There have been far too many ‘myths’, ‘conspiracy theories’ and other misinformation floating around on Twitter and Facebook. Why is it transpiring that many truth claims about SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) are anything but true? The answer to this lies in the nature of the truth claim. In this post, I look at the difference between universal, authoritative and iterative truths.
- Universal truths are becoming harder and harder to come by because of our increasingly complex world.
- Our increasingly complex world has led to an increasingly pluralist discourse; this, in turn, has led to a phenomenon of authoritative truth.
- Many things we consider truth, similarly to coding software, are part of an iterative truth; which will be changed and updated as more information becomes available.
- The distinction between these types of truths is particularly important in the COVID-19 knowledge ecosystem. The pluralist discourse with many sources of authoritative truth does society no favours in this instance; it is clear that what we know about COVID-19 is part of an iterative truth.
Universal, authoritative and iterative truths
One of the key tenants of modernity was to seek universal truths; the observer of these truths is independent of the truth itself. Modernity has allowed us to derive universal truths that govern our physical universe; these are logically valid always and everywhere. There are of course things about epidemiology and virology that are true always and everywhere, but no one has that level of understanding as yet.
Universal truths are often tested using the scientific method and validated with replicable results. Inherent with this method of investigation is the time-lag between the hypothesis being conceived and the results being replicated, it takes some time to test the hypothesis before it is agreed by everyone to be true.
Many people allege that we have moved into a post-truth era — especially in political discourse — in which peoples opinions are less likely to be based on truth than they previously were. Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief. Our lives are increasingly busy, and we have increasingly little time to understand complex subjects, so, we inevitably refer to people in positions of authority whom we believe, to be honest purveyors of truth. As we move past modernity, an increasingly pluralist discourse has opened up with an ever-increasing number of groups, each with their own authority figures — of which the WHO is one.
This leads to what is called authoritative truth, originating from a source such as a person or governing body that has, what is considered by some, expert judgement. While an argument can be made pointing out the pitfalls of modernity and why giving different groups of people a voice is a necessary step forward. We need to understand that the mere fact that because a person or organisation is considered by some to be an authority, should not add any credibility to their claims, particularly when they have little expertise on the subject — for example, politicians making truth claims about virology or epidemiology (if they aren’t parroting what scientists have said, in which case the truth claim would originate from the scientist and not the politician).
Suppose we look back a decade or so, for someone to spread their opinion to a broad audience, they had to have a platform, such as TV or radio, with an audience. Fast forward to 2020 and anyone with a social media account can write or share anything they want in their echo chamber of choice. Moving towards a post-modern critique of truth in which truth and knowledge exist relative to society, history and peoples lives experiences. It is easy to see how knowledge can morph from fact to misinformation simply by switching echo chambers with different authority figures.
Note: this opens up a discussion of modern versus post-modern critique, which I will close the door on, for the time being, maybe I’ll write more on this in the future.
Throughout I have been using the term knowledge ecosystem, there is a good reason for this. I consider the aggregate knowledge about COVID-19 to be somewhat like a complex system in which many independent agents are acting dynamically and in a non-linear manner. Out of this has emerged non one, but many sub-systems; similarly to an ecosystem in nature that has multiple smaller systems within one broader ecosystem. In an ecosystem, some resources are shared among the smaller systems; however, as often occurs those actors (whether that be an animal, plant of other life forms) do not intermingle. For example, an animal may drink from a river, it shares this river with the fish in the river, but they do not intermingle. Similarly, some of the knowledge is shared in the pluralist discourse, but much of the discourse is completely separate within each echo chamber.
Iterative truth is similar to developing code — an application, for example — developers know there will be mistakes, they alpha and beta test it; all the time identifying and fixing bugs. The code is never finished; it is forever being iterated and developed. Even after a ‘release candidate’ (software that has undergone alpha and beta testing and is potentially ready for implementation) is implemented, it is not a final. Many people — whether they be politicians, scientists or someone claiming to be in a position of authority — will make a claim and stand by it, clutching to straws, so they do not have to admit they were wrong.
Balaji Srinivasan explains the distinction between universal, authoritative and iterative truths and the dangers of a simple misunderstanding in episode 35, The Heretic & The Virus on Eric Weinstein’s podcast The Portal.
How does this relate to COVID-19?
On January 14th the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on its Twitter that there is “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of novel coronavirus”. In hindsight, it was evident that the WHO was intending to be an honest purveyor of truth, many consider the WHO to be an expert and an authority on epidemiology and made policy decisions based on the WHO’s statements. It is unfair to hold the WHO accountable in the same way we would if they had have deliberately mislead us.
This statement, and many others by honest people and organisations, was part of an interactive truth. An implicit assumption in this statement is that there will be further investigations after the “preliminary investigations”. The little we do know about the COVID-19 knowledge ecosystem is ever-evolving. Many had seized on this and conflated it with misinformation, when in fact it was a well-considered statement that was intended to be part of a further evolving iterative truth.
While many honest actors are acknowledging that what they are claiming is part of a developing iterative truth, many don’t recognise this. Muddying the waters further are the dishonest actors that are capitalising on plurality in our discourse to make authoritative truth claims. Articles are reporting that “China is rewriting the facts about COVID-19 to suit its own narrative”, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have removed “false” viral videos in the infodemic and the WHO has launched an “investigation to uncover the truth of COVID-19”.
Professor Carl Bergstrom has coauthored a book on the topic of “bullshit”, which he defines as “language, statistical figures, data, graphics and other forms of presentation that are intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener with a blatant disregard for truth or logical coherence”, “the idea with bullshit is that it’s trying to appear authoritative and definitive in a way that’s not about communicating accurately and informing a reader”.
While moving past modernity and embracing plurality may be a good thing), I am sure that in this instance, it is a bug and not a feature that is leading to disastrous outcomes. One need not develop an understanding of COVID-19 from first principles to try to understand the truth, but when reading and listening to the information, one should whether it is a truth claim from a position of authority, or is the claim part of an iterative truth which is subject to change. I want to believe that we can defang the political snake that is misinformation by understanding that honest actors will make statements as part of an iterative truth that will turn out to be false. But, sadly, I don’t think this is going to be possible for the time being.
Looking forward, sometime soon, we will develop AI that is capable of filtering information, possibly in a blockchain that will keep track of the owner and source. As long as both our incentives and the incentives of the filtering AI are aligned, this will break down the walls of the echo chambers that have gotten us into this mess. Kevin Kelly discusses this in more detail in his book The Inevitable.