Voting for truth

Current speculations on the likelihood that Google Search might get closer to the truth with algorithms based upon reliable authority, rather than upon sheer weight of numbers, have prompted tsunamis of commentary on a wide range of fascinating questions. Who determines who’s an expert, and can even experts be affected by cognitive bias, or by conflicts of interest, or just the occasional perverse dyspepsia? At the other end of the human cognitive spectrum, can even the most risible creationist be adjudged less ignorant because one million of them post a “Like” on facebook in support of a theory about God’s working week?

On the one hand, supporters of crowd-sourced answers can point to one critical and undeniable fact about their approach: nobody is so innumerate that they cannot spot the difference between the number one, and a crowd. Supporters of truth-based authority – what matters is simply what is demonstrably true – will always face accusations of bias, or undeclared nuances in interpretation. And it will take some pretty clever algorithms to accommodate those shades of grey.

On the other hand, a little scepticism goes a long way when applied to the definition of the “wisdom” that is imputed to the crowd. While it is true that everyone has a right to their opinion, this does not make their opinions right; and those opinions don’t become any more – or indeed less – right for having been cooked up in a communal kitchen. We can pause to smile at the likelihood that any of the famous chefs we know might pause in the heat of service to accommodate the rightfully held opinions of their sous chefs . . .

While neither the “wisdom of crowds” nor the “wisdom of experts” can be held up as infallible recipes for delivering the truth, we might ask ourselves which is more likely: that someone should inch closer to the truth by finding someone else who agrees with them; or that they are more likely to achieve success by learning something and thinking somewhat about the subject under review.

Applying the same principle of thinking to our species and its unsteady progress out of the swamps and jungles of our brutal ignorance, we can ask if it is an accident of history that faith-based reasoning preceded the Enlightenment and its commitment to wisdom via the principles of disciplined enquiry. Could it just as easily have happened that science came first, to be replaced by the myths of our holy books, myths still so widely held that people who express doubts in their wisdom can still be threatened with death?

Algorithms developed to avoid nonsense and promote informed wisdom may not make us gods in our universe, but the sum total of our intelligence as a species is more likely to have been increased.

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