Switch to mobile version

Nobody Knows What’s Going On

Post image for Nobody Knows What’s Going On

A major online publication once reported in a profile on me that I had retired at 33. A few old friends and acquaintances reached out to congratulate me on my financial independence.

I think it was an honest mistake on the part of the reporter. I told her I had quit my job to write full time, and I guess she thought that meant I must have millions of dollars.

To be clear, I was not then, and am not now financially independent. The 100 or so people that actually know me could discern that just by seeing my kitchen. Yet perhaps 20,000 people read somewhere that I am. That means potentially 200 times more people are wrong than right on this question, because of an inference made by a reporter.

This scenario, in which there’s much more wrongness going around than rightness, is probably the norm. People make bad inferences like that all day long. These wrong ideas replicate themselves whenever the person tells someone else what they know, which the internet makes easier than ever.

Consider the possibility that most of the information being passed around, on whatever topic, is bad information, even where there’s no intentional deception. As George Orwell said, “The most fundamental mistake of man is that he thinks he knows what’s going on. Nobody knows what’s going on.”

Technology may have made this state of affairs inevitable. Today, the vast majority of a person’s worldview is assembled from second-hand sources, not from their own experience. Second-hand knowledge, from “reliable” sources or not, usually functions as hearsay – if it seems true, it is immediately incorporated into one’s worldview, usually without any attempt to substantiate it. Most of what you “know” is just something you heard somewhere.

Standard editorial approach

When people go on to share what they “know”, there’s usually no penalty for being wrong, but there are rewards for convincing people you’re right: attention, money, adoration, public rhetorical victories over others, and many other things humans enjoy.

The Two Kinds of Knowing

First-hand knowledge is a whole different thing from the second-hand kind. When you experience an event with your senses, you’re not just accepting a verbal claim, such as “There’s fighting in the streets of Kabul” — the truth is actually happening to you. The experienced sailor knows that looming cloud formation means trouble. The soldier knows the attack on his unit’s position was repelled. The dog owner knows exactly how long she can leave Rocco alone at home before he relieves himself on the floor. The friend sitting on my fifteen-year-old couch knows I’m not independently wealthy. Experience imprints reality right into your neurons; it doesn’t just add another thought to the abstract space in your brain where you keep your axioms and factoids.

Good for about six hours

Only a tiny percentage of what a given person “knows” is in this first-hand, embodied form. The rest is made of impressions gathered from anecdotes, newspapers, books, schoolteachers, blogs, and things our older siblings told us when we were little.

If you ever read an article on a subject with which you have a lot of first-hand experience, you’ll notice that they always get major things wrong – basic facts, dates, names of people and organizations, the stated intentions of involved parties, the reasons a thing is happening – things even a novice in the space would know better about.

It makes perfect sense, if you think about it, that reporting is so reliably unreliable. Why do we expect reporters to learn about a suddenly newsworthy situation, gather information about it under deadline, then confidently explain the subject to the rest of the nation after having known about it for all of a week? People form their entire worldviews out of this stuff.

Me forming my worldview

What doesn’t make sense is that we immediately become credulous again as soon as the subject matter changes back to a topic on which we don’t have first-hand experience. You know they don’t know what they hell they’re talking about on Subject A, but hey what’s this about Subject B? In 2002, author Michael Crichton named this the “Gell-Mann Amnesia effect”:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In [Murray Gell-Mann’s] case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Crichton clarifies in the full speech that by “media” he’s not only talking about newspapers, but books, television, and internet too, and of course anybody’s recounting of what these sources say. Well, that accounts for just about 100% of our second-hand knowledge.

The situation is developing”

People do know things though. We have airplanes and phones and spaceships. Clearly somebody knows something. Human beings can be reliable sources of knowledge, but only about small slivers of the whole of what’s going on. They know things because they deal with their sliver every day, and they’re personally invested in how well they know their sliver, which gives them constant feedback on the quality of their beliefs.

Plumbing knowledge, for example, is constantly tested by whether the place floods after you’ve advanced your theory about what pipe connects to what. You need to get it right because it costs you something when you get it wrong.

The mechanic has seen a thousand check-engine lights and knows how each of them was resolved. The English professor has seen a thousand essays and can tell you what’s wrong with yours. The night club bouncer has dealt with a thousand drunk patrons and knows which guests will be trouble even before they do.

Somebody’s sliver, thankfully

There are ways to carefully gather, scrutinize, and compare high-quality second-hand sources, and maybe learn something reliable, but this is extremely difficult for the groupish, emotional creature we are. It is viscerally unpleasant (not to mention time-consuming) to honestly question beliefs you feel positively towards, or honestly entertain ones you don’t, and ultimately you’re just determining what “feels right” anyway.

Aside from our own respective slivers of reliable knowledge, we mostly carry a lot of untested beliefs — teetering piles of them, accumulated over years, from random people assuring us “this is how it is.” Most of these beliefs are bunk, but we don’t know which ones.   

Beliefs are Mostly Mind-Candy

Humans love beliefs, not because they’re reliable pointers to what’s true, but because they often feel good in some way, or have social rewards. Expressing and sharing beliefs can get us attention and social status, make us feel competent, sell our goods and services, and motivate people to do things for us, and they can just feel satisfying to say aloud. A convincing belief is simply one that feels good to the ears, or the mind.

Beliefs of mine, awaiting testing

Theory feels good. Pithiness and analogy feel good. A tight sentence feels good. Neat and snappy stories about what’s “true” are like candy to the sense-craving part of the human brain.

Notice how many smart people believe things like, “You can’t reason yourself out of a belief you didn’t reason yourself into.” This is a belief nobody would arrive at through reason. It doesn’t stand up to even a minute’s logical scrutiny. You certainly didn’t reason yourself into a belief that North-Pole-dwelling elves made your childhood toys, but you probably reasoned yourself out of it. Both beliefs are just mind-candy, only for different audiences.

In short, human beings are bad at gathering information, inferring the right things from it, and responsibly passing it on to others. It is incredible what we’ve achieved in spite of this — almost entirely by carefully combining and testing our respective reliable slivers — but as a species we remain supremely untalented at knowing what’s true outside the range of our senses.

A relevant documentary (1996)

Much of the problem is that we want so badly to be believed, to be seen as someone who knows stuff. In the rest of Crichton’s speech, he explains why he named the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect after Murray Gell-Mann: because he’s famous, and he’s a physicist. People believe things named after physicists because we know they’re smart. And Crichton is a medical doctor, so you should listen to the guy.

Also, none of you will be able to confirm this, but George Orwell did not say the line in the intro of this article. I just said that he did so you would take my own assertions more seriously. And it’s too late — you’ve already tasted the candy. I mean, Orwell could have said something like that. He might as well have said it. He probably did, basically! I will sleep soundly anyway. There are few penalties for bullshit, and many rewards. Because nobody knows what’s going on.


Images by Artem Beliaikin, The Onion, Jamie Street, Rivage, Ryan Brooklyn, Gaurav Bagdi


Robert Wringham June 12, 2024 at 3:16 pm

lol! Mixed you up with Jacob, didn’t they?

{ Reply }

David Cain June 12, 2024 at 5:41 pm

That is possible! I was hanging with FI folks

{ Reply }

Patricia June 13, 2024 at 4:51 am

Okay,okay at the risk of admitting that I don’t know what’s going on, what does FI mean and should I believe your explanation?

{ Reply }

Quez June 13, 2024 at 5:06 am

FI means Financial Independence, meaning somenone who doesn’t need to work anymore for financial purposes.

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 8:50 am
Charlotte June 12, 2024 at 4:50 pm

Amen, brother, AMEN

{ Reply }

Rodger June 13, 2024 at 2:31 am

Another beautiful one that’s definitely a keeper David. I’ll put it right next to ‘The Last Bike Ride’.

{ Reply }

Ron June 13, 2024 at 6:01 am

That’s hilarious. I liked your fake Orwell quote so much I added it my quotes database right after reading it. So now I’ll go delete it. Or, hey, maybe just correct its attribution. But then, w/o the famous author, does it retain its value? Hmm.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 8:51 am

Haha! Most quote databases are full of fake stuff so I think it’s okay.

{ Reply }

Keena June 13, 2024 at 11:25 am

Ha ha! I liked it too. I’ll just attribute it to David, rather than George :)

{ Reply }

Agnieszka June 13, 2024 at 6:49 am

Brilliant. The initial story about more people being wrong than right about a particular truth really shook me. Your post reminded me of this, equally mind shaking, post:

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 8:52 am

I recently read that post and started going through his other stuff. Really good.

{ Reply }

Jetta June 13, 2024 at 7:52 am

I’m laughing out loud! I’ve been reading your posts for a long time (which implies trust in your words), so you got me with the George Orwell quote! Fascinating topic as always…so much so that I want to “know” more (ha!).

{ Reply }

Rocky June 13, 2024 at 7:53 am

The truth is more important than the “facts.” — Frank Lloyd Wright.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 8:53 am

Agreed. I will trust you that Frank Lloyd Wright said that :)

{ Reply }

Ron June 13, 2024 at 9:25 am

“You’re sure Calvin Coolidge didn’t say that?”

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 10:09 am

I believe he said, “The most fundamental mistake of man is that he thinks he knows what’s going on. Nobody knows what’s going on.”

{ Reply }

Alex June 16, 2024 at 7:04 pm
Nina June 13, 2024 at 9:50 am

Reminds me of the Peep Show quote: “The world’s just people going around, walking into rooms and saying things. It’s all a big swizzle!”

I like the idea of being aware of the difference between “knowing” and knowing, and working towards knowing something intentionally. I was really convinced by this article that argues that the only real effective method to get policies changed is for random people to take it upon themselves to become experts in some super-narrow bit of, like, municipal zoning law or whatever. https://medium.com/civic-tech-thoughts-from-joshdata/so-you-want-to-reform-democracy-7f3b1ef10597 You devote a chunk of your free time to knowing more about that thing than anyone else (including elected officials, of course), and before you know it you’re the go-to person for that subject and able to help people fix the problem. Sadly, despite finding it persuasive, I never followed through with learning about something. Maybe that should be a depth year goal for me?

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 10:12 am

That is a really interesting idea, and (without reading the article) I agree with it, haha! Depth is rare, and there is something very powerful about a person who can demonstrate deep knowledge on a subject. But because depth is rare, you don’t have to learn that much to know more than almost everybody, especially somebody whose job is to “know” about a huge variety of subjects, like policymakers.

{ Reply }

Dennis June 13, 2024 at 12:40 pm

Nicely done, David.

Re: politics, I have come to believe that the news is mostly fake on both the left and the right. My guess is that, to a lesser extent, this has always mostly been the case. I wasn’t a cynical person and now I’m trying not to be, but narratives seem to be explained by various forms of following the money.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 2:38 pm

I mean, it basically has to be, because reporting what’s true doesn’t have nearly the incentives as reporting what makes money. If it’s true, it’s only by accident.

I think the best way to navigate the world is to always keep in mind about the incentives humans respond to. We value truth, but much, much less than acceptance, pleasure, security, etc. That’s nobody’s fault, but it is how the world works imo.

{ Reply }

Eugene June 13, 2024 at 1:35 pm

Very perceptive, David. On a deeper level, of course, our usual perceptions of the world at large and of ourselves are bullshit. Why we meditate and practice mindfulness.
The comments on belief are especially insightful.
Thanks, as always.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 13, 2024 at 2:40 pm

The great thing about mindfulness is that if you’re doing it right you’re not making conclusions. It’s one of the few things we do that avoids inferences altogether. You’re not even naming things, not even attaching concepts, just observing the nameless, mysterious experience that is life itself.

{ Reply }

Georgia Patrick June 13, 2024 at 2:31 pm

What a great companion article to go with the book I just completed by Charles Duhigg, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. Communication, like the brain, is something we barely understand and need to use to survive, if not live well. I keep thinking we might do well to learn more about both–and use them, with more wisdom and awareness. I intensely enjoyed this article, David.

{ Reply }

Steven June 13, 2024 at 4:20 pm

This one brought me up short.
Trained in epistemology, I’m more than aware of the drawbacks and sometimes utter failures of every attempt philosophers have made to explain and justify what we claim to know, whether based on science or from any other source.
Even immediate sense experience is capable of misleading if we let it. I look out my (10th floor) home office window across an open landscape, and the world looks flat! Naturally, I tend to think the Earth is a globe (slightly flattened at the poles!). I’ve never *seen* the whole thing, though!
I’ve come back to first-hand knowledge that consistently solves a given problem, reliance on those who can demonstrate that they have such knowledge and communicate this clearly to others, and consistency of claims across different problem domains. We are problem-solvers, as much as we are anything, and technology has solved a lot of problems for us (while creating a few more of its own!). The point being: we can probably trust physics, on which technology is based.
That said, I was impressed by Joel Salatin’s discussion in his book *Folks, This Isn’t Normal* of how kids raised on farms can discern features of animals, plants, and nature itself that those of us raised in suburbia can’t even begin to see. I’ve wondered if indigenous peoples we products of modernity see as “primitive” understand properties and features of the natural order, from having lived in direct contact with them, that are simply beyond us.
One of the most famous philosophical problems is whether the future will be like the past, and how we can justify believing that it will be. We can’t *prove* that the so-called laws of nature are constants without begging the question.
The answer is not to look for *proofs* but continue to rely on problem-solving capability of hands-on practices … realizing that we are more creatures of emotion and sentiment than we are of abstract logic. We feel much more comfortable telling ourselves that we basically understand the principles governing the world than suggesting the opposite, which is that many of our dearest conclusions will never be anything more than educated guesses … and that ultimately, it’s all up for grabs.

{ Reply }

David June 14, 2024 at 8:52 am

A couple of thoughts here:

First-hand experience can definitely fool us in many ways. We can go all the way back to Descartes and reason that everything we know is doubtable except that consciousness of some sort is happening. But this just casts second-hand knowledge into even more doubt, because at *best* it’s a verbal accounting of direct experience, introduces extra sources of distortion, like inference, languaging, and incentives to shape how it sounds to the other person. So it’s still a lot better.

I don’t know anything about physics but I have heard people say it’s locked up in a sort of political stalemate right now, wherein the most influential figures in the field are invested in a framework that has not produced any significant advancements in some time. A minority of physicists wants to toss it and use a different framework, but the majority of talent and resources are occupied in service of the dominant framework. I don’t know who’s right, but it’s clear that political and interpersonal forces can have a major influence on the state of a scientific field and what it tells us is true.

{ Reply }

Ginzo June 14, 2024 at 8:50 am

Ah yes, what we think we know. And where we think are trusted sources to prove our ‘facts’. From an evolutionary view, for most of mankind’s existence; one would get ‘what’s going on’ from a another person in your group/tribe, or maybe from a neighboring group. Local gossip/stories was the standard. So our brains got trained to believe the gossip in spite of other facts on national/worldwide news outlets. This at least partially explains why some people continue to believe things that have proven to be absolutely false. Same goes for scientific research. If my neighbors don’t believe it, I’m likely to not believe too. Our ‘inner world’ facts are a another story……..

{ Reply }

David June 14, 2024 at 8:59 am

It’s helpful to consider that this capacity for believing anything, for abstract thought about what’s true, is an evolutionary trait. This means we will believe in ways that aid survival, which means our beliefs have never precisely been about believing what’s true, but believing what helps us survive.

In particular, that means it’s often more advantageous to your survival to believe what the group believes than to believe what’s true. You can prove your loyalty to a group (and therefore secure their help) by demonstrating that you share a belief with them, even if it’s ultimately untrue.

{ Reply }

Discovered Joys June 15, 2024 at 2:50 am

The worst boss I ever worked for used to assert ‘Perception is reality’.

In some ways this was a profound observation, in others a complete misapprehension. If something is ‘broken’ but ‘everybody’ believes it to be working then there is no immediate need to do anything. And yet ‘broken’ things need ‘fixing’ if they are not to cause big problems later.

It rather depends on how important ‘others immediate impressions’ are to you.

{ Reply }

Rhino June 15, 2024 at 9:29 am

“Humans love beliefs, not because they’re reliable pointers to what’s true, but because they often feel good in some way, or have social rewards.”

A more generous take on this is that beliefs can alleviate suffering. This is really the basis of religion. Religion has many alternate purposes, but for the majority, it’s a means to alleviate suffering – and to be fair, it’s pretty good for that purpose, on average of course, your mileage may vary..

Cool that Robert Wringham stopped by, I’m a big fan of the New Escapologist!

{ Reply }

David Cain June 17, 2024 at 2:02 pm

Beliefs can indeed console but I think that’s selling religion short. I believe the great religions persist not because they’re comforting but because they point at possibilities to transcend normal human consciousness, which is fixated on the confort and security of the individual organism. Using religion primarily as a source of consolation misses out on its main purpose, imo.

I write a regular column for New Escapologist now. Look for it in the next one!

{ Reply }

Alex June 16, 2024 at 7:14 pm

Keeping this post in my notes, filed under #Unthink.
Of course, it connects to media literacy and critical thinking. Often taken as hallmarks of higher education. Some possible links to networked decision-making processes described by Steven Berlin Johnson in Future Perfect. Also, some echoes of traditional approaches to “worldview” in anthropology. In the mix is a notion pretty close to ethnocentrism as we conceive of it in anthro: an unthinking assumption that what holds in our cultural context is the normal and natural thing.
In several ways, it connects to this notion of “unthink” with which I’ve been playing for a while. It’s about limits to reflection. Not always a negative thing. After all, there’s always a limit to any thought process. It’s just that it can go with hasty conclusions, kneejerk reactions, groupthink, unquestioned assumptions, all sorts of cognitive biases, and decisions made with insufficient care (for instance, about diverse needs).
In my experience, unthink often comes from a sense of urgency instead of intellectual laziness or inaptitude. It’s common, however, to blame others for being lazy or incompetent.
Came here through Doug Belshaw’s Thought Sharpnel, which provides some commentary on your piece.

(The Quine citation might lead me back to Wilson & Sperber’s Relevance Theory… for another RT.)

{ Reply }

Sharon Hanna June 17, 2024 at 7:42 pm

When I read stuff about gardening and horticulture – yeah. Really got it – about when you know a lot about something and ‘the writer’ knows buggger all. Thanks for this , David.

{ Reply }

Sharon Hanna June 17, 2024 at 7:43 pm

Not three B’s in bugger, haha. sorry.

{ Reply }

Sharon Hilda Hanna June 17, 2024 at 7:56 pm

Really being outside…..I mean being outside – really there is no problem.

{ Reply }

thomas June 19, 2024 at 10:53 pm

Not strengthening counter arguments makes this border on a bad faith argument; add to this your alleged fame to make this piece interesting and the takeaway „It‘s all fake news.“, I do wonder why you think you know what is going on.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 20, 2024 at 2:25 pm

You’ve almost got it…

1) The point is we are almost helpless but to frame things in ways that make our own position more persuasive, regardless of its truth value. I did this on purpose in the article and said so.

2) Nobody said “it’s all fake news.” The problem is how difficult it is to know what is and isn’t. Ultimately we are relying on our intuitions about what is a reliable account and what isn’t.

{ Reply }

Thomas June 21, 2024 at 5:31 pm

Points that have never been made before, and never better. Actually, I do not even disagree with your point, it is just its presentation. – A satirist once said: Everything has been said, but not by everyone. I teach Philosophy so maybe I should be happy that my favourite subject is popularised.
I shall reflect on why this set off this rare urge in me to speak up against strangers online. (As you seem offended, apologies.) Have a good day

{ Reply }

David June 20, 2024 at 4:28 am

Great post! The Orwell fake quote reminds me of the screenwriter William Goldman, who said: “Nobody knows anything.” He goes on:

“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Ever since I read that I’ve felt like it applies to a lot more than just screenwriting.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 20, 2024 at 2:30 pm

In the film industry in particular, the stakes are *really* high with those guesses. Hundreds of millions of dollars at risk for each guess. I suppose that’s why most big studies are making movies based intellectual properties that are already established, even if they’re not very prestigious ones. (e.g. “The Fall Guy”)

{ Reply }

shumafuk June 20, 2024 at 5:22 am

“Never trust anything you read on internet.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

{ Reply }

Mr. L June 20, 2024 at 6:31 am

Everyone should see this article. Yesterday, someone was bemoaning the use of AI making it impossible in the near future to know what’s true in news reporting. I had to remind them that they never knew what was true unless they were there and experienced it – they’re at the mercy of the person reporting it, and the agenda of their organization. On the contrary, AI might help by increasing scrutiny of any reported news stories.

Anyways, everyone’s ego needs constant checking that they shouldn’t consider something true because they’ve read a lot of lies.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 20, 2024 at 2:27 pm

Yes, exactly. For some the fake news / post-truth phenomenon is a new thing that is threatening the certainty we once felt about how the world is; for others it only exposing that our certainty was unwarranted this whole time.

{ Reply }

Linda Myers June 22, 2024 at 3:04 pm

I read this twice! You are so right, and I’m going to share it with multiple people.

{ Reply }

Vadim June 24, 2024 at 3:42 am

Of cource you’re right. On the other hand, if someone decided not to trust opinions but verify everything, he just got paralyzed. Opinions, bias, prejudices may (and often do) harm but they also save — time, resources, life… They are evoultionarily justified just like other not the most pleasant things as governments or prostitution. Otherwise we have gotten rid of them long time ago. Humans do have some real benefits from opinions. And probably will do forever. But again, you’re right and one should be aware of his/her opinions and control them:)

{ Reply }

Joe July 7, 2024 at 9:25 am

Just found your blog today, and I love it. This article, too, is very insightful. But I do think it errs a bit on the side of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’m curious: do you believe then that journalism is pointless? It seems to me that there IS a tradition and practice in journalism of at least *trying* to get the main points of a story correct, and publishing corrections if they are not. Which is not to say they are 100% or even 90% correct, but even if you have news that is 75% correct, if you read and mentally compile enough of it, you’re getting a general sense of “what’s happening”, right?

I wouldn’t say that articles I read about computer science or song-writing (which are a couple of my slivers) are “mostly wrong” – I would say they get some things wrong – usually not critically important things, as far as the general public is concerned (but sometimes). So, based on my first-hand experience, I kind of feel like “Gel-Mann Amnesia” is an interesting (and useful!) belief that doesn’t necessarily hold up in all scenarios.

{ Reply }

David Cain July 9, 2024 at 9:46 am

I think journalism is crucial, but it has a major flaw, which has something to do with the extremely quick turnaround time in the learning and summarizing of information, when it’s combined with the air of authority and trustworthiness that news orgs need to affect in order to compete with each other for attention. We can account for some of this by keeping this flaw in mind when we read.

The degree of the problem probably varies by topic. Summarizing a development in the realm of songwriting might not be as prone to error because it’s not an area in which there are tons of empirical claims being made. Compare that to, say, a geopolitical conflict, which is more complex, more distant, more abstract, more politically spun from all sides, and depends on getting many hard-to-find details right. Understanding “what’s going on” around such topics depends on a lot of framing, because where do you even begin to describe a war, or the current conditions of a city, or a nationwide trend (crime, education, etc.)? Add to this the worldview-spin that shapes news coverage for commercial and political reasons, and it you have an extremely unreliable source of knowlege of what is happening in the world. There are just too many places to veer from a true representation of reality.

{ Reply }

Leave a Comment

{ 1 Trackbacks }

Desktop version

Raptitude is an independent blog by . Some links on this page may be affiliate links, which means I might earn a commission if you buy certain things I link to. In such cases the cost to the visitor remains the same.