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29 September 2021

In a world of information overload, the challenge is to avoid being driven mad

The over-abundance of knowledge provided by the internet means that it’s harder than ever to protect consensus from critique.

By Louise Perry

short story by the Norwegian writer Tor Åge Bringsværd tells the tale of a man who decides that there is too much information in the world. Try as he might, he can’t keep up with it, since more and more information is being produced every moment. 

For Bringsværd’s protagonist, reading a daily newspaper is problematic as no one can properly delve into the truth of what they read. “He who consumes too much news has no time for boiling, frying, or chewing it over” he observes, “but is obliged to swallow everything raw and whole.” 

So the man decides to focus on the news of just one day, the 1 September 1973, and attempt to understand it fully. He fills his flat with newspaper clippings, scrapbooks and tape recordings from the day, but eventually comes to realise that even this carefully delineated epistemic task is impossible. One day, a fire destroys both his flat and his strange archive. The man is confined to an asylum, still babbling away about the 1 September 1973. 

Imagine if that poor man had lived in the internet age. We now routinely walk around with computers in our pockets that give us access to far more information than any person could ever hope to consume. Processing all the information relevant to our daily decision making – “boiling, frying, or chewing it over” – is beyond us, and so we depend on shortcuts, whether that be the wisdom of our peer group, the editorial line of our preferred media outlets or the official guidance issued by governments. 

[See also: The symbolic politics of Judith Butler are all very well, but sometimes reality interjects]

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Take just one question, of obvious social and political relevance in 2021: do mask mandates significantly reduce the spread of Covid-19? The UK government says yes, following an initial period of uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, when England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty was among those advising the public not to wear masks

The UK public are now, in general, pro-mask. In July, a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Economist found that most respondents thought that mask mandates should stay in place for at least a further month, with 40 per cent expressing support for permanent masking in shops and on public transport. 

But there is a noisy minority who vehemently disagree, and although they go against the majority of public health experts, many of them are nonetheless paying close attention to the mountains of information now available on the impact masks have on reducing the spread of Covid.

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For six months last year, a group of academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wellesley College investigated online communities of anti-mask protesters and activists in the US. The paper summarising the investigation states that although the sceptics’ conclusions are scientifically unorthodox, their methods are not. 

Anti-maskers, it appears, tend to use the same public datasets as those used by official bodies, and analyse them with care. This information can be found online which means that anyone can access it, and the study suggests that these online communities have adopted a radically egalitarian vision of science as a collective project that can evolve, rather than a truth that is delivered down to the public by institutions such as universities and government agencies. As the authors write: 

“[A]nti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries, who espouse naïve realism about the ‘objective’ truth of public health data.”

These sceptics have taken the same information as their opponents, then boiled it, fried it, chewed it over, and arrived at the opposite set of conclusions. What’s more, the internet has given them access to likeminded allies, enabling collaboration and organisation. 

Should we be worried about this? Well, it depends – in part on one’s own attitude towards authority. The authors of this particular study, despite acknowledging the rigour of the anti-maskers’ methods, are dismayed by the amateurs’ success in competing against public health messaging. The authors compare them to climate change deniers and Tobacco lobbyists. Yes, they admit that “follow the science” is a facile slogan when the science is growing and changing all the time – but that doesn’t excuse bad faith actors who exploit the inherent uncertainty of the scientific method to mislead or sow doubt. 

At the same time, there is an energy to these online spaces that I can’t help but respect. And it’s not only anti-maskers who are offering alternative interpretations of scientific data online. As the mother of a four-month-old baby, I am often in need of parenting wisdom, and while I might once have been limited to the women in my immediate vicinity, I now have access to the joys and perils of online expertise. 

There are a lot of parenting philosophies out there, all backed up by their own suite of evidence – some of which go against mainstream advice, to the point of occasionally being dangerous. But then pick up a parenting manual from the 1950s – when, for instance, mothers were sometimes advised not to breastfeed, but instead to use formula – and it becomes apparent how changeable mainstream advice can be. 

Not all dissidents will see themselves vindicated, of course, but we should remember that one era’s consensus is very often another era’s claptrap. Societies have always depended on the disagreeable people who refuse to accept mainstream ideas, even though they are often disliked, and sometimes persecuted. It’s these people who hold dodgy ideas to account. 

The over-abundance of knowledge provided by the internet means that it’s harder than ever to protect consensus from critique. The challenge is to avoid being driven mad by too much information. 

[See also: The Covid-19 lab leak hypothesis proves it matters what – and who – defines a conspiracy theory]