On Seeking Information to Support Your Convictions

Francis Bacon (1551-1626) was concerned with the superficiality of distinctions drawn in everyday language, and consequently the problems of misinformation to embroil men in the discussion of the meaningless. Because these errors are innate, they cannot be completely eliminated, but only recognized and compensated for. Some of Bacon’s examples are: Recognize our senses are inherently dull and easily deceivable. (Which is why Bacon prescribes instruments and strict investigative methods to correct them.) Our tendency to discern (or even impose) more order in phenomena than is actually there. As Bacon points out, we are apt to find similitude where there is actually singularity, regularity where there is actually randomness, etc. Our tendency is towards “wishful thinking.” According to Bacon, we have a natural inclination to accept, believe, and even prove what we would prefer to be true. Our tendency is to rush to conclusions and make premature judgments that support our convictions, instead of gradually and painstakingly accumulating evidence.

The very first ‘learned society’ meeting on 28 November 1660 followed a lecture at Gresham College by Christopher Wren. Joined by other leading polymaths including Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, the group soon received royal approval, and from 1663 it would be known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’. The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment. Wren designed 53 London churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as many secular buildings of note. He was a founder of the Royal Society (president 1680–82), and his scientific work was highly regarded by Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. He was knighted in 1673.

Every general-chemistry student learns of Robert Boyle (1627–1691) as the person who discovered that the volume of a gas decreases with increasing pressure and vice versa – the famous Boyle’s law. John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, is one of the few persons to have headed a college at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Charles II requested an illustrated book of microscopy, initially from Christopher Wren, who had begun making such drawings at Oxford. He had presented some to Charles, who liked them so much he asked the Royal Society for more. Wren was busy with other projects and the job fell to Robert Hooke to complete. One of the reasons Micrographia was so influential was that Hooke wasn’t content just to look at the forms of natural objects and draw them; he wanted to understand their ‘design’d business’ – that is, why they were formed in that way, and what effect it had.

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, written after the Second World War, introduced a concept of reality control that the population could be controlled and manipulated merely through the alteration of everyday language and thought. Orwell’s prophesy in his novel was the appearance of a state in which the truth does not exist; it is merely what ‘big brother’ says it is. Manipulation is a key trait of individuals with controlling personalities. Call it gaslighting, whitewashing, or rewriting the script: The crux of the matter is the manipulator’s desire to control the narrative and either be the hero or the victim. Gaslighting goes a step further and convinces the other party that they are truly “crazy,” “out of control,” or “not remembering correctly.” Gaslighting gives the manipulator the ability to not only control the victim but also to convince the victim that they are wrong.

Rather than Big Brother watching, today we have multiple big brothers in the form of huge Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, which log every keystroke. Hossein Derakhshan, observes, the “diversity that the World Wide Web had originally envisioned” has given way to “the centralization of information” inside a select few social networks – and the end result is “making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations”. Facebook reportedly had evidence that its algorithms were dividing people – “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness” – but top executives killed or weakened proposed solutions. Google has intervened in its algorithm to demote spam sites and maintain blacklists as well as make changes to its algorithm that favored the search ranking of a major advertiser, eBay. Older jobseekers today especially feel that bias has been magnified by online career services and right at the top of that list is LinkedIn.

When it comes to the Internet, Amazon, Netflix and Pandora use complex algorithms to make recommendations based on what similar people like, and Facebook and Google use them to cull pertinent information from personal emails and Internet searches in order to provide unsolicited user-specific advertising. Google ranking systems sort through hundreds of billions of webpages in our Search index to find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for. These ranking systems are made up of not one, but a whole series of algorithms. Search algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. Every time you press play and spend some time watching a TV show or a movie, Netflix is collecting data that informs the algorithm and refreshes it. The more you watch the more up to date the algorithm is.

Social media is an undeniable force in today’s world. What makes social media spread faster? The “power-law” of social media, a well-documented pattern in social networks, holds that messages replicate most rapidly if they are targeted at relatively small numbers of influential people with large followings. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies.  The elderly, the young, and the lesser educated are particularly susceptible to fake news. It is the partisan at the political extremes whether, liberal or conservative, who are most likely to believe a false story, in part, because of confirmation bias. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias.

Just as the early Internet fostered the illusion that it was inherently supportive of competition, so it fostered the illusion that it was inherently protective of personal autonomy. After all, no one compelled you to disclose your true identity online. Yet the digital world today has made possible the most comprehensive system of surveillance ever created; networked devices track our every movement and communication. The online economy has destroyed the traditional business model of journalism, resulting in a dramatic decline in professional reporting. And because Google and Facebook dominate digital advertising, no alternative online model has emerged capable of financing the same reporting capacities, particularly at the regional and local level. Their algorithms now influence which content and viewpoints gain visibility among users. Instead of promoting better-informed public debate, however, social media have become powerful vectors of disinformation, polarization, and hatred.

Francis Bacon stated that the destiny of science was not only to enlarge human beings’ knowledge but also to improve human beings’ life on earth. For Bacon skepticism as a method is not just a resolve to disagree. It is the presumption of error and fallibility on which our science is based. Skepticism is an approach to strange or unusual claims where doubt is preferred to belief, given a lack of conclusive evidence. “Skepticism is thus a resting-place for human reason, where it can reflect upon its dogmatic wanderings and make survey of the region in which it finds itself, so that for the future it may be able to choose its path with more certainty. But it is no dwelling-place for permanent settlement. Such can be obtained only through perfect certainty in our knowledge, alike of the objects themselves and of the limits within which all our knowledge of objects is enclosed”, observes Immanuel Kant.

Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to, observes Tom Rosenstiel. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias. But scientists can never prove a theory to be true, Popper insisted, because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory, or falsify it. On a personal level, making it a habit to question evidence that you believe supports your opinions is a direct way to counter confirmation bias.

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