Information Overload.

Way back in the days when the Internet was only a trickle into Australia I remember the information available being sparse and unreliable. Many teachers would not accept any information from a website as part of research for a school assignment and rightly so, there was little if anyway to verify that information. The exercise was then left to us to read through countless books in order to back up any statement or opinion we might but forward. Today however the Internet is bristling with information and authoritative sources are popping up all over the place. The interesting about this is that due to the sheer volume of information that’s available you can be almost guaranteed to find some article or news piece that agrees with what you say, which has lead me into a very confounding train of thought.

I’ll take something that I know well just as an example: the economy. Now I’ve made my stance known about this in the past and the data seems to be on my side. For the most part Australia is narrowly avoiding a recession due to our banks being well capitalized and a government not afraid of going into debt to spur the economy on. However I could easily argue the opposite, and in fact a lot of people are. Just to show you how crazy the situation is take for instance these two articles. Both written at the same time but both decreeing completely different viewpoints. These aren’t the only examples either, and it is quite easy to make your point using what appears to be authoritative sources. This then begs the question, is there really a correct answer for this?

The truth is often in the middle of two dissenting viewpoints, especially when it comes to issue that can’t have a definitive answer such as the economy. However due to the volume of information it becomes easy for one side to write off the others since they appear to have so much support for their side of the argument. This unfortunately leads phenomena best described as wikiality, or truth by majority vote. In the end it probably won’t matter that you have the majority of data on your side because if you’re in the minority, when debating using the information available on the Internet, you will eventually be “proven” wrong. It is an unfortunate consequence of this information overload.

There has been a lot of work done over the past decade to create authoritative information sources however with the advent of easy access to the Internet and its publishing capabilities they are soon lost in the noise. I often try to link onto articles from these sources in order to promote them but I can’t say that I’m innocent in this regard either. All too often I link to Wikipedia hoping that people will scroll to the bottom to read actual articles from proper sources but I know that’s not usually the case. Overall Wikipedia is a good source, however the mentality of wikiality makes some articles unusable, and it can be hard to tell them apart.

To be honest though we’re better off with having too much information than not enough. There is enough information out there for anyone to be able to make up their own mind on pretty much any issue that comes up. It is regrettable that the noise is so high but that is the price we pay for the ultimate freedom of allowing anyone instant access to both read and publish limitless information.

Arrrrrgggghhhh the cognitive dissonance! 😉

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  1. “The truth is often in the middle of two dissenting viewpoints, especially when it comes to issue that can’t have a definitive answer such as the economy”
    NO. Absolutley false. You’re using the term truth here as an ultimate qualifyer (in the sense that you’d also say it is the ‘truth that 1+1=2) in which case it is where it is, regardless of where people choose to stand. For example the “truth” is not somewhere between evolution and creationism, despite these being the major two positions (it could be that neither are right, that this is a science question is mere method, for even science is more about falsifiability than demonstrating truth). Our society could truely believe some mix of these, but this is a perceptual truth, and relevant only to the nature of our beliefs and communication, and unrelated to the actual mechanisms of evolution and creation. Likewise the economy has an actual mechanism and status, unrelated to our views of it.
    There is a real and ultimate reason why Australia’s economy has avoided recession and whilst we might not know it, and it might be due to factors invoked by both sides, it is not to be found ‘in the middle’ between dissenting views, but rather it is where it is and sometimes and only sometimes do the dissenting views happen to find themselves arrayed on either side of it (wherever it actually is). Truth doesn’t move to be in the middle, opinions move such that they sometimes each get close to it, without ever having ultimate evidence to justify asserting a perfect correspondence to the truth with a particular opinion.
    Just because politics has a different method to science (and some economists would discount there is much difference) does not mean that its values like truth become issues of consensus, rather than a correspondence to ‘objective reality’ (whatever that may in fact be). (Though there is an element in which each of us can believe truthful statements, simply because its true that it is our true perception, but thats getting into the social construction of truth, and that again does not give truth a status ‘in the middle’ but rather a roving contest for control and shaping of the socially accepted “truth”)

  2. I guess my use of qualifying terms there wasn’t liberal enough if I can be misread that much. I take the stance that when you have two viewpoints being argued that are extremely contrary (I.E. it’s this way or the other way) in general terms the real truth of the matter often lies somewhere between.  I was not positing the idea that if you take two extreme viewpoints on a matter and find the middle ground that that is the truth, far from it. I also qualified what I said by implying things that can’t have a definitive answer, like say the impact of the stimulus on our economy (which I probably should’ve used instead of being so general) are where this tends to happen. The example you use of creationism vs evolution falls outside the boundaries I defined, and I was not commenting on such things.

    The actual truth may lie outside both opinions, I never discounted that idea. Whilst I respect your well thought out comment it seems to be based on a premise that is far from what I was actually saying.

    Just because I mention the economy you presume that I was talking in general terms about politics, which again is incorrect. In fact the entire post was writtern from the viewpoint of the many debates I’ve had with people on online forums. The economy was an easy target to use as an example, since there’s always debate about it.

  3. I have to disagree with your use of evolution vs creationism as an analogy in this case, even while I understand the point you are trying to make.
    Evolution is a fact in the same way as gravity is, and has been proven beyond any sane and informed persons ability to doubt it.
    It is a demonstratable and easily repeatable experiments exist to prove it. Heck, we see it in action on a regular basis in the news headlines (antibiotic and antiviral resistance e.g. http://www.reuters.com/article/GCA-SwineFlu/idUSTRE58A54T20090911 ).
    Creationism (and more specifically its theory of a “young Earth”) has no evidence to back it up at all. On the contrary, it has mountains of evidence from almost every major scientific disipline (physics, biology, geology to name a few) which prove it beyond a doubt to be rubbish.
    Creationists really ought to be treated in the same way as those who deny that gravity exists, or that certain elements are subject to radioactive decay, or that the sky is blue.
    The economy, on the other hand, is a very different beast. For while at the core of evolution are basic physical facts, at the core of our economy is human emotion and, based on that, human (in)decision. Fear and greed are hard things to measure (currently, anyway) thus leaving the door open for many interpretations of the facts.
     

  4. Dave – My point was more that its a tired and unhelpful cliche to sugest truth can be found between the two major viewpoints our two party system establishes. Its a view that encourages bipartisanship but also one that can result in bad and contradictory policy.  It’s also logically false given that truth when dealing with objective issues (say evolution) has a set point, irrespective of debates by fallible individuals, and when of subjective terms (ala that this country is called australia) are consensual or socially constructed, and until a firm agreed position emerges, there is in effect no truth, but several truthes, none of which are found ‘in the middle’.  Independents like to credit their own intelligence by suggesting the truth sits in the centre with them, rather than at the edges with the partisans, but the partisans hold similar views as to their own intelligence and the stupidity of everyone else who refuses to sign up to their agenda.

    Brett- It depends what you are wanting to say about the economy. If we are looking at historical intepretations, then it is plausible to say it is objectively true that “the stimulus has helped keep us out of recession” (such a claim would require tracking every dollar spent and showing how it was necessary to achieve the current result, a feat beyond us, but our investigative limitations don’t mean the actual truth content of that statement is in any way affected, merely our ability to say it.). Likewise whilst we prove evolution through practical demonstration (you can’t afterall touch it, only its results) we can prove certain economic theories work or don’t through experimentation). But you are right that if you wanted to say the economy is doing well, then it depends from where you stand and is interpretive.

    One quibble though:  the sky isn’t actually blue. That’s just the human interpretation of the light making its way through the atmosphere during those times when the sun is facing this part of the earth. Blue is a human construct. The sky isn’t blue to a bee or your dog.

    Philosophically I’m with Nietzsche, there are no facts, everything is interpretation, including science.

  5. I understood your point, just making sure that I wasn’t being miscontrued as someone believes that the truth always lies between the polar opposites of a debate. The greatest example I can think of this comes from science where the debate raged for many years over whether light was a particle or a wave when it is in fact neither. The truth in this instance can be found through scientific rigor, however with issues that are instrinctly human (I.E. the economy is a human creation, it is not a thing of nature) the rules become blurred. Whilst we can try to model the behaviour as if it was a natural phenomenon it is unfortunately subject to matters that are currently far beyond our reasoning to discern the actual truth.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that when something is beyond our ability to comprehend fully and therefore uncover the truth it would appear that what would serve as the truth for use by us humans would probably lie best somewhere between all of the dissenting viewpoints.

    So staying away from a nihilistic debate 😛

  6. I guess what I’m trying to say is that when something is beyond our ability to comprehend fully and therefore uncover the truth it would appear that what would serve as the truth for use by us humans would probably lie best somewhere between all of the dissenting viewpoints.”

    I still ultimately disagree. Sometimes it’s right, but it’s a pretty iffy guide to understanding the world. Keeping with the economy and what to do 1 year ago: One side said stimulus spending re-inflates a market. The alternate position was that government spending was already the problem, markets self-correct and this should be allowed whatever the short term consequences. The best option is to take either one or the other. A small stimulus however is not good policy, it wouldn’t do enough to re-inflate the economy, but would prevent a real self-correction. We can say that arguments by pro-market forces encourage scepticism about how much and the way the stimulus is used, but thats a call for moderation of a chosen path, not evidence that in between the paths is the best answer.

    When you come racing to a jump you’re not sure you can make you either slam on the accelerator (to try and increase your chances of making it) or you slam on the break (to stop you from going over the edge in the first place). Going a slightly slower speed is however a very bad idea. Yet that’s what we commonly advocate, with policies neither fish nor fowl so as to claim centrist status.

    Moderation, and taking wisdom from many sources is different from being in the middle. Lots of important policy ideas work best when applied in full. Applying only half may be more politically acceptable but it comes at a cost. In which case the word truth is a poor lable for such a position. We often accept half-way positions because its the optimum cost we will bear based on other values outside the actual policy mechanisms.)

    It’s more a question of language than anything else, but that has important consequences. For instance right now US “centrist” senators are weakening the proposed healthcare bill in a misguided belief that the middle is always the best path. Instead it will mean more cost and less coverage. That is the practical consequence of accepting as common sense the claim truth is in the middle in political fights. Its a cliche that obscures clear thought instead of aiding it.

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