An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Democracy, knowledge, and wisdom

So Tim Berners Lee is worried about the future of the web - original BBC article . Welcome to the fold Tim. His major concerns as raised in this particular news item seem to be summarised thusly: "it could be used to spread misinformation and "undemocratic forces". Tim, I've got news for you - the web has been used to spread misinformation almost since the day it ceased to be the domain of physicists. And it isn't getting any better. But, and it's a very big but, the two halves of your concern are not the same thing at all: in fact one half is the way in which the other half gets spread.

Early commentaries on the nature and potential of the WWW praised its ability "to democratise" the world. What exactly it was that was going to get democratised somehow got passed over in the initial enthusiasm for the very notion of democratisation: as if it were in itself admirable. And, as more and more people piled onto the WWW as contributors rather than consumers this dreamed of democratisation duly took place.

It is the democratisation of data that has given rise to the spread of misinformation that so alarms Sir Tim because somewhere along the path, at some time in this short process, information and misinformation became, to the WWW at least, one and the same thing. Well, that's the downside of democratisation. Opinion gets passed off as information. Without peer review as practiced among the scientific community - and bear in mind that a scientific peer is not the same thing as a common or garden, day to day, democratic, peer - all information and all opinion posted by whomsoever on a particular topic on the WWW is equal. The opinion of a dolt is not, on the WWW, obviously different to the well-researched and argued opinion of an expert in the field.

Moreover, as the WWW attracts more public attention and praise as a source of information (and very little attention or publicity for the sheer volume of simple opinion passing itself off as information) the less discriminating the younger generation of web users seems to become. My own generation knew, or at least were taught, that text books could, by and large, be trusted as fairly authoritative, if potentially flawed, source of genuine contemporary knowledge. Does the average browser or surfer of the WWW know a "text book" type source when his or her search engine turns it up and presents its content? Do some of them even understand the very notion of an authoritative source? Or is that, in itself, an undemocratic and therefore invalid idea in this day and age?

And what is Sir Tim's response to these fears? Thankfully, it is not a technological fix: that most popular response these days. Technology cannot solve this problem - these problems. It is however, another social science, Web Science. "The Web Science Research Initiative will chart out a research agenda aimed at understanding the scientific, technical and social challenges underlying the growth of the web."

Well I would like to offer 3 items for the research agenda:

the rise and spread of "Creationism" being willfully passed off as a scientific explanation by religious bigots

the recrudescence of holocaust denial in spite of legal prohibitions

and most recently

the appearance of a broad based effort to a) deny human involvement in climate change, and simultaneously, b) promulgate a belief that only a concerted and completely worldwide effort is worth considering even were a) not to be true.

There are, I am personally convinced, common mechanisms at work. Whether all of these efforts have been concerted and organised would be a subject of worthwhile scientific study. As would the manner in which the flawed argumentation methods that they all share and the way in which contributing articles get linked together into a resilient web of deceit. Such research might provide a crib sheet for WWW users as to the characteristics of such intellectual scams and so might be more than academically valuable and that could potentially be enshrined into software that could warn against contributing sites in the same way as current software "sniffs out" possible pornography .

Imagine a day when along with the anti-virus software that you run as a matter of course and the net-nanny software that you switch on when your children are using the computer link to the WWW you also switch on the anti-anti-intellectual software that not only warns you when you are about to enter a site that contains scientifically or intellectually bankrupt or worthless opinion passing itself of as valid. Imagine the graded warnings: from "This site may contain erroneous logic" to "This site contains lies (as defined by current scientific knowledge and or concensus). Now that would be something that would be worth doing.

PLEASE BE AWARE - this particular page is an opinion piece. It contains novel and untested hypotheses. It has not been peer reviewed. It has not been refereed by a learned journal.


  1. I read Timmo’s piece, and dismissed it as the usual waffle that one expects from a soi-disant ‘social scientist’ as opposed to a real one.

    As to your suggested 3 items for the proposed research agenda, I support your objections to numbers 1 and 2, but not certain about 3 since I have read conflicting research from other ‘experts’ on the subject.

    Whilst it is clear that we are in a cycle of global warming, these have always taken place, and the amount that humans en masse contribute to the ‘doom-scenarios’ is moot in the extreme, particularly as most of those scenarios are based on computer models using extrapolative techniques which are mathematically unsound. These models remind me of the search in the 1950s and 60s for a definitive financial instrument valuation model; many were devised (some protagonists were even awarded Nobel Laureates) but none of them are really worth a damn – as the collapse of LTCM with some of those very Noble Laureates proved.

    The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is salutary!

    The real issue here is not science, of course, but politics, with both a large and small case letter.

    NB: This is an extract from an article first published in ‘The Misologist’ (2006), Vol XVIII, pps. 119 – 137.

  2. An interesting response and while the science in item 3 reminds you of the financial instrument valuation fiasco the dissenting "experts" that you cite remind me of nthing quite so much as the roster of medical and scientific experts trotted out by the tobacco companies when they were still denying the cancer/tobacco link even though they knew the truth.

    Be conscious that whilst my first two proposed research items are or might be supported by once influential power groups the third has the most powerful lobby of all time behind it - global capitalism. Do not underestimate the enemy.

  3. I don't underestimate anything, but neither should you. Even the Stern Review (the scariest document I've ever read, according to Millibrand), bases its conclusions on ifs and buts and worthless extrapolations of 'trends' that are claimed are exclusively the fault of homo sapiens. These are not facts, despite what Stern (an economist, after all, and a third-rate one at that), and politicians would have you believe.

    A summary of Stern's review together with other material can be found here:

    It's pure 'Alice in Wonderland' stuff, just like the crap that he used to come out with when he was at the World Bank. But one isn't supposed to say that, just like the little boy who told the truth in the story of the 'Emperors' New Clothes' but was expected to remain silent.

    Further, your analogy with the corrupt sceintists who denied the cancer link with tobacco is not appropriate; they denied causal factors, but they did not extrapolate spurious mathematical models 'to prove' their case, unlike here, where many of the so-called causal factors have not been proven, and the extrapolations per se are simply not valid.

    In short, the real agenda has little to do with the ostensible problem, and one should always be wary of those who claim the moral high-ground - especially when it is backed up with questionable facts and highly dubious statistics.