Friday, April 19, 2024

Misinformation - knowing that we don't know


I have always been somewhat suspicious of the written word. Not so much because of the information conveyed by writing, but because of how it can be misused. For one, it can, in some ways, imprison knowledge. The information is there, but cannot be directly questioned. You may have some expertise in the subject and know that the words presented contain false information. But you cannot debate it. You cannot dialogue with it. You cannot help improve it. The words remain there, locked in place, impervious to criticism.

The other reason the written word causes concern is the way it can be misused. People read snippets of information such as misleading headlines, opinion pieces, or conclusions taken out of context, and then think they have knowledge. However, if they have no prior expertise in the subject, they cannot assess whether or not the information they are reading is reliable. Don’t we see this all the time on the internet? People with no specialist knowledge will read an article that concludes something they don’t like, then dismiss it. They will then engage in an extensive search for articles that contain conclusions they do like. And they will share the information contained in those articles, as if they, themselves, have expertise. This can be harmless in cases of personal taste preference. But in the domain of science and medicine, this can be damaging, and perhaps even lead to life-threatening decisions.

So, what is real wisdom? Is it skimming articles and cherry-picking favorable conclusions, and then masquerading as an expert? Or perhaps the wisest of us are the ones who comfortably admit the limitations of their knowledge.