The Anti-Falsehood Compass
In light of the constant exposure to worldly events,
and in the age of infinite access to information,
which, don’t get me wrong, is almost one of the best things that ever happened to human knowledge,
there’s a possible problem that could emerge.
As real-time sharing of information becomes so costless/accessible,
the flood of that costless share of information,
makes it difficult to differentiate the “true/good” information, from bad/untrue information,
because we have limited time to access information, when there’s unlimited amounts of it,
and that leads one, to benignly, purposefully & “consciously” cherry-pick info, since we can’t consume everything that’s available.
Now that process of cherry-picking is not inherently a bad thing and is not the heart of the problem, as many people might think, because it’s a necessity as a function of our limited time,
but the problem emerges with the fact that there’s a chance that the information we “cherry-pick”, could be false/misleading, which goes on to be the basis with which we build our positions.
It’s also good to emphasize that the problem especially applies, with real-time quick shares like social media, etc. that incentivises, primarily, virality rather than truth (not that they necessarily contradict each other, but a lot of the times they do).
So how do we actually get over this possible problem, or avoid it all together?
Obviously, there are collective ways to get past it (especially in the digital world), and those are very much worth discussing, and the example that’s worth mentioning the most (which is quite a rare example), is the implementation of community notes in the platform of X (instead of arbitrary censorship programs, which facebook/meta implements),
where a decentralized context of the information/post is added (with different validation mechanisms), if a writer or sharer of a video is misleading, or sharing false events.
But perhaps the even more relevant approach to the individual, like the individual reader, is the introspective one.
Those collective mechanisms like community notes are pretty useful in providing true information, but they don’t really make up your mind on what’s true or not, at the end of the day.
We have to have an even deeper mechanism to try to deeply understand the things we consume.
I’ll start by saying that there are a lot of ways to immune oneself from believing false information.
And the ones we are going to explicate further down our analysis, will mostly be logical rationales,
However, it’s important to note before going on with those logical explorations,
that It’s not obvious to me whether all these mechanisms of moving away from falsehoods, are actually logical.
Even though we often give logic/reason too much credit in pursuing truth,
It seems to me like a lot of the mechanisms of avoiding falsehoods, are indeed psychological, rather than logical.
So an extreme parable that could explicate this claim is saying that, a person with a narcissistic complex, who’s less willing to accept varied viewpoints, can be more likely to be mislead into falsehood, without even appealing to the underlying logical mechanisms, which says a lot about the psychological nature of pursuing truth.
You can extrapolate this to less extreme cases, that indeed apply to a lot of people.
Now that we have clarified things on a meta level, and acquiesced to some limitations with a purely logical approach,
let’s try to explore some of those logical tools to further align our approach.
One of the important ways to direct the approach towards infinite information, and push it towards truth rather than falsehood,
especially in light of the post-truth incentive structure we live in,
is to get a grip of the past, and not only the present events (if applicable to that specific topic).
now I’m self-conscious enough to understand that this might sound super basic,
but In order to truly grasp the deeper meaning or idea, one has to strike a relevant example.
And an example of an event that happened in recent times is the issue of the Covid-19 Virus, and whether it started naturally or from a lab,
since, there was a true information war going on, on its origins.
Let’s ask the deep question of,
how do we add to our inventory of truth, and avoid/detect false information when approaching such topics?
Now, there’re the collective mechanisms we talked about, that help a lot in the process,
but an extra effort one can probably do to dig into the truth of things,
is understanding the past well, along with the present information, to contextualize it more,
and that would lead to more truthful positions, from two main angles:
A) There is the obvious quantiative effect where understanding the history of a certain topic will provide more context.
Even though this is common knowledge, in some sense, it’s still a good point to emphasize.
and to add on this point more usefulness,
we can say that one needs to understand that the past will inform us about the present, through patterns that aren’t easily seen,
rather than give us clear-cut facts about the present.
Which goes to say that looking for those patterns, might not be that obvious, at the first instance.
And those ‘indirect’ patterns aid in sensemaking and evidence seeking, about a certain topic.
to make the point about patterns clearer,
our example of Covid, and it possibly accidentally leaking from a lab, makes sense, as one plausible possibility, if and only if, one also looks at the past (prior to the onset of the pandemic),
since there were a lot of “lab action” going on in the area, in the periods prior to the pandemic.
However, it sounds like a crazy conspiracy that’s an impossible reality for a person who never took some time to dive into the past.
Now, linking this to our main point about patterns,
that doesn’t give us the conclusive answer, or make the facts conclusive, we certainly need evidence in the present,
but it makes the space of possibilities that are plausible more concrete and clear, and directs our sensemaking more, by identifying the patterns around/prior to the situation (lab action, prior similar less dramatic incidents/epidemics, etc.).
B) To check for the consistency of the narrative from the past to the present, which will tell you a lot about its truth.
The present in isolation, no matter how good the narrative is, is just not sufficient to come to conclusions.
If you’re asking the question of: why isn’t the approach mentioned above, just moving the problem one step further, to the past?
Another way to state this objection is to say: how can you know the problem of difficulty of detecting truth in the present, doesn’t equally apply to the past?
We can answer this objection from many angles:
We can say that this approach is not necessarily past vs present, you can think of it as adding more context to the present, which gives more nuance to the reader/consumer/thinker.
Another point we can raise to this objection is to say that, usually, the past has already been relatively subject to more criticism than present, which makes it more clear, for lack of a better word.
“Hindsight is 20/20!”, they say.
So the advantage of hindsight is pretty important, in this context because it more likely to present truth, and expose falsehood.
Not to say it gives perfect approximation, of course everything/every time span, is subject to the problem we presented, but all we’re saying is that the past gives a more probability to be clearer, in light of the current context.
It’s very interesting to think about the fact that when it comes to individuals, judging by past experiences, is less likely to be consistent, relative to big institutions (media machines, states).
But the bigger the institution, the more its present will relatively replicate its past.
If a person, one year ago, lies about X event, you could say that they’re possibly also lying today about x topic (since they lied about it in the past),
but if a state, one year ago, lies about y topic,
you could say with more assertiveness, that they’re also lying today about y event,
because it’s just more difficult to change incentive structures for larger institutions.
Because smaller entities (individuals, small entities) as opposed to bigger entities (monopolies, states), are easier to change, therefore more unpredictable.
It might be interesting to say, after we looked at our aforementioned tools,
there is a realm where one can misuse those tools to the extreme, where by:
looking into the past too much and judging by it, and relatively excluding the present, would be what is known as the genetic fallacy (happens more often than you think).
Looking into the present without much historical context, would be what is known as an: argument from ignorance.
I’d like to end by saying: even though the ideas discussed are not necessarily novel and only reminders/common sense,
but reminders are sometimes even more important than novelty, when approaching such complex issues.
This model/tool is applying itself to this essay, by going to the “past” of the mind (i.e. common sense/reminders of past knowledge),
to try to understand/solve the current things we are trying to think about (i.e. the present),
so I hope it left you with exactly that.