We often speak of a "body of knowledge", a phrase that led me to think about some related bits of wording. We also refer to the bones or skeleton of an idea, and say we will flesh it out. Sometimes we mention a well-articulated presentation. Articulated has two main meanings: put into words, and connected by a joint. This anatomical imagery for ideas leads me to suggest that knowledge is like a living body, with a working skeleton and flesh on it. In contrast, misinformation or disinformation is like a chimera or a Frankenstein monster without a spark of life—a mash-up of parts from different bodies that don't form a well-articulated whole.
Carrying the image farther, living bodies of knowledge grow and mature, and larger networks of knowledge would be herds or schools or larger groupings of living bodies. For example, the science of biology includes the sciences of botany, zoology, and many more.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. At least one set of epistemological lectures I listened to suggests that inference to the best explanation, which is used in a lot of science, has the best chance to achieve real knowledge. Inference to the best explanation has five criteria: testability (the explanation makes testable predictions), fruitfulness (the explanation gets predictions right), scope (breadth of the explanation), simplicity (parsimony, Occam's razor), and conservatism (the explanation doesn't contradict established knowledge). One definition of knowledge is justified true belief, though epistemological discussions make clear that this is incomplete. Theories of truth include pragmatism (look at behavior in the world), coherence theory (beliefs are a linked web), and correspondence theory (a belief is true if it accurately describes, or corresponds to, the way the world is).
The model of reality that I believe to be correct is that there is a single external reality which we all map with varying degrees of accuracy (correspondence theory) to produce all the subjective realities that we experience. Like Pascal's wager a few centuries ago, which argued that behaving as if God exists is the safe bet, I don't try to answer cosmological questions—I just say that assuming we live in a real world is the safe bet. The safe bet part comes when we face consequences if we ignore a real world and claim that a personal belief overrides a physical reality.
The nature of the single external reality is a question that is currently as much philosophical (or science-fictional) as scientific. Is it a multiverse? Is it a quantum many-worlds infinite branching? Are there branching time-streams? Is it omnitemporal, as I believe, or is time limited to a single living present moment, with a dead past and an unformed future? Are there bubble or pocket universes? What is dark matter? What is dark energy? Are we headed toward a big rip, a big crunch, a bouncing ball cycle, or some even stranger cosmology? Is the whole world that we think is real a simulation in some super-supercomputer, or a visualization by some super-mind? As far as I know, the current state of human knowledge simply can't answer these question. (See my Spiritual Science musing.)
Whatever the actual nature of reality is, it is much too large and complex for any single person to personally study all of it and learn everything possible about it. This is why we have to find coherent networks of people and publications that we can trust to provide reliable knowledge about reality.
The model of the brain described in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman includes System 1 (fast, parallel-processing, and evolutionarily older) and System 2 (slow, single-processing, and evolutionarily newer). System 1 uses heuristics and is subject to biases (including anchoring, availability, substitution, optimism, loss aversion, framing, sunk-cost, overconfidence, etc.). System 2 is more rigorous, but has more limited capacity. System 1 is mostly unconscious / subconscious / preconscious, the home of trained habits and reflexes (knee-jerk responses). System 2 is conscious. System 2 tires more easily than System 1, and has trouble focusing on or paying conscious attention to more than one thing at a time, so our thoughts / actions / reactions are often pure products of System 1. System 2 can override System 1 output, but often doesn't. See Some Ideas for LA-CCRS Discussions for a slightly longer description.
Someone with limited System 2 activity (due to stress, fatigue, living in fear, distractions, multitasking, or any other reason for limited available physical or mental energy) will experience a subjective personal reality almost entirely controlled by System 1 unconscious habits and stories—they won't be able to rationally evaluate facts. Most of the time, most people can't tell good arguments from bad ones, don't know all relevant facts, and can't or won't spend the energy to use System 2 to correct those problems. In the old Maslow hierarchy of needs, if all one's energy is focused on survival, there is no energy left for deep thinking.
Mathematics and statistics depend almost completely on System 2. System 1 substitutes answers to different questions since it can't do most math and statistics, so understanding almost any scientific argument requires System 2. Similarly, System 1 is bad at estimating risks, and substitutes familiarity or ease of recall for statistical values.
One of the biggest weaknesses of System 1 is that is substitutes familiarity or easy retrieval for truth, so recent or frequent lies are treated as true when System 1 retrieves them and System 2 doesn't review them.
Years old LA-CCRS writings referred to Psychological Stages 1, 2, & 3, or Levels 1, 2, & 3, or Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Levels of Consciousness. More recent years of LA-CCRS meetings and writings referred to variations in subjective reality as First Reality, Second Reality, and Third Reality.
I have recently started using different wording to emphasize that these are subjective models, not actually separate underlying realities:
First Level Awareness is the to-from daily-life world of external causes and effects. Like someone with limited System 2 activity, people living at this level react based on their past training, with little actual conscious thinking.
Second Level Awareness adds awareness and possible development of internal causation. Someone at this level has a healthy, working System 2, and is able to be self-aware and to really think about facts.
Third Level Awareness adds awareness and possible experiences of the infinite/universal. This level gets into the spiritual or Universal Mind, and is not covered by the Fast and Slow model, which is restricted to physicalistic science.
Our subjective trust networks determine our subjective realities.
Jesuits are supposed to have said for many years "Give us a child till he's 7, and we'll have him for life." (or some close variation on that). There is a large amount of truth in that. Most people establish beliefs and trust networks early in their lives that remain the core of their beliefs all their lives. Repressive regimes deliberately control the information available to their citizens to implement the thought control this promotes. In large portions of the U. S., all available local media are controlled by owners with one political slant, producing similar deeply ingrained biases.
Early indoctrination usually includes both true facts and false claims presented as facts, and it also sets up the core of our network of who we trust as sources for new facts. We build trust networks all our lives, but for most people most of the time, those networks are extensions of our earliest networks. ("I trust A, and A trusts B, so I will trust B.")
Assertions accepted as true are important because they set up the core of what System 1 retrieves, and most people rely on System 1 most of the time. System 2 can override System 1, allowing people to move beyond their early indoctrination, but that isn't a daily reality for most people. It takes a lot of mental energy for a System 2 analysis to override a memorized story retrieved by System 1.
If you are tied to a social network that is tied to scientific models of reality, you get the benefit of socially distributed cognitive processing, but if you are tied to a social network that is tied to conspiracy theories and misinformation, your network hurts you rather than helping.
It takes an active System 2 or Second Level Awareness to escape limitations from our childhood indoctrination by evaluating evidence that was not included during our childhood, or a Third Level Awareness epiphany.
My own strongest two areas of trust are scientific and mystical. I believe that the body of scientific knowledge built up over the last several centuries gives us our most accurate model of physical (matter-energy-information) reality, and that personal mystical experiences give us our best chance to understand reality beyond the physical limits that currently constrain science.
Since science in this world is practiced by human beings, it never achieves the ideals of objectivity it pursues, but with enough people working on any scientific subject for enough years, we usually approach the ideals. Among the human failings that transiently affect science (until the failings are spotted and the affected conclusions are updated) are bad research design, bad use of statistics, and deliberate fraud. Two of the most infamous scientific frauds bracketing the 20th Century were Piltdown Man, a 1912 fake fossil (a mashup of orangutan and human pieces) that wasn't fully dismissed for several decades, and the 1998 anti-vax autism fraud by Wakefield, with impacts we still see every day.
Science collectively builds models of the world. These models are tested and refined or discarded based on how well their retrodictions and predictions match real measurements of whatever aspect of the world the models are trying to describe. Fields of science (bodies of knowledge) grow and mature just as people do. An immature science can explore many varying models. A more mature science coalesces around one model or a small number of models that consistently provide the best match for the most data. An immature science can make radical changes in models. A more mature science generally only refines one primary model by filling in details and expanding coverage at any edges. An immature science is more open for useful contributions from dabblers and non-specialists. A more mature science is largely a field for specialists or large teams, though sometimes outsiders can still make useful contributions. An immature science can involve a small enough body of knowledge that a newcomer can learn the whole field in a relatively short time. A mature science will usually include so much specialized knowledge that it takes many years of study to master the field, and sometimes includes so much knowledge that it has to be broken into more narrow specialties to be within the grasp of individuals. Wildly different models can be on almost equal footings in an immature science, giving mavericks and pioneers a chance to contribute. With a mature science, models radically different from the mainstream or consensus have a huge burden of proof to overcome—they have to give retrodictions and predictions as good as the consensus model for all data used to validate the consensus model and give better retrodictions and predictions of data the consensus model hasn't handled.
Experimental science is just a subset of all science. Centuries ago, all sciences were purely observational, developing their models based on studying nature. As modern science developed, some sciences matured faster through the ability to conduct experiments—to manipulate features of the subject under study based on predictions from the latest models and observe whether or not the predictions were confirmed. Not all aspects of all sciences can be experimented with, due to many different constraints (cost, time, ethics, etc.), so observations of nature remain essential.
An analogy can make the concept of a developing science clearer. Think of producing an image of a library or school globe of the Earth as the model of reality you are trying to construct. Early attempts might focus on a reflection of the globe in a mirror or focus on a shadow of the globe, but eventually the focus will be on the globe itself. Early images might have only a few black-and-white pixels of detail, then a few colors, then more pixels, and so on, with each generation of image adding more pixels or more gradations of colors or both. Eventually the best single image might be a hologram or some other 3-D technology. Finally, multiple images will be used to show the globe from all sides or angles or to show a time sequence as the globe rotates. After the first few false starts looking at reflections and shadows, every image is recognizably of the same object and no image invalidates any previous image, but the clarity of each image has grown step-by-step by showing more details.
Mature sciences have been worked on long enough by enough people that the majority of the facts and theories in their mainstreams are highly trustworthy. I count astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and zoology as mature sciences. (Note that one science can be a more specialized subset of another, or can include elements of more than one other.) I count psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics as much less mature sciences, partly because they all have to rely on unreliable reporting of subjective factors, and partly because ethical considerations severely limit the experimentation they can do. I think immunology and paleontology fall somewhere between—they are fairly solid where they have knowledge at all, but they still have a lot of holes to fill in. Genetics and genomics are at a different intermediate level—the basic principles and explanatory theories are very solidly established, and automated gene-sequencing machines are a recent technological boost, but there is a huge amount of data still to be filled in.
The general science of infectious diseases is mature, but it is a constantly expanding body of knowledge, having to learn the specific details of every new disease that is identified, and to keep up with the continuing evolution of old diseases. The constantly changing advice for coping with COVID-19 that many people complain about simply reflects that. When COVID-19 was first identified, all anyone knew was that it was a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus (a broad category that includes some forms of the common cold). That knowledge was enough for scientists to recommend long-known standard public health measures against respiratory viruses, including masking, distancing, quarantining, and contact tracing, with an urgent push to develop vaccines as fast as possible. The U. S. implementation of those public health measures was totally botched because of politicians who chose to set themselves against decades of established scientific knowledge. I don't know what those politicians trust, but it isn't science.
Since the normal pace of science includes a lot of work that takes years, setting public policies in response to every new conjecture or discovery in real time is an invitation to uncertainty, but it is still more reliable than setting policies based on personal whims of people who ignore all existing knowledge.
From a dictionary:
Expert: a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.
Authoritative: able to be trusted as being accurate or true; reliable.
This means that a politician or actor or businessman or radio host is not an expert who can be trusted about a scientific topic unless they have also studied that science enough to have "comprehensive and authoritative knowledge" about it. Even scientists who have studied other sciences are not experts about all the sciences they have not studied. If you are ever caught committing fraud or lying about a field, you fail the authoritative part of the definition, so you have zero credibility about that field for the rest of your life, and must abandon any claim to be an expert about that field.
I write as an interested and moderately informed layman. I don't claim to be an expert about anything except, maybe, computer programming related to my day job of over 40 years or the kind of orbital calculations I have programmed to create ephemerides for astrologers.
Bertrand Russell suggested three rules about experts:
When the experts agree, the opposite opinion can't be certain.
When the experts don't agree, nothing is certain.
When the experts say nothing is settled, suspend judgment.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the experts agree: GET VACCINATED!
The term "merchants of doubt" has been used to describe people who have deliberately sought to undermine trust in science. This dangerous practice goes back at least to the tobacco companies fighting since the middle of the 20th Century to keep selling their deadly products in the face of constantly mounting evidence of that deadliness. Another prime example is the climate change denial funded by the fossil fuel companies. And plenty of businesses have fought and continue to fight against pollution controls and the science behind them. Those are just the most egregious examples from business that spring to mind—there are probably earlier examples I'm not thinking of.
In addition to business people, there are a lot of politicians who fight against science and the reality it discovers. Any politician whose politics / policies / positions / plans / practices are bad for people will seek to discredit the science that makes the facts available. This includes things like systemic racism, which science proves and many politicians deny, climate change, any many more issues.
Decades of work by sowers of doubt have created whole networks of chimeras to deny the realities established by science, so people who don't do System 2 evaluations can get sucked into dangerous delusions.
Humans are complicated. There are many different models of human psychology, each with their own special terminology and lists of characteristics. Many characteristics come in descriptive pairs that create an axis, like introvert-extrovert, neurotic-stable, selfish-generous, open-closed, liberal-conservative, tall-short, thin-fat, etc. Every person will fall somewhere on every descriptive axis from every model of human nature, producing a unique profile with specific values in many dimensions. Many generalizations can be used successfully to describe large numbers of people, but we should never forget that underlying complexity and uniqueness.
Economics includes quite a bit of modeling of people's thoughts and behaviors. Most economic models assume that all people act from self-interest, with various degrees of rationality or mental errors. They allow self-interest to include the welfare of other people, so how selfish that self-interest is depends on where a person falls on a selfish-generous or selfish-selfless axis.
Centuries ago, Adam Smith popularized the term invisible hand to describe his belief that collective self-interest would be guided to produce an optimal result. I think he was way off because he didn't really deal with human complexity. Many economic models oversimplify by assuming people always make economic decisions based on reason, but some models take emotions and biases into account.
Given the complexity of people, it follows that a subset are bad actors—people who act in ways that harm other people. Not all actions that harm others are explicitly criminalized in all cultures, and some repressive cultures criminalize behaviors that help rather than harm other people, so the label bad actor does not cover exactly the same people as the label criminal. There is also a separation between people who knowingly harm others and people who do so unknowingly, and a separation between people who accidentally harm others and people who do so intentionally.
One of the drawbacks of the ability of modern technology to connect everyone in the world is that it exposes everyone in the world to all the bad actors in the world. This leads to problems such as computer viruses & Trojans, ransomware, phishing, spear phishing, vishing (fake/lying phone calls), smishing, spam, scams, etc.
Protection against bad actors is normally one of the duties of governments, but in the last several decades governments have massively failed to fulfill this duty. They have failed to regulate the companies that allow the actions of bad actors to proliferate, and those companies have massively failed to protect people. So we have vulnerable computer networks, vulnerable computer operating systems, vulnerable email systems, vulnerable phone systems, vulnerable social media platforms, loss of privacy, etc. In fact, studies have shown that social media is more likely to spread lies than facts, proving that much of the time it is really antisocial media—the social media platform itself is a bad actor. Until a time when all social media posts get footnoted for known lies and misrepresentations, social media will remain a major source of damage to our culture.
Due to the failure of governments and businesses to protect us, ordinary people now have to be constantly on the alert for bad actors electronically intruding into their homes. We have to use anti-virus software and firewalls on our computers and other devices. We have to screen every incoming phone call, not even picking up many blatantly obvious fakes that call incessantly. We have to screen every incoming email or text message, and we have to be especially cautious about any unfamiliar links to web sites. Modern electronics are an unfortunate manifestation of the old line that you aren't paranoid if someone really is out to get you.
Actually, many businesses go beyond just failing to protect us from bad actors. Many businesses are bad actors (actually, since the actions of businesses are actually the actions of people running those businesses, those people are bad actors). Many "free" services are offered that actually cost people their privacy—the businesses running those services make their money from advertising or by selling the data of their users. Big data can aggregate information from many sources to build detailed profiles of people.
In my Utilitarian Statistics musing, I tried to describe a non-sectarian basis for ethics. I will simplify that thinking even more here. The bare bones core of ethical behavior is: do no harm (this is part of the ancient Hippocratic oath).
There are many possible kinds of harm: physical, mental, spiritual, social, economic, etc. The remote bad actors mentioned above mostly do economic and mental harm, but some do more.
Anti-vaxxers do many kinds of harm.
Physical: vaccine avoidance prolongs the pandemic, which increases the COVID-19 death toll and the number of people surviving with long COVID, increases the likelihood of even worse virus variants evolving (like Delta already did), and stretches the time we all have to endure shutdowns and other public health measures to cope with the pandemic. It strains healthcare systems and causes hospitals to overflow with patients beyond their capacity. This overload leads to loss of care for other health issues, such as heart attacks, strokes, or needed surgeries and other treatments. It leads to shortages of oxygen and medicines and other supplies to treat patients. It increases the risk of infection for healthcare workers.
Mental/spiritual: vaccine avoidance forces healthcare workers with too few resources to decide who to treat—which lives might be saved and which not. It leads to healthcare worker burnout and PTSD.
Economic: (in the U. S.) vaccination is free, but every unvaccinated person who gets COVID-19 faces hospitalization and treatment costs of many thousands of dollars (or they die and their surviving family members face those costs and funeral expenses), with an uncertain portion of that cost covered by insurance.
Social: vaccine avoidance degrades society. As more people get fed up with vaccine avoiders, there is an increasing urge for people reading the obituaries of vaccine avoiders to say "Good riddance! Serves them right!" This is not good for a society.
A conspiracy is defined as a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. A conspiracy theory is defined as a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for an unexplained event. One view of the actions by bad actors described above is that any with more than one perpetrator qualify as conspiracies, since they are done by people hiding their real identities.
Conspiracy theories becomes a problem when they are invoked to explain events that are more simply explained without any hidden actions by people (see Epistemology, above). Most of this thinking would require massive secrets to be kept for years by hundreds or thousands of people, which stretches implausibility beyond the breaking point.
Our society has many laws and regulations to enforce behaviors that serve the common good. Laws setting speed limits, requiring use of seat belts and bike helmets, penalizing drunk driving, restricting smoking, controlling pollution, and affecting public health all exist to reduce harmful behaviors or increase beneficial behaviors. Members of a society have responsibilities. People who defy life-saving public health measures are repudiating their membership in a complex modern society, claiming rights appropriate only to a single inhabitant of a deserted island. If you aren't the only inhabitant of a deserted island, GET VACCINATED!
There is a major cultural divide in the U. S. in attitudes toward governments and businesses. I am on the side that believes governments are responsible for many aspects of maintaining the common welfare of societies. The other side doesn't believe governments can or should bear those responsibilities, that churches and private businesses and charities can take care of everything, or they claim that people don't need the supplied services at all. Part of the problem stems from the nature of the people on both sides of the divide. As I described above, every person is a unique mix of characteristics, but at a level of very broad generalizations, the people who don't trust government are bad at governing. Since they can't be trusted to run a government well for the benefit of its citizens, they don't trust anyone else to do so.
John Stuart Mill argued for utilitarianism, and that the only justifiable use of power is to prevent harm to others. In the current pandemic, the self-harming actions of many people also harm others, so governments have to step in with mandates and enforce public health measures.
Like the bad actors mentioned earlier, the Internet makes misinformation and disinformation from all over the world available, and allows anyone to make and spread any claim, no matter how distant it might be from reality. We all need to check the reliability of any claim that contradicts the reality modeled by mainstream science. A few of the sites to consider using are:
Ad Fontes Media (https://adfontesmedia.com)
Media Bias / Fact Check (https://mediabiasfactcheck.com)
Addiction to the news can be a mental health problem, especially during times like now when there is so much bad news around the world. It can be hard to strike a balance between keeping up with information needed for daily life and overdosing on bad news. My current pattern is to skim a lot more in the (Los Angeles Times) newspaper than I used to, catch snippets of NPR on the radio in the morning after the alarm goes off, and not watch any TV news.
Also for our own mental health, sometimes we must prune our contacts. Once a web site is identified as untrustworthy, it is easy enough to stop visiting that site, but there are a lot of other modern contacts that reach us whether we want them or not. I personally don't participate in any social media, which protects me from a lot of garbage, but I still get emails, texts, and phone calls. Until governments and businesses clean up their acts, I still have to deal with all the bad actor issues described above.
There is another kind of bad actor, not as intentionally criminal as those described above, that also requires defensive action. There are people who persist in quoting and forwarding material from and links to untrustworthy sites, no matter how many times you tell them that the sites are untrustworthy. This seems especially prevalent with anti-vaxxers. If you don't need to maintain the contacts for business or family reasons, you can simply blacklist the email addresses, so all future emails from those people go straight to a spam or trash folder. If you can't just blacklist them, you have to put them in a zero to negative credibility mental category, and monitor everything they send for anything you actually need to deal with, and trash the forwarded trash.
Mental infections need to be quarantined just as much as physical infections (or more).