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Shepherds to the Sheeple

I discovered recently an article published on Oprah's magazine entitled "The Power of Negative Thinking." It touts the value of "defensive pessimism", or setting one's expectations low enough to avoid disappointment, or to encourage better preparation. Hqiz, thinks I - you're simply giving folks an excuse to feel good about not getting what they say they want. Yet there it is, being promoted by one of the most-watched, most-revered and most-believed people in our society today. Mogg's teeth! Despite being ostensibly dedicated to improving people's lives, that empire touts some of the most addlepated nonsense I have ever heard. Don't get me started on the diet claims.

Which got me thinking - just what constitutes an "expert"? Someone whose opinions should, in certain areas, carry more weight than those of the hairy unwashed? It used to be that the words "expert" and "experience" were closely linked. Someone who had devoted a significant amount of their lives to the study or practice of a certain subset of knowledge, or a certain skill, were considered experts. And, in areas such as sports, or music, it's pretty easy to tell right out of the gate who's an expert and who's a duffer. With knowledge, though - it gets a lot dicier.

I love my friends and my relatives - and, 99% of the things they email me is hqiz. With solemn exhortations to "FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE ON YOUR MAILING LIST!!!", I am warned that if I don't, Madelyn Murray O'Hare will rise up from her grave and delete God from the vocabulary of the English language. Or similar detritus. I have sent them links to Snopes, HoaxBusters and BreakTheChain, I've explained how to verify just about any issue in 5 seconds or less... and the stuff keeps coming. (Pater me da veniam quia peccavi, I have been known to send things along of dubious veracity just because they were funny... )

Some of this can't be chalked up to simple lack of education. One member of my family, whom I love deeply and ferociously, is bright, independent, talented, and dynamic... and it boggles my mind that he convinced that the Apollo 11 Moon landing was a hoax, or that the World Trade Center was brought down by US government agents.

Attributed to various sources ranging from Franklin to Mencken, it has been said that the power of the press belongs to whomever owns one. In the days of William Randolph Hearst, that was certainly true. The advent of cheap desktop publishing put a stake in the heart of that concept, and the internet the buried it in a hermetically-sealed garbage can. Nowadays anyone with access to the net, and something to say, can be heard from Henderson Island to Vladivostok. And that includes me.

So whom does one trust?

In our mile-a-minute, sound-byte society, falling back on reputation borne of long-standing accuracy does not seem to be an option in most cases. No longer can you say "If you read it in the Times, it must be so." The Encyclopedia Britannica maintains a reputation for academic excellence, but information overload has rapidly overtaken such stolid scholasticism - only a fragment of the world's available knowledge is available for the $1150.00 price tag (less, if you're willing to go digital or online subscription).

Wikipedia, for all its shortcomings, is actually a good starting point for researching information that might not otherwise be available in standard reference works, because it is largely self-correcting. Despite the fact that there is a core of editors who believe - mistakenly - that the Wiki world exists for them and not for the user, I often turn there for a broad view of the landscape, before digging further.

It's often good to find out what the skeptics are saying about a given question, because even allowing for their closed-mindedness to possibilities residing outside the realm of scientific verification, most of them adhere rigorously to principles of critical thought and empirical evaluation. From them I have adopted the philosophy that just about anything I read on the internet or in the media is horsehockey until verified by independent research. Sadly, such is often the case. At the very least, the most egregious falsehoods can be debunked by the urban-legend sites I mentioned earlier.

Google itself can be both a blessing and a curse. Despite the company's efforts to refine their algorithms so that searches return the most relevant results, many companies and individuals have developed strategies for manipulating output to their particular advantage. More than anything, Google provides an information buffet which must then be sampled and analyzed for trends, and verified by additional refined searching.

Some folks' minds are made up, and all the facts in the world can't confuse them. Others are so invested in empirical verification that they believe almost nothing, and their world shrinks to a small, barren wasteland of curmudgeonliness. Still others will believe anything that appears in their in-boxes, which is why spam continues to be such a pox on humanity. (PS - If you buy Viagra online, I've still got shares in the Brooklyn Bridge I'd like to sell you.)

For me, in the end, believing what one hears comes down to striking the delicate balance between intellectual rigor and spiritual openness. Saul of Tarsus expressed it well: "πάντα δοκιμάζετε τὸ καλὸν κατέχετε". In other words, be vulnerable. Be open to surprises. Put everything to the test, and hold on to what's good, what will lift mankind, and what will improve the human condition.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


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Comments

dewhitton
Aug. 18th, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC)
Expert Opinion.
Have you seen this?

ccdesan
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:26 am (UTC)
Re: Expert Opinion.
What a great line: "Science knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise it would stop."

Beautiful link, ta much!
bayliss
Aug. 19th, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)
Re: Expert Opinion.
"you'd fucking drown."

best line. :)

It's about true though. :)
torakiyoshi
Aug. 18th, 2009 11:06 pm (UTC)
I think I may use this someday in history class when I'm getting ready to start a research project.

-=TK
bayliss
Aug. 18th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
:)

*soaks this up like a sponge*

You are wise Old Wolf. :)
ccdesan
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:34 am (UTC)
carlfoxmarten
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
Have you read "A Man Called Intrepid"?
It's the story of a man running part of a spy network, mostly analyzing the technical information that was received.

For some reason, the people he sent his conclusions to wasn't sure he was doing things right, so they got a panel of their own "experts" to analyse the data themselves to get a second opinion.

Needless to say, his conclusions were always much more accurate than the panel of so-called "experts" ever were.
(which doesn't mean they took him any more seriously, unfortunately)
ccdesan
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
Sounds like I need to put that one on my list.
secoh
Aug. 19th, 2009 09:43 am (UTC)
I am a pragmatist. I will always try my best to examine everything for "best fit" and go with that until such time as it no longer seems to work.

For example; global warming/clmate change. I have an opinion, like everyone else. But the overriding point above all else that I feel needs to be made is:
Just because "experts" and general population cannot agree that the water is getting warmer or not, does not mean we should keep pissing in the pool.

Really, it's not that hard to stop and think and look objectively about things. But everyone seems to want to dye their hair purple, sit on the porch and complain about teenagers.
ccdesan
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
> Just because "experts" and general population cannot agree that the water is getting warmer or not, does not mean we should keep pissing in the pool.

And I, for one, say "spot on"!

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