Agnotology: study of disinformation propagation

This is a cracker!

Clive Thompson on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge

Is global warming caused by humans? Is Barack Obama a Christian? Is evolution a well-supported theory?

You might think these questions have been incontrovertibly answered in the affirmative, proven by settled facts. But for a lot of Americans, they haven’t.

…What’s going on? Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn’t think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion…when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution. The ur-example of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link lung cancer to baldness, viruses—anything but their product.

…Maybe the Internet itself has inherently agnotological side effects. People graze all day on information tailored to their existing worldview. And when bloggers or talking heads actually engage in debate, it often consists of pelting one another with mutually contradictory studies they’ve Googled: “Greenland’s ice shield is melting 10 years ahead of schedule!” vs. “The sun is cooling down and Earth is getting colder!”

As Farhad Manjoo notes in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, if we argue about what a fact means, we’re having a debate. If we argue about what the facts are, it’s agnotological Armageddon, where reality dies screaming.

Can we fight off these attempts to foster ignorance? Despite his fears about the Internet’s combative culture, Proctor is optimistic. During last year’s election, campaign-trail lies were quickly exposed via YouTube and transcripts. The Web makes secrets harder to keep.

We need to fashion information tools that are designed to combat agnotological rot. Like Wikipedia: It encourages users to build real knowledge through consensus, and the result manages to (mostly) satisfy even people who hate each other’s guts. Because the most important thing these days might just be knowing what we know.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is damn right when he advises us to avoid the media.

“As Steve Pinker aptly said, our mind is made for fitness, not for truth — but fitness for a different probabilistic structure. Which tricks work? Here is one: avoid the media. We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press.” – “Learning to Expect the Unexpected“, Edge.org

The signal to noise ratio is is massively out of kilter in favour of noise. In the marketplace of ideas the truth – so often counter-intuitive, hard to explain or requiring education – loses out to sound bites and propaganda. Is this what informational entropy looks like? Memetic poison and toxic disinformation leaking out of echo chambers generating confusion and Flat Earth News?

See also:

Daily Me
Echo Chamber
Flat Earth News

Edge Question 2009: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

This year’s Edge.org annual question is “WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? – What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

The worlds most brilliant minds are involved with Edge.org.

Just look at this selection of names, selected becuase I know them all to be masters in their fields, from the long list of those who contributed:

John D. Barrow,
Susan Blackmore,
M. Csikszentmihalyi (Flow), 
Richard Dawkins, 
Daniel C. Dennett, 
Freeman Dyson (and his son George Dyson)
Brian Eno,
Daniel Everett, 
Howard Gardner
Daniel Goleman
Jonathan Haidt
Sam Harris
Nicholas Humphrey
Eric Kandel
Stuart Kauffman
Kevin Kelly
Ian McEwan
Thomas Metzinger
Dean Ornish, M.D.
Steven Pinker
Howard Rheingold
Douglas Rushkoff
Robert Sapolsky
Martin Seligman
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
J. Craig Venter

As you can see there is a slight neuroscience, skeptic, evolutionary psychology, philosophy bias in this list but that is because those are my areas of interest.  Edge.org brings together the best minds in several fields. It is one of the densest concentrations of true brilliance on the internet.

The World Question Center 2009

Conversation is now Correspondance

From Bruce Schneir has a great post on the most insidious and potentially dangerous transformations of our communications space: The ephemeral dying, conversation is correspondence, and recorded as such:

Conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was just assumed.

This has changed. We chat in e-mail, over SMS and IM, and on social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal. We blog and we Twitter. These conversations — with friends, lovers, colleagues, members of our cabinet — are not ephemeral; they leave their own electronic trails.

We know this intellectually, but we haven’t truly internalized it. We type on, engrossed in conversation, forgetting we’re being recorded and those recordings might come back to haunt us later.

…Ephemeral conversation is dying.

Cardinal Richelieu famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” When all our ephemeral conversations can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply. Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a Blackberry, are not official pronouncements. Discussions in a meeting, whether held in a boardroom or a chat room, are not the same as answers at a press conference. And privacy isn’t just about having something to hide; it has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our basic humanity.

Schneier on Security: The Future of Ephemeral Conversation

Malcolm Gladwell on Outliers

The Observer have a series of interviews with Malcolm Gladwell, best known for his superb book “The Tipping Point”, and and extracts from his new book “Outliers: The Story of Success“:

Stating the obvious, but oh so cleverly (Sun 23rd Nov 2008) – In investigating what sets geniuses apart, is Malcolm Gladwell also asking what makes him so special, wonders Jason Cowley

The man who can’t stop thinking (Sun Nov 16th 2008) – Malcolm Gladwell is a global phenomenon, one of the most brilliant and influential writers of his generation. His bestselling books, including The Tipping Point and Blink, explore and capture social trends and behaviour in ways that define the age. On the eve of his new book about the nature of success he discusses racial politics, obsessiveness, girlfriends – and his own fear of failure.

Why Asian children are better at maths (Sun Nov 16th 2008) – Extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, ‘Outliers’

A gift or hard graft? – (sat Nov 15th 2008) – [Extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, ‘Outliers’ ] We look at outrageously talented and successful people – the Beatles, Mozart, Rockefeller, Bill Gates – and assume there is such a thing as pure genius. Not necessarily, argues Malcolm Gladwell…

Outliers: The Story of Success – Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com .

A few more resources:

An introduction to the book and some of its ideas at Malcolm Gladwell’s website.

Secrets of their success (CNN Money) – What separates the legendary CEO from the chronically dissatisfied cubicle dweller? It’s not innate talent, argues Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell in his new book.

How to fly high: A genius guide, by Malcolm Gladwell (The Independent) – Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘Blink’ and ‘The Tipping Point’, looks at the secrets of high achievers in his new book. Here he explains why outsiders like himself always have an edge, and why Obama’s recent win fits his theories

Slate discusses “Outliers”

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (The Times) – reviewed by AC Grayling

The Uses of Adversity – Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage? by Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker, Nov 2008)

Malcolm Gladwell: Success Comes from Social Advantages – Psyblog (Nov 2008)

Geek Pop Star – Malcolm Gladwell’s elegant and wildly popular theories about modern life have turned his name into an adjective—Gladwellian! But in his new book, he seeks to undercut the cult of success, including his own, by explaining how little control we have over it. (9th Nov 2008)

Backlash against Gladwell and his ideas?

Is the Tipping Point Toast? – Marketers spend a billion dollars a year targeting influentials. Duncan Watts says they’re wasting their money. (Fast Company, February 2008)

Wilson defects to the Group Selection Squad

It was only a matter of time before there was a big name defection – and this is it.

The Group Selection Squad led by Howard Bloom now welcome into their fold the great O.E. Wilson.

In his new book  – “The Superorganism” – he accepts that widely accepted theory of kin selection doesn’t explain the origin of altruism.  For the Boston Globe:

It is a puzzle of evolution: If natural selection dictates that the fittest survive, why do we see altruism in nature? Why do worker bees or ants, for instance, refrain from competing with those around them, but instead search for food or build nests on behalf of their companions? Why do they sacrifice their own reproductive success for the good of the group?

In the 1960s, British biologist William Hamilton offered an explanation in a theory now called kin selection. When animals, often insects, help siblings or other relatives survive, they are enhancing the odds that their shared family genes will be passed on. In other words, the genes, not the individual or social group, are what counts in evolution.

Hamilton’s idea was eventually accepted by most biologists, and found an enthusiastic backer, at the time, in Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard evolutionist.

That was then. Now, Wilson has changed his mind, startling colleagues by arguing that kin selection does not lead to altruism.

Kin selection is a scientific crutch, a “very seductive” idea that “doesn’t tell us anything decisive about how altruism originated,” Wilson says. He adds: “We need a whole new way of explaining things.”

He has one. Wilson posits that altruism evolved due more to ecological circumstances than the influence of genes.

In his new book “The Superorganism,” out today, Wilson and his co-author, Bert Holldobler, argue that natural selection operates on the group, not just the gene. The lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex systems that help insect societies survive, from an intricate array of communication signals to the elaborate architecture of nests. But Wilson – though not Holldobler – goes further, saying altruism occurs not because animals share family ties, but because certain altruistic acts have become useful for the overall survival of insect groups.

“The close kinship of the members of these groups is a consequence, not a cause, of their evolution,” says the ever-genial Wilson in an interview at his home in Lexington. He believes altruistic (or eusocial) societies developed in ecological conditions where food was plentiful enough to allow insects to practice “progressive provisioning,” in which a mother leaves its offspring with food, as some wasps or bees do. This creates a need for others in the insect society to stand guard over the young.

Given these conditions, Wilson postulates, an insect group experiencing a single beneficial genetic mutation – such as the ability to distinguish nest mates from outsiders, a trait many insects possess – might adopt altruism as a useful social behavior.

This is a huge boon for the brilliant Howard Bloom (The Global Brain) and his allies like David Sloan Wilsion (Darwin’s Cathedral) and Kevin Kelly (Our of Control).  Even Steve Pinker came out and supported the possibility of group selection in his “Dangerous Idea” for Edge question 2006.

Look out for a follow-up post with comprehensive links to Howard Bloom resources and podcasts.

E.O. Wilson Returns to the Hive With Superorganism Tome – Wired Magazine

‘Superorganism’ book launch features authors, adventures – Arizona State University

A Brief History of the SuperOrganism – Part 1

A Brief History of the SuperOrganism – Part 2

The most prudent method of dealing with the world is to assume that it is a complete fiction

“The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to
assume that it is a complete fiction.

… the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

…In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, too, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction – conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and the manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.”

[Ballard, J.G. (1985/1974). Introduction to the French edition of Crash. Crash (pp.
5-9). London: Paladin.]

Via “Intertextual turns in curriculum inquiry: fictions, diffractions and deconstructions” by Noel Patrick Gough [PDF] and “Hybrider” by Rolf Sindo (Southern Denmark University) (2003)

Every man a Derrida

From Every Man a Derrida: A nation on the verge of self-deconstructing by Tim Cavanaugh:

For many people, postmodern analysis and semiotics are dirty words, products of a rising barbarian anticulture bent on replacing Edward R. Murrow with the paparazzi. One of the bracing things about old-school postmodernism was the way it provided the tools of Enlightenment critical thinking to anti-Enlightenment folks: Islamists, post-colonial nationalists, psycho feminists, and so on. Deconstruction and anti-Orientalism were essential means for undermining what was perceived as a white male power structure.

It was only a matter of time before the white males would start getting in on the action. In the recent reaction of Hollywood conservatives against entertainment liberalism, critical and satirical tools are used to undermine consensus and elevate pre-Enlightenment ideals.

Good, short article. Definitely worth a read.

A great week for plucky Serbia

From the cover of "Letters from Lexington: Reflections of Propaganda" by Noam Chomsky (Pluto Press; 2Rev Ed edition - 19 Mar 2004)

I find myself in an absurd position when it comes to taking sides in the battle over Kosovo between the Government of Serbia on the one hand and the EU, US and Kosovo government on the other.

I am actually for an independent Kosovo. I think it would be unworkable and detrimental to all sides to even attempt to force Kosovo back under Serbian sovereignty even if it were remotely possible, which it isn’t. I genuinely believe it would be in Serbia’s best interests to let it go accept it is for the most part irreversibly lost. I want Serbia in the EU as soon as possible and I want the isolated negative violent ethnic nationalism of the 90s to be displaced and supplanted by a positive national pride of a thriving Serbia rightly back in the community of nations as the cultural and economic centre of a stable and prosperous Balkan peninsula.

That said I am sickened by lies, foul play, hypocrisy and bullying of “my side” . I feel like I did watching the Springboks when they first returned to International Rugby in the 90s. I desperately wanted my team to win but I was desperately ashamed of their foul play, brutality and thuggish arrogance. This is how I feel about the the behaviour of the EU and the US towards Serbia. I support the team and its objectives, I detest the foul means and pure nastiness of its tactics.

That is why I am happy it say it was a great week for Serbia.

The massive vote in favour of allowing Serbia’s challenge to Kosovo’s legality at the International Court of Justice both surprised and somewhat dismayed the EU/US/Kosovo bloc who expected it to pass, but not by the margin it did.

They (we?) hit back immediately with the pre-prepared plan to force Serbia’s two tiny neighbours Montenegro and FYR Macedonia to recognise Kosovo within a day of the vote.

This cynical manoeuvre was designed for psychological and propaganda effect: (1) To ruin the party for the Serbs and (2) to reset the frame by getting the global media’s focus away from Serbia’s UN victory and focussed on Serbia supposedly by being “stunned” by Montenegro and Macedonia’s “betrayal”.

In the scheme of things, Montenegro and Macedonia’s recognition is as insignificant as they are. Everyone knew they were being bullied into this recognition and Serbs were disappointed – for them mostly – but not surprised that they caved in.

In their zeal to head off the Serbian diplomatic victory the EU poured effort and threats into both these countries to get them to do their bidding this week, and they gave no thought to the consequences. Now that they have served their purpose, Montenegro and FYR Macedonia they will go back to being EU supplicants , and like Serbia, constantly told that progress is contingent upon yet another concession. Now, however, they will also have to live with the anger of their largest trading partner and the destabilising effect that their recognition will have on their internal political situations. For the sake of a short term flat earth news moment the EU has set back relations between Balkan neighbours and destabilised two countries al the while professing the desire to do the opposite.

The follow-up insult-to-injury gambit was the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Martti Ahtisaari, a loathed figure in Serbia, widely considered to be blatantly pro-Albanian and the man who handed Kosovo its (illegal) independence. The prize was expected to be awarded to imprisoned Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng, but the committee decided instead to continue its tradition of politically motivated awards, almost certainly in my opinion as part of the co-ordinated response to Serbia’s UN victory.

Serbs must not allow themselves to be fooled by these crude gambits. The EU is trying the old tactic that worked so well for them and KLA against Milosevic: Provoke the Serbs into overreaction and violence.

Those days are over.

I want Serbia to smarten up even more than it has. Focus on the substantive and essential. Use the law, every legal instrument, every institution. Conduct the fight in the media and the internet. User the groundswell of anger and resentment against the US and the EU to force them into accounting for themselves and their illegal actions.

You see, I want the Serbs to give them a bloody nose. I want them to fight them down to the wire. To take it to penalties and extra-time.

I do not believe that Serbia can win in terms of what they might consider victory i.e. retaking Kosovo, but they can certainly win by being morally superior, beating the truth out of the EU/US in open court and exposing to the world the full extent of the lies and injustice it has endured.

From the run up to the illegal and unjustified bombing of Serbia in 1999 right up to today, I seen so much blatant unfairness and falsehood from my side over Kosovo (and to a lesser degree over Bosnia before that) that it has tested my faith in the West and the grand narrative of my political life, that of fervent apologist for Western values and foreign policy.

Those values are undermined by vested interests driven lying and manipulative parts of the Western system. I want then to be exposed and beaten as much as I want Balkan nationalism to be exposed and beaten.

I cannot support Serbia in its putative wish – to keep Kosovo – but I fully support it taking on bullies.

So come on Serbia, put on the good fight for you and for us. Keep smacking the bully in the chops with your legal and media fists. The more you hurt it the nastier and more vicious it will get. In the end you will get a proper negotiated settlement over Kosovo, and with it a good measure of vindication and exoneration to boot.

Serbia wins right to appeal to the International Court of Justice over Kosovo

The Serbian Government and newspapers were celebrating a rare victory for Serbia in the international political arena after the UN General assembly voted to allow Serbia to challenge Kosovo’s independence at the International Court of Justice.

One thing that I noticed is the weird coalition of the nay voters: The U.S., Albania, Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia.

Most of those against it simply abstained as a mark of respect to the ICJ and the process of seeking resolutions peacefully and through appeal to International Law. The US and Albania were predictably opposed to the measure because of their heavy investment and interest in Kosovo. But Nauru, Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands? Were they confused about what they were voting on?

Nauru is a truly dreadful place. I learned all aboit it on a superb This American Life episode:

Nauru is a tiny island, population 12,000, a third of the size of Manhattan and far from anywhere: yet at the center of several of the decade’s biggest global events. Contributing editor Jack Hitt tells the untold story of this dot in the middle of the Pacific and its involvement in the bankrupting of the Russian economy, global terrorism, North Korean defectors, the end of the world, and the late 1980s theatrical flop of a London musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci called Leonardo, A Portrait of Love.

Nauru is an isolated hell hole that will sell itself for anything: Afghani Asylum seekers captured in Australia were detained in Nauru for a fee paid by Australia. Most of the worlds criminal banking and internet filth is hosted there. It is by every account a dreadful little whore state in the middle of nowhere that once sued the CIA for not keeping it going! And now uses its UN vote to support its master the USA in supporting another little US backed hell-hole. No surprises there then.

Jeremić: Triumph for Serbia, international law – B92

Serbia Wins Bid to Review Independence of Kosovo – NYTimes.com

Serbia wins right to challenge Kosovo at ICJ – FT

How States Voted on Serbia’s Kosovo Case at UN – Balkan Insight