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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Experts

In the present state, where credible sources of information are deemed fake, fake claims and specious arguments proliferate and disinformation has become a tool nations wield to destabilize the all too gullible citizens of enemy countries, the Internet and social media have become the arbiters of truth. Of course, neither are in any way reliable but no amount of truth to the contrary dispels the phenomenon of instant expertise that people believe is conferred by following a FB post or a tweeted statistic down the rabbit hole.


In a different circumstance we might celebrate the access to information that the Internet and powerful search engines offer us. But all too often we humans assert that our ability to discern fact from fiction is so refined as to render us immune to manipulation. As an endless number of objective studies have demonstrated, we believe our faculties of discernment are impeccable while we ignore the biases through which we filter that gruel of fact and fiction dished up in copious amounts by the intellectual gill nets of search engine algorithms.


To borrow a thought from a now famous comment by Andy Warhol, in the present everyone is an expert for fifteen minutes. Warhol was referring to the fleeting nature of fame in his original observation. I rather think that fifteen minutes is a vast overstatement of the durability of what passes for fact in our oversaturated information dystopia.


Healthy skepticism and a lot of it is in short supply. What we need to accompany our new-found abundance of undiluted stuff is a healthy dose of the B.S. vaccine. I hesitate to call what passes for information by any other name, agreeing that in the midst of this deluge of regurgitated bile kernels of truth certainly exist. I once lamented that this state of affairs called for critical thinking—a skill it appears that has all but vanished from the brave new world in which we live. But I need to amend that observation. What we need is a simpler tool for calling out the untruths, half-truths and deceptions that litter what we once called the information super-highway.


In brief, we need an inborn B.S. detector. My own consists of simple questions I ask whenever I am presented with new information—solicited or otherwise. Who is the source of this information? This is a critical piece of data, because the who leads to the next question, what is their agenda? Once I know who, and what, I can proceed to ask why. Why would this source want me to know and believe something to be true?


I don’t feel at all shy about asking myself these questions and conducting such further investigation as may be possible to answer them. Claims of expertise—even from highly credible sources, are suspect until proven otherwise. On the Internet, everyone is an expert. Finally, I want to understand what good or harm could come from accepting what is posited as fact, and here is the important part, acting on this information.


We are of course free to believe whatever we wish, but there are consequences that stem from our acting upon our beliefs, both good and bad. This is particularly true when we are dealing with highly charged issues, the kind that have a significant emotional quotient invariably related to political, religious, or ethical differences.


Emotions are the ultimate betrayer of facts. They are, as mindfulness teaches, a Hollywood façade. Behind their apparent reality are nothing but a sea of experiences and acquired beliefs conjured out of our hopes, fears, and needs. They are real in the sense that they affect us--but that is self imposed, they do not represent fact or truth—which we can observe in the degree to which we can be played upon, our conscience betrayed, or our opinions swayed.


Precisely because I know that emotions are unreliable guides by which to judge anything I am especially suspicious of any and all information provided in an emotional context, and I am more than prepared to discount any sense of expertise beyond that which I can lay claim based on demonstration and objective corroboration. But even armed with these tools of discovery it can be difficult at times to separate the legitimate from contradictory information and it is frequently the case that if one searches there are self-proclaimed experts around every corner.


I am reminded of an incident early in my career. My boss at the time, the CEO of our company, was preparing a presentation to the city tax authorities regarding the economic value contributed by our industry. He cited a statistic that he believed to be true but could not recall its source. I was asked to do the due diligence. In the days before the Internet, I resorted to the usual reference sources, industry organizations, libraries, journals and such. Every resource I contacted corroborated the data, and many suggested that a certain individual, a well-known person in the industry was the original source. So, many days of fact finding later, I called the gentlemen in question and asked him how he came by way of the information which had been credited to his name. He told me that he had heard it at an industry conference—and who was the source, I asked? You may have guessed; it was my boss.


Had I failed to pursue a definitive answer I might have simply accepted the expertise of one man, as did so many other authoritative resources. My boss was an honest person and we had a good laugh about how a conjecture offered up in response to a question became canon. The truth –or as close as we could come once we realized there was no truly authoritative source—was an approximation based on self-reported figures from our competitors and ourselves. We reported it as such and were confident that for the purposes we used the information it could be relied on as true. Sometimes that is the closest we can come- a temporary and approximate fact, nothing on which anyone would stake a bet or their life so to speak, but good enough for the purpose.


When someone dismisses science because it changes and sometimes is proven wrong in light of new information, they miss a fundamental point. Science—the search for understanding ourselves and our world is valid because it is not fixed in stone. Einstein’s theories of the Universe and how it operates have stood a test of time but not without trial and the introduction of new information that led to quantum and particle physics, string theory and host of other new understandings. Every time a test of his theories confirms his findings there is a cheer from some and a thirst from others to find proofs that will explain those nagging anomalies that neither Einstein nor anyone since has yet been able to explain.


That methodology and behavior is what we should embrace in our personal quest for information. Seek answers, ask questions, test our ideas and beliefs and be prepared to abandon them if or when we find they are invalid. Under no conditions should we ever consider ourselves expert and we should not confer that mantle on anyone else who has not earned it by committing themselves to a lifelong search for truth. We should assume the approach that Socrates adopted, awareness of our own ignorance, what Plato said in describing him as the wisest of men because he knew what he did not know. That my friends is expertise.



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