This essay is entirely my own thoughts, so the standard disclaimers apply. This essay is prompted by some reflections triggered by various e-mail inquiries.
Being a scientist means that, for many purposes, people regard me as an "expert" in my field, whatever that might truly mean. One consequence of this is that in today's era of world-wide telecommunications access, I often get e-mails asking me for help with school projects having to do with my scientific field. When the questions are pretty specific, and answerable, it's easy to go ahead and answer them. The ability to ask questions of a science professional borders on something magical to me. I wish I had had this capability when I was in school!
However, sometimes the questions are vague or very general, and in those cases, I either ask for a clarification, or I refer the inquirer to a library or to the World Wide Web search engines. It seems to me that a lot of school research projects have (or should have) as a goal the development of an important skill: learning how to search out information. Thinking about this prompts this essay, because I see some problems with the proliferation of "information" in today's world of TV, radio, and the Web.
Life, in general, often presents us with questions. Some of these questions are rather mundane:
Others are deeper:
Life's questions come in all sorts of flavors, from trivial to profound. Interestingly, if you seek answers to virtually any question, the answer you get usually depends on the source. For many questions, different sources provide different answers, so it seems that disagreement is the rule, not the exception. Even for religious topics, where it would seem that holy writings offer the ultimate source of truth, opinions vary a lot. In fact, over the course of human history, many people have died at the hands of those who hold certain beliefs to be sacred. But I digress.
The answers to life questions have far-reaching and terribly important consequences. Seeking answers to life questions is a skill that young people will learn, one way or another. If youngsters learn to accept the answers from "experts" without question, then they will be prone to becoming followers of some demagogue. If, on the other hand, their search for answers is guided toward understanding the challenge associated with knowing "truth", they will be skeptics when it comes to someone claiming to be the sole repository of truth.
Scientific questions, in particular, are associated with an innate skepticism. Unlike religion, scientific ideas are inherently not sacred! Everything should be open to question, even ideas that have been around for hundreds of years. The reality of science is not always true to this ideal, but every scientist at least pays lip service to it. Many people believe that science is the peculiar domain of some sort of intellectual elite, and that non-scientists need not be involved with, or consider any of the challenges to knowing scientific "truth". In my opinion, nothing could be more wrong. Consider the following questions of current import to us all:
Anyone following the news will recognize these topics. These, and many others like them, are confronting us as a direct result of scientific research. Our nation, and others, must somehow come to answers to these questions. We, as citizens in a democracy, have a responsibility to be informed about these issues, so we can come to a decision about how to vote in local, state, and national elections. We have to decide for ourselves whether or not to become involved personally in campaigns based on which side of these issues we support. These are not just abstract ideas for a bunch of egghead scientists to debate! They're topics that will affect the future of humankind extensively in the next hundred years. It is irresponsible for citizens in a democracy to be ignorant of these issues, to follow blindly the choices of a politician, or a self-appointed "expert", or some "spokesman" for a certain political viewpoint.
The way to a properly-informed citizenry is through education, and one main point of this essay is that a school project designed to require students do some digging on their own should be assigned and carried out with some understanding of how important such skills really are. Education often seems like a waste of time to students, engaged in apparently pointless exercises, including doing seemingly meaningless "research projects". Well, the point goes well beyond satisfying a teacher's expectations in order to get a grade. Far too many students view education as a passive experience, like television. If it's not entertaining, it's boooring! Done properly, projects can illustrate and illuminate some pretty essential things about the flood of "information" that now bombards us from all sides.
Media of all sorts fill us up with seemingly endless reports about this, that, and everything. We see various "reports" on television, hear them on the radio, read about them in newspapers and magazines. Reporters are everywhere, it seems, probing about for "answers" they think their viewers, listeners, and readers want to know. The Web is filled with pages about virtually any subject you'd care to know about (including this page, of course!).
Much of the content of this avalanche of "information" is, I'm sorry to say, bullshit. A major goal for education is to give students a bullshit filter, by which they can recognize when someone is trying to fool them. Regrettably, it seems, this goal is often unrealized.
Have you ever watched a TV show about something you really know? Have you ever read a newspaper article about a story where you were involved? It is almost certain that you will recognize that the "information" being passed on by some energetic "reporter" is laced with falsehoods, distortions, misrepresentations, and perhaps even downright lies. Having been involved with a fair number of interviews over the years concerning my profession, and being interested enough in my subject to watch most weather programs and read many written reports about the weather, I've found the level of reporting to be almost uniformly abysmal. Rumors are reported as readily as facts. Situations are misrepresented to exaggerate some aspect of the story. People are misquoted or quoted out of context, and out of the vast amount of material covered during an interview, only tiny bits of that ever make it into the story ... on TV, they're called "sound bites" ... little bite-sized chunks of an interview, with all the rest of the material covered during the interview winding up on the "cutting room floor" or the wastebasket. The media act as if their audience is made up of idiots who are too stupid to pay attention for more than 15 seconds at a time to anything. I see this as a self-fulfilling prophecy: if that's all people get, that's what they expect.
The broadcast and print media play it very pious when they criticize the rather wild character of the information on the Internet. They ask, "Who controls the truth of what goes out on the Internet?' Well, they're certainly right about one thing ... there is very little control over what is on the Internet. Anyone can say virtually anything they want ... including me, writing this essay. Lies, distortions, fabrications, superficiality ... it's all right there, on the Web, along with good stuff scattered here and there. However, these older media are seemingly unaware of the same problems with their content! They have no "high ground" from which they can level such critiques of the Internet. Their content is not much better, if it indeed is better at all. Moreover, the older media are very non-egalitarian. If you don't become "famous" in some way, you're not given a chance to express your opinion. If the older media do choose to ask you about something, they control what questions get asked and how much an answer is provided. Ordinary people have little chance to get their opinions and ideas out there for debate.
Thus, we have the seeming paradox of a flood of "information" ... and people seem to know less about subjects than ever before. A vast amount of the "information" is bullshit, and those who tap into this torrent need to know how distinguish value from lies, propaganda, distortion, misrepresentation, etc. A key to this is to be aware of the source for information.
The sad part of this is that virtually all of us get most of our information from flawed sources. But this brings up another problem. What source isn't flawed? What prevents any source from following its own self-interests in presenting information? The answer to this seems clear. All sources are flawed! Any information source should be considered suspect, for the simple reason that self-interest will guide what information is presented, how it is presented, and when it is presented. What is not presented is often as important as what is presented, but if it's not shown, how might we know about it? Anyone presenting information has a viewpoint that will inevitably creep into the presentation, if by no other process than the deliberate choice of what to present. Most sources are consciously intending to represent a particular viewpoint in the best possible light. In fact, I'm certainly doing that in this essay!
An important question to ask is if the presenter has a financial benefit tied to swaying people into supporting his/her viewpoint. Politicians seek power in their presentations of "information" and citizens need to be careful about in whom they entrust political power. Corporations put out propaganda for their products all the time. This is not limited to advertising, either. Consider how the tobacco companies acted to protect their income by trying to convince consumers that smoking was not a health hazard. If money or power is at stake, then by all means one should seek out different opinions.
Therefore, an important habit for students to develop is to seek more than one source. If all your information comes from one place (including me, of course!), then you can be sure that your understanding is flawed! Never consider any one source to be authoritative! See what other viewpoints are out there, and it is virtually certain that other viewpoints exist. Never trust any source that claims to be authoritative .. in fact, such claims are usually a pretty clear indicator that the source is being deliberately deceptive.
If all sources are flawed, it seems clear that seeking reality forces us to look at some place that sits somewhere in between our sources, for the best approximation to truth. Experience suggests that when experts disagree about something, it usually turns out that both parties were right about some things, and both were wrong about other things. The only way to have a chance of grasping reality ... and I'm not about to get into a debate about "What is reality?" ... is to develop the habit of skepticism. Don't trust a single source, no matter how persuasive. Think about used car salesmen!
It is also a matter of experience that our history is rife with examples where most people have failed to consider alternative views. In stressful times, people tend to get swept up into moods where they brook no alternatives. Revolutions, wars, and civil strife may start out with the support of moderates, but those who advocate positions that are less extreme get swept aside as the violence of conflict polarizes people. "You are either for us or against us! There can be no in between!" becomes the order of the day, and this "reasoning" inevitably leads to violence and devastation. The "other side" gets demonized and dehumanized, so it becomes of little matter to kill and destroy the opposition. Only after the orgy of destruction subsides can moderate viewpoints again be tolerated. History teaches us many things ... one lesson is that polarization of viewpoints is the road to violence and destruction.
It's my belief that students should learn this lesson early and avoid the temptation to let others do your thinking for you. It's a lot easier to avoid the effort to seek truth, but the consequences of following demagogues are in the news all the time ... charismatic religious leaders taking their followings into suicide pacts, terrorism justified in the name of religious beliefs (albeit distortions of those religions), popular political "spokesmen" on TV and other media promoting partisan politics. It seems that people are constantly being bombarded with calls to "Follow me to truth, prosperity, and righteousness!" "No! Follow me!" Young people are particularly vulnerable to such calls, and should understand the hidden agenda of charismatic leaders before they sign up. In many ways, the seemingly opposed leaders have a lot in common with each other ... they are employing the same deceptive tactics to recruit followers.
And, after all, we need informed citizens to help us work out how to solve the challenges of our unfolding future. It's not enough to hear a persuasive speech and then make up your mind. You have to work to understand not only the polarized opposing views, but also the existence of more moderate perspectives that seek truth by avoiding polarization.
I've probably done something of a disservice to this topic by bringing up the scary part of what happens when young people do not learn how to seek information. Many life questions are mundane, but they still need answers. In the information age, it's important to learn how to answer such questions for oneself. This is part of growing up ... taking responsibility for decision-making is something forced on all of us as we leave the "nest" of our parents' home. Whether it's deciding how to vote, or how to lead one's life, or whether to buy a blue or a green shirt, or what restaurant to eat at tonight, we all need information to make decisions. Making decisions without information is essentially guessing, which often turns out badly, though not always, of course. Making decisions with misinformation is probably more likely to turn out badly than going with no information at all! Given that virtually any information source has some self-interest at stake, it is common sense to seek multiple sources. There are more ways in today's world to get information than ever before, so it should be second nature to seek information from diverse sources and then try to deduce reality from this.
Is there any way to guarantee that all your decisions will be correct? No. There are no guaranteed paths to truth and inevitably correct decisions. Does seeking diverse sources always make your decision easy? No. In fact, having multiple sources often complicates the decision. But the alternatives -- using no information or risking a large measure of misinformation by using only one source -- seem much worse to me.
An often under-utilized path to information is book reading. Students and many people seem disinclined to spend the time to read, for recreation or for specific purposes. Get information fast and easy through electronic media (e.g., TV or the Web) seems to be the order of the day. As already noted, this "information" contains a high proportion of misinformation, in my opinion. Books still have to confront the old issue of single sources, but authors of books have developed their concepts to greater depth than what comes across on electronic media. No quick "sound bites" in books! And you always can read another book on the same topic by a different author, to get diversity of perspective, but this diversity tends to be on a deeper level than what you obtain from the "high-speed" sources in the electronic media. What you lose in speed, you gain in substance. Your understanding goes deeper and stays with you longer.
Many students today seem to eschew using libraries as an information source. The Web, newspapers, TV, radio, magazines are all fine for getting a superficial grasp of what's going on. But I think it's worthwhile to do some more careful study, to get deep background information, historical perspectives, and thoughtful connections among topics by reading books. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, it is definitely harder to think than to it is to let someone else tell you what to do. But the high-speed information age makes it all the more important to not let oneself be deceived by demagogues and to be informed in depth when considering all the challenging issues that come up in this rapidly-changing world. History is valuable to us only when we are aware of its lessons. We need to slow down and get more substantial understanding of things into our lives and I think books are the best way to do it, even in this electronic age. Avoiding reading books is a fast track, but to where?
I certainly make no claim to knowing what is truth. I have ideas and opinions, some of them strongly held. But secular and scientific truths are not like religious truths ... they are not necessarily sacred and unchanging. Many "truths" may well be only relative things, and might lie only within the eye of the beholder. However, the scientific perspective on "truth" is the following: There is no way to know absolute scientific truth, short of being an omniscient being. Hence, we can only know things by observation and comparing our ideas against those observations. In other words, scientific "truth" is what is observed to work, to the best of our ability to test how well it works. This is a very pragmatic definition of "truth" based on results, and not just opinion. I want to argue that this is a useful way for anyone to use the information that is becoming so readily available to us, not just for scientists.
With some hard work (reading books), study, and thinking about things we have learned from different sources, we all can arrive at something that seems to make sense to us, as individuals. These "truths" are only hypotheses, not absolutes, but they can serve as a basis for decision-making because they are based on something substantial. We should maintain the capacity to change our minds if new facts (information!) present themselves. We should respect the right of others to come to different views, even as we disagree. Disagreement is a way to sharpen our understanding and there is nothing inherent in disagreement that should cause us to demonize those with whom we disagree. It is by disagreement and dialog with our opponents that we test our ideas and, hopefully, refine them. Our opponents in disagreement are truly our allies in seeking truth. We should love them for challenging us to think more deeply, not seek to destroy them (either metaphorically or physically) for their different views! We should reject categorically the idea that having a different belief is inherently wrong or evil. None of us have a stranglehold on truth, and we should distrust anyone who would claim to know truth absolutely.
On the exterior wall of Bascom Hall, at my old alma mater, the University of Wisconsin is a plaque. This plaque contains, in a few words, the essence of the university experience and what I am trying to say. It reads:
Whatever limitations trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found. [taken from a report of the Board of Regents in 1894]
The history of how this report by the Regents came to be written is an interesting one, and worth pursuing, but I'm not going to repeat it here. For myself, I still am moved by the concept that this simple statement represents. It was an emotional thing to stand and read this in person. It brings tears to my eyes even as I type this. May you all continue to sift and winnow for yourselves!
Update: 30 December 2008.
I've had an email discussion with a reader. The unedited conversation went as follows (my responses are in a different font).
On Dec 28, 2008, at 4:01 PM, Don Miller wrote:
It seems to me that you believe all truths are relative. Which leads to moral relatisum (what is morally correct for you may be different for me). Am I correct or wrong?
Interesting comment. I'm not exactly certain how relative truth leads to moral relativism. But ... before we go much farther, let me ask you: If you believe in absolute truth, what do you consider to be your source for it?
On Dec 29, 2008, at 7:47 AM, Don Miller responded:
I do believe in absolute truth in science and math as well as religion.
(The laws of physics, chemistry and math).
Math has all sorts of different truths - called axiom systems. Which one is absolute, in your mind? All of them? Some of them are mutually contradictory, you know. Ever heard of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem?
The 'laws of physics' are contingent, not absolute. Newton's laws became Einstein's laws - do you actually believe they'll never change again? The whole point of science is to call its own current 'truths' into question.
Only in religion is there absolute truth. So which religion's truth do you choose?
Moral relativism goes like this. One person has a set of morals that is different from the next person. What morally is right and wrong for you may be different than what is right and wrong for me. ( Morality is a matter opinion.) This attitude permeates our culture today and is causing chaos amoung the young and old alike.
I hate to burst your bubble, but people have had conflicting sets of morals since time immemorial. It's not a new development. The real world confronts us with moral dilemmas all the time - because no set of simple rules contrived by humans can be infallible in dealing with all real situations. We do the best we can, and some choose to behave very differently from others. Chaos has been a part of the human condition for a looonngg time.
On Dec 29, 2008, at 5:30 PM, Don Miller responded:
There is a book published by Tan Books called "Apologetics" by Paul J. Glenn.. Read it first then we can go further.
You answered my question. I'll get back to you after I read the book.
Which will be never ... the book he cites has a subtitle he chose not to mention: Apologetics: A Philosophic Defense and Explanation of the Catholic Religion. That did indeed answer my question. Mr. Miller's concerns likely arise because he has a set of morals that he accepts from Catholicism. This notion of absolute truth leading to absolute morality is hardly a recent or rare phenomenon. In fact, it's ubiquitous. His solution likely would be that everyone should believe in what he believes in, and concede the moral 'high ground' to him and his fellow Catholics. People generally are reluctant to review and reconsider what they hold dear - and this can become justification for violent and vengeful attacks on those who disagree. Anyone who considers their truths to be absolute is a candidate for participating in violent suppression of different beliefs. It's one of the reasons why I wrote this essay in the first place. I observe that despite being a 'conservative' religion, Catholicism's doctrine has evolved over the centuries, so what was dogma to the point of torturing and killing unbelievers in medieval times has been rendered obsolete by those in the church who interpret the faith to the faithful. What's so absolute about that? Additional discussion is pointless.
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