- Vishesh Kashyap, Editor-in-Chief
During our recent training seminar, I overheard a professor irately recall a viva he had just taken. “I’ve spent half my life leading power plant projects. This kid can hardly distinguish a chimney from a cooling tower, and I know he’s never even been to a plant, far from interning in one. But he dares to tell me that designs have changed nowadays! Based on what? Google Images!”
Increasing awareness of the powers of the internet has had its impact on fields whose knowledge was hitherto limited to dingy corners of large libraries. While the positive effects of making a vast repository of knowledge conveniently available to the general public cannot be understated, so can’t be the illusion of knowledge brought about by an unlimited supply of information.
Nowhere is this illusion more evident than in medicine. One in four people self-diagnoses as an alternative to visiting the doctor. Most of this self-diagnosis is on the internet, where multiple websites are happy to provide tools to identify one’s disease through a series of multiple-choice questions. Online symptom checkers have been found to be accurate only 34% of the time, with the correct diagnosis being a part of the top twenty results in less than 60% cases. The availability of symptomological data on the internet undoubtedly makes the user feel empowered, often enough to be able to question diagnoses of doctors with multiple years of study and practice.
"Uncited data from WhatsApp forwards must now be treated with the same respect as evidence from multimillion-dollar studies, and opinions based on emotions and top-ten Google search results given the same accord as years-mature scholarly arguments."
This confidence forms the basis of the Dunning-Kruger effect (illustration above), a cognitive bias whereby people are unable to assess the limits of their abilities. In terms of knowledge, the less you know, the more you think you do. As your knowledge increases, so does your acceptance of its limits until you have enough of it to recognize your expertise. In an age fuelled by Wikipedia and driven by Google, the relevance of facts has gradually been undermined by popular belief. Uncited data from WhatsApp forwards must now be treated with the same respect as evidence from multimillion-dollar studies, and opinions based on emotions and top-ten Google search results given the same accord as years-mature scholarly arguments.
In 2015, a study conducted in the U.S. asked respondents their opinion on bombing Agrabah. 55% of Democrats and 43% Republicans had a for-or-against opinion on the matter. Agrabah is a fictional city from Disney’s Aladdin. In a post-truth world of alternative facts, the effect of demonstrable evidence on people’s entrenched opinions has continuously been decreasing. Anti-intellectualism has made its most robust global comeback since the end of the Second World War, as multiple dispensations across the world dismiss scholarly opinions and data in favour of ideology. Even in subjects with as clearly verifiable effects as those of global warming and vaccination, millions have been unwilling to cede to strong expert opinion against their own beliefs (often backed up by selectively-Googled articles), putting lives in danger.
"We live in complicated times, menacingly inclined against specialists, yet unable to do without them."
The demise of expertise is hardly the end of experts; it represents the total capitulation of trust in their judgement. Experts themselves are partly to blame – errors in judgement on their part have caused phenomena as devastating as the financial crisis of 2008, and they are often culpable of extending their title to domains they have little knowledge of. Even so, today every aspect of our daily life is governed by devices and processes way past our understanding. We live in complicated times, menacingly inclined against specialists, yet unable to do without them.
If knowledge and evidence fail to matter when faced with feelings, beliefs and often propaganda, the societies that emerge are based on fabrication, misrepresentation and untruth. It befalls the general public, experts included, to protect against this dystopia, and re-establish trust in science, evidence and rationality.