologically driven, malevolent groups determined to spoil everything. Sadly, the most dangerous groups are made up of our fellow citizens right here in “the greatest nation on earth.”
So we now suffer from the don’t know shit syndrome for very different reasons than in the past. Ironically, it’s because we live the the information age, aka the internet era, the digital revolution, whatever you choose to call it. The irony, for freethinkers and truth-seekers, is information overload – too much good stuff coming in to keep up with. So when I say we don’t know shit, it’s because no matter how much we know, we just can’t keep up with the flood of new, relevant information.
These days, with information expanding exponentially, it is simply no longer possible for anyone to have comprehensive understanding of many areas, or maybe even one. Specialization is the rule, including sub-specialities within specialized areas. Even narrow specialists are pressured just to keep up with their journals every day. Perhaps this dilemma is best summed up in the adage, “Art is long, life is short.” And note that was first expressed by the Greek physician, Hippocrates, sometime around 400 BCE. I like the entire quotation:
Life is short, and Art long, opportunity fleeting, experience perilous, and decision difficult.
So it’s not only the sheer volume of information coming at us, but also the increasing complexity and technical sophistication of so many specific areas of knowledge. That’s why everyone has to specialize, even within specialties. That’s why all of us must be humble and prepared to modify our positions in the light of new and better evidence. And that’s why Republicans, Tea Baggers, the religious right, etc. are hopelessly naive (in addition to all their other glaring deficiencies and vices). In their false certainty and lust for power, they have lost humility and compassion. They use their filters to block out reality and create a distortion field from whence to disseminate disinformation on a scale not seen since the Nazi ministry of propaganda in the 1930’s.
Not to let liberals off the hook: they can be naive and arrogant, too; and sometime I’ll try to document their foibles. But if we’re talking degrees of difference, which we should be, we’re looking at orders of magnitude. Conservatives, in their ideological arrogance, see things in black and white, good versus evil; whereas doubt is, or should be, a defining characteristic of liberalism, bringing it more into line with the basic tenets of science (e.g., all knowledge is provisional, pending new and better evidence).
So if there’s a take-home message in this rant, it’s this: you gotta have a filter to reduce the flood of information to a useful flow. And it’s got to be well-designed, up-to-date, and commensurate with the information overload of the times. I’m talking about a high-yield, high signal to noise, broad spectrum filter bundled with a software package that integrates and synthesizes information from across the spectrum. The better and more reality-calibrated your filter, the more effective use you’ll make of the flood of information.
And still you can’t do it alone, which brings us to networks. That’s what I plan to write about next time.