Filter Bubbles – Why What You Know Has Little To Do With Knowledge

It’s a little disconcerting to realise that what we think we know is often a result of what we want to know.

Sometimes it’s a simple case of user-bias. Try this: write down some of the things that you believe about life, love, the world, even the people you know. Now look at the list and ask yourself honestly if you want those things to be true. It might be as simple as needing to believe that your father was a good man or as emotionally complex as wanting to believe that the world will end soon (your own life suddenly becomes dramatically more simple) but if there’s a strong correlation then you might want to do a bit of rethinking.

That people want to believe the things they believe in is because temperament and background have a lot to do with what we perceive and understand. Self-interest plays a role, naturally – most British colonists of the 19th century believed that they were following a ‘noble obligation’ to bring civilisation to the world even as they robbed it blind. Certainly few of them believed they were thieves and setting up continents for decades of dictatorship and civil war afterwards.

But natural temperament also plays a role. Hang out with hippies for a summer and observe how quickly they tend to accept the healing benefits of the newest quack therapy (Rainbow Drop Therapy, anyone? It removes the toxins stored in the spinal chord…). They don’t arrive at a belief in a new healing technique by laboriously poring over field studies or even a wikipedia page on the recognized benefits of essential oils. Rather it sounds cool and groovy and as cool and groovy people it fits their temperament and outlook to believe in it.

 

Filter Bubbles

newspaper boy

His opinions are written all over him

Even if a person considers themselves to be open-minded (and who doesn’t?), reading the news every day and discussing topics with other thoughtful souls, they’re still liable to become victims of a filter bubble. Consider newspapers, the most traditional means of getting information – do you tend to agree with the articles in the paper you read? Or do you buy a paper that presents political opinions that vastly differ with your own?

 

Journalism is all about giving a slant to the actual information both in which facts are reported and the subtle weight they’re given and only a fool would think they’re totally immune to the bias. The newspapers themselves know this and make a business out of writing articles that will appeal to their readers. Their commitment to telling the truth necessarily plays second place to… selling papers!

Filter bubbles are perhaps even more pronounced in the age of the internet. Whereas you might be expected to search more widely among sources of media and thus obtain a more balanced perspective, the problem is that search has become personalised. Google and co monitor your searches and your interests and present different search results depending on what their algorithms determine to be of most interest to you. Once again the smart money is on telling you want you want to hear rather than what you might need to know.

 

Independent Knowledge

early science

Humble beginnings

In a world of bias, influence and self-interested subjectivity it’s no surprise that science holds such appeal for so many. Under rigorous, objective laboratory test conditions scientists can transcend their own personal beliefs and inclinations to arrive at independent knowledge, a grasp of the facts that stand alone and can be confirmed by others regardless of their social background or temperament.

 

Granted, it’s easy to create enough smoke that the general public won’t know the difference between genuine scientific investigations and sponsored research to protect vested interests – witness the general spirit of skepticism towards man-made climate though not a single serious scientific paper has managed to refute the overwhelming evidence – but at least for those who understand what constitutes actual science there’s general consensus on most topics of importance. Whether it bothers you to think that we’re descended from monkeys or not, the scientific evidence is accepted by almost everyone who has a basic grasp on how evolution works.

And yet science itself focuses only on what it can measure. It builds all its assumptions on the basis that anything demonstrated to be real can be repeated under identical conditions. It doesn’t exclude anything fun like telepathy, remote healing or fortune telling but the basic premise is that if it can’t be shown to be true reliably and regularly then there’s no reason to believe in it.

From the brilliant xkcd.com

But what if there are things that are true that can’t be measured? What if there are things that can be felt, understood or achieved that can’t be repeated on demand? What if, in short, there are other factors we simply haven’t considered? Could it be that science itself is inside a loop of it’s own basic premises?

There’s the old story of the man found scrambling around on his knees under a street lamp. A friend comes up and asks him what he’s doing.

“I lost the keys to my house!” he explains.

“Where do you think you dropped them?”

“About 500 metres up the road.”

“So why are you looking here?”

“Well, there’s light here…”

 

 

 

 

 

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