Monday, August 23, 2010

Turtles all the way down

I gave up on ‘truth’ a long time ago, 
but I’m having a hard time letting go of facts

I know folks have been fighting about “What is truth?” since way before Aristotle, and I’m comfortable leaving that debate to poets and philosophers. Obviously, it’s a topic way above my pay grade.

Until recently, however, I still placed a lot of faith in facts.

I cautioned journalists over several decades to remember that “truth is a plural noun ... there’s a lot of truth out there.” Instead of concentrating on somebody’s protean definition of truth, we tried to focus on things we could measure: accuracy, fairness, accountability, documentation.

Lately I’ve come to a deeper realization of how the nature of fact and authority themselves have fundamentally changed. I haven’t yet come to grips with what this means.

In the old days (five years ago) one poster child for this debate was Wikipedia vs Britannica. If a crowd-sourced, infinitely editable, volunteer encyclopedia could trump the venerable text with all its credentialed authority, we’d know some kind of milestone had been reached.

In many ways, the battle was already over by then. Wikipedia was already quickly craigslisting Britannica’s business model and seemed sure to outlast it. We were losing Britannica. so the question was mainly about what that was going to mean. Was Wikipedia really as good?

Web triumphalists were certain it was. To confirm that, they delighted in citing a study published in the journal Nature, usually asserting that it had found Wikipedia was as good. Inconveniently, the study didn’t actually say that.

Nature’s press release was more qualified than that, saying that “Wikipedia comes close” to matching Britannica’s accuracy. Even that, it turned out, was considerable overstatement.

What the study actually found was that Wikipedia had 100 errors for every 75 in Britannica. The actual numbers were that the Britannica articles studied averaged 2.9 while Wikipedia averaged 3.9. Now, I was schooled on newsroom math, but my calculation says that four errors instead of three errors per article amounts to 25% more errors. That’s hardly trivial.

I made that point in the comments section every time I saw somebody cite the study as “proof” of Wikipedia’s success. Almost nobody even acknowledged the challenge, much less bothered to consider it.

I was frustrated by that at the time. This was arithmetic, damn it. How could people just ignore it?

I understand better now. The real debate was over the nature of facts, and I was trying to assert one particular kind of fact (math) to make my point — but I was already too late. The post-modern fact train had already left the station. If enough people wanted to think Wikipedia was equivalent, nothing as small as mere arithmetic was going to change it. 

Now I realize that’s okay. I'd still argue some things require precision and hard facts — chemical reactions come to mind, or surgical procedures — but for many debates these days, “fact” is itself debatable. 

At one level this only recognizes a reality we long ignored. Few of the “facts” that were the foundation of my education were absolute. History books are written by fallible, often prejudiced people. Scientific theories, once memorized, will summarily be eclipsed by new data or another discovery. The scholars upon whose authority Britannica was founded knew this, and in the academy they’d argue endlessly about the stuff that later became typographic fact in their encyclopedia.

At some level, the experts in any field are telling us we weren’t smart enough to follow all the details, so we’d have to take their word for it.

And of course that’s largely true. You and I are never going to know enough about the history of Islam or the probability of Iran making a nuke to render reliable independent judgments. We have to rely on expert knowledge, and that means trusting somebody.

That trust is shifting. The catchphrase today is “algorithmic authority,” and the most illuminating and articulate spokesman I’ve encountered is Clay Shirky. It’s a gross over-simplification to put it this way, but you can think of this as a shift toward “trusting everybody.”

This turns Thoreau and Andrew Jackson and a lot of Enlightenment philosophy upside down, of course. (Thoreau: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one.” Jackson: “One man with courage is a majority.”) Philosophers and polemicists will continue to insist they’re right — that there is a singular truth out there somewhere, independent of what our collective wisdom says about the subject. But in practical terms, this game is over.

News media and politics provide clear examples. It no longer matters if I think there is documentary evidence of Obama’s birth. Huge percentages of American voters think otherwise — for whatever reason — and they will act on what they believe. “Authority is as authority does,” Shirky has noted, and we must now learn to deal with the consequences.

The “wisdom of crowds” is both broad and deep, but it is not ubiquitous. James Surowiecki, who popularized the concept, was careful in his book to point out that crowds are wise only in certain, constrained circumstances: for example, when they are diverse, when they allow every voice to be heard, and so forth. Most folks who cite the wisdom of crowds don’t know that, and may end up putting trust in conclusions drawn by crowds that are anything but wise.

Algorithms, likewise, are subject to distortions of their own. Google’s “page rank” algorithm is often cited as a prime recommendation for crowd-based authority. It is useful and hugely successful, to be sure, but it is also the product of decisions made by a select few individuals in total secrecy. Few of the people who simply “Google it” to answer questions understand that.

Making these kinds of cautionary points to algorithmic advocates isn’t easy. Too often, their faith is built on unexamined assumptions that aren’t as firm as they imagine.

Shirky, characteristically, faces these issues head on. In acknowledging the lack of “root authority” for any definition of fact, he cites the old tale of “turtles all the way down”:

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down! 

Later, Shirky amended his conclusion: “I lied before. It’s not turtles all the way down; it's a network of inter-referential turtles.”


William said...

Nice Howard. The sociologist Ralph Thomas is credited with saying: "If people perceive a situation as real, it will be real in its consequences." That is true, but it is not to say that their perception of the situation was accurate (or factual). As for the facts that determine the behavior of the masses, we have the behavior of Nazis, the run on the banks in 1929, and the number of people who believe that Republicans are a party of the people to remind us that numbers may only reflect the shallowness of analysis, or worse, a Massive panic attack. Look how well the numbers select quality network television.

mugwump2 said...

I'm skeptical that facts are any more or less malleable in our age. Culture and political ideology have always constructed "facts" to underpin their beliefs. Doubts about Obama's birthplace are no more pervasive today than questions about Lincoln's parentage 150 years ago.

What's changed is the speed by which these "facts" can be disseminated and the size of the audience they can reach. A lie can now get all the way around the world before truth gets its pants on. But the same technology also equally speeds the facts and delivers them to a larger audience. I don't have to have read the newspaper the particular day they reprinted Hawaii's record of Obama's birth and the birth notice that ran in the Honolulu paper the day of his birth. Those documents are all at our fingertips with a simple web search—if we care to test the algorithmic authority of pooled ignorance.

In this new world it is more important than ever that people who live and work by the discipline of verification and peer review—scientists, historians, journalists, etc—insist on the value and primacy of what they do and the centrality of facts and deliberation in our politics.

And let me starting by pointing out that, everywhere outside of newsrooms, 3.9 errors are 34 percent greater than 2.9 errors.