Aeon is currently highlighting articles from throughout 2018 that are editor favorites. This morning, they highlighted one by Gloria Origgi, Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now:
There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.
I think this is definitely true. None of us has the time, expertise, or resources to competently investigate first hand the vast majority of claims we hear and read. We’re all vitally dependent on whoever we have decided are the relevant experts for any particular claim, and we make that decision largely on the reputation of those experts.
However, I’m less sure about this point:
We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.
My issue is that reputation isn’t something that just started. It’s been true for a long time. As soon as society became complex enough for specialization to became mandatory, we’ve had to depend on specialists for areas that we’re not competent in. The sheer amount of information available today may be making this issue more apparent, but it seems to me to be as old as civilization.
One thing we have to be careful of when trusting experts, is remembering their actual area of expertise. If a theoretical physicist tells me something about quantum fields, and they have a reputation as a competent physicist, then I’ll probably give credence to what they’re saying. On the other hand, if they start talking about history, politics, or consciousness, they’re essentially a lay person expressing an opinion, one that isn’t guaranteed to be any more informed than any other educated lay person.
It’s worth noting that ideas themselves have reputations. If a famous biologist with a sterling reputation starts claiming the he’s disproved evolution, his reputation may guarantee I’ll pay attention to what he’s saying, but evolution is now such a scientific bedrock that his evidence is going to have to be extraordinary. And if he fails to convince a substantial portion of the other experts in his field, his reputation will suffer.
One of the things I’m sometimes criticized for is not taking radical claims seriously enough, for not investigating time to learn more about them. As a skeptic, I think we always have to be open to the possibility that something we think is implausible or impossible might be reality. But life is short, and when those ideas contradict the reputations of fields of experts, or well tested ideas or knowledge, it’s rational to assume the radical assertion is mistaken, at least until enough actual experts start to be convinced.