We entered the reputation age a long time ago

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.

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24 Responses to We entered the reputation age a long time ago

  1. Callan says:

    Perhaps the thing is not so much that we’ve gone into reputation/credibility based acceptance, but that this heuristic thinking is starting to break under specialization. Like why would the theoretical physicist definitely not have a relevant thing to say about politics? And yet the way to get reputation/credibility is increasingly specialized fields of knowledge. So either you have a field of knowledge, but your ability to talk about anything else is slowly shrinking as much as specialization increases in general – or you ‘don’t know anything’ and have no rep/cred. All of which silences dissent.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’d say the physicist is free to express their political views, just as you and I are. The difference is that in the case of politics their opinion shouldn’t have any special credence, unless of course its the politics of theoretical physics.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Callan says:

        Yes, but that’s the issue of reputation – whether what the person says is true is based on their reputation. Not whether it’s actually true.

        Like there’s a difference between A: treating a statement from someone as if it could be correct but maybe not thinking about it much because it’s not their field vs B: Not giving much credibility to the statement because it’s not their field. Ie, basically dismissing it/treating it as definitely not the case.

        I would say that A is not what reputation based thinking generally involves, it’s usually B. It’d be interesting to run some science on this hypothesis.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    “My issue is that reputation isn’t something that just started.”

    Agree. As you say, it’s much more apparent these days because of technology.

    There is a growing gap between those who manage to keep up, to some degree, in some areas, and those who were never really into technology in the first place. On the one side, those who design, build, deploy, maintain, or at least study technology. On the other, those who’ve thrown up their hands.

    A point I’ve made (e.g.), which I think is crucial, is that not being able to understand all of it doesn’t mean you can’t understand some of it.

    I’ve had discussions about climate change, for instance, where the other person clung to, if not outright denial, uncertainty that because they weren’t qualified to evaluate the material, they basically weren’t going to trust it.

    But anyone can understand enough of it to get a sense of its nature.

    (Obviously those who didn’t reject their early education in math, logic, history, or even literature, have some tools they can use. One kind of power (general) knowledge grants is the ability to be fooled less often. Which is why education is so important!)

    “One thing we have to be careful of when trusting experts,…”

    Oh, mos def! I get downright cranky when headlines blare out that Stephen Hawking has declared the universe “has no place for God” or that aliens will be bad for us.

    On black holes, I’ll pay close attention. On society or theology, not so much. 😀

    His opinions on those matters are no better than anyone’s and not headline news. (And I really don’t understand why we regard the opinions of actors!)

    This is another aspect of what Origgi seems to be getting at: what authorities do we trust?

    We used have (more or less) blanket trust the government, but Watergate changed that, and it’s only gotten worse. Society today increasingly doesn’t trust science authorities (in some cases with some reason).

    Are we now supposed to trust Google?

    Might it be what’s really changed is not knowing who we can trust?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I personally don’t think it’s rational to trust any one source without reservation. For example, I trust ScienceNews.org. It has an excellent history of being a reliable source of scientific news. But if it reported something radical and it was the only source reporting that radical thing, I would doubt its veracity.

      Political news is a bit trickier, because finding a source without a bias or agenda is tough. Too many of them are only interested in riling you up and keeping you watching or clicking. I’ve reached the point where I avoid openly partisan news sources and look for consensus among the others, not trusting any one source.

      The problem, of course, is that people tend to trust the sources that tell them what they want to hear. We won’t find truthful sources unless we really want the truth.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Steve Morris says:

    I find this disturbing. The Enlightenment ushered in an era in which the authority of monarchy and church was questioned, and reason and evidence became the new benchmarks for truth. This has been the most fruitful age of human progress. I fear what will happen if we delegate authority to others and abandon our own ability to reason.

    As you say, we should be very careful about the scope of expert authority. And as Wyrd points out, we do not need to give up on our own powers of reason and understanding.

    And yes, I would echo those who advocate radical ideas. We should be aware that experts often have entrenched interests.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The good news is that the interests of experts in most fields are generally not homogeneous. There’s usually enough hunger among some portion who want to make a name for themselves, which provides an appetite for ideas that challenge the current paradigm. However, historically, most radical ideas are wrong in ways obvious to experts. The ones that aren’t usually convince a substantial portion of the experts with the appetite for change, which gives the rest of us a clue which of those ideas are worth investing any time in.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Steve Morris says:

        Yes, true, but radical ideas that turn out to be correct are also often dismissed by experts (examples: continental drift, the heliocentric solar system, Mendel’s ideas on genetic inheritance, Avogadro’s law). Besides, if history teaches us anything, it is that we should have a healthy mistrust of those in authority.

        Liked by 2 people

        • It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between idle speculation and a rigorous scientific theory. For example, people speculated that gravity might control the motions of heavenly bodies before Newton published his treatise, but he gets the credit because he worked out the mathematics. Likewise, people speculated about evolution for decades prior to Darwin, but Darwin came up with natural selection for how it actually happens.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Steve,
      You advocate those with radical ideas, nutters and all? Of course you meant that you advocate objective consideration of such ideas, especially given entrenched expert interests. As a radical theorist who does often fight entrenched interests, I do thank you for your observations in general!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. One issue here is that some topics are just inherently more speculative than others today. There’s a hard versus soft science issue — the hard scientist should generally have more valid answers than the soft scientist. And in some areas even physics remains soft, as we’ve seen here in quantum mechanics. One of my themes is that without a community of professionals with generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, science in general should remain softer than it otherwise needs to be.

    To get right to the heart of human uncertainty however, today we have no specialists in human welfare. I believe that humanity is in desperate need of a science from which to teach us the realities of how to better lead our lives, as well as structure our societies. This science should help guide us regarding our most important (and disputed) questions.

    Yes reputation is important, both for being believed and for deciding who to believe. And I’d take this way back into the tribal days which made up virtually all of our evolution — nothing new here as Mike has mentioned. The question is, who to believe? I certainly endorse his suggestions (and add that people with “harder” subject credentials should naturally preform somewhat better in those topics than credentialed soft scientists do with their’s).

    I’ve heard “reputation age” talk before. While I don’t consider this a “new age”, reputation does seem very important. It looks to me however that China is instituting a real new age through its Social Credit System. In one year, visibility to government in any way, such as a recorded purchase, will have the potential to add or detract from a crucial score that punishes or rewards them for their behavior in all sorts of ways. China should thus become a powerful unified organism with central algorithmic control. All the more reason for free worlders to finally begin straightening out science and the issue of human welfare!

    (I see that China’s bureaucrats are currently running a magnificent PR game. Even the western web seems 50/50 on it at this late hour!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s also worth mentioning the fields themselves have reputations. For example, the field of chemistry has pretty high authority on its subject matter, economics far less so for its own area, and paranormalists little to none.

      Of course, this has to be balanced against the fact that while particle physics can get 5-sigma certainty in the LHC, most fields can’t. Part of being scientific in a field is being honest about what kind of knowledge and certainty is possible in that field.

      I think we’ve discussed China’s system before. I’m skeptical they’ll be able to use it to become a uniquely unified organism. Aside from the fact that changing human nature has historically proven devilishly hard, there’s no reason to suppose China’s bureaucrats know the optimal lifestyle everyone should be following any better than all the other prognosticators throughout history. More likely is that the standards will be political tools to promote the interests of some constituents over others, and will be widely recognized as such by those living under them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mike,
        I’d forgotten the specifics to your skepticism that the Chinese government will pull this off. But then again I’m not saying that they’ll change human nature or even understand the optimal lifestyle everyone should be following. All they should need to do given this scoring system is reward people for doing what they want them to do, and punish people for doing things that they don’t want them to. That’s it. They already know the sorts of things that they do and don’t want people to do. Under this system it should then be in people’s general interest to follow such direction.

        Given the consequences of deviation for example, I’m pretty sure that I’d teach my children to follow stated rules whatever they may be. Apparently one of these rules is that associating with people who have lower scores will lower ones own score. Therefore I’d teach my children to discriminate against those that the government considers problematic. Once citizens become sufficiently acclimated to this system (which may only take a decade or two) we should see a single “organism” working in unison on the basis of nothing more than publicly provided information about what the government does and doesn’t want people to do. Will there be any criticism? Sure, but not from within. Instruments from within should pay for such criticism!

        With that clarification Mike, what have I overlooked that will cause these people to not do what they’re told? Apparently there will be no revolution. The only other potential problem that I can think of now is that perhaps this system will not help the country become more wealthy. Will people decide that they don’t need to work hard even given government pressure to do what it wants? Or perhaps something else?

        I personally suspect that the Chinese citizens will work very hard under this system. And given central direction (or more like magnet than standard metal), this country should come to enjoy a good deal of wealthy as well!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Eric,
          I don’t doubt that people will follow the system to some degree, the same way we take into account how our decisions could affect our credit score, or how business worry about their BBB ratings, Amazon ratings, Craigslist ratings, or other similar reputation systems in our own society.

          The difference is that China’s systems is centrally managed, meaning it’s subject to abuse. And it sounds like there has already been criticism of some of its more arbitrary stipulations. I work with a couple of people from China, and they’ve made it pretty clear that everyone pays lip service to the government’s various incentives and restrictions, while doing everything they can to black market, get around, or game the system.

          The real issue to be concerned with is the invasive nature of the system, and the precedent it might set for the future. China is likely going to have the world’s largest economy in a few more years, which in time will likely make them the number one world power. That will happen regardless of whether the social credit system is effective. But their prominence may convince other countries to do something similar.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Mike,
            So you agree that people will follow this system, though only to some degree? Apparently your thought is that there will be too many ways to get around it. You’ve also called this SCS “invasive”, which I certainly agree with. Each of these positions seem contradictory however. To the extent that this system actually is invasive, it should be harder to beat. So the first important question here seems to be, will these punishments and rewards be strong enough for people to act? Then the more that they are, how difficult will the system be to beat? I’m thinking pretty strong and pretty hard. The Tiananmen Square massacre was a slight PR mishap when compared against China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution — all reasonably modern events.

            I’m pretty sure that the Chinese government realizes the size of black markets set up to subvert it, as well as how much official corruption occurs. Lip service however serves its purposes by illustrating that people are too afraid to publicly complain. Officials needn’t believe that people are as supportive as they claim to be, that is as long as there speech doesn’t foster descent. So I suspect that it considers this new tool as a way to finally hold most everyone accountable for their behavior. Consider the extra costs associated with buying and selling in a black market if being caught would impact one’s credit score.

            What China is doing here truly is just a form of governing. We humans require rules which harbor consequences in order to function in larger and larger societies. I’m not saying that a social credit scoring system (which automatically adjust a person’s score as information comes in about purchases made, being in debt, violations, and so on) must inherently be repressive. I’m saying that it links each individual to a government’s purpose in a far more intimate way than we see in liberal societies. With central control a country should become more like a brain based organism.

            Given such central direction I suspect that China will become quite wealthy as such per capita. Furthermore this model should naturally appeal to governments in Russia, the Middle East, and so on. Thus future humanity should come in both a free world variety, as well as a variety which harbors central organism control.

            Liked by 2 people

    • Mark Titus says:

      I think, Eric, that a “Social Credit System” sounds a bit scary. But it seems human beings have to get themselves under control, and China seems to be at least addressing the issue.

      You seem to think that science can manage the problem. I am skeptical. Science (I’m referring to physics, chemistry, biology and their interconnected disciplines) deals with a manageable number of variables, one at a time. Human beings and their welfare involve too many variables all occurring at the same time for science to handle.

      I agree, though, that China’s experiments/efforts in this direction deserve respect and study.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for your interest Mark, and we’re certainly in agreement that human beings have to get themselves under control.

        The concern that you’ve expressed about the potential for science to help human beings get themselves under control is the one that I’ve heard the most — that the human, unlike biology and so on, is too complicated to understand. But I’m not asking for the human to be understood perfectly. I’m merely asking for it to be understood much better than it is today.

        How many years until a given volcano blows? There are too many uncertainties here for the geologist to narrow that down very much. And a recession? For the economist the question seems similar. But what scientist provides theory from which to assess a given society’s welfare? Or a given person’s? Or a given dog’s? Notice that the field of psychology attempts to understand human function, though without theory regarding the fundamentals of good/bad for what it explores. Should it be able to effectively understand human function without solid theory regarding what’s valuable for it? To me this seems like a crucial omission. It’s one that I’d like to fill through my single principle of axiology. This reads:

        It’s possible for a computer that is not conscious, to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic from which to drive the function of a conscious form of computer, or all that’s valuable for anything anywhere.

        Furthermore I believe that science in general suffers today without any generally accepted principles of metaphysics and epistemology. So yes, I’m a radical theorist who would like to improve science by helping “philosophy” essentially become a science. Then once improved I suspect that our mental and behavioral sciences won’t seem nearly as hopeless as they do today. All I ask for is your objective consideration of my sometimes radical ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Fizan says:

    Interesting post Mike. This is something I worry about a lot myself although I fluctuate in my skepticism of this notion.
    To me it seems to reply on or to cite reputation is an argument from authority which religion has used for a long time as well. But we need it to do anything meaningful. It’s a human thing and we can’t pragmatically avoid it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Fizan. Personally I think reasonable skepticism is always a good policy. If someone isn’t willing to explain why they’ve reached their conclusions, I’ll at least check to see what other experts are saying.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Fizan says:

        Agreed. I think I fluctuate from should I reject all information obtained on reputation or is some worth keeping. Usually I have a conflict that rejecting all of it leads me with very little but then how do I decide which to keep. (Lately, I’ve decided that the parameter has to be whether or not given information is useful to me.)

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Interesting article, thanks for sharing it!
    I think you’re right that we’ve always relied on expert advice, and therefore reputation has always been important, but I think what the author means to emphasize is that there’s not only more information, but also a lot more bad information, and this requires that we adopt a “second-order epistemology.” So I’m guessing that “first-order epistemology” would be a more straightforward reliance on experts, all else being equal (there might be a few occasions in which we’d have to question expert advice, but the default attitude was trust). I certainly remember when assessing expert advice was less complicated. It used to be that if a bit of info came from the news—back in the days when “the news” meant TV or the paper, not the internet—the default attitude was to believe the facts that were presented. Nowadays it’s not all “fake news”, but it seems to me anyways that the news really has become more biased, and skepticism is more the default. And it used to be that when your doctor gave you medical advice, you took it at face value, again, all else being equal. Nowadays we hear more and more about bad doctors working out of their own self interest (doctors getting paid to push opioids, for instance), and that leads some people to a kind a blind, generalized skepticism toward the medical field and western medicine as a whole. It really does take a more nuanced epistemology to sort through all this, to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Tina!

      Interestingly, I think the idea of objective news is something we got from the radio and TV era. If you read histories of the 18th and 19th century, every paper was basically slanted toward their own constituencies. When news started happening over a public resource, the radio and TV waves, the use of which had to be licensed by the government, the networks justified their franchises by touting the objectivity of their coverage.

      But if you notice, the newspapers never really adopted that model, at least not en mass. Throughout the broadcast era, nobody blinked when newspapers continued to endorse political candidates, or basically were as biased as they wanted to be.

      First cable and then the internet seem to have undermined the old objectivity model. The news networks still mostly pay lip service to it, but I think we all know that Fox and MSNBC are heavily biased. And as for news web sites, anyone today can find a source that caters to their biases.

      I think we’ve regressed back to the pre-broadcast age model, but one where we have access to more news sources than ever. I agree that puts a burden on the average information consumer that never existed before.

      On the other hand, it enables the average consumer to actually obtain that information. When I was a boy, my sources of information were TV, radio, the local newspaper, and whatever books were available at the local library, all of which, in retrospect, had biases, but I had nothing to compare them to, so I bought into a lot of bad ideas.

      All of which is to say, yes, it takes a more nuanced epistemology, but we actually have a better chance of actually getting the truth today than ever before, or at least understanding that it’s not as clear as many assume. It’s probably more accurate to say that rather than sharing one large bubble, we actually choose which bubble to inhabit.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I think you’re right that with the internet we have a better chance to get at the truth, at least theoretically, but it’s often time-consuming and doesn’t settle the matter one way or another.

        And also true about objectivity, although I think there’s still better and worse. What I’m mainly thinking of is TV news. I do sense it’s getting more biased and sensationalistic…or maybe I’m just imagining things.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’ve personally concluded that cable news is not worth watching. It’s definitely in the biased and sensationalistic category. The goal seems to be to keep us as riled up as possible so we keep watching. (The goal of partisan news sites seems similar.) The people I know who watch a lot of it seem angry and anxious.

          I get most of my news these days from the web (notably Google News and a large collection of RSS subscriptions) and NPR. Definitely not perfect, but at least they don’t keep me perpetually stressed out.

          For me, I feel closer to the truth when I get info from as large a variety of web sources as possible, while avoiding openly partisan or biased sources.

          Liked by 2 people

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