Saturday, March 4, 2017

Epistemology in the age of "fake news"

Being accused of peddling fake news by the New York Times or the Washington Post is like being called smelly by a hog.

I love the internet. Never before in human history has it been so easy to access accurate and helpful information. And when folks assure me that 99% of what is on the internet is pure BS, I can only smile and say "but the good news is that the remaining 1% is so vast and comprehensive it defies meaningful comprehension." Of course that leads to the BIG PROBLEM: How does one tell the difference between the 99% BS and the 1% good stuff?

Not long ago a bright young man asked me that very question with a look of panic on his face. What good is an infinity of information without an accurate way to tell which factoid will lead to a lifetime of confusion and wasted effort, and which will assist in finding answers that make life's journey more understandable, fulfilling, and productive?

Quite honestly, I was taken aback by his excellent question. Mostly it's because I almost never think about it anymore. My "rules" for separating the wheat from the chaff were formulated one summer night over 35 years ago while driving a sports car on some moonlit back roads at extralegal speeds. A college roommate who had gotten a philosophy degree was along for the ride and we were discussing the essential failures of philosophic thought. His take was that the big-name philosophers all tried to create a huge, all-encompassing world-view. The problem with this approach is that as humanity acquired more information, these newly discovered details tended to rip huge holes in some grandiose descriptions of how the world works. Poor Aristotle—his sweeping philosophy that acted as a lodestar for the last 2300 years has been filled so full of factual holes that nothing is left. Even his logic, which is still taught, has been made hopelessly obsolete. So the question becomes, "when you cannot even trust Aristotle, how exactly do you find your way?"

Like a lightening bolt it came to me. Instead of searching for the big answers, why not concentrate on those little answers that cannot be refuted. Think like a builder! Treat your irrefutable facts like bricks or timber. They may be plain and simple yet with enough of them, you can build a beautiful and mighty structure. Even better, if you are sure about the quality of the parts, the likelihood increases dramatically that the final edifice built from those parts will be sound. Moreover, if someone comes to you with an idea that contradicts one or more of your fact-bricks, you can be certain that the whole idea is nonsense and will fail.

My favorite example of what can be built with humble warehouse bricks
the Gruntvig church in Copenhagen

I treasure my simple little fact-bricks and have collected 1000s of them since that night. It turns out that no matter how small and seemingly obvious, there is no such thing as an unimportant fact. Take for example the following: Left to its own devices, water runs down hill. Well duh! Yet this simple fact is the basis for dozens of skills and professions from farmer, roofer, and plumber, to the city planner, flood control designer, or architect. Take this thought to its ultimate extreme and you have Holland where 1/8 of the country is actually below sea level because the Dutch refuse to leave water to its own devices.

By far, my favorite fact-brick is: If you want to harvest a crop in the fall, you must plant in the spring. This one is especially important because it teaches that while the natural order is critically important, the food only happens after the ground is prepared and the seeds are sown. Farmers are as important as fertile soils and timely rainfall. It also tells us that the creation of real wealth takes time. It explains why get-rich-quick schemes are invariably fraudulent.

One way to increase one's collection of fact-bricks is to learn the basic scientific laws. It is amazing how much can be explained by "force equals mass times acceleration" or "gases expand when heated." The really cool thing about the basic rules is that they tend to be universal. The reason we can maneuver space probes to take close-ups of Jupiter's moons is because gravity works the same as on earth. Know a few dozen of these fact-bricks and you will sense an underlying order even if the world gets crazy.

History poses an interesting problem. It is quite necessary to have a basic understanding of how the world got to be the way it is. To be historically illiterate is to be condemned to think forever as a child. Unfortunately, most historical accounts are written to flatter the victors in some struggle. And that's when conditions are good. MOST history was lost forever the minute after it happened. So most of what passes for history is horribly biased and woefully incomplete.

Most of what I consider historical fact-bricks are related to sequence. Favorite example: The last use of cast-iron canons happened in the US Civil War which ended in 1865. By 1870, the canon had been replaced with rifled artillery which the Prussians used to destroy the French Army at the Battle of Sedan. The lesson here is not that the Prussians won or that the Second French Empire was ended, the lesson is that advances in steel-making would forever shatter primary concepts of warfare—even though the new lessons were still not learned by 1914. (The preservation of archaic traits seems SOP for the human race—especially its leisure classes.) Anyway, if you only keep your timelines in order, the rest of history is mostly details.

So that's how I navigate through the infinite mass of information. I try to update my fact-brick collection as often as possible. And my ever-evolving collection of facts collectively makes up my BS filter. It is very effective. In over 2700 posts here at real-economics, I can think of none that cannot be factually defended. If there were errors, I have gone back and fixed them. In the age of the internet, there is no excuse for getting things wrong.

Not surprisingly, I am most comfortable in the worlds of the Producer classes. The kind of reliable honesty I appreciate the most is also the quality necessary to become a premium builder. Last week I listened as my brother, who was no slouch as a builder, marveled at the specialized skills he had encountered in his career as a construction supervisor, "Sure there are bums in the construction business, but there is also an astonishing collection of pure genius. These are people who make the nearly impossible look routine. These are people who absolutely HATE BS because it makes their jobs more difficult." People sometimes complain about the accuracy of Wikipedia entries. In the Producer corners—inaccuracy is rarely a problem. Google "difference between P-51B and P-51D" if you need an example of how facts about the difficult-to-build are handled.

Keep in mind that Producers value honesty because they see it more clearly. For example, the preacher who promises eternal life or the economist who asserts that continuous geometric growth in a finite biosphere is possible will always seem able to come up with an answer (excuse?) whenever their assertions are challenged with contrary evidence. A structural engineer who specifies a 10" beam when a 20" one was necessary has no hiding place when the building falls down.

Even better, getting the "little" facts straight is certainly not the be-all and end-all of the Producer consciousness. There have been some great big-picture thinkers in their ranks. But perhaps the most interesting was Charles Sanders Peirce who is considered the father of Pragmatism. Yes, I know, pragmatism is used by sloppy academics and journalists to describe some narrowly-focused ethical illiterate who thinks it pragmatic to ruin the lives of thousands so that Wal-Mart's profits will be a little higher next quarter. Fortunately, Pierce's Pragmatism is WAY more complex and nuanced (follow the link).

The key to understanding his incredible contributions to human thought is to understand something very simple—perhaps the most interesting goal in personal development is a desire and willingness to update your worldview when new evidence appears. Continuous improvement is a powerful idea—for example, it is the core operating assumption of Toyota and they are now the largest carmaker on earth owing mostly to their hard-won reputation for build-excellence and reliability. The idea is that if something isn't working, try something else. Unfortunately, this idea puts the Pragmatists in direct opposition to any and all people who believe reality should be forced unto preconceived explanations—the religious nuts of all manifestations.

Thorstein Veblen is arguably Peirce's best-known student. And in 1898, he put the economics profession on notice that people with an understanding of evolutionary principles were not impressed by the claims that economics was a science in a little gem called Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science. Of course Veblen was absolutely correct—economics is rarely a science and it is almost never an evolutionary one. Folks who go around quoting Adam Smith or Karl Marx are rarely into continuous improvement.

So that's it. Grow to respect the "little" truths. Leave yourself open to continuous improvement. And pretty soon you will have a BS filter that will allow you to harvest the riches of the internet without wasting your time on a bunch of wild goose chases. Soon you will discover that those who yammer on the loudest about fake news tend to have sorry examples of their own to justify. Yes, NYT, Washington Post, the Economist, WSJ, network TV, cable news, and the rest of the sorry lot, I AM talking about you.


  1. Oh my, this is more than just a “fact-brick,” this is a complete saga with many “Gems of Thought.” Thank you.

    I’ve accumulated a few “fact-bricks” in my lifetime, too (about life and death, time and money, herding cats...) and your “Theory of knowledge in the age of ‘fake news,’” is spot on!

    Like you, I love the internet. It might be our last best hope for a lasting happy future... no matter how fake the news gets to keep us apart and divided, ignorant and uniformed, scared and afraid to ask questions, or scared and afraid to do anything except what we’re told.

    If all we do is go shopping, no, sorry, we will not be alright. There is a tall order ahead of us and I hope we all have a chance to rise to the occasion!

  2. I have not thought of Thorstein Veblen in some time. I came across him as an undergraduate doing related economics readings. I remember paradigm of the business enterprise as a conflict between the engineers seeking innovation and efficiency and the finance side of the house seeking to retain profits and keep costs and wages at levels absolutely as low as possible. I will ha
    ve to check out Peirce. It would seem that there are echoes of Peirce and Veblen in each other's

    Carlito Brigante

  3. Ah hah! Now I understand why I am so irked when I happen upon someone quoting Smith or Marx. Thank you!