One of the consequences of the explosion of “knowledge” in this present world is the growing lack of understanding among people. This would seem to be a paradox, but it is not too surprising when one gives a great deal of thought to the problem. Growing skill in both divisive rhetoric and in manufacturing data and statistics to support one’s position has led to increasing skepticism of the data points of others and growing reliance on ideologically biased information and sources, which drastically harms one’s knowledge of the outside world. It is worse to know the wrong things than to know knowing, because the illusion of understanding is vastly more harmful than the open admission of ignorance. One can overcome ignorance by gaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, but to correct the problem of wrong knowledge there must first be an admission of being misinformed, which the prideful (that is to say, all of us) find difficult to accept.
This is not a partisan problem. Everyone, no matter their belief system, has a difficult time sorting with the massive contradictory claims and “facts” and “evidence” to be found. Considering the massive (and often unrecognized) problem of interpretations and conclusions being smuggled as premises and suppositions, it is hard for any of us to either be sufficiently on guard against lazy reasoning on our part or sufficiently aware of the intellectual bankruptcy of others. After all, so long as someone has a logically coherent worldview it is often difficult to deal with its disagreement with our own, unless we are prepared to examine the presuppositions and assumptions of others, or are prepared for others to question our own unexamined foundations. Most of us are not generally willing to have our presuppositions and approach questioned and subjected to withering and intense criticism. And those of us that are willing to return the favor are generally not welcome in the fora of the insecure.
Scientists are not immune from this problem. In fact, research suggests that a growing number of scientific papers contain fabricated research. This is true for a variety of reasons. For one, a growing reliance on numerical models makes fraud easier, because models are not empirical data that can easily be verified, especially when initial assumptions matter so much in final conclusions, and when those initial assumptions are in dispute. For another, the growing use of science as a supposed arbiter of political questions has made the practice of science increasingly theological and political in nature, and scientists are ill-equipped to admit (and seek to counteract) their own biases, threatening their legitimacy in the wider sphere both from the right and from the left. Instead of science providing an escape from the morass, science itself has become discredited as an authority for truth, just like everything else.
The result is an immense duplication of functions, whether we are talking about research, modeling, fact checking, or anything else, because every aspect of human behavior has become so politicized that one’s initial premises and assumptions tends to determine not only one’s conclusions, but also the sources one finds legitimate because of their agreement with one’s premises (and conclusions). This is not a new problem–in fact, any time that people have been sufficiently free and sufficiently educated to make their own minds, they have largely sought authorities that supported their existing thoughts, or changed their minds largely based on emotional appeals that boosted their own self-esteem and perceived self-interest. Whether we are dealing with Periclean era Greeks or antebellum Southerners or contemporary people, we have not changed that deeply, and so we exhibit the same patterns as was said of another era, “in those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” We are no better than they, and little different, if at all.
What is to be done about this problem? It is not wise to simply adopt the conclusions of our opponents, since they are often hostile to our own interests and subject to the same larger concerns as our own in terms of bias (since there is no neutrality, and since every perspective is a bias). What we need is to find a way to defending our beliefs without it being necessary to demonize our opposition. What we also need is a way to discuss what is at stake, usually flawed premises and presuppositions, in civil discourse. Speaking for myself, I have no difficulty being open and honest about my premises and presuppositions, but as a consequence I tend to be pretty blunt about exposing the often flawed premises and presuppositions of others. The advantage of openness is greater latitude in countering others on the ground that is truly in dispute. Nonetheless, in a conflict-ridden world, the existence of many fault lines leads to many competing visions of reality, much less the future. Such problems cannot be resolved by humanity alone, as hard as we try.