Fun Fact: We Can Never Truly Know Anything

Thoughts about how easily-digestible information ends up in the same state as most things that’ve been digested

As the algorithms have spent time getting to know me, they’ve learned (at least) two things: 1) I’m a nerd who enjoys learning quick, easily-digestible pieces of information; and 2) I’m pretty shallow and will pay extra attention to anything presented by a young, handsome man with a beard. So YouTube must’ve understandably believed it’d hit the jackpot when it started recommending videos from the “magnify” channel.

And it was correct; it’s an interesting channel, mostly dedicated to short-form info, mostly related to language and the origins of words, with particular repeated emphasis on different aspects of Christianity and their roots in Judaism.

Coincidentally, in the middle of watching a ton of the short videos back to back, I checked into a forum on Discord and saw someone repeating the (certainly, patently false) etymology of the word “posh” as an acronym for “port out, starboard home.” The coincidence jumped out at me, because this was a recurring topic in the newspaper column The Straight Dope — or at least its online message boards — which I used to read with beyond-religious devotion in the days before social media took over everybody’s attention.

I should make it absolutely clear that the “magnify” channel is both entertaining and interesting, which is its only real obligation, and that it at least seems both convincing and motivated by a real desire to inform. I have yet to hear anything presented on it that fails to pass my bullshit test. I’m not trying to disparage or cast any doubt on the channel itself, or its content. Just its format, which is driven by the state of online media in 2024.

I don’t know anything about the creator of the videos beyond a first name mentioned once in the channel description. He doesn’t provide sources for the information, which would be pretty much impossible in a video designed to run around 60 seconds. But it’s not as if I’m going to do any significant diligence in verifying sources, either, especially since I barely ever did that in college.

It made me realize how much of the confidence in stuff I know is based on little more than a vibe check. Does the speaker sound knowledgeable, or at least confident? Are they saying something that I’ve heard debunked elsewhere? Is there any detectable agenda behind it? Do they try too hard to do that thing where the end of the short loops back around to the beginning, because that irrationally and inexplicably bugs me?

And obviously: does it matter? Unless you’re getting mission-critical information from YouTube shorts, or I guess from Google, the only real risk of getting bad information is that you end up looking gullible. But it still chips away and builds up to a real degradation in trust and confidence. People have always been lying, and always been over-confident in giving false information. But now, there are more incentives to lie about the stuff that simply doesn’t matter. False etymologies and other dubious trivia probably gets lots of views, as long as it’s sensational enough.

The reason all of this has stood out in my mind is because it’s made me realize how much my general comfort level is based on my long-standing assertion that there are lots and lots of people who know things that I don’t. I can’t even imagine what my anxieties would be like if I truly thought that I was surrounded by people who all have the same lack of expertise I do. But there are people out there — actual grown-ups — building cell phones and airplanes, so somebody must know what they’re doing.

And part of the problem I’ve always had with history, archeology, and anthropology classes is that my whole mindset is philosophically incompatible with the idea that there are things we can’t know for certain. (Don’t even get me started on the one philosophy class I took, before I had to nope out of that for good). I can’t claim to be any good at math, either, but at least I found some comfort in the knowledge that there was always a correct answer.

I had a few fantastic teachers in high school and college who were diligent about driving home the fact that we’re all constantly learning new things, and that facts we accept as certain today might easily be overturned tomorrow. My high school science teacher in particular went to great lengths to stress the significance of the scientific method, and testing uncertainty instead of making assumptions, which seemed almost like alien ideas in the Bible Belt in the early 1980s. I’m grateful that they seemed so careful to impress on us that there’s so much that we still don’t know. And how that’s okay, because the stuff that we do know will invariably help us learn the rest.

Even though more people now have access to more information than they’ve ever had in history, there’s been such a willful degradation of trust that we’ve got to re-emphasize the value of curation and verification. It’s depressing to think that we might be moving back a step, instead of being able to just keep building on everything (we think) we’ve learned so far. But maybe if there’s any consolation to the rise of LLMs and “generative AI,” it’ll be as a reminder of the value of being curious enough to really investigate things, instead of just letting the machines do it. How many times have I wondered about something, looked it up on Google, and then just accepted it as fact? That would probably horrify all my teachers who said we weren’t allowed to use encyclopedias as a reference.

Somewhat related to all of this is a memory that just sprang into my head while writing this post: during middle school, I took a Sociology class. It surprised me that the course talked briefly about the subject of homosexuality. The textbook asserted two things so stridently that they showed up on the test: it said that homosexuality is a social construct, and there’s no biological basis for it.

As an 11- or 12-year-old, this felt like a huge relief. First, just that anyone was actually talking about it out loud as anything other than a joke; up until that point, I had the impression that it must be unforgivably awful if nobody is even willing to mention it. The other relief was that the textbook seemed to be telling me that there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with me, and that it was as harmless as any other social construct.

As an adult, of course, I realized that there had been an agenda behind it. The political interests trying to keep alive the flames of a culture war (you might recognize them as “Republicans”) were savvy enough to recognize that you can’t get much sympathy for your anti-gay agenda if too many people believe that the gays just can’t help themselves. Why would you need laws to protect people who are choosing to live the way they do? goes the thinking, if you’re an asshole.

The lesson there, if any, beyond “don’t let Republicans write school textbooks,” is to be suspicious of anyone speaking with authority, especially if it goes against your own observations and your own experience. We need more trust, even knowing that there will inevitably be people who violate it, or else we can’t move forward. That way lies the path of “doing your own research” despite not having any of the tools, skills, or knowledge to actually do your own research. But it needs to be balanced with a healthy amount of skepticism, and the humility of accepting all of the things that we just don’t know.