Friday, July 29, 2016

The Truth and Expertise Problem

Katherine Viner, writing in The Guardian, gives a comprehensive overview of the way social media and tailored news is disrupting the truth (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth). It used to be that most of the population saw a common set of reasonably authoritative information from newspapers and TV. Now the real experts struggle to be heard over the cacophony, the truth is mixed up with falsehoods, and the way people get their news is highly likely to reinforce their biases.
But things are not all bad. Previously many lies got firmly established, and Viner gives the example of the Hillsborough tragedy. Now the population has learnt not to trust everything that is written down. This is a necessary step to not being misled. The problem is to get them to take the next step: to collect and evaluate the evidence like a scientist, then to think through the implications like a mathematician.
Well obviously that’s unrealistic. All of us, even the greatest experts in some field, are forced to identify experts that we trust when it comes to areas in which we lack expertise. The problem is that our faith in experts has been seriously eroded. In many ways this is a good thing. We now know that experts have put many people in prison through highly exaggerated claims about DNA and fingerprint identification. We know that many of the medical treatments that doctors have used, and advice they have given, are not supported by the evidence or results. We needed to take this step of treating experts with caution, but not go to the current extreme where expert advice is often completely ignored.
Experts need to be evaluated in some way. They won’t like that, but we need to achieve two things: Making sure that the experts we trust are not abusing that trust; And finding the real experts to trust in the midst of so many competing claims. We also need a process that can be respected by the public so that they and the media are inclined to select real and honest experts for their understanding of important matters.
This is the first of 3 blog posts. The 2nd will discuss a technological solution for identifying what is true, and why, and for identifying who is an expert, who is trying to mislead. The 3rd will provide a rather wild idea for a social experiment that might get the message to the public that there is an objective truth which is worth pursuing.
[There is a relevant new book “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age” by David Helfand, and here’s a review: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/2016/jul/28/between-the-lines].