The Before Stuff

Not with a bang but an opinion.

At some point in recent human history, opinion became sovereign to everything else. Opinion has overtaken enquiry, it has beaten off research, it has hobbled expertise, and it has killed facts.

We are not only in a post-truth world, we are at risk of being in a post-knowledge world.

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Harlan Ellison (1934–2018)

The problem of informed opinion.

It isn’t the opinion of idiots, it is the opinion of apparent experts. Science was once about proof, the expertise came from relaying this proven knowledge, adding it to the progress of human endeavour.

Now ‘expert’ opinion is in the ascendancy.

A view presented with vigor, before the stuff is done to prove it, is relayed widely before any proof of fact. The presenter just needs a platform, they don’t even have to be working in the specific discipline, or even be credentialed or respected by their peers.

Physicists are opinion leaders on economics, computer programmers on neuroscience, and everyone appears to be an expert on virology. Even discipline specific and highly trained scientific experts, seem to be happy having their unproven opinions pushed forward, as though they are already proven scientific fact.

Proof and rigor seem to have joined truth on the same extended holiday.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr (1841 – 1835)

The world is too complex and too fast.

The kind view would be that everything is moving too quickly for the delay that proof requires. Our world is so complex that narrow expertise with hard won evidence is a luxury of the past. Perhaps quiet introverts have just been out-muscled by those with louder voices, less scruples and bigger media microphones.

Another view would be that it is more important than ever for our foundations to be solid.

That whatever future we are building should rest on our best knowledge, proven, tested and stable. Not a house-of-cards built on the celebrity of controversy, the platforms of the radical, or the media’s obsession with ‘gotcha moments’, crack pots and nut jobs. Or worse still, celebrity experts, happy to sprout opinions based on their likelihood of social media traction, or their chance of appearing on a television panel, or adopted by a political party deliberately steering the ship away from hard truth toward easy mob opinion.

No one can claim scientific method, if their pathway is determined by popularity.

“Facing ultimate destruction and the end of the world, human society will undergo extreme, complex, and profound transformations.”
Liu Cixin (1963 – )

It doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

Only hopelessness is required for a shift in decision making.

It doesn’t need to be the ‘end of the world’, it only needs to feel like our efforts are of no consequence. Under the spectre of environmental challenges, economic strain, political tension, conflict, a global pandemic, and a rate-of-change that our slowly evolved brains struggle to keep pace with, it can feel like we don’t have the capacity to solve the problems that confront us.

Such a feeling is close to the definition of helplessness, and helplessness feels like the end-of-the-world.

In such a frame of reference, why wait for proof? Why test assumptions? Why bother taking pride in the quality of our work, whether it is making something, or expressing a view that will help others, or help everyone.

Why? Now is the time, if our incredible resilience, knowledge and skill, is to triumph over the unprecedented challenges we face individually and collectively, to do the ‘before stuff’.

The Before Stuff.

Reciprocity – Before you are entitled to give your opinion to others, you should have truly and carefully considered their opinion, in the same way that you expect them to consider and respect yours.

Integrity – Before you claim expertise, you should make sure that your claim is worthy of being a foundation for others. Don’t use your credentials to claim expertise in other fields where you are just a dilettante. Use your expertise where and how it should be used to push us forward.

Rigor – Before you present a fact, make sure that it is the best understanding we have. Better yet, don’t ever claim facts, relay information as “our best current understanding” and give reasons.

Goodwill – When hopelessness is commonplace and trust has been damaged, the truth will not change minds or rally hearts. The pathway to our own individual understanding, and the consideration and change we wish for in others, is kindness, goodwill and fair consideration. Open communication and respectful consideration is the ‘before stuff’ of knowledge, cooperation and wisdom.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

Of course I understand the irony of this article. It is written with goodwill, I don’t claim any facts, and I also don’t claim any expertise beyond my personal experience and witness of the times we find ourselves in.

This article is an appeal to listening more than talking, researching more than preaching, celebrating the skill and expertise of others and to testing and re-testing our personal beliefs and opinions, especially where they are most challenged. Spend the time getting our pants on before traveling half-way around the world, to borrow from, and respond to the sentiment of Winston Churchill.

This article is some of my ‘before stuff’ for something else. That is an invitation for you to reciprocate with any comment this article brings up for you.

David Warwick
AI Ethicist | Technology Consultant
26 July 2021


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