Editor’s note: This column is excerpted and reprinted with permission from Aeon.co. Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan world view. Read the full article HERE.
A paradox plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected democracies: The greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. Increased access to information and knowledge does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, we become dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations.
We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the “information age,” we are moving toward the “reputation age,” in which information has value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others.
We rely on the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.
REPUTATION IS THE GATEKEEPER TO KNOWLEDGE, AND THE KEYS TO THE GATE ARE HELD BY OTHE
Some examples of this paradox are:
- Climate change: In the best-case scenario, you trust the reputation of scientific research and believe that peer-review is a reasonable way of sifting out “truths” from false hypotheses. In the average-case scenario, you trust newspapers, magazines or TV channels to summarize scientific findings for you. In this latter case, you are twice removed from the sources: you trust other people’s trust in reputable science.
- Moon landings: One of the most notorious conspiracy theories is that we didn’t send a man to the moon in 1969; instead, the entire Apollo program — including six landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972 — was a staged fake. The initiator of this conspiracy theory was Bill Kaysing, who worked in publications at the Rocketdyne company – where Apollo’s Saturn V rocket engines were built. At his own expense, Kaysing published the book “We Never Went to the Moon: America’s $30 Billion Swindle” in 1976. Afterward, a movement of skeptics grew and started to collect evidence about the alleged hoax.
According to the Flat Earth Society, one of the groups that still denies the facts, the moon landings were staged by Hollywood with the support of Walt Disney and under the artistic direction of Stanley Kubrick. Most of the “proof” these conspiracy theorists advance is based on a seemingly accurate analysis of photos of the various moon landings. The shadows’ angles are inconsistent with the light, the U.S. flag blows even if there is no wind on the moon, the tracks of the steps are too precise and well-preserved for a soil in which there is no moisture. And so on.
The great majority of the people — myself included — will dismiss these claims as absurd, although there have been serious and documented responses by NASA to these allegations. Yet, what I personally know about the facts mixes confused childhood memories, black-and-white television news, and deference to what my parents told me about the landing in subsequent years.
My reasons for believing that the moon landing took place go far beyond the evidence I can gather and double-check about the event itself: In those years, the U.S. had a justified reputation for sincerity.
Whenever we are at the point of accepting or rejecting new information, we should ask ourselves: Where does this information come from? Does the source have a good reputation? Who are the authorities who believe it? What are my reasons for deferring to these authorities? These questions will help us to get a better grip on reality than trying to check directly the reliability of the information at issue.
Gloria Origgi is an Italian philosopher and a tenured senior researcher at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, in Paris. Her latest book is “Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters,” translated by Stephen Holmes and Noga Arikha.