We cannot expect to know everything. Accumulation of knowledge requires the expenditure of limited resources; at the least, time and individual cognitive load, if not also ego depletion, and commonly money, and there is no limit to knowledge. Humans have to be able to make quick decisions with limited information to function in the world and in society. From dealing with a physical threat to deciding which brand of peanut butter to buy we will commonly not have all the information we might consider relevant, and one wrong or missing bit of info can cost us even our lives, in some cases. Therefore we have and can learn physical and mental shortcuts to allow and enable us to act, quickly when necessary, with limited information, and hope for a good-enough outcome. This is a necessary adaptation so we are not always paralysed by indecision.
We have a number of such shortcuts available to us:
- risk analysis (reasoning)
- heuristics (reasoning)
- conditioning (behavioural)
- genetic instincts or drives or reflexes (behavioural)
- intuitions (cognitive)
The Moral Problem (by Michael Smith) describes the relationship between belief (knowledge) and action (summarised by me) like this:
- Belief itself does not motivate action. There are plenty of people who believe smoking is bad for them, but they still smoke. Because belief is subject to reality, we can debate points of truth, to try to change someone’s belief.
- Action is driven from a desire for something, and this desire is purely subjective, so not subject to reality.
- Our beliefs guide the actions we will take to achieve our desires (this is what people call means-end belief). So if we desire to stay healthy, and we believe that smoking is bad for us, we would not start smoking in the first place, if we are rational.
- If we value something, we have the belief that we would desire it, if we are rational – this is where our moral behaviour comes from, and all other actions that could require ego depletion to initiate.
Therefore, it matters what we believe, because one cannot expect to get what one desires or values if the means-end belief is wrong. This is why humans want to have good information. If you desire cigarettes and you believe they can be found in a shoe store, you will be disappointed when you act on the belief.
So do the mechanisms we use to bridge the gap, between the reality that we’ll never know everything and the needing of good information to make good decisions, actually work for us? I’m not going to explore here the differences between making quick decisions by these various mechanisms as they tend to become confused in human experience by the human ability to rationalise our actions. I’ll also leave behavioural action to psychologists. I more want to discuss the way we trust the information on which we base or explain our sentient (thinking) action decisions.
If information accuracy was predictable we’d use risk analysis to determine how much we trust it. Instead, we have to use heuristics, which are mental short-cuts or “rules of thumb”, which we accept as being a good enough solution upon which to base our decisions in an uncertain world. For example, we might trust information coming from a specific presenter, or the way a story is presented. This is our advantage on computers/AIs: they can hold all the accumulated knowledge of humanity in their storage, and can do great risk analysis with statistical algorithms, and (given the right information) come to the right answer by very fast logic. They cannot make intuitive jumps or good-enough decisions like we do. For example: humans will stop processing a problem using heuristic rules but we can still always stop too early or too late. A computer cannot stop processing without a stop clause (without it we get an infinite loop), but machine perseverance can work on complex problems long after a human gives up.
But it is important to remember the close association between heuristics and cognitive bias: “”When our heuristics fail to produce a correct judgement, it can sometimes result in a cognitive bias…”. This bias misleads us about what the world is actually like, and we can from there create new heuristics that are not working in anyone’s best interest. Here are a couple of very interesting Ted Talks showing how bias can change our view of the world, and suggesting some new heuristics. https://www.ted.com/talks/alan_smith_why_we_re_so_bad_at_statistics or http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world. Understanding and recognising bias is a truly sentient art, in my humble opinion.
Listening to the media or subject/teaching authorities (or our friends) is an information gathering heuristic: we want to know what’s going on, but we don’t have the resources to research it ourselves, we believe the media or subject/teaching organisations exist to inform us about important issues, and trust that it is in their best interest to be accurate, so we let the ones paid to investigate and inform give us what we need to know.
Let’s break this series of means-end beliefs down.
We want to know what’s going on
It is not always rational (i.e in your best interests) to get any news. For one thing, people can lie to us, and if they do, and we act on those lies, we can cause ourselves and our social communities significant harm. Assuming the “news” represents the truth…
It is rational to try to be informed about things that could hurt us, so we can look after ourselves and our interests. As social animals we have done well for ourselves and each other to pass on such community relevant knowledge as “there is a tiger hiding in that grass”, or “Stacey is known to steal tools” or “the Gods have indicated that there will be a drought”. We can benefit (or at least avoid harm) from news like this.
In our modern world the “news” we get comes from all parts of the globe, and most of it is not relevant to us or our community. We get stories of the evils of serial murderers delivered to our doorstep as though they are on our doorstep, and our monkey minds become alert to the danger even though we are facing no danger (there have been 154 serial killers identified worldwide since 1980 – out of 7 billion, your odds of meeting one are slim). Constant threat warnings make us scared, inclined to not trust others, react aggressively, and stress can eventually kill us. We can also start believing all threats are “crying wolf” if we get cynical enough. Threat warnings are ONLY valuable if they are relevant.
Another part of our interest is in each other, in our community. We want to know if someone is bereaved, so we can act appropriately in their presence, and when they have a success, in case we can also benefit. Community is about give and take. These are social stories. Given that we are hierarchical and it is in our community interests to ensure social behaviour we can also use these stories to socially indoctrinate, control, coerce, isolate and punish each other. We are not always right to do so, and sometimes we can be very wrong to encourage these stories. Before you listen and encourage the story, ask yourself some questions. Is the distribution of the information for necessary social reasons? Are you getting informed or gossiping? Is it really any of your business? Are you saddened or entertained by discussing someone’s misfortune?
Do you have the right means-end belief? It usually takes longer than 41 seconds or 600-1200 words to get the full story, and these “news” stories are seldom referenced or even show their sources. If you are scanning to see what you want to spend more time on, that’s one thing, but if you absorb the soundbite or clickbait like gospel without spending time on finding out all the relevant facts that is not the way you are going to get informed.
We don’t have the resources to research it ourselves
As discussed above. Because heuristics are fallible, we need to be sceptical of anything we have not proved for ourselves. It does not help that we are bombarded by so many “facts” and social stories to keep track of. We are too willing to believe what we hear from the media, our friends and our authorities, and to assume other people are social, rational, unbiased and motivated by and value the same things as ourselves, and to stake everything on those “facts”. This attitude is lazy and dangerous, as we are isolating, radicalising and misleading the people of the world with all kinds of ignorant dogma and malicious lies. We have to learn to be sceptical, especially of the views we want to believe, especially of our own “rightness”. I like the show Adam Ruins Everything – he challenges the common beliefs of Western (American) culture, including those of liberals. Of course, he could be wrong on any point. Research the info you want to keep as fundamental to your worldview, assuming you desire to base your worldview in fact and consistency.
I once met someone who claimed he believed in a flat Earth. All the “proofs” I could offer to counter that belief I had learned as dogma from my school years. I had no understanding. He, as you would suspect, had counter-proofs that I could not address. If it mattered to me to prove the Earth was in fact spheroid, I needed to learn the complete evidence for myself. That’s where I learned that some “facts” I would need to hold loosely, as I was not going to (could not) spend the time on proving every detail I believed.
We believe these organisations exist to inform us about important issues
Some definitely market themselves that way, but I suggest that, unless the organisation is provably non-profit, it exists first and foremost to make money, and if it is non-profit it could easily exist to push a specific agenda disguised as information distribution e.g religious propaganda or conventional schooling.
Money making is easy – amongst your “news” you seed paid advertising, then convince the audience to watch the “news” so they see and absorb the advertising. The best way to get the audience attention is to scare them, as above. This is why a) “news” programs commonly contain a lot of scare stories and b) why advertising slots during news programs are sold at the premium rate. The product even gains acceptability and status for being associated with such a respectable program. The next best attention grabber is entertainment, including gossip.
Social media does not exist to give you facts. It exists to facilitate the spread of social stories, and also makes money from advertising.
Remember that “important issues” are those that are immediately relevant to the well-being of your community, and unless they are addressed they will continue to be relevant. News that isn’t reported because it’s not new can drop off the community radar, but it might still be of significance e.g climate change. This does not need to be local news. Are you being told about how the fluctuations of the US dollar and issues in the US Federal Reserve are currently affecting your retirement savings (even in NZ)? How about what climate change means for your long term real estate investment decisions? Do you know Bayer and Monsanto are potentially merging and what the consequences would be for world food production, including your food production? Or does your news run with celebrity pregnancies?
We trust that it is in their best interest to be accurate
It is actually in their best interest to be believed, and humans will commonly hear what we want to hear, to self-validate our world-view (confirmation bias). We’ll even get a second opinion when a doctor gives us a diagnosis we don’t like (seriously – if the second diagnosis is different, which do you choose to believe, and why?). We have various authorities to regulate the content of most (in NZ, not all) mainstream (not fringe) “news”, but that does not eliminate media bias and unsubstantiated speculation on “live news” stories. Even if a headline news story is shown to be false, which requires someone to know and care enough to contact the authorities, what leads in one edition or broadcast is retracted in an easily missed sub-story later on that week. We’d lose our faith in the “news” and stop giving them our money if they had to publicise their retractions as loudly as they publicise the initial misleading content.
Conclusion: We let the ones paid to investigate and inform give us what we need to know.
As I have argued, we have very little reason to believe that we are actually getting what we need.
Ask yourself – if I believe this information, will I probably use it in some action to achieve something I value or desire? If the answer is yes, ask yourself would it be right to act in this way if the information is not true? If the answer is no, verify your information. Get the actual facts before you give a story the honour of supporting your dreams and representing your integrity and reputation.
For example [Mexicans; please forgive my irony, here] If you believe that Mexicans send rapists across your borders and you plan to make policies that limit the rights of Mexican immigrants in answer to these allegations, first find out how many Mexicans there are, how many are rapists, how many of those come legally across the border, and how many non-Mexicans in your country are rapists and then consider if your policy will actually solve the issue.
You no longer have to study endlessly, or rely only upon heuristics to get information from an uncertain memory or second-hand or biased sources. We can now augment our brains extraordinary reasoning power with primary facts and numbers got with perfect recall and extraordinary speed from the world wide web (which is what I’ve done for this essay) and then act with good information.
Here are some guidelines for getting valid info from the internet:
- Is the data from a primary source? (eg government census info) or is the information referenced to a reliable source?
- Is there a chance that the source could be biased with a vested interest in getting your belief (eg the Nazi Party, or a charity)?
- Does the source allow debate about the veracity of the information (eg Wikipedia)?
- Is the truth defined by recognised subject experts or the less informed vocal populace?
John Oliver of Last Week Tonight also gave a helpful list.
A wise man I once knew said “Believe nothing, challenge everything, discover the truth for yourself”. Let’s start being sentient tool users to advance our lives and our social evolution and fix the messes caused by our intellectual laziness.