I made a bad joke at work recently. This isn’t necessarily unusual. The reaction to this bad joke made me think a bit more than normal though.
While reviewing some research on business models I observed that most of the models were predicated on the need to increase trust between businesses and their customers.
I wondered out loud if trust was in danger of becoming the next big over-used word and idly mused that we should get ahead of the game, joking that we should think about post-trust business models.
Unfortunately I was both believed and misheard. I was believed because sometimes I sound convincing — well, I am a middle-aged white man with a beard and a convincing poker face…—I was misheard because someone thought I said post-truth business models and, without me realising it, started researching that topic.
“Post-truth” was last year’s word of the year. It even has its own wikipedia page. The Oxford dictionary describes it as:
an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
We often talk about post-truth at the Open Data Institute. We work with data after all. People ask our opinions on it. Some people tell us that better data and more facts is the answer to the challenge of “post-truth politics”. They ask us to imagine a world where someone reading a newspaper story can click on a fact to find out who produced it. And then click on the name of the fact producer to find out who funds them. And then click on the funder of the fact producer to understand their motives. This will soon cut down on those pesky emotions and bring facts back to their position of influence.
Unfortunately, there are problems with that vision.
Why and how will people click on a fact and what will they do next? We need to make it interesting for people to want to know more, to want to dive down beneath the story into the world beneath it. We need to make sure that the world beneath the story is present and linked together. We need to give people the critical thinking skills to navigate that world.
But even that risks not being enough. If you don’t believe me ask any philosophy student. One of their early courses will be on epistomology, the study of knowledge. They might be asked whether they can prove that the chair that they are sitting on is actually a chair. The students will quickly learn that for centuries, if not millenia, philosophers have been playing around with this and similar propositions.
The student will be asked to prove that they can actually sense the world and experience the chair rather than it being a trick being played on them by a Cartesian demon, some controlling their brain in a vat, or — heaven forbid — someone about to be tortured by Roko’s basilisk for failing to bring about the AI singularity.
The students will soon realise that the concept of a chair can mean different things to different people and get taught that many languages and cultures don’t differentiate between blue and green. They will put up countless facts about chairs and a good philosophy lecturer will knock them all down. Minds get blown in epistomology courses.
At the end of a bewildering course the philosophy lecturer might ask their students to vote on whether they have managed to prove that their chair is a chair. Some hands will go up for no, some for yes, others might waver a bit. When my own epistomology course got to that point the lecturer held a vote and then started laughing. “Does it matter?”, he said, “is it a comfortable chair and does it stop your bum from hitting the ground? Yes? Then it’s a flipping chair.”
You see the world is already complex enough and humans can decide to make it even more complex by diving into all the facts to try to empirically prove everything. Some of us love to do that and there are times when it is both fun and important to lose ourselves in a sea of facts and data to see what we learn. There are great things out there waiting to be discovered.
But in our daily lives we often need to dive just deep enough. To not submerge ourselves in the full sea but instead to simply go to a reasonable level and form an idea that we can test. We can then hold that conclusion up to scrutiny. Perhaps by sharing it with a range of other people so that we can learn from their responses or by doing a simple experiment (did bum hit ground? No? Probably chair).
This can need some fearlessness, we have to be open to being wrong, but forming and testing ideas can often be a quicker path to a decent truth than all of the facts and data in the world. It might help stop some myths and falsehoods lasting for longer than they need to too.
Oh, and the person researching post-truth business models? They came up to me a few hours later to share what they’d learnt. I shamefully admitted my bad joke, profusely apologised for their wasted time and praised them for testing their ideas sooner rather than later…
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