On the principle of authority, myths and IT

Let's talk about some myths in IT, the Internet, and the principle of authority

Hello, after a long hiatus I'm back (long breaks are becoming the norm here...).

Everyday we're under siege by a humongous amount of information: news, discussions with friends, and most of all social media.

Sometimes it can prove difficult to distinguish between real information and that which is untrue or even sometimes harmful, so today I want to talk about information as it is today, and maybe spark some thoughts about it.

How many times have you seen a TV show presenting a "breakthrough" in science, or even just talking about diets, or "natural remedies"? But most of all, how many times are these shows supporting their thesis by discussing it with an "expert"?

It seems that those shows want to make such theses more solid by having an expert in the field support it, however, the "Principle of Authority", where a thesis is considered true because someone important said it, is not valid in scientific fields. Scientists don't trust people at face value, they like to be convinced with proof and demonstrations.

We can say that science is "Organized Skepticism", in a way. And that's probably a correct thing to say.

How many times have we seen a Nobel Prize winner being quoted about something, as to confirm a theory? Let's list a couple here, just to break this "authority aura" once and for all:

  • James Dewey Watson - Nobel Prize for co-discovering the DNA structure - supports racist ideas, as well as saying that stupidity is a disease and it should be cured
  • Kary Mullis - Nobel Prize for inventing the PCR (an instrument used in practically all biology laboratories today) - Supports denial of the link between the HIV virus and AIDS (in his book pages 115 to 118), even when it was proven that said link exists. Also he admitted of abusing LSD (in his book).
  • Linus Pauling - 2 nobel prizes (peace and chemistry) - Advocated that Vitamin C could cure anything, which spawned the so-called "Orthomolecular Therapy" which is obviously disproven

Many of these ideas were tested by the scientific community, others are just out of the range of being considered sensible.

Now let's enlarge our scope a bit, how many times do people say "[x] is true" because "the president said it"? I bet many have, and they're going to be even more vehement about their support when "[x] thing" resonates with their own view of the world , such as conservativism, or the views their peers have. These reflect the theories of confirmation bias and The Bandwagon effect, respectively.

This is what is affecting our society these days: a huge load of information that is so big we can't (or won't) process rationally, so we revert to our basic way of thinking, and continue to fall back on our biases. Sometimes this bias can be so strong that our brains (it's something that happens naturally) refuse concrete proof of something that goes against our beliefs, no matter how solid said proof is.

The opposite is also happening: someone says something outlandish, finds support by some people, who in turn give support to the thesis, and because of this, the idea appears to self-validate (again: bandwagon effect). Some instances of the bandwagon effect are anti-vaxx movements and flat-earthers.

Other fallacies we should look out for are petitio principii (sometimes called "Begging the question"), where the premises of an argument assume the truth of the conclusion instead of supporting it; as well as argumentum ad ignorantiam (literally "argument from ignorance"), where the lack of proof against an argument is used to support the truth of said argument.

For further information, I'm leaving you a couple links about formal and logical fallacies as well as a list of cognitive biases

Sadly those who are in charge of giving a healthy information diet to the people have been tackling the problem from the wrong side: they have been using their time to disprove a thesis, which we have seen is not really useful, thanks to the ideas of "belief revision bias" and "confirmation bias". This has been unloading the burden of proof over the most outlandish theses on the news outlets, and whoever makes information for the people.

What should be done is we ask whoever makes a wild claim to prove it, with primary sources and research, and if the claimant is unable to provide empirical evidence it should automatically disqualify the claim from being even considered at all. It's hard to prove anything negative and even gravity is just a theory, but you don't see people flying because it's just a theory.

Let's suppose I make a claim:

Snails are actually super-fast, you just turn around and "bam": a wild snail appeared! They just go slow when we look at them.

If I asked someone to disprove my theory, we would need to prove that snails are conscious of our presence first, then that they're conscious of what scientific tools are, etc... We would be doing tests forever, and the theory will never be disproved, because more faults will come out in the process of disproving my claim.

I should be the one saying "Here, I have a tape of a snail going mach-3 on an unpaved road" (...how?).

Ask for peer-reviewed sources, or check both sides of an argument, even more in politics. You'll find some things you'd never thought of. In this case non-partisan sources like politifact are your best tool.

As for IT, one myth I hate is "the field of IT and computers in general are not for women": information technology wouldn't be the same without women:

  • Margareth Hamilton - Leader of the team which developed the software for Apollo, see this MIT news article
  • Ada Lovelace - Worked on Babbage's mechanical computer, which is considered the precursor of modern computers, see this IEEE Article
  • The women of ENIAC - who worked on one of the earliest general-purpose computers, see eniacprogrammers.org
  • Carol Shaw - Former Videogame designer, check this Vintage Computing and Gaming Article
  • Grace Hopper - One of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, check this YUDU article, at page 52 (Requires Adobe Flash)

There goes another myth, but there are many others, both in IT and out of it: about members of the LGBTQ+ community, about people coming from outside your country, about diseases, about computers, technology in general and humans themselves (using 10% of the brain, anyone?).

Every time someone gives you some news, or says something wild, no matter how important of a role they have in today's society - ask for sources.

Don't let them put the burden of disproving outlandish ideas on you, instead ask them to prove their own thesis and watch how they fail to do so.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on this issue, once again and have a good one!


A special thanks goes to my good friend Sydney Rosen for editing, integrating and overall improving this piece.