On Science, Truth, Rational Cognition, And Facebook

My response to a post on science, truth, the biases and issues with Facebook, and more:

On science, and truth- I view science as a method of inquiry, learning, and the application of that knowledge. It is a dynamic and evolving process, as we explore and discover new things. The “truth” in science is in many cases seemingly clear and stable. In other cases, as our capacity to explore and learn changes over time, and as some complex systems also change over time, so too does our body of knowledge change. Some things are knowable. Others are not. This does not invalidate the process, methods, and achievements of science.

On Facebook- for over ten years I have asked a few seemingly simple questions of folks designing and applying “Big Data” systems. I ask if, and how, they test their data-collection and analysis algorithms for validity, accuracy, and biases. I ask if, and how, they look for unintended consequences of their algorithms. I ask if they have ever run a comparison study of insights, using a human sensor network along with their Big Data analysis. For years, I got blank and puzzled looks, and no replies. As I first wrote over ten years ago, “Beware the Rise of the Algorithmists.” Facebook is certainly not perfect. Its standards for fact and decency, spam, false information, and terrorism, are weak and inconsistent at best. How can we make it be better? I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the work of Margaret Wheatley. She first became well-known writing about leading change and acting into the complex challenges in organizations and life. In recent years, she has responded to the sad changes in our societies by encouraging us to be “warriors for the human spirit,” doing what we can locally, with courage and kindness. In 2002, over a three-hour breakfast I had with Meg, she told me she saw “dark times ahead.” Around 2012, her astonishingly prescient book “So Far From Home” detailed the impact of the web and social media in changing what we believe, think, and do.

On “truth”- our lived experience makes us who we are. All we have learned and understood and applied. The norms and values, ideologies and intentions that arise from the complexities of where and when we have lived. All coming through our lenses of cognition, discernment, and sense-making. Since 2015 and Brexit, I noticed and wrote about the loss of rational cognition. The impact of false information in spreading ignorance. The resulting suspicions and fears of the ignorant, leading to bias and hate. Making them vulnerable to the intentionally-false narratives of authoritarians. We see the tragic consequences now. Every day. Will our nation and democracy survive? What might transform these galvanized minds, no longer able to unlearn and relearn? What might enable truly respectful and generative dialogue, that could guide us back to rationality…and a consensus rooted in fact, science, and truth?

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