New times call for new ways of finding the truth
We’re in January 2020. A new virus just appeared in China. What is going to happen in the following months will reveal everything that is wrong with one of the pillars of our societies: Truth.
The COVID-19 crisis showed our society isn’t equipped with the right systems to find the truth. Our current model is broken and we need to reinvent it!
In his Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:
“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”.
Truth played many different roles throughout history. It served as a source of political authority, religious doctrine, cultural common ground, and scientific thinking.
With the development of science and scientific thinking, Truth became intrinsically related to scientific and factual knowledge.
The German philosopher Enrich Fromm said:
“The history of thought is the history of an ever-increasing approximation to the truth. Scientific knowledge is not absolute but optimal; it contains the optimum of truth attainable in a given historical period.”
Truth is what makes us understand things and progress. It helps us make the right decisions, act without prejudice or bias, and achieve optimal outcomes. Without Truth, we live in darkness, and society can’t thrive in the long term.
For example, in January, knowing the truth would have meant understanding the gravity of the virus in China which would have pushed us to act fast and potentially prevent it from spreading globally. That is not what happened, was it?
Why did finding truth become so complicated nowadays?
Many argue that we live in a “post-truth” era. It feels as if the concept of truth had lost its importance. But which truths are we talking about? There are personal truths, community truths, cultural truths, scientific truths… Some of these do not have anything to do one with another, scientific truths are very different from cultural truths. Here I will focus on scientific and factual truths.
If you take a look at the institutions people rely upon as a source of truth, you’ll discover that, at best, the information they provide is distorted, biased, or simply unreliable. At worst, you’ll immediately think “that’s a lie”.
Media companies market themselves as “the source of infallible truth.” They aren’t seeking truth as a primary goal. How could we expect the truth from an entity that isn’t incentivized to produce it?
The other problem with media comes from the new subscription business model they implemented. With an increasing polarization, media outlets must stay in their political leaning. If they don’t, they face a massive loss of subscriptions. An example of this happened recently with the NYT. By publishing “Send in the Troops,” the company faced one of its biggest subscription losses ever.
The following picture shows the evolution of word usage frequency at the New York Times. As mentioned by Paul Graham, it seems that in our current world, if you want people to subscribe, you must pick a side. Truth doesn’t have side, however. It makes it impossible to rely on media corporations to find it.
Social networks users spend an average of 1h 22minutes on social media per day. This number is increasing very fast, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Most of the content we consume we get on social media. This makes social media a critical protagonist in our search for truth.
The problem with this is that social media value engagement, and this doesn’t align generally with the truth. The number of retweets and likes has nothing to do with what’s true.
Social media has increased our tendency to rely on tribal truth. It has become the realm of tribal truth. Identity is an essential part of who we are and when we base our identity on a set of ideologies that prevent people from accepting facts, there’s a clear problem. We learn and accept facts from people we like and trust. It’s obvious that this can’t be a way to find the truth.
What if social media curated information and made the real facts more visible?
In that case, we’re back to the “Media” point above. If social media had become the new “guardian of truth,” we did not solve the problem. If Youtube bans what isn’t explicitly compliant with WHO’s recommendations, and if Twitter can edit the Times, it means there is one version of the truth. History already showed this isn’t a good idea.
Social media shouldn’t become the new “guardian of truth”.
The third entity where we usually get information from is institutions, from governments to global organizations. These entities have a lot of power but as they are political and strategic entities, they aren’t always incentivized to tell us the truth.
For example, a significant turning point may have happened during the current COVID-19 pandemic where science transformed from a tool of discovering the truth into a political tool of institutions.
If science is used by big institutions to push their ideas or to justify their actions, we are lost.
A Lost sense of Truth
With all these shortcomings, it’s getting really hard to find the truth these days. Social media is weaponized, and while people spend more and more time online, they are being influenced by ideas turned into ideologies that may factually be wrong.
Matt McManus, coined the term “age of bullshit” to express the knowledge crisis we are going through. It’s a dangerous time we live in, and in order to solve many of the challenges we face, we need, first, to focus on the meta-problems.
A solution: the iterative model of truth
The COVID19 Tracking Project
As said, the press coverage of COVID-19 was disastrous early on. It led to most people and governments not taking the pandemic seriously. A counterexample of this is the COVID19 Tracking Project.
This tracking project was not presented as “the Truth” in the way the New York Times does. It shows the most accurate data, with revision history.
Truth is a process; it’s not something set in stone; it changes. The problem with media corporations is that they present the truth as something fixed — the truth is what they publish. When they mistake, it’s difficult for them to admit that they have mistaken, because they would risk losing their positions as the guardians of the truth.
It’s not a problem to be incorrect; the problem is not to admit it and build your whole legitimacy on being the truth.
The GitHub Model of Truth
When’s the last time you heard a politician admitting he or she was wrong? I can’t think of an example. Conversely, if an app crashes, its developers will have no choice but to admit they made a mistake.
It’s the GitHub model of truth. You know there will be mistakes, and you’re okay with it. As soon as you discover a problem, you correct it, and everyone can submit corrections.
Truth should follow the Github model. As soon as something is factually wrong, it should be easy to correct it and make the mistake visible to everyone.
But how could we make it a reality outside of the tech world?
For something to work, it must be created in a way that incentives are correctly aligned. Here, we want a collaborative system that gives us the best version of the truth.
How to Align the Incentives
The first idea that comes in mind to align the incentives is to make it financially attractive to be correct. What if “being right” meant earning money? An idea to fix this problem is to modify social media engagement metrics with social features based on a prediction market. Imagine if instead of liking or retweeting a tweet about an economically impactful statement, you could “bet” financially on it.
This approach would change the nature of the attention you give to the truth. You wouldn’t want to back the false claims, right? So before “betting” on a tweet, you would do your due diligence of fact-checking it and make sure it’s correct.
No one should have the ability to say what’s right or wrong. It’s a collective process of multiple people fact-checking the statements and sourcing the information that can lead to the best version of the truth. The era of decentralized media must start if we want the truth.
In academia (I know a lot of things are wrong with academia), when a paper is published, it gets reviewed. We should do the same, but, unlike academia, we should do it in a decentralized way.
For example, The Reproducibility Project: Psychology was a crowdsourced collaboration of 270 contributing authors to repeat 100 published experimental and correlational psychological studies. This idea of reproducing a finding must be transferred outside of the research world. What if independent reporters were doing the same with major stories?
How would they get paid? The rise of independent journalism is happening now; Substack is an excellent example of it. An increasing amount of people are ready to subscribe to independent journalists to receive their work. It could be a solution to the problem. The newsletter of Matt Taibbi is a great example of this, and another example is the excellent reporting of Luca Dellanna during the COVID-19 pandemic. To get the best information on the coronavirus, you had to follow the right people on Twitter, not the prominent publications.
Decentralized and independent sources of information is also a way to promote meta-rationality, a concept Tyler Cowen brings up a lot. It’s the concept of being aware of your cognitive limitations and know how to trust in topics where you don’t have the expertise to understand.
New Social Media
Is it possible to have this approach to the truth using the existing social media? It seems hard. The social media were built with different motivations at the core. What we need is social media made entirely for the purpose of revealing the truth. As the French investor Xavier Faure said:
“We need a trust social network. Where we don’t signal what we like, but what we vouch for.”
It doesn’t exist yet, but here are a few features it should have:
Engaging with content means you put money behind it.
It easily shows what is factually wrong.
It makes it easy for independent citizen reporters to share their work and get paid for it.
It decentralizes fact-checking on every statement.
For controversial facts, we can use the model of crypto, as suggested by Balaji S. Srinivasan: we could show the number of independent confirmation of a given point.
It would need a lot more thinking to come up with something that works. The main point is to create the media in a way where the assertion “the social media works and people use it” is equivalent to “the truth is easily accessible for the users.”
As Sam Harris said, “with social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out. And it’s still not clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good.”
Not everything can easily be classified right or wrong. That’s why our perception of truth has to change first. We have to seek it relentlessly, and always remain open to be proven wrong.
The role of tech
Technology will play a significant role in helping us find the truth. The signal to noise ratio is getting very low because everyone can publish everything now. It’s both good and bad because people can speak up, but it’s getting harder to find the information that is truly valuable and factual.
For example, technology could help process the tremendous amount of information and content, extract assertions, compare them to established knowledge graphs. It doesn’t solve the whole problem, but it’s a tool that could be very useful in the future.
Red teams are crucial to ensure perpetual improvement. Very often, the truth is incomplete. For example, Newton’s theory of Gravity was right and worked well for centuries until proven wrong by Einstein.
Red teams’ goal is to prove that the established truth is wrong. It has a lot of value. But it can quickly get confusing for the general public. As non-specialists, how can we distinguish between the “earth is flat” folks and Eric Weinstein’s Geometric Unity theory?
However, not all opposing views are equal. Recognizing between what’s worth debating and what’s not will be one of the biggest challenges of our time.
The truth and the progress of our species are at stake.
As the American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said:
“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil”