by Julius WiedemannJul 27, 2021
Everything is supposed to be bound for inquiry and scrutiny. But it is the quality of the questioning that gives credibility to the interlocutor. What we tell people most of the time are our opinions. It is easy to have an opinion. And it’s easier to have them these days, and even to believe that these opinions are based on facts, with so much information around. But that’s not always true for knowledge, and much less for wisdom. The demand for us to have a say about everything is overwhelming. With so many experiences we can have, with so much access to information, we've got to have an opinion. The only problem is that opinions do not automatically carry relevance or credibility unless they are based on something that is connected to some shared reality. And the problem we have here these days, is that we are taught to create our own reality, and we are obliged to respect everyone’s reality, regardless of their construct or purpose.
The scientific method, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the “approach that science uses to gain knowledge, based on making observations, formulating laws and theories, and testing theories or hypotheses by experimentation.” Some other definitions regard it as the system that changed the world since the 17th century. Ultimately, science is the trigger of conflict, because it is constantly and unavoidably questioning the status quo. Scientists not only think that they are wrong, they are not satisfied with the explanation of reality even when they think they are right. Over the last 500 years, scientists have learned to be frustrated and to diligently go to work the next day to change that feeling.
Nature has laws, and men have morals. The quest of men to quench their thirst for knowledge, and beyond that for wisdom, will always have to do with trying to understand nature’s laws, as well as the collective moral compasses. And when we talk about morals, we are most of the time talking about opinions. The American philosopher, Sam Harris, has researched about the future of finding morality through the scientific method. In his view, as long as we start defining what well-being should be, and what are their implications, we will be able to investigate further into our brains to understand, and to discern, good from bad. Good and bad in this case should be defined as ways to maximise, or not, our human development.
Insecurity has probably been the strongest tool to stay alive. In the right doses, insecurities can become a powerful generator of creativity and insights. As (Albert) Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day." The trick today is to combine all this curiosity with the discipline to use criteria and generate real knowledge.
Ten years ago, with Facebook still in its infancy, it was already posting 3.2 billion likes and comments combined, daily. The information sea that we navigate today is incomparable. The amount of fake news, the number of different networks spreading information, and first of all, the amount of people producing content is out of control. But that was always the idea. This massive liberation. If something is out of control, people, or users in the case of the internet, will seize control of anything they can. It is hard to create a culture of qualified opinions when we are so desperate for something to heal an immediate wound.
The mistake we often commit is to confuse peer to peer communication with the peer review of the scientific method. The word peer, often interpreted as an acquaintance is not the same peer, professionally, who will render an evaluation of a professional colleague with technical criteria. It has gotten to the point that even WhatsApp has put in its help-desk the article “Tips to help prevent the spread of rumours and fake news". Audio messages are especially dangerous. With people introducing themselves with the names of others, an impression is created that someone with credibility is telling you something of urgent importance.
Collectively, people get desperate, and can be manipulated. And they will always seek the easiest way to find a solution or to alleviate the pain. Efficient communication tools are a privilege we have, giving us flexibility, inclusivity, allowing for new ways to work, to meet people, and others. But they also allow for sentiments that come through it, especially when these come from friends, to be in good faith and with good information. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.