Knowledge Accuracy in a Misinformation-dominated Society
Abdelouahed Oulgout is a Moroccan teacher of English, software designer, English and Arabic essayist, creative writer, public speaker, and Arabic poet. He got his BA degree at the faculty of letters and humanities, University of Moulay Ismail, Meknes. He had been once a member-founder and ex-leader of English Committee for Dialogue and Communication within the Organisation of Students’ Renewal at the same university.
Every day, people are bombarded with and connected to a huge amount of information from various and countless resources. The glut of information we daily get from TV channels, radio broadcasts, Internet ads and banners, cell phone pop-up notifications and street billboards seems to dominate our society, cultivate stress, and create confusion on what is wrong and what is right. Therefore, a need to conduct researches to dispel the fog of doubt becomes a must as the stream of information, both real and fake, keeps running on and on 24/7.
Being trapped by such a huge amount of information everyday does not guarantee its accuracy or validity. Indeed, people are more vulnerable to misinformation despite the manifold ways of knowing and the growing ability to access information sources. The availability, age, and frequency of information does not imply its accuracy and usefulness. Information is only useful if it is accurate. If you trace a social network timeline, you will be confronted by numerous stories published, shared and re-shared dozens of time about people and events grabbing the attention of the mass. The information keeps circulating in the Internet and gets older in time as individuals usually gravitate toward startling news and stories which constitute the basic ingredients for news agencies whose industry revolves around handling more followers and customers. No matter how old the information becomes, its accuracy and validity remain questionable. This is what history teaches us.
A few days ago, there was a Facebook ad probably published by a news agent about a girl who left home and disappeared. The reporter made a story full of assumptions and rumors about the reasons why the girl left home, and the readers keep sharing the ad to help her family find her. A few hours later, the girl was found and returned home, yet the ad kept circulating in the Internet for a couple of days though the story was no longer valid. One similar funny example from history is that of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese intelligence officer who fought for 29 years after the end of World War II and continued to hide, fight and kill in the jungles of the Philippines because he was not informed or did not believe the war was over. When people fail to keep pace with the newly accurate information, they continue to play off the stage of history.
The knowledge we get usually results from our life experience of four sources of power: history, credential authority, common sense and intuition, and science. First, many conceptions and beliefs that had spread and frequently been circulated for a long period of time turned into traditional and knowledgeable assertions because they were long-standing, enduring, and popular. The mass tends to take such raw and ready-made assertions for granted without prior investigation or questioning. When people hear the same thing over and over, they automatically come to believe that there is some truth in it. Local myths and legends, (Tshering Cigay Dorji argues) “give us insights into local history and beliefs. People get a sense of where they come from and where they belong from the local legends. The legends behind place names help people understand the history of their place even though the legends may not be totally true.” In a nutshell, a legend, that mythical or semi-mythical socio-historical construct, establishes itself as a totally popular “fact” as it grows in age and gains sympathy, consensus, and acceptance of the mass for its socio-cultural, ideological, economic, or political income.
Second is credential authority. People are endowed with an innate-like predisposition and willingness to trust experts when looking for assertions about their daily life inquiries. The credential authority of an expert in a society exercises a decisive power over the individuals’ beliefs, choices, and decisions. Such authority plays a pivotal role in shaping the public opinion and its perceptions and definitions of reality. Doctors’ prescriptions, views and consultation are strictly and uncritically accepted despite their vulnerability to mistakes and medical errors. People would feel secure about food validity if approved by their health care authorities. Very few people would question the accuracy and honesty of a story if broadcast by their dominant governmental news channel. In short, the formal authoritative knowledge led by experts leaves no space for the laymen to scrutinize its accuracy. Indeed, people feel comfortable and content when they defer to their formal sources of authoritative knowledge.
Third is common sense and intuition. The first refers to that ‘sound’ practical judgement based on the use of one’s personal experience and what ‘most’ people thought to be true. When confronted by compelling real-life situations and having no real knowledge or expertise to take the right action, individuals usually and naturally resort to the alleged certainty that ‘the common’ makes good sense. Owing to such ‘direct knowledge’ people usually fall prey to the limits of their insufficient personal experiences, risky and factually incorrect or problematic knowledge. Likewise, the so-called intuition guides certain people to make immediate and knowledgeable conclusions and prejudices about truth without any conscious reasoning, practical process, or factual clear-cut evidence. Such a belief in the ability to acquire instant knowledge based on gut feelings and unexplained hunches remains as risky and possessive as authoritative knowledge, yet its existence as human feelings and innate cognitive experiences raise unanswered reasonable questions about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of human perception, emotions, and intelligence.
Fourth and finally, the most trustworthy source of knowledge is science. A scientific research is a formal, systematic, and methodical process of collecting, analyzing, and assessing empirical evidences to achieve accurate and measurable outcomes. Such research is conducted to develop valid understanding of reality and find out rules, regularities, and laws that help us understand concrete phenomena and solve practical problems in our lives. People feel comfortable when deferring to scientific knowledge for its rigorous methodical rules that assess the accuracy of the process through which we construct knowledge and minimize the likelihood of error and mere prejudices. Scientists insist on the replication of their studies, experiments, and findings before their assertions are deemed to be true and valid. Be it for exploration, description, explanation, or evaluation, a scientific research still serves to quench our thirst for accurate information and trustworthy knowledge.
Having said that, our perception of the nature of knowledge and the limits of human mind and awareness keeps the gate of criticism widely open. None of the previously listed sources of knowledge have absolute perception of truth. The notion of accuracy is an approximate and partial comprehension of truth. There is still a lot to be revealed. In fact, ‘knowing’ is the process of discovering our own ignorance. If we knew it before or not, it’s already there, and we cannot deny it simply because we cannot prove it. Still, people are content with the scientific way of knowing for the better and ‘more accurate’ information it leads to. If they are to feel safe and comfortable, people must abide by the scientific and methodical rules of knowledge industry, but they must not be misled by notions like ‘accuracy’, ‘exactness’, and ‘certainty’ since our power of knowledge is bounded and relative.