Weekly Quotes & Notes 23rd May 2021—the epistemological horror of Fake News

And also the beauty of mundanity.


Welcome to the first ever Weekly Quotes & Notes. Those who are reading this in your email inbox, thank you for taking a chance on me. Those who are reading on the web, do consider signing up receive this every Sunday. I share some of best ideas, quotes and wisdom I have encountered over the past week and from my notebook. I don’t 100% agree with every quote I post, but I guarantee they are interesting, novel or both. Hope you enjoy.

Some personal posts:

The Beauty of a Doorknob

I am amazed by how beautifully complex yet perfectly simple an object like a doorknob or a toilet or a ketchup packet can be…I am amazed by how beautifully complex yet perfectly simple an object like a doorknob or a toilet or a ketchup packet can be…We live in a world gifted to us by countless wizards, who dreamed, discovered, and invented. All in the hopes that one day their revolutionary idea could achieve the highest honor in all of humanity…Become boring.

Our Amazing Boring World[Video], Kevin Lieber

The Paradox of Social Sciences

I was wondering: how can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).

Non-Exemplary Lives, Branko Milanovic

Nothing is True

This long excerpt is from Corey Doctorow’s book, How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. I will probably write a whole summary for it, but this quote by far the best summary of what is happening with fake news(emphasis mine):

If you’re like me, you probably believe that vaccines are safe, but you (like me) probably also can’t explain the microbiology or statistics. Few of us have the math skills to review the literature on vaccine safety and describe why their statistical reasoning is sound. Likewise, few of us can review the stats in the (now discredited) literature on opioid safety and explain how those stats were manipulated. Both vaccines and opioids were embraced by medical authorities, after all, and one is safe while the other could ruin your life. You’re left with a kind of inchoate constellation of rules of thumb about which experts you trust to fact-check controversial claims and then to explain how all those respectable doctors with their peer-reviewed research on opioid safety were an aberration and then how you know that the doctors writing about vaccine safety are not an aberration.

I’m 100% certain that vaccinating is safe and effective, but I’m also at something of a loss to explain exactly, precisely, why I believe this, given all the corruption I know about and the many times the stamp of certainty has turned out to be a parochial lie told to further enrich the super rich.

Fake news — conspiracy theories, racist ideologies, scientific denialism — has always been with us. What’s changed today is not the mix of ideas in the public discourse but the popularity of the worst ideas in that mix. Conspiracy and denial have skyrocketed in lockstep with the growth of Big Inequality, which has also tracked the rise of Big Tech and Big Pharma and Big Wrestling and Big Car and Big Movie Theater and Big Everything Else.

No one can say for certain why this has happened, but the two dominant camps are idealism (the belief that the people who argue for these conspiracies have gotten better at explaining them, maybe with the help of machine-learning tools) or materialism (the ideas have become more attractive because of material conditions in the world).

I’m a materialist. I’ve been exposed to the arguments of conspiracy theorists all my life, and I have not experienced any qualitative leap in the quality of those arguments.

The major difference is in the world, not the arguments. In a time where actual conspiracies are commonplace, conspiracy theories acquire a ring of plausibility.

We have always had disagreements about what’s true, but today, we have a disagreement over how we know whether something is true. This is an epistemological crisis, not a crisis over belief. It’s a crisis over the credibility of our truth-seeking exercises, from scientific journals (in an era where the biggest journal publishers have been caught producing pay-to-play journals for junk science) to regulations (in an era where regulators are routinely cycling in and out of business) to education (in an era where universities are dependent on corporate donations to keep their lights on).

Targeting — surveillance capitalism — makes it easier to find people who are undergoing this epistemological crisis, but it doesn’t create the crisis. For that, you need to look to corruption.

The book is available for free on Medium, and in audio form from Doctorow’s podcast. It is probably the best commentary on Big Tech and commercial Mass Surveillance you will read this year.

Thank you, and see you next week. And do signup.

Mudassir Chapra

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