If you try for a month, what I call intellectual vegetarianism–giving up daily newspapers for encyclopedic knowledge– (Wikipedia has a beautiful feature of random article every morning), you start to look at the world in a completely new way.
Admittedly, there are some good stuff in the mass media but if you look at the Bull S**t concentration (expressed in BS-claim per paragraph), you see that thanks to the internet, the media’s reaches astronomical numbers.
Arguing that you read newspapers/social media for the occasional good stuff is like trying to convince me that you eat a burger for the salad.
I’m serious here. Junk knowledge — just as junk food– is everywhere, cheap, fast, (sometimes) easily chew-able, good looking, tasty, addictive and to some degree gives us a sense of temporal satisfaction. But if we don’t learn some self-discipline, these “breaking news” and “status updates” will lead to a generation of the intellectually obese. ~~Niyikiza A. November 23rd 2013.
I love aphorisms. They can help the communication between a reader and a writer go smoothly. In fact, when I was teenager, I was an addicted quotes collector. I had those ugly notebooks in which you could find quotes from Plato through Paul the Apostle through Benjamin Franklin through Mark Twain to myself(yes, I collected mine too, although I would find later that most of them weren’t that great after all.).
Hey, if someone could give me a dollar for every quote I had collected, …..well, I would have rejected the offer. And then technology came which convinced me that my hobby had to go digital. Later it also convinced me that those quotes are not actually going anywhere. Technology whispered in my ears “This is not medieval ages that you would expect anyone to burn books. Focus on learning, notes will take care of themselves. Goodreads will assist you some time, and then there is this thing called Google, just in case.”
I still have some feelings for my aphorism-collecting hobby despite that sad break-up. But aphorisms are dangerous. People around us are selling us empty claims on a daily basis through beautiful aphorisms. In January 2013, I was lucky to be among the early readers of Daniel Dennet’s book “Intuition Pumps and other tools of thinking” (Dennett 2013). In that book he talks about what he calls “DEEPITY”. This term coined by his friend’s daughter, refers to “a proposition that seems both important and true—and profound—but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous.”
He gives one good example:
Love is just a word.
We see this quoted quite often these days. [Especially from people who are weeping for missing out that very thing they claim to despise, but that's not the point here.]
This sounds like a cosmically profound, mind-blowing quote but Dennett argues otherwise. Love is not a word as you cannot find love in the dictionary. Now, “Love” is an English word, as is “computer” and “Australia”. It begins with a letter “L” , has four more letters and appears in the dictionary between “lousy” and “low-browed”, which are also just words. But there is such a thing as a computer, and it’s not a word.
So the point here is this: the person who said the sentence quoted above most likely meant that love is a complex emotion, disappointing, a hard-to-be-sure-about state but those claims are obvious, not particularly informative or profound except that they hide themselves behind the ambiguity and people’s failure to understand the difference between words and objects they describe.
One contributor at lesswrong.com caught another common empty claim which he called the “fallacy of gray”(It is officially called the fallacy of continuum). He was referring to people who claim that if two theories are competing, where none of them has a known definite proof, they are all equally valid even though the evidence favors one over the other. But “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is way wrong-ER than both of them.”
What I am trying to show here is that under short sayings, there are many claims which are simply hiding behind good rhetoric but are not backed up by reason or any verifiable evidence. Aphorisms which make claims should be explained, otherwise their claims stay suspended in the air, very much like a kid’s claim to be Batman..
This is what pushed me to write this essay. Yesterday I posted on Facebook the paragraph quoted at the top of this essay but I felt that my claims needed some further clarifications. It would take books or even shelves to discuss the issue of managing information these days, but at least I need to give it a try.
My Facebook post was about knowledge. It is an undeniable fact that we are bombarded with abundant information everyday which is mostly useless. In one post seven months ago, I mentioned how in 2010, the Google book project announced that more than 130 million books had been published already. Plus more than 40 billions of web pages on the WWW, and numbers growing exponentially.
In the ancient days, there were people who could finish to read all of the printed books at their time. Today, that is simply impossible. There is so much knowledge out there that we can’t possibly be able to devour even a significant portion of it (I calculated that if you read 2 books a day, and live for 1000 years, you wouldn’t be able to read 1% of existing books even if no more books were to be published again). [Unless we get lucky to have the technological singularity in our life time, or have the technology of reversing the aging process get practical soon.)
There is just too much to know. There are very few people that this statement saddens as it does to me. Yet it's an undeniable harsh truth. The king Solomon expressed it so beautifully nearly 3 000 years ago:
" When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes: ) then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.. ~~ Ecclesiastes 8: 16-17. [Believe me, it's even more painful to me when I read it in my mother tongue.]
Given the limited time we have, logic dictates that we ought to make sure we carefully choose to read the materials that are worth reading. And this is tricky because we need to decide whether a material is worth reading before reading it. That’s where intuition comes, and my post was about trying to share my recipe.
I argue that social media continuously feeds us with useless information which at best distracts us and at worst influences us to have a flawed image of the real world.
We are not missing out when we pass a weekend without checking our social networking sites, or “breaking news”. One wouldn’t expect to learn anything more than junk knowledge from these sources of information because the chief of their restaurants is not interested in quality. He is just interested in quick delivery, that’s it.
My analogy between food eating and knowledge devouring is merely metaphorical. But I find the metaphor interestingly matching the issue like gloves in hands. For example, the fact that we tend to find the language in the newspapers more tasty than that of say Wikipedia, can be explained in a similar way to how Evolutionary Psychologists explain our food preferences. We humans happen to enjoy unhealthy food such as sugar mainly due to historical reasons. Back then when we were living in the African savannas, so goes the story, sugar was rare. People who didn’t enjoy it died because they lacked energy. Those who were lucky to find it tasty survived(as there couldn’t be a deliberate choice to eat sugar to get energy because there were no ingredients or dietitians to tell you which animal to hunt).
The problem is that the same trait which helped us survive is the one which is wiping us out. It takes generations for our bodies to adjust to new conditions, so our DNAs don’t know yet about the abundance of sugar in today’s food. In the same way, we still treat information as the time when there was just one magazine in the country, published once in three months. There you needed to make sure you don’t miss it, or you had to wait for three more months. And there was nothing else to read: if you missed it, it would have been hard for you to find something to pretend reading while ignoring your wife’s diner conversations.
I found this discussion necessary because of pseudo intellectualism around the web today. I often see newspapers and Facebook posts making claims about different scholastic claims without any data or at least RELIABLE sources to back them up. As an example, medical claims are the ones which are often made(and they do not only make a claim, they also ask me to “share” in order to “warn” my friends. I have now become allergic to the expression ‘share with your friends’.). In my opinion, medical research is the commonly misquoted area primo because it has an emotional implication(as many people fear death), secondo because most of the claims match with our already held prejudices. (A curious reader my consider to read about confirmation bias).
Typical examples of medical claims include the “danger” of phone radiation, GMOs, mastrubation, holding one’s laptop on laps, microwave ovens & other electromagnetic radiations, the cliche “increased likelihood of cancer”, and the like. Some of these claims such as the laptop heating are true to some extent. For others, I wouldn’t recommend some of them for completely different reasons which are outside the scope of this essay, but fake reasons should be debunked.( “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear.”).
[Concerning these particular topics I challenge the reader to at least read their corresponding Wikipedia pages I linked to.]
So how should one get information to help him make an opinion about something outside of his area of expertise? Anywhere but not from newspapers or viral posts which contains the word “share” (The worthiness of a post to be shared should be implied without the explicit request of the post in question. But I wouldn’t mind if you tried to bother your friends with this lengthy essay. ).
None truly learns about neuroscience, cosmology, Quantum physics(think of last year’s Higgs Boson) from a newspaper. In fact an intellectual vegetarian will stop reading a newspaper article which claims that “researchers” or “science” has shown this or that without linking to the original research paper.
Below is the recipe I follow when learning about things that are outside my field of study.
- First of all, read an article from a general-purpose Encyclopedia about the topic. I particularly recommend Wikipedia as its editing process tries to minimize misconceptions and favors the voice of the experts.
- The Encyclopedia should link you to some original books or papers of the experts but before that I would recommend to read a field-specific encyclopedia.( Like the Internet Encyclipedia of Philosophy, Encyclopedia of Psychology, Medical Encyclopedia,…).
- For papers, one should start by easy papers or “survey papers” which gives a background of the topic from a historical perspective.
- Finally and most importantly, by a paper I don’t mean any pdf file. I’m referring to papers published by reputable peer-reviewed journals in the field in question.
Obviously how far you go would depend on how much the topic is important to you but for the sake of Rationality, never make a claim about something if you haven’t read at least its article in an Encyclopedia. Yes, consensus of experts DOES MATTER. A LOT.
One final thing I should warn for anyone going for intellectual vegetarianism, is the abuse of statistics.
One major abuse is making claims based on anecdotal evidence. That’s what Newspapers are full of, but a vegetarian has thrown newspapers away already.(At least daily or “event-based” ones. When I want to cheat on this diet, I read monthly magazines. They are more likely to give me an accurate image about how the war in Central African Republic is going than say reading from CNN how every strike is going. That’s mostly noise.). But anecdotal evidence is not only in Newspapers. More dangerous are the tales from our aunts and people in our village who claim to be well read and well traveled (where the more accurate way is to say that they have learned to talk a lot).
Here is a rule of thumb: If you read a story in a newspaper or hear it from someone, get the story but pause as soon as you meet the word “because”. No, he doesn’t know why the guy on the other side of the road died after a TV antenna was installed near his house(correlation vs causation). No, journalists don’t really know why Ukraine is delaying its decision, or why there was a financial breakdown in 2008. (If there is a single reason, it was because of people who thought they knew the why’s of random events like markets.).
Another dangerous statistical sin is, as I like to call it, skewing data.
Look at the 10 statements below:
1.a. Most of terrorists are Muslims. 1.b. Most of Muslims are terrorists.
2.a. Most of world’s top universities in the word are American. 1.b. Most American universities are among the best in the world.
3.a. Most of billionaires are college drop-outs. Most of college drop-outs are billionaires.
4.a. Most of criminals in US are African-American. Most of African Americans are criminals.
5.a. Most of Nobel prize winners are Jewish. Most of Jewish people are intelligent.
Note that I’m not interested in the truth or falsehood of any of the above statements. I want the reader to see what is the constant mistake if the statements in “a” are said to imply those in the “b” section. I want to demonstrate here that the information we get from statements in the “a” tells us nothing about those in the “b”. A statistic about the number of Muslims involved in terrorist attacks in the last century is an information about terrorists but has nothing to say about Muslims. If you want to know about the fate of college drop-outs, study drop-outs, don’t study billionaires!
More statistics sins include making a hypothesis after an observation and using that very observation as an “experiment” to prove your hypothesis. ( misuse of statistics.)
 My discussion on this should get even to slogans. I hate slogans. They make cosmic claims like “Yes we can” without explicitly telling you which is that you are claiming to be able to do and most importantly, how you can do it, and why he is the one to tell you so. If I was an adviser of a politician, I would definitely advise him to use slogans as they are effective tools to manipulate people. But if you ask me to repeat a slogan and expect me to even believe it even for a minute, I will (most likely silently) call BS.
 I sometimes think that some hundreds of years from now they will wonder if there is an evolutionary explanation for people in the late 20th and the early 21st century to think that there is an evolutionary explanation for everything. If my son asks me that, my answer will be “because it sold books. And that’s what surviving means for an author with no day job.”
 Or not just confirmation bias, but also many more biases and heuristics of the human psyche. The Nobel Prixe winner Daniel Kahneman, also known as the father of modern experimental psychology, has a classic book about that: Thinking, Fast and Slow(Kahneman 2012).
 As I talk about knowledge, some things need to be made clear. I encourage knowledge gathering but I don’t think it should be confused with being intelligent. My friend Issa recently brought up this topic on a Facebook conversation. I explained my position that mere facts memorization is just something next to useless. Knowing how to employ that knowledge to solve real life problems is what makes someone intelligent. A medical doctor who memorized all of his materials but can’t tell what treatment best fits my condition, is useless. Knowing history from the ruling systems of ancient empires in details is useless if you don’t learn anything from that. Memorizing thousands of digits of pi is useless in and of itself as you can always google it whenever you need it. (You are better off using that memory memorizing important stuff. Like the birth-date of your girlfriend. Seriously, you would have trouble forgetting the latter than the former. ). Picking up the syntax of a programming language is something a well trained mountain gorilla from Rwandan Birunga would do even excellently. Employing the language to solve problems is what matters. In the world where anything can be googled, one should spend more time learning about problem solving, and actually trying to solve problems, than just memorizing facts. Unfortunately, most academic systems don’t favor that because people who are just fact-memorizing machines are the ones who are more likely to go in academia, become professors(as those who can’t do, teach) and then in turn become the ones to decide about how academic systems ought to function. You can see the cycle. We should be careful about in whose hands we put the intellectual future of our children.