Asymmetric Information: Do some people really know better?

Years ago, a mate of mine introduced me to a bit of jargon called “asymmetric information”  which basically means someone knows something and the other person doesn’t.  I have found this concept to be one of the most useful things to think about since, although, I don’t always successfully apply it in a practical sense that bridges the knowledge gap (mine or theirs).

I must admit I am spoiled rotten, too.  My close friends and I are proud nerds that among other things, love fantasy role playing games, science fiction, and debating  science and philosophy. It helps that most of us actually have university qualifications associated with science, and the ones that don’t have spent daily life reading about every technological and scientific advancement that is made public and philosophizing in general.  So it is fair to say we’re all “educated” (whatever that really means). Between us, you might also think that we think we know everything, and consumer culture shows like Big Bang Theory would have some “Penny characters” conclude that we’re all a bunch of Sheldon Coopers with encyclopedic knowledge and no common sense.  You might also think that we’re all upper middle class professionals that have never seen a hard day’s work in our lives or had a problem bigger than making a tit of ourselves in front of a good looking peer.  You would be wrong.

I find the anti-intellectualism within the community generally to be outstandingly ludicrous and self-absorbed.  I also find intellectual elitism to be the same.  Whatever your “Education” level, “IQ”, income, or social status - you have a brain that evolved to think, and it is in your best interests to use it as often as you can and as best as you can. You are no better or worse a person for thinking differently, or not about “pie in the sky” things, or about “pie in the sky things”. But you are a better person for thinking things through in general.  Simply parroting what the man on the TV said, or what some book said, or what some scientist said, or what your friend Jane said - that’s the real stupidity.  I don’t care if you’re a scientist, a shit kicker, a homeless bum, or the Queen of England - you have a brain, so use it. 

Everyone can be wrong, and usually is.  The best we can hope for is to acknowledge when that happens and try harder next time.  If you’re not doing that, you’re an idiot, even if your “IQ” is 300 or you have a Doctorate in Genius.

Nonetheless, someone doesn’t “prove” you wrong just by disagreeing with you - you need a reason, and better yet, evidence. Dissent/disagreement is awesome, but really only when it’s being used to point out an error and/or offer an alternative way of looking at things.  Just saying “no” because you’ve got nothing else to say, want to disrupt the speaker, or happen to feel small and insignificant because they’ve used big words and you can’t be bothered thinking it through yourself, is not dissent.  It’s immature, and it gets no where.  You might as well go back to kindergarten, because I’ve seen five year olds that can construct better arguments than that.  At least with five year olds, when the conversation degenerates into name-calling, they know to apologise afterward and offer each other cookies.  Can’t say the same for many political conversations and so called “debates” occurring lately, both amongst politicians and the media, and everyday constituents like us.  And I would be lying if I said I’ve never fallen into this trap myself.  Gah! Sometimes I piss myself off the most.  But like I said, make a mistake, acknowledge it, try harder next time.

Asymmetric information comes into this too.  Take ‘big words’ as an example.  A lot of the high-fluting pie in the sky type knowledge discussions use jargon; which might as well be a second language.  I still have trouble getting my head around some of the jargon I’m trained to use and understand.  I look at it and I think “surely, there has got to be a clearer, accurate and less wanky way of describing that”  and sometimes there is.  But when you’re trying to wrestle with a concept that is interwoven within a fabric of concepts that contain subtle enough differences to raise epistemological* concerns about scientific methods employed,  it’s easy to see how jargon becomes part of the lingo as much as operational definitions.  Meanwhile, the words might sound like something else that means something else in another context.  So to those who are not fluent in the jargon-language,  they may conclude that the researcher, in this case, is talking about something else entirely.  Journalists do this all the time and it pisses off scientists to no end.

Meanwhile, the journalist posts an article about Some Finding X that sounds absolutely riveting, counter-intuitive, or weird, or even ground breakingly conclusive.  Usually it isn’t.  The research may in fact, be complete and utter crap, or at least some kind of replication or even a pilot study where suggestions for future research mean more than certainty of findings.  But journos and their readership were raised with the school-system ‘science’ thinking, which is that Science Produces Facts And At School We Tell You What Science Produced And It is Therefore Fact and You Must Regurgitate This In Your Exam Or You Suck. About six months into a science degree, or even philosophy, and you’ll start to realise that Most Of What They Teach At School Is Complete Garbage.  And suddenly, you also realise Most Of What I Used To Say/Think Is Complete Garbage and, sometimes even Holy Fuck There Is So Much Idiocy Produced By Misinformation.

Science, is not about certainty, it is about doubt; and the continual doubt that we can know everything used to develop methodological rigour in the means of acquiring what we currently believe to be knowledge.  But most importantly, it is about using our brains and in this case, to be completely and utterly human.  It is as simple as,  asking a bloody question of reality and seeing what the answer is.  If you don’t ask questions, you don’t get answers:  and that’s the problem I am seeing, both with anti-intellectual and elitist camps -  no one is asking questions.  Just a bullshit loop of so and so said therefore X, so and so said, so he’s a poopie head. You don’t agree with me therefore you’re my enemy.  GAH!!!!!!

Fortunately, there are lots of people who can see this is going on, and need not be scientists in the official sense of the term. Usually, however, people of all walks are more quick to point out the mistakes of others than to acknowledge those mistakes in themselves.  I will admit that I am one of those people, and that sometimes it’s rather difficult keeping emotions out if it when someone is foaming at the mouth with utter bullshit and tearing you down simply because you didn’t agree with their often bigoted and delusional diatribes.  So I can understand if sometimes other people get shirty with me too - I’m pretty blunt, and yes, I come across as a know-it-all.  However, I also think that with some things (but not all) I have earned every right to say that I do know what I am talking about, having read up on the nerdiest of the nerdiest depths of the topic since I first got a chance.  I literally read, write, make art, and philosophise every day, and have done so every day constantly, since I first learned to read; with the limited exception of a period of illness that prevented me from doing much of anything, and even then I seemed to be doing it more than my peers.  Is this arrogance?  Maybe.  Am I right in what I say?  Probably not.  And yet,  I can call bullshit if I damn well please, and have some confidence that I’ve at least based that call on something tangible, even if my literary skills lack lustre.

There are other geeks who feel as I do, which is, that we’re sick of people getting up set with us because we actually know stuff.  This kind of anti-intellectualism insults the intelligence of everyone, just as much as the counter-BS “I’m better than you because I have a degree/know stuff” is insulting of people’s intelligence.

If I know better it’s because I bothered to read widely and think about it - and not a damn reason more.  If you know better I anticipate it’s for similar reasons, or at the very least your life experience is so broad as to warrant perspective. So fuck my degree, and fuck your lack of a degree (if this applies), and fuck anti-intellectualism, and fuck intellectual elitism.  Fuck arrogance, fuck trolling, fuck using the word trolling to bring down debate, fuck the lot of it, and fucking fuck the fucking word fuck being a fucking swearword.

You and I don’t know the same things and chances are, we never will.  We’re  different computers programmed to do different things;  processing our own information, and this is asymmetric to each other.  Chances are you know better about a given topic than I, and vice versa.  So we are foolish to assume that either one of us are on the same parity.  To engage in effective communication we need to acknowledge this lack of parity as conducive to learning, not to pretend that our own world views are somehow better than everyone elses.

It’s hard, I know, I fall into the trap myself: “But it’s just so real to me and that person is acting like such a dickhead!!!”  - yet reminding myself of this issue is one of the little things that keep me from going mad and yelling at everyone, and even then barely so.  Thus I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to consider asymmetry in our respective information when trying to ascertain if people know anything, let alone whether or not some people know better.

Maybe through acknowledging this we will ask better questions, have more meaningful conversations, and get some answers.

Remember:  7 billion people, 7 billion perspectives.  We can’t all be right, and chances are, we’re all wrong.

*Epistemology - the study of knowing or how we know things. Different from science, which means knowledge, even though it is more about a method of how it is attained.  I think we’re all scientists because we can all ask questions, and no question is stupid unless 1) you already know the answer  2) your purpose in asking is not about seeking an answer, but rather, seeking a reaction that justifies your existing position.  So questions and answers is my episteme - my belief about how we know things in a nutshell (if you want a more accurate description than that, it’s loooonger than this).

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  1. challengingduelism posted this