The internet doesn’t need parrots

This is going to be a long one, so buckle in.

Let’s start with a hypothetical. Suppose I were to ask the average person if it was safe to apply a homemade cream everyday that had the chemical “homosalate” in it, their reaction would be “no.” Upon googling, they’d learn that the chemical homosalate has the potential to disrupt hormones. Their reaction would fall under the “common sense” aka “You’re dumb for even asking this” type of response.

At the same time, if I were to ask the average person whether it’s safer to use sunscreen or not use sunscreen, they would say “use it.” Upon googling, they might encounter an official-looking webpage from the American Academy of Dermatology saying “everyone” should use sunscreen “every day if you will be outside.”

I imagine you know what I’m going to say next: that sunscreen has homosalate in it. And it’s not just homosalate, “FDA has put the entire sunscreen industry on alert by proposing that in just two instances do we have enough safety information about ingredients to determine whether they’re safe and effective: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.” [2] There are concerns about multiple suncreen chemicals disruption hormones.

How can it be obviously unsafe to use be exposed to homosalate, but obviously unsafe not to use sunscreen? Clearly, if you just go by google’s top result, we’re at an impasse.

This article isn’t about sunscreen. No, we’re getting all philosophical. This article is about “common sense.”

This article is about how we have a propensity to follow and repeat “common sense.” This articles about when two pieces of “common sense” contradict, like described above, we “parrot” them both anyways. But now that we have the internet, I hypothesize that parroting is no longer necessary, and is actively destructive.

A web of factoids

Humor me, while I describe one way to look at society. Very abstractly, let’s try to model the messy tangle of how distinct opinions and experiences slowly accrue to a rough social consensus about what’s true. What they are coming to a consensus about, and how long it takes them, varies (social norms, usefulness of email, modern ideologies).

I propose that most of us in society are like little machines, executing code all the time via our behaviors (you might find the word habits more palatable). Much of the code we execute is hardcoded (breathing), some of it we choose ourselves. But most of it we download from those around us, without even realizing we’re doing it.

We’re constantly watching and copying the behaviors of those around us (“norms”) following them, and then spreading them on to others. This isn’t necessarily good or bad in the abstract. Many of the things we copy are very useful (how to talk, social edicate, modern hygiene, how to use a doorknob). Many of the things we copy are necessary to fit in (grooming and attire). Many of the things we copy are completely arbitrary and vary between cultures (should I eat at a table rather than sitting on the floor?). Some of the things we copy are bad (e.g. for a while people liked to smoke, mainly because other people smoked).

(Here me out, I am aware this is reductionistic to the point of humorous, but I think some things are so complicated they are hard to see, whereas other things are so simple they are hard to see)

I want to emphasize this is copying and not a conscious, calculated choice. It feels good to believe that we’re fully conscious and autonomous in our behaviors, which is why I want to be extra clear: it’s not so. It’s not that people drew out a chart of “pros” and “cons” and said, “Yep, smoking does make sense for me, for the next 3 years, but eating at tables is essential.”

But of course, at some point, slowly, perhaps too slowly, smoking stopped being cool. Bit by bit over multiple generations small changes added up to have a drastic effect on the system. How is that?

So the model I’m proposing is that all information dissemination can be viewed as 3 behaviors

  • Creating: Generating new information (e.g. “I invented a new type of concrete”)
  • Parroting: Relaying information blindly (e.g. “I just heard Joe invented a new type of concrete”)
  • Filtering: Selectively relaying information (e.g. keeping your mouth shut because you have no idea if Joe has any clue what he’s talking about)

Finally after all this time, we back to our thesis: parroting. Parroting is basically another word for the copying I’ve just described. And (in addition to raw behaviors being copied) it’s how most knowledge is passed along.

Half what I “know,” I don’t actually know. For example, I knew there were 9 planets in the solar system back in 5th grade, despite having never seen any of them with my own eyes except Earth. There could have been 3, or 15, I was repeating what I was told. Later, it was decided that there are actually 8, and Pluto doesn’t count.

Most of the time this “parroting” seems practical, even indespensible. It would be pretty absurd if teachers weren’t allowed to teach how many planets there are unless they had personally verified them all. So it would seem there is a very healthy reason for us to “parrot” this information about planets (that is to say – to take it verbatim, pass it along without questioning or verifying it).

But books exist, and they do exactly that (parrot). And because they are printed permanently, you know nothing was lost along the way. However, compared to word-of-mouth, books are slow to print, expensive, and difficult to update (say, when a planet is demoted). So it would seem parroting is still useful.

But now the internet exists. And it makes parroting by word-of-mouth obsolete. We can have a widely-distributed article on exactly what planets there are, why they are planets, how we know this, photos, up-to-date information on their positions, how to verify it for yourself, and it can be updated in seconds. This is almost what wikipedia is. The value of “caching” (parroted) facts in our brains has gone down drastically now that a more reliable source can always parrot them to us through our phone.

The Parrot’s-eye view

A parrot would reject this point entirely. A parrot would say “Well there are actual agreed-upon experts out there, and there’s nothing wrong with being a relay.” And there are fields where this is fairly true.

For example, there are experts in aviation, and the fact that we can generally trust planes not to crash midflight objectively validates that those experts and systems.

But there are also fields, like economics, where the track-records of experts predicting things is scarcely better than chance, and there’s little consensus on anything, and when there is consensus it’s sometimes wrong anyways (e.g. The Big Short).

The question of which experts are actually experts, is so confusing we almost would want an expert on the topic. What makes somebody an expert? Being on the TV box? Being in political office? Using big words? An expensive degree? A lot of followers? Having ceremonial attire? Published journal articles?

My perspective

So then what? We can’t have authorities?

No. We can’t. You can’t get the title “authority” and then get to say whatever you want free of second-guessing. Think of it like the ideal of academia — there is no “president of science;” there are peers and slowly-earned trust. Nobody is above criticism, everybody is a peer.

We’re inevitable already heading in this direction — everybody gets an opinion, and the attention you receive is proportional to the argument you make. And when you have a good track-record, your signal gets amplified more (by people “subscribing” to you). This technique powers scientific community this is the basic premise of decentralization and “web 2.0” replacing gatekeepers.

Twitter, to some extent, is a system to replace parrots, and allow the informed to reach the uninformed without human-telephone. Though I can’t say the execution is perfect.

What should change?

I think our scientific community has long since abandoned hierarchy, and particularly this chain-of-command mentality. There is no need to parrot, rather you cite a source.

What I notice though, during covid, is how ineffective our chain-of-command government has been. I think many individuals have been weeks ahead of the government by using simply internet sources to correctly challenge a lot of “official” information around ventilators, curve-flattening, efficacy of masks, distribution of bailout money, and I expect more examples to follow.

When we become conscious of this change in truth-seeking, it will be come clear our political process will have to change with it. I believe mistakes like Vietnam would become increasingly improbably in our modern hyper-connected society.

We’ll know this succeeds when, before starting a quarantine, our elected officials publicly share risk models with the wider community, solicit input, and update decisions as on-the-ground information changes.

But if that seems like wishful thinking, let the simplest takeaway be this, that there is now a word, a derogatory one, for every time somebody plays the expert on a topic they haven’t researched by simply reiterating a buzzword. Perhaps the WHO claims masks don’t help, but you’re a parrot, you wouldn’t know (you’ve done no research), and you wouldn’t know if the WHO would know (you haven’t validated any of their “experts”).

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