Jonathan Iwry | Can dogs look up?


The Quaking Point | Even in an age of (mis)information, having an opinion doesn't make you right -- only loud




O f th e many things that make “Shaun of the Dead” a cult classic, one that stands out is the protagonists’ movie-long dispute over whether dogs can look up.

What seems like an inane and insignificant question (whose answer is a resounding “duh”) has been given an absurd amount of deliberation online. Some genuinely wonder, while most just see it as a good prank. After reading the revelations of random bloggers, Yahoo Answers and even Howitworks.com, one walks away surprisingly less certain than before — and the dog question is just the tip of the iceberg.

In theory, we’d be able to turn to the internet for reliable answers. The previous generation sees it as some kind of oracle: Consult the almighty Google, and all shall be revealed.

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite like that. Everyone has an opinion, and the modern marketplace of ideas is giving pretty much anybody a place to share, leaving readers with a mishmash of conflicting opinions and no idea whom to trust.

T.S. Eliot once wrote that the critic has a duty “to discipline his personal prejudices and cranks ... and compose his differences with as many of his fellows as possible, in the common pursuit of true judgment.”

While he was writing mainly about literary criticism, the general sentiment points to a gaping and universal issue: the need for objectivity.

If only it were as simple as Eliot makes it sound. It’s like the tragedy of the commons: People wave their opinions around — some of them better informed and reasoned than others — and the public forum becomes saturated with misinformation. For example, people trust their computers for medical advice far more than they should. According to the good digital doctors of MayoClinic.com, pretty much everything from fatigue to that pimple on your chin is a sign of cancer.

Objectivity is under attack. Each side is shooting off its claims, and those of us looking for answers are getting caught in the crossfire. Slowly but surely, the internet is turning into an informational Waste Land.

How do we stay objective? In a world of opinion, superficial argument and feigned expertise, has objectivity become a lost cause? And  what about dogs — can they or can they not look up?

It would help to reframe the idea of objectivity. Rather than thinking of it as something attainable, we should treat it as an ideal toward which to strive. It might always be just out of reach, but there are a few basic things we can all do to get asymptotically closer.

We could all start by listening more than we talk. Giving each other respect and attention would have two benefits. First, it would assure our allies and opponents that they’ll be taken seriously, convincing everyone to turn the volume down and lessening the collective earache. Second, it will remind us to consider other perspectives — not every question has only one answer.

We could also take a lesson from David Hume, who popularized what philosophers call the “is/ought discrepancy.” What happens to be the case and how it ought to be are two different things. Perhaps the most important part of objectivity is staying true to the facts, no matter your ideology. Be honest about what the evidence tells you, and store it separately from your normative commitments. That alone would be a great start. Who knows — taking the evidence to heart might even change your beliefs for the better.

Finally, let’s not take the authority of others for granted. So much progress would be made if everyone was just a little warier of other people’s testimonies, including those of their loved ones. The fact that Mom and Dad raised you doesn’t mean that their word is gospel. When people seem to be speculating, hold them to it. When they cite controversial facts, inspect them for yourself. Anyone who played telephone as a youth knows how quickly the sworn testimony of others gets distorted as it makes its way down the grapevine.

Objectivity isn’t easy to achieve, but we have to try anyway. We owe it to each other to speak the truth, especially with the online behemoth quite literally at our fingertips. With great power comes great responsibility.

And in case you were wondering — that means you, Greyson Abid — yes, dogs can look up.

Jonathan Iwry is a College senior from Bethesda, Md., studying philosophy. His last name is pronounced “eev-ree.” Email him at jon.iwry@gmail.com.

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