Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Knowledge Producing Enterprise: Introduction

The Knowledge Producing Enterprise

Mma Ramotswe, heroine of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels has an annoying habit of prefacing sometimes controversial statements with “It is well known that…”.  Epistemologists (philosophers of knowledge) for centuries had an annoying habit of treating “It is known” or some equivalent as the only distinction worth making w.r.t. truth and knowledge.  Not whether I know or you know, but seemingly just the abstract notion of whether a given justification for a proposition really, really qualifies it as knowledge.  Whether one person or a million know X is not a matter for discussion.  Anyway, the chances are if a million people “know” something, they don’t know it in a philosophically justified way, so if asked  how many Americans know that Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen, they might say hardly any.  Social Epistemology offers some promise of rising above this dilemma, but surveying where it is today, I don’t see it happening.
My opinion is there may be little practical benefit to discussing knowledge in this way.  Maybe the very idea of discussing or studying knowledge is the problem.  Maybe the difficulties of advocates of rationality or critical thinking are due to this focus on this strange thing called knowledge - a product of the “view from nowhere”, which tends to break down in the social domain.

Instead, I suggest we look at Knowledge Producing Enterprises (KPEs), an idea likely to be criticized for over broadness, especially when I tell you what I mean -- that examples include an infant learning to speak, a university, a scientific discipline, the English Common Law, or Google.  I mean any entity (or even phenomenon) which we can reasonably say (sometimes) produces knowledge, relying on mere common sense for what we mean by knowledge.  I will add to “common sense” that producing knowledge can mean either discovering new knowledge, or, which is less conventional, communicating it to someone new, or finding knowledge, as in the Google case.

Despite a breadth that may seem excessive, there is something concrete about all the examples I have given.  We can identify agents and processes.  Very often, some sort of domain transformation leads  to new insight, as in treating the (“selfish”) gene as the object studied by evolution.  Often both approaches yield equal insight, but in this case I’ll throw out a provocative suggestion:

The KPE may be to knowledge as living things are to “elan vital”, which we no longer believe in, and our knowledge of biology comes, not from going after some abstraction, but from exhaustively examining living things, and slowly building theories on that observation.

How did I get here?


For the last 8 years, I’ve been focused on what we now call “Fake news” and the inability of so many Americans to make common sense or “educated guess” distinctions between essentially honest (though not perfect) sources, and those whose output is overwhelmingly driven by intent to get a certain result (e.g. for the Obama administration to fail, as Rush Limbaugh openly declared his intent), which for me is close to a definition of propaganda.  I had intimate sources, one of whom viewed Rush Limbaugh as a hero, and my mother, who got a steady stream of anonymous emails containing the most bald faced lies, which she would send me asking “can this be true?”, and I which I usually disproved with 5-10 minutes of research on the internet.

As I wrote to a friend in 2010 “I've never seen a time when so many normal seeming people readily swallowed so much totally unjustified and worthless nonsense.  My mother showed me a letter to the editor of her newspaper which started out characterizing Obama as a 'Marxist ex-street hustler' and was telling me it had some good points, and not blinking at the crazy characterization.”
I emailed old historian friends, and people who seemed to be addressing the problem in studies and articles, hoping for at least some stimulating discussion, but initially positive responses got more lukewarm with each email, so I wondered if I just seemed unhinged.

I conceived of a project whose ideal outcome might look something like a viral spread of people
  • finding ways to insist on and incentivize standards of seriousness and accuracy from those who want to get our attention for whatever purpose.  We can demand, in effect an adult to adult conversation.  Tune out the circus.
  • implementing tools for checking and better understanding what we read and hear
  • insisting on archival record keeping structures with a credible transparency that would not allow facts, events, people, to simply disappear or become inaccessible "old news" or be “cherry picked” with no way to connect them to their context.

I called it, “The Real Truth Project” The “Real” part was supposed to be transparently wistful, a joke, gesturing at our certainty and foolishness about truth.  There were then two entities called the “Truth Project”, one of people insisting that the 9/11 explosions were an “inside job” of the US Government to provide a pretext for war; the other was a fundamentalist religious group promoting a more “Biblical” worldview.

No real project took shape.  I just kept seeing things that seemed like they would get me closer to the possibility, or to the possibility at least of exploring it with other stimulating people.  I began reading all I could about the rise of the current right wing coalition in America, and also, to books like “Why Do People Believe Weird Things?” and the scientific approaches to cognitive bias like Kahnemann and Tversky and Jonathan Haidt. I imagined there should be such a thing as social epistemology, and by luck found that there was, of which the epicenter was just 40 miles away at Rutgers University, so I read books and papers on this, and, to cram in more study time while doing mundane things, learned how to send academic papers to my Kindle and listen to them with text-to-speech (not bad, except when, e.g. ST (“Simulation Theory”) gets pronounced as “street” or “saint”).  I crashed some of the Rutgers Social Epistemology workshops and conventions.  I tried LessWrong for a while.  I read a great deal of neurology, cultural evolution, evo-psy and evo-devo, and wondered whether of not memetics was dead or hopeless, as so many proclaim, and thought much about how evolution of media from papyrus to the printing press to newspapers to radio to TV to the internet versions 1.0, 2.0, 3.0…  Historians had much to say about how such transitions of the past created disruptions, religious wars, nationalism, but also science, technology and imaginative literature.

Perhaps my biggest success of the “project” was one article, in one of my five blogs: “Myths about Saul Alinsky (and Obama)”, which has had over 23 thousand views.  This out of a couple of hundred too hastily written postings.

I wrote an assessment of it in 2014, which I update here somewhat:
Is this a Real Project? Or What?

Whenever someone charges at the world waving the flag of truth, they almost never mean truth in and of itself; they mean some particular claim that for them burns so bright as to blot out everything else.

"The One (All-Important) Truth" comes in many flavours: Christian (Believe and You Will Receive Eternal Salvation), anti-christian version (Nietzsche's  Zarathustra running down from the mountaintop to tell us God is Dead),  or the Truth of some massive conspiracy that will account for all that is wrong with the world.  The "down from the mountaintop" image harks back to Moses delivering the Truth of the Ten Commandments.  It's as if we have some (human) racial memory in which "the truth" can take as many unlike forms as Proteus, but they all are able to set someone or more likely some group on fire with devotion
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Trying to get a handle on truth in and of itself seems to me a lot like wrestling Proteus, or the "Old Man of the Sea", as described by Menelaus in the Odyssey. The Old Man can answer any questions if captured, but capturing him means holding on as he changes shapes from a horse to a serpent to water to fire to whatever until he is worn out if one has the strength to wear him out.


I am fascinated and deeply worried about how difficult it is to ensure that we really know very important things about the world around us, and how deeply this difficulty affects us.  I want to explore what there is to do about it.  I am also fascinated by how easily satisfied we humans tend to be with our own grasp of essential truths, untroubled, it seems by the fact that so many people have totally different views.  We nearly always find ways of dismissing those other people..

How confident should we be of even the simplest kinds of truth? I'm not talking about "God is dead" or "America is a Christian nation", or even evolution or history above the level of bare events, but about questions most of us could agree on if only we could see the evidence, and somehow know that it's real, not forged or photoshopped or staged.  Consider the controversies over questions like
  • Was X really born where he says he was born?
  • Were there any Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq when the U.S. invaded?
  • Who is a good and reasonable plumber or car mechanic?
  • Did X really say ___?___ on her blog (esp. supposing it was erased and denied)?
  • Was there really a political ad showing Gabby Giffords in the cross-hairs of a rifle?
  • Did the US Post Office really issue a stamp celebrating a Muslim holiday?
  • Did the US really send men to the moon?
These are all basically questions of unambiguous fact, yet we are a long way from a world where the vast majority of people would agree on the answers.

So where is the "project" in all of this?
I am convinced that far more is called for than just you or me learning better "rationality" or "critical thinking".  How many times has some "vanguard" become euphoric over the idea that
"Now we know how to think rationally and we just have to get rid of all the old biases and learn the new ways of thinking?"
As a serious student of history I would suggest it’s happened on the order of once every couple of decades starting with the Enlightenment (about 1700) or maybe earlier.

No, we must actually reshape the world if we expect the truth to be there for us to see, and for it to occur to, and be persuasive for others, so as to guide the world's responses to problems.

I’m not looking for a master plan to achieve the goal, but many venues and perhaps protocols for getting together on projects to improve some domain. Too often we react to frightening global situations with some sort of master plan, based on a God’s-eye view of the situation, which due to being conceptualized that way, requires a God or dictator to carry it out, so you get a dictator.

We are are up against some strong forces. The present right wing dominance of American politics gets much of its energy from people, many of them libertarians, in a panic over the supposed “slippery slope to totalitarianism” making common cause with often fundamentalist “paleoconservatives”, in a panic over runaway wild sexual license, often in their faces, and multi-billionaires who can’t stand that government can get in their way.

According to one of its primary manifestos: (developed around 2000 under the guidance of Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and ALEC):

“We must always operate based on this cardinal principle: Leftists are never morally responsible for the evil they commit; ... We must learn to treat leftists as natural disasters or rabid dogs.

We will initially operate according to the belief that it is more important to win over the elites (or create a new, better one) than to build up a mass movement. Furthermore, it is more important to have a few impassioned members than a large number of largely indifferent members.

The new movement must be, in part, exclusive and elite. It must not be afraid to pass along a body of knowledge that is not readily accessible to and understandable by everyone. The strong appeal of a feeling of exclusivity and superiority will give our members a reason to endure the slings and arrows of popular disapproval.

The New Traditionalist movement will appeal to the masses, but not immediately. The ideas of the masses never come from the masses.

If such a narrowly based movement could so transform the culture into its present direction, working largely in secret, could an open movement to make truth more manifest, and less obscured by lies and bullshit succeed?

Recent work with a brilliant group of people around the Ribbonfarm.com blog and the “Refactoring group” has  given me some hope that I might either create or fit in with a process of looking at such possibilities, and at the reasons humans so often do such destructive and self-destructive things.

I’ll conclude by quoting a short article from “The Real Truth Project” blog that I think gives a tiny example the Knowledge Producing Enterprise approach shedding some light on a strange phenomenon of the social media world.

"Fake News" peddlers have a huge asymmetrical advantage

Tom O'Bryan, a chiropractor and self-promoted "internationally recognized speaker specializing in Gluten Sensitivity & Celiac Disease" is one of the biggest promoters of the anti-gluten fad.  People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, but that disease affects about 1 in 100 people.

Now, some experiments with Google. Thanks to the filter bubble, different people will get different results from Google, unless you anonymize yourself, and "hit counts" are of very dubious value unless they are very small, so the following will give just a rough idea.

If you Google{ "Tom O'Bryan" } Google claims 330,000 hits, and you will go through many pages without finding anything critical of the good doctor.  I gave up trying.  When I did Google{ "Tom O'Bryan" quack }, I got 222 nominal hits, including http://www.celiac.com/gluten-free/topic/90900-tom-obryan-cyrex-laboratories/ and http://glutendude.com/scams/i-hate-gluten-free-society/.  My conclusion: he is pretty much below the radar and nearly all that ends up on the web about him comes from him and his associates or believers.  If Wikipedia had an article on O'Bryan, that would have come up on the 1st page but they don't.

If you google "GMO", you will get a reasonable distribution of pro and con articles from the start.  But when I google{ GMO "pig intestines" } I get, among 22,800 nominal hits, about a 9:1 ratio of items  tracing back to a flawed study (www.naturalnews.com) stating "GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush! Shocking photos ..."

The effects are worse in the political realm.  If you google{ Obama wedding ring } Google announces 3,600,000 hits and from the start it is about a 9:1 ratio of items claiming that something about Obama's wedding ring proves that he is a Muslim.  There is much variety, including "BARACK OBAMA'S GAY SHARIA WEDDING RING!!!".  In the first few pages, about 1 in 10 items is a Snopes or fact-check or some such criticism of the theory.

If you google{ Obama muslim } you get a non-overwhelming majority of items critical to the idea, at least for the first few pages.

Finally, if you google{ Obama religion } you get mostly items asserting Obama is after all a Christian.  In general, the closer you get to a strange assertion that the vast majority of people never heard, of being pushed by a moneyed group or a few dozen true believers -- the more Google will seem to confirm that it is true.

Searches that represent the broad questions will elicit more criticisms of fake facts, while searches that represent an obscure supporting claim will come up almost completely positive.

So we see one specific way that Google is a flawed KPE.  Yes, it is flawed in so many ways  that you might say “So what?”.  But this is a particular mechanism that might show up in other contexts.

This seems to be of neutral causation; just an artifact of the way Google works.  But if we view Google as part of the larger media ecology, note this: If any high visibility were to back the flat out lies of anonymous emails, (and now social media exclusively targeted to just the “right” consumers), they would draw refutations, and tend to defeat the lies. They don't, partly for reasons of their own credibility.  I noticed this a long time ago, and noted it back in July 2010.  They cannot be unaware of these items; their fans are sure to send them in, but do they publicly say “Don’t pay attention to Pizzagate, it’s all nonsense?”

Seemingly not.  I search for evidence on the site where the transcripts of Limbaugh’s shows reside: Google{ site:www.rushlimbaugh.com pizzagate } → no hits.  I tried similar experiments back in 2010.

Here we are getting into anti-KPEs, which will be a thing to explore.

Stay tuned.  I won't be sticking to my own little discoveries, but will look at some major ideas in anthropology, brain science, developmental biology, and more.