Michael Lynch

Knowing More, Understanding Less

Air Date: May 7, 2016

Michael Lynch, author of The Internet of Us, talks about informed citizenship in the age of Google.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Another presidential debate had drawn to a close, and the fact-checkers were proven obsolete again, mocked, ridiculed, or flat out ignored. Welcome to American politics, circa 2016. In its aftermath, my eye caught a cathartic New York Times op-ed, “Googling is Believing, Trumping the Informed Citizen,” one that explained beautifully our pseudo-enlightened state. And the author today is our guest. A professor of philosophy, Michael Lynch is Director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. His new book is The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, which the New Yorker called “Fascinating,” and Booklist, “A bracing challenge to internet enthusiasts.”

I implore you all to read this critically important text to rediscover our inner Socrates. Therein lies a most illuminating account of the fragmentation of information and knowledge, between which Lynch draws a distinction. So, shall we begin there, Michael? A pleasure to be with you.

LYNCH: Well, thank you so much for having me. Uh, so I think, the thing that really grabbed me about what’s going on in the election right now, is the fact that, on the one hand, we seem to have so much information about what the candidates are doing. So much information about their views—information supplied by them, by their daily or nightly tweets, for example. And of course by the news media, which many of, many of the candidates like to revile as “the media,” or “the big media.”

On the other hand, there is a sense in which we seem to have more difficulty than ever actually trying to figure out what it is, uh, the candidates are actually … representing, or believing. And that’s partly, of course, because candidates are moving targets. But it’s also partly because the world in which we live is a world in which, paradoxically, we have more information available to us through the devices in our pockets than ever before, and yet we also seem to have less real knowledge. Or le-, at least, that’s the sense that many of us have.

HEFFNER: So what is, for our viewers, what is the difference between informing in the digital age and knowing in the digital age?

MICHAEL LYNCH: Well I think … maybe we should back up a little bit and just think about what we mean by knowledge generally. Since Plato, I think, um … philosophers have generally thought that knowledge amounts to more than just having information. It, it amounts to having accurate information, but accurate information isn’t quite enough. I mean, I can make a guess, right, and guess accurately, and not really know the answer to a particular question you might ask me.

So, having information that’s accurate and also grounded in some way, sort of warranted, justified by reasons or evidence. That’s what we typically—philosophers, at least—and I think a lot of folks, typically sort, sort of think knowledge is. It’s accurate information that’s grounded in some way.

The grounding part is the hard part…

HEFFNER: There lies the rub.

LYNCH: Because there, there is the rub indeed. Because, where you get your evidence actually matters for whether your evidence turns out to be real evidence or pseudo-evidence. And right now, in the world that we live in, getting back to what I was saying before, we’re surrounded with sources of evidence, or at least thing-, sources that purport to have evidence for various beliefs that we might have, whether they’re about politics, or about medicine, uh, or anything particularly we want to know about, whether it’s the restaurant, uh, that we want to go to tonight and how highly rated it is.

So we have all this information at our fingertips, and yet that information, because it’s so much, so much information, makes it very difficult for us as human beings to sort through it. So, as a result, we sort of take, as humans being generally do, shortcuts. We start finding … sources that we think, because they sort of line up with our previously held prejudices or beliefs, that we, we tend to trust. And as a result, you see that, you know, the infosphere, which, uh, we could describe as the … mass of information that you and I sort of move through on a daily basis. We find the info-, infosphere divided into not just political lines, but all sorts of various lines of evidence sources.

So, in the most dramatic sense, those people who have certain views about, let’s say Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders are going to read certain sorts of blogs, or pay attention to certain sorts of shows, right. And those who follow Donald Trump will find themselves appealing to very different sources, sorts of evidence.

And what we find is that, and I think we all know this, is that we start to live in our own little bubbles of bias. And that tends to, on the one hand, convince us that we’ve got the real evidence, and therefore, our information is something we actually know, that is true, and warranted…. But, at the same time, tends to shut us off from evidence that might actually run against what we tend to think.

HEFFNER: And in that sense, that epitomizes, to my mind, anti-social behavior. It’s not in the public interest to … fragment the electorate, and yet, in most instances, that’s what the media does. You say here, “Understanding is what we have when we know not only the what, but the why, and the why leads you to ask questions that are framed in a certain moral context.” So, as the philosopher, I was going to ask you, how do we extricate ourselves from those bubbles, but I’ll ask you a different question first, which is, knowing that those bubbles exist, what to your mind explains the opposite, um, the, the polarization of our morality that veers us to two totally separate sets of questions, when answering, what is that understanding?

LYNCH: Okay, good. So, uh, I’d like to talk about understanding a little bit more in just a second, but let me just pick up from what you, the question you just asked, which I think is a really good one. How do we get to this sort of deeply polarized place? There’s lots of explanations. One of, one is the one that you mentioned, which is that we’re divided over values. And that division over values is not something that’s necessarily bad. I mean, in a democracy, it would be sort of suspicious if we all ended up agreeing all the time. I mean, part of the joy of democracy, when it works well, is that it helps us navigate through our differences in values, and those differences can sometimes be very healthy.

What I think is unhealthy is that we’ve now gone from dev-disagreeing over values, moral values, to disagreeing over … the facts. And more than that, more than that, disagreeing over whose view about how to tell what the facts are is correct: How to get at the facts. That’s the disagreement over the standards of evidence that I was talking about before. And when you and I, if you and I were to get into a debate, where we were disagreeing not only o-, over how we see the world, or how we value it, but actually disagreeing over whose sources are reliable, whose view of how to figure out what the facts are is the right one, it’s really hard to know how to fight your way back from there. Because, at that point, anything I mention to support my view is going to be seen by you as suspicious.

HEFFNER: And just, for our viewers, examples would include, uh, years ago, if you cited Wikipedia, well that’s just public, uh, public exposure, basically.

LYNCH: Right.

HEFFNER: Now, it’s a vetted, scholarly source of information—

LYNCH: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: —such that someone might say to you, “Oh that’s just left-wing propaganda,” right?

LYNCH: Right, exactly.

HEFFNER: Now, uh, the liberals who are watching Fox News may say, these are opinion hosts and anchors, who have a certain worldview. But let me get at something you said before. As you said, it’s, it’s not necessarily disagreeable or antithetical to our democracy to have two sets of competing values. But what if one set of those values is … uncivilized? I mean, what, is, is that what we’re looking at in the context of this election?

LYNCH: I think a lot of us fear that it actually is. I, I wouldn’t go so str-, I, I, I think saying that it’s uncivilized might be a step farther than I want to go, just because I don’t want to say that the people who are disagreeing with me, let’s say in my political views are, uh, necessarily barbarians. Not that you were insinuating that. But maybe that betrays my, [LAUGHS], implicit bias towards civilization.

I do think that some of the values that people are now acting on, and that includes some of the values having to do with evidence, the values that we have for different standards of evidence, some of those values are very deeply undermining of the democratic process.

When you start thinking that, uh, protestors, for example, at political conventions need to be bullied, or perhaps deserve to be punched in the face, as one recent, uh, was, a presidential candidate, uh, [CHUCKLES], whose name I don’t need to mention, has recently said. Then what we’re actually doing is not supporting the values of deliberation or discussion. We’re, actually, in a sense, overtly, trying to get around them, and devalue them. And so, in that sense, I think you’re right. That, uh, however we describe it, this is not in the service of democracy.

HEFFNER: It’s a conundrum, because you could say a testament to that is the fact that there is such division and derision within Republican ranks, a-, and I would hate to surmise, or, err, uh, tell the audience that it is the Republican elites who are civilized, and the voters who are uncivilized, right, who are attending these rallies—

LYNCH: Right.

HEFFNER: And I, and I don’t want my comments to reflect that point of view, other than establishing there is a tacit, if not explicit acceptance of barbaric behavior.

LYNCH: Right. One of the things that we see, one of the reasons that I think we’re troubled by this lack of civility and lack of open-mindedness … is because we see it as not just representing values that are antithetical to democracy, but also as representing values that seem closer to what some of us ca-, would call fascism.

Now the, the, the uniforms haven’t yet come out, [LAUGHS], but, uh, some of us are waiting with bated breath for when that might happen. So, I do worry that, uh, the issues that you’re pointing to are actually out there. Now one, one of the things I think we need to think about here is, what is it in our belief system, or some of our belief system, what i-, what is it in our culture that’s encouraging this sort of behavior? What are the, what, what is it that we might point to, not just in, let’s say, some of the voters who are supporting this candidate, but in the entire culture, to make us think that this sort of behavior, this sort of disc-, uh, lack of discussion, this sort of incitement to violence, is suddenly seen as appropriate. And I think one of the things that we’re seeing, one of the reasons, uh, that we’re seeing so much receptivity to this, is precisely because of the culture that we all participate in, and I participate in, on things like social media.

HEFFNER: Explain.

LYNCH: Uh, well, I am a, uh, I’m a person who uses Twitter, I use Facebook, like most of the people who are going to be listening to this program. I’m wedded to my iPhone, and I have more computers than I care to admit. So, I’m a full participant in the open, so-called, society of the internet. But the open society of the internet, which promised, in its early days, to be, to democratize knowledge, to open up information for all of us, has only partly fulfilled that promi-, that promise. It’s also, as, I think, a lot of us know, and actually, I think a lot of young people know better than, than myself, is that it also has, as we say, a dark side. And the dark side is the, the side that we see raging on chat forum discussions. And fram-, allowing people to frame views that would’ve been conceived at one point as way off the table, as views that can be seen as having a backing. Having a, their own website.

If we think about the amount of, the, the great use that, uh, white supremacist groups have been able to put the web, we see an example of what I’m talking about.

HEFFNER: And you also cite in the book examples of data that’s distorted in such a way to misrepresent reality. And so it’s malicious in two senses.

LYNCH: Indeed. One of the things that we do tend to see is that, I mean, one way that I put it is that the internet is the world’s greatest fact –checker, but it’s also the world’s greatest bias-confirmer at the very same time.

HEFFNER: Or, [LAUGHS], if you’re being less generous, it’s also an alternate universe of—

LYNCH: Right. That’s right, I mean it, it allows us to create alternate universes, allows us to create these little bubbles, where we, where people feel safe to talk about, uh, incredibly damaging and divisive, and, uh, downright racist and sexist opinions.

HEFFNER: The vigilantism of this election.

LYNCH: Right, well, you think about that as sort of feeding right out of the vigilantism that we see in our digital online life. The norms, in other words, that we’re adopting in that life, the digital life, are, are, not surprisingly, affecting the norms that we’re living our political life by. They’re becoming one and the same norms. And in some ways, that’s really great, because, I do want to emphasize that there’s no doubt about it, that the internet has democratized information, in the sense that it has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before. But—

HEFFNER: Well that, the, again, the rub, because if it’s access to faulty data, then it is really democratization, or is it the opposite of—

LYNCH: Uh, indeed. The information that’s out there is so, uh, available to us, so available to us in a very intimate way, right there in our pockets, right there on our wrists, that it leads to a sort of epistemic overconfidence—epistemic meaning, overconfidence about what we think we know. We tend to think that we know more than we do, because we have it, we think, right there. I mean, Google has become our sort of, uh, epistemic pacifier. It’s made us feel so comfortable with the fact that we can access what we think are the facts at any moment.

I mean, we see this in all sorts of ways. I mean, how many times have you been at a party or, uh, you know, at a bar, and somebody gets into a dispute over facts. Might be baseball, and then we run to the phones, to see who’s right and who’s wrong. And that can be annoying, but we all do it. And what does that say? Well that says that nowadays, uh, where we used to think that, you know, seeing is believing, now we think googling is believing, and that increases or makes us overconfident in ways that I think allow us to be easily manipulated by those who desire to do so.

HEFFNER: That’s the what, when you google and find an answer. That’s not necessarily the why. In most instances, it’s not the why—

LYNCH: Right.

HEFFNER:—you write, “So understanding,” uh, into your deep dive, you write, “So understanding is a kind of knowing that involves grasping relationships, the network or parts and whole.”

LYNCH: The reason that I say in the book that we know more, and in a sense, as I was just saying, we do, in one sense of know, know more. Um, because of the digital life that we all live. But we don’t necessarily understand more, and by understanding, I mean exactly what you were talking about. To understand something, I need to understanding how some fact depends on some other set of facts.

So, for example, to understand why, uh, a particular disease like ebola, spreads in the way that it does, in the way that a scientist does understand that, is to understand the underlying, in that case, underlying causes. To understand how a particular proof follows from, uh, a set of theorems, is to understand why there are, there are certain logical connections between various propositions.

And to understand why a particular political candidate may say this or that, you need to understand why, what depends, wha-, how they’re, what they’re saying depends on the political context that they’re in now. All of these things require going past just a list of facts, which is what Google is really good at giving us.

It gives us—and that can be a great basis for understanding, of course it can be. Just like a textbook can be. But you’re not going to go deeper. You’re not going to under-, you’re not going to see how things fit together, if you’re not willing to go past just the list of facts, and start to ask critical questions about why it’s this, depends on that, as opposed to the other way around.

HEFFNER: You point to, in your Times op-ed, an example of—which I alluded to at the … at the beginning of the conversation, Senator Rubio encouraging voters to Google a question of Donald Trump’s employment practices. Uh, in this case, allegedly, and factually based—

LYNCH: Right.

HEFFNER: —at least partially, according to PolitiFact, uh, the, the illegal hiring of undocumented workers at one of his resorts. And the fact that, despite the rating Politi-, PolitiFact assessed, it didn’t yield any greater consciousness. And it’s emblematic of our discussion.

LYNCH: In that debate, and earlier debates, uh, various candidates, and the news media, called out Donald Trump on saying things that were just factually incorrect. They encouraged, as Marco Rubio did, to, for people to look it up themselves.

Trump has no fear of contradiction. He has no fear of contradiction, and that is a very useful thing in a land where we’re constantly be-, being bombarded by contradictory information.

HEFFNER: Right, and—

LYNCH: Uh, just, because, if you think about it, co-, anything follows from a contradiction. Anything. If I say to you, 2 plus 2 equals 4, but it doesn’t, well, one can logically derive anything. So that, that allows the, when contradictions are espoused, it allows people to draw the inferences that they want. To see whatever they want in what he’s saying. And that’s, once you realize that, that can be a very useful tool to the person who is not afraid of being caught up in inconsistency.

HEFFNER: Also, understanding less, is a consequence, I think I agree with Jill Lepore, of a politics that is personality and ego-driven—


HEFFNER: —in so many instances. So when, this is a contemporary history of the philosophy surrounding the subject, but whe-, when do you think that we became desensitized … at, at the expense of our focus on personality, we became desensitized to that paradox or that contradiction—
LYNCH: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That we just put our head in the sands, effectively.

LYNCH: Right. Well, in this sense, I, uh, maybe, uh, a little bit different than Jill, I think that human beings have always had a penchant for following the strong personality. Uh, I think human beings are probably hard-wired, to some extent, to be, uh, attracted to the person who has the loudest voice in the room.

I also think it’s, it’s sadly true that human beings are really good at, uh, ignoring the evidence, and going, picking out, cherry picking the evidence, uh, so that it conforms with what they think. And I think there’s been a lot of evidence from psychology in the last hundred years to show that. What’s changed, I think, is the medium that allows the ego to convey itself to the public stage. We’ve never lived in a time where people have a better ability to get right in the heads of other people. To touch their emotions—

HEFFNER: I think it’s fair to say—

LYNCH: —in the way that we do.

HEFFNER: —that the media have not been … as able to perpetuate that cycle in, in, in the Luddites’ world. And we, we both participate in social media—

LYNCH: Right.

HEFFNER: —but have this fantasy, or at least are sympathetic to the Luddite, in that context, right. And I think it’s in this particular context of, you run an institute dedicated to humility, the values of humility, and the values of conviction. And today, in the way manifestly that the media handle these subjects, that they can’t, they can’t reconcile the two. Is, it, what, what is, what do you envision in terms of truth, lies, and the future of this internet age, as the vehicle through which we can reconcile the desire to have conviction but also humility?

LYNCH: You’re right. The institute that I run, the Humanities Institute, is just launching a large project, uh, that is dedicated to trying to figure out how to balance humility with conviction in public life. By humility here, I mean … what we might call epistemic or intellectual humility. And, uh, by that I mean, being willing to see your own belief system as open to improvement, which is both something that we value in ourselves and others, but also in democracy. We want our citizens to be able to exchange reasons for their views. And we want to see ourselves, uh, at least some of the time, as, [LAUGHS], being able to change for the better.

At the same time, of course, it’s really as you just said, it’s really important, in democracy and otherwise, to have convictions. You can’t have a democracy if people are just lounging around, being apathetic. Right now, we see plenty of conviction, [LAUGHS], in the presidential debate. Not a lot of humility.

Now the question you asked was, what’s the vehicle for improvement? Well, I think, perhaps paradoxically, part of that vehicle for improvement is the very media landscape and the, uh, Twitterverse that w-, I’ve been so far criticizing. Because I think, there’s no getting around, it’s not going away. I don’t want it to go away. I think that the ability that we have to get inside each others’ heads, as I said, can have a dark side, but can also have a really good side. And so part of what we need to do, surely, is figure out how to get the norms and values that we think allow for that balance of humility and conviction to play a role on, in the, uh, the world of the digital world in which we live.

And I think that one way of doing that, is to try to get people to see, uh, through education, the value of having discussions like this. So one of the things that my project is doing is funding hi-, uh, uh, uh, a summer institute for high school teachers, bringing them into the Institute to talk about how to teach divisive issues in their classrooms in high school. Issues like climate change, race, um, and, uh, evolution, and so forth, in ways that allow the students to actually get their convictions on the table, but also see that, uh, maybe some of those convictions can be open to improvement.

HEFFNER: And, and I think that this last, unfortunately, that last answer in our conversation, for which I thank you, Michael, uh, underlies that, um, basic point that in order to have conviction or humility, you need a value system, a belief system. And that, my friend, may explain the present circumstance. Because if you, uh, absent a belief system—

LYNCH: Right. Absent a belief system, you have nothing to improve. And that is, you know, one of the things that, yeah, I think we both worry about is the fact that, yeah, there’s the people out there with convictions. There’s also the people who, and there’s always like this, and sometimes all of us are like this, just, you know, some of us are apa-, all of us are apathetic about some things that we should be, have more conviction about. I mean, I certainly can say that for myself.

But being apathetic or lacking conviction, lacking interest, lacking a value system, allows you to be pushed around by those who do have the conviction. And especially by the people who have conviction and lack humility.

HEFFNER: Michael, pleasure having you on the show.

LYNCH: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.