KOUTOULAS: Who do you trust?

Published 2:03 pm Friday, August 28, 2020

What follows is an actual — albeit lightly edited — portion of an online conversation I had last week with a social media correspondent. I’ll call the person “Q.”

Me: “That doomsday asteroid you were talking about — it’s actually nothing to get worked up about. NASA has been tracking it for years. It will come close to Earth, but it won’t hit us. And even if it did, it’s so small it would burn up in the atmosphere.”

Q: “No, I read that it could wipe out half the planet.”

Me: “Where did you read that?”

Q: “I don’t remember.”

Me: “So, you have no idea where that information came from, but you choose to believe that, even though the actual experts are saying not to sweat it?”

Q: “Yeah, I don’t trust the so-called ‘experts.’”

Me: “But you trust some random website that you can’t even recall?”

Q: “Yep. I have good sources.”

It went on for a bit, but you get the gist.

I know a little bit about Q, and one thing I know about him is he lives his life in an information bubble. He has certain beliefs and notions about how the world works, and he gets nearly all his information from sources that validate his ideas.

When challenged, his response is to either double-down on his claims without evidence or throw up his hands and claim that nobody knows what’s true anyway, so why does it matter?

It seems to me this is one consequence of our increasingly walled-off lives, and make no mistake, we all do it to some extent.

The modern systems of information delivery and exchange thrive on our tendency to live in isolated information bubbles.

Another consequence is more frightening: many of us can’t seem to differentiate between what is true and what we wish were true.

We can’t even concede the truth that is staring us in the face if it seems to contradict our world view.

These phenomena lead us to make all sorts of irrational decisions.

So-called “anti-vaxxers” refuse to get inoculated for easily-preventable diseases in the face of mountains of data and decades of experience that show vaccines are safe and effective.

Climate-change deniers close their eyes to the mounting evidence that human activity is changing our climate in ways that will lead to considerable economic harm, suffering and mass-extinction.

“Flat-Earthers” — yes, they are really out there — claim that every scientist, astronaut, airline pilot, ship captain and millions of other people have been lying for centuries about the fact that the Earth is spherical and not a flat plane.

The list goes on and on.

Whatever happened to putting trust in people who have spent their careers studying these things?

Why is an advanced education and expertise devalued in the 21st century?

Why do so many people react skeptically to the advice of experts such as scientists and medical doctors while enthusiastically embracing random conspiracy theorists on the Internet?

Why would people rather ask their circle of social media contacts for medical, legal or financial advice rather than a professional in the appropriate field?

I wish I knew the answer.

I certainly don’t think all experts are right all of the time.

There have been, and continue to be, smart, knowledgeable experts who have crackpot beliefs. This often happens when an expert veers into a different field than the one for which they trained.

But the pillars of modern science are built upon the foundational concepts of consensus and self-correction.

When 98 percent of climate scientists agree that human-induced climate change is real, it seems pertinent to listen.

But sometimes even a broad consensus turns out to be wrong. It does happen.

But when better evidence becomes available, that’s when the self-correcting nature of the scientific method comes into play. The system incentivizes outliers to challenge the orthodox view and rewards those who do so successfully.

When all is said and done, we must each choose which version of reality to believe, and that decision profoundly affects the outcomes of our lives: our health, our happiness, our prosperity.

Science and reason have built the modern world, taken us to the moon, cured diseases, increased our lifespan and brought a comfortable and fulfilling way of life to billions of humans.

This is why I trust scientists and other experts. Who do you trust?

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Facebook at fb.me/PeteTheSun.