Where is the life we have lost in living, wisdom we have lost in knowledge, knowledge we have lost in information
TS Elliot

2 + 2 equals 4, 1 litre of water weights a kilogram, I have a friend named Richard.  These are all truths, which can’t really be disputed.  They are a reality of reality as we know it.  But what about all the other things in the world, which aren’t so obvious and true, like “is nail polish bad for your liver?”.

I was told yesterday that nail polish was bad for your liver, and I asked how. The person couldn’t explain, but they said “you can look online, it’s true”.  So I then typed into my phone “is nail polish bad for your liver?” and clicked on the first 5 results that Google returned.  All of the sites seemed to be generic sites with no references, no background, and as far as I knew, had no reputation.

So, after reading them, how do I draw a conclusion? How does a girl draw a conclusion based off media in which she has no idea if they are telling the truth based off research and evidence or not?

You could argue that you should only look at “verified” sources, or take what read online as gossip until you can verify it, but even that is difficult to do and still doesn’t provide an answer, if one even exists.

There are two parts that make it difficult to answer questions like these:
1) *Most* information is very difficult to assess whether it is true or not, whether it be because no sources are available or that the sources available are difficult to verify.
2) “Good” sources are hard to find, and even then it is difficult to trust them fully.

The likely majority of questions you can possibly ask don’t have an easy, definitive answer, such as the “is nail polish bad for your liver?” question. How do curious females decide whether to use nail polish or not? It’s nearly impossible. And if they don’t use it because of skepticism, those likely invalid internet sources worked, even though they may entirely be false. This applies to so many questions we ask daily, and it really makes you question, what is the truth? Or how much of what we know is true?

And here’s what even makes it more complicated, 1 person could search for the same phrase in America, another in Thailand, and another across the street in Thailand using a different Google account, and guess what, they all get different results back with the search, and therefore all read different pages.

Another thing that complicates it even more: if I type in “are eggs bad for you?” into Google, I get results such as “4 Reasons to Stop Eating Eggs”.  But if I type in “are eggs good for you?” I get results like “Why eggs are healthy” and “6 Reasons Why Eggs are the Healthiest Food on the Planet”.

While both questions are trying to understand the truth as to whether or not they should eat eggs, depending on how exactly it is asked influences the results and skews them one way or another.  As a result, 2 people with the same intentions may end up with different results, and therefore draw, reasonably, completely opposing conclusions.

To summarize those points:

  • How do we know whether a source is valid? If there is evidence, how do we know we’re drawing a reasonable conclusion? These are tough questions.
  • Personalized searching leads to different results for the same query, leading to different conclusions for the same search.
  • Phrasing a question slightly differently tilts the results enough to give you opposing results. This enforces the importance of asking the right questions, and being skeptical of findings.

In the last section of “World Order“, Henry Kissinger discusses the modern “digital age”, and the concerns we should think about in dealing with technological change and how it pertains to order. Kissinger also argues that truth is relative with the emergence of personalized technology, as I discussed above with 2 people searching for the same thing and getting different answers. It fundamentally shapes how we see the world, by what we think is true and believe to be so. “Personalization of internet leads to new truths”, as Kissinger put it.

The internet shrinks perspective as we can lookup without holistic learning, or learning where we can attach new information to what we already know and understand. The result is we rely on the computer and internet for memory, which weakens our inner perspective (in our heads) which doesn’t store the information, nor necessarily understands it.

As Kissinger says, the emergence of the age of “information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and push wisdom even further away.”

Facts depend on context. Just mentioning a fact without knowing context of the fact is meaningless. If we’ve shifted from thinking through things in order to understand them to now looking up anything we want on demand, we lose the need and perhaps the desire to understand things.

So, how do we know what is true when multiple sources contradict each other, and when sources have no reasonable way to be verified? It’s a tough question. My advice is to be very skeptical, and be open to listening to others with opposing views. As Feynman said, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Being open to change and skeptical leads to an open mind.