Knowing False Things

As we wade through election season hype, it’s important to remember that in many ways, and for many reasons, it’s beneficial to someone if you don’t know the truth about something.

The word ‘agnotology’ refers to the study of the intentional sowing of doubt and misinformation. The coiner of this term cites the tobacco industry’s efforts to spread mistruths about the dangers of smoking and tobacco use as a prime example of the sorts of things an agnotologist might study.

Big Tobacco isn’t alone in fabricating of falsehoods. Politicians (and political parties), governments, press entities, academic institutions, media networks, and yes, even individuals, will often go out of their way to deceive if they believe it will benefit them in some way.

Sometimes the benefits of such fictions are obvious. Cigarette companies stay in the black if they can keep potential smokers confused about whether or not their products are harmful.

Sometimes the rationale behind mistruths are more obscure. The conspiracy theory surrounding contrails, for instance, enunciates made-up facts and evidence to outline an intricate, provably false worldview, and it’s difficult to say who benefits from this mythos, and how.

‘Agnotology,’ in a way, is the opposite of ‘epistemology,’ which is the study of knowledge.

Epistemology is important because it helps us understand what we know, and how we know what we know.

The study of fake-knowledge or anti-knowledge is vital because it helps us understand the barriers between us and understanding. It allows us to shine a light on things we know, but which are untrue. It allows us to recognize that it can take time for debunked old wive’s tales, dearly held (but ultimately misinformed) world views, and intentionally spread propaganda to dissipate from the public (and individual) consciousness.

The half-life of bad information can be, unfortunately, quite extensive. And all we can do to speed up the process — to clear away the contamination — is to consistently question our fundamental knowledge, and be open to changing even the most foundational facts that underpin our understanding of the world.

This doesn’t solve the problem of pretty much everyone trying to ply us with mistruths. But it does help inoculate us against the worst of these deceptions, and gives us a mechanism for slowly but surely extracting those we’ve been exposed to in the past from our mental immune system.


Unhoned Opinions

Most of our opinions are raw, unfinished things; borrowed concepts we lifted or copied from somewhere. Sometimes they’re ideas we were given at birth, in school, or by a friend at some point in our lives.

That’s not to say they’re wrong — an opinion isn’t fact, and therefore can’t be wrong — but they might very well be inaccurate for us and what we believe. It may be that our opinions aren’t ours in the sense that they represent our worldviews and morality, but instead in the sense that we defend them, standing our ground with appropriated counter-arguments and remixed Socratic soundbites.

To have unhoned opinions of this sort and to defend them this way isn’t the mark of a fool or follower. Holding opinions that don’t align with our beliefs and ideals just means we haven’t gotten around to assessing and refining that particular aspect of our acknowledged perspective yet.

It may be that I’ve yet to change my self-perception based on a realization I had recently. It may be that I simply haven’t thought very hard about the repercussions of new knowledge I’ve acquired, or how changing my mind about one thing might necessitate changing my mind about another if I’m to avoid hypocrisy.

Opinion-misalignment is common because fixing it requires a great deal of thought and mental recalibration, which in turn require effort and time: things many of us find ourselves drained of more often than not.

The concrete world, and the rushed exhaustion that comes with it, very often trumps the perceived benefits of slowing down, taking a deep breath, and sorting through the cluttered inbox of one’s mind.

I would argue, however, that time spent in this way isn’t a sunk cost, but an investment. It’s similar to checking your map periodically as you make your way to an unfamiliar destination, just to be certain you’re headed the right way, taking the right side-streets, following the optimal course.

Unhoned opinions are burdened with historical, emotional, and intellectual baggage.

Whittle away the excess opinions — those that don’t align with who you are, today, knowing what you know and valuing what you value — and you’ll find that not only do you spend less time hamstrung by guilt and worrying about making the right choices, you’ll also be more capable of cutting through the chaff when new perspectives are presented to you in the future.


Discussing the Freedom of Speech

Last week, I posted the first episode of my podcast, Let’s Know Things.

The response was wonderful — I was pretty overwhelmed by the flood of likes and subscribes and kind words. The emails and comments I received were amazing: lots of people were keen to have discussions of the sort I have on this show.

I feel fortunate to live in an age when so many of us are so integrally connected. This networked international society in which we live allows us to be aware of and interact with each other in ways that would have been impossible only a decade or two ago, and the publishing and conversation software built atop that network is making the exchange of ideas easier by the day.

But there are plenty of laws, movements, and people who would slow this process, would build new digital walls, and who would prefer that we don’t color outside the lines when speaking.

Last week’s episode of the podcast included a discussion about context (more specifically, ‘contextualism’) and an unspooling of an article about China and its rise, and how it relates to the US, the idea of global superpower nations, and the future.

This week, on the first official episode (last week’s was Episode 0), the topic is free speech. And if you really dig into what’s happen in this space today, I think you’ll find that the conversation isn’t as clear-cut as it often seems to be in television soundbytes and online thinkpieces.

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Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy what you hear.