Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Useless Information is Useless
The word “truth” has a lot of emotional appeal: we don’t fancy being called out as liars, or seen as misguided and misled, or feeling ignorant. We want to be curious and inquisitive. Inquiring minds want to know! Actually, that’s just a pose. We want to have lots of interesting, original stories with which to entertain each other. These stories can be funny or touching, or they can be used to make us look brave or purposeful or erudite and generate a feeling of gravitas: great things are afoot, nothing is really as it seems, and we are among the few who are in the know.
In our youth we tend to be idealistic and rebellious, but the traditional recourse to beating up members of the neighboring tribes is now frowned upon, forcing us to fight imaginary battles. A popular one is attempting to slay the three-headed dragon of government propaganda, mass-media lies and disinformation spread by ignorant educationalists. Amateur sleuths are apt to say that they do it “for the love of truth.”
That sort of truth has almost nothing to do with the abstract and delicate machinery (both logical and physical) that underlies the pursuit of absolute, clinical certainty. Its use is so exacting and demanding (and expensive) that truth has to be carefully rationed. It is mainly used in high-risk endeavors where imprecision can be deadly. Get a number wrong, and the ship runs aground, or the nuclear reactor explodes, or a building collapses. The rest of the time rough approximations and rules of thumb are plenty good enough.
Where extreme precision is required, there is just one overarching emotion: the fear of not knowing the right answer, or of getting it wrong. Once that fear is overcome, there may be a less fraught emotion associated with finding an optimum answer within the solution space (where time and budget allow) but it is still tinged with fear—this time, of being accused of gold-plating or of milking the job or of making a hobby of it. Those who lack this fear are often said to be “out to lunch.” I was in engineering school when the Challenger space shuttle exploded on takeoff, and the dean of engineering assembled us, ordered a minute of silence, and then said: “This is what happens when engineers fuck up: people die.” That’s basically it in a nutshell: the opposite of the exact truth, known to several decimal places, isn’t lies, or ignorance, or distortion; it is death.
If truth (as in, the real, observed and recorded, precisely measured or counted, provable truth) were pursued all the time, just because it feels good to know the truth, the world would run out of money. This, by the way, can be a problem for basic science: since it treats knowledge as a value (meaning, don’t you dare put a price tag on it!) more research is always needed until the grant money runs out.
But knowledge, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; concretely, the product of scientific research is information. Is it useful information, and is information useful generally? That depends on whether we can act on it. If we can’t, we can still simply enjoy it, finding it interesting or aesthetically pleasing, but that’s a useless luxury. There are lots of interesting and aesthetically pleasing things that aren’t true. They are just as good and generally much cheaper.
If we can act on it—use it in making decisions—then how much does it matter whether the information is, strictly speaking, true? What matters to us is the outcome, and a positive outcome achieved through a decision based on an erroneous piece of data is in general just as good. What’s more, although we like to think that our lives result from our conscious decisions, most often they are the result of accidents. If the accidents are happy ones, then we are happy about them.
Would better information help us make better decisions, or to avoid mistakes? Perhaps, but people tend to make changes when they feel that anything at all would be better than more of the same, and that’s not information—that’s a feeling. And people do make mistakes, lots of them, all the time, but usually the same ones over and over again, information be damned. They decide to light yet another cigarette—based on which bit of brilliant research? Or they make the mistake of going to work every day, to a job they don’t like, instead of investing their energies in figuring out how to not have to. How would having better information help them?
Still, inquiring minds want to know, and there is no better bait for idle curiosity than 9/11. It is sufficient to say “Sure, 2 planes knocked down 3 skyscrapers” and instantly lots of inquiring minds demand do know what you think really happened. Obviously, you don’t know; you probably weren't even there. But you may have a keen sense of bullshit. There’s archival footage that nobody is challenging, and it shows two instances of what look like local earthquakes, followed by a tall skyscraper disappearing vertically into a hole in the ground at freefall acceleration. Most of its steel is instantly incinerated to a fine iron oxide powder that billowed out in a giant cloud and settled in a thick layer all over lower Manhattan. It shows a third skyscraper destroyed in a textbook example of controlled demolition, with its owner on record saying that he decided to “pull it” (a demolition industry term for detonation). Add to this the ample clinical evidence of those present at the site after the event later succumbing of ailments associated with exposure to ionizing radiation. Add to that Russian satellite images showing two craters full of very hot molten material. That’s some puzzling evidence, wouldn’t you say?
Do I know what really happened? Of course not! But I don’t need to know. There is absolutely nothing I can do to act on such information if I did have it in my possession. What do I know? Well, I feel quite certain that those who think they know what happened that day in fact don’t. This is important for me to know, because it is information I can act on: I can avoid getting dragged into pointless discussions with them—on this topic, or, for that matter, on any other, because, clearly, they are eager to keep making the same mistake over and over again—the mistake of wasting their energies on attempting to obtain information they won’t be able to act on.