Let There Be Light
Americans fail to find information illuminating, even in a digital age
Two weeks ago, 18 scientific organizations wrote the United States Congress to “state the consensus scientific view” on global warming. The letter, signed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Statistical Association (among others), declared that “climate change is occurring, and...that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” The letter took special care to point out that “contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.” The next morning, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press revealed that the reminder was painfully necessary. In the past 20 months, the number of Americans who view global warming as a serious problem has decreased by nine percent. And, despite mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, the number of Americans who believe in global warming has reached a three-year low. More Americans are willing to spit in the face of scientifically supported, objective reasoning, counterintuitively tailoring their perception of facts to their beliefs.
The opposite approach should be instinctual. People are exposed to and absorb information. They make valid logical inferences based on that information. They form beliefs based on those inferences. They act according to those beliefs. When they are exposed to new and different information or analyses, they modify their beliefs and actions accordingly. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer used this framework to describe his struggle with vegetarianism. As a child, the notion of eating meat as hurting animals had never occurred to him, so he happily consumed his grandmother’s chicken. Later, when his babysitter asked him a life-changing question—“You know that chicken is chicken, right?”—he had no choice but to modify his diet. Foer argued that, for years, he was simply innocent, “just...a child, ignorant of the world’s workings. Until I wasn’t. At which point I had to change my life.” The process isn’t clean. It involves constant and exhausting reevaluation and pride-swallowing. And there are slip-ups, to be sure, moments of weakness and temptation. But these are recognized as downsides in the complex formulation of and obedience to our ever-changing system of norms.
So, in a digital age, when more people have access to more information than ever before, why are so many beliefs consistently inconsistent with scientific reality? Many blame what Nicholas Negroponte of MIT describes as the “Daily Me,” the highly customized and personalized manner in which people receive information on the web. This allows individuals to bypass information that might contradict their views, stagnating the process of self-reflection and revision. Cass R. Sunstein ’75, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, takes this theory a step further: not only has the information age prevented us from evolving, but in many respects we have also devolved. The Internet allows us to separate into self-reinforcing groups that sometimes spread falsities, which results in the polarization of our views, a process Sunstein refers to as cyberbalkanization.
Elizabeth Kolbert questions the matter-of-factness of Sunstein’s theory in her review of his latest book “On Rumors,” which she describes as “pointedly nonjudgmental.” “There’s a temptation,” she writes, “to confuse the medium with the message, to assume that, because the Internet is being used to produce a certain political effect, it was somehow destined to do so.” Kolbert is right to point out that, while the Internet has given people a more convenient means of reaffirming their opinions with heavily filtered information, the intentions of those individuals are fundamentally flawed. They are, as writer and critic Andrew Lang once quipped, the type who “use statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination.”
The problem is age-old. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin described his own struggle with vegetarianism. After he resolved to give up meat, he found himself tempted by the smell of a frying cod. He swayed “between Principle & Inclination” but eventually resolved that since cod readily eat smaller fish, he was entitled to eat “animal food” as well. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature,” he declared, “it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” The very fact that most feel this need to rationalize their behavior implies a desire to come to logical conclusions about what is right or wrong, rather than abstracting these notions outside the realm of the arguable.
The key, then, is to approach the process genuinely, to acquire knowledge to illuminate our ideals rather than to support them. The lesson is particularly relevant for members of the Harvard community. What a shame to be deemed “educated,” having acquired eight semesters’ worth of facts and figures but not challenged or changed the principles based upon them. As we come to the unsavory realization that we will, one day, have to leave this stimulating environment behind, the need to engage in discussion that tests our existing beliefs, despite potential blows to our egos, becomes particularly pressing. It is, after all, the rational thing to do.
Silpa Kovvali ’10 is a computer science concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.