David Weinberger on Too Big to Know
Feb 27 2012

David Weinberger of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of Too Big to Know, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book--how knowledge and data and our understanding of the world around us are being changed by the internet. Weinberger discusses knowledge and how it is attained have changed over time, particularly with the advent of the internet. He argues the internet has dispersed the power of authority and expertise. And he discusses whether the internet is making us smarter or stupider, and the costs and benefits of being able to tailor information to one's own interests and biases.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


David Taylor
Feb 27 2012 at 9:37am

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Feb 27 2012 at 4:05pm

This started off as an interesting discussion, however it quickly become an exercise in irony. If the central premise of his book is “too big to know”, then how can he be a “political liberal” with its tendency to promote centralization? It was rather telling that he didn’t address your reference to Hayek’s “Pretense of Knowledge”.

In addition, He seemed to be terribly concerned about the potential for autosegregation and incivility on the internet-but he’s associated with Harvard, which along with the rest of academia has largely become insular, hyperspecialized, doctrinaire and intolerant. What is the quip about irony being the tribute paid for inconsistency?

Feb 27 2012 at 5:43pm

I was going to make several points that GAAPrules… beat me to. It just goes to show that in spite of ‘liberals’ professed desire for ‘diversity’, in fact, they want to dominate us even to the extent of what we are allowed to think.

That leads to my other point. Your guest was concerned about the increase in polarization, but fails to consider how homogenous we used to be compared to now after being ‘forced’ to become more ‘diverse’. It’s the use of government coercive power to increase ‘politically correct diversity’ that has a direct correlation to the amount of polarization in our country; and I think this will continue to increase until the People finally rebel, as they should, against ‘political correctness’.

Matt Cholick
Feb 27 2012 at 7:34pm

This is a very interesting discussion because of the method by which I started listening to your podcast. About a year ago, I began listening to your show precisely because I felt that much of the media/discourse that I consumed was in something of my own echo chamber (though the term I’ve used for it is filter bubble).

I chose your podcast because, though I disagree radically with much of what you say, you do consistently have an interesting and intelligent conversation supported by evidence. The reason I’m a listener was just so topical that I wanted to comment.

James Kingsbery
Feb 27 2012 at 10:50pm

I think it is quite possible to write books that are more non-linear collections of knowledge rather than linear arguments, and Western Civilization had a great example of that early on in Herodotus. In The Histories, Herodotus wrote about whatever he found interesting, interrupting tangents with other tangents. It seems more that Herodotus’s style was rejected rather than there being some limit that the medium of paper imposes.

I don’t mean to attack a trivial point – if we are looking for norms for how to construct non-linear arguments, we have a model. As Prof. Roberts said, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Feb 27 2012 at 11:58pm


Jim Feehely
Feb 28 2012 at 12:31am

Hi Russ,

I very much enjoyed this discussion on epistemology. I was particularly interested on the emphasis on ‘facts’ rather than ‘evidence’. I venture that evidence is not simply facts. Evidence, it seems to me, is the synthesis of facts mediated through a process of induction and trial and error.

As an empiricist and a philosophical sceptic; ie I try to base my views on evidence and accept that nothing is entirely knowable.

One of the greatest iniquities of our increasing capacity to amass and analyse massive bodies of data is the development of the ‘expert problem’ that Nassim Taleb discusses eruditely. Because of the limits of individual mental capacity and knowledge, expertise is increasingly specialised which necessarily makes narrow expertise often irrelevant because of the inability to set expert opinion in the context of a wildly complex world and social system. And this is exacerbated by technocratic education.

It also seems to me that the scary enormity of the bank of ‘facts’ that are available, but not necessarily accessible, is also a factor in the slow death of rationality. This is encouraged by politics in liberal democracies allowing equal weight to any belief, regardless of the evidence on which that belief is based – the consensual defeat of the enlightenment discussed by Francis Wheen and others. I agree that the Internet provides the forum for this attack on rationality, but I am not convinced it is a cause. It could be, but who knows?

And can I also point out that your profession, economics, harbours some of the most prominent practitioners of the great fallacy that correlation proves causation. But only when that fallacy supports economics’ confirmation bias. Why else is it the case that most western ecomomists continue devotion to free market ideology in the face of masses of evidence that free markets have destroyed representative political democracy through the covert and dominant influence of business lobby on government, oppresses the 3rd and developing world and in guaranteeing the destruction of the environment through devotion to economic growth and limitless consumption. Government in liberal democracies is the captive of capitalism, and now impotent to enact social policy with which the god-like ‘market disagrees, thanks in large part to the religiosity of free market economics.

The inevitable consequence of this vicious circle is that the excesses of capitalism can only be cured by massive system collapse, a collapse made more and more inevitable by the socialising of market failure (and outright fraud) and a failure to actually impose the consequences of capitalism. I know you agree that the consequences of failure in capitalism should be allowed. I support your view on that. If that was to happen, it will determine whether I am right, or the free market ideologues are right.

Alan Ridgeway
Feb 28 2012 at 1:45pm

One of the better discussions Russ.

As far as non-linear books go, maybe Steve Martin’s new book comes close.
The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.: The Tweets of Steve Martin

I find it interesting that a professor at MIT is concerned about the population having access to information and discussion because they will make things worse. While a mass increase has historically been disruptive, it has often disruptive for those in power and over the long term been beneficial to the majority. Additionally I look at MIT OpenCourseware and think this is great that for those who want to increase his/her skills when personal resources are low to access this knowledge. There was a point where you seem to have hinted about MIT OpenCourseware,but it seems he was either unaware or didn’t take the bait.

I am going to have to listen to this again due to some of the great you both had about learning within and without the echo chamber.

[N.B. Weinberger is not at MIT as was originally reported in the commentary for this post. He is actually at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. We apologize for the original error. –Econlib Ed.]

Alan Ridgeway
Feb 28 2012 at 7:44pm

>He is actually at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

Ah, then I guess that’s why he didn’t bite at the open knowledge/certification question.

Now given his doubts about groups without proper education debating on the Internet, it seems he at least acknowledges this genie is not going back into the bottle. At the same time it seems like such an insular comment. I know my knowledge about a great many things increased as the Internet expanded. While Wikipedia is not considered authoritative, it is still the best place to start when trying to learn a new topic. EconTalk has been a profound influence in my life in terms of thinking about information and professional discussion with opposing views. I think I may a little bit more pro-quantative than Russ, but I respect his concerns and skepticism. But just having access to this discussion is not something that would have been possible 20 years ago.

I realize in the short term society is more polarized. But it is quite possible the same thing happened when new cities first got newspapers. The earliest newspapers were often mudrackers aligning with political allies. But over time some newspapers improve the quality and eventually newspapers broke into segments: authoritative newspapers and gossip rags.

I think the Internet does and will continue to mirror the same. As far as behavior goes, I kind of like the community rating system stackoverflow uses.
A version for political questions would be interesting.

John Thurow
Feb 29 2012 at 1:37am

I think the premise that we seek internet sites that hold our interest is true but the idea that this is bad seams to apply only in a narrow sense and is targeted mainly towards politics. It is true that I think the lefts socialist arguments are junk (said politely) and I usually turn them off but there are internet sites, discussion groups, blogs etc. that cover a very broad swath of hobbies and interests: guitar playing, music, astronomy, electronics, software, sports, history, travel, business, investing etc that help people become better or more informed. To try to make a narrow argument and apply it to the whole is bad reasoning and as the saying goes makes for bad law as well…

Brad Hutchings
Feb 29 2012 at 12:22pm

I sense that Dr. Weinberger is going to take a lot of heat from “liberal” friends for empowering “conservative” critics on many fronts. It sounded to me like he has this great thesis, but thinks it should only be used “for good”. I recall a discussion either on the original “Cluetrain” mailing list or some offshoot of whether Cluetrain was inherently and irrevocably tied to modern political liberalism. As not aligned to that politics, I thought it transcended, but some pretty smart people thought that it was a natural extension.

On online gathering places and discussions… With the increasing “age” (in years since birth) of the Internet, it’s entirely possible that individuals can become disenchanted with online communities in which they participate, even fall completely outside the shared scope of those communities. For example, as a longtime Mac user and developer, I’ve been both unimpressed and worried by Apple’s locked down mobile strategy. This conclusion on my part makes me a “troll” in some online Mac-centered communities where I regularly participated and even advertised since early in the game. Even when two opposite sides talk past each other incessantly and antagonistically, there is some potential for discovery and value in that conversation. Russ, I think the key to dealing with what happened at Cafe Hayek comments was to align your interests with the commenters. Given the dramatic decrease in comment volume, I’m not sure you accomplished that.

Side note… I listened to this driving through the Eastern Sierra. After this podcast, I had Jay Mohr’s latest podcast (Mohr Stories #34, totally NSFW) with comedian Daryl Wright queued up. Daryl is black, and tells a story of booking a gig at a Confederate bar in Texas early in his career. Basically, it’s Dr. Weinberger’s proverbial coffee with a Nazi. When the proprietor saw that he was black, he offered to pay him his fee for coming out but for not doing the show. But Wright insisted on doing the show, and it went really well for him. Looking back, Wright (now a successful touring comedian) hopes that he would make the same decision today, but fears that he might just take the money and move along.

Allan Stokes
Mar 1 2012 at 4:36am

Aldaily has just today e-yndicated a triple A counterpoint on the nature of facts and evidence: The Body Counter, about “Patrick Ball, a statistician who’s spent his life lifting the fog of war”.

When I listened to this talk on Monday morning, I was amused by the mutual fact-fatigue concerning the magnitude of “exa-“.

I’ve noticed it’s a regular occurrence that a guest underestimates jargon tolerance, which is one of my favorite aspects of the show. Russ says “no, please continue” and then imposes certain rules: one has to back up and define terms, then pause for a while to chew things over. Jargon is not trotted out as a short-hand for experts to assess their degree of mutual overlap before plunging headlong into some small dendrite of disagreement. Jargon to situate a conversation is powerful and one of the main tools we use on the internet if we wish not to succumb to the echo chamber.

The irony of this conversation is that David Weinberger was tip-toeing around the embrace of specifics as if jargon was the enemy rather than the cure.

The most powerful idea in this conversation for me was the importance of networks of persuasion, and how persuasion is largely a near field effect.

Here’s another topical link, sounding the Hayekian klaxon: Schmidt declares UN treaty a ‘disaster’ for the internet. I don’t think his plea swayed many minds in the valleys of Papua New Guinea. Even the guy down the corridor wearing an identical suit is going “What’s an exabyte?”

Mike Gomez
Mar 1 2012 at 10:00am

The internet does not present a fundamentally new way of gaining insight into how the world works.

When your nerds argue with my nerds, they employ narrative arguments – otherwise how else would they be intelligible to one another? The insight that the nerds and/or spectators gain from those discussions exists in the new arguments that they construct in their heads after taking into account the other arguments (including the other facts) that the counter-parties raise.

One would employ the same process by going into a library and reading a bunch of books by authors with different views and evidence and synthesizing those views in a way that is plausible and consistent.

While processing online arguments (or face-to-face discussions) is more efficient in some ways than trying to do it all alone in the library – because, for instance, there are links and one doesn’t have to read a lot of extraneous material in order to find the portion of interest, the process that takes place in these cases is fundamentally the same, namely the constructing and synthesizing of different (sometimes opposing) narrative arguments.

Thomas A. Coss
Mar 1 2012 at 3:26pm

Brilliant and engaging discussion giving new meaning to my favorite quote of F.A.Hayek:“One need not be a profit to be aware of impending dangers. An accidental combination of experience and interest will often reveal events to one man under aspects which few yet see.”

Widening access to information frees up those of us of interest to learn what may have otherwise been to difficult to acquire.

Mort Dubois
Mar 4 2012 at 9:51am

I just re-listened this discussion, and I think it ranks as one of the best podcasts of the past few years. I have a couple of comments on the “problem” of the echo chamber on the internet. First of all, the internet has enormously expanded the ability of people to make their private views public, and so a lot of the comments that we find so distressing are just the opinions which were always there, made visible.

Second, I think that a distinction needs to be made between conversations which are intended to challenge or educate and conversations which are a form of performance, or ritual, of agreement. Similar to going to church – I attended a lot of Catholic masses when I was a child, and I am always struck that so many people would faithfully turn up to publicly engage in a set of statements and responses with the priest that never varied. They took great comfort in reconfirming their faith. I think we should consider that most of the opinions expressed on the internet are of that ilk – ritual declarations of faith, never intended to be questioned. Faith seems to be a basic human need, and the internet provides an easily accessible framework for confirming it, whatever the particulars of the belief. Truly open-minded discourse is bound to be rare by comparison.

Thanks again for this podcast, it was excellent.

Mort Dubois

Mar 4 2012 at 5:31pm

What about the skin in the game issue (so often emphaside by Taleb and equally often ignored)? It seems to me that the pretence of knowledge (to which Weinbereger did not react as noted by a commenter above)continues as long as those passing the knowledge out do not go by way of their predictions. Nerds arguing with nerds is nothing new – it has been going on for centuries, as had efforts to big megamodels. See Weinbergers “The machine that would predict the future” in the Scientific American where he describes an EU prof that was granted E1 billion to built such a machine. It may be dressed up differently now with urls and twits but it seems like an old wine in new bottles.

Ruth Peterson
Mar 4 2012 at 5:36pm

There was a part of the discussion in this podcast mentioning that partisanship has become “worse” in recent times. The point was made that it is perhaps made worse by the echo chamber of the internet. I certainly wouldn’t say it does not have an impact, but I think there is much more to it than that.

Twenty or thirty years ago, people did not spend a great deal of time worrying about what the government was doing. I believe the public was very complacent about the laws that were made, and we believed that, on the whole, the government was able to make reasonable decisions about our lives. I remember when the Credit Union crisis happened, the idea was that it would be OK because the government would come in and fix everything. In fact, most people did not think that there was much that the government did that directly affected their lives. Of course, that is painting with a very broad brush. There have always been those whose eagle eyes were ready to expose the dangers of what government was doing. However, most people were like me – raising kids, working, and pretty much believing that if you ignore what was happening in D.C. or the state Legislature, the government would leave you alone.

That is not the case today. Not only is the internet and email able to provide instant information about what is going on in the Legislature and Congress, but we can access that echo chamber you spoke of to find out more about what is going on. While the internet is one source of the information, I believe there is not an increase in partisanship as much as the ability to have the information is causing the partisanship that was already there to become active and vocal.

I live in a very conservative county. It is the only red county in Western Washington. The people who live here haven’t changed their ideas about what they believe at all. It is just that 10 or 20 years ago, they didn’t know about the “Growth Management Act”, they didn’t have ready numbers about the national debt, they didn’t have instant access to the facts and figures required to make sense of the economy, etc. The farmers now know instantly about the rule making bodies that would like to make it difficult or even impssible for them to hire a 15 year old neighbor to run the tractor cleaning manure out of the barnyard (my kids were driving the hay truck at 12 & 13). The local school teacher can instantly find out what new rules are being discussed at the Department of Education. Anyone can find the national debt clock and watch it ticking away.

These people haven’t changed the fact that they want smaller government and less regulation. They are just finding out faster what is happening to make government bigger and more intrusive, and it is energizing them in opposition.

Alan Ridgeway
Mar 4 2012 at 11:26pm

I think it will be interesting to see if 40 years from now people using the Internet will get better at finding source information as the evidence for their argument instead of quotes from their favorite web site, writer, etc.

What I mean by this how often does someone on a political site quote actual stats from


vs. quoting someone else’s opinion page about the stats available from sites like these. It seems if we want to move from highly partisan discussions, we should encourage people to research and evaluate the public data. Instead what we seem to have is behind the scenes the think tanks like Brookings, RAND, AEI, Cato, etc. interpret the data and feed the results to their favorite echo chamber (news media of any type). The echo chambers then turn the reports into often shallower talking points so that the echo chamber followers can repeat them. There are people in the political sites that will express sincere, nuanced thought, and depending on the type of site it can be the majority such as what I think I often see on EconTalk and My History Can Beat Up Your Politics.

There are other sites that seem to encourage advocating a single point of view or where the conversation is so chaotic that you may get a lot of nuanced thought, but it is difficult to cut through all the partisan or trollish distractions to get the benefit of the nuanced thought. But in any of the above cases, I do not share the concerns of the guest because over the long haul I think there will always be at least a certain percentage of people who will learn from the different views. These people will have in many ways a greater education in political thought than what is available in a lecture three times a week over a limit period of time. I think these people will grow from the partisanship and seek out real solutions to some of the U.S. greatest problems and know how to communicate to both partisan sides. Maybe I am naive, but then I know from my own experience I got tired of listening to talking points and decided to seek deeper and more reasoned political thought. An opportunity I would not have been able to pursue as deeply without the Internet.

Mar 5 2012 at 1:11pm

thanks for the cast. this is one of my favorites! great topic and guest

Mar 6 2012 at 3:32am

A bit off topic: Weinberger mentioned Stackoverflow as a good example of a website that promotes public learning. Stackoverflow has a sub site that discusses economics: http://economics.stackexchange.com/. Maybe you’ll find it interesting.

Mar 6 2012 at 10:56am

I’m 40 minutes into the podcast, and I have to drop this into the commentary: what’s being overlooked is the degree to which we have the capacity to agree. It’s not an absolute value, even like minds will find a point of disagreement. There seems to been assumption here that the echo chamber is a perfection of agreement, and I seriously doubt that is a real phenomenon.

Mar 8 2012 at 11:25am

Just to be clear.

“I have never petted a dolphin” is not a fact.

Russ eluded to this but this remains a major problem with political debate. We can’t agree to what the facts are until we agree what a fact really is.

Jim Kiryakoza
Mar 8 2012 at 4:54pm

I loved the podcast with Charles Calomiris. He is a great guest and I love it when I can learn the basics. More like this please.

Mike Gomez
Mar 10 2012 at 3:52pm


How is that statement you mentioned not a fact? Whether the guest has petted a dolphin is either true or false. If he never has had such an experience, then the statement is unquestionably true, and his condition of not-having-petted-a-dolphin is a fact.

Scott Campbell
Mar 15 2012 at 12:48am

Your question about the possibility of the internet causing our polarity and contrary opinions caused me to think of a John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach quote. Competition reveals character it does not build character. My opinion is that the internet reveals our ignorance it does not cause it.

Your interview with Calomiris about the questionable value of models, I vote models are worthless, except in the case of nerds versus nerds where the so called facts can be situated in their context and relegated to a sustaining role which adds a degree of credibility. Models are still worthless but the nerd/nerd issues are more accurately articulated.

Mar 17 2012 at 8:20pm


I don’t know how you find the time to do all you must do, but I am glad you do! Thanks for taking the time to prepare for and execute a podcast with intelligent, uninterrupted discussion. This was a great one.

Mar 20 2012 at 2:49pm

I really liked the ideas shared by you and Weinberger.

I think the internet is a very powerful tool that will accelerate the learning capability. However I think a key point you touched on is that internet give you access to facts and knowledge in a very pointed and fragment form. Unlike a book which is more systematic and connected. So if you have a deep body of knowledge already, then internet is really great since you can pick up the missing points really fast to add to your mental models.

However, since our formal schooling and education system is not doing a good job of establishing the foundations of knowledge in majority of the pupil, I think the internet disproportionally benefits those who already have the greater share of the benefits of the society. This inequality that should worry all of the people in a democratic society.

I am a software developer (with lots of interest in economics and finance). Things like stack overflow is great and really good if you need to learn a new programming language or web framework where you already know how it basically work but don’t know the semantic and syntactical differences. However if I want to learn the very fundamental things (i.e. cpu architecture or compiler design, its much better to read a book.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. [Recording date: February 7, 2012.] Russ: Subject for today is knowledge, which is what your book is about: how has knowledge and our understanding of knowledge changed because of the internet and how has it changed over time. Early on in the book you give a brief history of empirical knowledge and expertise, and you use Thomas Robert Malthus as an example of someone whose work had change. Can you talk about that? Guest: Yes. So, the question is what role facts play, because in the modern world, these days, we continue to have a hope that facts will settle arguments. This is put really well by Senator Moynihan when he said: Everybody's entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Which is a sort of lovely way of putting an old idea. At least an enlightened idea--I think you can trace it back way further than that--and the idea is that we seem to have lots of disagreements; there are lots of opinions in the world, lots of ideas; and we argue about them. But, says Moynihan of the role of facts themselves, if we just sit down and look at the way the world is, look at the facts, reasonable people can come together and knowledge will heal is, will help us pass these divides. Knowledge that, in particular, in this case, looks at facts. Facts are the irrefutable foundation of knowledge. And so, much as I like facts--I believe in facts, I think some things are true and some things are false--nevertheless facts are a very modern invention. They are very new as a concept, and their role in knowledge is only a couple of hundred years old. And so in the book I use Malthus as a convenient example of what a pre-fact form of knowledge looked like--that is, when we didn't try to build knowledge up based on the recitation and citation of facts. And so in his famous work that showed that the world is likely to starve itself to death because the population increases faster than the food supply-- Russ: Or so he thought. Guest: Yes. And at the time. But we've managed to break that pretty well. So, he writes a book about it; and it's an important book, a classic work. But it's really sort-of fact free. He's not arguing by looking around the world and looking at statistics about food consumption and food production and population growth. He instead is doing the best he can at the time, 1800 or so, gathering information about various ethnic groups--sorry, not really ethnic groups, but cultural groups around the world and how they manage the problem of food supply. Really not very fact-based. But then over the next 20-25 years he revises it six times--six editions. It gets substantially larger, and it gets filled with modern facts. It looks much more like a modern work. And so over that period of time--this is why I use him as an example--you can see the rise of facts as a way of grounding knowledge and of arguing for positions. It's pretty dramatic; it happened very quickly. Russ: And what in his case--did something jar him? Did he get pushed? Or did he just have this new opportunity? Guest: It was in the air, for a couple of reasons. One is statistics started to grow as a way of looking at the world. The word "statistics" entered the English language I think around 1780; came from the German; so statistics as a discipline is growing. And Jeremy Bentham's work begins to have a major affect on British thinking. In particular, the British class system was pretty crummy for those who were not in the upper classes, and it was assumed that the poor were poor because they deserved to be. It was basically a moral argument or a set of moral assumptions--that the poor were, they drank, they were lazy, had no discipline, were dishonest. And so, that's why they're poor; and the rich were rich because they embodied the virtues. Pretty nasty sort of social stew, especially when it results in 8-year-olds being shoved into 7x7" chimney flues to clean them and it's really for their own good. And you get this sort of argument--you can read it in Parliament as some of the reform bills are being introduced, that it keeps them off the streets, because they'll be pickpockets and grow up to be like their fathers anyway. And it's really good for them; it's really not bad for them in any way; it's a good, healthy work ethic and good healthy work for those 10-year-olds. So, Bentham comes along, a polymath, philosopher guy, and suggests that there might actually be another way of thinking about how to structure, how to make value decisions in a society: which is that you assume everybody has an equal interest in happiness or pleasure or whatever you want to call it, and so you just sort of measure: What policies will bring more happiness to the world or less? And you drop out of it who is it bringing happiness to. So all happiness is equal. And so now you can do a type of statistical measure. At least you can start looking at that to see what the effect of policies might be. And maybe even more important, you have a reason to look at what the current happiness rate is of your population regardless of class. So, you drop the moral thing out of it, and you just look. And so now you have an incentive to go out and look across your society and to wonder: Well, are poor chimney sweep boys actually being harmed medically by this? We'd like to believe not, but let's take a look. And so the culture beings actually a factual investigation. Russ: And they find that it's actually not so good for them. Guest: Yes. It's during the first half of the 19th century in England, you start to get these reform movements that are based on facts. So, the Parliament starts to compile a blue book, so-called for obvious reasons, which are modern-day reports based on statistics and facts, in order to argue policy. And by the mid-19th century this regime of fact is so dominant that Charles Dickens actually starts pushing back against it. Facts, facts, facts. He has Professor Gradgrind, one of these awful--you already know these-- Russ: You know he's the bad guy. Dickens didn't pull any, he wasn't subtle. Guest: No, he was the sort of the Steven King of his era. You already have Dickens pushing back against policy determined only by fact, as opposed to understanding the human plight. This is a very modern sort of complaint, by the way. Russ: Sure. Post-modern. Guest: Yeah. We've had echoes of this throughout our culture all throughout the 20th century and beyond, where the fact-based expert is viewed as cold-hearted and merely a numbers cruncher. Russ: Green eye-shade. Guest: Exactly. So, the avatar of this in American culture is the RAND Corporation. Now I'm having a senior moment in forgetting the guy's name, the nuclear theorist. Russ: Oh, Herman Kahn. Guest: Thank you so much. Russ: I read your book. Guest: You read the book more recently than I did! So, in the modern age--this is too old for many of your listeners, I am sure, but Herman Kahn in the 1950s, the RAND Corporation was still very important company in consulting to the government. Kahn was writing books about nuclear theory, game theory, in which he would make calculations about: Well, if we responded, here are the various responses possible to a Russian first launch. If we did this, that would happen; if we did this other thing, only 20 million people would be killed. And you know, it is a sort of rational calculation that he was making. It's better for 20 million people to be killed rather than 100 million. Nevertheless, for I think pretty obvious reasons, he got taken as a very symbol of a cold-blooded, fact-based, statistically-based expert. Basically, a character. In your life, I don't know. But culturally, he became a character right out of Dickens. And it was the same sort of pushback against knowledge based merely on facts.
10:56Russ: His most famous book, at the time, and you are right that it is lost to many of our younger listeners, was Thinking the Unthinkable. Which was a great title. That would be thinking the unthinkable, right? What's the best way to minimize the losses from a nuclear attack? And you could argue that's a good thing to think about, or you could argue it's not a good thing to think about. Guest: And both arguments were made. The argument against was, as I remember it, that by making it thinkable you were making it more plausible. Russ: Now, I just want to mention that we do have the first and sixth editions of Malthus's work on population up on the Library of Economics and Liberty website. If you want to wade through them or challenge Weinberger's assertion that the later editions became more empirical, but I suspect you are right. But you can read it for yourself and watch that happen, which is very cool.
11:51Russ: So, what's interesting about this to me, as a modern, is that there's this unavoidable tension between--fact-free discourse is obviously dangerous. But there's this other danger--it's not so much that you leave out the human side, but it's that facts are not really truth. You often need a context or theory to generate them, understand them, not be misled by them; and we have this worship of facts, which you do talk about in the book, this transition between, certainly between the ancients and the moderns, that moderns are more empirical and experts have the facts on their side, which is a little bit misleading in its own right. It's not always reliably true. Facts to not always get us closer to the truth. And certainly not all statistical analysis gets us closer to the truth. Guest: No, but I want to tread a very careful line. Because we have seen what happens when we have administrations that don't care about facts. Some things can go terribly wrong. Facts are really important. So, on the one hand I do not want to be lumped with people who say: All facts are constructions and that you can believe whatever you want to believe. I don't believe that. On the other hand, I do think it's important, as you say, to recognize that facts are to some degree constructions. The world is one way and it's not other ways. Let me give you an example; and this is also from the book. So, there's a website called Hunch.com, which is a recommendation site--it recommends things that are matters of taste: What movie should I see tonight? What type of food am I in the mood for? And it will give you an answer. There's not a lot hanging on the answer. I want to buy a wedding gift for a cousin; can you make any suggestions? So, the way that Hunch works is that it asks you a series of questions, basically an endless series of questions, many of them generated by users at this point. And the questions are themselves sort of game-like, and often by themselves silly, irrelevant, and impossible. So, some of them could be straightforward things: do you prefer pink or red? But many of them are things like: Have you ever petted a dolphin? Do you store your kitchen glasses right-side up or upside down? Do you, when you get a cellphone, also buy a cover for it? Do you own any plaid clothing? And from this they deduce what your preferences are for what you want to see, what movie, or what food you want to eat. In my case, it works pretty well. One of the interesting things is that they very explicitly do not, at Hunch, try to generate a theory of human taste. They don't know why if you've ever touched a dolphin helps as an indicator of whether you will want to go see a particular movie tonight. They purposefully are theory-free. Russ: Just looking at the numbers, doing the correlations. Guest: Yes. Which I think is interesting because it's a type of knowledge without understanding. Insofar as it works. But the reason I bring it up is, as you go through these--would you rather take a subway or eat a brownie--these are not polar opposites. It's a very silly question. But they don't care. But it nevertheless is a fact. Here's a fact that I've learned from Hunch: I've never petted a dolphin. That's a fact. It may well be that the next question they are going to ask me is: Have you ever petted an orangutan, and that's a fact, too. Have you ever touched an orangutan's ear? No, I haven't--another fact. Have you ever petted a plant dolphin? No, I have not, now that you ask. That is also a fact. Insanely trivial facts, but they are facts. The reason that I bring this up is that I think it helps make clear the extent to which facts are constructed. So, the content of the fact can be right or wrong, but that you have picked this particular set of things as the facts that are worth looking at is entirely a construction. It depends on what your interests are. So, facts remain very important. But to think naively, as I think in our history we have, that we can get to knowledge by accumulating facts is not at all the case. Because I have never touched a plant dolphin; that's also a fact. There is art as well as science in deciding which of the facts are the foundation upon which you are going to build belief. And that means that foundation is itself not a natural object, as we have thought. It is itself a construction.
17:28Russ: Well, let me--I want to take your example and take you to a different place and see if you still agree. I certainly agree with you that there is this very narrow, nuanced path that I often feel myself taking in this jungle of whether facts are truth or not, or constructed or not; and if you are not careful you can end up--you believe in voodoo or Extra Sensory Perception [ESP] or something that finally you think is wrong, but if you go the other way you can be deluded into thinking that you have the truth when you are not even close. I'll give you an example. Your examples, barring a mistyping on the survey or on the computer or a whimsical decision to lie about my dolphin-petting experience--right?--those facts are either true or false. I've either petted a dolphin or I haven't. I might lie about it on the survey or make a mistake, but in general those are facts. How tall I am at any point I am in my life. These are measurable things. There's a measurement error potentially; you might want to say plus or minus a millimeter or two because maybe I'm slumping a bit or may have had a bad night's sleep, but we all understand those kinds of uncertainties about facts. But those aren't the facts we use for public policy decisions or social science or even physical science. The things that we use for those, those are facts in I would argue in a very different kind of way. Let me give you an example and see what your reaction is. In the 1980s the U.S. homeownership rate fell. It fell fairly dramatically by historical standards, and one of the reactions of policy-makers was concern that housing had become unaffordable, that the housing market wasn't working well. And that was either an excuse, justification, or cause for a lot of public policy encouraging home ownership in the United States. Now, was it a fact that the home ownership rate was declining? It was probably a fact. Why it was happening is not a fact. That's a theory, a model, a metaphor, a vision, a hypothesis. And in fact the standard interpretations of that, one of the things that I've never seen discussed, as an example, is that the divorce rate was rising dramatically in the United States throughout the 1970s. And so when you went to measure the home ownership rate you had a lot more entries in the denominator, because there were a lot more households all of a sudden. And while those people had split up, if they became a renter and had been a home owner before; and so that told us nothing about how easy or difficult it was to afford a house. It was a result of a social phenomenon called a higher divorce rate. And so those kinds of facts, which come up with income inequality, growth of income--crucial issues which are going to affect politics, legislation, etc.--they are not in the same realm of have you petted a dolphin. They are complicated. And often not truth. They have truthiness but they are not truth. Guest: Hmmm. That home ownership fell isn't truthy. It's true. Russ: Oh, that's right. I agree with that. Guest: I'm just trying to make sure that I'm getting the gist of this. I think that we agree, but let's say. So the fact that home ownership fell, we'll take as true. We'll stipulate is true, and thus is a fact, and likely an important fact. How we put them together, that's all we talk about, even in the age of facts, is what the relationship among the facts are. And, are we considering the right facts? It's one of the reasons why Freakonomics is an eternal best seller--holy cow, there's a set of conditions we haven't considered. Russ: Well, I think there are very few facts in that book, actually. There's a lot of statistical analysis, which I don't consider factual. Guest: Interesting. Russ: Do you? Let's talk about that. I mention it because--well, you're not a regular listener; I talk about it maybe way too much on this program. But I'm very interested in the problem of how we understand causal relationships in social science. And in economics--and I would say it's equally problematic in the other social sciences, if not worse--we use various multivariate statistical techniques to tease out causation. To take one that's in the news: Did the stimulus create jobs? I'd say we have no idea. I don't think that's a scientific question. It gets answered using scientific techniques. Facts are accumulated about past government spending and past levels of employment, past levels of output, statistical relationships are teased out among those variables. "We do the best we can." Have we established a fact about, say, the relationship between a dollar of government spending financed by debt and the impact on national income? I'd say: No, it's not a fact. It's not even close to a fact. It gets quoted as a fact: The relationship is 1.57, or .6. But I don't consider that a fact. And I'd say that's an enormous percentage of what goes for knowledge in the social sciences. And I think it's fake knowledge. Guest: Well, so I disagree with you. Russ: That's fine. Guest: Okay, I will. At least on this point. I very much like your way of putting this. I would point maybe to two things. And put it a little differently. You may disagree, but you'll tell me. The first is that I don't think it's an accident that we are seeing the rise of complexity theory in an age when we have the tools by which we can gather enough information that we see how complex it is and have tools that can help us a bit to understand that complexity. The computing power doesn't keep up with the complexity, or else it really wouldn't be complexity. Nevertheless we can do better than we could when we were just writing things down. So, we have a long cultural history of making the exact sort of assumptions that you've just been talking about--namely, there's a set of facts; there's causality; and if you put the two together you can answer a question like: Did the stimulus create jobs? Or like: What was the cause of the Civil War? What were the causes of WWI? As if this is a finite question that must have an answer. And maybe we're not going to be good at answering it, but it's got to have an answer. If we are in a world that is more complex than we can imagine, the more that we learn and the further down in the level of detail that we go, the more complex it becomes. It doesn't become simpler--it used to be the case that if you went to the simpler elements, you were trying something simpler. But in a fractally complex world, that's not the case. So, systems biology that's looking at simple cells, the most basic element of life--it should be simple, or at least much simpler than life itself. It turns out to be so complex that brains can't understand it; computers do understand at least a bunch of the attractions that happen across the cell wall. But it is a deeply complex area of life; and that is the simplest level. Russ: Right. My brain, or your brain, is unbelievably complicated; and we are not close to understanding it very well. And now we're going to talk about how my brain interacts with your brain. Guest: We don't, as far as I am concerned, even have a good metaphor for the brain at this point. And I don't know that we ever will. Anyway, so, yes--we have on the one hand, we have--I think--a very healthy embrace of complexity theory where somebody can draw up the conversation and say: I'm not even sure if that question is science, is a scientific question. And the second thing that's happening, at the same time, and not accidentally at the same time, is the growth of data commons as a way of proceeding. These enormous clouds of data that are being released from multiple disciplines. A few weeks ago there was a report saying that we are likely to have an exabyte of simple genomic data within the next two years. Russ: I assume that's a lot. I don't know what an exabyte is. Is it after tera? Guest: No, it's after peta. Russ: Okay. Giga, tera, peta, exa. Guest: Probably wrong, but that's what I remember. In any case, it's a gigantic bunch of data of the sort that we never even talked about, that was beyond reckoning.
27:08Guest: So, we have these enormous clouds of linked data in formats suitable for computers to troll through them, and there's this guy, John Wilbanks, who until recently was the head of Science Commons, that was part of Creative Commons. So, he's very interested in helping to facilitate the growth of these data commons and multiple sciences to [?] in ways that allow them to intersect their data, hook up their data. And he says--I think he puts this wonderfully. He's pushing back against the idea that we can take all of this data, model all of the rules, input the data, and get predictions on outcomes and understanding on the other side. Which makes sense on the old view of facts and knowledge: here are the facts, we know how they go together, turn the crank. Even for complex systems. And he says: No, that will never happen. What we really need--and here's the quote--is my nerds arguing with your nerds. In a perpetual argument. And then my nerds win and crush your nerds--in that argument, the multiple nerd argument, which is looking at facts and taking facts and data very seriously, we don't want to lose sight of that. Facts still matter a lot. But the knowledge consists in not the resolution of these issues, because in a complex world the things don't resolve that nicely; but is rather in the continued engagement, discussion, argument, disagreement among the nerds who are looking at the data and looking at the facts. I love the quote and I think it captures exactly what the idea is. Russ: There's real insight there. I keep thinking about something I saw of Nassim Taleb's--I can't remember if we talked about it in the recent interview with him; I think it came up--but he has a diagram where he has a giant cube; and that giant cube is what we'd like to know. And pulled out of that giant cube is a little tiny cube, and that's what we know scientifically--through the scientific methods, through confirmable hypotheses and tests; and we are constantly fight the urge, and usually failing, to take what we know in that little tiny cube and apply it to the big cube. I think about that quote you just gave; again, putting it in a economics context--does Keynesian stimulus work? I did a rap video called the Fight of the Century where we talked about how this debate between say, Keynes and Hayek, or the pro-stimulus and anti-stimulus people is unsettled; it's still going on. Somehow we haven't figured it out yet. And thinking about your quote--my nerds versus your nerds--I've come to believe it's probably not resolvable through the traditional methods of science. But you do learn something from arguing about it, even though you don't convince each other in a way that you do through a normal replicable experiment. I think both sides learn something. Now, what they might learn is to get more entrenched in their own views.
30:24Russ: Let's turn now back to some of your arguments in the book. One of the things you talk about, I think very provocatively and insightfully is this sort of tension on the internet between hanging out with people who think just like you, which is comforting and feels good often, but dangerous, because it's prone to groupthink or echo chamber effects, versus exposing yourself to other viewpoints and learning about things you don't agree with, and maybe getting smarter. But less comfortable. Talk about how that's going on on the internet. Guest: Okay. This is actually one of my least favorite topics, because I'm so uncertain. Russ: Well, we'll make it short, then. I have plenty of other questions. Guest: I think it's a really important topic to bring up in any discussion of knowledge on the internet. Because the echo chamber argument is a powerful argument. It says that if you give people many different sources to listen to, they will naturally tend to listen to ones that they agree with. And there are bad consequences to that--namely you get further convinced of your own beliefs and in fact you get more extreme in your beliefs. There's some evidence that's what happens. And the internet is just that situation. And so there's a great deal of agitation about the echo chamber. On the one hand, part of me doesn't care about how severe the echo chamber effect is, whether it's a lot or a little, because even if it's a little, we still need to be doing everything we can to avoid closing ourselves off to alternative views. I'm a good liberal, not just politically but in terms of certain traditional liberal enlightenment sort of guy, so I think that openness to contrary ideas improves thought. Sorry, that's what I think; and I'm old; and that thought itself isn't very open to contrary opinion. Russ: You're pretty close-minded about openness. Guest: I am, absolutely. So on the one hand, it doesn't matter how severe it is; we still need to be doing everything we can as parents and as individuals and institutionally to avoid it. On the other hand, it seems to me there's some wrong conclusions, or maybe there are assumptions within that model that we also need to be careful about. The echo chamber model seems to assume that the only good conversation is one with somebody with whom you disagree, and otherwise you are just in your comfort zone. I mean, the language around it is all negative. You are in your comfort zone, you are reconfirming, you are closing yourself down. So, a real conversation is you arguing with somebody with whom you disagree; and not just arguing, but being open to change. Because if you are not open to change then you incapable of learning and there is no point. And so the model should be: The Jew--I say this as a Jew, as my example--talking with a neo-Nazi, and the Jew says: Welcome my friend, let's have some coffee--because we are in a coffee shop, that's the setting for these conversations, these ideal conversations. Russ: Or a salon. It's the salon/coffee shop/faculty lounge--it's where we romanticize intellectual discourse. Guest: Yeah. In the Jurgen Habermas thing it's the coffee shop. So, I'm going to put it in a coffee shop, if you don't mind. So, would you like--it's on me, we'll get your Nazi latte; and lets talk and work down to our differences, and I am open to becoming a Nazi, my good friend, just as you are open to becoming a Jew. And that's a real conversation. But that conversation not only never happens. It can't happen. Because conversation needs a great deal of agreement. And so I worry that the echo chamber argument leads us to undervalue the extent to which we need similarity in order to have a simple conversation, or to have a culture at all. So, for you and me to talk, we have to share a language, we have to have a topic that we both think is interesting, a basic set of assumptions and values or else we can't get anywhere. We have to have a set of conversational norms that are very particular and precise even if we don't generally articulate them, that guide the conversation. We have to have so much in common simply to have a conversation. And furthermore the conversations that advance thought generally are not between the Jew and the Nazi, or between the creationist and the evolutionist, or whatever you want to pick. They are conversations among people who know a great deal about a topic, share huge amounts. I mean, they are 99.999% in agreement; but they are two economists who disagree about this particular issue. And the conversation that advances both of their thinking is the one that iterates on some tiny difference, something that they are getting all heated in their discussion but to an outsider who doesn't know economics, it would look like they are arguing--you'd ridicule them, because they are arguing over something trivial. Echo chambers are an issue, but we should not undervalue the extent to which knowledge is based out of conversations with people with whom we fundamentally agree. Russ: It's a very deep insight. The reason I think it's hard to think about is that word "echo chamber" or "groupthink." Those are so horrifyingly negative as a way to describe it. But when we describe it as you describe it, we have to have these shared values, norms, it makes sense. And when you look at your own life--when I came here to George Mason U., I'm a pretty hard core free market, libertarian, classical liberal guy, I was worried we'd sit around all day when I got here and we'd talk about how bad the minimum wage is. That's not what we talk about. It's not very interesting and fortunately, it's not what we do. And I've learned an enormous amount of economics from my colleagues here, even though we pretty much agree on most things. As you say, because of that agreement, we can go very deeply into aspects of things you don't fully understand in a way you can't with somebody who doesn't share norms, basic values, etc. So, if you look at your own life and you ask yourself, who did you learn the most from, it is romantic--we do say often: I've got this great friend, we don't agree on anything but we respect each other. And often you argue with those people. And if you are lucky they are polite and civilized. But I think the people you learn the most from are maybe the people you already pretty much agree with. That may be more an indictment of our dogmatic selves; but I think it's a deep aspect of human nature. Guest: Yes. And I don't think it's a dogmatic aspect. It's how culture advances. It's how knowledge advances. So, if you are trying to come up with--if you are in a lab and you are working on a vaccine, or whatever, and you are having your weekly meeting to have your people advance, it's not helpful to have somebody there who says: Vaccines cause autism. You don't want--that discussion may be important to have someone. Russ: But not here. You need the groupthink; you need the echo chamber working. You do. Guest: You do.
38:11Russ: Which is, as you say: there might be a time and place to worry about issues that are not shared, where there's diversity. It's interesting. It challenges the notion, by the way, that diversity is inherently good. You talk about this a little bit in the book. This view that the way we get wiser is by encouraging all views. There's some truth to that. Obviously groupthink is dangerous and you need the crank. Sometimes the crank is right; sometimes the heretic is right. Sometimes the apostate is onto something. But a lot of times that person is a crank and you are better off moving forward. Guest: Yes, and what you say is important. You need both. Russ: You get plenty of both on the internet. Guest: Well, but you don't have to. This is the argument, do we indeed--it's there but are we consulting it. I think data are very uncertain about this, because it's a very difficult question to pose correctly. So, Cass Sunstein, from whom much of this argument comes-- Russ: He's been a guest on here. Guest: He looks at the links at political sites to opposing sites, and he finds--so I always get facts and stats wrong. Russ: Ironically. Guest: Yeah, well. I think he finds that only 15% of political sites have links to the opposition; or it might 15% of the links on political sites link to the opposition. Yochai Benkler, who is a brilliant thinker and writer, as I'm sure your listeners know, has responded in part. He has a deep response to this, but part of it is: He hears Sunstein citing this number and he doesn't know whether he should be happy or sad. Is 15% a lot? You can think of that as actually being: Wow! Political sites actually have 15% linking to the opposition? That's amazing! Russ: Half full. Guest: You could say, well, it really should be 50%. Which would be the clear thing. You are on the site, DailyKos or RedState--it's all about having a conversation among people who have a basic agreement in their politics and you think it is a failure of democracy if half their links don't go to the opposition? We don't have a metric for what's a reasonable amount of openness. And so the data are to gather and evaluate. Russ: I just think all those concerns are just way over-rated. Benkler's also been a guest, by the way. We talked about something else. But I think this whole issue, which you talk about in the book at length, whether the internet is making us stupider or smarter--there's nothing new under the sun. And you refer to this as well. People have always complained about open access being dangerous, for a hundred different reasons. So, now we have a few new ones. But we have the old ones, too. People can't handle it, they are not smart enough. They just hang out with people they agree with already. And my reaction is really: So what? I really don't get what the outcome would be that you'd want if you accepted these arguments. I don't understand it. I think there is no doubt that there are negative things about the internet, from my life. There's also no doubt most of them are glorious. In terms of knowledge and understanding and options and choices. And I read mostly people I agree with; but I read lots of people I don't agree with. Some of them are commenting on my blog. And some of those are just sport. And they are not teaching me anything. And some of them are deep and make me think. And I think we learn through conversation, which is why I like this podcast. I learn a lot from my guests. And I think what the internet lets us do is have a lot of conversations with more kinds of people. And some kinds of conversations are just for fun; and some of are in that lab where you are trying to advance truth and science. There are all kinds. There's more there and more there than you can ever possibly want to enjoy. They are all there to sample and taste. I think it's phenomenal. Guest: Well, I do, too. But I'm going to push back. Because I fundamentally believe that the internet--I'm very optimistic about the internet--but I don't want to overly, blithely dismiss some of the issues. Russ: What worries you? Guest: Well, one of the primary things--well, two things. One is elitist. People who are educated and good at gathering knowledge. Which are the sorts of people that you and I generally hang out with. We are good at the internet. Or so we believe. It's not as clear that people with less education, less training are going to resist the worst aspects of the echo chamber. I think it's highly likely that those of us--when people say the Internet is making a stupider, it's very rare that they are including themselves in that. And I just did that. And I want to acknowledge that. Russ: There's a paternalistic aspect to it. Guest: And wondered, and acknowledged that it's very likely that the internet is in the same way, making highly educated people stupid as well. Nevertheless. So I do--I am interested in politics. And it seems just hard to deny that we have gotten more polarized as culture in the United States, politically. The degree of polarization over the last four years. And you can think about that further. Russ: Twelve. Sure. Guest: It does not seem to be getting better. It seems to be getting worse. I don't have evidence for this except what I look at every day. Russ: It feels that way. It does. Guest: And first of all, I think that's a bad thing. And second of all, it is coincident. Not entirely, but it is coincident with the rise of the internet. Although I think that there are certainly factors off the rise of the internet that you can look at. I wonder if one believes, as I do, that the internet is affecting so much of our culture, then you've got to wonder: Is the internet having this affect of polarizing us? As the echo chamber argument predicts.
45:13Russ: Well, that's interesting. Could be. What would you possibly--my first thought is, could be. When people talk about this, I inevitably think of Thomas Jefferson running for President, and the incredible negative campaign that was run against him, which I think is part of the polarizing argument: appealing to people's worst instincts, negative campaigning. So, again, I don't think there is anything new under the sun. You can legitimately argue though that it's gotten worse--because of technology. But let's say it's true. Let's say it's gotten worse. I'm agnostic. I'm skeptical a little bit, even. But let's say it has gotten worse. What would you do about it? It's an interesting point, may be true. There's no doubt that to read left or right, the comment sections of prominent blogs is depressing, I think on either side. I think it's extraordinarily depressing what people right. But then I think: Well, they are just having fun. Maybe it's just a place to scream and shout and maybe I shouldn't put too much stock in it. But let's say I should get worried about it. Let's say it's alarming. Let's say it reduces our ability to solve our problems, make progress, improve the human enterprise. What would you do about it? Guest: Well, another possibility is we are simply hearing the level of vituperation that otherwise we couldn't, because it couldn't make it onto the broadcast news. Russ: That's true. Guest: But, so what do you do about it? First of all, I wring my hands. That's a step forward. Russ: Yeah, that's huge. Guest: Some of this is, um--I will overstate this--some of this determined by the technology. By which I mean, we know empirically that small changes in the discussion for work, technology, or the policies can have huge effects on the tone. Russ: Absolutely. Guest: So, if you have a site that is generating these horrible, awful, pointless--then your conversational, your forum, is broken. You need to fix it. That's what you want. But generally we don't. So, we know there are things you can do. One of those things, I don't know. There's a lot of tinkering that's required, because it's very sensitive to very small changes. I could tell you story; I will spare you. Russ: No, anonymity makes a difference versus identifying yourself. There's lots of--which is seemingly small, but it's huge. Guest: Yes. Also, how threading works. And tons of variables to play with. So, that's one thing we can do: We can fix broken social media. There are sort of explicit things people can do in order not to tolerate that level of discourse, and those are things to say, especially for people who are in positions that are respected. And there's a set of stuff that can only be done through education. Including in public schools. But we do need to learn how to engage in discourse and a new medium. Whenever there is a new medium, we need to figure that out. Now we have a new medium that keeps inventing new media. The internet is not a medium, but it allows lots of different media to emerge. And so we have to keep reinventing how to do it. And global norms are now in play. Russ: It's an interesting point. I watch my kids answer the telephone. When they are younger, they pick it up and they go, "What?" The person on the other end doesn't know how to respond to that. And eventually you socialize. You teach them how to say, how to start a conversation. And that will evolve. That will emerge on the internet over time. Guest: Yeah, and it already has, but it does so locally. So, at Huffington Post, you know the sort of things. A highly evolved set of norms and expectations, culture that's there. And so in site after site after site after site, these various norms emerge--sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I don't know that--in fact if I had to guess, I'd say that there isn't going to be an overall internet norm. Because of the differences in what the sites are trying to do. Which means that we have to get better at sites in helping people to understand what the norms, policies, and affordances are for each site.
50:08Russ: Let's shift gears. I want to talk about a theme in the book that we haven't touched on, which is, call it narrative. You talk about how narrative argument in a book is different than the way we encounter knowledge typically now on the internet, and the difference between a more open web-like, connected set of links, which is what the internet gives us, to a book, which is fixed and somewhat linear. Not all books are linear, but often are. Talk about what has changed there and what you think will change and how we think about how arguments and knowledge. So, I think this actually pulls together a couple of the things we've been talking about. Because if the world is in fact so fractally complex that any pathway through it connecting pieces is at best a brave attempt, and what we really need is lots of nerds arguing with lots of nerds, and if the truth is in fact in those disagreements and arguments, not in the resolution of them to a single one--because the world is too complex for that--then if we started with the internet as a medium rather than starting with paper and parchment knowledge, I don't think that we would have come up with the notion that we have in Western culture over the past few thousand years that the pinnacle of human knowledge is to write what is essentially a narrative argument that leads the reader from the beginning to the end of the argument, and at the end the reader believes something that she actually didn't believe and maybe would have resisted at the beginning of the argument. But each step of the way you've constructed this argument. That model, that long-form argument model, is just so wildly out of whack with the world as exposed on the net as an endlessly chaotic set of messy links. That's how knowledge appears on the net. Because when your nerds argue with my nerds, they are not just doing it on the telephone. They are putting up sites, responding to each other, doing it in social media, and it's the big stinkin' mess. Russ: And they are linking to other sites. Guest: 100%. Absolutely. And that entire messy web, you don't even know where it begins or ends exactly, that is where the knowledge is, as knowledge in the old days which we think of as being in books and libraries. So, the sort of narrative that we've taken as being the highest construction of knowledge by humans, that we've put it together in these elegant narratives--which have a beauty, no doubt--don't make sense as the pinnacle of knowledge. They may sense as a tour, sort of an idiosyncratic tour through an interesting set of links, but not as the way that the world is. I think that the world is coming to look much more like the web than like a long, logical argument. Or, put differently, we used to think that basically that God, the creator, thought in these long arguments, that God could see how all the pieces go together; and it was our job, with our feeble capabilities, to try to get as much of that straight as we could. It's beginning to look like God thinks in webs, not in long arguments.
54:00Russ: Yeah, and that's a very rich idea. And you reflect in the book on the irony of writing a book in which books are increasingly becoming obsolete. It's interesting how few books are nonlinear. You could write a nonlinear book--a book of interesting things that are to be sampled nonlinearly. There are books like that. Not too many. There aren't books like: Here's a bunch of interesting things I've thought about. Which is what the web is. That's what my blog is: here's a bunch of interesting things I think about. Any one post might be related to some other post, in which case I might link to it; but I don't attempt to lead the reader on a path. And that's true of these podcasts. There's no plan, not even by me. It's just what I'm interested in and who I feel like talking to. And the reader/listener gains knowledge in a very different way from that experience than: Here are my insights on the financial crisis, A-G; read them in order; I've constructed them to teach you something. Guest: And let me settle that for you. Russ: Yeah, exactly. And when you are done-- Guest: And when you are done, you've got it. You don't need to read anything else. Russ: And, you're right. I mean, I think--this is the way the net is really making us smarter. The idea that knowledge used to be in libraries is not true. There was never knowledge until you tried to read those books and process it through your own life and experience. You don't get wise or knowledgeable by consuming. You get wise and knowledgeable by chewing and thinking and relating. And that's what the internet lets us do. Guest: So, if that was only the case--the internet lets you do it in public and leave the trails, the traces--well, the chewing thing doesn't work. Russ: It's a metaphor. Guest: Yeah. Your lines of thought. And so we now have a constantly, increasingly rich set of connections among pieces. And furthermore--so this actually goes back to the question of facts, that there are an infinite number--I'll say an infinite number, but an indefinite number--including that I have never petted a plant dolphin. But the facts that we care about are ones that we find interesting. Those are the ones we think of as fact. So, underneath knowledge has been human interest, all along. Because that's inevitable. Fundamental to us. We are a creature that cares about what happens to us, and what happens to our world and with whom we share that world. That's really fundamental to being a human being. And this new medium, this linked medium, expresses human interest. Often to despicable things; but there you have it. This is a reflection of what we as humans find interesting. Every link is a pointer away from your site to somebody else's because you think somebody else will find that site interesting, because it shows the world, or a little bit of the world, and how that world matters to the person you are linking to. Which is different from how it matters to you. This is such a better reflection--from my point of view--of the nature of the world. The world that we live in, that we experience, is infinitely complex, fractally complex all the way down to the details. It doesn't resolve into simples. And is focused around, based around, is understood through our interests as human beings. That's just the way it is. Russ: I don't know if you've read it, but Hayek's Nobel Prize lecture is called "The Pretense of Knowledge." And what he says in there is that the complexity of human interactions called an economy cannot be boiled down to simple causal relationships. Which is another way of saying partly what you just said. I also think about the fact that--I joke with people; when I tell people, you ought to have a blog, especially older people who are not consumers of blogs; so I start telling them what the virtues of them are and the draw. I say: One of the virtues is, when you have a blog, the editor really likes your stuff. The disadvantage is that he always likes your stuff, because you can say some things on the web you are ashamed of or regret later. But it is a platform. It's a little or a big megaphone, depending on how popular your blog is. But the part I think is really--again, marrying your point--is that it's a place to think out loud. Because you are the editor, you don't have to write your final word. It can evolve. You can learn new things. You can change your mind. Which, once that book's published, you can't. You can write a book later that changes what you said, but there is that fixity of print and paper that the web somewhat erases. Guest: Yeah. I got the date of the start of the Well, early internet startup--I got it wrong. Whoops. I can't fix it. It's printed. Russ: Yeah. And everything else, on the web you just change it. Just fix it. Now it doesn't solve the problem. People may have read the earlier web post where you got it wrong, and they didn't get to the later one; that's still an imperfection that can't be avoided. Guest: Yeah, well, if it's perfection you are looking for, you are in the wrong universe, buddy. Russ: Let's talk about education a little bit. Not so much what we know, but how we learn. How do you think the internet is going to change things there? Guest: I look at the world that software developers have built for themselves, the educational environment, the ecology they've built, and wonder whether we are all going to be living in such a thing. Which would actually be okay with me. If you are a software developer, and you have a question about how to do something or why your code isn't working, you can google it, get an answer, go to one of the popular sites; and will either find an answer--because there are very few questions that have gone unasked and unanswered at this point--or post it and you'll get a response. You'll get a thread back at sites, like Stackoverflow.com, where people will improve each other's answers, and the best response gets flagged, and you have your answer; you probably have the code written for you; and then you'll post your own version of it so other people can benefit from it. So, not only is this an open, collaborative environment in which people are helping each other, it is an example of what public learning looks like. As opposed to learning being a private act in which the individual soul is bettered and the culture is better because we have better people. Instead, this is a declaration that learning itself ought to be a public activity that improves the public. So every time you learn in this new environment, you get an answer. The environment gets better and richer. Engineers are special in part because they could build the tools that they wanted. That's one reason why this environment has shown up for developers first. It's an incredibly efficient and creative and collaborative environment for learning one's craft. And I hope that we'll see that lots of different disciplines are going to learn from this. Russ: Yeah, I think it has tremendous potential in certain areas. I think education is going to change radically in the next 5-10 years. I'm very excited about what Sebastian Thrun is doing with Udacity.com, providing online education to people around the world education for free, certainly in terms of monetary costs, and certifying their expertise in computer science, for example. In those areas, computer science, math, and others, that's going to dominate the way we teach these things now. For a bunch of reasons. But for other areas, it might be a little harder to bring those tools to bear. Guest: Yes. So, the effect of the internet on knowledge overall is very discipline-dependent, for sure.