Knowing More, Understanding Less – Michael Lynch | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander
Heffner, your host on
The Open Mind. Another presidential
debate had drawn to a close, and the
fact-checkers were proven obsolete again,
mocked, ridiculed, or flat out ignored. Welcome to American
politics, circa 2016. In its aftermath, my eye
caught a cathartic New York Times op-ed,
“Googling is Believing, Trumping the
Informed Citizen, one that explained
beautifully our pseudo-enlightened state. And the author
today is our guest. A professor of philosophy,
Michael Lynch is Director of the Humanities
Institute at the University of Connecticut. His new book is The
Internet of Us: Knowing More and
Understanding Less
in the Age of Big Data, which the New Yorker
called “Fascinating, and Booklist, “A bracing
challenge to internet enthusiasts.” I implore
you all to read this critically important
text to rediscover
our inner Socrates. Therein lies a most
illuminating account of the fragmentation of
information and knowledge, between which Lynch
draws a distinction. So, shall we
begin there, Michael? A pleasure to be with you. LYNCH: Well, thank you
so much for having me. Uh, so I think, the thing
that really grabbed me about what’s going on in
the election right now, is the fact that,
on the one hand, we seem to have so much
information about what the candidates are doing. So much information about
their views- information supplied by them, by their
daily or nightly tweets, for example. And of course by
the news media, which many of, many of the
candidates like to revile as “the media,” or
“the big media.” On the other hand, there
is a sense in which we
seem to have more difficulty than ever
actually trying to figure out what it is, uh, the
candidates are actually … representing,
or believing. And that’s
partly, of course, because candidates
are moving targets. But it’s also partly
because the world in which we live is a
world in which, paradoxically, we have
more information available to us through the
devices in our pockets than ever before, and
yet we also seem to have less
real knowledge. Or le-, at least,
that’s the sense that
many of us have. HEFFNER: So what
is, for our viewers, what is the difference
between informing in the digital age and knowing
in the digital age? MICHAEL LYNCH: Well I
think … maybe we should back up a little bit
and just think about what we mean by
knowledge generally. Since Plato, I think,
um … philosophers have generally thought that
knowledge amounts to more than just
having information. It, it amounts to having
accurate information, but accurate information
isn’t quite enough. I mean, I can
make a guess, right, and
guess accurately, and not really know the
answer to a particular question you might ask me. So, having information
that’s accurate and also grounded in some
way, sort of warranted, justified by
reasons or evidence. That’s what we
typically- philosophers, at least- and I
think a lot of folks, typically sort, sort
of think knowledge is. It’s accurate
information that’s
grounded in some way. The grounding part
is the hard part… HEFFNER: There lies
the rub. LYNCH: Because there,
there is the rub indeed. Because, where you get
your evidence actually matters for whether
your evidence turns out to be real evidence
or pseudo-evidence. And right now, in the
world that we live in, getting back to what
I was saying before, we’re surrounded with
sources of evidence, or at least thing-,
sources that purport to have evidence
for various beliefs
that we might have, whether
they’re about politics, or about medicine, uh,
or anything particularly we want to know
about, whether it’s the restaurant, uh, that we
want to go to tonight and how highly
rated it is. So we have all this
information at our fingertips, and yet
that information, because it’s so much,
so much information, makes it very difficult
for us as human beings to sort through it. So, as a result,
we sort of take, as humans being
generally do, shortcuts. We start finding …
sources that we think, because they sort
of line up with our previously held
prejudices or beliefs, that we, we tend
to trust. And as a
result, you see that, you know, the
infosphere, which, uh, we could describe as
the … mass of information that you and I sort
of move through on
a daily basis. We find the info-,
infosphere divided into not just political lines,
but all sorts of various lines of evidence sources. So, in the most
dramatic sense, those people who have
certain views about, let’s say Hillary Clinton
or Bernie Sanders are going to read
certain sorts of blogs, or pay attention
to certain sorts
of shows, right. And those who follow
Donald Trump will find themselves appealing to
very different sources, sorts of evidence. And what we find is that,
and I think we all know this, is that we start
to live in our own little bubbles of bias. And that tends to,
on the one hand, convince us that we’ve
got the real evidence, and therefore, our
information is something we actually
know, that is true, and warranted…. But, at the same time,
tends to shut us off from evidence that might
actually run against what we tend to think. HEFFNER: And
in that sense, that epitomizes,
to my mind, anti-social behavior. It’s not in the public
interest to … fragment the electorate, and yet,
in most instances, that’s what
the media does. You say here,
“Understanding is what we have when we know
not only the what, but the why, and the why
leads you to ask questions that are framed in a
certain moral context.” So, as the philosopher,
I was going to ask you, how do we extricate
ourselves from those bubbles, but I’ll ask
you a different question first, which is, knowing
that those bubbles exist, what to your mind
explains the opposite, um, the, the polarization
of our morality that veers us to two totally separate
sets of questions, when answering, what
is that understanding? LYNCH: Okay, good. So, uh, I’d like to
talk about understanding a little bit more
in just a second, but let me just
pick up from what you, the question
you just asked, which I think is a
really good one. How do we get to
this sort of deeply
polarized place? There’s lots of
explanations. One of, one is the
one that you mentioned, which is that we’re
divided over values. And that division over
values is not something that’s necessarily bad. I mean, in a democracy,
it would be sort of suspicious if we all
ended up agreeing
all the time. I mean, part of the
joy of democracy, when it works well, is
that it helps us navigate through our
differences in values, and those differences can
sometimes be very healthy. What I think is unhealthy
is that we’ve now gone from dev-disagreeing
over values, moral values, to
disagreeing over …
the facts. And more than
that, more than that, disagreeing over whose
view about how to tell what the facts are
is correct: How to
get at the facts. That’s the disagreement
over the standards of evidence that I was
talking about before. And when you and I,
if you and I were to get into a debate,
where we were
disagreeing not only o-, over how we see
the world, or how
we value it, but actually disagreeing
over whose sources are reliable, whose view
of how to figure out what the facts are is
the right one, it’s really hard to
know how to fight your
way back from there. Because, at that point,
anything I mention to support my view is
going to be seen by
you as suspicious. HEFFNER: And just,
for our viewers, examples would
include, uh, years ago, if you
cited Wikipedia, well that’s
just public, uh, public
exposure, basically. LYNCH: Right. HEFFNER: Now,
it’s a vetted, scholarly source
of information- LYNCH: Absolutely. HEFFNER: – such that
someone might say to you, “Oh that’s just
left-wing
propaganda, right? LYNCH: Right, exactly. HEFFNER: Now, uh, the
liberals who are watching Fox News may say, these
are opinion hosts and anchors, who have
a certain worldview. But let me get at
something you said before. As you said, it’s,
it’s not necessarily disagreeable or
antithetical to our democracy to have two
sets of competing values. But what if one set
of those values is …
uncivilized? I mean, what, is, is
that what we’re looking at in the context of
this election? LYNCH: I think a
lot of us fear that
it actually is. I, I wouldn’t
go so str-, I, I, I think saying that
it’s uncivilized might be a step farther
than I want to go, just because I
don’t want to say
that the people who are disagreeing with me,
let’s say in my political views are, uh,
necessarily barbarians. Not that you were
insinuating that. But maybe that
betrays my, [LAUGHS], implicit bias
towards civilization. I do think that some of
the values that people are now acting on, and
that includes some of the values having
to do with evidence, the values that we have
for different standards of evidence, some of those
values are very deeply undermining of the
democratic process. When you start
thinking that, uh, protestors,
for example, at political conventions
need to be bullied, or perhaps deserve to
be punched in the face, as one recent, uh,
was, a presidential
candidate, uh, [CHUCKLES],
whose name I don’t
need to mention, has recently said. Then what we’re actually
doing is not supporting the values of
deliberation or
discussion. We’re, actually,
in a sense, overtly, trying to
get around them, and devalue them. And so, in that sense,
I think you’re right. That, uh, however
we describe it, this is not in the
service of democracy. HEFFNER: It’s a conundrum,
because you could say a testament to that is the
fact that there is such division and derision
within Republican ranks, a-, and I would
hate to surmise, or, err, uh, tell the
audience that it is the Republican elites
who are civilized, and the voters who
are uncivilized, right, who are attending
these rallies- LYNCH: Right. HEFFNER: And I, and I
don’t want my comments to reflect that
point of view, other than establishing
there is a tacit, if not explicit acceptance
of barbaric behavior. LYNCH: Right. One of the
things that we see, one of the reasons that
I think we’re troubled by this lack of civility
and lack of
open-mindedness … is because we see it as
not just representing values that are
antithetical to democracy, but also as representing
values that seem closer to what some of us ca-,
would call fascism. Now the, the, the uniforms
haven’t yet come out, [LAUGHS], but, uh,
some of us are
waiting with bated breath for when
that might happen. So, I do worry that, uh,
the issues that you’re pointing to are
actually out there. Now one, one of the
things I think we need to think about here
is, what is it in our
belief system, or some of our
belief system, what i-, what is it
in our culture
that’s encouraging this sort of behavior? What are the, what, what
is it that we might point to, not just
in, let’s say, some of the voters
who are supporting
this candidate, but in the entire
culture, to make us think that this sort of
behavior, this
sort of disc-, uh, lack of discussion,
this sort of incitement to violence, is suddenly
seen as appropriate. And I think one of the
things that we’re seeing, one of the reasons, uh,
that we’re seeing so much receptivity
to this, is
precisely because of the culture that we
all participate in, and I participate in, on
things like social media. HEFFNER: Explain. LYNCH: Uh,
well, I am a, uh, I’m a person
who uses Twitter, I use Facebook, like
most of the people who are going to be
listening to this program. I’m wedded to my iPhone,
and I have more computers than I care to admit. So, I’m a full
participant in the open, so-called, society
of the internet. But the open
society of the internet, which promised,
in its early days, to be, to
democratize knowledge, to open up information
for all of us, has only partly
fulfilled that promi-, that promise. It’s also, as, I
think, a lot of us know, and actually, I think a
lot of young people know better than, than myself,
is that it also has, as we say, a dark side. And the dark side is
the, the side that we see raging on chat
forum discussions. And fram-, allowing
people to frame views that would’ve been
conceived at one
point as way off the table, as views
that can be seen as
having a backing. Having a,
their own website. If we think
about the amount of, the, the great
use that, uh, white supremacist groups
have been able to put the web, we see an
example of what
I’m talking about. HEFFNER: And you
also cite in the
book examples of data that’s distorted
in such a way to
misrepresent reality. And so it’s
malicious in two senses. LYNCH: Indeed. One of the things that we
do tend to see is that, I mean, one way that I put
it is that the internet is the world’s
greatest fact –checker, but it’s also the world’s
greatest bias-confirmer at the very same time. HEFFNER: Or, [LAUGHS],
if you’re being less generous, it’s also an
alternate universe of- LYNCH: Right. That’s right, I mean it,
it allows us to create alternate universes,
allows us to create these little bubbles,
where we, where
people feel safe to talk about, uh, incredibly
damaging and divisive, and, uh, downright racist
and sexist opinions. HEFFNER: The vigilantism
of this election. LYNCH: Right, well, you
think about that as sort of feeding right out
of the vigilantism that we see in our
digital online life. The norms, in other words,
that we’re adopting in that life, the
digital life, are, are, not
surprisingly, affecting the norms
that we’re living our
political life by. They’re becoming one
and the same norms. And in some ways,
that’s really great, because, I do want to
emphasize that there’s no doubt about it,
that the internet
has democratized information, in the sense
that it has allowed more people more access
to more information
than ever before. But- HEFFNER:
Well that, the, again, the rub, because
if it’s access to faulty data, then it is
really democratization, or is it the
opposite of- LYNCH: Uh, indeed. The information
that’s out there is so, uh, available to us, so
available to us in a very intimate way, right
there in our pockets, right there on our wrists,
that it leads to a sort of epistemic
overconfidence- epistemic meaning,
overconfidence about
what we think we know. We tend to think that
we know more than we do, because we have it, we
think, right there. I mean, Google has
become our sort of, uh, epistemic pacifier. It’s made us feel so
comfortable with the fact that we can access
what we think are
the facts at any moment. I mean, we see this
in all sorts of ways. I mean, how many times
have you been at a party or, uh, you
know, at a bar, and somebody gets into
a dispute over facts. Might be baseball, and
then we run to the phones, to see who’s right
and who’s wrong. And that can be annoying,
but we all do it. And what does that say? Well that says
that nowadays, uh, where we
used to think that, you know,
seeing is believing, now we think
googling is believing, and that increases or
makes us overconfident in ways that I think
allow us to be
easily manipulated by those who
desire to do so. HEFFNER: That’s the
what, when you google and find an answer. That’s not
necessarily the why. In most instances,
it’s not the why- LYNCH: Right. HEFFNER:- you write,
“So understanding, uh, into your
deep dive, you write, “So understanding is
a kind of knowing that involves
grasping relationships, the network or
parts and whole.” LYNCH: The reason that
I say in the book that
we know more, and in a sense, as
I was just saying, we do, in one sense
of know, know more. Um, because of the digital
life that we all live. But we don’t necessarily
understand more, and by understanding,
I mean exactly what you were talking about. To understand
something, I need to
understanding how some fact depends on
some other set of facts. So, for example,
to understand why, uh, a particular
disease like ebola, spreads in the
way that it does, in the way that a
scientist does understand that, is to
understand the underlying, in that case,
underlying causes. To understand how a
particular proof follows from, uh, a
set of theorems, is to understand
why there are, there are certain logical
connections between various propositions. And to understand why
a particular political candidate may
say this or that, you need to
understand why, what depends,
wha-, how they’re, what they’re saying
depends on the political context that
they’re in now. All of these things
require going past just a list of
facts, which is what
Google is really good at giving us. It gives us- and that
can be a great basis for understanding, of
course it can be. Just like a
textbook can be. But you’re not
going to go deeper. You’re not
going to under-, you’re not going to see
how things fit together, if you’re not willing to
go past just the list of facts, and start to
ask critical questions about why it’s this,
depends on that, as opposed to the
other way around. HEFFNER: You point to,
in your Times op-ed, an example of- which I
alluded to at the … at the beginning of
the conversation, Senator Rubio encouraging
voters to Google a question of Donald Trump’s
employment practices. Uh, in this
case, allegedly, and factually based- LYNCH: Right. HEFFNER: – at
least partially, according to
PolitiFact, uh, the, the illegal hiring
of undocumented workers at one of his resorts. And the fact
that, despite the
rating Politi-, PolitiFact assessed,
it didn’t yield any greater consciousness. And it’s emblematic
of our discussion. LYNCH: In that debate,
and earlier debates, uh, various candidates,
and the news media, called out Donald Trump
on saying things that were just
factually incorrect. They encouraged,
as Marco Rubio did, to, for people to
look it up themselves. Trump has no fear
of contradiction. He has no fear
of contradiction, and that is a very useful
thing in a land where we’re constantly
be-, being bombarded by contradictory
information. HEFFNER: Right, and- LYNCH: Uh, just, because,
if you think about it, co-, anything follows
from a contradiction. Anything. If I say to you, 2
plus 2 equals 4, but it doesn’t, well,
one can logically
derive anything. So that, that allows the,
when contradictions are espoused, it
allows people to draw the inferences
that they want. To see whatever they
want in what he’s saying. And that’s, once
you realize that, that can be a very useful
tool to the person who is not afraid of
being caught up in
inconsistency. HEFFNER: Also,
understanding less, is a consequence, I think
I agree with Jill Lepore, of a politics that
is personality and
ego-driven- LYNCH: Yes. HEFFNER: – in
so many instances. So when, this is a
contemporary history of the philosophy
surrounding the subject, but whe-, when do you
think that we became desensitized … at, at the
expense of our focus on personality, we became
desensitized to that paradox or that
contradiction- LYNCH: Mm-hmm. HEFFNER: That we just
put our head in the
sands, effectively. LYNCH: Right. Well, in this
sense, I, uh, maybe, uh, a little
bit different than Jill, I think that human
beings have always had a penchant for
following the
strong personality. Uh, I think human beings
are probably hard-wired, to some extent, to
be, uh, attracted to the person who
has the loudest
voice in the room. I also think it’s, it’s
sadly true that human beings are
really good at, uh, ignoring the
evidence, and going, picking out, cherry
picking the evidence, uh, so that it conforms
with what they think. And I think there’s been
a lot of evidence from psychology in the
last hundred years
to show that. What’s changed, I
think, is the medium that allows the ego
to convey itself to
the public stage. We’ve never lived in a
time where people have a better
ability to get
right in the heads of other people. To
touch their emotions- HEFFNER: I think
it’s fair to say- LYNCH: – in
the way that we do. HEFFNER: – that the
media have not been … as able to perpetuate
that cycle in, in, in the Luddites’ world. And we, we both
participate in
social media- LYNCH: Right. HEFFNER: – but
have this fantasy, or at least are
sympathetic to the Luddite, in that
context, right. And I think it’s in this
particular context of, you run an institute
dedicated to humility, the values of
humility, and the
values of conviction. And today, in the way
manifestly that the media handle these subjects,
that they can’t, they can’t
reconcile the two. Is, it, what, what is,
what do you envision in terms of truth, lies,
and the future of this internet age, as the
vehicle through which we can reconcile the
desire to have conviction but also humility? LYNCH: You’re right. The institute that I run,
the Humanities Institute, is just launching
a large project, uh, that is dedicated to
trying to figure out how to balance humility with
conviction in public life. By humility here, I
mean … what we might call epistemic or
intellectual humility. And, uh, by that I mean,
being willing to see your own belief system as
open to improvement, which is both something
that we value in ourselves and others, but
also in democracy. We want our citizens
to be able to exchange reasons for their views. And we want to
see ourselves, uh, at least
some of the time, as, [LAUGHS], being able
to change for the better. At the same
time, of course, it’s really as
you just said, it’s really important, in
democracy and otherwise, to have convictions. You can’t have a democracy
if people are just lounging around,
being apathetic. Right now, we see
plenty of conviction, [LAUGHS], in the
presidential debate. Not a lot of humility. Now the question
you asked was, what’s the vehicle
for improvement? Well, I think,
perhaps paradoxically, part of that vehicle
for improvement is the very media
landscape and the, uh, Twitterverse that w-, I’ve
been so far criticizing. Because I think,
there’s no getting around, it’s not going away. I don’t want
it to go away. I think that the
ability that we have to get inside each
others’ heads, as I said, can have a dark side,
but can also have a really good side. And so part of
what we need to do, surely, is figure out
how to get the norms and values that we think
allow for that balance of humility and conviction
to play a role on, in the, uh, the world
of the digital world in which we live. And I think that one
way of doing that, is to try to get
people to see, uh, through education,
the value of having discussions like this. So one of the things that
my project is doing is funding hi-, uh,
uh, uh, a summer
institute for high school teachers, bringing
them into the Institute to talk about how to
teach divisive issues in their classrooms
in high school. Issues like
climate change, race, um, and,
uh, evolution, and so forth, in ways
that allow the students to actually get their
convictions on the table, but also see that,
uh, maybe some of those convictions can be
open to improvement. HEFFNER: And, and I
think that this last, unfortunately, that
last answer in our conversation, for
which I thank you, Michael, uh,
underlies that, um, basic point that in
order to have conviction or humility, you
need a value system, a belief system. And that, my friend,
may explain the present
circumstance. Because if you, uh,
absent a belief system- LYNCH: Right. Absent a belief
system, you have
nothing to improve. And that is, you know,
one of the things that, yeah, I think we both
worry about is the fact that, yeah, there’s
the people out there
with convictions. There’s also
the people who, and there’s
always like this, and sometimes all
of us are like this, just, you know,
some of us are apa-, all of us are apathetic
about some things that we should be, have
more conviction about. I mean, I certainly
can say that for myself. But being apathetic
or lacking conviction, lacking interest,
lacking a value system, allows you to be
pushed around by those who do have the conviction. And especially by the
people who have conviction and
lack humility. HEFFNER: Michael, pleasure
having you on the show. LYNCH: Thank you so much. HEFFNER: And thanks to
you in the audience. I hope you join us next
time for a thoughtful excursion into
the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit The
Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to
view this program online, or to access over
1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on
Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates
on future programming.

1 Comment

  1. Lance Winslow

    January 6, 2017 at 10:36 am

    Michael Lynch appears to live in a leftist echo chamber – too bad because I actually agree with this philosophical dialogue.

Leave a Reply