The truth about truth

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hiveMy most recent foray down the internet rabbit hole involves the idea that we are now living in the year 1717, rather than 2013.

At some point in deep early time, the theory goes, someone (accidentally on purpose?) tacked 297 years onto the calendar. It’s known as the Phantom Time hypothesis, and it was put forward in the late 1980s by Heribert Illig and Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, after the two German historians began to wonder about the stunning number of forgeries attributed to this early period of the Middle Ages. What could explain the lack of authentic historical records?

Like all really juicy conspiracy theories, the idea is supported by some pretty creepy circumstantial evidence. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII sought to update the old, imprecise Julian calendar with a new and improved version humbly named after himself. Here’s what happened next:

He removed ten days from the new calendar to correct for the chronological drift caused by the old Julian calendar’s imprecise rules for inserting leap days. The Julian calendar had been introduced during the time of Julius Caesar, in 45 BC. However, a ten-day shift corrects for just 1,257 years’ worth of accumulated error. Subtracting 1,257 from 1582 gets us back not to 45 BC but to 325 AD. In other words, more than three centuries are unaccounted for!

It gets even truthier if you accept the idea that nothing earth-shattering happened during that period of time anyway. In England, Germany and France, historical records offer mostly long, boring variations on “churches be oppressin’” and “kings be killin’”.  Maybe nothing happened during those years because those years didn’t happen, period.

The conventional wisdom is that the internet provides a warm environment for conspiracy theories to flourish. But the thing is, today, in order to believe a patent untruth, you really have to be committed to your own ignorance. Snopes.com, for example, is my first defense against all-caps emails from idiosyncratic relatives detailing the dangers of vaccination, or claiming that raw foods will cure  cancer.

Had the Phantom time theory been floated today, it would have died quick death right around the time someone pointed out that Europe was not the only place in the world. During the period in question, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī established algebra as a separate mathematical discipline. China was working on the Grand canal. All kinds of important things were indeed being recorded during that time — just not in the three countries Illig and Niemitz were looking at. Exposed to a wider, more informed audience, the theory is dead as a doornail.

But before the internet, untruths had a much longer incubation period. They were cultivated in small networks of like-minded people and traveled bacterial pathways, memetically hopping from believer to believer long before they would ever encounter the scorching logic of a skeptic. Even now, many of Illig’s original writings are in German, leaving them beyond the reach of most English-speaking internet pedants.

But a number of other tools are now under development with the goal of fact-checking the internet. Truthgoggl.es bills itself as “a credibility layer for the internet”. Hypothes.is is “an open platform for the collaborative evaluation of knowledge”. When Jim Giles wrote about them last year, they were supposed to go live sometime in 2013, but as of today Truthgoggl.es is just a single page that allows you to subscribe for updates, and hypothes.is is soliciting contributions.

Their release may have been delayed by some of the thorny technical — and human nature — issues involved in getting such an endeavour up and running. But the real issues go a bit deeper. Fact checking the internet, after all, introduces a number of epistemological complications. Who decides what’s true? If the entire internet were to be annotated like Wikipedia — to include the whole history of the debate about its authenticity — it would take you a year to read a single news story.

But what I’m more interested is in is what the world looks like when every word on the internet can be instantly judged via “collaborative evaluation of knowledge”. Anyone can add their interpretation on hypothes.is, even when that interpretation isn’t being solicited: “share your thoughts even when commenting on a site is disabled.” (Don’t tell Popular Science!) And the army of evaluators operates under pseudonymity, untraceable back to the real evaluator.

And who evaluates the evaluators? Well, the other evaluators, says hypothes.is — members rate each other by the quality of their contribution.

At first blush, this all sounds like an iterative process sure to lead to the great unvarnished truth. The problem with these solutions is that they fetishise a hive mindedness that’s emerging as one of the most unpleasant possible futures of the internet. Take this sentence of hypothes.is.ing: “Know the best thinking on any sentence you’re reading”. What does that mean? The one with the most likes — by the people who themselves have incurred the most likes?

I just finished reading The Circle by Dave Eggers, and will admit I’m completely in its thrall. It’s a novel, or a jeremiad, or an old man yelling at a cloud, I’m not sure.  OldManYellsAtCloudBut I do find myself convinced by one of its central themes, which is that all this connectedness is turning us into deindividuated subordinates of a hive mind. One of the defining characteristics of a hive mind is that the collective is far more intelligent than any participating individual. Unfortunately, as researchers discovered from studying emergent behaviour in locusts, in hives, deviating from the norm comes with a cost. That elegant, coordinated swarming is enforced in a gruesome way: if a locust steps out of formation, its neighbours nudge it back in place by taking little bites out of it. Step out of line often enough, and the individual gets cannibalised entirely. One way or another, you’re going to get subsumed by the hive.

locustsObviously, no one’s going to eat the next person who comes up with a silly theory, but I do wonder how far the social networking, crowdsourcing hive mind will take us. In Eggers’ novel, when the hive becomes crucial to making a living and just existence, you’ll toe the line of accepted social norms.

But the deeper question is, can you really crowd source The Truth? For example, if you applied Eternal Annotation to ClimateGate, would the process result in everyone in the world agreeing on the one true hive truth? Or would it look more like the Wikipedia entry for Star Trek: Into Darkness? If you haven’t done this, check out the epic history of the debate about whether it’s Star Trek: Into Darkness or Star Trek Into Darkness (no colon). See you in three weeks.

And at the end of the day, we don’t love conspiracy theories for their veracity. We love them and spread them irrespective of their truth, for so many reasons. I get a frisson of vertigo imagining a counterfactual history in which someone could mess with something as eternal as the calendar.

Even the “it’s the wrong year, maaaan” variety isn’t going anywhere. The German contingent of phantom time theorists may have been debunked, but another head quickly grew in its place. This time it’s the Russians. And they are committed.

Photo credits:

Truth hive: shutterstock

Locusts: shutterstock

Grampa Simpson: the internet

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