Saturday, January 20, 2018

Stupidity in Technology: Google's Fact Checker Widget

The most fundamental issue in philosophy is, was, and always will be, how do we know what we know about the world, assuming that we know anything about the world at all. The question is sometimes referred to as "the Problem of Knowledge," and the study of that question is known to philosophers as epistemology.

To most people, the question is hard to understand. Obviously we know a lot about the world: what we were taught in school, what we've read in books or newspapers, what we've seen on TV or on the Internet.

Thing is, though, all we really know are our thoughts, whether our thoughts arise from current sensory experience, memories, imagination, or attempts to analyze experience in accordance with our notion of logic. None of those things provide certain knowledge about the world. Indeed, they provide no definitive proof that there is a world to know about. All we know about the world is thus inferred from our mental experience, and the process of inference is fraught with possibilities for error.

Consider the most direct evidence of the world that we have: the evidence of our senses. Grass you say is green. But what does that mean. To you, what green is, is obvious, it is the color you see when you see grass, which is to say, when you see grass that is green. But what does that tell you about grass. Is grass really green, or does it just make you experience the sensation of seeing something green? Reflection will show that the latter alternative is correct. Grass makes you experience the sensation of seeing something green.

But what if the grass looks brown, or yellow, or any color but green? Does that prove that the grass has lost the power to make you see something green, or only that something external to you, perhaps rose-tinted sunglasses, or the substitution of a monochromatic light source for the light of the sun, is making green grass appear to be a color other than green. Or perhaps it's you. Perhaps your eye is bloodshot causing the color of what you see to be tinted pink. Or there is a problem with your brain, so that now, what used to elicit the sensation of seeing something green, elicits the sensation of seeing something purple. Or perhaps you're seeing nothing, but only dreaming or hallucinating. Or perhaps all of your sensory experience is just that, sensory experience arising spontaneously and unrelated to anything outside of your mind. Perhaps the world does not exist at all, although for the sake of brevity, we will ignore that possibility.

And the problem with grass is just about the simplest epistemological question one could consider. Think how much more complicated things become when the TV news announcer tells you that military forces of country X are moving toward the border of country Y to deter terrorist incursions, while President of Country Y announces that ...

How do you know from such an announcement anything with any certainty, or even reasonable probability?

Actually, you don't. The report about terrorist incursions from Country Y could be based on a lie disseminated by Country X to justify military action against Country Y. Or the story about terrorist incursions could have been put out by the government of  the broadcaster's own country to justify a regime change operation against Country Y, or the story might have been made up in the newsroom, to fill a broadcast time-slot.

The range of possibilities is endless, as are the motives to deceive you and the means by which you could easily be deceived, from green-screen technology to responsible-sounding talking heads in suits lying through their teeth. In addition, there is scope for a vast range of errors in the collection of the news reported, however sincerely the effort to report the news is made.

And the same sorts of problems arise with all information about events remote in time or space. Thus, when Google made available to their users a Fact Checker Widget, did they really think they had solved the deep problem of philosophy, or did they think they had a sure way to dupe the dopes?

Either way, whether it was stupidity compounded by astounding conceit or utter cynicism, the people who run America's hugely influential and vastly wealthy tech industry need watching.

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