The Illusion of Knowledge

Over at Backreaction

Current illusions such as the idea that if it’s on the internet, and especially if it’s in an oft-visited location, then it must be true (argument from popularity), if it can’t be explained in a short presentation, it must be false (argument from incredulity), if it’s not on the internet then it must be false, newer information is always better, and others.

I think some of this is a remnant of the idea that if something appears in print, it must be true — print used to be instant credibility in part because print was relatively expensive. The cost aspect was especially true in the earliest days, and you wouldn’t bother to commit something to writing unless it was very important, but before mass-printing, that was often spiritual truth rather than scientific truth. But with the advent of printing, thanks to Gutenberg, more information could be shared at less cost, so knowledge was put down on paper and distributed.

But it’s still largely driven by economics, and the illusion was present even back in the day. As long as a lie is profitable, and this could mean power and control, as well as money, putting it in print has a payoff. And as the cost of print goes down, the wider the illusion spreads. Today, of course, electronic print is dirt cheap. There is almost no threshold at all to making misinformation available, and even sending it to you — hey, you’ve got spam! Every crank and their inbred cousin can have a web site that “teaches” us how relativity is a conspiracy, quantum mechanics has a connection to the mind and body, the earth is 6000 years old, etc.

One danger, to which Bee alludes, is that if you’ve been hoodwinked into thinking a solution has been achieved, you aren’t as likely to support further investigation — legitimate, scientific investigation — into the problem.

The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is the Illusion of Knowledge that comes with an overabundance of unstructured information. It fosters the public manifestation of unfounded believes, stalls scientific arguments, and hinders progress.

0 thoughts on “The Illusion of Knowledge

  1. Thanks for the link. Yes, the impression ‘if it’s printed it’s true’ is also one that (sadly) needs to be corrected in days when everybody can get his book printed.