The multiplicity of truth during the era of the Internet

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Andrew Montalenti seems to think that truth is possible in the era of the Internet:

I believe that in the Internet Era, we don’t have a weakened notion of truth, but we just have a messier view of how the sausage is actually made. We have public debate leading to consensus on some issues, and more contention on others. When the debate doesn’t end in a way that is satisfactory for a big enough group of passionate people, they may just manufacture their own version of the truth. Like a vast, radical feminist educational conspiracy taking over our public school system. However, it’s then on other truth-tellers — hopefully ones with authority and audience — to point out how wrong they are.

It is worth noting, it is possible for a society to go several centuries without achieving consensus on some particular issue. For instance, in the USA, racial issues have lacked a consensus for 400 years.

Moreover, since the invention of the printing press at Gutenburg, each decrease in the price of publishing has lead to a permanent increase in the variety of truths to which people ascribe to.

At one point I had a great interest in the Protestant Reformation. Several historians have argued that the Reformation was the natural outcome of the invention of the printing press. The printing press made the Bible cheap enough that most people could read it themselves, and once they read it for themselves, they began to form their own opinions about it.

We could use the growth in the number of Christian sects as a cheap heuristic for measuring the number of different “truths” in the world. The growing diversity of Christian sects has, at all times, been a reflection of the price of publishing. The original printing press gave us the Reformation. The standardization of font faces, and their mass production, gave us cheaper publishing in the 1700s, and a lot of new Christian sects (the Methodists and the Unitarians survive to this day, but there were dozens that were forgotten). During the 1800s, the railroads made it possible to engage in lumbering on a scale never known before, and by providing a national market, it allowed the mass production of paper, which drove the price down. And again there was an explosion of the new Christian sects (many of which have disappeared, but Christian Science and the Mormons and many others survive).

The falling price of publishing brings a permanent increase in the diversity of people’s beliefs about “the truth”. (One could compare it to an eco-system, which becomes more diverse as it becomes bigger) And the Internet is simply an extension of that trend: by making publishing cheaper than ever before, it is bringing about the biggest ever expansion in the diversity of truth.

Nor is the expansion in diversity of truth limited to religion. You can see it just as clearly in scientific research. Over the last 100 years there has been an explosion in the number of journals that allow researchers of all kinds to publish their work. And this has lead to a great expansion in issues of commensurability that Thomas Kuhn wrote about. I’ll here post Wikipedia’s definition:

Commensurability is a concept, in philosophy of science, whereby scientific theories are commensurable if scientists can discuss them in terms permitting direct comparison of theories to determine which theory is truer. On the other hand, theories are incommensurable if they are embedded in starkly contrasting conceptual frameworks whose languages lack sufficiently overlapping meanings to permit scientists to directly compare the theories or to cite empirical evidence favoring one theory over the other. Discussed by Ludwik Fleck in the 1930s, and popularized by Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s, the problem of incommensurability results in scientists talking past each other, as it were, while comparison of theories is muddled by confusions about terms’ contexts and consequences.

Biology offers an example. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, argued that evolution was driven by the individual gene’s desire to reproduce itself. However, he didn’t suggest a mechanism whereby the genes can promote themselves. The later discovery of “promoter genes” helped provide Dawkins with a mechanism — here are genes that are useless and yet still manage to promote themselves into the next generation — but they also undermined Dawkins argument, because it became clear organisms had to protect themselves from promoter genes, otherwise an organism would soon consist only of useless genes. This undercut the argument that gene promotion could drive evolution. Meanwhile writers such as Stephan Jay Gould argued that evolution could only effect the manifestations of genes, never he genes themselves — evolution might create a knee or an eyeball, but these are created through the interactions of thousands of genes, so surely it is groups of genes, acting in concert, that become the agents of evolution. Then came epi-genetics, which lead to even greater disagreements about the role of genes in evolution, and, in particular, what was cause, and was is effect? These are questions that biologists are still hotly debating, and the Internet has allowed intelligent amateurs to enter the debate to a greater degree than before.

You might wonder, wasn’t there an era of consensus in science? Yes, that is what Clay Shirky is talking about: it was a consensus created by scarcity. In the 1600s there were very few scientists, so their scarcity allowed the better known one’s to establish a consensus. The consensus was a veneer of agreement over the growing diversity of truths that people believed in.

There will always be some scientists who are useful to the state, and therefore gain the official endorsement of the establishment. Here it is worth considering the different fate faced by Galileo and Newtown: Galileo died imprisoned, whereas Newton died a national hero, and their different fates were a product of the different political regimes they lived under. But where a government finds a particular brand of science useful, we can say that the state will play a role in establishing the legitimacy of the views of those favored scientists. The government of England, in the 1700s, was willing to celebrate those researchers (Richard Towneley, Henry Power, Robert Boyle, Issac Newtown, etc) whose breakthroughs in math and physics had allowed enough understanding of gases to understand how to operate a pump at depth, and thus allow deep coal mines, and thus allow the cheap coal that would be needed to power the Industrial Revolution. And likewise, today, in the USA, the National Science Foundation has to give funding to someone, and the process they use for deciding who to fund plays a central role in creating the illusion of consensus. But this funding is scarce, and therefore it can rely on some of the mechanisms that Clay Shirky says are dying out in other areas.

The model then, that I have in my mind, is one where the falling cost of publishing leads to a growth in the diversity of beliefs that people regard as true, and therefore a growth in problems of commensurability, but the various economic and scientific and business and political elites that make up society typically find some truths more useful than others, and can play a role in establishing a consensus, which is never more than a veneer of agreement over a growing range of disagreements. To see where this process breaks down, consider climate change. Here, the economic and scientific and business and political elites are sharply divided on “truth” or even on what framework should be used to decide what facts are valid. Here is a case where the lack of consensus becomes obvious, and perhaps in its absence we can better appreciate what forces lead to the creation of consensus in the presence of disagreements. Consensus is always a political process, it never arises from “the facts” since people will always disagree about which facts are admissible. A country with a strong political consensus can achieve the illusion of consensus in other areas as well, such as science, but a society that is politically sharply torn will find other forms of consensus difficult to achieve (such as a consensus on climate change) .

So I would disagree with Andrew. In the era of the Internet, we very much have a weakened notion of truth — the chance of agreement on one truth declines as the price of publishing declines.

I would also disagree with him when he says:

This is why I believe journalism is more important in this era of Internet media than it has been in any other. The only way to fight feelings is with arguments supported by facts. Everyday citizens don’t have the time to gather these facts, do the research, and craft the arguments. It needs to be a dedicated, professional role. And it’s a role with high demand — citizens don’t want to be misled by propaganda. In the same way they don’t want to mis-diagnose their own diseases or lose their own court cases.

But if there was high demand for serious journalism, then surely the media outlets doing serious journalism would be profitable? And of course, the opposite seems to be true — serious journalism is in serious decline.

I suspect the future will continue past trends: there will be a growing diversity of beliefs about what is true, combined with moments of consensus (around particular issues) whenever there arises a political super-majority that is able to enforce a consensus for those issues. (But again, it is worth noting, it is possible for a society to go several centuries without achieving consensus on some particular issue. For instance, in the USA, racial issues have lacked a consensus for 400 years.)

Post external references

  1. 1
  2. 2