Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Intellectual Commodity--Part II

In part I of this series I attempted to convince you that ideas should be regarded as intellectual commodities no less crucial to the global economy and our everyday lives than material commodities.

To summarize: information, ideas, and knowledge are no different from material commodities. They can be bought, sold, and traded. Those privy to certain valuable knowledge--how to build a fire was the example I used extensively in part I--have, over the course of human history, enjoyed positions of influence, power, and prestige. Furthermore, the value of material commodities such as gold, crude oil, wheat, etc. is largely dependent on knowledge. In ancient times, oil was used only in the making of pitch and asphalt; as such, its value was much lower than it is in today's world. You may attribute this to supply and demand--after all, nearly every human in the developed world depends on oil in one way or another--but this increase in demand is a direct result of scientific discovery.

Without knowledge of combustion, the demand--and value--of fossil fuels dwindles. Likewise for precious metals without knowledge of metallurgy. These are simplistic examples but no less valid. Extrapolate them as you like and you will find the same results.

Without knowledge, there is no demand.

The importance of ideas does not end with their effect on the price of commodities.

Look around you. If you're sitting in your home, chances are you see some furniture, appliances, electronic devices, clothing, dishes, etc. Beyond your possessions you may also notice walls, light-fixtures, carpet, and so on. Brace yourself: everyone of these things was born inside a human mind. The material objects in your life were literally manifested into being from the minds of their creators.

Even when ideas do not manifest themselves in the material world they can still have a significant impact on our lives. The concepts that dictate much of our behaviour--social norms, marriage, employment, laws, government--were not only born inside human minds, they also spend most of their time living there. The concept of family, for example, forms invisible bonds between partners and their children. The concept of employment creates similar bonds (though some might call them shackles) between workers and employers. Remember: these are all ideas, vague notions of how we ought to behave towards and treat the different people in our lives.

Again, the immaterial drives the material.

The importance of ideas cannot be overstated. They are the source of all human works and the glue that holds the great human organism together.

Which brings us to the world we live in today. Humanity's access to information is unprecedented. The advent of the Internet, along with wireless reception, smart-phones, tablets, and lap-top computers, has brought the wealth of human information to our fingertips. The Internet stands at the heart of this techno-information revolution. It is a powerful tool for humanity but it is not without fault. Its greatest strength--widespread access to information, a ready audience for anyone with a voice and Internet connection--is also a glaring weakness.

Everywhere we look we are assaulted with information. No sense-organ is left unmolested.

Finding factual information inside the hive-mind can be challenging. With so many ideas floating around, so many conflicting opinions and views, how can we be sure we are getting the truth? Is there even such thing as objective Truth with a capital "T"? Furthermore, how can we avoid being duped by charlatans and other unscrupulous types looking to purposely mislead us?

Imagine a friend tells you about an article he read recently. "Cigarettes," this friend proclaims, "are actually good for you! Scientists at the University of Kentucky ran a double-blind study proving that the negative effects of tobacco have been grossly exaggerated. They even discovered several benefits to tobacco!"

"But cigarettes are bad," you might reply. "Everyone knows that!"

But how does "everyone know that?" How do we know this information hasn't been falsified for nefarious reasons? What if cigarettes are actually quite good for your health and physicians, seeing that they would be out of business if word got out, banded together to form the most successful smear-job of all time?

Let's face it: none of us have actually conducted research on this matter firsthand. Chances are none of us have even read a single peer-reviewed paper on the topic. We trust secondhand accounts. We trust journalists--experts in communication--to take medical jargon and produce a concise, comprehensible, and honest summary.

Unfortunately journalists are neither scientists nor physicians. Some journalists specialize in particular fields but this does not replace years of medical or scientific training. Journalists also happen to work for capitalist enterprises. Media conglomerates depend on the sensational to sell copies. They also depend on the financial support of other capitalist enterprises in the form of advertisement. What might these media conglomerates do to sell more copies or please certain financiers? Might they falsify the facts, tweak them to make a more captivating headline? Or perhaps they could ignore certain events or topics altogether, or put more emphasis on trivial matters like celebrity gossip.

Okay, I'm not really arguing that cigarettes are good for us or that we've been lied to for decades. With regards to cigarettes, I believe the data is factual. I say "believe" because that is all any of us can ever do.Whenever we express a point of view--that certain commodities will go up in value, that certain diets will make you skinny, that certain ideologies will lead to everlasting life--we are exercising faith, that is belief lacking concrete evidence.

It may sound strange to profess "belief" or "faith" in scientific research; after all, isn't the whole point of the scientific method to eliminate guess-work? To reiterate: unless you personally conducted the experiment and penned the paper yourself, you are exercising faith, not in a deity or supernatural being but in second-hand testimony.

You put your faith in Fox News because, by God, they're unbiased.

The most ardent supporter of the scientific method is indistinguishable from the young-earth creationist. Both exercise faith; only the object of said faith differs.

Disclosure: I am not promoting a purely agnostic stance. I am not suggesting that we live our lives in perpetual uncertainty, unsure of even the most basic truths. What I am proposing is that we exercise caution when faced with conflicting ideas; that we not take one side or another at face value; and that we employ multiple standards of proof when absorbing any piece of information into one's collection.

Standards of proof are like scales that weigh the validity or truth of any given piece of information. There's a ton of them out there and, to confuse matters even further, different people employ (and value) different ones.
Justice may be blind but you don't have to be

Some people put their trust in the scientific method while others refer to personal or anecdotal experience. Many rely on the testimony of spiritual, political, or philosophical leaders. Atheists, for example, love to quote Hitchens and Dawkins while theists tend to quote scripture. "Science proves there is no God!" the atheists cry, frothing at the mouth. "God made science so he doesn't have to follow its rules!" theists counter.

Fear the person who claims to be 100% certain of anything. If history has taught us anything it is that we are more often wrong than right; that our understanding of ourselves, the planet we live on, and the universe that surrounds us comes in small, progressive steps; and that, with each progressive step, human understanding of reality is refined, always driving towards that elusive goal of objective Truth.

Sound familiar? It ought to. This long-term refining process fuels the universe and everything in it. We humans are just one of its many byproducts.

Next week we'll get to my favourite standard of proof: qualifying the source. How can we truly know the validity of information if we do not scrutinize the source of said information first?

(PS. This series on the Intellectual Commodity was actually supposed to be one post but it just kept growing. Now I'm fairly confident I will get it done in three. I like to go on tangents, in case you hadn't noticed. It's quite difficult to tackle metaphysical topics without straying a bit. Hope you guys are getting a mental workout because I know I am! /rant over)

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