Who can you trust nowadays? People have likely being saying that for millennia, but it’s worth asking again, I think -although perhaps ‘what can you trust?’ is equally relevant.
When I was a child, and read something in the bathroom’s Reader’s Digest library, I was pretty sure I had plumbed the Truth. Very seldom did I have to head to the Encyclopedia Britannica to check the veracity -mainly because, at first, we didn’t have one, and the library was downtown.
It was, perhaps, a simpler time, and at seven years of age and buried in the antediluvian Manitoba prairie city of Winnipeg my ability to apply any critical analytic skills was still embryonic. I was pretty sure that Santa Claus was only a parental belief, and my own trust in the tooth fairy was, in the words of Samuel Johnson (which I had read in one particularly salient article from the bathroom bookshelf), a triumph of hope over experience. The fairy was already several teeth in arrears.
But at that age, you have to trust somebody, eh? I found my teacher to be a significant source of information that I assumed was sufficiently well founded that I could trust it. Miss Grundy would bustle into the room and start writing things on the blackboard in squeaky chalk, but usually only those of us who sat in the front row were good enough readers to decipher it. Most of it was stuff like the name of the day and the date, but often she would print out what she intended to teach that morning -in case the back row forgot I guess.
Anyway, one morning she decided to teach something that to this day I still remember. She wrote the word ‘ENGLISH’ in capital letters and proceeded to tell us a bit about the language that we all spoke -in those days, at least. She asked the front row if we knew anything about our accents. We all looked around at each other, wondering what she meant. We spoke English; what was she getting at?
“An accent is a particular way of pronouncing words.” She unleashed her arms for a moment for emphasis. “How many of you have had visitors from other provinces or countries and noticed they pronounced things differently than you?”
A few arms went up rather hesitantly, I remember. We weren’t daft -of course people from other places spoke differently -that’s how you knew they were from different places, eh?
And then she smiled and crossed her arms over her ample bosom, and said the thing I have never forgotten: “You children are special,” she said, sending her eyes to survey the whole class, and then letting them perch on the front row. “Winnipeg is the only place in the world that doesn’t have an accent.”
It seemed like an obvious truth at the time, but as the clock and our ages moved on, doubt crept in. Actually, I suspect that the innocent smile she plastered on her face, and the way she stood that day was the germ of my still unbloomed critical faculties. I began to suspect that not everybody knew what they were talking about. I was pretty sure I could trust the Reader’s Digest, but when I eventually realized that inadvertent deception had even extended its fingers as far as my United Church Sunday School, I knew that I had to be careful. I later convinced my father to buy an admittedly used version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for the bathroom. It consisted of several rather heavy volumes though, and looking things up in it required unconscionable time, so we settled on leaving it on the coffee table beside the sofa in our living room. But anyway, I used it to fact-check stuff; our dinner conversations were careful affairs after that. I’m not sure what they talked about after I went to bed, however.
At any rate, I was reminded of those days when I happened upon a short essay by Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher and a tenured senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. https://aeon.co/ideas/say-goodbye-to-the-information-age-its-all-about-reputation-now
As she observes, ‘There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.’
Looking back, the problem, of course, was who would bell the cat? I mean who in Grade 2 would be willing to take on Miss Grundy? Not those of us in the front row, that’s for sure. And yet, ‘reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.’ We at least knew Miss Grundy and she was the one whose judgement would allow us to move up to Grade 3 -you don’t mess with that kind of gatekeeper.
But the problem remained: how did she know about accents? Maybe she read it somewhere, in which case we were already twice-removed from the source. And could we trust the source?
Ultimately reputation has to play a role. As Origgi suggests, ‘Whenever we are at the point of accepting or rejecting new information, we should ask ourselves: Where does it 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?… In the reputation age, our critical appraisals should be directed not at the content of information but rather at the social network of relations that has shaped that content and given it a certain deserved or undeserved ‘rank’ in our system of knowledge.’
According to Frederick Hayek, a British philosopher and economist, ‘civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’ I like that. In fact, I remember going home that afternoon after Miss Grundy’s pronouncement and leafing through six trusted Reader’s Digest books in the bathroom to see if they had anything to say about it accents. Unfortunately they were disappointingly silent on the issue, so I skipped to the section on jokes. I was only seven, eh…?