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Not Optimal, Not Safe, Not Fair

Isn’t it time we all knew what we’re talking about when we talk with each other?

The marketer Seth Godin argues yes: Social media gives each of us so much potential public impact that we all now share the responsibility of being informed.

Before you turn into a drinking bird nodding your agreement, here’s what Godin means by “know what we’re talking about” and “being informed”: First, understanding statistics, germ theory, epidemiology, decision making, propaganda, semiotics, climate change, network effects and AI — nine fundamental components of how the world works, as he puts it. So, not just how a bill becomes a law.

Second, Godin thinks “understanding” a field means achieving a level of knowledge that would allow you to take apart things in that field and put them back together again. “You wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic who didn’t know how to fix a car,” he writes, “and citizens, each of us, should be held to at least as high a standard of knowledge.” (Or at least as high as the mechanic who, after he told me the repeating gunshot noise coming from my old Saturn was a cracked engine block and I asked if I could at least drive it home, looked me dead in the eye and said: “Sir, let me restate this: The car is unsafe to drive.”)

So now it’s getting real. Could most (or any) civilians bootstrap mechanic-level knowledge in a field like AI? To get us started, Godin provides links to topical primers for each of his fundamental nine fields. The link for epidemiology goes to a CDC ”Introduction to Epidemiology” site with a dek of the same name, which provides this friendly definition for its main term:

Study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states among specified populations and the application of that study to the control of health problems

Godin’s link for climate change goes to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report summary headlines for policymakers, which starts out fairly simple but then gets sticky with headlines like

Improved knowledge of climate processes, paleoclimate evidence and the response of the climate system to increasing radiative forcing gives a best estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3C, with a narrower range compared to AR5.

And so they go, these primers. What happened to “explain it in terms your grandmother could understand”?

So many of us share Godin’s narrative of “people need to become more informed.” Godin’s articulation of the narrative forces us to confront its absurdity, its expertise elitism: that people will somehow a) engage in spontaneous mass bootstrapped knowledge-seeking, motivated by b) a vague desire to be more informed in topics they see at arm’s length from their lives, a knowledge quest precariously based on c) easily findable and universally comprehensible online resources of public expertise.

In reality: Bootstrapping knowledge is hard and resource-intensive — a luxury for most people. The more science literate you are, the greater the chance you will have polarized beliefs on controversial science topics — which would seem to defeat at least one of the purposes of understanding today’s key components of how the world works. And translation of expertise is still largely terrible. None of this will be fixed by everyone taking a Coursera Stanford Intro to Statistics course, as Godin suggests.

We can settle for slogans and scapegoating, or we can start from more realistic first principles, such as: People are already learning, all the time. Their ongoing learning isn’t abstract or prophylactic but highly motivated, most often about problems they or those closest to them face. And when expert answers for these problems are inaccessible — paywalled, jargon-ridden, cursed with knowledge — these learners will turn to other sources, some research-based, others just looking like it.

A friend and I recently were discussing the difficulty of finding good, science-based counsel on ways to deal with our various health conditions. “What I want as a patient,” my friend said, “is not too much information, nor a whole bunch of contradictory information, but useful, actionable information for what I have.”

“But I don’t get that from doctors,” my friend continued. “I have to carve my own path — ask the right questions and make the right decisions. And most people don’t have the resources to do this. A lot of my information comes from online. How much bias is in that information I’m seeking — and the information that’s served to me?”

My friend summed it up thusly: “It’s not optimal, not safe, not fair.”

The intersection of absorbing knowledge and translating — the intersection of the public and the expert — is where public experts make their unique contribution.

Public discourse is usually messy. As public expert, your first job operating within that mess — if at all possible — is to provide “useful, actionable information for what people have,” every single time.