Sergei Põlme: critical thinking helps survive in the digital jungle

I studied biology at the University of Tartu, first focusing more closely on the study of fish and later, fungi. Currently I am involved in research studies describing the biodiversity and regularities of fungi and also microbes. Biology does not have all the answers, but it is a prism that helps me better understand what is going on both in nature and with humans. In a very short time compared to the duration of evolution, essentially just over the last generation, we have become buried under an exponentially growing flood of information. However, all fast and great changes involve adaptation difficulties.

From jungle to the digital jungle

Screens of different forms are taking up an ever-increasing portion of our time and attention. Both the computer and the smartphone may be effective tools but they also open up an ocean of information in which everyone is fighting for our attention. The Homo sapiens has spent most of its evolutionary history living in small communities, where the accepted information was not only different in its amount but also in character: natural landmarks and footprints did not compete for our attention; hunters-gatherers had to be skilful to notice details that were necessary to make adequate decisions. Now the situation has turned 180 degrees – in the jungle of the web, each custom-designed title, banner, comment and thumbnail competes for an opportunity to plant their narrative into as many brains as possible. So it is no wonder that the fledgling Homo digitalis may get lost in the digital jungle more easily than the Homo sapiens in the real jungle. While for the Homo sapiens, the price of an error was empty stomach or danger to life, the Homo digitalis just risks a head full of rubbish, mental disorders and social division caused by polarisation. It is true that the most striking cases may also pose a threat to life and health.

A group of Homo sapiens in the jungle in the French Guiana in 2006 (private collection).

Science and critical thinking

Those trying to find their way in the digital jungle may find critical thinking extremely helpful. Critical thinking has the same core features as the principles of simple scientific methodology. In this respect, it is hard to overestimate the role of the University of Tartu in my personal development story. The result is not just a black-and-white view of the world where all information is placed on a scale of verifiability, but a perception of my own subjectivity. Thereby it becomes clearer that subjectivity is one of the main human characteristics. I dare say that most narratives that people have and most memes that they spread describe just small fragments of reality, and describe it either incompletely or do not desribe it at all. On the contrary, the success of memes can be estimated according to their rate and range of circulation, and not whether they have anything to do with reality. What matters is that the meme speaks to the recipient.

At its most simplified, science can be defined as a discipline that applies methods to minimise subjectivity when describing reality.

In 2011, the author visited Papua New Guinea in the course of a research project (private collection).
With a tree-kangaroo in Papua New Guinea, 2011 (private collection).

Scientific evidence, subjectivity and coincidence

I recently talked to a fake-news-loving person, who argued that it has been scientifically proven that cannabis smoking will completely prevent coronavirus infection. There would be one condition, however – you should be constantly under the influence of cannabinoids. If that person had thought of scientific methods, he would have realised that such an experiment is nearly impossible to conduct: first, you would need to find a number of test subjects who agree to be under the influence of cannabis for a long period of time; secondly, you would have to make sure that the test subjects are susceptible to coronavirus infection under normal conditions; and thirdly, you would need a control group. In addition, all the participants would have to be infected with the virus using a foolproof method. It all must take place in a place where cannabis is legal, and the experiment must be authorised by a human ethics committee.

Looking more closely into the matter, it turned out that there actually was an in vitro study which showed that some cannabis-derived components can reduce the inflammatory responses caused by the coronavirus in human lung cells. The rest of the information had mutated over the evolution of the meme, making it more intriguing and, thus, more rapidly disseminated. As early as 1710, the English satirist Jonathan Swift formulated the observation “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it”. But it is only now that we are getting scientific confirmation of this from massive studies of misinformation.

Continuing with subjectivity, it is perfectly human to see causal links between phenomena where in reality they may not exist. The truth is either too boring or inconceivable in its complexity, and thus it is convenient to choose or synthesise an explanation which is further fed by confirmation bias.

Taiji master demonstrating his skills, Taiwan 2010 (private collection).

Once, during a research trip to Taiwan, I was invited by my host professor to a taiji class. The way how the local master practised self-defence with his students seemed anything but credible. When it was my turn, the master said through the interpreter that he could not demonstrate his skills on me, because he did not know my “body structure” and I could get hurt. As you may imagine, this statement did nothing to dispel the scepticism that had arisen in me by that time. While he was giving explanations to the others, which I could not understand, he took my right hand, gave it a little tug and pressed on random points. Soon the class was over. As I was walking towards the car, I suddenly felt terrible weakness, had palpitations and difficulty breathing. I had to pull myself together to continue walking normally. It even required some effort to sit in the car; I would have liked to lie down quietly. I dragged myself into my room and lay there. As suddenly as the weakness had started, it also ended, and about half an hour later it was all over. I had never had such lack of energy before, nor since then. It would be easy to see a causal link between the mysterious taiji touch and the unpleasant feeling, but my number of observations is limited to one, and so I cannot distinguish this phenomenon from coincidence.

Brandolini’s law

Recently, the author went to a research trip to Svalbard in the summer of 2021. Due to the threat of polar bears, it is necessary to carry a firearm there (private collection).

In scientific literature, you have to work hard to find a reference for each argument, at least for each specific argument, showing where the knowledge comes from, when the hypothesis was experimentally confirmed, or whether it was disproved using rigorous scientific methodology. As soon as we remove this requirement, the author is left with much more freedom for rhetoric, wishful thinking and fantasy. A seemingly logical discussion and apparent correlations create favourable conditions for a clever wordsmith to interpret the world as he sees fit.

Whatever its motive, false information is effective from the very onset because more energy is required to refute it than to produce it. This is known as Brandolini’s law (or the bullshit asymmetry principle). The rule was formulated by Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini after watching a debate between the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and a journalist. Philosophers arrived at a similar conclusion hundreds of years ago already – and doesn’t the Estonian proverb “One fool can ask more questions than ten wise men can answer” express the same idea about the cost-effectiveness of misinformation?

Repetition is not always the mother of wisdom

Similarly, it is not possible to get around the continuity of information space. No matter how nonsensical the content of a message, if it is repeated with sufficient frequency and duration, it will be adopted by the culture. Excellent examples are totalitarian regimes throughout history. Indeed, also nowadays, public mentality and culture are in constant interaction with the news flow, and it is dangerous to consider ourselves smarter than others, believing that the flood of information has no effect on us as consumers. I once spent a year in a small isolated commune in the rainforest of the French Guiana. My companions were mostly people who had grown up in the local village community, and it was completely elementary for them to believe that voodoo was a functioning witchcraft, that a person was able to change into a jaguar or another could learn to fly. They did not force their opinion on me in any way, nor did they talk about it often, and yet on some afternoons when discussing these topics, I discovered that a part of me was looking for a plausible explanation of how voodoo could possibly work.

With a local man and a sloth in the French Guiana, 2006 (private collection).
In Papua New Guinea, 2011 (private collection).

When consuming information, prefer quality to quantity

A substance can be both a poison and a medicine – it all depends on its concentration. Probably the same principle applies when navigating the digital jungle. The thirst for novelty that we feed on a constant media stream comes at a price: we become addicted to it, our brains process irrelevant or even false information, society becomes more polarised and, in more serious cases, the centre of gravity of human life moves to the social media.

More than a decade ago, I made the decision to stop reading periodicals. The initial expectation of novelty had melted into a cacophonous din of largely unnecessary information. I concluded that important things were going to reach me anyway, and so there was no need to keep my finger on the pulse. I do admit having a sort of erratic social media routine, but it does not concern current affairs, it is more about interest-related channels. I know I am prone to confirmation bias but at least I am aware of it. Now, readers might want to reflect on their own information consumption habits. Quality should take precedence over quantity, and if a particular piece of information is of more interest, it should be explored in depth. This piece of writing here is another meme that could be taken seriously, but does not have to.

  • Sergei Põlme is a graduate of the University of Tartu where he studied biology at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level.
  • His main fields of research have been fish and fungi, as well as the biodiversity and regularities of microbes.
  • Studies and research have taken him to wildlife throughout the world. Sergei has written about his adventures in his book “Minu Prantsuse Guajaana” (“My French Guiana”, Petrone Print 2015).
  • In 2018, Sergei discovered a new fish species – the European bitterling (Rhodeus amarus) – in Estonia.

Showing the European bitterling (Rhodeus amarus) in the University of Tartu Natural History Museum. I discovered the species in Estonia in Pärnu River in 2018.


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