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The changing nature of knowledge

This article appears in the issue February 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 2]
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Q.  HM: There's a dark side to the hyperlinked world, too: lazy thinking. People use links as a shortcut to thorough research.

A.  DW: It's easy to think that what you're reading on the Web has the same sort of authority that comes from the previous medium, whereas to get published you had to go through some type of filter. It's up to us as parents, to educators, to teach our children how to use the Web efficiently and wisely.

I think the worst examples are the conspiracy theories that thrive on the Net in groups of people who reinforce their beliefs about it. You know, they're stuck in the echo chamber, or as Eli Pariser in his book calls it The Filter Bubble. I think that's a real thing. You don't have to look hard on the Net to find people who are absolutely convinced that 9.11 was an inside job or a Zionist job or an  extraterrestrial job ...

But I also want to make sure that we are understanding the positive side as well. It seems incontrovertible to me that this is the best time in history to be smart. Steven Pinker wrote an op-ed in The New York Times a year or two ago, arguing against the argument that Nicholas Carr makes in The Shallows. Pinker's a Harvard brain scientist, and his argument was that this is the best time in the history of the planet to be a scientist-because of the Internet. The Internet is providing so much, not just information at your fingertips, but so much social interaction, or interaction with other scientists, that ideas get vetted and elaborated at an unheard of pace.

Let me give you an example I heard from Michael Nielsen, who is the author of Reinventing Discovery. He points to the neutrinos-faster-than-light controversy. It was big news a couple of months ago. The article was published at arXiv.org, which is a place where scientists post articles before they have even sent them in to journals, so it's totally not peer-reviewed. In a few weeks, 80 more papers were published in response, trying to figure out what these weird results meant. The argument spilled out across the Internet, lots and lots of people participating, some with credentials, some without, lots of deep physics, but also people who were explaining the matter to those of us who cannot do deep physics. A typical Web thing. Over the course of, I don't know, six weeks, the findings had been so thoroughly explored that a new experiment was set up that reversed the findings. All of this happened in a time scale unheard of in traditional scientific publishing. The paper about these results would have taken a year and a half or two years for it to show up in a paper-based, peer-reviewed journal. Then, once that happened, there might be some letters sent in, and published a few months later, and some papers given at conferences over the course of the next year—we're talking about years, in a traditional paper-based format. Online these findings created a network of knowledge ...

Q.  HM: There have been all kinds of what could be considered networks before. Even the Pony Express enabled dissemination of information—likely sometimes even peer-reviewed "knowledge." Limited to be sure, but that was a network too, wasn't it?

A.  DW: With the new network, scientists become much smarter. It's not just that it works faster, although that really does count, but there's much quicker iteration back and forth among people, and those people are anybody who has an idea and not simply those who have either credentials or whose works have passed peer review. It's a fundamentally different way of doing science.

In the 18th century, there was the Republic of Letters. You had these wonderful epistles going back and forth among the greatest thinkers and intellectuals of the time. Absolutely that was a network, and it was a profoundly important one. Their ideas informed one another, their ideas were inseparable from one another, but it was a very slow conversation among very rich white men.

Q.  HM: Exactly! There's a very thin layer of society operating under the old model of a network, if it's even worthy of being called a network.

A.  DW: It is a network but it's different. The knowledge of this issue, "Are neutrinos faster than light?" does not live in any particular node in the network. The original paper done by researchers who found the evidence of faster-than-light neutrinos, that paper is a very important node in the network that grew around it, of course, but it is not where the knowledge is. The knowledge is in the network of papers and posts and ideas, all of which differ from one another. That's where knowledge actually resides.

Q.  HM: But that comes right back around to the winnowing of opinion.

A.  DW: Except that it's the opposite of winnowing. It's the inclusiveness of it that makes it ...

Q.  HM: But ultimately from a personal standpoint, if I as an individual am trying to gain knowledge, I'm the ultimate consumer so I'll winnow the way I want, or the way I'm somehow predisposed to ...

A.  DW: Yes, you always did to some degree. Now you have more control over what you're winnowing, but you also have more awareness that you are doing so within a web of profound disagreement. That disagreement used to be suppressed by the narrowness of the aperture, so to speak, of the media. It was what got expressed in the newspaper, which was a very narrow range, or it got expressed on the evening news, again a very narrow range. Our system of knowledge was set up to filter and narrow. That's all the media could support. Now I think each of us is far more aware of the range of disagreement, and the possibilities of shadings and ambiguity that we never would have before. And that, I think, is a very hopeful thing.

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