In cryptography, a zero knowledge proof is a way to prove that something is true without knowledge of what that thing is. For example, I could prove you know the password to a profile by having you insert the text “Hang, I own this profile qX45s” in the about me section but this would not give me knowledge about what the password is.
I use the term zero knowledge proof as ways of proving whether an assertion is correct without knowing anything about the domain itself. This is as opposed to “first order proofs” in which the proof relies on direct application of domain knowledge to determine truth. For example, if you were presented with a claim that the WTC towers were brought down with timed explosives, a zero knowledge proof would involve looking at who was making the claims, how coherently they are able to make their point, who are the major parties who disagree etc. A first order proof would computing the structural integrity of the buildings, verifying the melting points of steel and how it deforms under high temperature and assessing similar building collapses.
Zero knowledge proofs are powerful because they allow us to leverage the insight that we gain one domain to practically all aspects of life. Given powerful enough zero knowledge proofs, we can attempt to answer questions as diverse as “Is postmodernism bullshit”, “Is global warming real”, “Which president has better economic policies” and “Is the God described by any major religions real”. Unfortunately, most people’s toolbox of zero knowledge proofs suck.
Common zero knowledge proofs include things like whether the person sounds like they know what they’re talking about, whether they have an advanced degree from a prestigious institution, or simply whether they agree with you. Most of these zero knowledge proofs develop as instinctive heuristics and we never really give them much consideration.
Here are some basic zero knowledge proofs which I’ve found to be useful:
- How willing are they to admit the weaknesses and flaws in their own position?
- How well can someone argue against their own position? How aware are they of the best arguments from the other side?
- How willing are they to show you their raw data, their raw speculations and the tools neccesary for you to reach the position they are at?
- Do they have the support and endorsement of others who you know and trust according to similar zero knowledge proof or first order proof criteria?
- Have similar claims been made in the past and been systematically proven wrong?
A powerful toolbox of zero knowledge proofs is the most efficient way of applying analytical insight to a variety of fields. At the same time, even the best zero knowledge proofs cannot match a proper first order proof in determining power and the evidence gleaned from zero knowledge proofs must be placed in it’s context.